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A stark choice

At the start of the campaign it was assumed by just about everyone that the result was a foregone conclusion. Theresa May would win by a landslide and Jeremy Corbyn consigned to the dustbin of history. But things have not quite turned out like that. Corbyn has, by and large, had a good campaign whereas the Conservatives have not. Nevertheless the eve of poll opinion surveys suggest a comfortable win tomorrow.

In fact the true story of this election campaign is that only one leader has been honest with the electorate and that is Theresa May. The Conservative manifesto was said by some to be uninspiring. That is because, on anyone’s case the next two or three years as we exit the EU and re-establish our position as an independent nation are going to be difficult times. As a result the Conservatives have made an honest offer to the electorate. We will get the best deal possible, and we will make a success of it. But we can’t offer lots of freebies. And we need to look at difficult issues, such as dementia care. Amid all the fury which dishonest parties sought to stir up, let’s not forget that at present if you require chronic long term care in your old age you will need to pay for it yourself until virtually all of your savings are gone. The proposed cap of £100,000 is a vast improvement on the current situation. Some tax.

The Labour manifesto offers all sorts of goodies: free university tuition, more money for the NHS and schools, more police (with no idea of how much they will cost, as Diane Abbott demonstrated), reversal of Conservative public expenditure savings and of course the re-nationalisation of the railway system and the energy and water companies. All of this is allegedly costed – but only if you believe that increased taxes inevitably lead to increased tax revenue. They do not, and if allowed power a Labour government led by Corbyn would run out of our money quicker than its predecessors did.

There is another serious reason why the present Labour leadership should be allowed nowhere near the levers of power and that is their long-professed support for terrorist organisations. Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott all defended the IRA when they were murdering civilians and soldiers alike. They support Hamas and Hezbollah whose stated aim is to destroy Israel and kill every Jew on the planet. The Labour party is shot through with anti-Semitism to such an extent that they are likely to take less than 20% of the Jewish vote.

Given my interest in education, the proposals to bring free schools back under LEA control and to charge VAT on private school fees give me yet another reason to oppose Labour. Have they not asked themselves what the cost will be if significant numbers of private school parents decide they can’t afford the fees and send their children to state schools? Rather than being demonised by the hard left it should be noted that they pay twice over for education – once through their taxes and again to the private sector.

Tomorrow I shall be back in Kingston & Surbiton supporting James Berry who deserves to be re-elected and then tomorrow evening I shall be watching out keenly for the results in Grimsby and in Scunthorpe, both of which could fall into the Conservative fold tomorrow. Fingers crossed for the right result.

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Twenty odd years ago I went for my usual 6-monthly dental appointment. My dentist at the time was based in the Isle of Dogs and I took the Docklands Light Railway from Bank Station. As the train left Canary Wharf and headed out towards South Quay it brought me over the place where, a few weeks earlier, the IRA had exploded a massive truck bomb.

The wreckage was quite shocking. It was the first time I had seen the consequences of a major explosion. I will never forget the huge newly built tower blocks, with every window blown out and the blinds, still attached to the frames, flapping in the breeze. The terrorists had given a warning so the area was largely evacuated. Fortunately, only two people were killed but scores suffered relatively minor injuries. The insurance costs ran into hundreds of millions of pounds. The visual shock of the scene of devastation was no doubt what the republicans had wanted to achieve.

Before this atrocity, during it and afterwards, the man who now seeks to be Prime Minister was regularly talking with the political representatives of the terrorists. In doing so he gave them a public platform and some spurious legitimacy. He defended his actions then – as he does now – on the basis that he was trying to encourage dialogue, to push for peace. But it was always clear whose side he was on, to paraphrase Billy Bragg’s famous song (about the miners’ strike). He, and his allies John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, were arguing that the military defeat of the British Army in Ulster was a thing to be desired. He was the terrorists’ friend.

Corbyn carried on this tactic with his leadership of the Stop the War movement. Claiming to be a peace-loving organisation, Stop the War has for years been run by the hard left, the anti-Israel, pro Palestinian, pro-Assad factions. The only war they want to stop is any war which they see as furthering the interests of the West or of Israel. They have no interest at all in stopping the war being waged by Hamas and Hezbollah against the Jewish state.

And that is where Corbyn has always stood. He is happy to talk to Irish republican extremists, but never goes to speak to Loyalists. He calls Hamas his friends but never engages with the Israeli authorities, never tries to understand their point of view. He is very selective in who he deals with.

It is for this reason that this man must not be allowed to hold any position of responsibility in this country. Behind the carefully cultivated avuncular and honest personality lies a devious and dishonest supporter of many dangerous terrorist groups. Had the victims of the recent Manchester bombing been British soldiers rather than innocent children, I very much doubt he would have condemned the bombing in the terms which he has recently employed. As Theresa May has said, any vote for anyone other than the Conservatives is a vote for chaos. And thus despite the weakness of the Conservative campaign so far, there is no alternative. Britain needs a Conservative government with a good working majority.

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Brexit, and other weighty matters

Theresa May has now delivered the letter triggering Article 50. This country will formally leave the EU on 29th March 2019 and the next two years will be largely taken up with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit. Nothing meaningful is likely to happen until after the French presidential elections in the Spring and the German federal elections in October. I have not been triumphalist about the referendum result as I voted to leave with a heavy heart and with some misgivings, but thus far I still believe it was the right decision to take.

Locally, I chaired the first meeting of Elmbridge BC’s new affordable housing working group last week. We have had a “members’ panel” devoted to affordable housing for some time, but this was a reactive organisation whereas the new Working Group is required to take an active role in housing delivery. I am delighted to undertake this new role, which dovetails nicely with the 6 years I spent as the Cabinet member for Housing. Our recently produced Strategic Housing Market Assessment has identified a need for 474 new units of housing per year between now and 2035, of which 70% should be affordable homes. And within the “affordable” umbrella, 80% of those should be available to rent at social rent levels – being 50-60% of the open market letting value. We now have a strong planning case for what we are trying to achieve.

We have County Council elections in May, and I am delighted that our excellent local councillor, Mary Lewis, has been re-adopted as the Conservative candidate. I enjoyed helping out on her stall at the Farmers’ Market in Cobham on Saturday. Mary has had a baptism of fire as a county councillor. The leadership of Surrey CC has been in the eye of a storm lately, having threatened to hold a referendum on a 15% council tax increase. This is due to national Government expecting County authorities to provide ever-increasing levels of social care to vulnerable adults whilst at the same time reducing the central funding available. Ultimately the sums could not be made to add up. David Hodge, the leader of Surrey’s ruling Conservative Group has been criticised for threatening such an increase but ultimately he had no alternative, other than to remove funding from non-mandatory services such as public libraries. His job was to stand up for Surrey and that is precisely what he has done. Although the details are not clear some arrangement has been arrived at which avoids the need for such a drastic hike, but if the Government is nor prepared to fund this service properly we may need to re-visit the referendum option in future years.

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Councillors’ Expenses

On 7th December 2016, my colleague Andy Kelly and I led the opposition to a plan by the controlling Residents’ Associations and Lib Dems group to increase councillors’ allowances by 12%. Here is the text of my speech:

“Madam Mayor, I am delighted to second Cllr Kelly’s proposed amendment.

When I saw that the present proposal to increase the basic allowance by 12% had been endorsed by the current Cabinet. I knew immediately that if I voted myself a 12% increase when this Council’s loyal employees had only been offered 2% I would not be able to look any Council officer in the face again.

Now some might say that’s my problem, and with my own particular circumstances in mind of course it is. But all members here tonight ought to reflect very carefully on how this is likely to look to our superb workforce.

Since the financial crisis erupted in 2008, we have asked our staff to make significant sacrifices. In order to make the savings imposed on this council by the reduction and eventual termination of the revenue support grant we have for many years imposed either a wage freeze or allowed increases below the prevailing RPI figures. Both of which amount to real-terms wage cuts. We have reduced their work areas in size so that we can raise revenue by sub-letting part of this building. All of these measures were necessary, and our staff have carried on providing us with a first class service throughout these changes.

So before you cast your vote tonight, think about how you comfortable you will feel next time you need to deal with a busy planning officer, a hard pressed housing benefit officer dealing with the ramifications of Universal Credit – or any other member of our staff from the cleaners to the senior management team. If you decide to help yourselves to the 12% bounty, how do you think that will go down.

And then ask yourselves this. How many people living in Elmbridge on an ordinary wage will be getting a 12% increase this year? Or anything remotely approaching such a salary hike? How do you think this will play in the media? For those on the benches opposite: is this the reason you decided to form an administration? Is this the legacy you want to leave?

Now we have been told tonight that:

It’s the recommendation of an independent panel: of course it is. But their job is not to take the responsibility of what is at the end a political decision: that responsibility is ours, this is what the people of Elmbridge have elected us to decide.

Elmbridge’s allowances are on the low side compared to other Surrey boroughs. Are they? Good. I would be far more worried if we were near the top of the table rather than the bottom.

It will deter good people from coming forward to stand: No it won’t. Being a councillor is about public service, and the allowance is meant to compensate us for loss of income or additional expenditure incurred. It is not and never has been a salary. And I have not seen the quality of candidates dropping in my time here.

There are fewer of us now and our workload is increasing. Perhaps so. But I will make 2 points. When John O’Reilly first proposed reducing councillor numbers, there were some murmurings from the benches opposite about whether we would push up allowances afterwards. We promised you that we would not. Is it not now ironic that, only 6 months into their new administration, it is the leading members opposite who are now pushing forward this grab on the public purse. Secondly, we may be working harder but so are our staff – there are fewer employees than when I was first elected and they have not been offered anything like the increase we are being invited to take.

Madam Mayor, colleagues – tonight we have a stark choice. We can do the right thing and choose an option that actually reduces the total cost of paid politicians to the Elmbridge taxpayer. Or we can help ourselves from the public purse and reinforce every stereotype that there is about elected representatives only being in it for themselves. Let us show our electorate – cynical though they may well be about politicians – that we can rise above the temptation of personal gain. Think about this Council’s reputation. I urge you all to support this amendment.”

    What happened?

No Conservative voted for the increases. All of the Liberal Democrat group, without exception, helped themselves. Apart from the honourable exceptions of Cllrs Popham and Heaney, who abstained (as did the Mayor and Deputy Mayor), all the Residents’ Associations councillors grabbed the money.

Think about that, next time you have the chance to vote. Only Conservatives refused to put their snouts in the trough.

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Grammar Schools

The Government’s commitment to allow existing grammar schools to expand, and to allow new grammar schools to be opened where the is demand, is hugely welcome. However, if the policy is to succeed the Government will need to answer two fundamental questions: firstly, how to deal with the issue of selection, and secondly, how to ensure that the schools for those who do not go to the grammar schools provide a first class education suitable to the needs of the non-grammar school pupils.

Grammar schools were the great drivers of social mobility in the middle of the 20th century. State school admissions to Oxford and Cambridge peaked in the 1960s and the universities did not have to fall over themselves, as they do today, in devising schemes to attract state school applicants. Grammar schools raised their pupils’ expectations of themselves and delivered the teaching necessary to allow children from modest backgrounds to compete on level terms with the products of the great public schools.

This then fed into the leading positions in government, commerce and the law. No public school product was Prime Minister from 1964 to 1997. Most of the Wilson and Thatcher Cabinets were former grammar school products who had made their way from there to the best universities. The British education system had led to a true meritocracy.

However there were two major flaws in the system. The first was the 11 plus exam. Those who failed the exam were branded as failures from an early age, and recovery from that failure was almost impossible as it was extremely difficult for someone who had failed that exam to show, by increased effort at a secondary modern, that the failure was a blip. Very few pupils moved from secondary moderns to grammar schools. The stigma of failure, once applied, was difficult to remove.

Also , it can be asked whether the 11 plus was a fair test of ability as evidence suggests that private tutoring can make a real difference to outcomes, offering an unfair advantage to the middle class parents who can afford extra tuition.

The second problem was the quality of the secondary moderns and the expectations which the staff had of their pupils. Most were expected to leave at the statutory minimum age as it was assumed that university was just to feasible for the pupils. Grammar schools received higher funding and, unsurprisingly, attracted the better teachers.

As a result the move to comprehensivisation was not a political hot potato at the time. Some comprehensives had been established before the Labour victory at the 1964 general election and the arrival of Tony Crosland at the Department of Education. Only a handful of local authorities actively resisted the requirement to produce plans for a comprehensive system. Strongly Conservative local authority areas – such as Surrey – converted their grammar schools into comprehensives. Some of those grammar schools (such as Kingston Grammar) went private. More grammar schools were closed under the reign of a certain female Conservative education secretary than under any Labour predecessor. Later, it is true, Margaret Thatcher regretted what she had allowed to happen, but at the time she did not question the direction of travel.

But the antagonism towards grammar schools from the Left-liberal elite is the one clear constant from those times to this. The Labour party is largely united around opposition to Theresa May’s proposals. For them, Tony Crosland’s promise to “destroy every fucking grammar school” is not an infamous statement made by a former public school boy whose disdain for those who had succeeded by their own efforts was total. Rather, it is a rallying cry. It is essential that the present generation of Conservative politicians stand firmly against that attitude. We must support Theresa May, but at the same time ensure that access to grammar schools is not closed forever at 11, and that those schools not in the grammar system are properly resourced and provide a first class education for their pupils.

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Cobham Free School

Last week, the Governors and Headmistress of Cobham Free School (“CFS”) announced that they had finally obtained a site in Cobham for a permanent home for their secondary department. They – or rather the Education Funding Agency – have entered into an agreement to purchase Munro House on Portsmouth Road, next to the Rugby Club. This is an office complex which will now be converted for academic use.

I am absolutely delighted by this, which is the best news for Cobham in years. Finally, secondary education in the town will be a reality for local parents who cannot afford private school fees. There will also be a genuine choice for parents, rather than the current school places lottery which sees Cobham children parcelled out to schools in Esher, Walton and Leatherhead, often against their families’ wishes.

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my main reason for getting involved in politics was to try to reverse the decline in the quality of state education in this country. Prior to the comprehensive schools experiment, social mobility was guaranteed by the grammar school system. Of course it was not perfect – not every child was able to shine at age 11, and more should have been done to pick up bright children who simply failed to perform at the 11 plus. The comprehensive system did nothing to improve social mobility – in fact it set it in reverse, with more and more privately educated children obtaining the best university places and with them, access to the best jobs.

Michaela Khatib, Howard Morris and the EFA team have worked tirelessly and over many years to secure a suitable site for the secondary department. Green belt options have had to be considered because nothing else was available. This inevitably led to some friction with local heritage and countryside groups. Finally, a result has been achieved which does not involve any use of Green Belt land. My congratulations to them all.

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The benefits of not having a government

In December of last year, there was a general election in Spain. In recent years its original 2 party system has become fragmented, and the PP, the centre-right party led by Mariano Rajoy lost its overall majority. It was not possible for any combination of the 4 main parties to agree a coalition. As a result, under Spain’s constitution, a further general election was held in June of this year. In the interim, Mr Rajoy led a caretaker government, knowing that any controversial measured would be voted down easily.

The June election slightly strengthened Mr Rajoy’s position but at the time of writing no new coalition has been formed and Spain has been without a proper government for 8 months. One of the sticking-points is Mr Rajoy himself, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to some distinctly suspicious activities by members of his party. If he were to resign then a new PP leader would almost certainly be accepted as the PM. But Mr Rajoy will not step down and there appears to be no satisfactory method of removing him. Certainly a vote of no confidence by his own MPs would not work. There are parallels with the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn.

Having just returned from Spain it seemed to me that the economy is doing rather well. The construction industry, which is heavily dependant on the second home market in the south of the country, is active. New developments are being advertised and sites which were mothballed 5 years ago are being completed. New lifestyle magazines are being published and the formerly empty retail spaces are now occupied. The tourist industry in Spain is benefitting from the terrorist threats in France and Turkey and the chaos in Greece. It seems that no-one is missing the presence of a formally constituted government. People are just getting on with their lives.

There is still a youth unemployment problem, but it seems that Spanish youngsters prefer to stay at home with Mum and Dad rather than take lower paid employment. We were told by a Spanish friend that her cousin’s busy beach restaurant mainly employs Romanians because the locals do not want to taking waiting and kitchen-based jobs. This is a problem with which we have some experience in the UK – far too many of our service industries employ immigrant labour because they cannot find suitable local candidates. Addressing this will be another issue facing our new prime minister over the next few years.

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