All posts by MikeH

Sexual harassment scandal plagues Westminster

Westminster is a place I largely admire. It is a place of great history, great tradition and great prestige. This week though, has not been a good week for Westminster. Allegations of inappropriate behaviour by MPs across the political spectrum have haunted Westminster. The scandal began when reports emerged of female researchers and aides using a WhatsApp group to share information about alleged sexual abuse and harassment in Westminster.

Whilst this story is ongoing, it is first important to remember two things. Firstly, all have to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, there is a major difference between two consenting adults engaging in a relationship and claims of sexual misconduct or harassment.

At time of writing, the biggest casualty is former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who was forced to resign after admitting his conduct had “fallen short.” This has not stopped further stories about Fallon, including reports of sexual assault, which he strongly denies. Additionally, first Secretary of State Damien Green is facing an investigation. The senior Cabinet Minister is accused of making inappropriate advances to a female activist and Conservative journalist. Furthermore, backbench Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke has seen the whip removed following “serious allegations.” The Times reports that according to a former senior Conservative Minister, seven members of the Cabinet are considering their position.

Labour too has faced a difficult week. At the beginning of the week a Labour activist claimed she was raped at a Labour Party event in 2011 and advised not to report the story. Later in the week, veteran MP Kelvin Hopkins was suspended over a sexual misconduct claim. Reports claim Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had previously been warned about Hopkins. Lastly, on Friday the Labour Party announced they were investigating Clive Lewis over allegations he groped a woman at Labour Party Conference. This followed swiftly accusations against former Minister Ivan Lewis who accepted his behaviour towards female women had been “unwelcome.”

Undoubtedly, these revelations provide further evidence Westminster needs a culture change. Powerful men for too long have been exploiting their position. They have abused young aides (mainly women) both verbally and physically who have felt powerless to act knowing these MPs had great power over their future career. This is a situation no-one should have to face. It has likely caused some to leave Westminster and others to shy away from jobs in Parliament. This is a wake-up call for Westminster and one they should heed. It is time for action.

 

 

What to do about Boris?

Boris Johnson is a politician who divides opinion; a marmite figure if you will. Not many sit on the fence when it comes to the Foreign Secretary. Boris is also a figure it is hard to keep out of the news. His ‘unique’ style and tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time makes him a journalist’s dream. Qualities that some might argue are not becoming of a Foreign Secretary.

This week Boris has found himself under pressure again following comments he made to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Foreign Secretary stated that a British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe jailed in Iran had been teaching people journalism at the time of her arrest. Her family and employer have always maintained she was on holiday at the time of the arrest. The Iranian judiciary and media have seized upon these comments and claimed he has now revealed the truth about her actions. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already been sentenced to five years in jail, but could now see this sentence increase as a result of the remarks.

Mr Johnson has since apologised if his comments had “caused anxiety.” This apology of sorts does not go far enough for many and senior Conservatives have called for the Foreign Secretary to be sacked. Mr Johnson has also said that he is willing to meet the husband of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe before he visits Iran in a couple of weeks. This is a trip which could have potentially serious ramifications for his future.

When considering whether the Foreign Secretary should be sacked, it is important to remember we don’t live in normal political times and he is not a normal case.

Presently, Theresa May has limited power. Two Secretaries of State, Sir Michael Fallon and Priti Patel have just resigned from the Government. Parliamentary arithmetic is difficult and Brexit legislation dividing the party is coming fast down the line. This is not an ideal time to sack your Brexiteer Foreign Secretary.

Furthermore, for all his faults Boris is a ‘Heineken politician.’ He reaches the parts of the electorate few other can’t. He was the Conservative candidate who won the mayoralty in Labour London twice. He was the spearhead behind Vote Leave’s success in the EU Referendum. This would be a man people could flock to on the backbenches.

When deciding her next move the Prime Minister has a lot to consider. Britain cannot afford to have a Foreign Secretary who endangers the lives of our citizens abroad. However does the Prime Minister have the authority to carry out the sacking and would she survive the resulting repercussions? It is an unenviable position for a Prime Minister already on life support to face.

Universities must remain bastions of free speech

Free speech and open debate are qualities we rightly hold in high esteem in this country. The university system embodies these qualities. They provide a place for students to explore their political views and beliefs and debate with fellow pupils. This environment is precious and to be protected fiercely.

So why do these initial points need to be made? The answer can be found in a letter sent this week by Conservative MP and whip Chris Heaton-Harris. Mr Heaton-Harris had written to every university asking for the names of the academics teaching about Brexit. Later it has been claimed Mr Heaton-Harris was acting in his capacity as an MP and not acting on behalf of the Government, with the letter designed for academic research.

This has not spared Mr Heaton-Harris a fierce rebuke from both the political and university sectors. Universities Minister Jo Johnson said the letter “probably shouldn’t have been sent.” Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake believed the letter was “a poorly disguised attempt to shut down debate on Brexit.” Professor David Green, vice-Chancellor at the University of Worcester believed the letter constituted a “British McCarthyism”, with Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University going further saying the letter was an “extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour – offensive and idiotic Leninism.” There is a possibility now that Mr Heaton-Harris could face an official standards inquiry, after it was claimed that the letters were sent on taxpayer-funded Commons paper.

Brexit is the prevalent issue of our day. Both young and old, university educated and non-university educated have an opinion. It is a conversation that did not end after the referendum and probably will not end for some considerable time. All need the space and the freedom to reach their own conclusions. It is important that we trust our students to reach these positions on their own, even if they are not positions the Government is adopting.

It is unclear whether this was a clumsy attempt to put pressure on universities, or simply part of an ill-thought out academic process. Regardless, it crossed several lines and is not acceptable. The Government should not be in the position of being seen to influence university syllabuses. The condemnation should serve as a warning to any within the political system who would seek to direct our universities and students in a particular political direction.

 

Planning for a “No Deal” Brexit remains sensible!

Newspaper reports have suggested Brexit Secretary David Davis has ordered officials to step up preparations for the possibility of a failure to strike a deal with the EU which Davis would then present to the Cabinet. Labour has reiterated they will not accept a “no-deal” Brexit and that claims the UK could walk away from the EU without a deal are “irresponsible.”

However, surely this is simply sensible planning from the Government? Firstly, as a negotiating party there is a duty to prepare for all outcomes. A “No-Deal” Brexit appears to be gaining traction. (JP Morgan claims the chance of this occurring now sit at 25%.) Secondly, most would argue that to be taken seriously in any negotiation you have to show you are willing to walk away. Failing to do this provides the opposing side with a distinct advantage.

Crucially, though, and this point must be made clear, preparing for a “No-Deal” Brexit does not mean this is a desirable outcome. The call from Brexit pressure group Leave means Leave for Theresa May to walk away from negotiations should EU leaders refuse to start trade talks is irresponsible and dangerous. A “No-Deal” Brexit is not ideal for the country. It fails to provide economic and security agreements and provides no level of certainty. It would also be a significant negotiating failure which would have clear political consequences. So, yes it should be prepared for, but not sought for.

The reality is these negotiations are at an early stage. There is a lot to happen yet. Given that no country has tried to do what we are doing, it is clear this was going to be complex. The idea there wouldn’t be complications or disagreements along the way was simply ludicrous. Clearly, the mood music is not great at present. This does not mean that we should despair.

It is palpably in both sides interests to strike a deal. A “No-Deal” scenario hurts both the EU and the UK (yes it would hurt the UK more than the EU, but the EU will want to avoid unnecessary damage!) That is why it is likely both sides will reach an agreement at some stage. But, until that deal is agreed then the Government and the UK must have a back-up plan. And hopefully that is all this is and will be.

 

Osborne is right over May leadership!

George Osborne, former Conservative MP and Chancellor of Exchequer, now editor of the Evening Standard, threw another grenade into the ongoing conversation about the leadership of Theresa May on Thursday evening. Speaking at an event hosted by The Spectator, Osborne firmly stated there were “very serious challenges” facing the Conservative Party under the leadership of Theresa May.

The political and personal differences between the two are well-known, but if we ignore them and just assess what Osborne said, does he have a point?

Expanding on his main hypothesis, Osborne argued that “closing your eyes and hoping leadership questions go away, or exalting people to unity doesn’t work in politics.” This is a fair assessment. Although, many Conservative MPs have not voiced their concerns about Theresa May in public, it does not mean these concerns don’t exist and aren’t bubbling away and waiting to burst out at an appropriate time. The latest polls indicate Corbyn has now drawn level with May in the best Prime Minister ratings. This will only exacerbate the debate in the Conservative Party.

Osborne also added that it was no good for the Conservative Party to say “oh, I wish we could all stop talking about it” and that you couldn’t talk to a member of the Cabinet without the issue being raised. This adds weight to claims made by Grant Shapps during his aborted coup that there were Cabinet Ministers who wanted Theresa May to call a leadership contest. The Sunday Times also reported that at least three Cabinet Ministers had discussed the need to replace Theresa May. This cannot be merely labelled a ‘Westminster bubble’ issue, this conversation is dominating the highest levels of Government.

Osborne also remains defiant about the belief that the Conservative Party are at their best when they are “positive about the country’s future”.  This is a clear critique of the direction he believes Theresa May is leading the Conservatives in. The performance of the Conservative Party at the General Election raised legitimate questions about the brand of the Conservative Party and what voters believed about them. The damage caused by that campaign and the need for the party to change their image again will only persist whilst Theresa May is leader.

Projecting false senses of unity, insisting conversations aren’t happening and lastly pretending all in the party are happy with its current direction will not close this debate down. Leadership conversations in politics are notoriously messy, but until the Conservative Party have this debate, most crucially about their future direction as a party (and that includes their leader) they will not progress. Surely that is not in anyone’s interest?

Why May survives for now!

Former Conservative leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague once referred to his party as “an absolute monarchy tempered by regicide.” Probably, pretty accurate!

Throughout their chequered history, the Conservative Party has developed a reputation for being ruthless with their leaders, neatly bringing us to the current incumbent and Prime Minister Theresa May.

After a calamitous conference speech, (yes, impacted by some factors outside of her control), a snap election which went badly wrong and a permanent loss of authority, the pressure has been mounting on the Prime Minister.  This pressure reached boiling point this week when a rebellion led by former minister Grant Shapps, with the alleged support of 30 fellow MPs and 5 former Cabinet Ministers publicly called on May to step down.

This number of MPs falls below the 48 threshold needed to force a leadership contest under current Conservative Party rules. Shapps move has been condemned by Tory colleagues who have advised him to “shut up.” Despite the apparent failure of this coup, most senior Tories accept that it is only a matter of time before May has to leave, so why has she survived on this occasion?

The one thing (most likely, the only thing), that the Conservative Party is united on is that they don’t want another General Election for the foreseeable future. This is an election, they would be likely to lose. There are fears that although there is no constitutional pressure to call an election when a Prime Minister is changed, the pressure could lead to exactly this occurrence if May is forced out. It is clear there is a consensus that removing May leads to a situation they cannot control.

Secondly, there is no obvious candidate to replace her. Boris remains popular with the membership, but not so with his colleagues who could block him. Amber Rudd, David Davis or Philip Hammond have also been mentioned but none can make an overwhelming case. The most obvious choice is Ruth Davidson, but she shows no signs of wanting to come to Westminster. Those, and there are many, who want the top job are willing to keep their powder dry until the climate is more favourable towards them.

Lastly, there is Brexit. Brexit impacts everything in our politics. There is a school of thought in the Conservative Party, that with negotiations at a fragile stage this is not the time for a leadership contest. Brexiteers are worried a new leader would seek to halt Brexit and Remainers are worried a new leader would desire a harder Brexit. Both these groups are unwilling to risk a change, with so many factors outside their control.

Theresa May will survive this coup, but is on very thin ice. A Prime Minister with no authority cannot continue indefinitely. The rebels will regroup and will strike again and next time calculations could well have changed for other MPs and potential leaders. It still remains a matter of time.

Labour’s anti-Semitism problem

Labour conference was in buoyant mood this week at Brighton. Understandably so you might say. The mood music was that this was a party with momentum and on the verge of government.

However, in the midst of this jubilant atmosphere, one ugly issue began to rear its head again; anti-Semitism. Remarks at a party fringe event around whether people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened created a worrying sense of deja vu.

Accusations of anti-Semitism have plagued Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership tenure. Immediately after becoming leader Corbyn found himself defending comments he made about Hamas. Controversial remarks from Ken Livingstone then followed in 2016. This, alongside other events, led to the conduction of the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry into allegations of anti-Semitism.

Since last summer the issue has continued to bubble away, but has not flared up again until this moment. There was a hope that a new, stricter rule on anti-Semitism agreed at the conference would put an end to this discussion. Alas not.

The level of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is much debated. Senior Labour MP John Cryer, has said he has been “shocked” by the level of some anti-Semitic tweets sent by party members. Allies of Jeremy Corbyn, however, such as Len McCluskey, Ken Loach and Ken Livingstone argue that these claims of anti-Semitism are driven by leadership plots.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the accusations, this is not an image the Labour Party can shake. This should worry all in Jeremy Corbyn’s team. Ethically, any political party in the 21st century should long have moved on from anti-Semitism, especially one supposedly on the progressive wing of politics.

Electorally, it carries a cost as well. In two heavily Jewish constituencies in London at the 2017 General Election; Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon, the swing towards Labour was notably smaller than elsewhere in London. The 9.1% average swing Labour enjoyed across London would have been enough to win the seats.

Labour as a party need to act swiftly and firmly against these allegations. The longer this whiff of anti-Semitism continues, the more damaging it will be. So, yes question and criticise the actions of the Israeli government if necessary, but know where to draw the line. It is time for the Labour Party to do whatever it needs to, to bring this to an end.

Osborne has over-stepped the line

There is no love lost between George Osborne and Theresa May. The two enjoyed a difficult relationship throughout their time in David Cameron’s Cabinet and often found themselves at odds over policy direction. This feud only heightened when Theresa May sacked Osborne after becoming Prime Minister in 2016 advising Osborne to “get to know the party.”

A lot has happened since then! Official Brexit negotiations have begun. We have had a snap General Election, where unexpectedly Theresa May failed to gain a majority. And, lastly, George Osborne has left Parliament and become Editor of the Evening Standard.

Osborne has enjoyed the freedom of this new role. He has used his newfound influence to stick the knife into the Prime Minister, attacking her on numerous instances. (Examples include the mocking of the Conservative manifesto on election night, labelling the Prime Minister a “dead woman walking and comparing the Prime Minister to the “living dead in a second rate horror film.”

However, recently, Osborne was considered to have a crossed the line in remarks he allegedly made about the Prime Minister. Reportedly, he told colleagues at the Evening Standard he would not rest until Theresa May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer.”

These comments have drawn sharp criticism from Conservative MPs. Nadine Dorries has called for Osborne to be banned from party conference, Jacob Rees-Mogg has labelled Osborne as “bitter”, Iain Duncan Smith called the language “irresponsible” and Maria Miller said “we need to debate with facts, not vile abuse.” The list could go on and on.

Osborne considered himself humiliated when sacked by Theresa May. Therefore, to a certain extent, it is not surprising that he is enjoying the Prime Minister’s demise. Partially that is just human nature in action.

This does not mean though, that Osborne can say whatever he wants and ignore the consequences of his words. Osborne still holds a position of authority and has a duty to act responsibly. Language such as this is provocative at best, and violent at worst. In an era, where MPs and disproportionately female MPs are subject to vile abuse, all engaged in politics should be toning the language down, rather than dialling it up.

Osborne is a man of great ability, but this is beneath him. Osborne in his role should focus on balance, rather than personal attack. Maybe, a period of silence from Osborne would not be disastrous at present.

 

What is Boris up to?

It has been an exhilarating week in Parliament. The Repeal Bill has passed its second reading, the Government has u-turned on the public sector pay cap and Labour gained victories on NHS pay and tuition fees. It has been quite a few days before recess.

Unfortunately, it has also been the week where terror has returned to the country. An explosion at Parsons Green Tube Station saw a number of people injured, although thankfully it appears no loss of life or life threatening injuries. This has led to the Prime Minister raising the security level to critical from severe, meaning an attack is believed to be imminent.

It is amidst this backdrop that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has decided that now is the time to intervene.  In a piece for the Daily Telegraph, Johnson has set out his vision for post-Brexit Britain. Most prominently in this article, Johnson has repeated the controversial claim that leaving the EU would save £350m a week, which could be spent on the NHS. Unsurprisingly, this has created a lot of headlines.



This article has drawn criticism from some senior figures in the Conservative Party. Will Tanner, a former adviser to Theresa May called the article a “prelude to resignation” and Ruth Davidson in what was widely perceived as an attack on Boris Johnson said at the present time “the only thoughts should be on service.” Another unnamed Conservative MP described this as an “extraordinarily selfish act.”

Allies of the Foreign Secretary have claimed the article was authorised by 10 Downing Street and that Johnson was merely setting out his position. However, accepting this argument is highly naïve. When penning this article, Johnson and allies would have known it would be interpreted as a leadership bid and the resulting problems this could then cause the Prime Minister, who is due to give a major Brexit speech on Friday. Johnson is no novice.

It is unclear what Johnson is up to here. Leadership; resignation; clearing his name; putting pressure on the PM or a mixture of these things. Take your pick! Regardless, the timing is appalling and will not help the Foreign Secretary or his reputation. It was reported earlier this week Number 10 has been attempting to keep Johnson on board. I think we can now safely say this attempt has just failed! Prior to party conference, Johnson has given the PM another headache.

 

 

#Moggmentum

It is impossible to write anything political at present, without prefacing it by saying how unpredictable politics is. Brexit, the rise of Trump and Corbyn’s Labour etc. This, neatly brings us to the curious case of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Conservative MP for North East Somerset. Prior to this summer Rees-Mogg was somewhat a laughing stock. His posh accent and old-fashioned views made him a walking stereotype. This summer though, something has changed. Rees-Mogg has become one of the favourites to be the next Conservative leader. What has changed?

Firstly, there is no obvious pretender to the Conservative throne. This means journalists and pundits are looking outside of the Cabinet for future leaders. Secondly, Rees-Mogg has authenticity. His opinions are controversial, but there is no doubt where he stands on the major issues of the days. Thirdly, he is a good media performer. His dry sense of humour and articulate speaking style has made him a favourite amongst media producers. Lastly, everyone is looking for the next political shock.

So, can it happen? Rees-Mogg has claimed stories he will stand as the next party leader are part of the media’s silly season but other reports claim he has sounded out friends about his leadership ambitions. He has also just topped ConservativeHome’s survey of party members on who they would like to be next Tory leader.

Comparisons have been made with Corbyn’s rise, but it is important to note Conservative leadership contests have different rules to Labour ones. Rather than all candidates being presented straight to the membership, the parliamentary party first whittles the choice down to two candidates. Rees-Mogg would have support from the Right of the party, but it is clear there would be a significant stop Rees-Mogg campaign, indicating it would be difficult for Rees-Mogg to reach the final two.

If Rees-Mogg was to reach the final two, it is possible he could win. His Eurosceptic stance and traditionalist leanings are popular with Conservative members. But, we are a long way from this scenario. Currently there is no vacancy, and it is unclear when this contest would happen and what the political climate will be. Crucially Rees-Mogg would also have to gain support from the Parliamentary Party. That appears unlikely.

#Moggmentum may be picking up, but I still wouldn’t put any money on Jacob Rees-Mogg being the next Conservative leader.