Marvellous Time Ruining Everything: Why empowering fringe politicians has been such a mistake

Back in the mists of time when I worked in the House of Commons there were plenty of MPs who were at best on the fringes of their parties. They were widely regarded by their colleagues as idiosyncratic or eccentric; in some cases they had tipped over into monomania. But with no chance of them ever needing to exercise power, of becoming Ministers or Shadows, they were essentially seen as harmless, and often indulged and treated with some affection.

On the Labour side there was an ‘awkward squad’ which included people like Bob Cryer, Alan Simpson, Paul Flynn – and Jeremy Corbyn. They had a fine time doing things like objecting to private legislation (a particular bugbear for someone working in that area, as I was) and refusing to follow the Labour whip. For many of them this rebelliousness reached its peak when Tony Blair was in power: during the 2001-05 Parliament Mr Corbyn defied his party’s whip 148 times. The Conservatives had people like Bill Cash, Tony Marlow and Sir Teddy Taylor, and others who regularly abstained or voted against their party, for example over the Maastricht Treaty. And quite a few of the Liberal Democrat MPs of the time could reasonably be described as eccentric.

Everyone who worked in Parliament had a story to tell about their dealings with these folk, using told with a smile and a roll of the eyes. I once sought out Mr Cash, as he was then, for a discussion about a completely innocuous Statutory Instrument Committee he was due to chair and on which I was the clerk, only to find myself listening to a lengthy monologue about a dastardly – but entirely unrelated – act on the part of the European Union. But again, it didn’t really matter. I listened politely and the Committee itself went off without a hitch.

All of these people were a long way from power, so whether or not they were competent didn’t really matter. But then came 2015, and the strange combination of events that led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party. Affection, or maybe the sense that he was a harmless outsider, was part of the reason he ended up in the top job: more than one of those who nominated him had no intention of supporting him. But as he got closer and closer to wielding real power many ended up regretting their decision. Bringing someone in from the fringes with no track record of competent delivery began to look like a big mistake.

Once in post those fears were realised. Mr Corbyn filled many senior positions in the party with fellow travellers from his part of the party, and for a while it looked like they had captured Labour forever. But it turned out that competence matters to voters. Keir Starmer realised immediately on becoming leader that the most important trait he had to demonstrate was that he knew what he was doing; he has made progress but the road back has already been a long one and he has much further to go. How he must regret the misplaced indulgence shown by far too many people who should have known better.

For a long time the Conservative Party looked on at the Labour Party’s travails with smug complacency. What happened with Corbyn could never happen to us Tories, has been the refrain; we would never allow our party to be captured by the lunatic fringe. And despite the party’s divisions over Europe for a long time it seemed that it would at least continue to promote competent leaders: Theresa May was not exciting but she appeared to be a solid senior manager. But once she went the slide into bringing in fringe figures of questionable competence accelerated.

It is all too easy to question the abilities of Boris Johnson. In any other circumstances would a man who was sacked by The Times and by Michael Howard and who was widely derided for his performance as Foreign Secretary (and who is now clinging on by his fingertips in No10) have been trusted with the top job? Of course not: he is the Conservatives’ Corbyn, but he made the right call, electorally, on Brexit, and he is significantly better on television. He does have some competent Ministers in his Cabinet: Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Therese Coffey are amongst those who seem to know what they are doing. But the list of people in important roles who in normal circumstances would have been obscure figures far from the levers of power does not begin and end with Jacob Rees Mogg. Whatever happens next there is an urgent job to do to root out those brought in from the fringes and promoted far beyond their abilities.

Because in terms of having a competent frontbench the Labour Party is much further down the road than the Conservatives: at least they have realised there is a problem. As I’ve said, Keir Starmer has made a good start, and in Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting, amongst others, he has put together a team that is starting to exude competence and also confidence. If they carry on this way, and the Conservatives don’t raise their game, then Labour will have a chance at the next election just on the basis of whether they look and act the part. Time for whoever succeeds Mr Johnson to return some fringe folk back to the margins.

Champagne problems: Why being irate about spending a few quid on an important lunch is not just ridiculous, but dangerous

Perhaps it was because the festivities were over and the prospect of a long Dry January was looming that prompted so many people to get so upset. Perhaps it was just a slow news day. But the leak of emails from civil servants questioning the cost and location of a lunch given by the Foreign Secretary for the US Trade Representative prompted a short-lived but intense storm on social media and in the newspapers this week. Which leaves me asking: why?

The facts are that the Foreign Secretary wanted to provide a working lunch as part of talks with the USTR, Katherine Tai. Ten people were to attend. Given the nature of the conversation a private dining room was required. Presumably the Minister and her advisors wanted to impress. So they proposed (or “insisted upon”) going to the private members’ club, 5 Hertford Street, and ended up paying £130 a head including drinks.

Cue snide headlines implying that Liz Truss somehow personally benefitted (this was an official event and she didn’t). Others spotted that the club is owned by Robin Birley who donated to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign (although it is doubtful that he is so short of cash that he was desperate for the profit margin on a £1300 bill). And there was a general feeling that “public money” was being squandered on an “obviously expensive” meal, and that probably they should have gone somewhere cheaper.

Where even to start with this? At a time when there are so many things to criticise the Government for, and so many reasons to question Liz Truss’s record, spending a few quid on a really important working meal is ridiculous and infantile. For one thing, how much money spent at what location would be acceptable? The civil servants apparently thought Quo Vadis at £100 a head would be okay. But would that have passed muster with the self-appointed auditors general online? It is impossible to know.

This matters for two reasons. First, it demonstrates how pathetically penny-pinching our attitudes towards public bodies have become. Do we really want to entertain a senior official from our closest ally on the cheap? What does that say about us and our global standing? Wouldn’t we rather impress, showcase the best that the UK has to offer (Hertford Street isn’t that, but it is the principle that counts!) and demonstrate that we matter?

This all reminds me of working in Parliament and someone suggesting that Select Committee fact-finding visits should be conducted via low cost airlines. Fine, obviously public money shouldn’t be spent frivolously, but does it really present the best image of the UK to the world for senior Parliamentarians to stumble off planes filled with boozy stag parties to go into meetings in which they are representing our country? Whilst we wouldn’t want to go as far as the US, which sends a huge entourage with every visiting member of Congress, surely we can have a bit of pride?

I appreciate that focusing on this aspect of the story is idiosyncratic. Maybe what we spend on diplomacy, hard and soft, is not important. But it is indicative of an attitude in which almost any spending on anything (perhaps other than the NHS) is viewed by many, including in the media, as inherently wasteful. We are particularly cheeseparing when it comes to pay or to working conditions. This damages our public services in countless ways, not least the difficulties faced in attracting and retaining good quality staff. Being cheap is not always efficient. We need to think again.

The second, and most important reason this matters is that this story reflects a dangerous lack of understanding of where our taxes actually go. Spending this amount on lunch might on one level sound like a lot, but by comparison to what Government spends – and wastes – on so many other things it is not even remotely relevant. For example, it takes the NHS around a third of a second to spend what Ms Truss did on lunch. Yet coverage of the mechanics of health policy (as opposed to individual cases and coronavirus) is incredibly slight when compared to the front pages devoted to this restaurant bill.

The endless stories about sleazy politicians – and yes, profligate lunch choices – obscure what is really important. Polling published just before Christmas showed that the public believes that fully 8 percent of public spending goes on MPs’ pay, an over-estimate of staggering proportions. But they also think that only 11 percent goes on pensions and benefits (the real figure is 26 percent). This feeds upon itself: the public is interested in political sleaze so there are more and more stories about it, so we think it is far more important than it really is – and inevitably we end up collectively focused on the wrong things.

I am not at all sure how we break out of this cycle. But the mainstream media definitely has a role to play. It could do a better job of filtering out whether a ‘political sleaze’ story really matters (or even really involves much sleaze) and of instead looking in detail at the many ways Ministers spend billions of pounds of our money. Maybe that would make the media unreadable and uninteresting. But it is what we as taxpayers need, and so it surely has to be worth a try. Something has to change.

Bending to the Wind: Sustainability in 2022

Until 2021 became all about Covid (again), it was meant to be a key year in the struggle for a more sustainable future. The EU continued with its pledge to build back better via its Recovery Fund, whilst the UK was meant to be building back greener and in the US President Biden promised a $2 trillion package of green investments. In March, China published its 14th five year plan, which focused largely on climate change. And COP26 in Glasgow in November was intended to put a cap on all of this activity with new pledges to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and to promote greater resilience.

It’s not entirely clear that 2021 delivered all that might have been hoped for in terms of the climate. Glasgow saw some positive developments, including far greater engagement from the private sector and from cities and other public institutions, but did not end with the blockbuster intergovernmental deal that had been hoped for. And whilst campaigners against hydrocarbons would have been cheered by the decision of another major mining company to exit coal when Anglo American spun out its operations in that sector this year they might have been less thrilled when the new company, Thungela Resources, ended the year up more than 150% in value as investors warmed to coal in the face of soaring prices for natural gas.

Just today we have learned that Germany has shut down three of its remaining six nuclear power stations with the rest to follow this year. I am obviously a fan of nuclear, having worked for the industry for years, but it is indisputable that the decisions taken in that country post-Fukushima, known as the Energiewende, have caused much more coal to be burned than would otherwise have been the case. It will be intriguing to see how the new Greenish Government in Berlin responds to the reality that Germany’s emissions remain much higher than other major European nations, particularly with the 12% of its electricity generation that it got from very low carbon nuclear in 2021 not being available at the end of 2022.

So we go into 2022 on the back of some more downbeat news when it comes to our climate. But perhaps this is no bad thing. For a long time there has been a tendency for politicians from all nations and of every political persuasion to make sweeping commitments to address this subject without much realistic thinking about how these will be delivered. For example, the UK has pledged to decarbonise domestic heating but it is far from clear where all of the tens of thousands of installers of heat pumps will come from. Countries everywhere want to phase out petrol and diesel cars and promote electric vehicles but are lagging behind when it comes to ensuring their electricity grids will be ready. Governments are promoting renewables without much thought about intermittency, as the UK’s experience this Autumn showed. And only lately have questions started to be asked about the true sustainability of batteries with their reliance on rare minerals, often from challenging geopolitical locations.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is who will foot the bill for all of these changes. The speed and scale of the transition needed means that taxpayers and consumers are going to face significant extra costs. There are already signs of a backlash; for example, prominent politicians from the governing party in the UK such as Steve Baker MP are aligned with a new campaigning group called ‘Net Zero Watch’, which aims to “highlight the serious economic and societal implications of expensive and poorly considered climate and energy policies”. But this is not just the domain of sceptics about climate science: plenty of organisations which fully accept that urgent action is needed are nevertheless worried about the fairness of loading new costs on people who can’t afford them.

The hope for 2022 is that the debate will become much more practical, much more realistic, and much more action-orientated. After all, there is actually broad agreement about the steps required, at least in the UK, so now let’s see how in practice we can make them happen. And let’s also start to be much more realistic about adaptation and resilience too: even if increases in temperature are limited the climate is still changing. Time to harness the more positive aspects of the debate in Glasgow – the interest shown by cities, companies and others, the new focus on resilience, and the innovations on show when it comes to financing the transition, as well as the evolution of the debate to consider nature and biodiversity as well as carbon alone. Time too to think about the skilled workforce we are going to need to get this right. If we do this the next 12 months could actually be the pivotal year for sustainability that 2021 was meant to be.