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Westlake Legal Group > Theresa May MP

Nick Hargrave: The capitalism of the future demands a bigger role for the state

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.

Philip Hammond’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference last October is unlikely to be remembered as a rhetorical classic. But it contains within it an important insight for the political fortunes of the Conservative Party and the long-term prosperity of our country.

Speaking to a less than packed hall, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told delegates that Conservatives of the future must:

“Harness the power of the market economy, taking a model which has evolved continuously down the ages, so that the capitalism of the twenty-first century looks nothing remotely like that of the nineteenth – and adapt it once again to speak to the values of a new generation.”

Hammond was speaking to a truth that Conservatives sometimes forget. Capitalism is not a static construct held in aspic. It is an economic system which flexes to meet the challenges of its time – and in doing so renews its mandate from one generation to the next.

This flexible conception of capitalism has been seen in the differing approaches of Conservative governments since the Second World War.

In the 1950s and 1960s, after a landslide defeat in 1945, our party accepted a greater role for state involvement in the running of the economy; spurred on by a gradual realisation that the laissez-faire approach of the 1930s had been an opportunity lost.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Margaret Thatcher burst onto the scene with an articulation of capitalism that was more libertarian and evangelical about the merits of free enterprise – in keeping with its time and a reaction to the drift and decline inherent in state involvement going too far.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the pendulum swing the other way, and voters demand a gentler articulation of the harder-edged approach of the 1980s – with support for a minimum wage, windfall taxes and more investment in the public realm. On this occasion, our party failed to meet this challenge, clinging doggedly to our post event conception of Thatcherism, and paid an electoral price.

The lesson of history is clear. When Conservatives adapt to generational calls for change on our political economy they prosper and own the terms of debate; more than capable of beating a Labour Party whose competence is usually doubted. When they fail to acknowledge the call for change they lose – and only regain power after a period of painful reflection.

If the events of the past couple of years have taught us anything, it is time for Conservative politicians to once again come up with a coherent answer for how capitalism can renew its generational mandate. Specifically, how it can materially improve the British people’s living standards in an economy that is undergoing a technological transformation; one that is increasingly global, that’s conducted online, that’s moving at pace to automation – and which is increasingly flexible in its conception of the nature of work.

It’s this transformation which is fuelling the rise of identity politics in our country – which for all its short-term attractions is unlikely to end well. It’s fuelling divisions between the upwardly mobile and the educated in our vibrant urban centres who are benefitting from this change – and the many in our towns and communities who feel left behind. Between a younger generation which is finding it hard to amass capital – and an older generation who have assets that have appreciated over the years.  It’s why a lot of public and private polling out there indicates that people feel the country is moving in the wrong direction domestically. And it’s why the main thing keeping the current Conservative voting coalition together is the illusory tiger of a Brexit which can never meet the hype – and one suspects will eventually end in disappointment.

So what’s the real answer for Conservatives in how we reinvigorate capitalism in a way that is relevant for the 2020s and beyond – and in the process renew our own mandate to govern? This could be the subject of several more articles, but here are a few core thoughts as follows:

  • First, in politics you must get the tone and definition right before you get into the policy weeds. The platform must feel upbeat, inclusive, and focussed on the guiding prism of a better future for us all to share. Optimism is infectious. This is where I think in hindsight Theresa May got the balance wrong during the period 2016-17.  The framing of the ‘privileged few’ may have been tactically popular, but it was caricatured and created expectations of a reckoning with business that was self-defeating and ceded political space to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s much easier to have difficult conversations with businesses about their responsibilities in the modern economy if you have an overall macro-message that is supportive. 70 per cent carrot and 30 per cent stick feels about right.
  • Second, I think we are going to have come to terms with a more muscular and high spending state over the next 20 years. Critically, that spending and guiding hand must be prioritised on investment in the future rather than pumping cash hand over fist into resource spending. In Treasury, speak this means more ambitious capital programmes than currently on R&D and science, digital infrastructure and transport. Always remember that the jobs, wealth and economic security of 25 years’ time will come from ideas that we cannot even conceive of yet.
  • Third, people have to feel confident they are benefitting from the system. Rather than using Labour language of ‘fixing a broken market’, focus instead on the positive articulation of what a muscular state can do to promote the holding of capital. Spend much, much more on state-backed programmes to build houses, remodel the corporate tax system with the strategic goal of incentivising employee share ownership – and turbocharge the somewhat limp National Retraining Scheme into a massive endeavour for all people in industries at risk of automation.
  • Fourth, we need to be able to pay for this and remain fiscally credible. There is no perfect way to do this but a shift towards wealth over income taxes is broadly the right way to go. This is hard but inevitable. Most realistically this can only come from a new leader at the height of their political powers.
  • Fifth, there is the question of how we maintain our political definition with Labour. I would strongly suggest we do not fall back into an ideological debate about libertarianism versus socialism (if put like that, Britain over the next 20 years is going to go for the latter). Focus instead on the values and language of economic competence and strong leadership, brought to life in the programme above, and the rest flows from there. With the current Labour frontbench this task is inordinately easier than if we were up against a centre-left leadership.
  • Finally, whatever you do – don’t countenance a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It will detract focus from this generationally important task – and will lead to many more years of austerity. This cannot be emphasised enough.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Why did the Government craft its own defeat yesterday evening?

The crucial words in yesterday’s Government motion were that the Commons “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019”.

That risked being read as a reference not only to the Brady amendment (which supported the removal of the backstop) but also to the Spelman amendment (which effectively called for No Brexit if the choice was between No Brexit and No Deal).

Remainers such as Guto Bebb and Justine Greening were never going to vote for Brady.  And Leavers such as Steve Baker were never going to vote for Spelman.

There are more members of the European Research Group than Conservative second referendum supporters, which helps to explain why the former are in the spotlight this morning.  But most of both joined in not backing Theresa May.

So why did the Government not slap down a bland motion that didn’t risk giving second referendum supporters and ERG members alike  reasons or excuses to revolt?

One explanation being floated by Government loyalists is that Downing Street or the whips or both were attempting to stave off the resignation of pro-Soft Brexit and Remain Ministers over the prospect of No Deal.

But most of these seem to believe that they don’t need to quit yet to achieve that end.  And there is a questionmark over whether many will at all.

Another is that the whips or Number Ten or both were trying to thwart the Letwin/Cooper/Boles attempt to make the legislature, in effect, the executive.  But there was no prospect of the Commons voting for that plan yesterday.

Then there is a conspiracy theory – that the whips were seeking to flush out the number of ERG members who might in due course oppose a deal with an amended backstop, but miscalculated.  This is fantastical.

To date, the EU appears to have decided that it would rather negotiate with Theresa May than the Commons.  That is the most natural reading of its decision to engage in further talks with the Government after the House voted for the Brady amendment.

So a further question this morning is whether the EU will pull the plug during the next few days.  If it doesn’t, then the consequences of the Government’s defeat yesterday will be few.  If it does, they could be many.

Either way, experienced hands like Robert Syms and Nicky Morgan were asking yesterday afternoon what on earth the Government was trying to achieve.  Perhaps today will bring answers.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: Were it not for Churchill, McDonnell might be speaking German. And so could the rest of us.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I don’t know how many of you watched Liam Halligan’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night, but he raised some real questions about the future of the HS2 project.

It’s cost the taxpayer £4.2 billion so far, but from this year the spending is ratcheting up, and that amount will apparently be spent each year. HS2 now employs 17 – yes, 17 – different PR companies to persuade us that a) HS2 is needed and b) it’s value for money.

As someone who thinks visionary transport projects are much needed in this country ,I think the jury is out on both counts. It’s rumoured that Theresa May wanted to can the scheme on her first day as Prime Minister, but was persuaded not to.

Were it cancelled now, it would be a humiliation for a Government which could do without any further humiliation, and there would be hell to pay for wasting more than £4 billion on a white elephant.

But sometimes you have to do the right thing and seal a political wound. I wonder whether we are at that point, or at least very near it.

– – – – – – – – – –

So John McDonnell thinks Winston Churchill is a villain. Good luck in explaining that to working class communities up and down the country, who see know nation’s war leader for what he is and was.

An absolute hero – without whom McDonnell and the rest of us might well be speaking German.

What is it about the Left who love to laud real villains like Chavez, Maduro and the like, yet delight in trying to denigrate the reputation of people who achieved things for this country that they couldn’t even dream of doing in a month of Sundays?

– – – – – – – – – –

It amuses met to see Labour supporters on Twitter trying to maintain the myth that Labour is constantly ahead in the opinion polls. The last three polls that I have seen showed a five to seven point Conservative lead. The last poll I saw a Labour lead of more than a couple of points was weeks ago. Even a poll of polls shows a Tory lead of 1.5 points, and that was before the last two Ipsos/MORI and Kantar polls showing seven and five point leads.

Given the shambolic state of the Government, it is incredible that, in what is now effectively a two party system, Labour isn’t way ahead. Yet those Labour supporters are so deluded they daren’t even ask the question as to why that is. They cling to the mantra that they started the last election 24 points behind and on polling day nearly won – nearly being 50 seats behind. This hubristic view that lightning is bound to strike twice may well be their undoing. It deserves to be.

Another polling mystery is why the Liberal Democrats still can’t get much more than ten. They are the only party with a distinctive Brexit message, and they ought to be cleaning up the Remain vote, given Jeremy Corbyn’s clear determination to avoid a second referendum. But they’re not.

Is it down to Vince Cable’s less than charismatic leadership? Is it the fact that their part in the coalition busted their support on the Left? Is it the hangover from the tuition fees debacle? A combination of all three, probably. I expect Cable to stand down in the summer. The leadership contest is likely to be between Jo Swinson, Layla Moran and Ed Davey.

I interviewed Moran for an hour on my show on Tuesday evening, and was hugely impressed. She may be inexperienced, but she comes across incredibly well and has the kind of charisma that a third party requires. She didn’t avoid answering some tough questions very directly. She’s certainly not an Orange Booker, but she is the sort of LibDem who might well appeal to people on the left of the Conservative Party. The Tories would do well not to underestimate her.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

May’s new Brexit hell. An alliance of hard and soft Brexiteers humiliates her. And any sense of Government progress is lost.

Had Anna Soubry insisted on putting her amendment to the vote – and the Speaker would surely have selected it for that purpose – Theresa May would on balance have been helped rather than harmed.

This is because although the Government would have been subject to the embarrassment of releasing papers relating to No Deal (or risk being found in contempt of Parliament), it would not endured the greater indignity of losing its own main motion.

For if Soubry’s amendment had been passed, the Prime Minister’s motion would then not have been put to the Commons at all.  So it would not have been subject to defeat by 303 votes to 258.

The motion was defeated precisely because some Remainers and Soft Brexiteers, such as Phillip Lee, and the bulk of the European Reseach Group – Bernard Jenkin and others – joined together to abstain.

By crafting a motion that seemed both to back the Spelman and Brady amendments passed last month – the first explicitly opposed to No Deal; the second implicitly preparded, however reluctantly, to accept it – the Government created not so much a rod as a hammer for its own back.

Lee and his like didn’t like the Brady amendment; Jenkins and his ilk didn’t like the Spelman one.  Furthermore, and as we wrote this morning, Olly Robbins remarks in a Brussels bar have revived fears in the ERG that Downing Street is seeking to play them.

The sum of all this is that May, having laboriously sweated her way to the top of a hill last month, has now fallen back down it.  She briefly got most of the Conservative Party behind her for a vote, and has now promptly lost its backing once again.

This afternoon, Oliver Letwin was speaking in the Commons of turning the legislature into the executive, and the Commons taking control of the negotiation altogether.  That would have profound and baleful constitutional implications.

Labour seems to be on the verge of a split, with some of its own MPs defying the Whip.  But the Prime Minister has to lead a government, not the opposition, and her exposure to political damage is therefore greater.

The EU’s conduct since the January votes has implied that it still seeks to give her more time.  Hence its decision to allow new deadlines for new discussions.  Whether it will continue to do so in the light of this latest debacle remains to be seen.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: SDLP link-up with Fianna Fail has a rocky start as senior MLA quits

SDLP ‘on back foot’ after senior resignation over merger

The alliance between the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s smaller and more moderate nationalist party, and Fianna Fail suffered a blow this week when the former’s most high-profile MLA resigned.

Clare Hanna, the SDLP’s Brexit spokeswoman, resigned from its Assembly group (although not her actual party membership) after a special conference on Saturday approved the new ‘policy partnership’ with the Republic party, the News Letter reports.

She said that: “I remain unconvinced that an exclusive partnership with Fianna Fáil is the right vehicle to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

SDLP members backed the proposal at the conference, although 30 per cent voted against it. There apparently remains a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the new relationship entails, with senior figures being coy as to whether it would mean a joint manifesto or similar.

Hanna may not be the last to leave: Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, was reportedly warned that a group of members were “considering their options” after the link-up was approved.

In other Irish nationalist news, Sinn Fein have reiterated their belief that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Mary Lou McDonald described such a vote as a “democratic necessity” in the event that Britain left the EU without the backstop in place – but declined to say when a referendum should be held.

Writing on this site today, David Shiels has warned ministers that by talking up the prospect of a border poll – in a bid to shepherd unionist MPs behind Theresa May’s withdrawal deal – they are playing into the hands of the republicans.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, continues to insist that such a Brexit can be avoided – even has he refused to negotiate with the Prime Minister during her visit to Dublin earlier this week. However Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, did meet with his Irish counterpart on that Friday, as well as meeting separately with senior figures from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP Brexit spokesman, has had to insist this week that his party remains united in its opposition to the backstop. The News Letter reports that Arlene Foster had earlier refused to be drawn on whether or not she was still demanding its complete abandonment.

Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax

Teachers have announced that they will demand compensation out of public funds if they are subject to the Scottish Government’s new car park tax – in a move the Tories estimate could cost £1.7 million in Edinburgh alone.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this move by the unions comes as part of a growing public backlash against the proposals, which would see charges levied on private car parks such as those operated by businesses and other places of work.

There was also outrage when it was revealed that such a tax is liable for VAT if the cost is passed on to employees, pushing the cost to workers up to around £500 per year.

Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, accepted an amendment tabled by the Scottish Greens introducing the levy in order to win their support for his budget, which could not have passed without them.

Opposition parties have also this week criticised Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, for talking up the prospect of independence whilst on an official trade trip to the United States.

This prompted Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, to urge the Government to re-assert its prerogatives over foreign affairs and start attaching conditions to the Scottish Government’s use of public funds outwith its remit. Probably too much to hope after ministers’ foolish retreat over post-Brexit devolved powers, but definitely a good idea for a bolder, more imaginative leadership to consider.

In other news, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly declared victory in their campaign to stop Boris Johnson becoming Tory leader. I wrote about the significance of ‘Operation Arse’ earlier this week.

Labour AM apologises for ‘unacceptable’ comments about Jews

Jenny Rathbone, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, has apologised and been issued a formal warning over “unacceptable” comments she made about Jewish communities.

Wales Online reports that the Cardiff Central AM said it was “really uncomfortable” how certain security-conscious synagogues now resemble ‘fortresses’, and that “siege mentalities” might be driving this change. She will now undergo antisemitism training by the Community Security Trust.

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister, is apparently trying to ease out Wales’ most senior civil servant in order to get a “fresh start”.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Trust

The consequences can be argued either way.  If the Government is defeated again in the Commons later today, and the cause is European Research Group or other pro-Brexit MPs withholding support, this could turn out be to helpful to the Prime Minister – because the EU will conclude that she needs concessions on the Brexit deal she has agreed to get it though the House.

More likely, a loss of this kind would be harmful, because the EU would judge in consequence that Theresa May really can’t get MPs to back her for very long about anything whatsoever.  That would make them less inclined, not more, to rework the backstop.  Which in turn would risk the Cooper amendment, or something like it, being carried in the Commons sooner rather than later.  Which would make Brexit less likely to happen in any form at all.

Either way, the central problem for Downing Street is that trust in it, from all parts of the Parliamentary party, is very low indeed.  The success of the Brady amendment a fortnight ago only masked this problem, rather than solving it.  The ERG doesn’t trust the Prime Minister to seek meaningful changes to the backstop.  Nor does it believe that she will pursue the solution proposed by the Malthouse Compromise – but, rather, will aim for additions to the backstop rather than changes in its text, let alone scrapping it (as the Brady amendment proposed).

Furthermore, the ERG itself isn’t united on its own aims.  Some of its members, plus other Brexiteering MPs, could live with a codicil to the backstop.  Others insist that the problems posed by May’s deal reach much wider than the backstop, anyway: this point was obscured by the whole group throwing its weight behind the Brady amendment.  There is no way of knowing how the numbers break down.  What is clear that Olly Robbins’ overheard conversation in a Brussels bar has done her no good whatsoever.

Whatever Number Ten’s intentions when it drafted the terms of its motion for debate today, the ERG is now even more suspicious of May than it was before – over her intentions in relation to extension, and to the Customs Union, as well as to the backstop.  And no wonder, since it is clear that under the latest timetable the Government will almost certainly need a short technical extension, at best.

This is because she is simply running out of time for a Withdrawal Bill, and other necessary measures, to pass Parliament before March 29 even if a revised deal wins MPs’ approval next month.  That Downing Street continues to deny this helps to explain why trust, as well as time, is almost exhausted.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Interview. “Look, this is a Christian country”, says Hinds. But he adds that the cap on new faith schools’ admissions should stay.

Damian Hinds says that as Conservative Education Secretary, the post he has occupied since January 2018, “there are always arguments to be won”, and you have to face up to the “forces of small-c conservatism”.

He adds that “if you stand still, you will go backwards”. But Hinds, described by his fellow parliamentarians as a man who has entered the Cabinet on merit, has an aversion to extravagant language and cannot be regarded as a publicity seeker.

In this interview, he sets out to show how reasonable his policies are. When he declares “this is a Christian country… it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” his tone is studiously reasonable.

Hinds defends his refusal to lift the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools by insisting there are there are “good community and integration reasons” for keeping it. His decision has angered the Roman Catholic Church, to which he himself belongs.

Before becoming a minister, he opposed the cap, and his appointment raised hopes in Catholic circles that he would use his power to sweep it away.

The Education Secretary instead says his “number one priority” is “to bear down on workload for teachers”, so fewer of them leave the profession.

He wants to accelerate the academies programme and urges ConHome readers to come forward as governors.

On Brexit, he says the Prime Minister has reached “a very good deal”, a point which tends to be forgotten amid “legitimate” concerns about the backstop. He observes that rapid progress is needed, and declines to say whether the Cabinet would continue to “hold their nerve” if the Prime Minister informed ministers she could only get concessions on the backstop at the EU summit on 21st March.

A paradox of his career is that he has risen higher than his good friend and contemporary Jacob Rees-Mogg, while remaining much less well known.

ConHome: “How did you beat Jacob Rees-Mogg and become President of the Oxford Union?”

Hinds [laughing]: “Let’s start with the important stuff.”

ConHome: “I think actually our readers are intensely interested. You were in the same college…”

Hinds: “We were in the same college [Trinity College, Oxford].”

ConHome: “You’re co-religionists.”

Hinds: “Yes, but that’s not desperately relevant,”

ConHome: “I’m not suggesting the Pope had anything to do with it.”

Meg Powell-Chandler [Hinds’ special adviser]: “Actually…”

Hinds: “Actually, Jacob was the first person I met at university, literally the first person. It’s one of those things you do when you arrive, and you have all the first years in a room, and I turned to the bloke next to me and said ‘Hello, I’m Damian’, and it turned out to be Jacob.

“He wasn’t dressed the same as all the other undergraduates. He just happened to be standing next to me. And we’ve been friends ever since.

“And the answer to your question about elections. As you know, there are lots of undergraduate elections, and I was lucky enough on that occasion. There’s not much more to it than that.”

ConHome: “Well actually, oddly enough, the most candid thing Boris Johnson ever wrote about politics was an essay about how to become President of the Oxford Union, in a book, The Oxford Myth, edited by his sister, Rachel.

“He said that what you need is ‘a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ who will get the vote out for you in their respective colleges.”

Hinds: “‘Stooges’ is one of those words you only ever actually hear in student politics.”

ConHome: “Michael Gove has admitted he was a Johnson stooge in those days. So you too had a collection of disciplined and deluded stooges? They weren’t deluded in your case.”

Hinds: “Lovely people. Actually there were three of us in that election, all three from the same college, and I think that was very, very unusual.”

ConHome: “Who was the third?”

Hinds: “Stephanie Young, now Stephanie Tyrer. That was a very unusual set-up. There were many other elections that Jacob won while we were undergraduates, but on that occasion I was lucky enough to come out on top.”

ConHome: “And did you enjoy being President?”

Hinds: “I loved it, yes.”

ConHome: “And who were your most famous visitors?”

Hinds: “I had the summer term. My favourite visitors, we had Alvin Stardust, who also sang, and Will Carling, the Rugby player.”

ConHome: “And who are your political heroes?”

Hinds: “It’s so clichéd to say Mrs Thatcher is your political hero, but point me to the person on our side of the Chamber who wouldn’t say that.

“As it happens, I’m a child of the Eighties [he was born in 1969], grew up in Manchester, it was a difficult time, proper divides in politics, and in the earlier part of that period I was a Leftie.

“I came to my realisation aged 16, 17 and joined our party, so I’ve got a reasonable pedigree given I’m now 49. But it was a realisation rather than something automatic.”

ConHome: “And how did you realise?”

Hinds: “Well I think the Eighties was an amazing time to grow up, partly because there was so much politics. Everything from the Iron Curtain and communism versus capitalism through the Miners’ Strike and privatisation.

“Some things we got wrong as well as some things we got right of course. But as a teenager you couldn’t help but be politically very conscious of what was going on around you.

“And I came to the conclusion, first of all that I was a very lucky boy, coming from a strong family and going to a good school [Saint Ambrose College, a Roman Catholic grammar school].

“But I came to the conclusion that the way to make more boys and girls lucky boys and girls was to have a strong economy with enterprise but also with social responsibility, and with people looking out for each other. And sometimes we got on the wrong side of that, towards the end of the 1980s, of course, in terms of how people perceived us.”

ConHome: “Do you have a favourite monarch?”

Hinds: “The Queen.”

ConHome: “And of her predecessors, of whom there are 39 including William the Conqueror?”

Hinds: “Are there only 39, all the way back to 1066?”

ConHome: “Yes, it’s not that many. Of course there were various people like Queen Victoria and George III..”

Hinds: “…who upped the average. Wow. I didn’t realise that. So I’m not going to profess to have a favourite monarch, other than of course Her Majesty. I do think the Queen is just so off the scale of amazingness and a role model for us all.”

ConHome: “When I put the same question to your predecessor but one, Nicky Morgan, she said Henry VIII. But when I and her special advisers expressed amazement, she switched to Elizabeth I.”

A division bell rang, and Hinds went off to vote. When he got back, the interview continued with a question about Brexit.

ConHome: “If Theresa May came back to Cabinet and said, ‘I can get something on the backstop, but not until the EU summit on 21st March,’ would you be happy to hold your nerve until then?”

Hinds [after a pause]: “I think the Prime Minister needs all of us to be behind her in this. Only she can know the exact dynamic of the negotiation, and exactly what is the best route forward.

“I won’t rehearse all the stuff about we need to get a deal, because clearly we do – I say clearly, it’s clear to me we absolutely do. Clearly already time is very short, and we need to make good and rapid progress.

“Obviously there are real worries about the backstop and it’s very legitimate for people to have worries about that, and legitimate to be seeking assurances.

“It is also true, and we must remember to keep saying it, that the deal overall is a very good deal. There’s been so much talk about the relatively I’m not going to say small issues that sometimes we don’t talk about the thing itself.”

ConHome: “But would you hold your nerve, and would your Cabinet colleagues hold their collective nerve, until 21st March?”

Hinds: “I think everybody is holding their nerve.”

ConHome: “Now on education, how important is it for an Education Secretary to be talked about? There have been some, people like Tony Crosland, who’ve gone on the offensive, who have been talked about – since Rab Butler, there’s been Crosland, Thatcher, Baker, Blunkett, Gove, and probably a few others, probably people like Boyle. Do you think that’s important, or not really?”

Hinds: “I actually think what’s really important is for the system to be working well, not letting down any of our children anywhere, and for the person doing my job, and all our ministers, and the whole department, to be making sure that happens.

“And sometimes that does require, and it certainly did when Michael [Gove] was doing this job, a bold and vociferous and constant presence, at other times less so.

“But there are always arguments to be won in this sphere, because there are forces of small-c conservatism – which is definitely not the same as our Conservatism – in the education world.

“And as a Conservative Education Secretary, you need to be facing up to those. If you stand still, you will go backwards.”

ConHome: “Would it be fair to say you’re more focussed on heads and teachers than on parents?”

Hinds: “It wouldn’t be fair to say I’m more focussed on heads and teachers. But without heads and teachers the parents would be very upset.

“And we have had a problem in the last few years with making sure we have enough teachers. So we haven’t recruited quite enough, and we’ve had too many leaving. And the biggest reason they leave is because of workload.

“So I’ve made my number one priority to bear down on workload for teachers. Which turns out to be not nearly as simple a task as people might expect.

“Because although in a popular image there’s all these forms that you’re making teachers fill in, I’ve tried very hard to find those forms and they basically don’t exist.

“It’s a much more endemic, complex set of circumstances that makes teachers work on average 50 plus hours a week, which again is much more than people would expect to hear.

“And I think from a parent’s point of view they don’t want to know that teachers are spending a huge amount of time other than teaching their children. It’s all the other stuff.”

ConHome: “If it’s not form-filling, what is it?”

Hinds: “The three biggest things are very large amounts of lesson-planning…”

ConHome: “Well that’s difficult to avoid, isn’t it?”

Hinds: “No, not necessarily. It depends on what you do. Obviously I want teachers planning lessons. And schools do much better lesson-planning than when we were at school, and that is a very good thing.

“But if you are producing lesson-plans because you think the Ofsted inspector is going to see them, and stockpiling ring binders full of these things – this does happen in many schools, this is not a productive use of time.

“Similarly marking. And email.”

ConHome: “Another problem is that good teachers are intelligent and capable people. If the economy’s doing well, they can go off and do other things.”

Hinds: “That’s true. If you’ve got four per cent unemployment that’s a bad time for anybody to be recruiting, because it’s a very competitive market. But I just say our vacancies are more important than everybody else’s.”

ConHome: “You did a piece on ConHome saying you firmly believe in academies. But are they being created quickly enough, do you think? Do you have enough sponsors? Or has your department been gradually reducing the financial incentives?”

Hinds: “Well it shouldn’t be about financial incentives. It is possible to help with the costs of conversion, but actually the big advantage of being an academy is about autonomy, and about being able to combine with other schools.

“We’ve just passed a really important milestone of more than half the children in the state sector being in academies, which is a great thing. We’re still seeing more coming forward for conversion. I would like to see that pace continue and accelerate.

“We also need more people, I hope ConHome readers will step up to this, to be governors and trustees. When you’ve got a devolved system, with lots of autonomy, the role of a governor can become a much bigger thing.

“And the academies programme is now for the first time since early Blair under threat from the Labour Party. It was originally a Blair invention.

“Michael Gove and Nick Gibb put turbo-chargers under that programme, massively increased the numbers, and actually I hear from Members of Parliament on all sides what a difference academisation has made.”

ConHome: “You gave a speech the other day about children’s character. How do you build children’s character without some ethical or religious input?”

Hinds: “Well I don’t think you do do it without some ethical input. I distinguish character and resilience from values and virtues, but they go together. So character and resilience, I talk about ‘believe you can achieve’, “be able to stick with the task in hand’, ‘understand the link between the effort I put in today and the reward I do or might get in the future’, ‘being able to bounce back when things go wrong’.

“All those things would also make you a really good criminal, and I don’t want you to be a criminal. So I also want you to be grounded in friendship, kindness, community spirit, all those values.

“Some people will get those through a religious education, others will get it through a non-religious but still an ethically based education.”

ConHome: “So what in your opinion is the role of Christianity in politics, both generally and for you personally? I asked Nicky Morgan this.”

Hinds: “What did she say?”

ConHome: “She said the Anglican Church is very important to her.”

Hinds: “Well the Anglican Church is very important to me too. I’m going to go a wee bit further. Look, this is a Christian country. I mean these days it is a multicultural country as well, and there are many different faiths represented, and vast numbers of people who have no religious faith.

“But it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And in Parliament you find – I’ve never actually done the maths, but it’s always felt to me that there’s a disproportionate number of people of some religious faith. Not necessarily Christian, but some religious faith.

“We start every day with Prayers, this little segment of the day, three minutes, the only part which is not broadcast, and I think whether people are Anglican or some other denomination, or an atheist, actually the majority of Members of Parliament I think appreciate that as a moment of reflection and thinking about the day ahead, thinking about why we’re here.

“Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Chaplain, does this prayer about remembering not to put personal self-interest in the way of what we do.”

ConHome: “What’s your view of free schools? It’s gone a bit quiet on free schools.”

Hinds: “We’re still doing this. We’ve got hundreds in the pipeline. Free schools are a type of academy, but brand new. They’ve brought a great deal of innovation. By bringing something different to an area, they create diversity and choice and a bit of competition with other schools.”

ConHome: “Is the Catholic Church still opting out of free schools – they were very cross, weren’t they, about the admissions cap?”

Hinds: “And that is still there. We’ve got a 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools. But they can now – and others can as well – open new voluntary aided schools.”

ConHome: “Why have you got the cap on free schools?”

Hinds: “There are good reasons for wanting to be able to ensure diversity in school provision. But the voluntary aided school route has always been there. The process for application is different from that for a free school, it has to have the backing of the local authority, but it’s been around since 1944 and has worked well.

“It’s mostly associated with the Catholic Church but actually there are Anglican VA schools as well, and indeed other faiths. It’s actually never technically stopped being possible to open a VA school. There just wasn’t any money available.”

ConHome: “But is there a lobby within the Conservative Party against lifting this cap on faith-based admissions to free schools? Is that part of the trouble?

“Because oddly enough, you seem to be standing up for the more traditional socialist way of doing things, even if it goes back to 1944. The Labour Party would have less to disagree with – local democratic control and all that.”

Hinds: “Free schools came in under the Coalition Government and there is obviously a reason why they came in as they did, and they’ve been a great addition to the schools system, including by the way having schools of religious character coming in, but with a cap of 50 per cent when oversubscribed.

“There was one large denomination which did not feel able to open free schools, which was the Catholic Church. And I was keen that every denomination should be able to open new schools. And of course the voluntary aided route isn’t only open to them, but it is open to them.”

ConHome: “And Catholic voluntary aided schools are opening, are they?”

Hinds: “There’s a round of applications that’s just happening as we speak.”

ConHome: “I still don’t understand why you refused to get rid of this cap. You don’t need legislation. You can decide, can’t you?”

Hinds: “There are good community integration reasons why the cap is as it is.”

ConHome: “This applies to Muslims as well.”

Hinds: “It applies to all faiths, in the same way that the opportunity to open a voluntary aided school applies to all faiths. We don’t make things specifically for individual religions.”

ConHome: “But would that be a worry, that you would then get some purely Muslim schools?”

Hinds: “There are purely Muslim schools, there are Jewish schools, there are Catholic schools, there are Anglican schools and they all play an important role. The key thing is that there is no significant religion in this country that wants to be able to open faith schools and can’t.”

ConHome: “I still haven’t got to the heart of your objection to lifting the cap.”

Hinds: “As I say, there are good community and integration reasons.”

ConHome: “What does that mean?”

Hinds: “It means it is right, and this is why the system was set up as it was initially, to be able to say, ‘Yes, we want to be able to have faith schools, but we also want to be able to have multiple ways, this is one of the ways, to make sure that we have full integration of communities. And that’s one of the ways we do it.”

ConHome: “And did you change your mind about this? Were you in favour of lifting the cap?”

Hinds: “If you looked hard, I think you would probably find a record of me somewhere in Parliament speaking about the cap before I was in a ministerial position.”

ConHome: “In your reckless youth.”

Hinds: “I wasn’t aware of all the considerations at the time.”

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Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May bores for Brexit, and has hopes of dividing and ruling

The Prime Minister’s demeanour, during her frequent statements to the House on Brexit, is that of a teacher who refuses to make her lessons any less repetitive.

Some of us cannot help feeling a reluctant admiration for Theresa May’s pedagogical methods. Her willingness, despite signs of restiveness in the Brexit Studies class, to stick to tried and tested clichés commands our involuntary respect.

If she has said it once that if you do not want no deal you must vote for her deal, she has said it a million times. That is how rote learning works. Here is a leader who is prepared to bore for Brexit.

And yet behind her impermeable facade of double negatives, change can be detected, and even an understanding that she needs to make what she is offering less repugnant.

So today she told Jeremy Corbyn, “I welcome his willingness to sit down and talk with me.” And she went on to suggest that she and the Leader of the Opposition are united in their determination “not to allow any lowering of standards in workers’ rights” when we leave the EU.

Corbyn leant over to consult Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary. Perhaps he wished for advice on how to deal with this implausible claim, or perhaps he just wanted to check what Labour policy is.

May meanwhile suggested that under the Conservatives, “the UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights”.

This led to an outbreak of hilarity among the Opposition. Chi Onwurah, sitting on the bench behind Corbyn, laughed with particular delight. May had said something so absurd – that the Conservatives are the workers’ friend – it was impossible for Labour not to burst out laughing.

The Prime Minister proceeded to say, less humorously, that “we now need some time” to complete the Brexit negotiations, and “we now all need to hold our nerve”.

Corbyn said he had only received the prior copy of her statement to which he is entitled as he left his office: “I can only assume she entrusted it to the Transport Secretary to deliver.”

That joke went down well. Corbyn proceeded to accuse her of “more excuses and more delays” while she runs down the clock, “plays chicken with people’s livelihoods”, engages in “the pretence of working with Parliament”, and claims to care about workers’ rights, although for many Conservatives, “ripping up workers’ rights is what Brexit is all about.”

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, was ruder. He said the Prime Minister’s deal is “a fraud”, and “a catastrophe for Scotland”, and called on her to “put an end to this economic madness” under which the Scots are being “dragged out of the EU against our will”.

As May began, in a somewhat patronising tone, to correct these assertions, Blackford could be heard shouting “that’s not true”, and then “liar”. The Speaker, John Bercow, made him withdraw the word.

Vince Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, said that after reaching out to the trade unions and to Corbyn, May was “no doubt better informed on how Trotsky might have dealt with the Brexit crisis”.

So the Opposition are divided into Trotskyites and anti-Trotskyites. For May, this is promising. She has no need to plunge an ice pick into the back of Corbyn’s head. She can just hope to separate some of his MPs from him by indicating that she is in a better position than he is to produce economic benefits for the workers in their constituencies.

On her own benches, she got mixed reviews. Ken Clarke said we could do a better trade deal with Japan by remaining in the EU, and Anna Soubry accused her of “kicking the can down the road yet again”.

But Owen Paterson thought what she had said was “really encouraging”, and Sir Nicholas Soames declared: “Can I reassure the Prime Minister that I’m holding my nerve like anything.”

So the Prime Minister can still hope to bore her way through to an implausible victory. She remains, one might say, the only game in town, which is exactly what she set out to demonstrate when she stood up today.

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