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.

Beyond Brexit: unleashing Britain’s potential

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

‘Get Brexit Done’ is a reasonable enough slogan with which to start this election campaign. But we need to know why the Conservatives want to get Brexit done; how they want to use our new-found freedom; and what it can do to promote democratic and economic repair. The Tories have a good case. Now they need to make it.

Not my words but those of The Spectator’s editor a month after party conference in Manchester.

Despite it taking longer than anticipated, Parliament was eventually dissolved, the Prime Minister met with the Queen and the Conservatives launched their election campaign in Birmingham. The rationale for this was clear: we need to break the impasse so that the government of the day can deliver on the will of the British people. Failure to do so will result in understandable outrage and irreparable damage to trust in politics.

While some people will vote on Brexit alone (Vote for the Tories to get Brexit done; Vote for the Liberal Democrats to stop Brexit one way or another – how democratic!; or Vote for Labour to negotiate yet another deal, hold yet another vote and yet campaign against said deal?), others are looking beyond our relationship with the EU. They are looking for policies which will benefit them and their families as well as businesses, with those priorities based on what matters most to them. 

As demonstrated in their party political broadcast aired last night, the Conservatives understand those priorities to be: strengthening the economy in order to invest in better hospitals, safer streets and improved schools. They have put their weight behind this ambition and in doing so built upon the slogan, packaging it as ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’.

The question becomes – how do you achieve this? I believe the answer lies in a stronger national identity and a common purpose, and that Blue Collar Conservatism offers us a way forward. It is a cause supported by current and former MPs, councillors and activists, the length and breadth of the UK – including poster boys Johnny Mercer (South West), Lee Rowley (Midlands) and Ross Thomson (Scotland). If you missed it on TV, you can – and should – read Lee’s witty yet serious response to the Queen’s Speech on Hansard. Also, if you haven’t seen Simon Jones’ Hansard at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan – do; it’s both genius and devastating.

Blue Collar Conservatism is about championing working people and developing an aspirational agenda to benefit the communities that really feel left behind. Working people stand to benefit most from Conservative policies designed to maximise opportunity and empower them to live their lives; better, together. So much is at stake in this election: don’t be tribal – examine the manifestos when published. 

If – OK, when – the Tories win a majority, now that The Brexit Party isn’t challenging the seats they won back in 2017, I expect we’ll hear much more from Mercer et al. Before then, candidates – including no less than 12 supporters of Conservatives in Communications – should be selling this bold plan on doorsteps while warning voters about the alternative: chaos with Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan pushing for a repeat of two referenda on leaving the EU and breaking up the United Kingdom. No thanks!

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Beyond Brexit: Unleashing Britain’s Potential – November 14, 2019).

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

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

I recently blogged that Boris Johnson must articulate a detailed vision and appoint a sound team to execute on it. He is doing that – and in the process annoying the loony left and some in the mainstream media.

Like Johnson, Michael Gove studied at Oxford and graduated with an upper-second degree, has written for The Spectator and The Times, lists education among his political interests, co-spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign and ran for Tory leader,twice. While Gove served as education secretary under David Cameron, it is Johnson – as prime minister – who has put improving life chances at the heart of his political agenda. While Johnson is determined to deliver Brexit by Halloween, it is Gove who has been put in charge of overseeing preparations across Whitehall for a no-deal scenario. There are many overlaps between the two gentlemen, not least their overall abilities and most especially their ability to express themselves both orally and via the medium of the pen (or keyboard).

Over the weekend, Johnson revealed (in an op-ed for The Times) that – in addition to previous announcements on education, technology and towns – there will be further investment in the NHS. Plus, he confirmed new upgrades for hospitals and recommitted to improving social care. Gove, meanwhile, defined the purpose of this one nation government in a tweet: “Our most important priority [is] rejuvenating our democracy, strengthening our union and embracing new opportunities”. In other words, the referendum question was clear, as were the pledges made at subsequent European, general and local elections, and therefore the mandate to move forward is without doubt.

During his first days in office – rather than setting off for Brussels – Johnson explored the ‘awesome foursome’ that make-up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); taking pit stops in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, as the Policy Exchange demands, patriots could “display their area’s symbol or county coat of arms, or similar, on their number plate as is the case in many other European countries like Germany and Switzerland”? Simultaneously, our freedom-loving international trade secretary focused her efforts on life outside of the EU, including free ports and new free trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others.

At the time of writing this, Ipsos MORI and YouGov have the Tories on double-digit leads over Labour. In Brecon and Radnorshire, we saw Labour’s parliamentary candidate drop to fourth place and almost lose his deposit. All this indicates a clear Boris bounce and an electorate totally fed-up with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity on the main issue of the day. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that two-thirds of voters now want to get rid of Corbyn before the UK goes to the polls again.

What else has Johnson been doing? In terms of protecting our nation and streets, we’ve seen him board HMS Victorious and appoint Johnny Mercer to head the new Office of Veterans’ Affairs as well as a plan to put 20,000 more bobbies on the beat over the next three years. This, combined with the home secretary’s vision to restore public confidence in law and order, should go some way to addressing the surge in gang violence, knife crime and moped theives affecting the capital’s residents, visitors and tourists.

Perhaps Sadiq Khan should’ve spent less time arguing for a second referendum and attacking the president of our closest ally, and more on the issues that impact Londoners. Is it any wonder that his approval ratings have tanked? Cameron and Johnson defeated Red Ken in 2008 and 2012; let’s ensure Johnson and Shaun Bailey – who has put addressing crime at the centre of his mayoral campaign – defeat Corbyn and Khan next year.

In 2018, almost a quarter of a million new homes were built in England – up from 225,000 12-months earlier and more than double the number when Labour was last in power. There have also been significant environmental milestones reached in England with a 90% drop in plastic bag purchases from the big supermarkets compared with just five years ago. As the environment secretary said recently, “We’re calling time on being a throwaway society”. We are investing for the future.

Borrowing from President Bartlett in The West Wing, I’ve asked myself this: ‘What’s next?’ Johnson’s current administration should build on these accomplishments and aspire to go even further in investing for a better future. I say current as, whichever way you look at it, it appears we are headed for an election this autumn.

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This piece was written for The Commentator (August 18, 2019).