Tag Archives: Conservative Party

The Daily Cost of Servicing Our Debt

This diagram graphically represents the size of our daily spending on servicing our debt in comparison with our daily spend on other areas.    It is a sobering reminder ahead of today’s budget of why eliminating the structural deficit must be a priority.   The depressing thing is that controlling the deficit will not change the daily interest on the existing debt – it’ll just stop it getting bigger and bigger.   We’re going to be paying for the party in the 90s for a long, long time to come.

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Filed under Economy, UK, UK Politics

Conservative Policy Forum Launch

The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”.   The sentiment was spot on.   New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence.   It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of  an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.


Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum.  100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham.  The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content.   The gist was:

  • they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
  • This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF.  It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
  • To  help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
  • they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
  • They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
  • They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..

It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that:  It took an hour and half.  The irony in launching something  to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by  lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost.  It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session.  I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’  – as a flavour she was asked:  “who elected the regional co-ordinators?  Who elected the forum council?  Who elected you Madam Chairman?  Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”.    Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role.  Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.

Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF.  He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job.   Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it.  The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then.   Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea.  In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative.  He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”).    For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:

  • Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
  • Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
  • Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
  • Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
  • >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
  • Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
  • Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
  • Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
  • Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’

I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking.  It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.

Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF.  It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash.   The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party.  We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.

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Put the armour on. 2011 is going to Hurt

Happy New Year.   Or is it?  The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country.   Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up.  The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in.  Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker.  Things will get worse before they get better.  We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services,  the VAT rise will trickle to the till,  we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel  -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago.  Health and education reforms will spook the Unions.   Protest will spread.

The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve.   It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term.  It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing.  With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless.  The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one.  The challenge now is to be competent in delivery.   The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery.  If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015.  Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.

Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government.  We’re not.  It is their choices, it is their fault”  This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier.  Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument.  The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.

The lessons are there in History.  Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today.  For the whole period between of 80 and 82  it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power.  Nerve was held.  The budget worked.  Britain, after the pain, prospered.   Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands.   But we must also learn from that period.  Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again.  That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program –  but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver .  This is the year to get moving.   It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests.  Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.

So on that dour note, I say again:  Happy New Year.  Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.

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Tuition Fees D-Day: Final Thoughts

There will not be a  single Coalition MP went into politics to triple tuition fees.   Yet here we are.  A depressing truth of wielding power is often-times the only responsible choices boil down to picking ‘the least worst thing’.  I wont repeat in any depth my own sad feelings on today’s vote – you can see them here.

In all the noise we’ve had on the subject you can break down the core theme into two parts:

  • The fact of a raise in the cap on fees three-fold  (Boo)
  • The funding arrangements for their payment (Yay)

The removal of the cap stinks for everyone who will be impacted.   I have two kids to think about and the figures terrify me.  That said, given the nation is skint the realistic choices were always to either:

  1. have fewer people go to university (when it was free for all we only sent 10% of the population)
  2. keep aspiring to allow 50% of the population to benefit from higher education but revisit funding to ensure we can afford it.
  3. no change, keep the current funding arrangements regardless and keep adding to the structural deficit

Only 1 & 2 above were realistic (unless we wish to end up like Ireland).  We chose 2 (as would Labour).    And here we are.  Even the right choices can have unpopular consequences.

Which then brings us to the arrangements for payments.  One of the things that has got lost in the debate due to the understandable focus on the headline price increase is the new repayment regime.  This is a great leap forward from what we currently have in place.  There is an excellent website here which covers this in depth and debunks an number of the myths floating about.

Away from the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation the other thing that fascinates me about today’s vote is the Lib Dem position.  They really are between a rock and a hard place.  As I noted last week they need this Coalition to work.  One of their fundamental beliefs is Proportional Representation.  PR would make coalition government the norm not the exception.  Coalition requires compromise.  They either stick to their coalition agreement, vote with the Government and take an electoral beating else they pander to the public noise and surrender any future argument on the viability of governing under PR.   It must be a nightmare choice for them.   I’m hopeful that Clegg will carry them over the line in choosing to do the right thing over the popular thing but have no doubt that if an election was called tomorrow they would be wiped out as a result of this issue.  This means if the vote does pass then they will need distance between today and the next election so that they have positive achievements to point to as counterbalance to today’s resentment.  For this reason, IF the fees vote passes today I am more confident than ever that this Coalition will go the full distance – any Lib Dem recovery will depend upon it.


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Insider View of Coalition Negotiations

On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May.  The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*.  For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.

A  blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that.  I will just summarise my take-away points:

  • The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing.  Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats.  Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats.  He was way out.
  • The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place.  Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go.  At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November.  They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
  • The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament.  Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
  • The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario.   They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously.   Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position.   The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform  (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject).  I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder.  He didn’t think so.   I personally do wonder.  Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
  • Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes.  When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
  • On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.

It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak.  He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet.   If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing.  His replacement is not half as able.  I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply.   On reflection, I could live with that.

* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.

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Whatever You Think of Him, Why We Should All Stand Up For Gareth Compton

It is the stuff of nightmares.  You’re listening to a radio interview.  The interviewee  winds you up by saying that you have no moral authority to take a view on human rights.  You react immediately by putting on Twitter an ironic response to that specific point.  You don’t think hard.  You just hit send.   Just another moment in the day, just  another narky tweet.   Then things get out-of-hand.   Within 24 hours this tweet makes worldwide news headlines.  Next there are statements made in Parliament.  Next the police come and arrest you.  For Gareth Compton this nightmare is a terrifying reality.

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really,

Any reasonable person given just those words to judge would conclude that the author is a bigot, an idiot and nasty.  I know Gareth Compton.  He is none of those things.  But you only have that one tweet to judge him on.  So I don’t expect you to believe me.

Context matters.  He was listening to Alibhai-Brown on a Radio 5 Interview (which you can hear in full here – fast-forward to 53 minutes).   Alibhai-Brown made her point that British politicians do not have any moral right to protest human rights abuses including the stoning of women in other countries.  She claimed only human rights groups or Nelson Mandela should engage in that debate.  I can imagine Gareth’s jaw dropping with outrage at the assertion he should shut-up on human rights.  He is, and I don’t expect you to believe this either, a believer in human rights and a fighter of bigotry.

If you knew Gareth, were listening to the radio and clocked the tweet when the interview was playing you would probably have ‘got it’.  You may not have found it funny, you may still have taken offence but you would have ‘got it’.  The world doesn’t know Gareth and wasn’t listening to the radio when the tweet went up.  So, the world didn’t ‘get’ it.  Truth be told, even with full context it is neither funny nor clever and has an unpleasant snarl to it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t incitement to murder. It is simply what the kids would call ‘an epic fail’ in joke telling.  Since when was that a crime?

Gareth Compton is a grown man and a partisan politician.  He takes and gives heaps in the virtual political bun-fights that litter the internet.  He has apologised unreservedly but in the rough and tumble of politics he would now expect the opposition vultures to circle and tear shreds.  If the boot was on the other foot he would do the same.  He would expect calls for ‘resignation’.  He would expect the Conservative Party to suspend him given the furore.  All of that is fair game in the playground of local politics.  But the Police? Arrest? Criminal charges?  Come on.

Voltaire famously nearly said:  “Sir, I do not agree that your jokes are funny, but I will defend unto death your right to tell them”.   I would appeal to anyone who has ever said anything knee-jerk in a pub, who ever momentarily wished harm to George Bush and said so, who has ever said anything they regretted, or ever had anything they said taken out of context (which must be all of us, right?) to stand up for Gareth in the event of any prosecution.

Even if you still think he is an idiot, a bigot, and nasty (he isn’t).  Even if his politics are Mars to your Venus.  Stand up against this thought police nonsense.

This whole sorry affair has left me terrified to type.   I have a real sadness that the hysteria that these storms whip up will deter our politicians from engaging in new social media.   It brings to mind the telling scene in “The Social Network” where the main character is confronted by an ex-girlfriend he berated on his blog.   His apology falls hollow, she looks him in the eye and says with all the power of a great metaphor –  “The internet is not written in pencil.  It is written in ink.”   It is a lesson for us all.

Nevertheless, no matter how staggeringly misjudged Gareth was, the chain of consequences has been out of all proportion.  I honestly wish Gareth well.  I believe his apology and I hope that Alibhai-Brown can find the grace within herself to accept it.  I trust the Conservative Party will be fair in their investigation and measured in subsequent action.  Our democracy needs us to have the right to say daft and wrong things without criminalising us.  We already saw yesterday with the mad judgement in the Robin Hood Airport case that this right is vanishing.  So most of all –  I pray that all thinking people – whatever their political hue or view of Gareth – demand the CPS drop this case.

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Filed under Centre Right, Indulgent, Politics, UK, UK Politics

Conservative Party Chairmen’s Briefing to West Midlands Associations

About 70 Conservative party members – mainly of a mixture of Association execs, PPCs and the like – yesterday attended the West Midlands ‘Meet the Chairmen Briefing’  with Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldmen at the Richo Arena in Coventry.   I wouldn’t wish to betray any confidences (if there were any) so will just summarise the key points that landed with me for those who may have been unable to attend.

It was a relaxed ‘cosy sofa’ arrangement and started with them each doing a ten minute turn explaining their division of labour and current priorities.  Warsi made the point that her luxury over other Cabinet members is that everyone else is slightly constrained by the nature of Coalition but in her role at least she can be fully ‘blue’ in everything she does.  Her part of the job is the ‘political side’.  Feldman started by acknowledging he was still newish to the Party; “I was mates with Dave at Uni, he asked me to help out with fundraising during his leadership campaign, and it has just sort of grown from there”.  His role is “the back office stuff of the professional party”.  He gave a confident and refreshingly frank account of the drivers for the recent reshuffle of CCHQ and reassurance that party finances are sound.

The meat of the event was the Q&A session:

  • There was a question to the likelihood of the Coalition going the distance – there was some nervousness in the room about Lib Dem stability and Party readiness if things go wrong.  Warsi was robust that we’ve signed up for five years and we’re going to do five years.  Things can and do change in Politics but there is every expectation that we will go the distance.  Party plans, whilst still flexible to sudden change, assume we will.  There are a stream of near term milestones ahead of the next General Election (local elections, referendum etc.) and, to paraphrase slightly, locally we shouldn’t let hypothetical events distract our focus from the visible and certain horizon.
  • There was a discussion about Membership.  For this newish member it was refreshing to hear the Chairmen both acknowledge that joining the Conservatives can be a variable experience depending on local Association.  I have described my feeling of trying to get involved as less like pushing on an open door, more having to shoulder-barge it.  Yet when I changed associations I could hardly have been made more welcome.  They understand this variance is a real problem and are looking at it.  Overall membership numbers remains OK but the average age of members is higher than we would like which is something else they wish to address.  Warsi was clearly frustrated at reports that a small number of local associations were still showing quite an exclusive mindset – she summed this up:  “The Conservative Party is a political party.  It is not a dining club.”  The subtext to the answer was that the Parliamentary Party and the Professional Party have made huge strides in looking and feeling like modern Britain in their make-up without any compromise to core values but some local associations within the voluntary party have not kept up.   This got Warsi onto the topic of diversity and after stating her long-standing rejection of quotas or gender/ethnic shortlists she launched into a familiar but always enjoyable rant about taking no hypocritical lessons from Labour about party diversity when at a time their leadership contest is realistically a battle between white Oxford grads she as a Muslim woman from a city and this ‘Jewish business chap’ sit together at the top table of our Party on their merits.
  • There is a full review of the way candidates are appointed underway.  The A-List has gone.  Open primaries, whilst attractive, are prohibitively expensive and a device best reserved for very specific circumstances. Whilst it is clear there is advantage in getting candidates in early, we have time to get the new process right as there is no point in beginning selections until the boundary changes have been announced in two years time.  It is likely that the candidates list (which will also be reviewed) will be re-opened ahead of those next selections.  The principal of local associations picking their candidates is one Warsi supports, and Feldman sees as a real hook for getting new people to join the party.
  • We can and will get more from our investment in the Merlin system at the next election.

The event hit the right note.  It felt like genuine two-way engagement with the grass-roots.  They will have walked away having heard some genuine frustrations about candidate selections whilst the Associations will have walked away with some real food for thought about how to make new members welcome and get them involved.  I was encouraged by everything I heard.  I take heart they remain committed to continue making the Conservative Party more attractive to that large part of a generation who grew up believing it was anything but.  This absolutely can be achieved without any sacrifice to core principals.  Only if we continue to crack that one we will have a chance to push-on for a full majority in 2015.

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