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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May v Leadsom

I’m absolutely delighted, as the father of 2 daughters, that the next Prime Minister will be a woman, and a Conservative woman as well. It’s all very well teaching your daughters that there are no barriers and that they can achieve whatever they want with hard work and talent, but throughout their short lives they have only ever seen a man in 10 Downing Street. Obviously they have heard their Dad telling them how great Margaret Thatcher was – but to them she is as remote a historical figure as Clement Attlee is to me.

My choice for leader is easy. Whilst I supported Brexit I do not think it is necessary for the new PM to have been on the side of Vote Leave. It is far more important that she is experienced, tough and capable of forming a Government and getting on with the job as soon as David Cameron steps down.

Theresa May has held one of the 3 great offices of State for 6 years. She has accepted the result of the referendum and has promised to deliver Brexit. She is ready for the top job and she will have my vote. She will be a fantastic role model for my two girls as they grow up.

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A new role

I have been elected as the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group at Elmbridge by my fellow councillors. It’s a great honour and I am delighted.

We are the largest group on the Council with 22 members but we do not have a majority. The combined Residents’ Associations’ councillors and the Liberal Democrats have formed a coalition and have taken control of the Council. The Conservatives now form the opposition after 10 years in office.

Most people assume that Elmbridge is safely Conservative. It is not, and that is a good thing for local democracy as people have a genuine choice and their votes can make a difference. We must now provide a constructive and focussed opposition to the new administration. We will not oppose for opposition’s sake but we will robustly hold them to account if they are not acting in the best interests of our local residents.

The next elections to Elmbridge will be in May 2018 (when my own term will come to an end). Between now and then we will be recruiting a team of hardworking local people to be our candidates in our target seats. For far too long we have allowed our opponents to claim that we are “not local” and “beholden to the national party”. We are in fact all local residents who want the best for our community and band together under the Conservative flag to deliver that service. We have 2 years to get that message across and the work starts now.


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Vote Leave

Politicians are expected to have a ready-made answer to every possible issue that might arise. Those that do are usually referred to as “conviction” politicians, and those that don’t are often accused of either having no principles, or else of thinking too much.

I have been asked quite a lot about how I am going to vote in tomorrow’s referendum and I have found it a very difficult decision. Generally I have always been a Eurosceptic in the sense that I find the desire of the EU to extend its reach into ever increasing areas of our lives intrusive and unwarranted. I also have an instinctive suspicion of any government which is not democratic. Not democratic in the sense that those who wield the power are not elected, cannot be removed by any popular vote and owe their position to political patronage.

There are people whose views I respect on both sides of the debate. I have friends who are convinced that their earning power is linked to our continued membership. As someone who speaks French to a pretty high standard and can just about get by in German, it is assumed that I must be in favour of Remain. Further, as someone who takes the vast majority of his holidays in the EU, surely I would not want increased border controls or a weaker pound? Others suggest that I would not want to be in the same company as Nigel Farage, George Galloway and David Icke? Certainly I would not want to be associated with them, but when I go to watch a football match, or support the England cricket team, I don’t inquire as to the politics or personal views of the other spectators. Just because you agree with a disagreeable person on a particular topic does not mean you are part of their circle.

The quality of the debate has been appalling. On the one hand the Remain camp has been unable to advance one positive reason why we should stay. With every passing week the scare stories have grown increasingly lurid. George Osborne and David Cameron have lost a considerable amount of credibility as the campaign has worn on, with Osborne’s “Brexit budget” speech the worst of a poor lot. On the Brexit side the star has been Gove, but the most recent poster put out by Farage and UKIP was the most unpleasant example of dog-whistle politics that I have seen for some time. Whilst it is perfectly legitimate to raise the issue of immigration, the use of a line of brown faces as a reason to vote Leave was straight out of the gutter.

No-one can safely say whether the decision to leave or to remain will prove the best choice economically. I accept that there will be some turmoil if the we vote Leave, certainly in the short term. But I very much doubt we will be excluded from the free trade zone because the Germans and the French export more to us than we do to them. Ultimately, for me the economic issue is a red herring – or a neutral issue. The real issue, as ever, is democracy.

It is a fundamental requirement of a democracy that those wielding power must be answerable to the electorate. If you do not like the current Conservative government then, in just under 4 years time there will be an opportunity to vote them out. In Brussels, the real power is vested in the Commission. Their members are never up for election, and cannot be removed by any popular vote.

When the old EEC was mainly a trading club, the fact that its rule-makers were not elected did not really matter. They were administrators, glorified civil servants. But over the past 30 years the direction of travel has been obvious. The EU aims to be the central government for all the people within its territorial area. Whenever a problem arises the answer from Brussels is that more power must be ceded to the Union. It now has a passport, a common currency, a national anthem and is developing armed forces. But its government remains entirely aloof from the democratic process. It is a technocracy and worse than that, a technocracy whose leaders have shown contempt for the democratic process, as has been shown when referendums in France, Ireland, Holland and Denmark were all re-run after minor concessions when the answer given was not the one the functionaries wanted.

I cannot accept that arrangement. It offends against the entire trajectory of English history from Magna Carta to the Suffragettes via the Civil War and the Reform Acts. Power has, over the years and sometimes after painful conflict, been transferred from the elites to the masses. The EU as presently constituted is the enemy of that process and for that reason I shall be voting to Leave tomorrow.


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Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, unsurprisingly, has been dominating the headlines recently. It has been suggested that his departure harms the Conservative “de-toxification” project, that the PM and Chancellor are badly damaged by the loss of such a senior minister. This is nonsense. All that has been demonstrated – if it needed to be proven at all – is that IDS is and always has been a dreadful team player.

I first became aware of him during the Maastricht debates. He was one of the most persistent rebels against John Major’s government. Now I was no fan of the Maastricht treaty, and it seemed to me that IDS’s objections were principled. Nonetheless, given the tiny majority enjoyed by Major after the 1992 election, the repeated rebellions, abetted by an opportunistic Labour opposition, weakened the then PM, added to the general perception of decay and loss of grip and no doubt added to the size of the Labour landslide in 1997.

Those rebellions came to haunt IDS when the party leadership fell into his lap after the 2001 election. He was a very poor leader, worse even than William Hague who had at least given the party loyalists something to cheer at PMQs every week, even if his successes against Tony Blair failed to translate into votes. It has been pointed out that IDS started the move to a more compassionate Conservatism, but he never gave the impression of being able to deliver it by winning an election. As his leadership collapsed about him his shrill demands for backing  did not sit well with his history of disloyalty to John Major.

In 2002 I was the chairman of Hammersmith & Fulham Conservatives. We were running a strong campaign to wrest control of Hammersmith & Fulham Council from Labour. We had a fine team of candidates in the form of, amongst others, Greg Hands, Stephen Greenhalgh, Huw Merriman and Nick Boys Smith, who have all gone on to greater things. IDS and his wife were local residents. A huge amount of work was put in by candidates, officers and volunteers alike. Had we succeeded, it would have been a bright light in an otherwise disappointing night for the party. We did not expect IDS to come and campaign with us. But we were surprised to find out, when we saw the marked register after the election, that the party leader did not appear to have voted at all. Perhaps he had chosen instead to vote in his Parliamentary constituency. Biting our lips, we agreed to say nothing publicly at the time in order to preserve party unity.

To be fair to Duncan Smith, after he was defenestrated in 2003 he embarked on a long and extremely fruitful period of research into issues of social justice, and how the Conservative party could address those issues, which are not typically seen as Conservative priorities. His Social Justice foundation produced some very well thought out documents which paved the way for the reforms undertaken by the Coalition government. I was therefore pleased when he was appointed to the Cabinet to see these reforms implemented. Here, I thought, was a real expert who should be given the chance to practice what he preached.

Sadly, the implementation of that reform has been painfully slow. As cabinet member for Housing at Elmbridge, the single largest element of my portfolio in terms of man-hours spent on it by Council officers is the administration of Housing Benefit claims. Welfare rights rules are hugely complex and require careful analysis to ensure that the right people get only that to which they are genuinely entitled. However there is a competing need for benefit claims to be processed swiftly to prevent individual hardship. I am very lucky to have a dedicated team of officers who manage to achieve these contrasting objectives year on year. But ever since Universal Credit appeared on the horizon, they have carried on working knowing that their jobs would not be safe after HB is incorporated into Universal Credit and the administrative function is transferred into the DWP. This has been going on for nearly 6 years and the planned date for full implementation has been postponed again and again. Ultimately, the man at the top is responsible for the actions of his department.


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Elmbridge news

At the beginning of December 2015 we were informed that the money which we are given each year by the national government was to be cut drastically for the year 2016-17 and then removed entirely for the following year. For many councils this would have been devastating news. We have however been preparing for this eventuality for several years now by investing in commercial property in order to provide an alternative source of revenue. We had anticipated that our grant would be removed entirely by 2020. It’s just the timing that has been changed. Nevertheless, it means that we will be unable to freeze our portion of the Council Tax again this year, and we will recommend an increase of just under 2% for 2016-17.

In January we were told by the Boundary Commission that our proposal to reduce the total number of councillors from 60 to 48 had been accepted, and final ward boundaries were confirmed. This means that in May this year all Elmbridge borough councillors will be up for election. The wards will each elect 3 members and all voters will have 3 votes. The candidate who receives the most votes will win a 4 year term, the second a 3 year term and the third-placed candidate will serve for 2 years before needing to seek re-election. I have always supported the reduction in councillor numbers and consider that suggestions by some sitting councillors that the needs of the electorate cannot be served properly by fewer than 60 councillors to be utter nonsense.

I supported that reduction in numbers despite knowing that it could result in my de-selection as a Conservative council candidate. Happily a couple of weeks ago I was adopted as one of the three Conservative candidates for the newly-drawn Cobham & Downside ward. This covers most of my old Cobham Fairmile ward, with the easternmost parts moving into Oxshott & Stoke d’Abernon. My colleagues Mike Bennison and Dorothy Mitchell have also been successful and we will make a strong team with complementary skills and interests. An added bonus is that, for the first time as a Cobham councillor I will be able to cast a vote for myself!

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“The Persian Moslems are threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowing through the East”
“I fancy religion is the only thing to knit up such a scattered empire”
“There is a Jehad preparing. The only question is, how?”
“Suppose that they had got some tremendous sacred sanction, some book or gospel or some new prophet from the desert, something which would cast over the whole ugly mechanism of …war the glamour of the old torrential raid which crumpled the Byzantine Empire and shook the walls of Vienna?”
“Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”
“To capture all Islam… the man must be of the …tribe of the Prophet.”
“Once get the flames going and they will lick up the pagans…how many thousands, do you think, were in the Mahdi’s army who never heard of the Prophet till they saw the black flags of the Emirs going into battle?”

Apart from the slightly old-fashioned turn of phrase, you might imagine you were reading a briefing from a modern strategic studies think-tank. But in fact all of the above was written in 1916, in the context of the First World War.

I have been re-reading John Buchan’s novel “Greenmantle”, the plot of which is set exactly 100 years ago. The Turks, having rebuffed the British landings at Gallipoli, have failed to capitalise on their success and are being menaced by the Russians from the north, who have the city of Erzerum as their target. Intelligence has come into the hands of the British that the Turks’ ally, Germany, has some secret plan to set the Islamic world aflame and unite all Arab lands against the British and their allies. Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is asked to investigate and brings along his Boer friend Peter Pienaar, the American John S. Blenkiron, and the fascinating Arabist Sandy Arbuthnot, based in part on T.E. Lawrence and who has a modern-day heir in Rory Stewart MP.

The novel demonstrates that there really is nothing new about Al-Qaeda or Daesh / Isil. It is simply that modern technology has allowed them far greater freedom to spread their creed than was available to their predecessors. Like the fabled prophet in Greenmantle, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi claims descent from Mohammed. Like Osama bin Laden and every other Islamic extremist, he preaches what is considered to be a pure form of puritanical Islam, and he of course urges holy war. He has attracted to his cause hundreds of young Western Muslims who previously were not known to be devout. And in the Middle East, it is clearly the case that the lines which Britain and France drew under the Sykes-Picot agreement bear no real relation to local loyalties. It is, indeed, only Islam which is the unifying force in the area, albeit that within Islam there is the fundamental Sunni-Shia divergence.

It made absolutely no sense for Britain to oppose Daesh in Iraq but not in Syria. The terrorists pay no attention to national borders. Nor is there any basis for negotiation with them. That is only seen as weakness to be exploited. The decision to let the RAF strike at targets in Syria is the right one, and it is essential that the conjoined efforts of NATO and Russian forces are maintained until Daesh is defeated. That I suspect means until Al-Baghdadi is killed. When Bin Laden was killed by the Americans, Al-Qaeda lost impetus and is now being supplanted by Daesh. The destruction of the charismatic leader appears to be the key.

And Greenmantle is a splendid novel.

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