For the Deputy Prime Minister, our MP, it’s time to become part of the story.
You’re a successful politician, you’ve played the game, moved with the populist times, you’ve gone to America and come back an anti-woke crusader. You’ve picked your allies carefully. More to the point, you’ve measured out your support for the big beasts cleverly and you’ve not really put a foot wrong. In a cabinet stuffed with chancers and bullies and weirdos you’re practically a saint. But you’re stuck in the second tier and the clock is ticking. What to do?
Oliver Dowden’s come a long way from speech-writer and trouble-shooter in David Cameron’s office while his party was in opposition. He’s developed a reputation for political savvy and good timing. He’s moved around the fringes of power, taking up various important bagman roles and he’s never disgraced himself. But there’s less than a year to go before the most likely date for the next general election and Dowden must get a move on if he’s to make an impact before he’s back on the opposition benches and kissing babies at the fair.
And if you’re going to step into history, to become more than a footnote in the big monographs that will be written about the period you need to act. Dowden’s fervent hope is that taking his opposition to the Johnson faction up a gear and cementing himself more firmly to Project Sunak, he’ll secure a bigger job and a more important role, closer to the elemental core of Britain’s crown-constitutional weirdness, when the wheel turns and the Tories are re-instated, as they surely will be, to their natural leadership position in the fullness of time.
Calm down. The general election could be as far away as 28 January 2025. It could be a lot sooner, though. Now that the Fixed Term Parliament Act is no more and Prime Ministers may call elections whenever they want, subject to the maximum term, the element of surprise is back. May 2024 looks good because it would coincide with some local elections. Earlier than that wouldn’t give the Conservatives time to claw back enough of Labour’s polling lead – which has been diminishing across the last few months but still stands at 16% or 200 seats. September 2024 is probably the latest it’ll practically happen. The unknown is how Rishi Sunak is feeling on any given day. Our money is on 2 May 2024.
In Hertsmere, in addition to the incumbent, we now know about one other candidate for the 2024 general election. Darren Selkus, army veteran and CEO of an East London wood veneer company, has announced (on Twitter obvs) that he’s going to stand for election, for the Reform Party, successor to the Brexit Party and offspring of UKIP (Selkus stood for the party in the Hertsmere Borough Council election last week and polled 53 votes). If Mr Selkus does manage to get his papers in to stand in Hertsmere, he’ll be far from the first candidate from the populist right to do so, of course.
This post will be the first of our General Election previews and we’ll use it to discuss the fringe and populist parties that have stood in Hertsmere since it came into being in 1983. In later posts we’ll tell the stories of the bigger parties in the constituency.
The Referendum Party
Buccaneer businessman, James Goldsmith – a man who, while still at Eton, won £250,000 in today’s money on the horses and promptly left school, a man who was a billionaire in the seventies, way before it was cool – started the Referendum Party in 1994, several years after Alan Sked founded the party that would become UKIP, but Goldsmith’s party will be remembered as the originator of the idea of a popular vote on EU membership. While UKIP was still a nerdy ginger group, Sir James was busy sending VHS tapes to fivemillion British households (you’ve probably got one in your loft).
The Referendum Party was the absolute OG eurosceptic party, setting the tone for the two decades of populist tumult that would follow. Goldsmith’s party polled 1,703 votes in Hertsmere in 1997 and in the general election beat UKIP in almost every seat where both stood. The party’s programme looked pretty kooky back then but who’s laughing now? Goldsmith died later in the same year, the party disbanded and, well, the rest is history…
Fast forward to the high-water mark for anti-immigration sentiment at the end of Labour’s 13 years in office. Immigration had increased steadily under Labour and a surge in asylum applications caused by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had put Blair and later Brown on the back foot (there was discussion of withdrawing from the ECHR). Local man Daniel Seabrook polled 1,397 votes for the British National Party in Hertsmere in May 2010, a few months after Nick Griffin, the party’s leader, made his controversial appearance on the BBC’s Question Time. In this period the party held 50 council seats and in 2009 won over a million votes in the EU Parliamentary elections and sent two MEPs, including Griffin, to Strasbourg, where the party joined with other European racist and nationalist parties in the formation of a new group, the Alliance of European National Movements. The BNP had been founded in 1982 by former members of the National Front and has subsequently, at least in electoral terms, disappeared entirely – a measure, let’s face it, of how thoroughly the party’s bitter, hateful worldview has been absorbed by more mainstream parties.
The United Kingdom Independence Party, thirty years old this year, is a paradox. A party that, like other parties on this list, has now more-or-less disappeared but can make a reasonable claim to being the most important UK political party of the last twenty years and is responsible, in a pretty direct way, for one of the most consequential changes in modern British history. A party that’s never had more than two Westminster MPs but turned British politics upside-down and routinely polled millions of votes in general elections. A party that, at its peak, had Britain’s fifth largest membership but has now been reduced to a bitter, anti-woke husk that can barely fill a village hall (but supports Hyperloop).
UKIP first stood in Hertsmere in 2010 and, in 2015, candidate Frank Ward, a local councillor who, nearly thirty years earlier, had won almost 20% of the vote for Labour, achieved a pretty decent 6,383 votes, a high-water mark and more than twice the Liberal Democrat vote in that election. Ward’s breakthrough was, of course, part of a national surge that saw the party win 3.8 Million votes, making UKIP comfortably the third largest party in the UK. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP won more votes than all other UK parties and 24 seats in the Parliament. You know what happened next.
It’s been downhill since then, of course. In 2017 the UKIP vote in Hertsmere was cut to 1,564 and in 2019 the party didn’t stand at all. UKIP limps on, with a policy platform that looks more like the BNP’s than the old UKIP’s, and won a total of zero seats in the local elections (losing 25) last week. The party now has no elected positions anywhere in the UK and is led by one-time Tory Minister Neil “Cash for Questions” Hamilton.
The Brexit Party
You’ll remember the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s one-policy, post-referendum party, which had a short and checkered history and absolutely smashed it in the last ever UK election for the European Parliament. The party made an awkward, unreciprocated deal with the Conservatives and, as a result, stood down in hundreds of Conservative constituencies for the 2019 GE, including ours. Farage moved on and the Brexit Party became the Reform Party.
The Reform Party
At last week’s local elections the party that grew out of the Brexit Party “struggled to make headway”, as they say in the media. They wound up with a total of six council seats in England and Wales and, where they stood, they averaged 6% of the vote. In Hertsmere candidates in Potters Bar and Shenley managed a total of 130 votes. Nationally, the party’s founder Nigel Farage has lost interest and President Richard Tice has somewhat sunk from view, although he can be seen on Talk TV fairly regularly.
In Britain, the rigid FPTP electoral system obviously doesn’t favour minority parties and, as a consequence, they tend not to bother developing detailed policy programmes. There’s not much incentive to workshop a forty-page manifesto when you’ll never ever get a chance to implement it.
So it’s interesting that Reform’s policy platform is quite well-developed. It looks a lot like those of some other European populist parties. The economics is interventionist and broadly expansionary, there’s a plan to invest in the NHS and it’s all costed and funded in some detail. As you’d expect there’s a lot of emphasis on tax cuts and energy independence. Immigration comes up but is not the primary concern. Although they’re probably due an update, the party’s four missions don’t look too different from the big parties’ (and no mention of ‘woke’).
So, if the Reform Party stands in Hertsmere, what are their prospects? Well, they don’t look too good. The current government’s policy platform sits squarely on the populists’ lawn – ticking all the boxes, especially the big one labelled ‘small boats’.
The always fascinating Electoral Calculus actually projects a 7.1% share for the Reform Party in Hertsmere, better than for the The Green Party, but still gives the Tories a 67% chance of winning.
There’s another right-wing party we should look at, not least because this party has just done what the others on this list have rarely achieved and acquired for itself an actual MP.
You might say that Laurence Fox’s Reclaim is not quite a party. It may have leapfrogged the electoral process into Parliament but it doesn’t yet have a policy platform. When the party’s leader does get an opportunity to communicate his priorities, it’s essentially 100% anti-vax and anti-woke. If Reform resembles a scaled-down Fidesz or a Brothers of Italy, serious parties of the populist right, with programmes and long-term ambitions, Reclaim resembles a protest group, formed in the tendentious shouting match of social media – and, if we’re honest, more of a vehicle for its charismatic leader than a movement. The ‘leadership’ page lists only one person and that person’s photograph appears three times on the homepage. The manifesto is inchoate. Here’s the whole thing:
It’s worth keeping an eye on Reclaim, though, the party has already attracted substantial funding from the usual billionaires and with a Westminster seat we can expect the money to continue to flow. Don’t rule out a rash of Reclaim Parliamentary candidates in 2024.
Is it fair to put the Green Party on this list, in between the loons and the lefties? Perhaps not. They have managed to get one MP elected – unlike almost everyone else in this post (no, Laurence, Andrew Bridgen does not count) – and they have, to an important degree, set the agenda in metropolitan Britain and in Scotland for some years. They’re like the anti-UKIP – a party of huge emotional and cultural relevance to a big chunk of the electorate but with not the slightest chance of winning a general election.
Of course, with net zero now official policy for all the major parties, the Greens might fear that they’re beginning to look a bit redundant. And now that, out of the blue, trans rights has become a wedge ‘culture wars’ issue for general and national elections, the party’s principled stance on the issue might turn into a serious electoral risk that it’s hard to mitigate, as it has for the SNP.
The Greens first stood in Hertsmere in 2010. Candidate Arjuna Krishna-Das polled 604 votes – not at all bad for a first try (although it was less than half the BNP vote). The candidate disappeared for the next election, though, and in 2015 there was no Green candidate at all in Hertsmere. We looked into it at the time and learnt that Krishna-Das had – confusingly – defected to a ‘counter-jihad’ UKIP spin-off calling itself Liberty GB, an outfit that has now so thoroughly disappeared its own web site has been taken over by spammers.
Since the Green Party returned to the ballot in Hertsmere it’s been all good news. The party added c 50% to its vote in 2017 and nearly doubled that in 2019. Electoral Calculus projects another doubling for the GE, so that must be encouraging. What’s fascinating about the Greens in Britain though, is how urban they are. The party evidently does have rural support but, even in areas like ours, where big chunks of the countryside are threatened by developers, they’re not strongly identified with opposition to building on the green belt and certainly aren’t seen as standing for the big rural or suburban causes.
It’s a confirmation, if needed, that the Green Party is really a party of the young and of the university-educated and not of the people who actually occupy the green bits of the country. Having said that, the party now controls its first council and it’s a pretty rural one.
Communists and socialists
The fringe parties aren’t always on the right, of course. In 1983, the year the constituency came into being and the year of Margaret Thatcher’s second landslide, a candidate standing as an Independent Communist won 1,116 votes in Hertsmere. We’ve long been puzzled by this fact – that there were, apparently, over a thousand communists in this prosperous part of the Home Counties at around the high point of Thatcherism, but we did eventually notice that the candidate’s name, Ronald Parkinson, was pretty close to the name of the winning Conservative candidate, Minister and confidant of the Prime Minister Cecil Parkinson. Since then we’ve been advising fringe candidates in Hertsmere to change their names.
We’ve saved our favourite till last. In the early nineties, the worldwide Transcendental Meditation movement saw fit to start a transnational political party, the Natural Law Party. The idea was to apply the principles of TM, including the magical practice of yogic flying, to social and political problems. The party stood in at least 74 countries and even put up a candidate for President of the United States. In Britain the lavishly-funded party stood in every single Parliamentary seat and did so twice. In Hertsmere the party never did better than 373 votes (and we suspect the movement’s connections with Hare Krishna may have contributed to that total). The party’s presence across the country gave it access to TV election advertising and its broadcasts caused much amusement, not to say consternation. In this one, UK party leader Geoffrey Clements claims, for instance, that the yogic flyers had already reduced the crime rate in Liverpool and improved exam results across the whole country (he doesn’t address the fact that, if it’s possible for TM to improve things so much before they’ve been elected, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to vote for them).
It’s tempting to think that what we need now, at this fractious time, is another political party that can solve deep social problems by the power of thought alone and without going to all the trouble of being elected.
Deputy Prime Ministers come and go. It’s a job title that’s in the gift of the Prime Minister and can be switched on and off at will (the first one was Clement Attlee during the war) It doesn’t attract a salary (Dowden will still be pulling down the £158,257 he makes for his current roles, though, so don’t worry) and usually has no office. Sometimes a deputy PM can have a more formal role. Nick Clegg, you’ll remember, led his half of the coalition from the Deputy’s office. Thérèse Coffey chaired two committees during her tenure as Deputy to Liz Truss last year (although it’s not recorded that they actually met – she wasn’t there for long). John “Two Jags” Prescott, a very visible (not to say pugilistic) Deputy, chaired nine.
It’s probably safe to assume that Dowden won’t be taking on any committees or formal tasks while in the new job. He’s got plenty to be getting on with in the Cabinet Office – he’s in charge of freaking us all out, for instance. He’s also got a track record for taking on empty or nominal roles as needed. He’s in charge of the government’s anti-woke activity, for instance and, as far as we can tell, his Industrial Action Taskforce, assembled in November last year, has never actually met – or done anything at all, in fact.
As for Dowden’s personal prospects, he must be wondering whether he’ll ever make the jump from the lower tiers into one of the big jobs. So far he’s managed one full-ministerial role: he was Culture Secretary between 2020 and 2021 but he’ll probably now be remembered only as the man who appointed Richard Sharp Chairman of the BBC (new revelations about that in the Sunday Times this weekend). Oops.
And the clock is ticking, of course. The polling looks bad. No matter what you think of the competence or authenticity of the Starmer Labour Party, a Tory win in 2024 has to be a long shot. Electoral Calculus, a polling company, calculates a rolling poll-of-polls – an average of all the public opinion polls. As of 22 April 2023 it suggests the Tories might slump from 365 to 113 seats (and a 95% probability of a Labour majority). Their best case prediction is for 244 Conservative seats, which would be better than Labour’s 2019 performance (203 seats) but would still put the Tories in second place.
And that’s before you even get to the worst case. Electoral Calculus specialises in a clever statistical polling technique called MRP (multi-level regression and post stratification, since you asked) to calculate what are usually thought to be more accurate predictions – pundits and strategists always rush for the MRP projections. They did the last one in February (when the Tories were doing even worse than they are today, to be clear) and it suggests a grand total of 45 Conservative seats. In this scenario, the Tories aren’t even the official opposition and even Oliver Dowden loses his seat. Boom.
So if Dowden is to score one of the Great Offices of State he’ll need another fairly dramatic upset this side of the general election or he’ll need to bide his time. Really bide his time.
The Wikipedia entry for Deputy Prime Minister is fascinating – and goes into the various definitions of the role. Attlee, for instance, was de facto Deputy Prime Minister but never formally appointed. Michael Heseltine was the first to carry the formal title.
Turnout in local elections rarely exceeds half that seen for national elections and the big issues are always, of course, reserved for higher authorities but these local elections are about as close as ordinary electors get to the democratic process. There’s a decent chance you’ll know some of your local councillors and, once elected, they do have real power – especially in planning.
So here’s everything you need to know about the 4 May local elections in Hertsmere, including the results for Aldenham Parish Council and for the two Radlett wards in Hertsmere Borough Council.
Hertsmere Borough Council consists of 16 wards; in Elstree and Borehamwood, Bushey, Potters Bar, Shenley and Aldenham (which is made up of Radlett and the small settlements of Letchmore Heath and Aldenham). Each ward returns either two or three councillors, for a total of 39. Aldenham is divided into two wards. Most of Radlett’s area, including the bustling downtown area, is in Aldenham East (map) and Aldenham West is mostly rural, stretching out to take in Aldenham, Letchmore Heath and the aerodrome (map). The Borough Council meets at the council offices in Borehamwood. From Radlett we send a total of four councillors to the Borough Council, two from each ward.
Borough councillors are not paid for their work but can claim an allowance – and it can be quite substantial. In 2020-21 (the most recent published year), for instance, Morris Bright MBE, leader of Hertsmere Borough Council and friend to the stars, received an allowance of £44,523 for his service to the Borough. Deputy Leader Caroline Clapper received £20,509.23 (details on the Hertsmere web site). You may also know Ms Clapper as Radlett’s County Councillor – she’s a hard-working representative for the Watling ward that takes in the whole of Radlett and Elstree. For that role she received an additional alowance of £22,607.04 in financial year 2022-23 (details on the HCC web site).
All Borough councillors can claim a basic allowance of £6,045 per year and there are additional payments for cabinet responsibilities, travel and so on, so a number of Labour and Liberal councillors will now be seeing a substantial increase in their allowances. The rules are on the Hertsmere web site.
As a result of the elections, Hertsmere has a new Mayor – Labour Borough councillor Chris Myers. He and his deputy are of the old-fahioned, chain-bearing, ceremonial variety, though, elected by their fellow councillors, not the thrusting new kind of directly-elected Mayor. Councillor Chris Myers was chosen by other councillors at a meeting last week.
Previous Mayor John Graham was a long-serving Hertsmere Borough councillor from the Aldenham East ward and sat as a representative of Hertsmere Borough Council on Aldenham Parish Council, where he is Vice Chair to new Chair Helen Jones.
Aldenham Parish Council is divided into two wards and they are the same as the Borough Council wards – Aldenham East and Aldenham West. The Parish Council meets in the offices above Radlett library. In the Parish we elect a total of 12 councillors, six for each ward. Eight of these councillors are elected here in the Parish and four are appointed as representatives of Hertsmere Borough Council and Hertfordshire County Council.
Both of the councils in which we voted on 4 May are historically controlled by the Conservatives but Hertsmere has, for the first time in over 20 years, changed hands and is thus ‘no overall control’. The Conservatives are still the largest party but power will now be shared by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Hertsmere now has a Labour leader and a Labour Mayor and Deputy.
The green surge in the local elections, which saw the Green Party’s representation grow by more than any other party in the local elections, did not touch Hertsmere but there are now Green councillors in neighbouring districts. The Green Party is benefiting from its ‘clean hands’ – they’re not touched by the Tories’ catastrophic national performance nor by ambivalence about Starmer’s careful triangulation, so some voters consider them an attractive option.
Hertsmere Borough Council is presently divided like so:
At the Parish level it’s simpler – all twelve councillors are Conservatives. Other parties do stand (see the lists below) and politics in Hertsmere is active and disputatious but, let’s be real, Radlett is a prosperous Home Counties town and is likely to be Tory forever.
Who was elected?
Here are all the candidates elected in the Parish and Borough Council elections on 4 May, starting with Hertsmere Borough Council. Incumbent candidates, re-elected at this election, are shown in bold.
Mark Cherry, who was an Aldenham Parish Councillor and Chair of the Council’s planning committee, stood down. Mister Cherry recently withdrew a planning application for a widely-opposed development of eight homes in the centre of Radlett. Jackie Lefton, Aldenham East Councillor and one-time Chair of the Parish Council, also stood down.
Hertsmere Borough Council, Aldenham East ward, 4 May 2023 (re-elected in bold)
Here are the results of the 2019 elections, for our Hertsmere Borough Council seats and for Aldenham Parish Council. The councillors with a ‘Yes’ in the ‘Elected?’ were elected and you can learn more about them by clicking on their names.
Hertsmere Borough Council, Aldenham East ward, 2 May 2019
Hertsmere could have a directly elected Mayor. In fact, any local authority at the District level or above can decide to have a directly-elected Mayor and it could be up to us, the electors.
The government’s process for switching to an elected Mayor (this only applies in England) involves either a vote by the elected councillors or a referendum which would be held alongside a local election in the Borough. To trigger a referendum 5% of the electorate of the Borough must sign a petition – in Hertsmere that’s currently calculated to be 3,921 people. Don’t hold your breath, though. Elected Mayors are not popular. So far, most referendums held in England have voted ‘no’ and there are only three Borough Councils in England with elected Mayors – Bedford, Copeland and Watford.
Elected Mayors are professional, full-time administrators and the job attracts a salary. Watford’s Mayor is paid £73,607. The logic of switching to this more ‘Presidential’ model is that a professional Mayor, working for the area’s interests, can provide some additional visibility and prestige and advance the big causes. Elected Metro Mayors at the top level – Andy Street, Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham etc. have brought some coherence to local government and raised the visibility of their cities and regions. It’s not at all certain that this would work at the town or district level, though.
Elections in Hertsmere – including general elections – are administered by the excellent elections team at Hertsmere Borough Council. They maintain the information web site and make sure that notices of elections, lists of candidates and results are posted online in a timely way. Most of the data in this post comes from their published documents.
Data. We’ve added all the numbers in this post to a public spreadsheet (Google Sheets). It also includes general election results, going back all the way to the first in Hertsmere, held when the constituency was created, in 1983. This data is all obtainable online, of course, but this is really the only place you’ll find it all in one document – feel free to download and use the data if you need it. There’s also a fantasically-useful open source spreadsheet of all the 2023 local election results.
Maps. You can find accurate maps of the Parish, Borough, County and Parliamentary constituencies on the MapIt web site, maintained by MySociety, the excellent not-for-profit that also runs the indispensible They Work For You.
In the distant future, when archaeologists uncover this blog, buried under about forty feet of Thames silt, they’ll thank us.
What we do is keep a fastidious eye on what our MP gets up to. It’s not personal, he’s a pretty good MP. He pays attention when we write him whingey letters and he makes a decent effort to look after his constituents and their quotidien concerns.
However, Oliver Dowden is a minister in a disastrous government that’s visibly screwed everything up, over a period approaching 13 years. Latest catastrophic highlight: life expectancy in Britain has been flatlining for ten years and is now right at the bottom of the table for the big nations. For the poorest, it’s now falling. It’s worth dwelling on that: in the last ten years (it began long before Covid) our government has managed to reverse over a hundred years of steady improvement in the most basic of wellbeing measures – how long people live.
Anyway, in the last couple of weeks, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been pretty busy. Let’s catch up:
He banned TikTok. Okay, he banned it from government-owned devices. This is Dowden with his cybersecurity hat on (you’ll remember, he wears a lot of hats). Yes it’s pointless, yes it’s irrational, but it’s nice to see a government actually acting against a tech corporation instead of wringing their hands in a kind of supine, passive-aggressive way like they usually do.
One may now obtain a portrait of the King, free of charge, paid for by H.M. Government. Hold on, though. Dowden says it’s not for everyone, just for ‘public authorities’. His announcement says the scheme, which will apparently cost £8M, includes councils, courts, schools, police forces and fire and rescue services but we’re not sure if it covers sarcastic local blogs.
Check your phone, it might be Oliver Dowden. On 23 April, the government is going to send everyone in Britain an urgent text message. They’re testing a new, nationwide alert system that some of the papers are obviously calling ‘armageddon alerts’. It will be used in the event of an emergency, like a war or a natural disaster. Given the scale of the collapse in Conservative support nationally we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first message said ‘VOTE TORY ON 4 MAY’. This is actually an international system that’s been used in some countries for years. It’s built into your mobile and you can turn it off if you’d rather not have Oliver Dowden freaking you out when the balloon goes up. And do you think they chose Shakespeare’s birthday for a reason? If they did they missed a cast-iron opportunity to call it The Grim Alarm (sorry).
Here in the constituency, we know that our MP opposes the sale of the old airport land for the construction of a rail freight terminal but it’s been his government’s policy to permit the development for over a decade now, so it must be awkward for a Cabinet Office Minister. Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans has been asking questions in Parliament, though. The last time Dowden did so was in 2020.
Oh God, Partygate is back in the news. It’s going to be like the torrid Summer of 2022 all over again.
Oliver Dowden was Sue Gray’s boss until she stepped down last week.
In his role as Cabinet Office Minister responsible for propriety and ethics, Dowden will now investigate Gray’s conduct in taking up her new job at the Labour Party.
Our MP’s probably saying a little prayer of gratitude that he wasn’t in the Cabinet Office during #WhatsAppGate.
There’s great excitement in government this week, especially in the Cabinet Office. There can’t be anything more thrilling for a minister responsible for propriety and ethics than to get stuck into a case that might make life harder for His Majesty’s Oppostion. The Tory press is also excited. Starmer and Labour have been polling a steady 20 points ahead of the Tories so they’ve grabbed at this story with something resembling desperation.
And cases like this don’t come along very often: it was the Conservatives who invented the revolving door, after all. About 90% of MPs’ income from second jobs goes to Tories and the vast majority of submissions to the appointments watchdog are from Tories. They’ve had the game to themselves for a long time.
Of course, the irony is that making a fuss about Starmer’s frankly weird decision to appoint Sue Gray (is it possible that Starmer is not the strategy ninja we thought him to be?) might just function to remind the electorate about partygate and all the other hilarious pratfalls of the Johnson era. And the fact that the other prominent partygate civil servant, Simon “Wine Fridge” Case, is a main character in this story and in the very, very tawdry WhatsApp drama, can’t help. Apparently he’s thinking of resigning.
Oliver Dowden, as the most senior Cabinet Office Minister, sponsors ACOBA, the advisory committee that will now have to decide how long Sue Gray has to wait before taking up the Labour job. Remember, when Dowden was up before the beak himself last year he was required to wait the absolute minimum of three months before taking a handsome wedge from a hedge fund. They have it in their power, though, to ask Gray to wait up to two years – making her, presumably, useless to Labour.
In practice, though, long waits to take up appointments are rare and many think the committee is essentially an easy touch. Hardly anyone is ever forbidden from taking up a job. It would certainly look awkward if the first time ACOBA puts its foot down properly is over a Labour Party appointment.
We looked into how ACOBA (the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments) works late last year.
Back in 2017, when she was required to investigate the conduct of another Tory minister, BBC Radio 4 profiled Sue Gray.
It’s a tough time to be a refugee – especially when you have no recourse to public funds, when you’re not allowed to work and when the prices of basics are soaring
For some years now we’ve been supporting a local charity called Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Partnership. A small, volunteer-run charity that’s been quietly getting on with looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our area for many years, in the teeth of the government’s hostile environment, punitive Home Office fees and a growing caseload.
The charity provides practical and emotional support, advice and befriending to refugees and asylum seekers, supporting them on their journey to a safe, secure, and settled life in the UK.
The charity has launched an appeal to raise money for essential food and household items, mostly via supermarket vouchers.
Most of the people WTRRP works with don’t have leave to remain in the country and most have no recourse to public funds (they can’t claim benefits). They’re not entitled to work and are generally living on less than £40 a week. Buying nutritious food and essential items is almost impossible. They rely on the charity’s support to make sure their families have food, personal hygiene products and basic household items.
Last year the charity switched from providing weekly food boxes to supermarket vouchers. The vouchers are a more practical way to help – they give people more choice when shopping and they can choose more fresh food. There’s also less waste.
The huge increases in the cost of food and essentials have meant that many of the charity’s clients are unable to afford enough. The charity’s befrienders report that many families are struggling to maintain even a basic diet.
The situation has got much worse as electricity and gas prices have risen
The number of families that really need vouchers has increased rapidly. WTRRP supports 131 adults and 144 children with vouchers (close to double the number three years ago). This costs about £5,000 a month.
Peter Howard, WTRRP’s Volunteer Grants Team Manager says:
Every week we see more and more people attend our drop in services who desperately need support. The food vouchers are a small way we make a difference and ensure families can get the basics. But we are small organisation run almost entirely by volunteers. So fundraising is tough – particularly at the moment. We urgently need funds to keep up with the rapidly increasing need. Without support, we simply won’t be able to continue providing these vouchers that we know people really rely on.
The charity aims to raise £1,800 and and they’re about half way there. There’s a fundraising page online now. We’d be thrilled if you’d make a donation, of any size, to help the hardest hit to get by.
There’s an intriguing detail in Rishi Sunak’s mini-reshuffle*
It wasn’t announced at the time and it wasn’t in any of the newspaper coverage but, although he was overlooked for the big ministerial roles, Oliver Dowden has a new job. If you’ve been paying attention to his government web page you’ll already have noticed there’s a slightly mysterious new item at the bottom of his list of responsibilities: National Security and Investment.
And it turns out that it’s not a minor addition. Sunak chopped up the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, took ‘digital’ out of the culture ministry, set up a new energy security department and moved the Investment Screening Unit, the office that monitors big investments in the UK that might have national security implications, into the Cabinet Office, where it becomes Dowden’s responsibility. The ISU has been in existence for about a year, as an effect of the National Security and Investment Act 2021. The law was originally sponsored by Alok Sharma, then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It was the result of the enormous collective freak-out about (mainly) Chinese investments in Western businesses that marked Donald Trump’s term in office and the return of nationalism in international trade.
So Oliver Dowden, as the most senior Cabinet Office minister, is now responsible for this unit. And it’s not a nominal role – he becomes the ‘decision maker’ in the unit’s adjudications and could easily find himself testifying before an international tribunal brought by a foreign government. Although most of us didn’t notice the change, the investment industry did. And they’re a bit nervous about it. Corporate law firm Morrison Foerster (known, it says here, as MoFo) says the change “…is likely to result in material disruption to delivery by the ISU in the short term…”
It’s not obvious why this important job should be tacked onto the end of the long list of things already done in the Cabinet Office but it means that, in addition to ministerial propriety and ethics (Zahawi, Williamson, Raab et al), the strikes taskforce (lol), running the war on woke, organising the coronation, supervising public appointments (e.g. Richard Sharp at the BBC) our MP is now also responsible for stopping the Chinese Communist Party from taking control of UK technology firms.
And that’s before he even gets to his constituency business. Blimey.
Just before the reshuffle, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee (which will presumably now have to change its name to reflect reorganised ministries) launched an inquiry into ‘information sharing by the Investment Security Unit’. So that’s another committee for Dowden to attend.
And we promise we’ll stop going on about the Strikes Taskforce at some point. You’re bored hearing that it hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve got half a dozen Google alerts running in case it comes back to life with a jolt. You’d think it would be a pretty busy taskforce about now, what with all the strikes, but apparently they’re still in the barracks, waiting for their orders.
Some are surprised the Prime Minister didn’t take the opportunity to advance some of the loyalists who helped get him elected, though. It must be nerve-wracking for a second-tier figure like Dowden, scrabbling for relevance among the big beasts, to see members of the same 2015 Parliamentary entry whizzing past him and taking up full cabinet positions – Lucy Frazer just leapfrogged into the Culture role that Dowden himself was removed from by Boris Johnson in 2021.
Meanwhile, one of Dowden’s decisions from back when he was still Culture Secretary, has come back to haunt him – although he’s been all ‘nothing to do with me, guv‘ since the story broke.
Nobody outside London knew anything about Richard Sharp until he was shoved into the role of Chairman of the BBC in 2021. He is, though, evidently a genius. A cast-iron financial savant – and from humble beginnings. His public school was tragically outside the top tier but through sheer grit he managed to get accepted at Oxford and completed a degree in PPE nonetheless. He went on to make hundreds of millions of pounds from moving money around in ways we don’t pretend to understand in the City (this 20-year-old article estimates his wealth at £125M). When Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Sharp was an adviser.
So it’s bewildering that a man of his calibre would somehow manage to get himself mixed up in Boris Johnson’s personal financial affairs. Apparently, instead of saying “sod off, Boris, I’d rather stick my head in a wasps’ nest.” or just blocking his number, Sharp ignored all the red flags and offered to hook Johnson up with another millionaire who said he’d guarantee a loan for the PM.
This is where it gets complicated. At this point, Sharp was on the fast track for the BBC job – Johnson had announced he was the preferred candidate and insiders were saying it was a done deal – so it occured to Sharp that his proximity to the lethal spinning blade of the Prime Minister’s private life might cause him some difficulties when it came to the interview. We assume Oliver Dowden knew nothing about the festival of stupidity and venality going on in secret around him, although he was nominally the appointing minister (and his name is at the bottom of the appointment letter).
Sharp decided to involve a civil servant. He chose Simon “Partygate” Case, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. And – guess what – Case said the loan was cool and that Johnson wouldn’t even need to declare it because it was “family business”. That last bit is kind of perplexing because although Blyth and Johnson are related, they’re related in roughly the same way Danny Dyer is related to Edward III. They share a great-great-grandfather and apparently Johnson didn’t even know Blyth until Sharp introduced them.
We’ve watched it half a dozen times (for we really do need to get out more) and can honestly say that we still have no idea. Grade-A flannel, almost perfect obfuscation (and much disingenuous use of the “I wouldn’t want to prejudice the ongoing inquiry…” defence).
Dowden so effectively frustrates the efforts of the committee chair William Wragg and senior member John McDonnell to find out what that 22-person team would actually do in the event of a ‘flag’ being raised about a Minister’s conduct (like, for instance, if the HMRC alerted the previous Prime Minister to an incoming Minister’s off-shore tax arrangements) that they’re driven back to questions about ‘departmental efficiency’ in no time.
We’ve pointed out many times in the past what a good soldier Dowden is. He can be sent into a situation like this, fraught with political peril, and emerge unscathed, brushing down his suit and moving briskly on to the next messy situation.
We continue to think that a loyal consigliere like Dowden is not cut out for a role at the very top of politics but he could easily continue to circle around the leadership – cleaning up after ministerial indiscretions and digging metaphorical graves – indefinitely (or until the revolving door beckons). A survivor.
The rest of Dowden’s testimony to the committee concerned cost cutting in the civil service (yes to that, apparently), the declining happiness of civil servants (yes to that too). They’re miserable, mainly because their salaries have actually gone down in the last 11 years – strikes are planned. Karin Smyth grills the Minister and his Permanent Secretary on civil contingencies (disasters, terrorism etc.). It is claimed that there’s a new approach to risk so the next time the balloon goes up there’ll be less administrative panic.
The Coronation Claims Office comes up – someone has to be responsible for the comicbook anachronism of Crown ceremonial – and it is Oliver Dowden. He has some more flannel about the obligation of the state to fund the upcoming coronation, apparently forgetting that for almost the whole history of the British Monarchy coronations were not state affairs and required no government money.
The department’s annual report and accounts was scrutinised – and in particular a big increase in costs. Chisholm pins most of the extra cost on big events – Cop26 in Glasgow, a G7, the Grenfell Inquiry etc.
We learn that Dowden, on taking up his new role, led an ‘open session’ with civil servants at which he invited them to share their concerns about pay and conditions (just trying to imagine what it was like to attend that open session is making us twitch).
John McDonnell raises some pretty grim data about poverty amongst the lowest-paid civil servants (8% have used a foodbank). Dowden insists that there will be no improvement to this year’s 2% pay increase.
There’s an entertaining vignette illustrating the way the current government’s effort to push back against ‘woke culture’ in the civil service is failing. Ronnie Cowan (SNP) quotes one of Dowden’s predecessors in his role (Jacob Rees-Mogg no less) insisting that all training involving the words ‘diversity, wellness and inclusion’ be cancelled. Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm responds: “the diversity and inclusion strategy is a core part of what the government does and has indeed been renewed twice by subsequent ministers.” The blob pushes back.
The digital team inside Parliament is famously good. Their online coverage of Parliamentary debates, committees etc. is really exemplary. An important window on the operation of government and legislature.
The House of Commons Library has just published a fascinating research briefing about coronation history and ceremonial.