15 December 2021
Yesterday the Commons debated measures the government wants to take to tackle omicron. I was fortunate to be able to contribute and my remarks are Public Health - Hansard - UK Parliament. Yesterday's Statutory Instruments (SI) given legal force to the government's intent followed a statement the day before in which the Health Secretary finessed the controversial measure on so-called passports. His artful change of tack meant that the default would be a recent lateral flow test for access to certain venues -nightclubs, big crowd events etc - but with an exemption if you'd be fully jabbed. That hardly constitutes a 'passport' and in any event the SI falls away at the end of January - it is 'sunsetted'.
On both occasions I pressed for the House to sit at least twice over the Christmas break since the evidence on omicron is evolving so very fast we need to be on top of things and be able to give a steer to ministers if necessary, either to wind down the restrictions if the variant looks like being less of a worry than some predict or to escalate if there's an unpleasant twist. At the moment - avoiding confirmation bias - we just don't know. We should have a better idea next week and certainly by the week after by which time South Africa will be well into its current wave and we will be able to deduce what we're in for.
The other SIs, less controversially dealt with mask wearing in more places and allowing people to come out of self isolation, taking a daily lateral flow test instead.
The LFT alternative to a vaccination 'passport' certificate and the fact the rule falls automatically at the end of January persuaded me to support the government on that SI. Nevertheless 100 of my colleagues voted against the government, I suspect a significant number using the issue as proxy for expressing their frustration over other issues. I took the view that this was a far too important matter to be clouded with other things and spent a lot of time absorbing the 'passport' SI particularly plus the associated papers dealing, not least as a significant number of constituents had asked me to vote against.
I abstained on the final measure which had to do with making health workers have a jab. I don't object in principal but in practice it's likely that tens of thousands will quit at exactly the time we need health and care workers in the system. There should be an alternative to jabs for them which is a daily LFT of the sort that this triple jabbed vaccinator did when he was vaccinating earlier this year. LFTs are a better measure of telling whether you have a current viral load and thus pose a viral threat to those in your care than the ability to show you've been jabbed up.
In summary the measures taken together are moderate and in my view proportionate. They are far, far less intrusive than the steps taken in recent days in comparable jurisdictions. They will in any event fall on 26 January. I hope Parliament will be recalled next week and the week after to take stock and if omicron looks like being a busted flush we should be able to wind back the restrictions sooner. Meanwhile I hope the government is able to double the number of jabs in the remaining days of the year but, to be honest, I am not sure it can. One things for sure, the way forward lies with the continuing success of the UK vaccination programme of which we should all be very proud.
4 November 2021
STANDARDS - I’VE HAD BETTER DAYS
A report from the Standards Committee to the House of Commons sounds techy and dull. But Wednesday’s debate on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards investigation into the conduct of my colleague Owen Paterson MP was, nevertheless, very important, far from just another Westminster bubble obsession without traction in the real world.
My colleague was found to have engaged in paid lobbying for two businesses, an activity that has been rightly proscribed in Parliament since the seventeenth century and especially since the ‘cash for questions’ scandals of the 1990s. The penalty awarded - 30 days suspension triggering in all probability a recall, a by-election and quite possibly the loss of his seat - was in my view severe given the mitigation and on compassionate grounds. You may recall Mrs Rose Paterson tragically committed suicide, probably influenced by the lengthy and complicated investigation into her husband’s conduct.
Another of my backbench colleagues tabled an amendment to the required motion that would have endorsed the verdict and sentence. It passed narrowly, eviscerating the motion. It aims to change the rules allowing, among other things, Mr Paterson a further hearing, different verdict or possible penalty.
That makes me very uncomfortable. Parliament set up the standards system in its current form very recently. It shouldn’t change it when it dislikes one of its outcomes. Where on earth does that lead us in terms of credibility at a time when parliament is hardly riding high in the public’s estimations?
We badly need an appellate system to improve the safety of the disciplinary mechanism for MPs, that’s for sure. Every other professional outfit you can name has one. Mine is the GMC, one of the most rigorous, an exemplar if you like. But you can’t just make these things up on the hoof. It should have been done quite separately from the Owen Paterson case, not in response to it.
So, I just could not support the amendment but I do feel Mr Paterson has been badly handled and has been managed in a less than compassionate way. That’s why after a lot of thought, having read the Commissioner’s report thoroughly and noting Mr Paterson’s lack of access to any recognisable appeal mechanism I decided to abstain. That’s a big deal for any loyal government backbencher. It’s a very big deal for me. Despite the Opposition voting against and large numbers of my side abstaining, the amendment passed.
It isn’t clear what will now happen. I suspect the Opposition will not engage with any alternative structure created by the amended motion passed today by the House for dealing with MP conduct matters. That means it will collapse. In short, a bit of a mess.
11 June 2021
Bugs of War
The vaccination programme has been truly awesome. It’s been a privilege to be involved at the coalface, leading military vaccination teams that have protected thousands of people. So successful has the national programme been, there can now be no question about the government’s proposed timeline for opening up.
On Monday ministers are scheduled to make the final decision on when to lift the remaining restrictions. In my view, their original plan for 21 June must stand because I’ve seen no evidence to warrant a delay.
It’s been a struggle reconciling Dominic Cummings’ select committee download with a series of NAO reports on the government’s handling of the pandemic. God they’re dull, but there’s useful stuff between those beige pages for those that can be bothered to look. By the time the full public inquiry comes around workmanlike scrutineers like the NAO will have likely made all the learning points. Hopefully this government and the next will have actioned them. The only thing for the inquiry will be to send out the tumbrils. That’s what the media, opposition and some figures on the government benches are slavering over like Pavlov’s dogs.
Meanwhile government will be broadly content with the ‘learnings’ published by the NAO last month in the latest of its pandemic handling series. But privately ministers will have been less pleased with the rusty old tool box they opened fifteen months ago. On that at least – the absence of state preparedness in the UK and across the western world - Cummings is right. To their credit, ministers have been retooling public health institutions at pace to deal with infections – the old enemy that never went away.
Happily, I’ve spent ten weeks well away from our barely functioning parliament giving and supervising thousands of jabs in London and the South West. I have some learnings of my own, none of which feature in the NAO report.
Firstly, we need to decide what price in lives lost from a particular cause is societally acceptable before kicking off a war economy with all its downside in liberty, livelihood, health and the future of young people. What triggers future government intervention on the unprecedented scale endured since last March?
We have some figures that help frame the debate. Six years ago we lost over 28,000 to seasonal flu. Don’t remember? Me neither, and I can’t find any reference to it in Hansard for that year. We haven’t – at least up to now - locked down or even done the hands, face, space thing as seasonal ‘flu sweeps through each winter.
There’s an even bigger figure that society is apparently willing to tolerate. As the Chief Medical Officer pointed out last month we lose in excess of 90,000 each year to smoking. That puts a huge, completely avoidable, burden on health services whose protection we were told was one of the prime imperatives at the start of this crisis. Indeed, protecting the NHS was the reason for restrictions incalculably more onerous than a ban on the poison tobacco. Chris Whitty did not say, save lives, protect the NHS, ban smoking, but he might have done because that’s where his logic leads.
But we have closed down society for more than a year to save the same sort of numbers. Here’s where logic rubs up against political reality. In tackling the most agonising question, we don’t ‘follow the science’ at all. No politician can possibly do so.
I love experts. I used to be one. But it’s in their nature, singularly and collectively, to lay it on thick. Their industry depends on it. They play it safe - none of them wants to be caught understating risk. Wider societal and economic downside is not their prime consideration and ‘could’ is one of the most mutable words in the English language. Chief among experts to be handled with care are behavioural scientists who have been second guessing how people might react to government interventions. Their product – project fear, nudging - verges on the sinister. Furthermore, empirically on the light side, it has a habit of misfiring. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with anecdote, only that it has to be properly weighed and balanced. Chatting with people whilst vaccinating in east London, for example, shaped my thinking about why some groups were proving harder to reach than others. A general scepticism of the State’s good intentions is in play mixed with distrust of the pharmaceutical industry – what readers of John le Carré’s novel set against medical trials in developing countries might call the Constant Gardener effect.
We need to harness the volunteer spirit that has been such a positive feature of this pandemic. The yellow vested volunteer stewards at test and vaccination centres putting themselves at risk and out in all weathers have been fantastic. I have seen medical students drafted in like it’s the 1940s and lay people - St John’s volunteers and combat soldiers - taught to vaccinate. But the crisis teaches us that above all we need trained medics held at readiness.
Armed Forces Reserves, the special constabulary and retained fire service offer models to pick from. I admire my colleague Alan Mak’s attempt through his private member’s bill to create a NHS reserve. I’d sign up in a heartbeat. We need to capture the recently retired and those clinicians currently in non-patient-facing roles whose skills need little updating. Many of them tore their hair at a re-engagement process so achingly Sir Humphrey that many just gave up. Without too much drama we could have a light touch annual online check and update for those leaving frontline service so that they could quickly be drafted in when required. NHS staff typically retire in their mid 50s with many workable years ahead. Many, and one hopes their professional and regulatory bodies - even their trade unions like the BMA that are not listed among the heroes of this crisis - would see continuing engagement as part of the duty that comes with membership of altruistic professions.
If we had had the framework and human resources to undertake proper old-style contact tracing and isolation, the sort of thing that dominated public health until antimicrobials and vaccination did for TB, we might have been able to mount the lockdown busting, intensely local early intervention seen in parts of East Asia but which we had to ditch almost before it started. Building that capacity has to be a priority in preparation for the next big one. For that you need a workforce that can be mobilized fast.
Mobilization reserve service has bookended my parliamentary career to date – in Iraq in 2003 and in the pandemic Great Patriotic War. It has been a massive privilege to serve in uniform on the front line of the century’s biggest geopolitical events. The military has emerged from two starkly different engagements with its public reputation enhanced. This time, much of the military’s work has been in communities where these days it is rarely seen, even regarded with suspicion. But the warmth of the public’s reaction to soldiers. sailors and airmen who have been truly awesome as vaccinators, porters and test site marshals has been humbling. Despite a deliberately low profile approach taken by the MoD, I suggest Operation Rescript has done more for civ-mil relations than any number of Armed Forces days.
In the breach whatever the threat, the Queen’s men and women belong to the public they serve. That sense of proprietorship is healthy in any democracy. There’s no doubt it’s been advanced during this crisis.
Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison MP has been leading military vaccination teams in London and the South West. These are his personal views.
12 March 2021
PLEASE - NO MORE DUMPING IN THE GREAT LANDFILL IN THE SKY
I’ve been busy vaccinating people in London following a call-up by the Reserves for the second time - the first in 2003 was during the Iraq war. This is a very different sort of operation against a far more deadly adversary.
It is a great pleasure to support our wonderful NHS colleagues in helping to protect the public and a privilege to lead a team of Service men and women in doing our bit.
What on earth is the EU up to? I appreciate its messed up big time on rolling out vaccine to its population but trying to distract attention from its own failure by spreading fake news about the UK supposedly banning export of vaccine is unforgivable. And any polity that is prepared to mess with the NI border for political and commercial advantage is just beneath contempt. Definitely not a club to aspire to. How right we were to leave.
If what it is trying to do is make life difficult for the UK out of pique or to discourage others from leaving it needs to be careful, very careful indeed. Its operatives need to ask how their actions and the consequences that may fall from them will benefit ordinary Europeans trying to get on with life, as opposed to the self licking lollipop that is the EU’s overpaid, grossly superannuated bureaucratic establishment in Brussels.
Like Her Majesty’s pitch perfect response to Harry and Megan’s bombshell, her ministers’ unilateral easing of import restrictions so traders and businesses are helped is something we should take pride in. Mature, sensible people and institutions are slow to rile, quick to conciliate.
On 15 March Bath plans to implement its Clean Air Zone. With my parliamentary neighbour Michelle Donelan MP and Wiltshire Council Leader Cllr Phillip Whitehead, I’ve written to DEFRA and Transport ministers to protest since the displaced traffic can only go one way - up the A350, straight into the well established Air Quality Management Area in the middle of Westbury with some of it landing up in all probability in another local AQMA, Bradford on Avon. That would contradict the two departments’ own edict on CAZs which says they shouldn’t simply shove traffic onto adjacent areas with air quality issues. I have just had an unsatisfactory response back from the two ministers but am doing what I can to put a stop to this nonsense or, failing that, get a firm commitment to mitigation. A Westbury bypass would do nicely.
Also on the environment, we await the planning authority’s view on the proposed Westbury incinerator. How interesting that these unnecessary, dirty old things are being turned down elsewhere in the country. I think the tide has turned.
As we head towards net zero and as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate change summit, we really can’t be dumping more and more of our effluent into the great landfill in the sky.
15 February 2021
LINE IN THE SAND
Great news about the 15 million jab target met. Looking forward now to 22 Feb and the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. I am not a member of the 60 strong Coronavirus Recovery Group of Tory MPs who are leading the charge for an early release from lockdown. However, I have written a piece https://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2021/02/andrew-murrison-i-voted-for-lockdown-but-the-choice-between-savings-lives-and-losing-freedom-is-hard.html on starting a public conversation on what we deem an acceptable level of risk from a virus that its now abundantly clear won’t be disappearing any time soon, if ever.
I have had had some useful virtual meetings to discuss roads. I support the A303 improvements at Stonehenge but worry that my constituents at Chicklade and in villages used as rat runs will then have to shoulder the displaced congestion. I intend to keep pressure up to ensure the Chicklade stretch is done immediately Stonehenge is completed. I also hope to get some movement on the horrible A303/A350 junction at Willoughby Hedge independently so its sorted and its toll reduced.
Good to get an update on the North-South strategic route, basically the A350. Highways England is drawing up a report for this that in my view just has to involve a western Westbury bypass. It can’t come soon enough as Bath’s Air Quality Action Plan - declared unhelpfully and unilaterally - stands to shove its problem right onto our doorsteps.
Bath does this sort of thing.
But why should my constituents in Westbury’s own longstanding Air Quality Management Area have to take Bath’s traffic, making our situation even worse? Bath’s sandstone Regency terraces may be more elegant than the redbrick Victorian facades lining the A350 in Westbury but my constituents live right on top of the road. I had a good conversation with Wiltshire council who are in agreement and we decided to write to the government as arbiter to call out Bath’s unneighbourly behaviour.
Meanwhile I have filed an objection to a 67 home outline planning application for land at Sand Hole Lane Westbury. BA13 has greatly exceeded its housing quota, the application is in conflict with the Wiltshire Core Strategy and its a greenfield site. I’ve long been suspicious that west Wiltshire is seen by some as a convenient way of the north of the county not doing its fair share of the five year land supply heavy lifting, especially in relation to Chippenham. This seems like a line in the sand(hole).
15 January 2021
The House authorities are doing their best in the crisis but Parliament is a vestige of its former self. I have been complying with the House’s request to participate virtually although attended in person last week to make a speech on COVID. In my view the place is as disease secure as it can be and its important to that some members are on the green benches to at least keep the place ticking over.
I also believe that the time is rapidly approaching when the vaccination level among the truly vulnerable is such that lockdown can be eased. After all, we really can’t go on like this indefinitely, economically or societally. Parliament in particular must be returned to normal very soon otherwise there will be a deep and lasting impact on the functioning of the cockpit of our democracy.
It’s great that the UK is head and shoulders above the rest in the number of people vaccinated. In the Commons I asked for more vaccination data and for the criteria that will determine easing of lockdown. At the current rate of vaccination, I’d challenge the justification for keeping society locked down past the middle of next month.
I have also been repeating calls for directors of small limited companies who take modest incomes in the form of dividends to be better supported during the crisis. Appreciating the technical complexity of doing this in a way that is not open to fraud, the Federation of Small Businesses has come up with a way of doing it that I have pressed ministers to consider carefully. Others who have fallen through the cracks include those who were between jobs at the time of the first lockdown. The Treasury’s generally commendable pandemic financial package needs to be fine tuned to be as fair as possible and I know ministers are keen that it should be.
Scenes from Washington have been appalling in the dying days of the Trump presidency - the sort of thing you expect in a banana republic, not the US. Most of us tolerate Donald Trump because of the great office he holds and the people he represents, others because they perceive he’s been nice to the UK at a challenging time in a way that President-Elect Biden may not be, but I for one can’t possibly respect a man who has done so much to diminish his office, the standing of the US and political discourse in general. As Oliver Cromwell said to the Rump Parliament in 1653 at the end of his famous mace-waving speech ‘In the name of God, go!’
However, I’m deeply troubled by the reaction of the high priests of social media to Trump’s political death throes. Banning his deranged hallmark tweets was in my view very wrong. These social media moguls have shown themselves to be what we might see as a new clerisy. Is it right that half a dozen Californian billionaires, so far removed from and completely unaccountable to the rest of society, should hand down judgement on what might and might not be said and heard?
Talk of media being free or independent generally implies independent of government. But the censorship recently applied to President Trump shows that independence is a quality that needs to be qualified. Are we really extolling the independence of a tiny cabal of eye-wateringly rich Americans against whose name nobody has ever scratched a cross? Say what you like about the wretched Donald Trump but at least he was voted into office. That is not true of our ascendant tech clerisy. Ah, down-with-the-kids left-liberal habitues of fashionable north London salons will say, what about Rupert Murdoch, eh? It’s a fair challenge but the nature of social media and the way it permeates into every crevice of daily life is making editors of traditional print and broadcast media look as quaint as monks illuminating manuscripts when Caxton and his printing press came to town.
4 January 2021
Happy New Year to all my readers. Let’s hope 2021 turns out better than the last despite the disappointment that the new strains of COVID has caused and the prospect that this horrible thing will drag out for longer than we had thought.
Constitutionally, the New Year has begun positively with the UK now removed decorously from the EU without the sky falling in or there being plagues of frogs and locusts. Boris Johnson has delivered on his promise. Not only do we have a zero tariff zero quota free trade deal with the EU but we’re signing off deals all the time with other partners.
On COVID I have just been pinged to say Parliament is being recalled on Wednesday. I doubt its good news. My position has been one of support for the general thrust of government policy in the knowledge that all other European countries are doing pretty much the same sort of thing.
I am hopeful that the Oxford vaccine will be deployed sufficiently among the vulnerable over the next couple of months to allow a return to relative normality.
At the moment there seems to be a difference between Astra Zeneca which says it can deliver 2 million jabs a week and the government which says it can’t which is difficult to understand. This evening I will be speaking with the minister responsible for vaccinations to better understand what's going on.
I struggle to believe the roll-out issue is logistics or manpower since we’ve had months to prepare for this. I am one of 30000 healthcare professionals who have volunteered to vaccinate people. I’ve had weekly emails telling me to stand by and have done the online courses, relevant and not so relevant.
People appear to have generally kept faith with ministers but some say that they have been too quick to suspend liberty. When I struggle with the finely judged issues at stake I recall a conversation about the restrictions with the PM in Downing Street earlier this year and what seemed to me to be the agony of a quintessentially liberal bon viveur. He absolutely loathes what he has to do. If there was another way right now Boris would surely take it. I am confident that he would have done.
The caveat for me as always is that a cycle of lockdowns just cannot go on indefinitely. Unless the Oxford vaccine proves to be a game changer in weeks rather than months or unless the virus takes a more lethal turn I believe we will need Plan B. That essentially means protected isolation for the vulnerable and the rest of society getting back to relative normality. The cost otherwise in financial, societal and health terms will be just too great.
Happy New Year everyone.
25 November 2020
Holding our breath on spending review day, but I think we know what the Chancellor is likely to be saying. I’ve had the opportunity to give my views in person to Rishi and Boris which is that we have to support jobs, that we should balance costs and consequences of all the measures we take including consequential like deaths from non COVID causes and that you don’t tax your way out of a recession. I don’t expect tax hikes soon and scope for cutting public expenditure is finite.
In my view we should look on the COVID debt accrued as we did in 1918 and 1945 - a long term problem shared with most other similar countries. One of those countries - Germany - powered ahead in the post war years from being on its knees. There are lessons there. Right now in any event the debt is containable because of low interest rates. Some have suggested a long term war bond equivalent which is worth looking at.
The evidence is that most people accept the government’s overall approach to the crisis which, its worth remembering, is similar to other western economies. I have been getting a relatively small number of people opposed - the ‘let it rip’ perspective. We can argue about the fallibility of tests and the small number of people testing positive for COVID then dying of something else being counted but the two death peaks we have seen speak for themselves. Lockdown works and deaths fall as you would expect from a rudimentary understanding of epidemiology. The moot point is whether the cure will turn out worse than the disease. In my view, based on what I know which is essentially what I’ve read just like anyone else, it is finely balanced.
I was arguing way back that if we didn’t soon get a game changer we would have to have Plan B which is essentially protected isolation for the elderly and vulnerable as advocated by a respectable body of expert opinion, albeit a minority at this stage. The rest of us would then go about our business with sensible precautions. The reason is that is economically and societally we could not sustain repeated waves and lockdowns. Businesses on which the whole of society depends would never get up again and no budding entrepreneur in his or her right mind would start one up. The toll from non COVID conditions would mount.
But it looks like we now have the game changer - the Pfizer vaccine and, hot on its heals, our own Oxford Astra Zeneca jab which is in many ways superior. We also know from the Liverpool experience how better to do testing and lateral flow tests offer near real time data that should cut transmission whilst allowing people to go about their business.
If in the next few days we can start to vaccinate large numbers of people at genuine risk from the virus we must surely be able then to allow those for whom - notwithstanding as yet ill defined issues around so called long COVID - coronavirus does not pose much of threat set against all the others we live with to crack on.
In closing, five cautionary points;
- There is a distinction between hard evidence, biological plausibility and supposition. So, for example, the evidence that 10 o’clock pub closing cuts transmission is slim. However, those of us who from time to time have enjoyed the odd pint or several will recognise it as plausible. Evidence would mandate early closure, plausibility alone means you have to balance possible benefits against economic and societal cost, a difficult process. Another example is masks. The evidence for them reducing transmission is mixed. However, it seems sensible, plausible, that they do. The personal cost of wearing one is minor. That means we should.
- You should always be alive to the corrosive effect of confirmation bias - plucking out bits of evidence from the swirling sea of data available that confirms you in the belief you have originally formed.
- Bunker mentality which means that when the position you’ve invested heavily in is under attack you are less and less prepared to countenance the possibility that you are wrong and others have a point.
- Linked to 4, humility. At the start of the year very little was known about the behaviour of this virus. We now know a lot and our knowledge is expanding all the time. Policy must be based on best available evidence at the time but with a wide margin of uncertainty. We need to level with people that it may change as the facts change.
- Conspiracy theories. Yep, they’re at it already. Some people, fortunately a very small if shouty minority, just don’t get that politicians and officials really are doing their level best for the public good. For this cynical cadre of contrarians its all about state control and self interest. I can’t help them I’m afraid but I really do get cross when they suggest without any evidence at all that the vaccine programme I hope we’re about to launch is a high risk malign intervention. As with the MMR scandal careless talk costs lives.
I’ll leave it at that.
9 November 2020
Free school meal vouchers have featured quite a bit in my inbox and in the local press. I’m grateful to people taking the time to write. I’ll always try to respond personally as soon as I can, unless letters are abusive as some on this subject sadly have been.
As always a misrepresentation circles the globe by the time truth has got his boots on. Social media makes it worse.
Here’s the truth. Everyone in parliament, regardless of party, wants to support people during the pandemic. Indeed, the scale of government support has been extraordinary, unprecedented and greater than comparable countries.
This government introduced free meals when schools were closed down from March to June for children who normally get them when schools are open. It has also been spending billions on welfare including £1000 uplift to Universal Credit plus help with housing costs and millions directed at local authorities, including Wiltshire, for community support like helping vulnerable children. That adds up to massively more support for struggling families than the meal vouchers the Opposition exploited in the debate they engineered after they had sensed an opportunity in the campaign started by footballer Marcus Rashford. The government’s clumsy response to the Opposition’s nimble creativity allowed it to be portrayed as heartless - grossly unfair if you compare our government’s pandemic welfare package with support provided in other countries.
You wouldn’t know it from the hate mail received in my office but, Conservative controlled, Wiltshire Council quietly got on with provided food over the half term holiday, the correct thing to do.
Of course the trolls whipped up by the Opposition’s craftiness have now fallen silent. Having secured their hit against the government, there has been nothing from that quarter on what should now happen. These political activists will simply hope that ministers allow the same thing to happen over Christmas so they can kick off again. I suspect they will be disappointed.
There is no question that inequality will widen and life chances fall for poorer children as a result of COVID. Many teachers have done their best in the crisis but the teaching unions have been less than impressive in rising to the challenge. Too often teaching union bosses have popped up on our screens to oppose schools opening without offering any ideas on how to mitigate the damage being caused to young people. Shades of the 1970s. Disappointing.
We need so much more than lunch vouchers over half term for the poorest, least advantaged kids. Breakfast clubs and summer classes with healthy, nutritious food included but with extra tuition and activities too are needed for children whose circumstances mean they’ve been left behind and who need to catch up. I want local authorities to be in the driving seat. I think Wiltshire’s up for it.
26 October 2020
I hope this update on the two big issues of the day - COVID and Brexit - is of interest. Here, I will try to elaborate on the points which I raised in my brief Twitter and Facebook weekly roundup video yesterday.
Firstly, a big well done to my good friend Somerset MP Liam Fox for valiantly trying to secure the top job at the World Trade Organisation. It was always going to a tough gig with the odds stacked against the UK. Evidently, though sadly Liam was unsuccessful, the exercise has been very useful in flushing out friends and foes. For example, France we hear actively lobbied against the UK, hitting the phones to dissuade countries from voting for the British guy. We even hear that Hungary was told it might be arraigned by the EU because of a perceived failure in its EU ‘duty of sincere cooperation’ for not subscribing to the French operation against Liam Fox.
And they wonder why the British people voted to leave.
Bravo Hungary and those countries who backed the UK, particularly those who stand to lose from crossing Paris. I can safely say as a former Foreign Office minister that these things are not lost on the UK, neither should France forget that actions have consequences.
As I write, the Brexit talks are formally off, the PM’s deadline having passed. The reality is that talks will continue up to 31 December when we leave the transition period and beyond. It’s in everyone’s interests that a deal is done that promotes uninterrupted trade. The sticking points are fish access and the so-called level playing field for businesses. On fish, our fishing fleet is so denuded now and indigenous fishermen so scarce (it’s a tough, dangerous life with limited reward for most) that we could not in any event fully exploit the fish in our fishing grounds right now even if the French, Dutch and Spanish were denied access. Hopefully that will change over the years as we regrow, but it seems to me that we could allow our neighbours to fish in UK waters for some years to come on a strictly reducing basis with very little impact on British fishermen. It would surely be perverse to ruin fishermen on the continental side of our shared narrow seas just in order to make a point. We don’t do that kind of thing.
So, that’s fish sorted.
What about the so-called level playing field stumbling block? Well, the EU is right to be worried that unshackled from the maw of the Commission the UK will seek to secure competitive advantage, to grow British jobs and businesses. That’s rather the point. The EU’s response should be to fit its own business environment for the competitive challenges of this century, not the last. What we can’t have is a jurisdiction over which we have no control, the EU, setting our rules or supervising them through its courts. We have glimpsed in the attitude displayed by our closest continental neighbour in the Liam Fox WTO incident what that might mean. However, we need to be pragmatic. The EU is apparently concerned about the UK government bankrolling business once freed from EU state aid rules. Curious that since UK governments in recent years have been dead against protectionism and our state aid is much less than France, particularly, and also Germany. So, it seems like an academic point that could be conceded, except of course we must not have the ECJ presiding over any infringement proceedings.
There is a rumour that Dominic Cummings is planning to massively support UK tech after we leave and that might be putting the wind up the EU. However, I’d support start-ups and translational business ventures with fiscal measures around venture capital and investment which the tech fledglings I know - including locally - would welcome rather more than old style state handouts. Importantly, new and established tech businesses are crying out for skills, a legitimate place for any government to invest regardless of state aid rules. Indeed, that’s exactly how West Germany rebuilt itself after 1945.
There we have it - Murrison’s simple analysis and the basis for a deal. I judge the chances of something being thrashed out at this eleventh hour as 50/50.
I have been supporting the government on its COVID strategy not because I’m entirely convinced by the advice on which its based but, if I’m honest, because there’s a wide margin of uncertainty and because UK interventions appear to be similar to those of other major European jurisdictions - safety in numbers. The detailed critique will have to await the review that will surely come - but not yet.
I am opposed to another national lockdown which I don’t think the evidence as it stands would sustain. It would be an act of bovine stupidity to shut down businesses in the south west when our transmission is low in order to provide uniformity with areas where it is high. The three-tier approach is based on keeping schools and businesses open. That means reducing interaction in social situations, particularly private homes where there is evidence the virus spreads the most. However, I note the sharp increase in test positives has not been matched by a commensurate uplift in hospital admissions, ITU cases or deaths. Looking at the timelines that suggests to me an autumn bump rather than a second wave. That should mean sensible measures rather than liberty and livelihood wreckers. I would also point out the mounting evidence that suggests that if we don’t get a game changer such as a vaccine very soon the interventions like school closures western governments put in place will over time result in more, not fewer, deaths from COVID alone. Plus of course mortality and morbidity from other diseases left untreated, mental health problems and the health consequences of poverty and unemployment.
So, if there’s no game changer very soon, what’s to be done? I’ve been lobbying for the drafting of a Plan B. It would allow a general return to normal life but with focussed protection to safeguard those we now know are vulnerable to coronavirus. We just can’t go on with large parts of the UK locked down indefinitely.
16 September 2020
I’m very grateful for messages I’ve had about the Internal Markets Bill. Many, but not all, of those unhappy have written before to complain about Brexit and we have had to respectfully disagree. I do so again.
I’ve been asked why MPs like me supported the Withdrawal Agreement last year but on Monday night voted - as I did - to potentially renege on elements of it. It’s a fair challenge, though the answer is very simple. In the past few days Michel Barnier has confirmed the impression he has given since December that he is not at all acting in the good faith required by the Agreement. He is now saying, in commendably plain terms, that the EU may enforce a customs border down the Irish Sea in violation of the 1800 Act of Union, the Good Friday Agreement and, in the view of many of us, the Agreement itself. Such an action, one that was certainly not being socialised last year when we signed the Agreement, would have the effect of essentially blocking the passage of goods between constituent parts of the UK. There is no way that can be allowed to happen. So, it’s absolutely right that HMG, in response to this new threat, should take out an insurance policy against it. That insurance policy is the Internal Markets Bill.
I still dearly hope the comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that would make all of this academic - like the one offered then withdrawn by the EU in 2018 - will yet be achieved by the middle of next month especially since the reason the EU has come up with for not doing so, our close geographic proximity, is plainly nonsense. But if there’s no deal, what are we then to do?
Well, we could roll over and let the EU - not a benign or benevolent undertaking but a clever adversary jockeying for political and commercial advantage - have the better of us. We could concede, although the EU has plainly acted in bad faith contrary to the Agreement, to Brussels’ interpretation and that of its sympathetic lawyers. It is being put about that if we don’t do this our vaunted reputation internationally will be toast.
The Germans have no truck with this sort of thing. Their muscular basic law takes precedence over all else, including that constructed by supranational institutions like the EU. Indeed, Germany has been reasserting its position recently. The fact that the UK constitution is unwritten does not matter. It’s also reasonable to observe that what is spoken of as international law is often, in practice, mutable as the EU itself has shown in, for example, the indulgence it shows on state aid.
Friends, we need to understand that this negotiation isn’t a love-in, it’s a brutal bare knuckles affair. Pique is never far away, nor the desire to make an example of the errant UK pour encourager les autres. That much was obvious when I had the, genuine, pleasure of meeting suave M. Barnier a couple of years back in Brussels.
The PM made clear on Monday that if the talks collapse and we have to, with the greatest of reluctance, invoke the Internal Markets Bill, Parliament itself, not the government, will have to give the final green light. Parliament is sovereign.
We also have to be mindful of the increasing willingness of the judiciary to challenge government - not so much rule of law as rule by lawyers. Constitutionally it would be an entirely different matter if the Supreme Court was to go head to head, not with the government but with Parliament itself.
3 September 2020
The UK is now in the premier league for COVID testing which is good. However, the more you look the more you’ll find. Some have suggested figures on the rise mean we are about to get a second wave. Personally, I think they’re indicative of more testing particularly since hospital admission and death rates have been declining sharply. We’re also getting better at treating COVID so even if we don’t get a vaccine soon - and I suspect we will - the virus is looking less of a threat than it did. We also know now that its a problem overwhelmingly for elderly people and those with certain co-morbidities. We should be able to protect them whilst allowing the fit working population and children to mix more freely, getting the economy back underway and restarting important activities like healthcare. That’s why I’m using any influence I have to support the government in relaxing restrictions and applying an unadulterated evidence based approach in its interventions that recognises the wider consequentials of actions taken.
I spent some of the week talking with colleagues to help socialise the idea that the Commons should be leading by example in getting the country back to work. At the moment the restrictions in place at Westminster, set up with the best of intentions, have made it virtually impossible to do our job properly and I feel really bad about it.
The COVID wonderboy has so far been the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But he’s a very level-headed individual and I suspect he's approaching the public’s adulation with caution. He’ll know that popularity is easy when you’re handing out money, less so when you have to rein back spending or tax people. There is a general nervousness about being too quick to repay extra debt entered into as a result of the crisis. Thank goodness interest rates are low and we can add borrowing onto the tab, as it were. I’m among those who are counselling caution about tax rises since taxes kill growth and its growth that’ll power us out of the recession, grow jobs and bring down the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, when we’ve tried taxing our way out of a fix in the past its ended unhappily. Looking towards the autumn budget, I also hope we can retain the state pension triple lock. Obviously it can’t go on forever as over time it would imply pensions moving ahead of wage growth which is unsustainable but my best reading of state pensions in similar jurisdictions is that the UK has still some moving up the league table to do.
10 August 2020
The Beirut explosion was deeply upsetting. I was involved with Lebanon quite a lot as Middle East minister and met quite a few of the key personalities from the President and PM to Palestinian refugees in Tripoli and Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley. At times like this ‘talking heads’ like me get to give our views on national TV as editors seek perspectives on what’s going on.
My expressed view is the catastrophe was a symptom of a failing state in which institutions don’t operate and the normal systems and checks we take for granted in a country like ours just don’t apply. I saw something of this in the Lebanese electricity distribution system which is chaotic. Streets in cities like Tripoli have networks of power cables strung across carrying pirated electricity for the few hours a day the grid sort of operates. Its pretty scary. Donor countries have been generous, including the UK, but with corruption rife there’s a reluctance to throw money at long term remedies without reform.
I continue to worry about the economic impact of coronavirus and have been urging ministers to ease up. That’s because it seems to me the cost of the cure now risks exceeding that of the disease. Our NHS has been effectively closed down to routine work for months and with distancing and new hygiene processes its productivity remains down. So is it any surprise if we’re becoming sicker? Things like mental health have been particularly severely impacted. People have not sought timely help for big killers like stroke and heart attack with inevitable consequences. Unemployment is associated with increased mortality and nobody should underestimate the impact a long deep recession will have on general health and wellbeing.
In weighing cost and benefit you have to set lives saved from COVID19 against lives lost as a result of interventions - a grisly, unenviable calculus.
I do so hope we follow the lead of local authorities like Blackburn and Sandwell who have clearly had enough of the inadequate, centrist Public Health England with its telephoning and texting. Those councils have been taking their own initiative with proper door-to-door contact tracing just like their forebears who set up the discipline of infectious disease based public health in the mid nineteenth century, If we do more of that we will reduce the number of area lockdowns and help to restore public and business confidence.
I’ve been having lots of letters about apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in COVID rules. Beauty salons wonder why they can’t do their stuff but barbers can, for example. Its difficult not to sympathise. I can’t arbitrate or advise beyond the gov.uk guidance but I can contact ministers about individual circumstances so they can be looked at and constituents at least get a rationale back with ‘the science’ from the rule-makers.
1 July 2020
Hills Waste has decided to replace its plans for a gasification plant at Westbury in favour of an old style incinerator. I have spoken with and written to the planning authority, Wiltshire Council, and have asked the Environment Agency to opine on the assertions made in the operator’s letter to me in support of the switch.
On parish boundaries, I’m engaging with Wiltshire Council to prevent Trowbridge town council absorbing huge chunks of neighbouring parishes, an exercise that is, in my view, contrary to the interests of my constituents resident in Trowbridge and the surrounding large villages.
The Opposition is proving good at engineering debates in the Commons to make demands of the government that it must know, if roles we’re reversed, it would not itself do. For example, swab tests for NHS staff. It has been demanding all NHS staff should be ‘tested’ for COVID, more or less continuously. Setting aside the intrusiveness of what, at first glance, was being proposed, when pressed their spokesman admitted that this should only be where necessary which, of course, is exactly what is currently happening. But the headline that the Opposition knew full well would be written is that Tories prevent hard working frontline staff from the tests that they and their patients need - complete rubbish, and some would say indicative of either at best confused or at worst irresponsible opposition, but there it is.
Another example is nurses’ pay. I’ve had a fistful of angry, quite abusive, emails demanding to know why I voted against a pay rise for nurses given their heroic work in the COVID crisis. This had me scratching my head. Again, the provenance appears to have been one of the Opposition’s engineered debates. Nobody ever went into healthcare to get rich - I certainly didn’t - but salaries have been rising, though anyone with any sense of the intrinsic value in a job would want healthcare workers to have more. I’ve replied to the emails drawing attention to the incremental pay scales which are available online that are based on the Agenda for Change prospectus brought in by Labour in 2004, how it is now possible for nurses to secure good pay and pensions whilst remaining frontline clinicians rather than managers and how difficult it is, because it involves more than a million people, to find even a small across the board pay increase.
I have written in my blog before about the toppling of statues and associated markers of Britain’s past in connection with BLM. On the radio this morning a representative of Lloyds of London was asked to apologise for its involvement in the slave trade. It would have been easy for him to do so, but what would his words have meant? Since it started up in 1686, just as Britain’s global reach was really getting going, it comes as no surprise that in its early years today’s insurance giant was intimately involved in the grisly business of buying and selling human beings. Rather than issue easy words, if I understand it correctly, this morning Lloyds pledged to look at itself to see what more it can do practically to level the playing field for black people in its organisation, recognising the hurdles BAME people still face in Britain today. We should all do that.
We have just passed the Immigration Bill which will end free movement post Brexit. We do rely on a healthy level of migration and should welcome it but equally the public expects government to be able to control what happens at it’s borders. I do feel that people who are being detained whilst their immigration status is determined should not be held indefinitely and they must be treated humanely and with respect whilst detained. However, I could not support an amendment to cap the time a person can be detained without knowing what would happen if the time limit was reached - I don’t think simply releasing potentially challenging detainees into the community would be welcomed by my constituents.
I’ve had lots of letters about amendments to the Agriculture Bill. A hijack was attempted to include protectionist measures aimed at excluding ‘chlorinated chicken’ type agri-food products. The possible health impacts of chlorinating chicken are highly debatable - most of us munch our way through chlorine washed fruit and veg without a second thought, not to mention tap water and what we swallow in swimming pools - but chicken meat treated in this way is banned in the U.K. and that continues after we leave the Brexit Transition Period in December. What actually worries me is that best in class animal husbandry could be sidelined if reliance is put on chlorination to rid products of pathogens like salmonella. Ministers have said that trade deals won’t mean compromise on either food safety or animal welfare and that’s contained in the manifesto I and my colleagues stood on in December. That may reduce scope for trade deals with, particularly, the US but it’s a clearly stated UK position nevertheless. In any event, its actually a matter for the Trade Bill currently in its Commons Committee stage, not the Agriculture Bill. The Trade Bill sets out the proposed new arrangements for trade after the Transition Period and aims to promote competitive advantage for UK businesses post Brexit, including for British farmers and growers. I’m keeping a close eye on it.
I continue to get pressure to support a delay to the end of the Brexit Transition Period in December. Some people are simply ‘fighting the last war’ and even now desperately hoping we will rejoin or at least remain tied to the EU in some way whilst others, understandably cautious people, worry that our economy faces two shocks at the same time - COVID and the end of the Brexit Transition Period - one of which, they point out, we might avoid or delay. My own view is that a future trading arrangement, that of course will be capable of change over time, will be agreed but not if we perpetually delay our final departure date.
10 June 2020
Queuing round the block to vote whilst socially distancing was not onerous - out in the sunshine, a turn round Westminster Hall, lovely. Not sure about doing it serially in late votes in January however. The minor parties - SNP and Lib Dems - like to call unnecessary divisions that they’re bound to lose just to make a point. They’re going to be seriously unpopular if they persist if this turns out to be part of the new normal. However, I hope and pray we’re back to something like the stats quo ante soon and that chilly, wet divisions in the dark can be avoided.
My noise on the A303 indicator suggests life and livelihood are slowly returning. In a months time at this rate the data should be such that the challenge will be to ensure people continue to take sensible precautions to keep the virus at bay. Sensible precautions need to be tempered with the urgent need to get the economy going again to limit as far as we can the deep recession we’re certainly now in. As furlough recedes like a tide we will see what wreckage is left. I fear it won’t be pretty.
Quarantining people travelling from countries with less COVID that the U.K. makes no sense scientifically and the airlines (whose managements I’m at odds with over their recent behaviour) are right to be squealing. The economy won’t budge until we get people moving again. I’ve spoken in the Commons about this and will continue to.
The killing of George Floyd by a US policeman was gut-wrenchingly awful. Without question the policing model operated by too many US jurisdictions needs a complete, wholesale rescrub. I truly believe our own police, fallible though all institutions and individuals are, is as good an exemplar of policing by consent that you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. It’s plain wrong to associate them individually or corporately with the criminal who killed George Floyd and beneath contempt to attack them in the way we saw at the weekend. The Home Secretary is right - those responsible for the recent disorder in our cities must be pursued with the full rigour of the criminal justice system. I will be expressing my views strongly with our own Chief Constable and Police Commissioner later this week.
The job of the police is to uphold the law, the only framework in a civilised society, enacted by our democratically elected institutions. I do not want to hear police officers on duty opine on political matters. Indeed, I’m not wildly enthusiastic about elected Police and Crime Commissioners, good people though most undoubtedly are. Frankly, they were not, in my personal view, one of Theresa May’s better ideas.
Which brings me to the remarks of the unfortunate senior policeman who spoke to camera to justify doing nothing as an enraged mob tore down a statue of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston at the weekend. I lived and worked in Bristol for 6 years and throughout was completely unaware of Colston’s effigy in the city centre. Indeed, navigating that particular traffic island, in a car, on foot and especially on a bike, isn’t conducive to sightseeing. However, I can perfectly well see why people closely associating with the victims of slavery might be surprised at the unqualified eulogising of Colston in a modern city centre.
I understand that the majority of those Bristolians polled about it fairly recently said Colston’s brooding likeness should stay. I suspect most did not have strong views though. My personal opinion would have been that, since a significant minority expressed unease about it, the plaque extolling Colston’s charitable deeds should have been joined by another explanatory plaque pointing out his extensive involvement in Bristol’s slave trade. Furthermore, there would have been a decent case for putting Colston somewhere less central, other than at the bottom of the harbour that is. A compromise acceptable to most, kind and empathic to those with genuinely held views and inclusively reflective of twenty first century sentiment should surely have been possible. As it was we had violence. We had the spectacle of Avon and Somerset Police looking on as a mob, hooded young men in the main, committed a criminal act in the heart of the region’s greatest city that could well have resulted in death or serious injury.
Sir Thomas Moore pointed out that if you diminish the rule of law you shouldn’t be surprised when it’s not there for you. Protest by all means, but beware the mob because eventually it’ll come for you.
On destroying monuments in general, I wonder where we go from here because I doubt the submersion of an obscure West Country merchant will be the end of it. Next on the list is presumably the much more famous but less accessible Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College Oxford. Then perhaps the many monuments to William Gladstone on account of the origins of much of his family’s wealth. In the US, confederate figures have long been vilified by much of the population with good reason in many cases since, let’s remember, the War of Independence meant that in the former American colonies slavery endured, particularly in the cotton fields and tobacco plantations of the south, long after the much maligned British Empire had abolished it.
Indeed, what’s to be done with likenesses of Father of the Nation and enthusiastically hands-on plantation owner George Washington? We indulge ourselves in a preferred version of history but from the age of eleven until his death the man whose picture hangs in the Oval Office was a slave owner, no ifs no buts, evidently no better or worse than his contemporaries whose opulent lifestyles were achieved on the backs of other human beings. Two centuries on and its difficult for any person with a heart not to feel viscerally - revulsion, indignation, anger - particularly I suspect if you’re black and if you see, however faintly through the years, a reflection of the past in society today.
Back to London as legitimate public expression of horror at events in the States was let down by the mindlessness of the mob. Nothing was spared, not even poor old Gandhi - ‘racist’ according to the self appointed judges who daubed their opinion on his statue. Ditto Churchill, generally credited with defeating Nazism and racism of the most vicious kind.
Trying to go about my business in Parliament Square, I found myself unwittingly in the centre of this far from socially distancing rampaging, screaming mix of young adults. It wasn’t great.
Where’s this rant leading? Well, where history and politics in its general sense collide as here, the authorities must do their level best to balance sensitivities in a spirit of empathy, a desire for truth, inclusiveness and, above all, kindness. I believe something like that was in progress to deal with the Colston controversy before he was hauled from his perch in a criminal act that is likely to have alienated a lot of the quiet people who are indeed concerned about inequality and who are sickened about what happened recently in Minneapolis.
27 May 2020
POSITION ON DOMINIC CUMMINGS
Thank you for contacting me about Dominic Cummings. I have received several hundred emails and messages about his conduct and am struggling to reply individually to them. I hope you will accept this as a statement of my position on the basis of what we know at the moment.
I completely empathise with the fury expressed by my constituents. The public has been incredibly disciplined throughout this crisis, many suffering grievously as a result of compliance in good faith with the rules.
From what has been reported, it looks to me like Mr Cummings broke lockdown rules on a number of counts. I have particular difficulty understanding his account of the Barnard Castle outing.
Because we are human we all make mistakes under pressure and our judgement when ill can be impaired. The difference is that those in the public eye have their errors displayed for all to see. It is also the case that Mr Cummings has over the years made many enemies. They and his political opponents are among those who have been calling for his scalp, including locally. Equally, people contacting me with no obvious axe to grind are angry that one of the main authors of the rules has apparently not observed them. It’s hardly surprising if they view that as wrong and unfair.
Mr Cummings has chosen not to step down. Whatever the truth or otherwise of his version of events, there remains the very real risk that his continued presence degrades credibility in the government and thus the fight against COVID19. That must surely be apparent to him and I hope he will be reflecting further on it. However, whatever you or I think about an individual, and I should say I know Mr Cummings only by reputation, we should be prepared to extend the same fairness that we would want for ourselves. We must avoid trial by media. Therefore, for as long as Mr Cummings protests that he acted lawfully and reasonably and insists on remaining in post, and subject to any inquiries by Durham Constabulary, I would say there is a good case for an independent analysis of the facts.
Many of those who have written to me have demanded a public statement calling for Mr Cummings’ dismissal. I have reflected carefully and my position is finely balanced. However, I have concluded that only the Prime Minister can weigh his adviser’s behaviour and the impact his conduct is having on managing the pandemic with the value of Mr Cummings’ anticipated future service to a government whose objectives I wholeheartedly support. I am not in a position to assess the need for Mr Cummings and would be uncomfortable calling for him to be dismissed without a dispassionate analysis of the evidence, facts that I am almost certainly not in full possession of.
I will continue to communicate with government at the very highest level the clearly expressed views of my constituents for which I am, as always, grateful.
19 May 2020
If the noise from the major road near my house is anything to go by - which it probably is - life is edging back to some semblance of normality.
I have to say I’m a little bit cautious about chasing the ‘R’ obsessively. It’s a great little number but entirely dependent on the quality of data in and complex modelling that few seem to really understand. I suspect caution is needed in its interpretation. I’m more impressed by mortality data. It’s raw but unambiguous - you’re either dead or you’re not.
Daily reports of disease incidence are also helpful but what I’m really looking forward to is large scale community blood testing for antibodies (as opposed to the swab test for the virus) which will tell us how many people have actually been infected and thus, we believe, carry some level of immunity. The reason that’s important is it will give a rational basis for the timing, and potentially location, of easing lockdown. It’s also important for trace, track and trace which I’m delighted to say is, eh, back on track.
I’m getting complaints about people not getting the swab test. We’re now apparently doing more swabs than practically any other European country but recent announcements have suggested the test is available on demand. That isn’t the case. The gov.uk site is helpful in saying who can be tested and why. It’s important to keep in mind that whilst a negative test can help with contacts, isolation and work, there aren’t yet any specific pills or potions that a positive test will lead you to - lots of candidates but so far none that are shown to make you better outside an ITU setting.
Happily our area appears to be quite low prevalence. My sense is that as we go on the virus will increasingly be found in specific settings, notably care settings. That means ‘R’ won’t just vary regionally. The implication is that our public health effort must focus relentlessly on particular places and institutions whose ‘R’ will be very different from the wider community in which they sit.
I’m pleased to hear from local businesses that the Chancellor’s recently announced ‘bounce back loan’ scheme is helpful and from the council that it has distributed much of the grant money for supporting businesses it was entrusted with by the government. There are still issues around sole traders and home workers who have overheads and I’m seeing what can be done to cover some fixed costs.
The bovine stupidity around panic buying and consequent bare supermarket shelves appears to have largely resolved. Strategies to deal with things like equitable food distribution are surely being refined during this crisis. If and when we have to deal with another pandemic - likely ‘when’ in my view - that should mean things are a lot slicker from the get go.
Well done to teachers and head teachers who have been working hard to find imaginative ways of facilitating continued access to education in these challenging times. It’s a pity they have been let down by some teaching unions who have baulked at an opportunity to lead in working with government to get our kids back into school, as safely for everyone as can be achieved. Education is so very important as in practice few of us get a second chance. We have seen in other European countries a much more constructive approach. As it is it’ll likely be the more disadvantaged children who will slip further behind. Nobody should be happy with that.
PPE supply and resupply has probably been this crisis’ nadir. In due course the public will expect some heads to roll, but for now what’s important is ensuring everyone gets what they need to feel safe. My intel says the situation has been greatly improving. If you’re not getting what you need at work please do let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org or 01225 358584). I will phone up whoever’s in change where you’re working to ask what they need and use the tools I have to navigate the system.
5 May 2020
Thank you for the positive messages concerning the government’s handling of this crisis I’ve been getting. I left the government in February so can take no credit but I have passed the pleasing sentiment up the line. I continue to support the direction ministers have been taking which has seemed generally sensible to me.
It’s good to see the death rate from coronavirus declining. Meanwhile there’s an increasing realisation that lockdown has a huge cost not only in livelihoods but in lives lost. Whilst the cure applied is, probably, still better than the disease, it’s right that we should calculate its indirect costs, notably the projected rise in death rate from common things like cancer, heart attack and stroke together with morbidity including mental health problems. That’s quite apart from the desperate effect on business and thus the economy.
My sense is that we need to start easing off now and getting back to some semblance of normality. That will almost certainly increase deaths from COVID19 - a second peak - but cut at the same time morbidity from other diseases and restart the economy without which decent public services will be a thing of the past.
I entirely support ministers in adhering to scientific advice. SAGE, the committee of experts, many turn out not be infallible but it is politically impartial, objective and contemporaneously expert. I worry about self appointed experts, some with a past history of political activism, weighing in encouraged by media looking for their ‘gotcha’ moment,
It’s important to recall the maxim, advisers advise, ministers decide. Ministers have to own decisions made and ultimately they will be held accountable. They can’t, and I’m sure don’t, swallow wholesale the lines fed by experts. Their job is to challenge and probe, devilling into the detail, avoiding the groupthink that through history has led to disaster.
In a sense the job of ministers is straightforward at the moment since there’s general consensus on what’s to be done. Indeed the new leader of the opposition has been accused today, a little unfairly, of simply repeating what ministers have already announced. I say unfairly because the media will always pile on pressure for an alternative point of view. That’s encourages opposition politicians to desperately seek new, distinctive lines.
This biological crisis has prompted concern that governments, particularly as it happens in the U.K, rarely have people with backgrounds in life sciences. Diversity is rightly understood in terms of inherent personal characteristics. We celebrate it and have made lots of progress. But it’s been pointed out that we have a curious blind spot when it comes to the overwhelming preponderance of lawyers and politics graduates at the top table, and no scientists.
As I’ve said, I very much support the government at this most challenging time, but I confess that I was a bit surprised to hear a senior minister insist that the U.K. must exit lockdown as the U.K. Now, I’m very much a unionist but there’s no place for tub-thumping in this crisis, particularly if you’re otherwise insisting on adherence strictly to the science evidence base. As a unionist and politician, I’m all for all togetherness and, as a physician with some public health experience, it seems logical to regard Great Britain and probably the British Isles as one epidemiological unit - but you can’t assume it. Indeed, we know that prevalence of the virus isn’t constant across the country. If, in accordance with the science, it proves expedient for a differential rate of easing based on region then so be it. Indeed, if you’re going to let politics degrade the optimal evidence-based management of this pandemic, I wish you luck in the inquiry that will surely follow!
24 April 2020
I don’t do birthdays but enforced isolation with Jenny and our daughters has meant my little anniversary today has been occasion for a nice lunch, pressies and cake.
I’m getting more and more correspondence about a lockdown exit strategy. There’s a mounting sense that we can’t keep on going like this indefinitely. Indeed, many of us are learning or re-learning the link between a working economy and a functioning public sector. You can’t have one without the other. The centre left seems to understand even as the far left sniffs an opportunity to advance its political ends in our temporary command economy.
There’s no rule that says deep recession must follow a crisis like this. Much depends on agreed action between the nation states who are in the driving seat. I say nation states because supranational institutions - UN, EU, World Bank, WHO - haven’t exactly sparkled over the past 3 months. The big national players financially - G7 and G20 notably - really have to sort this. Get it right and, optimistically, we might even anticipate ‘roaring twenties’ echoing the years following the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918/19.
Always look on the bright side and, on a beautiful day like today, let’s resolve to make the best of the opportunities, even in the pit of our despair.
20 April 2020
I spent most of last week in bed on antibiotics. Grim. I’m so very grateful to Sir Alexander Fleming His discovery of penicillin in the 1920s was one of the great turning points in medicine. Without it I’d still be laid up ...or laid out! We need a Fleming moment to deal with novel viruses quickly otherwise we risk lurching from lockdown to lockdown when another wretched bat coronavirus or rat arenavirus decides on a bit of a makeover and crosses into humans. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.
It must be abundantly clear now that these viruses are a national security risk, bigger than the Russians, Chinese or Daesh. We have to defend against their malignity with conviction and resolve. In the now delayed Integrated Security Review I’m hoping, for example, we ensure PPE, testing kits and drugs and vaccines are considered sovereign capabilities, just like we consider a credible UK defence manufacturing base a sovereign capability that we must guarantee indigenously. We can’t simply assume we can get goods like that from the international market at the flash of a government credit card. Actually, we did try, apparently, with a shedload of Chinese antibody testing kits but they turned out to be as reliable as fortune cookies. HMG is now trying to get its money back.
Whilst I’m supportive of ministers and officials who have all been doing their best, an early lesson from this crisis is we can’t be left wanting facemasks and gowns ever again or be thrashing around for lab reagents to undertake fairly basic diagnostics.
So far the NHS appears to be standing up well and the huge and impressive Nightingale ventilator hospitals built at breakneck speed haven’t been needed. If we are at peak that implies we will at some point soon need to decide when to restart the routine and semi-routine procedures put on hold to build up COVID capacity. If we don’t we risk a bitter addendum to this epidemic in which health outcomes from diseases like cancer are significantly impacted. It is good that government is thinking deeply about this as it considers when to ease restrictions.
8 April 2020
A constituent emails to ask if I’d volunteered to return to the NHS to help with COVID-19. The answer is yes, of course. The NHS has a very good coronavirus ‘Learning for Health’ e-learning programme - ideal for home working. I’ve just downloaded my very nice WHO endorsed e-certificate in dealing with severe respiratory infections for completing the modules.
All of us are rooting for Boris Johnson. My inbox is full of kind and generous messages from constituents. Thank you. I will certainly pass on the sentiments of South West Wiltshire to the PM.
Boris is known as great admirer of Winston Churchill but there is one part of his predecessor’s premiership that he would not have chosen to emulate - the great man’s episodes of serious ill health that took him out of action twice during the war years. We recall also Tony Blair’s brief stints in hospital for a heart complaint. The point is that the middle aged men who tend to be our national leaders are prey to illness and disease and sometimes at the most inconvenient times, as now. But we have a cabinet, not presidential, system of government. As in 1943, there are clear governance arrangements to cover off the contingency we find ourselves in now. I have every confidence in the man deputising for the PM - Dominic Raab who I worked with at the Foreign Office. Let us hope for Boris’ swift return to full health. He’s certainly getting the best possible care at St Thomas’.
The overall coronavirus strategy has already been put in place and will be carried forward by four coronavirus cabinet committees advised by its experts. Overall most people seem very comfortable with the government’s approach. However, PPE really hasn’t been great and I’ve been corresponding with ministers on it. Testing, also criticised, is important but it’s only one element of the management of this crisis. I confess I was a bit mystified when the WHO’s DG Dr Tedros appeared to be obsessed with testing a few weeks back. Prevention - stay home, wash your hands - is more important. Community testing needs to be ramped up because it should enable people to get back to work quicker and get things going again. We’ve done better on testing than some, like France, but not as well as others, notably Germany.
I hope the Nightingale hospitals being thrown together at a rate that would even impress the Chinese will never get close to full occupancy. However, as an exercise in showing what we are capable of in a crisis they are indeed impressive.
As a warm bank holiday beckons, please stay home so we can manage the pressure on our NHS and save lives.
27 March 2020
Been working flat out on coronavirus enquiries. The trouble is this crisis and government’s response to it are moving so fast that people are being left confused and disoriented. I can’t answer all the questions but will try to help where I can. I’ve been especially busy helping constituents to interpret the advice and instructions given by ministers and posted online (gov.uk). Naturally grey areas remain when rules are drawn up fast. Talking through individual situations can often help to find a common sense solution especially as I’ve been in on the statements in the Commons and elsewhere in which ministers have elaborated on what they are requiring us to do.
Given that in a matter of days government has had to design a whole new welfare and economic support structure, re-engineer the NHS to cope with the COVID-19, recruit an army of volunteers and ensure that we have the means to ensure resilience meaning society does not break down if this get a lot worse, it is hardly surprising there have been a few bumps along the way.
Fortunately, I think the confusion over work is now being dispelled. It’s a pity a distinction between ‘essential’ and, by implication, non-essential work has been allowed to cause so much uncertainty. The gov.uk website makes clear that if you’re not isolating you can work, preferably from home but if that’s not possible you should maintain social distancing in the workplace. Employers are responsible for facilitating it. Where it’s not possible they are shutting up shop, sometimes literally in the case of builders merchants for example, one of which contacted me recently prompting a reference by me in the Commons earlier in the week.
I have been contacted by tourists stranded abroad by the crisis who want government to get them home. I do feel for them. Having served at the foreign office recently I know the consular service will be doing its very best in country and in London, accepting that its diplomats too will be in various forms of lockdown, home working or sickness (we sadly lost a diplomat to coronavirus this week). The foreign secretary, who made a statement on Tuesday in the House which is available online, is trying to facilitate safe return along with his counterparts in similarly affected countries. Importantly he’s trying to unblock hub airports whose closure has meant long haul flights are currently not happening. However, it would be good if people, however frustrated, avoid the temptation to take it out on officials - and MPs’ offices. We’ve had some unpleasant emails here, sadly. Government, whose main priority right now is ensuring citizens are safe and well, at home and abroad is, along with other countries, trying to get UK citizens back.
I would be careful in interpreting the interesting Oxford study which purports to show that the virus is much more prevalent in society than we thought. The implication being, of course, that it’s less lethal than we thought since legions of subclinically infected would greatly increase the numerator in the mortality rate calculation, the denominator (the number of dead people) being accurately know, obviously. We have to proceed on the basis of the Imperial College paper from a couple of weeks ago which predicted that if the current measures were not put in place we would be facing a quarter of a million deaths and a completely overwhelmed health service.
The good news is that in two or three weeks with the antibody test we should know which, Oxford or ICL, is closest to the mark. That will have quite dramatic implications for lifting lockdowns, flattening curves etc. Bring it on!
24 March 2020
Everything’s changed. Yesterday I took part in the second reading debate of a piece of legislation the like of which I never imagined in this country. The Coronavirus Bill is a horror that will revolt all freedom loving citizens, all who hold our hard won liberties dear and all who love our western liberal democracy and way of life - but it and the PM’s broadcast last night are necessary responses to the dire circumstances we face.
I’m amazed at the bovine stupidity of people crowding together in public places over the weekend. Please, everyone, comply with advice, which as of yesterday are instructions. Make sure you stay home, go out only when strictly necessary and stay at least two metres from those not in your household. Read the coronavirus advice on the gov.uk website. Wiltshire Council’s page www.wiltshire.gov.uk/public-health-coronavirus is useful too.
I have been in demand by the national media who want a medic MP to opine on the current situation. There are a number of doctors in the House but I think I’m the only one with a qualification in public health so people think I might have a special insight into what’s going on. The trouble is this is a novel coronavirus which means we’re learning about its behaviour and epidemiology all the time. That makes predictions very difficult and strategy for dealing with it even more so.
My mailbag has exploded as constituents contact me worried about coronavirus and the consequences of the public health measures the government has had to take. I hope many of the concerns have been addressed by last week’s extraordinary money pledges by the Chancellor. There is though still work to be done to protect the self employed and I expect further measures shortly.
I am socially distancing like mad. However, it is right that MPs should be present in the Commons at a time of crisis like this. I take my duties to represent my constituents here and hold the government to account very seriously. On Monday I took part in the Coronavirus Bill debate asking about the support of returning healthcare workers, urging what has become known as lockdown and raising the delayed appearance of personal protective equipment in care settings. The latter followed concerns raised by the Leader of Wiltshire Council and discussion with my Wiltshire MP colleagues and was followed by a conversation with the council leader, officials at county hall and the national coordinating PPE helpline. I will work on this some more today. This virus is already in our care settings. It’s vital we protect key workers at the care frontline as it extends its grip.
On PPE my understanding is the NHS is being prioritised but that sufficient masks etc are available too for care settings. The issue apparently is getting them to the right places. There are also, I understand, fears that we will get through stocks quickly although with China, the major producer, now coming out of lockdown supply should constraints should ease. I am told that we are better placed than many countries because we had already been stockpiling against the possibility of a serious seasonal flu epidemic and, of course, Brexit. For the future we need to ensure that we can generate more stuff at home and be less reliant on imports. This is particularly true of vaccines. The U.K. leads the world in vaccine research and development yet we have very little manufacturing capacity. One of the lessons of this outbreak is that we have to be able to make vaccine here in sufficient quantities for healthcare workers and at risk groups. When a vaccine or the drugs to treat COVID-19 emerge, I want the UK to be at the front, not back, of the line. I raised this point in the House last week.
I’m still a Navy Reservist so liable to be called up. Last time was under very different circumstances - the 2003 Iraq war. I’ve contacted my Navy bosses to say I’m available immediately, conscious that my medical skills, such as they are, could be useful. I suspect Parliament won’t be returning immediately after the Easter recess so I’ve no doubt MPs will be volunteering to help wherever they can.
We will get through this. But I suspect there will be several months of restrictions, perhaps eased a bit in some parts of the country from time to time. Drugs to treat COVID-19 will emerge, either repurposed ones or new retrovirals. We will be able to test people for antibodies to the virus meaning key workers then people more generally will be able to move about more. Finally, we will have a vaccine.
Meanwhile, mud slinging has begun in earnest. Who’s to blame? Why weren’t actions taken sooner? Where’s the personal protective equipment? Leading the change, need you ask, the good old BBC. Oh yes, the Corporation’s curled upper lip brigade is on the march again. Evidently this now extends to its little platoons, local radio.
Now, there will come a time when we have to examine, formally and deliberatively, decisions made and actions taken, or not taken. Now is not that time. But that didn’t stop BBC Radio Wiltshire, for goodness sake, grandstanding this morning with me trying to get public health messages across around staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. Off the glib tongue of our young BBC sage tripped the same old stuff; who’s to blame for a crisis apparently due to ‘vast NHS cuts,’ too little too late and failure to provide equipment. Well, BBC Radio Wiltshire - with its existentially low listener figures - needs to decide whether its in the business of peddling tabloid cynicism about those doing their level best in a crisis or help mitigate the effects of an impending public health catastrophe that will carry off a significant number of our elderly neighbours. I phoned the editor to draw stumps - after 20 years of appearing on BBC Radio Wiltshire he won’t be getting me on his station again. I’ve advised my MP colleagues to give him the cold shoulder too. There are other ways of getting our messages across these days, better ways of engaging with the public.
As we progress through this particular emergency we need to be conscious that another will likely, at some point, follow. The pity is that the lessons of the SARS epidemic in 2003 and subsequent outbreaks were not absorbed fully by the global community. These bugs are global security threats that far exceed other forms, for example terrorism. Next time we may be faced with an even more infectious, more deadly pathogen. Our defences must start to be built now.
Wiltshire Council and the Local Resilience Forum are working hard in the community. They, with town and parish councils, are coordinating effort to ensure people are looked after as best they can. What can we do as individuals? Well, good neighbours have never been more important. Please phone or text people you know who may be isolating or isolated. Sometimes a simple call can make all the difference.
Above all my friends, PLEASE stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.
12 March 2020
Keep calm and carry on
It is all about coronavirus.
As I write, governments are having to close things down in a way that is unprecedented outside wartime. Even in our own stiff upper lip capital city public transport seems strangely quiet.
It’ll get worse here folks, but I’m guessing the disruption will be relatively short term – maybe weeks not months - but I can’t be sure. All we can do is keep calm and carry on. We will get through this and our ability to deal with future, possibly even nastier, epidemics will emerge stronger than before.
It was the Coronavirus Budget with £30BN (for starters) signed off for dealing with the consequences of COVID19. As I write we’re about to enter the second, so-called Delay, phase of what is now officially a pandemic.
Have we left it too late? Time will tell but I don’t think so. If we close things down too soon, people’s tolerance to the restrictions will wear off. We’re not China - our western liberal democracies are poorly suited to the kind of authoritarian measures Beijing is able to take. And once the boot slips from the carotid of this disease it’ll likely whip back and bite, hard. Hence the strategy being pursued, on advice, by ministers. I agree with it.
In my view, so far, the government has been very surefooted with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty impressing particularly. Admittedly its early days but a balanced, measured, evidence-based approach to coronavirus, getting Brexit done and now a well-received budget has propelled the governing party to new highs in the opinion polls. It’s good that the public has confidence in the administration at this time but equally the Speaker is right to insist on the importance of keeping Parliament open so ministers can be held to account.
As my constituents would expect, I’ve been speaking quite a lot about coronavirus in the Commons and in the national media. In my last days a foreign office minister I attended one of the very first COBRA coronavirus meetings. I think I’m right in saying I’m the only MP with a postgrad qualification in public health and will certainly be rolling up my sleeves if and when we move into the Mitigate phase with its need for extra medical staff on the frontline. Meantime, I’m washing my hands with a ferocity I haven’t known since working in operating theatres!
It’s too early to play the blame game. However, although China’s speed in dealing with its crisis, once acknowledged, has been truly remarkable, it was slow to come clean with the global community. Had it been more up front we would all have had more time to prepare.
We now have to live with the consequences.
China is seeking to insert itself across the world dominating, for example, trade and infrastructure in swathes of Africa. Well, this crisis and the way Beijing has conducted itself has dented credentials it may have been nurturing as an open, cooperative and trustworthy global citizen. Though not directly relevant, the atmospherics are likely to impact on the way we view things like Huawei and 5G, a very live debate.
We can’t just rely on vigorous hand washing and appropriate social distancing to deal with coronavirus. Looking to the past for clues to how this pandemic will unfold we have to move at pace to find a vaccine or vaccines and supportive pharmaceuticals, mainly repurposed existing drugs. That will mean we can whack this bug on the head more definitively later in the year or early next. In 1918/19 it was the second phase of Spanish flu that did the damage. A hundred years later we need to be ready for something similar. However, there’s a limit to how much we can short-circuit clinical trials and expedite the licensing process. That’s because mortality from COVID19 is relatively low meaning appetite for serious side effects is far less than in, for example, Ebola.
In the UK we’re great at research but our ability to make vaccine is quite poor. So, it’s all very well pumping money into research but if factories in other countries then make the vaccines we can be sure those countries will appropriate early batches for their own publics. The UK government would be punished if it had not ensured we had vaccine when it becomes available, at least to protect key workers and the most vulnerable. For this outbreak and any future, possibly worse epidemics, we must grow our own means of production. Without that there is a clear national security risk. If I had a criticism of government, it would be that it isn’t appearing to approach indigenous manufacture with sufficient alacrity. I’ll continue to argue the importance of growing it at pace.
Rishi Sunak’s first budget has propelled him to undisputed wunderkind status. I confess to being agnostic on HS2 but am generally in favour of big infrastructure projects – true investments that can be legitimately borne on the public balance sheet. That’s part of Boris’ appeal. I’m definitely pleased with the intent signalled on Wednesday to get on with the dualling of the A303 which will please my constituents – though after so many years they’ll reserve judgement until the first sod is actually cut.
The new Chancellor did rather (and quite adroitly) skate over social care. Evidently it’s still firmly in the all too difficult box and the spending splurge on Wednesday means there will be even less cash to ease in a fairer mechanism for delivering adult social care. However, he’ll have to come up with something more concrete next time he presents his budget.
Lots of good green commitments in the budget. I note the extra cash for improving air quality and local road schemes. I look forward to Westbury in particular benefitting and will be exploring with stakeholders how we can exploit lines in the budget for improving the local environment. This means a western bypass taking traffic out of the middle of Westbury and routing it through the business district on that side of town.
28 February 2020
I’m conscious I haven’t posted much recently. Been a bit busy - rather a lot has happened! I’m now back on the backbench which is fine as I always said my first duty was to my constituents.
We’ve left the EU. That was the clear instruction of the voters in December and it’s done. To the distress, I’m guessing, of those who are still not reconciled with Brexit, the sky hasn’t fallen in and there’s been no plague of frogs and locusts. In fact the economy continues to outperform continental Europe, there’s a record number of full time jobs and real wages are rising.
But no complacency. An EU bureaucracy spurned will not bust a gut to be helpful in crafting a follow-on free trade agreement. Those who say it’s obviously in the EU’s commercial interests to do a deal miss the point. Brussels is all about advancing Brussels, that is to say the edifice of the EU, not the daily lived experience of Europeans. If the U.K. is seen to thrive, other member states with serious doubts about the outfit may be emboldened. And that would never do.
So, expect a fairly peppery few months as we work through the Implementation Period.
In other news, I’ve been talking quite a lot in the Commons and elsewhere about coronavirus. I think I’m the only MP with a postgrad qualification in public health but as this is a novel virus that hardly helps. I’ve been following this nasty little bug closely both when I was a foreign office minister and since. It seems to me that it has the potential to cause very serious mischief, both in terms of mortality and morbidity worldwide and economically. However, building on experience of SARS, MERS and swine flu, our NHS and public health systems are relatively well equipped to cope. We can be less sure about countries with poorly developed healthcare systems and where extreme poverty means people are more susceptible.
I’m mystified by talk of promoting another Melksham bypass before dealing with Westbury. Let’s be clear, Westbury has a big air pollution problem, Melksham doesn’t. Anyone can see the traffic problem in Westbury is acute. It really isn’t of anything like the same order in Melksham. Onto it.
Looking forward to the upcoming budget and arguing for our fair share of infrastructure funding locally. Have been in touch with ministerial colleagues and others about roads - A303, A36 and, obvs, A350 through Westbury - and local SEND provision particularly.
21 October 2019
What an utter waste of time and £58.20 of taxpayers’ money for a standard return ticket to London.
In my view, Prime Minister Johnson made a truly outstanding opening speech - gracious, generous, compelling. Please look it up, and of course the Leader of the Opposition’s, by googling Hansard.
In sharp and grating contrast, our miserable, disingenuous, conniving parliament once again ratted on its duty to represent the long suffering public it purports to serve. This has been the problem throughout - a Remain parliament pretending to execute the instructions of a country that voted Leave.
The solution isn’t another referendum - look at the contempt Parliament showed for the first one and for the ‘wrong’ result it delivered. No, the answer is a general election. All those MPs in Leave voting seats who once again today trooped through the Remain lobby will then have the opportunity to explain themselves on the doorstep. Good luck with that. Those who are standing down in any event and thus free agents will have plenty of time to reflect on their legacy - this horrible divisive business going on and on sucking all the oxygen out of politics and public affairs.
If you’re still tempted by the prospect of another 6 months of this, and probably worse, whilst we have a second referendum take a look at the aggression of the Remain mob on Saturday. I’ve had to put up with being bawled and hollered at on my way into the Commons and into government buildings along Whitehall for many months now but we’ve reached a sorry pass when MPs walking home have to be protected by a phalanx of police officers.
Interestingly the strongly pro Brexit DUP has decided to oppose the deal. I’m a former NI minister and until I returned to the front bench in May I had the honour and privilege of chairing the NI select committee. I remain a keen observer of NI matters and have a deep and abiding affection for the people of that fair corner of the British Isles. What I would say to my good unionist friends is this. Demographic change means there may well come a time when, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, there will be a case for a border poll to determine if NI leaves the UK and joins the Irish Republic, or not. Being NI, opinion will likely split down sectarian lines but superimposed on this will be the perception that life for people and families is better or worse on one side of the border or the other. In other words on how NI is doing economically and socially compared with the Republic, and by extension the EU. Until fairly recently this was something of a no brainer. However, an unexpected increase in social liberality and economic advance has made the Republic a more enticing proposition.
Boris’ deal appears to offer NI the best of both worlds. In my view the key to keeping NI in the UK isn’t the absence of a few more checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea but increased economic prosperity for people living there. Boris’ deal makes this more likely.
The so-called Letwin amendment today was, in my judgement, simply an attempt to delay the deal Remain MPs thought Boris would never get in order to generate more opportunity for overturning Brexit altogether.
Of course the Opposition is rubbing its hands. In an attempt to construct a narrative beyond opportunism, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition seems to be arguing that the Boris deal threatens human and animal rights and environment standards. We hear from its leaders that the deal is a ‘Trump Brexit’ aimed, apparently, at privatising the NHS. The logic, so far as I can see any, is that the UK needs the EU as protection from trashing its own standards, rules, regulations and institutions. But any government would and could tinker with these things only if it had a mandate. It seems a tad unlikely that the people of this country would vote to deny themselves rights, destroy the environment and sell off the NHS at a general election. We’re also at risk of overlooking the fact that it has often been the UK driving up EU standards, often in the teeth of opposition from other member states. Indeed, if we are to be concerned about falling standards after Brexit, we might worry, as well-meaning neighbours, for the EU rather than the UK since, given our record, it’s standards in the EU going forward, not the UK, that look to be at risk.
I can’t accurately predict where all this is going but I do expect more shenanigans next week. Although I have every confidence in the PM who did a fantastic job getting a better deal from Brussels, my expectations of this thoroughly rotten parliament are very low.
It’s time we saw the back of it. We need a general election.
27 September 2019
So, Parliament resumed this week to no good effect. Just more of the same. Expecting more of it next week.
On the Supreme Court ruling, we should reflect on the new law that has just been created and the impact it has on our constitutional arrangements. I accept the ruling, as I’m bound to do, but I don’t agree with the SC and neither evidently does the Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, the Law Officers or the judges of the lower court. On that basis the PM was entitled to believe it was perfectly in order to prorogue parliament after the longest session in living memory and, as is customary, before a Queen’s Speech setting out a new programme for government.
It has been lost on many that we were due to be in recess in any event for much of the prorogation because of the traditional conference season. Labour and Lib Dem’s had theirs earlier this month then yesterday in an act of pure spite voted to spike the Conservative event in Manchester.
So much for a new kinder politics.
As the Attorney General has said, it looks like the unexpected SC ruling has set us on a path to a more politicised judiciary involving, ultimately, US style confirmatory hearings in Parliament in the interest of full transparency. Indeed, it would be naive to expect the status quo to endure after such an important shift in our arrangements.
On language, I would always encourage temperance. However, I was appalled by the confected outrage at the PM’s oratory on Wednesday. The poor man had just got off the red eye from New York, where we had both been flying the flag for the U.K. at the United Nations General Assembly, to be faced with contorted, spittle-flecked vitriol from Her Majesty’s charming Opposition. If you doubt it rerun the footage available online.
I’m bemused, but not for the first time, by the Bishops of the Established Church who have all chimed in on this language bandwagon. Apparently they consider references made by Boris to things like the ‘Surrender Bill’ offensive and likely to encourage violence. But I haven’t heard a squeak from them when opposition politicians talk routinely about lynching or decapitating Mr Johnson.
The fact is that the Bill in question does surrender an important card in any negotiation - the ability to walk away. Who would unilaterally do that? Only those who want to frustrate Brexit but are unwilling to say so in plain terms for fear of upsetting their voters. Most, but not all, of them are the very same people who refuse to back a General Election. Their cunning ruse is to pile on the agony, dragging it out, in the hope that it will increase the chances of the government being associated with chaos and ultimately being defeated.
In my opinion, the prospect of an avowed Marxist and Maoist as PM and Chancellor is a thousand times worse than anything on the Brexit spectrum for both the U.K. and its neighbours.
I just hope that at the EU Summit on 17 October our European partners come to their senses and offer something that stands a chance of peeling off sufficient moderates in the Commons from the entrenched extremes, party political perceived interests and the ranks of the dispossessed and disaffected to get this done. Otherwise this will continue to be a running sore indefinitely, sapping political energy, trashing the UK’s reputation and leaching business confidence.
I want to leave with a deal that delivers on the referendum and allows the U.K. to flourish as cordial and a cooperative neighbour with EU member states and with countries across the world. I want a deal that enables the U.K. to be a sovereign state again and not sucked into ‘ever closer union’ and a Guy Verhofstadt style European federation that is now generally accepted as being where the EU is heading.
So does Boris.
We find ourselves in a Remain dominated parliament with a Remain Speaker and metropolitan institutions that are sympathetic to Remain. But there’s a fly in their ointment - the public. They are the masters, not us, they have spoken and they expect the establishment to bend to their will.
I will continue to do all in my power to ensure it does.
13 September 2019
I’ve been doing quite a lot of traveling over the summer and conference recesses in my capacity as a Foreign Office minister. There’s a lot of interest overseas in Brexit and I’m forever being asked what’s going on.
Right now I’m in Geneva, a very European but distinctively non E.U. country. It looks pretty good to me.
I’d say that some of the language around the deal, or a deal, coming from key capitals is beginning to sound a bit more positive.
We have also seen the emergence of a cross party group of MPs who appear to be suggesting that they may now support a deal that looks a bit like the one they voted against three times when Mrs May introduced it. Had they done so then we would now be out of the E.U. and getting on with our new relationships, with European countries and others. I’m looking forward to seeing a better deal with the more problematic bits deleted or dialed down, especially on the Northern Ireland so-called backstop. Hopefully enough MPs will see sense and back it so we can all move on.
There should be a path back for the 21 so-called rebels who have had the whip withdrawn and are thus technically no longer Tory MPs - but they have to recognize the will of the people expressed at the referendum and stop blocking Brexit. They must surely recognize the greater danger which, in my view, is the Leader of the Opposition in Downing Street.
What approaches hysteria about the potential impact of no deal on their part and their inability to accept that a negotiator never removes the threat of walking away (even if he doesn’t intend to) are playing into the hands of people they have spent their political lives trying to deny the keys of Number Ten.
4 September 2019
The stated purpose of the Bill passed through the Commons today is stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 31 Oct 19. It’s actual purpose is to stop the UK leaving at all. The reason for the subterfuge is that MPs don’t want to be seen to negate the majority view of the public expressed at the referendum, especially those representing heavily Leave seats.
Meanwhile Mr Corbyn baulked at the offer by Boris Johnson to go head to head at a general election, thus becoming the first Leader of the Opposition to turn down a punt at becoming PM. Clearly he doesn’t fancy his chances of winning right now. What he wants of course is for Brexit to fail, for the government to be blamed and for him then to hoover up the votes.
In my view Boris was right to take the whip from MPs who were not prepared to back him on this central issue of the day. We have to get Brexit done. It would be nigh on impossible and certainly undesirable to have candidates at the upcoming election who could not back a manifesto that will have Brexit as its centrepiece. I’m sorry if that seems harsh but that’s politics for you.
So, tonight the prospect of no deal has effectively been removed; assuming the Lords don’t block the Bill we’ve just passed. Indeed the Bill passed tonight effectively gives the EU the say on the length of any extension. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s a bill of surrender. It means a Brussels that can’t believe it’s luck will be heaving a sigh of relief. It’s most unlikely now to budge on terms for a withdrawal agreement. If it doesn’t we’re stuck.
Eventually a means to have a general election will, I suspect, be found. Sadly, right now I cannot see any other way of resolving this. Bring it on.
3 September 2019
I’ve just got back from a week in the Gulf region talking to my ministerial oppos and others, mainly about the crisis in Yemen. Meanwhile back home rather a lot has been going in British politics.
The current session of parliament is one of the longest on record. Arguably prorogation and a refreshed government plan articulated in the normal way in a Queen’s Speech is way overdue. That’s particularly the case given the change of government.
Nothing that has been done is unconstitutional or contrary to normal parliamentary procedure. Those who are trying to frustrate Brexit are predictably claiming that it’s a scandalous abuse, that it’s antidemocratic, a ruse to ensure the UK leaves the EU on 31 Oct despite their best efforts. That’s a bit rich given that by their own admission they’ve been using every trick in the book to reverse the decision made by the people in June 2016. These folks are intent on continuing to act in this way and the Speaker has indicated that he will help, an odd take on impartiality you may think.
So we will now have the long delayed Queens Speech in which I look forward to a slate of new policies on all the issues that affect my constituents’ lives - health, education, law and order and so on. As far as I can see this will also leave plenty of time before 31 October to debate Brexit. Beyond all the huff and puff and theatrical outrage of those unreconciled to Brexit is the truth - by my calculation the prorogation announced this week shaves off just 6 days of debating opportunity.
I sincerely hope the EU will now offer a deal that can get through the Commons. That’s in all of our interests . However, it has to know that if it refuses the UK will leave on WTO terms on 31 October.
Boris has always had my support. He has it now.
19 August 2019
On Friday I ran a bumper advice surgery. A wide range of problems and issues were raised.
I’m also tackling a number of local infrastructure issues. High on the list is the ongoing congestion through Westbury made worse just recently by road works. I’m not best pleased by news that the council is prioritising another A350 bypass for Melksham but not Westbury. I have lobbied for a Westbury western route bypass for a very long time, noting that the air quality is now so bad in the centre of town that it has been designated an Air Quality Management Area. I’ve written to the council to find out what’s going on and am perfectly happy to take the matter up with transport ministers who will have the final say.
On the proposed (and wholly unnecessary - see previous blogs) Westbury incinerator, the focus now shifts to the Environment Agency. I’ve contacted it to insist on rigorous controls if the wretched thing goes ahead that will remove very small particulates under the precautionary principle. Incidentally, if the horrible monstrosity sees the light of day it will put further pressure on the A350 making a western bypass for Westbury even more necessary, a point I’ve made in my letter to the council.
Ah, now here’s a thought - maybe, since Melksham is evidently being put up for a bypass and Westbury is not, maybe Melksham might like the incinerator too? It is, after all, much easier to get to from the motorway network that will be carting in much of the waste. The point is that when I knock people’s doors in Westbury I find the abiding sense that the town is forever being dumped on - unwanted incinerators, hospital closure, no bypass and so on. Delighted for Melksham, but its a stretch to imagine that its needs are greater than Westbury’s.
Uncertainty remains over Special Educational Needs plans for Wiltshire, in particular the future of Larkrise school Trowbridge. Readers may recall my debate in the Commons on the issue in March and welcome signs that the council was listening to the strongly held views on the matter locally. My own view remains that the council is right to be spending serious money in upgrading provision but that children with special needs deserve, as an absolute minimum, primary school education as near as can be achieved to their homes just like everyone else - that means keeping Larkrise. Let’s at least bank that proposition and we can then have a discussion about where to place post 11 and a new sixth form.
On Saturday I went to the Imber open day. I’ve been involved with the deserted village on and off over the years and particularly when we were persuading the fantastic Churches Conservation Trust to take on the only remaining building in one piece which is St Giles.
16 August 2019
One of the joys of the summer as a newly reappointed minister has been to attend those cabinet committees that have been tasked with making key decisions around Brexit and they have been coming thick and fast.
Before entering the committee bear pit, you’d better mug up on the piece of the jigsaw in hand. The process is facilitated by voluminous briefing notes from the very clever civil servants who populate Whitehall.
The change of government has infused the corridors of power with energy and urgency on Brexit. The source is Boris himself, charging up government like a political Sizewell B. Nobody should doubt his resolve to deliver Brexit in accordance with the outcome of the referendum. I feel deeply privileged to be in the supporting cast.
No deal planning is paradoxically part of the planning for a deal since only if you’re demonstrably intent on leaving with or without a deal by a particular deadline will the other party seriously engage. Most people with any kind of negotiating experience will readily understand that.
Given the time elapsed since our original Article 50 departure date in March, we are in much better shape to leave without a deal. It’s important to understand that if we did so it wouldn’t be long before we reached a deal with the EU in any event. After all, why on earth would Brussels not want a deal with such a major trading partner and one to which it sells much more than it buys?
As the UK economy outpaces it’s major EU competitors, it appears that business is taking a frosty view of the apocalyptical forecasts of those who want to ignore the referendum and, using all sorts of cunning ruses and subterfuges, seek a path that they believe will lead to a reversal of Article 50 and the UK returning like a lamb to the EU fold. But what if they get their way? What then?
Well, I doubt we would have widespread civil unrest or blood on the streets although there would be ugly scenes. However, we could expect further coarsening and division in our politics with , I suspect, the rise of unpleasant populism, nativism and nationalism. All the toxic ingredients to break up the UK, an outcome that I think is much more likely if we don’t deliver Brexit than if we do.
Far better to deliver Brexit and move on. The sky really won’t fall in. That job done, we can then get cracking on our new, better relationship with EU member states and with the rest of the world.
15 July 2019
There isn’t much to report on the Brexit front as we wait for a new PM. I hope the new man will energize the process and persuade Brussels that it’s possible to tweak the backstop (maybe even using my eponymous amendment on a time limit which the Speaker frustrated) in a way that’ll enable the Withdrawal Agreement to pass through the Commons.
That’s the best option since WTO or ‘no deal’ Brexit, the default position, will usher in a ‘Nike Tick’ with an avoidable short term downturn. Any sane person would want to avoid the Nike down tick bit.
Looks like Mr Corbyn has been doing his electoral maths and decided that his party’s interests are now best served by backing a Remain position, sort of. Maybe he’s right on his own short term interest but, in my view, it’s the wrong decision in the national interest.
If we had another referendum and if the result was about the same we’d be no further on. If it went the other way the issue is hardly likely to be resolved and this whole grisly saga would just go on and on and on.
For goodness sake let’s end this, recognize there are risks and opportunities in anything we do and make the best of Brexit. For hard-over extremists in this debate, Remainers or Leavers, I would say prepare to be disappointed. For the rest of us, pragmatists who recognize the democratic outcome of the referendum, let’s hope for a Withdrawal Agreement that will, finally, get through the Commons and the ability then to get on with issues that improve life in the UK.
24 June 2019
Nobody should be surprised by the names on the shortlist of two for my party’s ballot of members that will result a month from now in a new leader and therefore Prime Minister (since, given the numbers in the Commons, only the leader of my party can form a government). Boris and Jeremy Hunt are both excellent people. Both have committed to Brexit. I’m hoping we will have a month of serious discussion about policy that will enliven and invigorate the current party of government.
I’m proud of what’s been achieved since 2010. The various economic, wage and employment stats I believe speak for themselves. However, it’s difficult for the incumbent to present itself as bright and fresh after nearly a decade at the helm. Maybe this is the opportunity it needs to seize the torch as the driver of change.
I am a serial Boris supporter - supported him in his aborted campaign of 2016 and voted for him in every ballot this year. Because he’s the frontrunner, the left-leaning press has tried to paint him as something he is not. They have, and will continue to, big up mistakes and indiscretions he has made in his career in order to discredit him and remove the candidate best equipped to win against its alternative, Mr Corbyn. That’s politics - to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt.
The thing about Boris is he reaches places other politicians just don’t. You’re drawn to him like a moth to a lightbulb. He has that wonderful, priceless ability to connect with people. He does human.
I feel sure Boris will use the next four weeks to burnish his credentials as a socially liberal politician of the centre ground, which is where most people are. Widely acknowledged at home and abroad as the two term Mayor of London who really got things done and raised our great capital city’s standing on the international stage, his moment is now.
I’ll be cheering him on, all the way to Downing Street.
17 June 2019
BREXIT AND WHY I’M BACKING BORIS
Some people say that whoever is elected to replace Theresa May nothing will change on the Brexit front because the numbers in the Commons will remain the same. They have a point. But, much as I admire Theresa May, new leadership brings fresh impetus and the chance to reboot a process that has run up against the buffers.
I hope Brussels will quickly understand that we either leave without a deal on barebones WTO terms - which is far from ideal on either side of the channel - or we depart with a version of the Withdrawal Agreement tweaked to deal with the deeply problematic, potentially forever, so-called Northern Ireland backstop.
Up for a challenge, a veritable constellation of truly excellent candidates have put themselves forward for the top job. It is worth pausing to compare and contrast with their equivalents on the Opposition front bench - a mixture of Maoists, Marxists, people who can’t add up and breakers of bread with any crackpot regime opposed to the western values and way of life we and our allies hold dear. People who are perfectly content to laud Venezuela, parlay with the IRA, Hezbollah and Hamas and get togged up for a white tie dinner with President Xi but choose to snub the President of the United States of America.
In my view this country right now needs a ‘big beast’ in Downing Street, a plain-speaking big personality who does human and has a proven track record in running things, a capital city for example. I want someone who has appeal way beyond my party’s traditional demographic since I want to win the next election, and win with a good working majority. I want a mainstream, One Nation, social liberal who may not necessarily be a details person but is savvy enough to assemble people around him who are. Above all, at this time, my choice has to be someone committed to Brexit, someone who believes in it, someone who will not tolerate officials approaching it as an exercise in damage limitation.
Ladies and Gentlemen that person is Boris Johnson.
24 May 2019
The EU has sunk yet another Prime Minister. In my view Theresa May has done her level best to carry out the wishes expressed at the referendum. She has been let down by hard-over purists in her own party who have now potentially lost us Brexit altogether and those Remainers across the House who have piously been saying that they will honour the referendum whilst doing all they can to subvert it.
People are right to be angry. I am angry. When the EU proxy referendum results come out on Sunday we can expect Mr Farage’s protest party to do very well indeed.
We will not now see the EU Withdrawal Bill. That means we can’t withdraw. We won’t leave without a deal as the Commons has ruled it out and the EU in October will be perfectly happy to extend once again since that’s in their best interest. Parliament on past form will ensure an extension.
Whoever wins the contest to come will still have the same arithmetic to deal with as Mrs May. It’s a classic poisoned chalice.
I will back the candidate who comes up with the most credible roadmap for honouring the democratically expressed instruction of June 2016 and offers a prospectus that has a fighting chance of giving most people most of what they want.
20 May 2019
Bring on the WAB
Well, there’s a surprise. The cross party Brexit talks have now broken down. Read Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Theresa May and his reasons and draw your own conclusions. In my view, Mr Corbyn never intended to come to an agreement. His aim, in my view, has always been to maximise disruption because he’s working towards just one thing - a general election that he would hope to win. Classic opposition stuff, jockeying for partisan advantage, which should surprise nobody.
Where does that leave us? It seems that early next month the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) will be introduced in the Commons. This, if passed, would enable to UK to leave before the end of the extension period granted by the EU which expires at the end of October. We would then continue negotiating with the EU on future arrangements in accordance with the Political Declaration in time for the end of the Implementation Period at Christmas next year.
If the WAB isn’t agreed we are in unknown territory although ‘no deal’ Brexit in October seems highly unlikely as the Commons will block it. A vote against the WAB is a vote to block Brexit and for sticking two fingers up at the choice made democratically by the people in June 2016. This last should worry you even if you want to remain in the EU.
The Commons has already voted against a second referendum, and for good reason. There are those who hope and believe a second-go referendum would be won at the second time of asking by Remain. If so, it would be a Pyrrhic victory as I think this week’s EU elections will show. You see, people don’t like being taken for fools. They voted in June 2016 in good faith, expecting that government would do what it was darned well told. It will not appreciate being asked to think again. And the anger of those who voted Leave will know no bounds. They will not meekly slips away. No, this whole business will go on and on and on.
Nobody should be slating the Withdrawal Agreement without having read it. Now, its 585 pages aren’t exactly a gripping read but you get a sense of something that will work and give most people most of what they want. It will get us formally out of the EU and into the next phase in which we determine our future relationship with, for now at least, our biggest collective trading partner. It would settle us down, draw the poison of this horrible, divisive Brexit process, kill off the uncertainty that has been bedevilling business and result in an immediate uptick in our already robust economic fortunes.
Sadly, Mr Corbyn (see his letter) has chosen to reduce Brexit to a debate about chlorinated chicken, a proxy for a visceral loathing of the US. Good grief. Surely it’s time for grown ups on all wings of the Brexit debate and MPs of all parties who have the national interest at heart to stop playing up, support the WAB and get this done.
12 April 2019
Last word for a bit?
This week I was meant to be in North Africa drumming up trade for UK businesses in my role as one of the PM’s trade envoys. Instead we were doing Brexit.
We now have an extension of Article 50 until 31 October-ish. In reality that could be flexed even more with a de facto limit in March next year I suspect when the EU Multiannual Financial Framework from 2021 gets signed off. In Brussels, money talks.
I have supported the Prime Minister in her Withdrawal Agreement because since the government lost its majority in the disasterous general election of 2017 I’ve seen Brexit running away from us faster than Darius from Alexander. That’s why I’ve trooped through the lobbies to vote for extensions, the last time in order to give the government space to talk with Labour. Now, I suspect that’s a forlorn quest but, especially at this time of the year, hope springs eternal. Let’s give it a chance.
Mr Corbyn believes he would persuade the EU to give him a Customs Union in which the UK is a co-equal decision maker. Good luck with that. All I’d say is I gave up believing in fairies at the end of the garden when I was about 4. However, as I put to the PM during her statement on Thursday, since the government, the Irish PM, Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel have all said there will be no hard border in Ireland even in the event of no deal we can safely can the Northern Ireland potentially forever backstop in the draft Withdrawal Agreement that’s so upsetting the DUP and Brexiteers on my side, including me.
In return for the backstop we should work on mitigating an up-front customs union since Mr Corbyn has made it plain that Labour’s custom union (details to be supplied) is the condition of his corporation. Without that I fear Brexit will never happen thanks to twenty or so unreconcilable zealots on the Remain and Leave wings of my party. Personally I have no difficulty reaching out for support wherever it can be found to get a workable deal across the line.
Crucially, any deal involving an explicit customs union has to have an exit mechanism. Two reasons for that. Firstly, economic conditions may change. On current forecasts the value of our trade with the EU will decline over the next few years as that with developing and middle income countries outside Europe increases. We need to be able to unshackle the world’s fifth largest economy from a declining Eurozone as and when its necessary or expedient to do so. Secondly, a customs union of the sort Turkey, for example, has with the EU means trade deals Brussels does with non EU countries give the EU, but not automatically Turkey, access to their markets, whilst Turkey is obliged to open its doors to goods from those countries. We would be exposed potentially to all sorts of hideous goods dumping and would be powerless other than by threatening to pull out of the customs union we had signed up to. That ability to withdraw would keep the EU honest because, as they say in Brussels, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
10 April 2019
I’m not sure exactly what the Prime Minister will secure in Brussels but I’m guessing it will be a long extension with some sort of early termination clause. I’ve done everything I can to be supportive of the government (or more precisely Downing Street since some ministers haven’t been loyal at all) up to tonight when I reached my limit, voting for an extension of Article 50 to 30 June on the offchance that the current talks with Jeremy Corbyn come to anything. Of course its likely he’s just stringing the PM along. Should we be surprised? No, of course not. After all, Oppositions oppose and Mr Corbyn is on a mission.
If we go beyond 30 June we are basically kicking Brexit into the long grass as there will be nothing more to be debated in Parliament and no realistic prospect of progress. So I will oppose any further extension, even if offered by the EU, beyond 30 June.
The bind we’ve got ourselves into is that we can’t leave without a deal, on WTO terms, as a Remain dominated Parliament and the Speaker will block it. So we are left with revoking Brexit, something that I will rigorously oppose. It will then be for Labour MPs in Leave voting constituencies to explain why they blocked Brexit. Good luck with that.
I think the time has come to smoke out those who have been saying they want to honour the referendum but in fact have been beavering away to frustrate it. I’d have a vote using the single transferable system. The options before MPs would be;
1. The deal agreed with the EU with any customs union changes that can be agreed with Labour
2. Revoke Article 50 - ie Remain, contrary to the referendum
3. Leave with no deal
I think the first option would win. We would then ratify the deal with the EU and formally leave. I would even be sympathetic to the pre-announcement of a confirmatory referendum rather like the Common Market one in 1975 at which people would be asked if they are happy with it or not. I could be persuaded to have a rejoin option on the ballot paper, confident that it wouldn’t by then attract much support.
Would Mr Corbyn cooperate with my sensible proposal? Not likely. It may be in the national interest but, as I say, he’s on a mission to get into Downing Street. So its academic.
Can you see how hair-tearingly frustrating this is?
4 April 2019
None of the options in the so-called indicative votes that were meant to plot a way forward on Brexit managed to get a majority. I voted against taking departure on WTO terms off the negotiating table since in the negotiations I’ve ever been part of you don’t announce in advance that under no circumstances would you ever walk away.
Yesterday a Bill was rammed through by the Commons in just a few hours and passed by a single vote the effect of which is likely to be to kick Brexit into the long grass. I voted against it.
Meanwhile the PM has invited Mr Corbyn in for talks. What will the outcome be? Well, if you take him at face value Mr Corbyn wants, beyond what is already in the Withdrawal Agreement, a customs union with the EU. OK, let’s swallow hard - since it would mean being a rule taker and heavy constraints on our independent trade policy - and see what we can do around that if it’s the only way of persuading the Opposition to support departure from the EU in accordance with the referendum. If we do end up caving in on a customs union, we have to retain the ability to change or annul any such union at some future date, according to the national interest.
It is far more likely in my view that Mr Corbyn’s demands won’t stop at a customs union. To be fair to him - and I like to be fair when I can - he has been extremely successful in formenting chaos and bringing us closer to his heart’s desire - a general election. Other than concern for the national interest, is it really likely he’ll stop now?
However, politics has a way of surprising you.
I imagine a Bill will be introduced by the government on Monday (the first week of the cancelled Easter recess) to implement the UK’s departure. It is quite likely the Withdrawal Agreement that Mr Speaker is trying to thwart will be contained within it. If Mr Corbyn gets his form of Brexit with its closer alignment to EU rules, thinking perhaps and with good cause that it may irreversibly split the Conservative party, maybe it will get through. The U.K. would, at last, be able to leave, the stated wish of 57% of South West Wiltshire voters and one that I have for months, I hope pragmatically and with sensitivity to the 43% too, been trying to advance.
Maybe as we approach Holy Week we’ll have some calm, common sense and good will applied to this matter at last.
28 March 2019
Update on Thursday’s indicative votes.
Well, I told you so! Indicative votes aimed at parliament ‘taking back control’ ended in farce. None of the options passed. No deal, various permutations on customs unions, single market adherence, annulling Brexit completely, second referendums - all were rejected. So, we’re left with the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the UK and EU. As it happens, I voted for the ‘no deal’ option and nothing else, and that only because I think voluntarily surrendering it whilst we can still be said to be negotiating is crazy. I also voted for the statutory instrument to extend Article 50 to 22 May which is the logical consequence of supporting the Withdrawal Agreement which, in turn, is the only workable way we have to remove the UK in an orderly way within a reasonable timeframe iaw the referendum.
Tomorrow we have a sort of vote on the Withdrawal Agreement that does not ratify the agreement but is good enough apparently for the EU to accept a short extension to 22 May and to prevent both a longer delay to our departure and our need to go through European Parliament elections.
Messy? You bet. But amongst all the rancour, bitterness and plain nastiness there is a real interest in process, getting to grips with complex stuff and political engagement. That’s a good thing.
I’ll keep you posted.
27 March 2019
End of the beginning/beginning of the end?
Well, this is fun.
Today we have so-called indicative votes. The idea is to determine what MPs think we should be doing about Brexit. But if its not clear that there is no consensus among MPs after months of debate, motions and amendments, its never going to be.
Personally, I will continue to vote in accordance with the manifesto on which I stood in 2017, the last General Election. That manifesto was entirely commensurate with the outcome in my constituency of the 2016 referendum - that is to say 57% leave.
If there is any doubt about what leave means, I’d refer people to the handy booklet posted to every household by the government in advance of the referendum. As it happens, I am ashamed to say, it was a piece of publically funded propaganda advancing Remain. However, it has done Brexit supporters some service as a reference document for what leave is and isn’t and offers an antidote to those who say the public wasn’t told what leaving actually meant. There it is, in black and white.
I will oppose a second referendum. I didn’t much like the first one and the prospect of this ghastly business being dragged out for the thick end of another year with all the attendant rancour, bitterness, sheer nastiness (meaning I’ve stopped reading my Twitter notifications) and business uncertainty makes me feel physically sick. Those advocating what they call a People’s Vote (as if the first wasn’t) of course just want another pop at getting what they want - to stay in the EU - but they must know that even in the unlikely event of them winning the issue will hardly just evaporate.
It should be clear by now to all but the most hard-over unreconcilable Remainers that the UK never has been and never will be an easy fit in the EU project. Surely its better to be a close, amicable, cooperative neighbour than a scratchy, difficult partner.
It seems the Speaker doesnt agree. He’s up to his old tricks. He’s just popped up to try to use a procedural wheeze to stop the government putting a third meaningful vote (MV3) on the PM’s withdrawal agreement to the House. What’s he scared of? Ah, that’ll be the momentum building up in favour of Mrs May’s deal which, for those that have bothered to read its 585 pages and accompanying Political Declaration, actually gives most people most of what they want.
That, I’m afraid, is about as good as it gets and, in that spirit of compromise, is why I’m supporting it.
15 March 2019
Brexit - the tipping point?
After a week of Brexit votes where are we?
Well, the second vote on the government’s Withdrawal Agreement was lost but not by as much as before. We then had a series of votes that concluded that there should be no departure without a deal - i.e. no so-called hard Brexit. I opposed taking no deal off the table as it seemed to me that only the most credulous negotiator would voluntarily rule out the option of walking away.
On Thursday we voted on having a second, so-called people’s, vote, a second-go referendum which is supported by those who actually want to reverse the outcome of the first. It was convincingly rejected. Then we had a free vote on delaying Brexit to give the government more time. I would have been happy with a few weeks but the motion potentially delays our departure for a year or more and then we might not have Brexit at all. That would be a betrayal of the referendum. I voted against but the motion was passed.
The government will now ask the EU for a delay. I suspect it will grant one if it sees the likelihood of progress towards a deal.
The mood in the House is that we’re approaching endgame and that next week’s third, so-called meaningful, vote (MV3) might just make it over the line. The reason is that MPs are worried about either an abrupt no deal departure on 29 March which remains the default position, or shortly thereafter depending on what the EU says, or a long extension which may well mean Brexit is kicked into the long grass for good.
The Attorney General has clarified the legal position and I feel more comfortable that the U.K. will not be held in the so-called backstop and the customs union therein against its will. I do, however, accept that there remains some political risk.
Despite this, right now the Withdrawal Agreement looks to me like the best outcome realistically achievable. It would get us out of the EU more or less on time and allow negotiations to start on the future trading relationship without making assumptions about including a customs union in whatever eventually transpires. It genuinely gives most people most of what they want. Consequently, I will be supporting it next week.
28 February 2019
Opposition parties and unreconciled Remainers on my side have been gradually chipping away at the negotiating hand available to the PM in her talks with the EU. Hugely frustrating - some of them are my friends but you do wonder some times whose side these folk are on.
We now have effectively taken no deal off the table. Now, very few of us really want no deal but the threat of it has been the only thing concentrating the minds of our EU interlocutors. As a result of this week’s shenanigans I’m less optimistic that our wonderfully Rumpolesque Attorney General will be able to loosen the legal handcuffs that is the Northern Ireland backstop. That makes it is less likely the draft Withdrawal Agreement will get through the Commons. If it does by a whisker it means potentially the U.K. will remain in the Customs Union forever given the legal risk the AG has identified.
Some want us to remain in the Customs Union anyway, like the Labour Party. I put this to its spokesman Kier Starmer yesterday and asked, rhetorically, why he wasn’t then supporting the Agreement.
If the Agreement passes on 12 March we leave on 29th. If it doesn’t, there will be a vote next day on whether we want to leave with no deal. I suspect the no deal option will be rejected by our predominantly Remain parliament. There will then be a vote on extending Article 50 which will be amendable in terms of the length of the extension and of course it will depend on the EU agreeing. If agreed, legislation would be brought forward to revoke or amend the Article 50 trigger that MPs on both sides overwhelmingly backed 2 years ago. In my view, this is the route being sought by those who are still saying they want to honour the 2016 referendum but in fact are trying to reverse it, in other words to keep the U.K. in the EU.
Meanwhile the Leader of the Oppositions - whose acronym ‘LOTO’ is deliciously appropriate right now - has decided on a second referendum which, again, is code for reversing the outcome of the first. In my view that would mean most of this year taken up with ongoing bitterness and rancour and with an uncertain outcome. Business would be denied the clarity it seeks. It is the heartsink option.
My constituents are telling me to just get on with it. I’m doing my best to comply.
19 February 2019
No frogs and locusts
We knew this would happen – all sort of calamities being blamed on Brexit. Forget the fact that the predicted plague of frogs and locusts never materialised, that the number of jobs in the economy has been going up, not down, since June 2016 and that the UK is the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment. No, whenever a firm relocates or folds its down to Brexit, apparently.
Well, I would gently observe that company executives of outfits whose failure is related to their stewardship of course would look for something else to blame. Brexit’s very handy. I note that Honda made it clear that its highly regrettable departure from Swindon to Japan in 2021 isn’t Brexit related. But that has not stopped Remain insisting it is.
I genuinely take no pleasure in Labour’s rupture. It is a great political institution and its duty as official opposition is to be the alternative, the government in waiting. As a democrat I am bound to wish it a speedy recovery. Indeed, at the moment a small number of my own party are ramping up the rhetoric, confecting a case no doubt for their own departure. I predict their narrative will be that the Conservative party is being taken over by right wingers. I can’t see it sticking and one has to ask why, if they are so unhappy, they were content to stand on the party’s manifesto under the current Leader less than two years ago. The same goes for MPs who have quit Labour.
Either way, my view is that those who have or may quit the parties whose tickets they were elected on are in recall and by-election territory. The best test for their convictions is the white heat of the ballot box. Good luck with that.
14 February 2019
Today I went to see the PM with a dozen colleagues to discuss Brexit. Later she was on the phone to EU leaders on the same subject. Nobody can doubt her determination to deliver a Brexit deal that gives most people most of what they want. She has my full support.
Another day, another Brexit debate in parliament. I have resisted contributing in the last couple for two reasons. First, its like Groundhog Day - going over and over the same ground. Second, Speaker Bercow and his practice of ignoring those he has taken against. I do so hope his successor - may he or she come soon - is more like the great Betty Boothroyd.
I am utterly frustrated by the partisans who insist we should rule out a no deal Brexit. To be clear - I want a deal because I’m risk averse and appreciate the importance of the EU as our biggest trading partner. But only the most inept negotiator would publically announce that they would never leave on barebones WTO terms. The Opposition today were moaning that there has been no movement on the Withdrawal Agreement in Brussels. Just how much movement do they think there would be if the PM stood up and said that she was ruling out no deal? Precisely zero.
Somebody wrote to me expressing their dismay that a recent migrant from Poland was distressed by Brexit and her future in Britain. I get really cross with unreconciled Remainers who are cynically putting it about that EU citizens will no longer be welcome here. They really should not be setting hares running and upsetting people like that. This government was pressing the EU for months for reciprocal citizens’ rights whilst Brussels demurred. It was more interested in squeezing more money out of the UK. Finally, in the Withdrawal Agreement we have safeguards that people need to be confident in their future here. The PM herself has used every opportunity to reassure EU citizens living and working in the UK that we want them to stay. Absolutely.
In Trowbridge the Polish community long predates the UK’s membership of the EU. It’s an intrinsic part of what we are in our little corner of England. I would also point out our valued Moroccan community. I pride myself in knowing it really quite well. Its established place among us owes nothing at all to Britain’s membership or otherwise of the EU for the obvious reason that the Kingdom of Morocco is neither in the EU or, last time I looked, in Europe.
So, that’s it for another fortnight. The February recess next week is cancelled so we can get Brexit related statutory instruments through (boring but necessary procedural stuff) and ministers will be hard at it with their EU interlocutors. Then we’ll have another outing like today but hopefully reflecting newly minted legally binding limitations to the Irish backstop which is now the only impediment to the Withdrawal Agreement, albeit an existential one.
Enjoy what looks like, from my vantage point overlooking the sunny River Thames, the first stirrings of spring. Ever the optimist.
11 February 2019
Talks continue with European leaders about changes to the Irish backstop in the Brexit deal. It now seems the backstop may, in any event, turn out to be illegal. It seems that, as currently written, it challenges the Good Friday Agreement. My view is that the backstop might be a temporary expedient if it helps the EU to get the Withdrawal Agreement across the line but it has to be time limited. That’s because it’s actually about holding the U.K. into the customs union, potentially forever.
I do think people like Donald Tusk need to cool it. Inflammatory remarks are not helpful at this juncture and just put people’s backs up. In contrast, Mrs May’s patience and good manners are remarkable. Ireland’s Leo Varadkar too is coming under pressure from businesses in Ireland for his unneighbourly approach to the U.K. and apparent refusal to look at alternatives to the backstop in avoiding a hard border. Since the U.K. is now and will continue to be Ireland’s biggest trading partner, I wonder if that’s wise.
31 January 2019
From the Eurostar in snowy France
On the train to Brussels I’ve got a few minutes to jot down what I think will now happen. I’m in a bad mood as my 0647 departure from St Pancras was cancelled ?cause. Not great.
Two weeks ago I put down an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement that would have time limit the so-called Irish backstop. This you’ll remember was said to be designed to avoid a ‘hard’ border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In fact, as most now accept, the border on which as it happens I was standing on Monday between Strabane and Lifford, could be kept like it is today using up to date customs and technology.
Why then is the EU being so intransigent? Well, the so-called Irish backstop is actually a Trojan Horse that gives the EU the option to bind the UK into its customs union, potentially indefinitely. Apart from the obvious political leverage this gives Brussels, it means that it can say to third countries and blocs its trying to do trade deals with that, in addition to access to its own 450 million consumers, any trade deal on tariffs and quotas means access to 65 million U.K. consumers for free. A valuable and enticing bonus! Unfortunately Ireland, or at least its PM Leo Varadkar and his party, has been suckered into this ruse, I fear at enduring cost to U.K./IR relations.
As a minimum, the backstop with its customs union clauses established a bankable position on which EU negotiators will expect to build the future relationship. It implies we will remain in the customs union. That’s a bit ripe since the EU has been insisting all along that it won’t do trade talks until we’ve ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn he has, belatedly, spotted this. Whilst his amendment this week insisted on a ‘permanent customs union’, a perfectly respectable position if not one I’d recommend, its clear from what he’s said subsequently that he sees this as one that the U.K. can withdraw from on serving notice, just like any other trade treaty commitment.
Which brings me back to my amendment which I suspect will return, at least in spirit, in the days ahead. What I expect to happen after the current Euro windiness has passed over is for a closer description of what is envisaged for the Irish border to be devised and for this to be inserted into the legally non-binding, if serious and weighty, political declaration.
But the central, and easiest, device to make progress that will get the support of Parliament as indicated this week is for there to be a time limit, or sunset, on the backstop after which the U.K. or the EU can withdraw on giving notice. In the meantime we will certainly have put in place customs arrangements relating to the border that will ensure it looks and feels as it does today.
If the EU says no to this we must draw our own conclusions about its willingness to act in good faith.
30 January 2019
Tuesday’s complex series of votes
After the comprehensive thumbs down given to the EU Withdrawal Agreement a fortnight ago, the government won by a decent margin on Tuesday. What this means is that Mrs May must now go back to the EU and say that the WA, if amended with limits on the backstop, is likely to pass and ultimately be ratified – before our departure date on 29 March. There won’t be dancing in the streets but the outcome should give most people most of what they want. It would also allow us to move on, reunify a society that has been badly bruised and start talking about important public policy things again.
The ball is now in the EU’s court. But it should be in no doubt that what’s needed at this stage is something judiciable, not a flimsy exchange of waffle in the form of letters or windy political declarations.
The votes yesterday rejected dragging the process out. More delay would just bring more rancour and uncertainty. Precisely what business says it doesn’t want. It rejected a string of indicative votes (haven’t we had enough debate - hours and hours of it?). It did support no ‘no deal’ but in a non-binding way. Note that even if you know you will never depart with no deal it would be plain stupid to take it off the negotiating table.
In two weeks the PM must come back to the House with an amended deal.
Naturally I tried to speak in Tuesday’s debate since I’ve been heavily involved in trying to get a sensible way forward on Brexit but, again, the Speaker did not call me. More on this in due course.
28 January 2019
This Sunday and Monday I’m in Londonderry and Strabane with my Select Committee. Both of course are hard up against the land border that’s front and centre of the Brexit debate.
On Tuesday we will be voting again on the Withdrawal Agreement. I discern a softening of opinion on both sides of the debate which is good.
My amendments deal with the main impediment to getting the agreement over the line, if selected by the Speaker, if passed by the Commons and if the E.U. shows a bit of flexibility. Lots of ‘ifs’ but fingers crossed!
We need to ensure most people get most of what they want. An amended WA would deliver that.
17 January 2019
Nobody seriously anticipated the scale of the government’s defeat on Tuesday. But, as with everything in the Palace of Varieties, its important to dig beneath the crude headline figures to work out what the actual sentiment is.
I spent much of the weekend phoning round colleagues to get a sense of what MPs wanted. I have a particular interest as I chair the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and the so-called Irish backstop seemed to me to be the big sticking point. All the rest, including citizens rights, even the money appeared to be manageable, but not the backstop. So, on Monday I tabled an amendment that would have put a time limit on the backstop. Considerable momentum was building up behind it. Then Mr Speaker Bercow decided not to call it.
I then voted for a lesser amendment he did call that might have delivered some of the same effect but which stood little chance. I went on to support, without enthusiasm but neverthess, the unamended motion in the so-called meaningful vote.
Clearly I was on the losing side - a moderate, pragmatic Leave MP in a predominantly Remain parliament with a significant number of Leave MPs who are still convinced they can have the purist and most absolute of Brexits, even now. I respectfully suggest they will leave this process with nothing unless they change tack fast, things being what they are. I don’t want to be associated with anything that results in no Brexit at all.
To be clear, the whole thing is now on a knife-edge. A version of Mrs May’s deal may squeak through with a single digit majority (the vote of no confidence yesterday was a triumph for her) but to do so she must deal with the backstop along the lines of my amendment.
14 January 2019
THE BIG VOTE
Tuesday is crunch day. Finally, I will, without much enthusiasm but nevertheless, be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement. A tough decision. I voted to leave the EU but sincerely believe it’s the right thing to do given the circumstances that apply right now.
Here’s my big worry - after last week’s shenanigans the Speaker, hard-over Remainers and an Opposition sniffing political opportunity will succeed in reversing Brexit or achieve an outcome that would have the same effect. That would be an appalling indictment of the state of democracy in this country. I am clear that those forces would definitely make impossible departure on WTO terms. People who hanker after the creative destruction ‘no deal’ would bring need to understand that.
I will tonight be tabling an amendment to the motion on which we have our meaningful vote that would sun-set the Irish backstop which, as drafted, could hold the U.K. in a relationship against its will indefinitely. That is the main objection MPs have to the Agreement and my amendment will seek to deal with it. The date on which the backstop expires is less important but our EU interlocutors need to understand where the sticking point is for most MPs and accept the principle of the backstop falling away. Incidentally, the so-called backstop is not needed to prevent a hard border as it’s become increasingly apparent that there are now or will be by the end of the Implementation Period in December 2020 technical and procedural mechanisms for allowing the NI border to look and feel very much as it does today.
10 January 2019
The Speaker’s antics on Wednesday showed just what those of us who want to honour the outcome of the referendum are up against. There are too many up here who piously assert they’re only wanting to carrry out the public’s instructions but without ‘crashing out’ as they put it. What they’re actually up to is using every trick in the book to overturn the referendum and stay in the EU.
That needs to be clearly understood.
What also needs to be understood is that Brexit may, as I write, not happen at all since its purists are intent on making the excellent the enemy of the good. We are in uncharted waters with a Speaker who has shown that he will be as helpful as he possibly can be in greasing the way for Remainers to achieve their outcome. If they succeed, goodness knows what will then happen. They need to be careful what they wish for.
I have added my name to the Swire amendment to the motion that will be voted on next week that seeks to unite the sensibles on either side of this debate. This basically would limit the Irish backstop. It isn’t perfect but would take us further in ensuring we are not bound into an arrangement that is contrary to our interests and over which we have no control.
My big fear is that we will not leave the EU on 29 March through the various subterfuges that are being deployed by the Remain side and will continue to be unearthed, apparently with the help of Mr Speaker. Delaying Article 50 would add to the uncertainty businesses say they’re suffering from and just kick the can down the road. It is to be avoided.
I suspect the government will lose the vote next week. I hope not by too much because the PM will then be able to go back to the European Commission for their best and final offer, which intel suggests they have prepared already.
In short, I believe we will have a deal by the end of March. If not, exit on WTO terms won’t be great but it won’t mean a plague of frogs and locusts either.
20 December 2018
I have never been so grateful to reach the end of term.
Those who want a second referendum need to understand what that would mean. It would mean the better part of 2019 locked in bitter, rancorous dispute before a divisive further vote. That vote may give the second-goers what they want and overturn, just, the outcome of the 2016 ballot but equally it may not. Let’s just get on with Brexit, with all its risks and opportunities, and make the best of it. Who knows? Perhaps those now actively trying to overturn the referendum may, with gritted teeth, come to appreciate the better, more prosperous, independent Britain the 57% of local voters had in mind when they voted to leave in June 2016, a vision shared by the many who tell me they voted to remain but would now vote to leave.
I look forward to the Withdrawal Agreement, modified or caveated to make it crystal clear the UK won’t be tied into the backstop, being agreed and to the UK entering the transition phase in March. I also look forward to MPs being able then to refocus on all the normal things we focus on - healthcare, schools, infrastructure, defence and so on. That would be really good.
If I can end with a plea to nobody in particular. The ‘stupid woman’ debacle epitomises how nasty our political discourse has become. We can debate the causes, but very few engaged in public life at any level are actually stupid, venal or avaricious (there are exceptions to every rule). Perhaps those who purport to offer leadership in politics should cool it in 2019. Maybe then the public who understandably take their cue on what’s acceptable from rude, shouty, boorish political figures who cavort like pantomime dames through the media will too.
Have a very happy Christmas and can I wish everyone, whether you’re a leaver or remainer or somewhere inbetween, a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
18 December 2018
One referendum is bad enough, a second would be a calamity. I am strongly opposed to a second-go referendum. We had the people’s vote on 23 June 2016 and the government, facing down an Opposition scenting blood and its big chance and a minority of very shouty people at the extremes of Mrs May’s own party, is doing the best it can, the parliamentary arithmetic being what it is.
So what happens if those still not reconciled to having lost that vote get their way and we have another? What’s certain is more months of increasing rancour and bitterness. Businesses will not achieve that ‘certainty’ they tell us they want for the best part of another year. And the result? Well, remainers need to be careful what they wish for. It seems to me, anecdotally, that the leave vote is firming up. Nobody likes sour grapes. But, in the end, I suspect the result would be much the same as in 2016.
What if it’s narrowly the other way, that’s to say 52/48 Remain/Leave? Some starry eyed remainers no doubt think we’ll just all kiss and make up and that a benevolent EU will welcome us back like the Prodigal Son. I doubt it. The EU and our competitors in it will have us by the cojons. And they will, sooner of later, extract their price from a diminished, recalcitrant neighbour. At home, Leave will cry foul and demand best of three - a neverendum would ensue. The matter would never be settled.
Those seeking a second referendum in order to have a pop at reversing the first need to put aside the condescending curled upper lip and put themselves instead in the minds of those who wanted to leave. How would you feel? We have seen what happens when people believe they have been spurned, ignored and sidelined by elite metropolitan liberals in Paris recently. There has to be a compact between the administration and the administered. That relies on trust and not being led up the garden path.
There are no honeyed words or clever phraseology that will be capable of dressing up a second-go referendum as anything other than the elite giving the plebs - poor unenlightened souls - a chance to reach the ‘right’ decision. It would be a gross betrayal of a solemn undertaking in the biggest exercise in direct democracy ever held in this country. For the first time it would make me ashamed to be in British politics.
13 December 2018
In my view Mrs May’s position has been strengthened by Wednesday’s vote. Those MPs who ‘put their letters in’ prompting it were unwise and their timing was appalling. She won convincingly because the Withdrawal Agreement is getting close to the best of the various outcomes - none of which will satisfy everyone - that are reasonably achievable.
Mrs May said before the vote that she was trying to get political and legal changes that would satisfy those of us who remain concerned about what the Irish backstop could potentially do. The attitude of Dublin is crucial. Her focus must now be on helping the Irish government deal with its own political demons so that a time limit on this unnecessary backstop can be achieved and we can move on. If she can, I think she will have cracked it.
11 December 2018
Mrs May did the right thing in pulling Tuesday’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the EU Withdrawal Agreement since she would clearly have lost it. As I write she’s gone back to Brussels to seek a form of words that would clarify how the U.K. can get out of the Irish backstop.
I’ll wait and see what she comes back with but essentially I’ll support her deal if there’s a time limit to the backstop that the lawyers think will work. Without it Britain is potentially over a barrel as the Attorney General’s lawyerly opinion makes clear. The only way to get out of the backstop customs union would then be to persuade the EU it isnt in its interests for us to stay or by offering key members concessions - such as access to fish, as the French President has already made clear.
If no progress on this is made, we will need to see Plan B which I very much hope doesn’t involve delaying Brexit.
5 December 2018
BREXIT - ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?
I’m grateful to people for writing to me about Brexit. Most messages have been fine but some haven’t, which is sad. I think the rancour this process has caused has taken many of us by surprise. I can’t remember the public being so shouty since Mr Blair’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, hugely divisive undertakings which continue to cast a long shadow. Mrs May is right to say that whatever now happens we are going to have to heal the wounds.
The Attorney General’s appearance in the Commons to explain the legal position of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement on Monday was well received. The bottom line is that under the agreement we will probably not be tied into the E.U. customs union long term but he can’t rule it out. That’s what lawyers do, advise on the basis of risks of particular outcomes and it’s then for the client to make a decision. Here that means government and, ultimately, Parliament. Anyway today the AG’s full legal advice to government on the agreement must be published. I suspect like most smoking guns it will disappoint those clamouring for it. But publication also means from now on lawyer-client confidentiality will not be guaranteed in respect of government. That will have consequences as the now opposition may well discover to their cost in the fullness of time.
Yesterday Mrs May made a really good, highly thoughtful speech in which she asked MPs to back the deal. I have yet to decide finally on how to vote next Tuesday and will be weighing up the risk of no Brexit and leaving on barebones WTO terms both of which are undesirable, in my view. My chief reservation at this stage is the absence of a time limit on the so-called Irish backstop. The unfettered backstop will mean legal risk of being a rule taker for a very long time, as the AG made clear. I’d like to see a time limit, perhaps 5 years, after which the backstop would fall away if it hasn’t been made redundant by other means. If Mrs May’s plan fails in the Commons on Tuesday, as seems likely, I believe she will have to go back to the E.U. and say that the only way she can get the deal over the line is if they amend the agreement to include a backstop time limit. It will not have been lost on her that if there is no such time limit the Scottish Nationalist will demand a similar arrangement for Scotland. Belgium and Spain with their own separatist problems may like to give that some thought.
27 November 2018
BREXIT DEAL UPDATE
Yesterday the PM did another two and a half hours at the dispatch box fielding quick fire questions from MPs - the third time in ten days.
The Guardian has listed MPs according to how they might vote when the Commons has its ‘meaningful vote’ on 11 December. I’m listed as ‘unconfirmed’ from which the Guardian has drawn the conclusion that I’ll support the government. Well, my instinct is to be supportive knowing how hard the PM has worked against the intransigence of Brussels. However, I still have an issue with the so-called Irish backstop. It’s actually not needed to avoid a hard land border. However, a combination of Irish domestic politics running up to election year and the desire, mainly by the French, to build in a lever in the deal to extract further trade concessions from the U.K. in the future - Macron’s jaw-dropping admission of this yesterday in connection to fisheries helped to shed light - means that potentially this country could become a client of the E.U., held into an adverse customs union against its will. I do t see how I could support that.
IF an addendum to the Withdrawal Agreement was inserted to remove the backstop or even put a time limit on it, even a long one, the Guardian could list me as likely to vote for the deal, without enthusiasm but nevertheless.
17 November 2018
I’m ploughing my way through the 585 page draft E.U. withdrawal agreement and associated papers. Its available online if you’ve got a spare few hours, or days.
Most of it is OK-ish. Good, for example, on rights for UK and EU citizens after Brexit. What I’m worried about is the mechanism for leaving the so-called Irish backstop which is meant to ensure there is no so-called hard Irish land border. In reality, the EU is using this as a means of ensuring we stay in the customs union, without a voice, after December 2019 if we haven’t negotiated a better arrangement. Of course with the so-called backstop as drafted in place the EU would have no incentive to agree a better (for us) deal. So, backstop it would be pretty much permanently. Great as far as Brussels is concerned but it would be vassalage for the UK with the inability to engage autonomously with the rest of the world. Under those circumstances the EU, that is to say a bloc of 27 competitor nations seeking all the time to take business off the UK, would have us precisely where they want us, economically and politically. It is bound to exploit its advantage.
However, the agreement talks of an Indpendent Arbitration Panel that would determine when the backstop isn’t needed anymore and whether the parties had been negotiating in good faith or not.
In my view, any independent arbitration process is bound to reflect the perfectly good customs procedures and technical arrangements that could be established to remove the need for a hard border. The Select Committee I chair has been hearing from customs experts about this. Thus, if the EU refused to free the UK from a demonstrably unnecessary backstop, let us say in two years, it would be deemed to be acting in bad faith. The mere existence of that threat would encourage the EU to engage in the future trading arrangements it says it wants.
What I will be looking for in the days ahead is legal clarification that my understanding is correct and for firming up of the wording in the agreement to that effect in the last stage of the negotiations.
If that is not possible, I maintain that we should pivot to so-called Norway For Now (NFN) whilst we negotiate a Canada +++ style deal of the sort offered by President Donald Tusk (ie Norway Then Canada or NTC). I have written a joint letter with Frank Field MP about this in the Daily Telegraph recently.
What then about Mrs May’s leadership? Firstly, I salute her doggedness, sense of patriotic duty and sheer perseverance which is an example to us all. Secondly, I do not think its wise to change the ship’s captain when you’re in the middle of a storm. I hope that under her leadership we will turn the draft into something the majority of MPs will be able to support when it comes to the meaningful vote next month. If not, I would want her to own the change to NFN/NTC. Either way, she has my support.
21 October 2018
STILL BANGING ON ABOUT EUROPE!
I’m flying to Belfast to chair an evidence session of my select committee in the currently empty Stormont parliament building. So, a few minutes in flight safe mode to tap out some thoughts on the unfolding drama that is Brexit.
First off, can I express my despair at the MP ‘colleague’ who is attacking Prime Minister May in lurid terms, of course anonymously. Shameful, disreputable, dishonourable. Whatever you think of Brexit, Mrs May is so clearly doing her best and deserves better than that.
I do not think there is any appetite outside the M25 beltway for spinning out Brexit. Obviously the EU would like to because it would mean more money and the possibility the U.K. may run out of puff and recant. Unlike the Prodigan Son though I doubt there would be any dispensations for the wounded penitent. More like harsh terms, perhaps very harsh. Those wanting another referendum need to temper their enthusiasm with that and the white fury of the majority who believe the matter was settled in June 2016. If its U.K. influence they’re worried about, they might consider whether a humbled, brought to heel U.K. would be more effective than an assertive, independent partner that Brussels would like to persuade to be alongside most of the time. I think I know the answer.
The government is right to be preparing for departure on WTO terms. It also needs to be explaining to the public what it would mean, which means addressing head on the wilder prognostications of the Remain rearguard. I want to see the Chancellor announce in the budget next week draft plans for turbo charging the economy on the day we leave the EU in the event of so-called ‘no deal’. This will mean for starters immediately suspending payments to the EU which, in the event of no deal, will have acted in bad faith and in an unneighbourly fashion contrary to Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty. It will mean cutting VAT and corporation tax. The latter will act as a magnet to companies and announce that the U.K. is open for business. Import tariffs, except on food we produce here, will be removed. He should take the opportunity to affirm that the Northern Ireland land border on the U.K. side will have no more infrastructure on it than exists today and we will challenge the EU and Ireland to behave similarly, managing the tariff consequences. If we are driven to this by the obduracy of the EU and the passive-aggressive stance being taken by France in particular, 2019 will be tough but ultimately we will prevail.
I do feel for the people of the Irish Republic and it’s businesses who are, to be honest, hardly being helped by the attitude to achieving a smooth and amicable Brexit chosen by the current political leadership. Now Ireland didn’t ask for Brexit and, other than some potential benefit from a thriving neighbouring economy, will get all the downside with none of the uptick. It’s transformative low corporation taxes are likely to be canned by an EU lacking U.K. pro-business counsel (it’s already planning this) but, even if they’re not, a no deal outcome is likely to see a freed up U.K. cut its own business taxes in order to tempt companies from Ireland and the continent to offset the effects of Brussels’ punishment beating.
It’s a tough old world, I’m afraid, and when the going gets tough you remember your friends - and those who have not been as helpful as they could have been.
12 October 2018
On Wednesday the PM kindly gave me a one to one meeting to discuss Brexit. It is good to know that she’s willing to listen to an obscure backbencher with views on the issue of the day that may not necessarily overlap completely with her own. I admire her strength and fortitude in trying to navigate a way through Brexit. She deserves huge credit and has my full support in delivering the aims and aspirations laid out clearly in her well received Lancaster House speech.
My chief worry at the moment from my vantage as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee is that the land border in Ireland is being used, rather cynically, by the European Commission and it’s unreconciled Remain followers here to subvert one of the most viable Brexit options. It’s the one that Donald Tusk, no less, has been pushing all along and it involves a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, so-called Canada+++. The problem is Tusk offered it for GB, not U.K., meaning NI would remain in the EU customs closed shop, single market and European Court of Justice jurisdiction. It would, in other words, be separated from its biggest market by far, GB, and effectively annexed to the EU.
Surprise, surprise, up with that the DUP won’t put, and neither will Mrs May. Like me a committed unionist, she will be mindful not only of the consequences for NI’s status within the U.K. but the boost any sort of new border down the middle of the Irish Sea would give the SNP in its crusade to build a frontier separating Scotland from the rest of the country.
But it turns out the NI land border isn’t quite the problem that many, including me as it happens, initially feared. Indeed, customs experts - that is to say people who really understand borders and live them as opposed to politicians and hacks who pontificate about them - are increasingly calling out the Barnier orthodoxy around the creation of a hard border with attendant apocalyptical security consequentials. They’re doing us a great service a bit like Hans Christian Anderson’s character who pointed out the Emperor has no clothes. The supreme irony is that one of these experts was commissioned by the European Parliament to opine on frictionless, near-invisible, high tech borders. How disobliging of him to deliver a report that makes it abundantly clear that the NI border could continue looking and feeling very much as it does today in the event of a Tusk style EU-UK free trade deal. No border guards, no flags, no watchtowers, no humourless officials stamping passports, no barriers or revenue men. Rather dull, in fact, just like now, exactly as we like it.
For those looking for a relatively simple blueprint, can I recommend Lord David Owen’s account published in his blog with which I largely agree. By the next election I want to be able to look my voters in the eye and say that we have done what we were told to do - decorously remove the U.K. (all of it) from the EU and its constituent parts - the customs union, single market and ECJ. If we can’t get a Tusk-style deep and comprehensive free trade deal by then we would deserve to be kicked out.
17 September 2018
TAKING A SPIN TO NUMBER TEN
I arrived at Downing Street on Wednesday with some broadly Eurosceptic MP colleagues for a meeting over supper with Number Ten staffers. Outside the police checks was a gauntlet of TV cameras wanting to capture this moment of apparent crisis that they wanted to spin as evidence of a move against the PM.
If, like me, you’re a Harry Potter fan you’ll be familiar with the hack Rita Skeeter from the Daily Prophet. She spins faster than a whirling dervish. Westminster doesn’t just look like Hogwarts, it often feels like it too. Too many of those who record and interpret the utterances of politicians seem to be using the appalling Rita as their role model. Anyway, we didn’t discuss coups or leadership bids for one reason - there aren’t any. At the risk of being disappointingly dull, I reckon it would be a culpable act of collective insanity to attempt to topple Theresa May at such a crucial time. She’s got my full support. Good luck Rita in spinning that.
I take a long term view of our departure from the EU. If something very close to the Chequers plan gets us over the line and removes us from the political union of the EU on 29 March in accordance with any reasonable interpretation of the referendum, unfettering the larger part of our economy, I’ll be content. If we do depart on those terms, I want sufficient flex to be able to update the agreement in due course, mandated by commitments contained in future election manifestos.
The Kremlin continues to pump out child-like, ever changing, bare faced lies regarding its Novichok attack in Salisbury and Amesbury. That’s it’s stock in trade. In fact it’s quite effective as, however fanciful, it does spread seeds of doubt. Of course, there will always be the credulous, but Russian state propaganda like this more insidiously assists a spectrum of anarchists, persons who have made their life’s work the pulling down of Britain and what they imagine to be the ‘establishment’ and an overlapping assortment of political extremists, ‘useful idiots’ if you will.
So, this week the Kremlin asks us to believe that the two GRU hoods being fingered for murder and attempted murder in Wiltshire are just a couple of nice guys, tourists with a passion for ecclesiastical architecture. That’s cleared that one up then.
Oil industry boss turned high priest Justin Welby has turned again, this time to politics. Not a good or sensible move, in my humble opinion.
Recent exposure has me wondering what the CofE is these days or, to be brutally honest, what it’s for, but it is certainly no longer the Tory party at prayer, if it ever was. Actually, there’s no way I would wish it to be, but if the Chief Exec of the established church together with those who owe him canonical obedience continue to blather on about earthly matters in such a thoughtless way, their path to irrelevance will end up being even shorter than this month’s revelations about CofE adherence suggest.
It’s true I’m no bleeding heart liberal and I don’t do virtue signalling but I hope I work as conscientiously to better the condition of those I was elected to serve as any in the House, regardless of party. Otherwise, what’s the point of being in politics? Whilst the clergy must remind us all of our individual responsibility to care for others, a duty that is by no means entirely discharged by provisions we make collectively though the welfare state, I worry about the appropriateness of the Primate aligning himself with a particular political tradition and by implication castigating from a metaphorical pulpit those whose roadmap for remediating suffering differs from his own.
Little wonder that so many, including those of us whose faith remains undiminished, no longer feel at home, or even particularly welcome, in the Anglican churches we grew up with. What a pity that for so many England’s parish churches have become no more than charming venues for weddings and a convenient place to solemnise our eventual departure to the gates of St Peter.
Normally in August politicians and journalists pipe down. Not this year. Rancour over Brexit and rows over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have given the gloriously sunny summer of 2018 an unfamiliar, harsh, unwelcome edge.
Disappointingly, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Brussels is minded to accept the Chequers deal. I say disappointing because I thought, as it stood, it was a fair proposition - not my ideal, but pragmatic and potentially beneficial to both sides. I wrote to the PM to assure her of my support.
Despite some recent rhetorical softening, the European Commission is taking an absolutist line on Chequers. It appears to be scared stiff that any flexibility will erode its constituent parts, advantage the U.K. and make other nation states more likely to demand ‘me too.’ That would, they fret, bring the whole grand project tumbling down. A project, let us remember, that has yielded by far the greatest benefit to its biggest economy, Germany.
National leaders - with the exception of President Macron who seems to be ploughing his own furrow - are taking a more nuanced view since their attachment to Brussels is less existential, less ideological. That’s where hope of a sensible Brexit outcome lies. We know that Brussels is completely impervious to public pressure. That’s the whole point. That’s the problem. National governments aren’t. So as we close with 29 March 2019, the point of departure, businesses across Europe are going to be pointing out to their elected representatives the people consequences of no deal beyond WTO rules.
The government is right to say publically that defence and security are sacrosanct. I hope a very different conversation is being had privately. Especially since the EU is now claiming the U.K. can’t be partners in the Galileo satellite project because we’d some how become a security risk. Well, laugh out loud at that! But if it is serious about the Brits being a security risk, that would extend surely to the rest of our military, security and intelligence assets. The same ones that provide cover Europe enjoys but refuses to pay for.
Help me out here Mr Barnier because I don’t see a way of persuading my constituents they should continue to prop up the security of EU states whilst Brussels is intent on being unhelpful on precisely the economic matters that make such largesse possible. To say that defence, security and economic prosperity are somehow separable is obviously bonkers.
Lots of talk about a second referendum but it’s just hot air. The fact is we’ve had our referendum and the disappointed can’t have a second go. Article 50’s been triggered. We’ve run out of time. Europe won’t stop the clock and even if we recanted and asked to return to the fold it would be as penitents. There would be no prodigal’s welcome. Harsh terms could be expected.
When Cortez landed on the beach in the New World the first thing he did was burn his boats to the waterline thus encouraging his men to look forward, not back. That’s where we are right now with the EU, looking to maximise opportunities whilst mindful of the risks.
Am I alone, by the way, in being mildly irritated by the term ‘Peoples Referendum’ to suggest a right-on, radical edge to the campaign for a re-run? The ‘people’ in this case are not the poor, dispossessed and downtrodden conjured by the the term but, disproportionately, the liberal metropolitan elite and big business interests who are doing quite nicely from the way things are.
On the other big political news story of the summer, anti Semitism in the Labour Party, I genuinely admit to being bewildered. The Labour MPs I know and respect are so much bigger than this. I really hope the party of Opposition sorts this out, quickly, as it is the most appalling stain on politics generally.
BORIS AND THE BURKA
Messages continue to arrive from constituents about Boris, mostly supportive. I would say that nobody should be holding forth on this matter unless they’ve actually read the article in full. It was, as I would expect from the liberal, metropolitan Boris I know, arguing against banning the burka whilst saying, in terms that I would not have used, that he disliked it.
Not just because of opinion in my very female household, I too find myself disliking the idea that women in Britain today should feel obliged to cover themselves up save for a narrow eye slit under a set of rules and norms dictated by men without even, it seems, any real theological underpinning. I very much regret the wearers’ consequent isolation from wider society. Indeed, any politician should be worried by it, and question it. However, unlike a string of Western European governments, I would not ban the burka. That’s because fear of trespassing on personal freedom outweighs, in this case and on balance, concerns about subjugation of women and wider societal ills that may be caused by the garment. So the burka stays.
Of course, Theresa May’s detractors have tried to turn this into a story about a conspiracy to halt any leadership ambitions Boris might be harbouring. I’d be very surprised if any such witch hunt was underway. The truth is, as usual, likely to be much more prosaic - the party’s complaints procedure has be triggered and the Party Chairman under the rules has to act.
That said, I and many of my colleague would react badly to anything in the treatment metered out to Boris that looked disproportionate or heavy handed. I am confident that it will not be.