Strayside Sunday: Is the £540m Devolution Deal good enough?

Strayside Sunday is our political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

This week my former colleague Greg Clark, then Director of Policy for the Conservatives, now Secretary of State for the tongue-twisting Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government signed-off and handed down North Yorkshire & York’s much anticipated devolution settlement.  The 32-page document awarded the area £540m over the next 30 years, along with devolved powers to help the region develop the skills, housing, and transport infrastructure it needs.  Whether this represents, as the government claims, “a once-in-a-generation chance to help tackle regional inequalities by not only reducing the North South divide nationally, but also helping to resolve economic differences that are being felt between urban and rural area,” remains to be seen.

What we do know is that the money comes with the promise that we’ll get a Combined Authority, likely next year, with an elected Mayor to follow in 2024.  This must be a good thing, with the shining examples of Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen and the West Midland’s Andy Street demonstrating the positive leadership possibilities an elected Mayor can bring.  Both have used the special powers of the office to create special purpose Mayoral Development Corporations to buy land and assets to drive local economic regeneration and employment, to great effect.  Houchen famously returned Teeside Airport to public ownership and, just this week, Street announced Birmingham as the new home for a large portion of the BBC’s production capabilities, testament to investments made in vital property infrastructure. Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s elected Mayor, still relatively new in post, is yet to find her feet.

Whether or not North Yorkshire’s Mayor is a success will rest on strength of personality and imagination. Will they have the vision, communication skills and drive to push the limits of their newfound powers and make the most of them?  Let’s hope so.  They’ll need to be more persuasive than North Yorkshire Council’s representatives who made the bid for devolution.  Last week’s settlement was significantly less than the “ask”.  £750m over 25 years had been requested, versus the £540m over 30 years received.  Net, the new Mayor will have £18m per year to spend on their agenda, rather than the £25m per year hoped for.  The bid also hoped for £47m to redevelop the much-maligned Harrogate Convention Centre.  Much to Harrogate Borough Council Leader Richard Cooper’s disappointment this was turned down flat – with Westminster civil servants giving a “very strong steer” it would not be funded and should not be part of the devolution settlement.  The money for that will now have to be found from other means, with an application to Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up Fund in the works.  The Convention Centre’s future remains uncertain, not least because with the coming change in Conservative Party leadership there is no guarantee that existing spending commitments will hold.

And that’s part of the problem here.  £540m sounds like a big sum but, in truth we can’t be certain it represents new money.  We have little idea how it fits with the existing local government grant and public spending commitments.  What we do know is that it seems certain that tax cuts will be on the government’s agenda following the change of Prime Minister.  That, plus the most ominous macro-economic climate in a generation (recession, soaring inflation and rising interest rates) means that coming downward pressure on public spending seems locked in.  Whoever becomes Mayor of North Yorkshire and York will have their work cut out for them.

The same of course is true for the new Prime Minister.  It now seems likely (if polls are to be believed) that Liz Truss will win comfortably the Tory Party leadership contest and assume office.  Assuming I get a non-hacked voting paper from the Harrogate & Knaresborough Conservative Association I’ll be putting a cross next to Rishi Sunak’s name.  If Liz Truss does win it will be another example of the maxim that “he who wields the dagger never yields the prize”, Sunak having led with Sajid Javed the avalanche of ministerial resignations that finally put paid to Boris Johnson.

For the life of me I can’t see the logic of the aggressive tax cuts that Liz Truss proposes.  To paraphrase Maurice Saatchi’s famous “Labour isn’t working” political advertising slogan from the 1980’s, an argument can be made that “Britain isn’t working.”  The NHS has moved beyond perpetual ‘crisis’ and is now in real trouble, with waiting lists soaring for everything from cancer treatment to mental health treatment, nary an ambulance in sight when you need one and chronic staff shortages.  It takes an age to get a passport and, when you do, the airports are carnage.  The DVLA can’t get a driver’s license organised for love nor money and with a series of national train strikes and 7-hour queues to take a ferry to France, travelling in this country is becoming a Kafka-esque challenge. Planes, trains, and automobiles indeed.  I haven’t even mentioned the disaster that is immigration policy and our handling of the small boats influx on our shores.  Reform may well be part of the answer but setting all these right needs real money and competent grip.  Economists who support Ms. Truss’ plan to tax cut our way to economic growth to fund all this are thin on the ground.  Like North Yorkshire’s coming new elected Mayor, Ms. Truss’ real task is to find imaginative policy solutions to our problems, from skills to housing, from transport to health and then find a way to run them properly.  And that takes public money, gobs of it.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: Thank God he’s gone. Now who’s for the top job?

Strayside Sunday is our political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

So, he’s gone. To coin a phrase “thems the breaks.” What a remarkable week it’s been in our national life. The man who delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservative Party less than three years ago, the man who “got Brexit done” and the man who led the country (many, including me, say successfully) through the pandemic and vaccination rollout was dragged, kicking and screaming, from Downing Street. In my piece following the recent vote of confidence which Boris Johnson won I concluded that we were probably stuck with him for another year. I could not have been more wrong. A woeful Number 10 mishandling of the ‘Pincher by name, Pincher by nature’ affair brought the Prime Minister low – in brief, more lies and dissembling from the boss and his team about what was known of the sex pest’s historic misdemeanours before he was appointed Deputy Chief Whip.

In the end the Prime Minister lost the regard and trust of a staggering number of his ministers (over 50 of whom resigned within 48 hours) and he had to go. I’m glad. Boris Johnson was doing lasting damage to government, infusing it with his own Walter Mitty-like lack of integrity, lack of grip and inattention to detail. In the end he was indeed unfit for office. His colleagues knew it and finally grew the pair required to commit regicide. Fitting for the man-child who, as a boy, proclaimed he wanted to become World King.

The keen-eyed amongst you will have spotted Nigel Adams, MP for Selby and Ainsty, among those in Downing Street, supporting Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he gave his “resignation” speech from the government lectern. Mr Adams has been a staunch supporter of BoJo throughout his tenure, serving latterly as a Cabinet Office Minister. At one point Mr Adams reached across to the PM’s wife Carrie, offering his hand in sympathy. Having already announced his intention to stand down at the next election, Adams will thus be spared the verdict of the electorate on the wisdom of his choice in political friends. That verdict is likely to be damning indeed.

Ripon MP Julian Smith (sitting on a majority better weighed than counted) was, on the other hand, in no way supportive of the Johnsons. In an interview on the Today programme on Wednesday Mr Smith said the Prime Minister had suffered a “catastrophic loss of confidence” among Tory MPs, that his behaviour was Trumpian and, by refusing to step down, that he was causing a “constitutional crisis.” Smith, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, will no doubt be hopeful of renewed ministerial preferment under the next leader, whoever that may be…

Since the Brexit referendum British politics has seen one of the most turbulent periods in modern political life. Boris Johnson is now the third leader despatched by the Tory party in six years. Notwithstanding the poison in the chalice, at time of writing there seem to be no shortage of contenders-manque willing to vie for the crown.

It is often said that those who wield the dagger don’t inherit. If that’s true then neither Sajid Javid nor Rishi Sunak will win the leadership, even though arguably they both acted with principle in leading this week’s tidal waves of resignations from the Johnson government. Both are serious minded and would represent a significant upgrade on their predecessor. Other contenders have less to recommend them. Liz Truss is mad as a March Hare and thinks herself a latter-day Mrs Thatcher. Nadhim Zahawi still looks like a decent bet, although his contortions this week in accepting the position of Chancellor from Johnson one day, going on the media rounds to support the PM the next morning, before telling him to resign the following evening made Houdini look like a cheap carnival act.

The googly eyed Brexiteer Steve Baker was one of the first to declare (please God no; I don’t want government as yet another sinister “research group”), along with Attorney-General Suella Braverman (who’s that??). Grant Shapps has declared his intention, although he might well be too tarred by the Johnson brush for comfort – no one has been on the airwaves more in the past year defending the increasingly indefensible.  Jeremy Hunt, who came second last time around will no doubt be in the running. Another serious person who should warrant serious consideration. Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat round out the field. Both are eminently presentable, full of personality and would represent a generational fresh start that might well benefit the Conservatives come the next election. I want Rishi Sunak.

One man who will most certainly not be standing for the leadership is Harrogate’s own Andrew Jones MP. Having finally and belatedly come out against Boris Johnson he popped up again this week to support a Harrogate Borough Council bid for levelling up cash to fund the proposed redevelopment of the town’s white elephant Convention Centre. The council is understood to have bid for £20m from the government’s (no longer Boris Johnson’s) Levelling Up Fund. This would certainly take a useful bite out of the reported redevelopment budget of a staggering £47m, the costs for which will otherwise fall squarely on local taxpayers. Whether the project would, as Mr Jones says, “help provide a platform for Yorkshire and the Humber businesses domestically and for export, help to drive inward investment and support extensive employment opportunities” is open to conjecture. That Harrogate and surrounds is the type of place for which levelling up is designed, is not. This is a relatively wealthy place, so one admires Mr Jones’ chutzpah in making a public claim on a fund designed to address national inequalities.  With the Tories trailing in the polls and the Liberal Democrats resurgent locally it might not be a coincidence that our local MP has found his campaigning voice. Like his Conservative colleagues in government, better late than never.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: we have zombie leadership locally and nationally

Strayside Sunday is a monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

I write the morning after the night before the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections, both of which proved (predictably) disastrous for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party.  In Wakefield, Labour took the seat with a majority of 4,925 on a 12.7% swing.  In Tiverton, Tory since 1880, a massive swing of almost 30% saw the Sir Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats win with a majority of 6,144.  Conservative Party Co-Chair Oliver Dowden published a letter before 6am this morning, “taking responsibility” and falling on his sword.  Whether this is a put-up job, designed to draw the eye away from Boris Johnson’s actual responsibility, with a seat in the Lords to follow – after an appropriate passage of time – remains to be seen.  However, Dowden’s reputation is that of a decent fellow and, so rare in modern politics, let’s take it at face value that, as the man in charge of the by-election campaigns that led to crushing defeat, he has decided to do the decent thing and go.

It was Bill Clinton’s Louisianan campaign guru James Carville who, in 1992, coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.”  And, in the end, it always is.  If the economy is in the tank, then it is almost impossible for governing parties to win elections, general, by or local.  And our economy is in serious trouble.  With inflation running at a 40 year high 10%, the cost-of-living soaring, with post-Brexit trade friction and severe global supply chain problems, the economic outlook is bleak and a recession looking and feeling increasingly likely.  At least interest rates, although on the up, are still in the low single digits.  With the price of petrol and diesel going through the roof – the Stray Ferret reported that diesel hit £2 per litre in Harrogate this week – with energy prices spiking and with the costs of the average food basket increasing by close to 50%, people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.  As part of an economy drive, I would recommend that you avoid filling up at Wetherby services, which now boasts the most expensive fuel in the country.

If you ask pollsters there is only one question that counts in public opinion polling; “is the country heading in the right direction.”  The single largest determinant of the answer is the state of the economy and, as the Americans say, how that is hitting people in their pocketbook.  Unambiguously, most people are worse off now than they were a year ago and you are never going to win elections in that context.

That said you can’t discount the facts of the resignations of the former Conservative MP’s in Wakefield and Tiverton – criminal sexual assault and watching porn (twice) in the commons.  These combined with the litany of bad behaviour on behalf of the Prime Minister – ethics violations prior, during and including Partygate – take one’s mind back to the allegations of Tory sleaze that put paid to the last long-standing Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.  This lot aren’t behaving properly just when we need maximum grab in Westminster.

Boris Johnson carries on, blithely disregarding that which practically everyone else in the country knows; he has lost any authority to govern in our names.  Yet on Boris blunders and blusters, now seemingly safe for a year’s grace, post-confidence vote, per Tory party rules.  If the attacks on him from within his party had been coordinated, rather than piecemeal, then the confidence vote against him would not have been forced until the by-election results were in.  But because the parliamentary party itself is a loose coalition of Red Wallers, Shire Tories, Right Wingers and One Nation Moderates, there was little shared enterprise in the bid to remove Johnson, rather a collection of individual malcontents from across the piece.  Nor is there an obvious successor from any wing.  I hope it’s not true, but because the plotters couldn’t get their act together, we may now be stuck with Johnson until 2023.

Closer to home we are stuck with Harrogate Borough Council for another 9 months until it is abolished and the North Yorkshire County Council unitary takes over.  Following the May local elections, a new executive team took over at NYCC, which has prompted a rethink about the controversial proposed Station Gateway Development here in Harrogate.  In two previous public consultations significant concerns have been raised by residents and business leaders about the impact of the development on traffic in the town.  Yet another consultation – specifically on traffic impacts – is now to be commissioned.  This is the politics of delay, of kicking the can down the road.  Whether or not Station Gateway ever does get the go-ahead is now an even money chance, linked so closely as it is with the now dead in the water Harrogate Borough Council.

It seems whether in Westminster, or at home in Harrogate, we face a period of zombie government, neither dead nor alive, ill-equipped to deal with the very serious issues confronting us all.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: the Prime Minister is in trouble

Strayside Sunday is a monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

Well, I didn’t see that one coming. This week, the Daily Mail named our very own Andrew Jones MP as a Tory rebel, joining the growing movement afoot to depose Boris Johnson as leader of his party and, therefore, as Prime Minister.

Never knowingly visible or bold, Andrew’s voice now joins the swelling chorus of Tory MPs who fear for their electoral futures under the current regime. And so they should. This government seems spent of the creative energies needed to address the very serious problems we face, mired as it is in stories about the lawbreaking crimes and misdemeanours of its parliamentary members. From the PM’s Fixed Penalty Notice for attending (just one) of his (many) Number 10 lockdown parties, to the shame of the Sue Gray report into frat house culture at the heart of the heart of the cabinet office, to the jailing of former Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan for sexual assault, to the suspension of yet another, still unnamed Tory for sexual impropriety, a more than faint whiff of sleaze hovers over proceedings. It all feels a little fin de siècle.

Perhaps it’s that which has prompted Andrew Jones to break cover and join the revolution?

Or perhaps it is a rising fear that his rock-solid constituency majority might well be under threat from the yellow peril come the next election? I wrote last time about the success of Harrogate’s Liberal Democrats in May’s local election and remember it isn’t that long ago that Phil Willis was our highly effective and popular MP.  There is a very real prospect that Harrogate will return a Liberal Democrat if the current trajectory of Conservative unpopularity continues up to the next election. No doubt this heady cocktail of prosaic principle and practical calculation lies at the root of Mr. Jones’ belated emergence into the ranks of the Tory rebels.

The fact of the matter is that the good ship Johnson is taking on water apace and listing heavily. Were the economy humming along, were the NHS meeting the demand for its services, were people receiving their new and replacement passports and driving licenses in good time, and were petrol, household energy and budget foods holding their price, then Johnson might have been able to brazenly ride out the Partygate furore and the fact that his deep character flaws have moved from private realm to public sphere. As it is there is every possibility that we are heading toward recession, the new NHS Integrated Care Systems are coming on stream with a requirement to cut their budget deficits even in the face of crippling backlogs and overwhelming demands, the basic wheels of bureaucratic government seem to be gummed at the axle and inflation has hit 10%. Given all this, the Tory party’s famed instinct for self-preservation is kicking in and I predict Boris will be out this summer.

The final nail in the coffin is likely to be this month’s by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton. Both will be seen as bellwethers for the next election. Wakefield was only taken from Labour at the 2019 election with a majority of 3,500, part of Johnson’s Red Wall and proof then of his Heineken quality, reaching those parts other Tories cannot.  Given that Labour is 7 points ahead of the Conservatives in national opinion polls, and given the circumstances of the outgoing MP’s resignation, it looks like divine intervention may be the only way the Conservatives will hold the seat.  Tiverton (in Devon) is a different kettle; it is a seat held only by the Conservatives since the 1880’s. Yet the mood music suggests that the Lib Dems fancy their chances of doing a North Shropshire and indeed they benefit from a much stronger local base in Tiverton (in the form of local council seats). They are throwing the kitchen sink at the campaign and the Tories are wobbling.

If Johnson loses both by-election seats he will then face discontent and attack from both flanks – from the 2019 intake Red Wall Tories that feel they won because of him last time and from more traditional Tories in the South and elsewhere who fear a Liberal Democrat resurgence. In short, from being the Tory that proved he could win everywhere, Johnson will have become the Tory that can’t win anywhere.  And the party won’t wear that. It will see it as its duty to move against Mr. Johnson.

Talking of duty I can’t let this weekend pass without mention of The Queen and her Jubilee. I’m 54, which means the Queen had been on the throne for 16 years even before I was born. Her commitment to serving her country, her integrity, her forbearance and her honour should serve as a lesson to us all. It seems unlikely she’ll be with us for much longer (and who knows what awaits the Royal Family when she is gone), so I for one applaud the celebrations of a grateful nation.

The counterpoint of Her Majesty’s character and behaviour could not be in starker contrast to that of her latest Prime Minister and indeed many of those whose support for him is now in question.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: Was it Boris or was it local failure?

Strayside Sunday is a monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

In the wake of last week’s local elections, Councillor Richard Cooper, the Leader of Harrogate Borough Council, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the Conservatives poor showing could be put down to dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson’s national government. 

And what a poor showing it was for the blues, with 10 of 21 Harrogate district seats turning yellow.  The Lib Dems ended the evening as the largest group in the Harrogate district and with the most seats (8/13) on the Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Constituency Committee.  

 I do, however, have some sympathy with Mr. Cooper’s view that national issues predominated.  My household and our area relatives voted Liberal Democrat en masse, in some cases voting that way for the first time in their lives. 

We simply could not bring ourselves to vote Conservative because of the shambles in Westminster.  Shambles both singular (…Boris Johnson,) and shambles plural (…his cabinet).   

I felt compelled to vote against the interests of a man with no integrity, no honour and no shame.  I didn’t try, nor did I need to, persuade others in my circle to do the same. As with millions of people around the country they came to the view that Boris is not to be trusted.  Nor, increasingly, is he to be liked. 

We know he lied and lied again about Partygate and his role in it.  We know too that whatever his role he presided over a 10 Downing Street with a work culture that would make any self-respecting American frat house blush.  A culture lacking appropriate sobriety. Worse yet a culture lacking appropriate accountability. 

The question that gurgles out of the Downing Street cess pit is precisely what, these days, represents a resigning issue?   

I don’t contest that Boris had a half-decent coronavirus and lockdown.  I think too that he has been almost exemplary in his handling of British interests and leadership in respect of Ukraine. 

But these issues, and the consequential negative economic and cost of living crisis effects are going to severely test the nation in the months ahead and to navigate that needs the government to reach into a now non-existent goodwill bank account. 

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Boris is responsible for that penury, along with Rishi’s wealth and wife’s non-dom status, Priti’s ghastly and shaming “send them back to Rwanda” policy, and pretty much anything to do with Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

This government’s juice is not worth the squeeze:  As a result councils like Westminster, Wandsworth, Barnet and Southampton slipped from Tory grasp last week and the North Yorkshire almost did.

 Andrew Jones MP must now be in fear of his seat, bless him.  Harrogate has a solid Liberal Democrat base again and a recent tradition of its parliamentary representation. 

When approached for comment by the Ferret on local elections night he waved our intrepid journo away.  Not for him it seems to speak to local residents through, by some margin, the most read news outlet in the district. 

Prideful nose bitten to save fearful face? Silly man.  He may well come to regret his stance come the night of the next General Election, if indeed he stands – some think that he may give way to a Richard Cooper candidacy. 

If so, Stray Ferret readers can no doubt look forward to continuing ghosting from the local Conservative Party during the next couple of years.  This kind of behaviour goes beyond the obviously misguided view in some local Tory circles that the Ferret is a Liberal Democrat organ and becomes a democratic insult to local constituents.   

Which brings me back to the local election results.  Whatever the national picture Harrogate Borough Council has not covered itself in glory these past few years.  Expensive (vanity?) projects like the Knapping Mount council HQ, Appy Parking, and now the Station Gateway development substituting for a concerted and sustained effort to get the planning and economic development knitting right. 

The town centre of Harrogate is a sorry mess; with empty shop fronts and discount outlets wherever you look.  Oxford Street’s concrete desert lacks any sort of charm. 

This was meant to sorted out through the town plan, a plan which was never used as the means to bring people together in share municipal endeavour. Instead, multiple outsourced and bought consultations led to division, stasis and, as we can see, inaction.   

National issues were important last Thursday, but don’t kid yourselves that local issues didn’t matter at all, Messrs Jones and Cooper. 

Your tenure has been marked by arrogance and a lack of focus on issues that matter a great deal to local people.  And, notwithstanding that responsibility for highways rests with North Yorkshire County Council, the landmine like potholes and crazy pavements of the district matter too. 

If indeed Double Devolution happens as Leader of NYCC Councillor Les Carl says it still will, the newly formed Harrogate Town Council will need to get a grip and quickly.  If not, the local Liberal Democrat ascendency might very well continue. 

That’s my Strayside Sunday.      

PS Love the Stray Ferret’s royal bunting!

Strayside Sunday: Putin may end up with the upper hand

Strayside Sunday is our monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

I spent my school years keenly aware of Cold War realpolitik, and of the unthinkable nuclear consequences, should cold turn hot. 1983, when I was 16, saw the release of nuclear war film The Day After, to be followed in 1984 by the release of the lower budget (British set and made) Threads, bleaker and more frightening in measures equal. My teenage years, and those of my peer group, passed on red alert, with any siren sound in the valley causing a flash of pulse quickening panic. Was this to be the beginning of the end?

I’m reminded of this of course by current events in Ukraine. At time of writing, we are 12 days into Russia’s invasion. Yet, brave Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, resists. Russia’s superior force impeded by courageous and dogged Ukrainian defence and, it seems, handicapped by over ambitious strategic planning, inept military leadership and sagging soldierly morale. We watch helplessly from the side-lines as Ukrainian citizens suffer what seems to be indiscriminate bombardment, but which must be bombardment by cruel design.

We wince, embarrassed by the sure knowledge that, hitherto, we in the UK have turned a blind eye to the dirty Russian money laundering through London and Surrey’s perpetually empty, always modernising mansions and penthouses. So now we applaud our government and those of our NATO and European allies as they move to punish Russia through the imposition of severe sanctions and financial restrictions or economic penalties. We applaud international businesses from Apple and Ikea, to TikTok and Zara, and our local big brands Harrogate Spring Water and Yorkshire Tea -all of whom have ceased operations in Russia.  And we applaud the delivery of our and our allies anti-tank and other weapons to assist Ukraine’s fighters in eking out another hour, perhaps another day of resistance.

What we cannot do for Ukraine, what we must not do, so the orthodoxy goes, is to do what we all know it would take to give them a real chance of victory; we cannot put NATO boots on the ground, nor can we institute a no-fly zone. Why? Because to do so would put us in direct conflict with Russia, a shooting war with a Russia led by an increasingly unstable dictator who has threatened, in none too subtle terms, to use his arsenal of nuclear weapons against us. And, after all, Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, so can’t benefit from Article 5 protections. We dare not risk Putin’s ire nor a nuclear conflagration so, ergo, we send humanitarian aid and military supplies, and we wait. We wait for the inevitable and tragic moment when Russia overruns Kyiv and its sister cities, kills or imprisons Ukraine’s democratically elected leadership, installs a puppet government, and claims the country for its own.  When that happens – although every ounce of my being wishes that it were “if” it happens – when that happens, Russia and NATO will face each other across the European borders of, among others, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. And when we do President Putin will know that we in NATO have already failed his test of our nerve. He will hold the upper hand.

During my school days it was widely held that MAD (the doctrine of mutually assured destruction) kept the nuclear peace.  Rational actors bound inaction by the fact that war would mean the end of everything. I worry now that we will face a new asymmetrical nuclear threat, one in which the main protagonist is willing to play a game with the highest of all stakes, while we will not. If we get to that point, as well we might, we may yet regret saying no to a no-fly zone for Ukraine.

Meanwhile there is more than a hint of bathos in the story of retired and decorated Harrogate fireman Bruce Reid. Mr. Reid flew to Poland this week and made his way to the Ukrainian border, intent on volunteering his firefighting services. Told that he should instead find his way 30 miles across the border to the Yavoriv military base, where he would be equipped and taught to fight, Mr. Reid turned back, returning to his 10-year-old granddaughter and the rest of his worried-sick family. No matter, Mr. Reid’s status as a hero is already cemented in my view by his years of bravery in the Fire Service, and by his willingness to volunteer those special skills in the service of Ukraine.

Against this backdrop of heart-breaking world affairs, it seems somehow small to have a go at an obviously failed British politician.  But I’m so blood boilingly angry about the announcement of a Knighthood last week for Sir, yes Sir! Gavin Williamson that I can’t help myself. Mr. Williamson was a serial failure in government. But as an ex-whip he knows where Boris’ bodies are buried so needs to be kept quiet. He doesn’t deserve it and it thoroughly demeans the honours system.

If we are going to face another Cold War then we will all have to believe in our way of life and government to face down Russia.  To ask that level of commitment and sacrifice, to ask us to follow the example of Ukraine, requires our system of government to retain its moral authority. Giving a gong to this man does not help build confidence.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to..

Strayside Sunday is our monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”

The title of Lesley Gore’s original 1963 release sums up my current feelings about the Conservative Party to which I still pay a modest subscription (but for how much longer I can’t predict) – so grudging of Boris and his ‘antics’ have I lately become.  Let me stop myself there.  The way Boris Johnson comports himself in office cannot and should not be described by such a benign and affectionate term as ‘antics.’

This man, or, more accurately, this man-child, is genetically irresponsible, a consistent breaker of the laws designed to keep us safe in the face of the most dangerous international health crisis in a century.  Laws by the way, drafted by the government he leads and sold to us by the Great Man from his Downing Street lectern flanked by men and women of stature, learning and integrity.   On his return to work as Director of Communications for Boris Johnson (he worked for him in the same position when he was Mayor of London), former BBC journo Guto Harri was heard this week to say that Boris “wasn’t a total clown.”  I’d like to have had the second question and therefore had the opportunity to ask Mr Harri to identify those parts of the Prime Minister’s character that don’t qualify for such description.

In addition to his complete lack of the competencies required to lead a government, he is replete with human failings; he is a serial adulterer – ask his children if you can find them all – and a congenital liar.  Human failings are no bar to high office in our country, just ask Mr. Gladstone (and for that matter Lloyd George, the Old Goat).  But they ought to be if they are the primary and exclusive characteristic of the individual in question and remain unredeemed by qualities of leadership, administration, or application.

Boris Johnson is clearly unfit for elected office of any kind, let alone the highest office in the land.  If the man had an ounce of honour he would resign.  This he does not have and so the Conservative Party should do the right thing and get rid of him.  If they do not, I predict confidently that the Conservatives will go down to the mother of crushing defeats at the next General Election.  The electoral back is broken.

Watching Conservative MPs as they squirm and manoeuvre in the face of this car crash is deeply uncomfortable.  The sheer torture as they try to find a form of words to avoid having to say Boris broke the law, was a fool to attend a series of parties in Downing Street during lockdown (is it now 6 that he is alleged to have personally attended and been photographed at?), and that it beggars belief how much booze was going down the hatch in Number 10 on Wine Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays, and thank F its Fridays.  Some have broken cover. God bless David Davis.  The old bruiser sticking it to Johnson in PMQ’s with the poetic ‘by the grace of God, go” was a sight to behold.

The Johnson loyalists who have been sent out to argue the man’s case, chief among them Nadine Dorries, butter few parsnips – to paraphrase, no lions led by donkeys here, these are donkeys all the way.  And they certainly don’t understand the Red Wall Tories who are beside themselves with fury at all this.  Elected on a false promise, most RWT’s already understand they now have but one parliamentary term to make a mark before their constituents boot them out again, disappointed, disenchanted and determinedly unlevelled up.

And so, to our Harrogate’s own Andrew Jones MP.  This week our gentle soul was actually stirred into action and suggested that the PM has serious questions to answer over his attendance at the Downing Street parties/work gatherings.  He waits with anticipation for the results of the police enquiry.  Andrew breaking cover was so noteworthy that he got a mention in the New Statesman magazine as being proof, so usually supine and mouse-like is he, that the PM is in serious bother.  Who’d have thought it, Andrew Jones becoming a hero of the thoughtful left? Strange times indeed.

Those of you who read Strayside Sunday with any regularity will know that I attempt usually to provide thought and balance with a little humour thrown in.  I’m afraid this week I have nothing but polemic to offer, so angry am I about the behaviour of a Conservative Prime Minister and his parliamentary party in the face of such obvious scandal.  Now is the time for the party, including Andrew Jones, to stand up, do the right thing, and rid us of the near total clown at the top of the shop.  Send in your letter to the ‘22 Mr. Jones and you will do more for your reputation for principle and courage as a public servant than anything you can point to since your election in 2010.

If you and colleagues don’t, then Boris will continue to riff on Lesley Gore’s hit and sing, “It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to.”

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: 2022 will see a changing of the guard in Harrogate

Strayside Sunday is our monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

Happy New Year.

Notwithstanding double vaccination and a booster I have spent the last week of 2021 suffering the debilitating effects of Covid 19 infection.  Thank goodness for the protection from extremis afforded by vaccination, because the experience has been miserable enough, that notwithstanding. 

For the life of me I cannot understand those that continue to resist vaccination and I find no persuasion in libertarian arguments supporting individual choice.  Such choice ceases to have merit when it so obviously harms others. 

Even less can I understand the anti-vax contingent, with their fanciful conspiracy theories.  By the way, the idea that the current British government, given its utter and obvious ineptitude, could even contribute to let alone lead a massive vaccination conspiracy, raises a smile.

As we enter 2022 it seems likely that the electoral self-preservation machine that is the Conservative Party will act to halt what has been a recent precipitous slide in its fortunes; Labour now lies 8 points ahead in the polls. 

In common with many I don’t believe that Boris Johnson will still be leader of the Tories this time next year.  Boris has never been loved by his party, but rather celebrated for his ability to win; to reach, as it were, those parts of the electorate other Conservatives cannot. 

The comfortable loss of the North Shropshire parliamentary by-election, in a seat that had returned a Conservative for almost 200 years, concluded a humiliating and chaotic period in which Boris mishandled the Owen Paterson affair, denied any knowledge of Covid-19 regulation breaking parties that happened in his own home, was shown to have sent WhatsApp messages soliciting contributions for renovations to the Downing Street flat (when he had previously denied having done so), and sacrificed the excellent Allegra Stratton whose crime – it seemed to me at least – was having being filmed being singularly unable to defend the indefensible and aforementioned Christmas party at Number 10. 

Still, Boris never takes responsibility himself and is lightning quick to throw former friends and allies under a bus when and if expedient. 

The current darling of Conservative Party members and putative heir to Boris is, inexplicably, Liz Truss.  She has been ‘on manoeuvrers’, with photo opportunities and profile pieces and public comparisons to her heroine, Maggie Thatcher.  According to the Conservative Home website she is by some margin the party members’ favourite.  

By way of context, I would caution here that in their wisdom Conservative members chose Iain Duncan Smith by a margin of 2 to 1 over Ken Clarke and would have elected him over Michael Portillo too, had he made the final two.  I have nothing but respect for IDS, but no one can seriously suggest he is a figure to match a Clarke or a Portillo. 

Conservative party members are, overall, an insular and declining minority interest group.  In general, I would recommend taking their view on a course of action and doing the exact and diametrical opposite.  For the record I believe the Tories ought to replace Boris with Rishi (a dose of obvious and quiet competence would do us all the power of good) and that they should do it quickly. 

With devolution coming to North Yorkshire this year we will also see a changing of the guard in Harrogate.  The Borough Council is to be abolished, subsumed into a county-wide “super council,” with questions remaining about the future of 4-year-old Knapping Mount, Richard Cooper’s over-designed, over-expensive and vainglorious municipal stately pleasure dome.

Mr. Cooper himself has decided not to stand in the coming council elections, saving himself, no doubt, for a pop at the Conservative parliamentary nomination in Harrogate and Knaresborough, should Andrew Jones MP tire of the unheralded life of an also-ran backbencher. 

We can but hope that some of Harrogate council’s eye-wateringly expensive projects get driven through to conclusion, even as the council passes responsibility for them to Northallerton. 

Freedom of information requests have revealed that the development of a new swimming baths at Dallamires Lane in Ripon is currently £4m over budget (at a running total of £14.6m). 

The baths are seven months behind schedule, not least because they have been built adjacent to a site with significant ground stability issues; according to engineers Stantec, the site is permanently plagued by the threat of sinkholes.  The council have almost literally been throwing money in a hole in the ground.

Let’s hope that elections for the devolved authority in May garner more interest than the election of Zoe Metcalfe as North Yorkshire’s Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner.  Just 14% of us turned out to vote and this in the wake of a national outcry that led to Ms Metcalfe’s predecessor, Knaresborough’s Philip Allott’s, resignation from the post. 

Mr. Allott found himself at odds with public (indeed it seems all) opinion in his comments about Sarah Everard, who had been callously murdered by police officer Wayne Couzens, having been “arrested” by him on false pretence.  No social media mob cancellation this, Mr. Allott’s comments were universally decried, and he had to go. 

Finally, I wish everyone a happy 2022 and, dare I say, a return to some form of normality, in health, in politics and in life.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.   

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Strayside Sunday: It’s time for change

Strayside Sunday is our monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

It’s time for change..

That’s the political slogan that long-standing governments fear most.  It captures that moment when the remarkable patience and forbearance of the electorate finally falters.  It marks the time when a multitude of major sins and minor indiscretions catches up with those in power as the electorate undergoes one of its periodic mood swings.

The Conservative Party has now been in government for eleven long years, first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (remember them) and, since 2015, on its own.  The economic crisis of the 2010’s, endless resulting austerity, the never-ending Brexit psychodrama and two long years of Covid-19; first (now) “Dodgy” Dave Cameron, then Theresa May(bot) and now Boris “the clown” Johnson; even the act of writing it down serves to sap ones energy.  And that’s before considering the impact of what by any measure has been a disastrous month of November for government.

It used to be said that when Labour politicians got in trouble it was about money and that when Conservative politicians got in trouble it was about sex.  All evidence to the contrary of late as another generation of Tories have been fending off allegations of sleaze.  I say allegations because the facts are as follows: MP’s are perfectly entitled to hold positions outside parliament, provided they declare them; consultancies delivered through personal companies to minimise tax (provided its paid) are allowed under parliamentary rules and, by the way, are entirely legal.  Barristers such as former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (the Brian Blessed of British politics) are allowed to continue their practice, as are physicians.

This all kicked off in the wake of one Conservative MP, former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, being found guilty of breaking parliamentary rules on lobbying. He trousered £140,000 per year (on top of his MP’s salary) to lobby for 2 agricultural companies which, as a conscientious and, in my experience professional soul (Owen was one of IDS’s inner circle when I worked for the former leader), he duly did.  By all accounts he crossed the line of propriety, fell foul, and was suspended from parliament.  Then, in what can only be described as a monumental cock-up, based on what seems a total and tone-deaf lack of judgement in Downing Street, the government attempted to whip its own MP’s to vote for a motion to change parliamentary lobbying rules, such that Mr. Paterson, one of its own, would be spared his sentence.  Cue outrage, not least among the 2019 “Red Wall” Conservative intake from those working-class seats in which constituents will likely take a dim view of well-paid second jobbing.  In the face of this and a media feeding frenzy, on went the brakes and Boris executed a screeching, rubber burning U-turn.  The motion was dropped and Paterson was sacrificed.  Broken, having also lost his wife Rose to suicide last year, he resigned his seat forthwith.  Politics is a brutal business.

Following hot on the heels of the Coronavirus PPE contracts scandal, the Test & Trace contracts and spending scandal and the Cameron/Greensill lobbying scandal, the last thing this government needed was any more evidence of a startling collision of avarice and incompetence at its heart; this government is beginning to feel, well, grubby.  Its ham-fisted handling of the Paterson affair was both inept and staggeringly out of touch.

Perhaps that explains why and how the government felt able to cancel the HS2 rail link between Birmingham and Leeds and (as important for Stray Ferret readers) cancel the HS3 link connecting Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.  I honestly can’t fathom it.  It seems to me to be the antithesis of the spirit of “levelling up.”  The promise of a series of replacement investments in rail (with, the government says, a faster return on investment in economic benefits than might have been on HS2/3 offer) butters very few parsnips. The regions elected Mayors held a virtual press conference the same day in which they individually and severally went bananas about the slight.

Beyond that the government has been casting around for ways to make levelling up real, to give it some substance and demonstrate to the voters – whom Boris understood only lent him their 2019 vote – that this is a real commitment rather than political posturing.  Nothing has been delivered to the region so far and so the cancelling of such a major project designed specifically to benefit the North and its people is politically illiterate.  DOING BIG THINGS matters because of the innate messages of ambition and commitment it sends and delivering HS2 and 3 would have signalled that the government was serious about its commitment to levelling up.  Instead, denying ‘something big’ to those suffering injustice and inequality in Red Wall seats isn’t likely to win Boris Johnson any friends at all.  When considered with the litany of charges against it of late it just adds to an overall sense of decay and diminution in government.

Perhaps it’s time for a change?

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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Strayside Sunday: “tarting up” Station Parade misses the real problem of Harrogate town centre

Strayside Sunday is our monthly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

No political column this month can pass, comment-free, without reference to the awful killing of Conservative MP, Sir David Amess.  Leaving a widow and his five children, a son and four daughters, Southend’s booster in chief and, by every account, a dedicated and conscientious Member of Parliament, was stabbed to death at his constituency surgery in a local church in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex.   The killing is the latest in a series of violent attacks on MP’s going back to the millennium when Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones survived a samurai sword rampage that killed his parliamentary assistant.  Follow that with the stabbing of Stephen Timms MP and the murder of Jo Cox MP and one could be forgiven for asking “who would be an MP?”

Regular readers of this column will know I have often been deeply critical of our local elected representatives.  They often deserve it.  But what they don’t deserve is the torrent of the often-anonymous abuse they receive through the stinking cesspit of humanity that is social media, let alone the threat of personal violence.  Indeed, our own Andrew Jones MP has had to put up with a great deal of this and does not deserve it (no one does).  Social media is not a force for good, or at least not in the form into which it has now morphed.  Rather it gives voice and amplification to the ignorant, the disaffected, the bigoted and the downright unhinged.  It offers vocal minority interests the means to target and harass those holding either the majority or, heaven forbid, the unfashionable view.  The so-called cancel culture this creates is, almost by definition, fascist and dangerous.  We must find a way to stop it. Now.

Nonetheless, much has been written during the last week about the need to protect free speech.  Of course, we must.  But surely society can only operate cohesively if behavioural boundaries are set, observed, and respected.  In my view free speech ought to mean accountable speech.  And we can only be made accountable for what we say if we have the courage and decency to do so in our own name.  Hiding behind fake and/or temporary social media accounts is not free speech and should not be protected as such.  By the way, we don’t need to legislate for threatening language or violence on the internet.  Law is already on the statute book to deal with such behaviour.  In my view there is no distinction to be made between online and offline harms.

What we do need to do is ensure we can police such behaviour on the internet.  And social media companies must be made to share the burden; in an age when just a few minutes spent on the internet is enough to train proprietary algorithms to micro-target content and advertisements to each of us individually, the claim that Facebook, Twitter, and the others are doing all they can to monitor and intervene in threatening trolling and abuse beggars belief.  I just don’t buy that we can’t identify the wrong-uns.  If we can’t (or they won’t) then we should write a law that stipulates only personally identifiable and verifiable accounts can sign-up for and use social media.  And to be clear, data protection laws already exist to protect our personal information from misuse, so that is not a credible barrier to progress.

One of the hot topics on local social media of late is the £10.9 million Station Gateway proposal, under the auspices of North Yorkshire County Council and, specifically, the ‘consultation’ process undertaken in support of it.  The scheme is hugely contentious because it incites existing divisions between Harrogate’s business community (many wanting as much vehicular access as possible to the town centre) and local environmental campaigners (who want to reduce vehicular access, making way for more cyclists and pedestrians).  Real consultation presents substantiated evidence for the effects of the proposed change.  And while forecasts in this case suggest a likely boost to the local economy from the development, fronting up case studies from other towns with their own unique circumstances just doesn’t cut it.

Part of the problem here is that local people know that no amount of tarting up Station Parade can compensate for the run-down and tumbleweed strewn 1960’s concrete utilitarianism of Oxford and Cambridge Streets.  If North Yorkshire Council (and Harrogate Borough Council) really wanted to make a difference in the town that’s where they’d start.  Yet, perversely, because Station Parade is really about the opportunistic use of ring-fenced government money (the Leeds City Transforming Cities Fund exists to “make it easier to walk, cycle and use public transportation) we must get what we are given, rather than what is right.  This in the context of wider public discourse and government policy promoting (indeed regulating) renewable energy, electric cars, heat pumps and carbon neutral.  With COP26, the UN Global Climate Summit, to be held in Glasgow in November, the Conservative government is enthusiastically tacking towards interventionist measures on the environment, an impulse they share with the Labour-led West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Leeds City Region.  Environmental policy is fast becoming apolitical orthodoxy.

Would that the same were true about the boundaries of free speech and social media.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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