Cummings strikes again with a reshuffle

Today, Boris Johnson carried out a much anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. The whole plan was to promote a “new generation” of talent. Behind this, many have speculated that Dominic Cummings may be trying to increase his influence over the Cabinet to achieve his aims.

This was made particularly clear with the resignation stroke dismissal (take your pick) of now-former Chancellor Savid Javid when Johnson/Cummings told him he had to sack all of his advisors as a condition of keeping his role. Although I’m not a personally a fan of Javid, I have some respect for him standing up for his team at the last moment.

His replacement, Rishi Sunak – the MP who covered for Boris Johnson in some of the TV election debate and is from an investment background, takes his place. Sunak is seen amongst numerous Tories as a ‘rising star’; although this could be a disadvantage as expectations are high. He is favoured by Cummings and Johnson, which many have interpreted as a sign of him being a yes person.

And this points to a glaring problem. If the Cabinet is full of yes people, then this results in tunnel-vision which doesn’t allow for reasonable points to be raised from those with reservations. Yes, this may be an attempt from the PM and those around him to give the perception they are getting stuff done; but it only takes a severe misjudgement or wrong move to unravel, opening them to accusations of irresponsibility.

An even bigger issue is the influence of Dominic Cummings, who seems to be carrying out his work unchecked and with no accountability. Which is an interesting coincidence, especially as he was behind a campaign with the core message of taking back control from “unelected bureaucrats”.

This reshuffle also does very little about diversity. There is no LGBT+ representation in the Cabinet still. Women, in general, are in a worse position in this Cabinet than the last. Yes, there is an increase in BAME representation, but this doesn’t go far enough. And under-qualified people like Dominic Raab are still there.

What this tells us about the next few years is a bit unnerving. Not only is the Cabinet full of lackeys, but it’s also struggling with diversity and seems to be a clear indication of Cummings making a power grab.

Reshuffles, moves and scuffles

Meanwhile, things are carrying on in Stormont as they piece their new power-sharing agreement together. Amongst this are a slew of announcements this weekend. And the Lib Dems have declared their new leader will be revealed in the summer.

Something particularly striking this weekend that will have an impact next week came from Number 10. Effectively, the head of the Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, is to tell senior members of the Cabinet that a reshuffle is pending and the only way for people to remain in it will be to focus on “delivery” of policies over media appearances.

This may present a very early sign about the type of Government Johnson seeks to manage – one where he is very much the central figure and the party stays on message. Possibly an early idea of Cummings’ approach to overhauling the workings of power.

It does mark a departure from Theresa May’s administration where leaks and inaction often appeared to be the order of the day. This can be seen as an attempt to present the Government as united and in control, which may possibly be helping with polling (latest stats below). The Guardian has more on this story.

As UK MEPs were in Brussels for the final time, there were words of regret from many of their former colleagues – some of whom have formed a WhatsApp group. On the UK Government side, there is a hardening of stance, seen from remarks from Chancellor Savid Javid. He has said that there will be no alignment with EU rules after Brexit, which seemingly contradicts the previous approach.

By declaring a lack of alignment, alarm bells were raised in the food/drink and automotive sectors. It also has mired the Government in some controversy as it has been one of the first public acknowledgements from a senior Minister that some industries will not benefit from Brexit. Linked to this was an admission from these industries that prices are likely to rise significantly. The BBC has further coverage.

Perhaps the Government feels empowered now it has a difficult to attain majority to say the things it was not comfortable saying before in a public forum. Or maybe it is a strategy of ‘talking tough’ while pursuing a much safer course of action. This may also challenge conventional wisdom about the Conservatives being the party of business. At the same time, it could just represent Javid’s personal take being off-message – maybe one of the reasons why Johnson is seeking to instil more rigid discipline.

Another sign of Johnson wanting to make his mark is the news that Ministers are considering the possibility of moving the House of Lords to York or Birmingham to “reconnect” with voters. The Conservatives’ chairman, James Cleverly, told Sophy Ridge that it was one of the options being considered. This follows a report in the Sunday Times which claimed a decision could be made in the next few months.

On the face of it, the proposal sounds reasonable. However, Labour MPs like Nadia Whittome called it ‘superficial’. Ultimately, while this removes some of the Parliamentary institutions from London, it does not address the House of Lords itself which remains unelected and lends itself to undue influence from a dominant party in the House of Commons. While the idea itself may not have universal backing, there is a fair amount of talk about de-centralising power in the Labour leadership contest.

As an update from last week’s post, Emily Thornberry managed to secure the last-minute nominations she needed to enter the Labour leadership contest. There have been hustings in Liverpool for both leader and deputy leader. Meanwhile, unions and constituency parties are deliberating on who they should back, to secure passage to the final stage of the vote. So far, polling from YouGov indicates that Keir Starmer is likely to win the vote in the second round, with a comfortable margin against favourite for second place, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

In Northern Ireland, the Government has been criticised for its financial package not being enough to fill the gap in public services. Both First and Deputy First Ministers have united on the attack, putting pressure on the Government to release extra funds. The Conservatives are so-far remaining fixed in their stance, possibly viewing this as not a priority. One would expect this argument to carry on in the background of UK politics as a whole, and the foreground of Northern Irish politics. Given the Government was able to bail out Flybe to some extent this week – despite ruling out that possibility – it is not unreasonable to assume they may give way in spite of their obstinance if it keeps Stormont quiet.

Another development that is likely to ruffle a few feathers is the release of a cross-party report into electoral law and protecting the integrity of British elections. Some of the recommendations include unlimited fines for those who breach electoral law and in response to groups like Cambridge Analytica, a call to restrict the ability to micro-target voters on social media.

This would reflect a change in the law not seen since 2001 – but will people like Dominic Cummings who have benefitted from the existing laws block this from coming into effect? And will this actually help the Electoral Commission to have a much more meaningful role when it has struggled to keep up with a myriad of developments? The Guardian has more.

Something else that is worth a mention is an update on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are to give up their royal titles, become financially independent and pay back the public purse for the renovation of their UK home in Windsor. While this is a huge development in the Royal Family, what is disheartening is the response to it. People have turned to the realms of conspiracy theories, disrespect and racism.

To those that say the UK does not have a problem with racism, stop kidding yourselves. The UK has a massive problem with racism – we have all seen it but many are uncomfortable to admit it. While so much progress appears to have been made in other areas, this appears to be persistent and needs to be dealt with urgently. It does not have a place in this century, let alone this decade.

Finally, an update on the latest stats. Labour maintained a council seat in Brislington East, Bristol with a marginal dip in vote share (1.1%). The Liberal Democrats saw a double-figure increase. This has been reflected in the State of the Parties page on this site.

After a short break, Westminster voting intention polls are back. The latest Opinium poll sees an increase in Conservative, Brexit Party and Green voting intention, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It would seem that Boris Johnson is currently experiencing a honeymoon – which is not unexpected. A rare sign of normality in these unprecedented times.

Iran, Royals, the EU and Labour candidates

Just when you thought UK politics would calm down a bit with a newly dominant Conservative Party and the return to easy majorities for the Government – things seemed to flare up a bit.

Iran

First among these was the escalation of tension in Iran, where the US assassinated a senior general, and Trump took to Twitter to brag about it. Classy. The fact that this happened on another sovereign nation’s soil raised alarm bells with many who started talking about the possibility of World War Three – and drew comparisons with the ‘dodgy dossier’ ahead of the Iraq conflict.

Iran retaliated by bombing a seemingly unoccupied US airbase, and things seemed to calm down. What is now emerging is that caught up in this may have been a Boeing aircraft heading for Ukraine being shot down by Iran – although the facts of this are still being settled.

The Government was slow to respond, with Boris Johnson still being on holiday and seeming to ignore a letter from Jeremy Corbyn who still has the right to ask questions of the Government in these matters as a member of the privy council. This inaction opened the Conservatives up to a fair amount of criticism. Once the response came, it was ambiguous – claiming to be working on a European response; while condemning and praising the assassination at the same time.

In PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn asked the Prime Minister a series of questions around whether the activity was illegal, what would happen to British people living in the are and whether the Government’s response was related to a potential trade deal. The initial exchanges between them were helpful and there were constructive answers to the questions. Things took a turn when Corbyn mentioned links to a trade deal, where the Prime Minister started on the attack, criticising Corbyn and claiming the allegation was “absolute fiction”.

You can watch how this all played out below.

The Royals

When people thought nothing else could fit into the news agenda, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) unilaterally declared they were going to step back as senior members of the Royal Family. This was apparently without the knowledge of anybody else and was apparently due to The Sun being on the brink of telling everyone anyway. And how did they announce this? Via Instagram.

Many people would probably wonder this is being mentioned on a politics blog, as surely the Royal Family is above politics? Arguably, there are massive implications here as even though these royals are working to be financially independent as they call it, this has not turned out well for other members of the family i.e. the Wessexes, and there will still be a fair amount of public money spent on the couple such as their security detail. It is telling that the Government is now involved with the “emergency” negotiations with the Royal Family.

Secondly, it has raised further questions about the role of the Royal Family – and how it should look going into a new decade. Many had touted that the Cambridges and Sussexes were the ‘new face’, and represented a new approach, but this has raised several questions. This also highlights potential issues with press behaviour towards certain members of the Royal Family, which has been invasive and particularly in Meghan’s case teetering on abusive.

In a broader sense, it relates to many comments made on here previously about the nature of debate recently being toxic and highly personal. It shows that this issue is not just confined to the explicitly political space and that a wider conversation should be started in society about addressing this.

The EU

Less than a month to Brexit (part one) and conversation has started to turn toward the future relationship between the UK and the European Union where negotiations cannot formally start until the UK ceases to be a Member State.

The new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, made it clear in a speech at the London School of Economics that a full trade deal between the UK and EU (which Boris Johnson is aiming for) will be ‘impossible’ to conclude by the end of the transition period in December.

She took a pragmatic stance and said that the EU was ready to negotiate an “ambitious” partnership – but that the talks would be tough. As discussed in the 2019 review post on here, this reaffirmation of a trade deal being extremely difficult to achieve in less than a year is something to be expected and many in Number 10 and the Department for Exiting the European Union will be studying this closely.

It shows that even though the first hurdle may have been crossed by Johnson, the next one will be much more pressurised – where the expectations are much higher.

Labour Candidates

The Labour leadership election has started, with the party’s ruling committee meeting at the start of the week to decide the rules for electing a new leader.

There was much speculation about the rules potentially being tampered with to ensure a Corbyn 2.0 candidate had the most success. This was not the case, and the rules for the leadership election were not deemed to be too controversial.

In the early stages, Keir Starmer emerged as the frontrunner – easily reaching the necessary number of nominations from MPs and MEPs, and with Unison putting its weight behind him. Other candidates in the running (as of Sunday evening) are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy.

Each of these candidates represents a very diverse range of opinions within the party, and the question that will be asked is how they will bring the party together when the election results sparked a new wave of internal disagreement.

The following week will be a key part of the campaign, with nominations closing for both leader and deputy leader before an extensive voting process takes place.

Meanwhile, there has been little word about the internal post-mortem that Corbyn spoke of after the election, which is highly likely to have an impact on the leadership campaign as it progresses.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – political debate

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the final of this series, the focus is on the election and the broader nature of the political debate.

If at the start of 2019, someone had told me that the Conservatives would see their largest majority since the Thatcher era before the year was out, I would have laughed them out the door. Theresa May was really struggling to make any progress on Brexit and was hindered by political saboteurs everywhere she looked. And yet, here we are.

The way events have played out in the past few months has sometimes made me think that the whole Theresa May premiership was almost a scheme to enable the rise of Boris as Prime Minister with a strong hand. But, the reality is closer to the election being an almighty gamble from senior Conservatives and advisers that “getting Brexit done” was a sufficient mantra to see them through, even though that had not exactly gone swimmingly for Johnson’s predecessor.

What was particularly striking about the election campaign was that despite so many faux pas and even resorting to hiding in a fridge, Johnson seemed like he could do no wrong. Parties were able to get away with lying and creating fake “fact check” accounts, discrediting the work of fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact and contributing to broader issues with political debate.

First among these is misleading voters by trying to pose as a neutral or unknown source to influence opinion. Not only is it dishonest. It also leads to a sense of distrust – not just in politics but in other institutions such as the media and academia. It also ends with people putting up barriers and becoming more isolated, getting stuck in echo chambers. Great for Facebook targeting – not so great for democracy.

Secondly, this division leads to solutions that only work for a small group of highly engaged people. Everyone else is disaffected and exhausted. As a result, policy-making turns into something that is short term and does not benefit the community in its entirety. It leads to an environment of pettiness when pragmatism is often what is required.

Ultimately, this pettiness turns into a sense of powerlessness and the differences between people become more pronounced, as those in charge start attributing blame to other groups. Take this election for example, where the Prime Minister blamed “remainers” for the delay when his deal had been voted for in principle by those he criticised. Rather than bringing people together, this served to drive a further wedge between 52% and 48% of UK voters.

And this also had a wider impact on attitudes to particular minority groups as people feel entitled and empowered to exclude people or claim “their” territory. While the data is not there yet, I have heard more anecdotes about Islamophobic and homophobic abuse in the last few months than I have before.

This effect can be seen in an especially stark way on social media. Twitter replies on the most innocent of tweets can be a dark place, where personal attacks are rife, and the focus is not as much on what is said, but who is saying it. It feels like there is a void of meaningful debate and engagement around the substance of arguments. Surely for there to be progress, this needs to happen.

Another theme to arise from the election is the avoidance of scrutiny. This has been seen in both the PM and Corbyn refusing to do some of the TV debates, and the Prime Minister refusing to sit down with Andrew Neil for an interview – who had some choice words to say.

This avoidance of scrutiny sets a precedent that senior politicians can act in this way, and treat the public with a casual disregard. The fact that Johnson won by avoiding difficult questions and detail is a worrying trend. There is no easy way to move on but to attempt to foster a culture of people questioning what they read and demanding detail.

While this has focused on the Conservatives mainly, there are some themes here which apply to other parties. Labour activists on social media were cajoling people and spreading fake polls to try bolstering the perception that they were in the lead. Jeremy Corbyn was presenting documents in a not particularly honest way. The Liberal Democrats’ “bollocks to Brexit” strategy alienated leave voters. The Brexit Party seemed to shift its position every five minutes.

Any way you look at it, the election was a disaster for the British public.

What needs to be done is some research into the political climate, and the best way of doing this is listening to people. Perhaps this decade can mark a shift to listening and acting in the interests of everyone, rather than just for those who are engaged and making people believe they have a stake in the future.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – the NHS

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the third of this series, the focus is on the NHS.

For a few years now, there have been countless discussions about NHS funding gaps and any investment being made in the health service only enough to stem decline rather than to further improve it.

Some of the stats make for uncomfortable reading. According to the Health Foundation:

Essential parts of the NHS in England are experiencing the worst performance against waiting times targets since the targets were set.

The Health Foundation (https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/nhs-performance-and-waiting-times#lf-section-49181-anchor)

This covers waiting times in A&E departments and for routine treatments in England. However, there are also problems in Wales and Scotland, even when there are different parties with responsibility for the NHS (due to devolution). Speaking in a more general sense, the Health Foundation adds:

If the NHS is to achieve its long-term vision of a service that can prevent ill-health, better manage long-term conditions, and treat people earlier, NHS staff will need time, space and skills to make change at all levels of the health and care system.  

The Health Foundation (https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/nhs-performance-and-waiting-times#lf-section-49181-anchor)

This just highlights the challenges faced by the NHS, and that the problems faced by it have no simple solutions.

Alongside this, little has been done to address the social care crisis, where this is a still substantial deficit and a perceived lack of leadership on something which is only going to become more complex as the population continues to age. There is also a blame game, where nobody is apparently taking ownership.

There have also been high expectations of the Health Service to better address mental health treatment and to invest in new treatments – yet, the budget for the NHS is struggling to catch up and does not have the option to be proactive. The Conservatives committed to the “biggest” spending increase on health for a “generation” in their manifesto, amounting to £34bn (excluding inflation). That figure initially sounds impressive, but according to Full Fact:

Whether or not you count inflation, the funding that’s been announced for the NHS won’t be enough to address future issues the service will face, according to expert think tanks.

Full Fact (https://fullfact.org/election-2019/nhs-spending-biggest-boost/)

The Conservatives were widely criticised for some of the other commitments made regarding the NHS, such as building new hospitals. Again, let’s hear what Full Fact said about this commitment in their manifesto:

One of the key pledges that appears in the manifesto, to build “40 new hospitals”, does not appear to be costed in this manifesto, as most of them are not intended to be built during the next parliament. £2.7 billion was committed in September this year to upgrade six existing hospitals, while the remaining hospitals were allocated £100 million to develop plans for upgrades. But there is no money yet for any actual building work on these, and the scheme has “the aim of delivering between 2025 and 2030”.

Full Fact (https://fullfact.org/election-2019/conservative-manifesto-2019/)

There is also an issue of recruitment, where the Government made a vague commitment to 50,000 new nurses. Even this figure is misleading as it includes 18,500 existing nurses who will be encouraged to stay. It seems with the promises are soundbites rather than anything with more substantial planning behind it. This is concerning, particularly as the Conservatives have been in charge since 2010.

Linked to this, there has been more talk about the era of austerity being over, with increases in investment pledged for the Police. Sticking with this example, when the stats are interrogated further, the increase in Police numbers would still not fully account for the total roles cut since the Conservatives came to power.

A broader point arising from this is that there are a growing number of issues with public services, which are becoming difficult to manage, and require a longer-term view rather than short-term initiatives to plug a gap. They also require investment, and with this honesty with voters that for high-quality public services there is going to be a premium to pay. Decisions also need to be made about what the priorities really are. The woes faced by the NHS are merely a symptom of this failure to act in a meaningful way.

Those with responsibility for health and social care provision have a real opportunity as we enter a new decade to think carefully about both short and long-term priorities and how to address them in a way that is realistic about the costs. This needs to cross party lines, with balanced input from experts.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – climate emergency

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the second of this series, the focus is on the environment.

This year saw a growing awareness of environmental issues, with groups such as Extinction Rebellion and individuals including Greta Thunberg urging immediate action while deploying methods including student strikes and widespread disruption. It meant that the environment was put firmly on the agenda.

Some of the techniques employed by the former group were controversial, including targeting public transport systems such as the London Underground when commuters were trying to get to work. A few of their blockades also required the police to intervene, leading to questions about where the line could be drawn.

The student climate strikes, encouraged by TIME’s person of the year – Greta Thunberg – were criticised by the Government for disrupting education; however, this appeared to have the desired effect by leading people to acknowledge the issue the strikes were about. Outside of the strikes, additional pressure was piled on world leaders to take action at several summits throughout the year, particularly those such as the United States who unilaterally withdrew from the Paris agreements in recent years.

Something that stood out was Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit. This is an example of a speech from someone who is truly passionate and is not afraid to speak their mind at length. It is inspirational that a person who is not a politician or part of an institution has made such an impact. It also shows that things can be done outside of the conventional political realm, and has also engaged a generation of young people – which is commendable.

The strategy of all of these groups and people is starting to pay off, as shown by a range of stats. YouGov found that environmental concern is at a record level, posting the following graph in July:

Another set of data from YouGov demonstrated that many people consider that climate change would have serious consequences, including wars, economic damage and displacement.

There have also been further moves to reduce the level of single-use plastics, with the (re-)introduction of public water fountains and supermarkets announcing strategies to eliminate these materials. Outside of this, what have the responses been among politicians and how has the UK been doing?

The Government announced that they would ensure the UK reached net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, significantly revising the legislation in place calling for an 80% reduction. “Net-zero” provides some room for manoeuvre, meaning that these should be avoided completely, or additional trees and mitigating measures should be implemented.

All parties committed to environmental action in their election manifestos; with the Conservatives promising an Environment Bill which would include a new regulator and further action on the use of plastics.

However, some have said that the action does not go far enough, with Greenpeace claiming that the UK will miss several targets in 2020. More details can be found here.

That said, it does appear to be the right direction of travel when looking at some stats such as greenhouse gas emissions, although the pace is not necessarily as rapid as it should be. Official stats from the ONS show that between 1992 and 2018, there was a 32.4% reduction.

On a more general level, several issues need to be resolved, and quickly. This also needs to be multilateral, as action from a single country will not suffice.

The actions which are taken on the environment in 2020 will have a significant impact, and as developments this year indicate, there are many things outside of the standard political arena that can be done. Alongside greater public awareness, perhaps we will see more movement as we look to a new decade. The question is whether this will be enough.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?