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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Did lobbyists block Sunak's smoking ban?

The Guardian reports on claims that Rishi Sunak abandoned his “legacy” policy to ban smoking for future generations amid a backlash from the tobacco industry in the form of legal threats, lobbying and a charm offensive aimed at Conservative MPs.

They say that the UK had been on course to become the first country to ban smoking for future generations, via the tobacco and vaping bill, which Downing Street hoped would help define Sunak’s place in British political history. 

However, an investigation by the Guardian and the Examination, a non-profit newsroom that investigates global health threats, has uncovered how the UK’s largest cigarette companies fought against the policy, which would have raised the smoking age by one year every year:

After months of fierce opposition from the industry – and intervention from MPs and thinktanks with ties to tobacco firms – the proposal was excluded from the “wash-up” process, when outgoing governments choose which policies to fast-track and which to drop.

The policy, which in effect banned smoking for anyone born after 2009, was left out despite MPs having voted in favour of it.

Documents and freedom of information requests reveal how four of the world’s largest tobacco firms – the UK’s Imperial Brands and British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and US-headquartered Philip Morris International (PMI) – put ministers on notice of a legal backlash.

Imperial and BAT wrote to the health secretary, Victoria Atkins, in February, to claim the consultation process preceding legislation was “unlawful” because industry views had not been considered.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said it did not need to consider industry views, pointing to guidance included in a World Health Organization global treaty, signed by the UK, that says governments should form smoking policy without influence from cigarette companies.

The Marlboro-owner PMI and JTI, which makes Camel and Benson and Hedges, said the treaty permitted interactions with cigarette firms if they were “necessary”.

Imperial, which owns Lambert and Butler and Gauloises, followed up its warning with a legal letter threatening a “judicial review” challenging the consultation process.

Government lawyers responded by saying legal action might “derail” a bill that ministers believed could save tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds in NHS costs.

BAT, JTI and PMI were named as interested parties in Imperial’s letter, giving them the right to join as co-claimants if a judicial review went ahead.

The article says that as the government pressed ahead with its plans despite opposition, tobacco firms courted rightwing and libertarian Tory MPs with a number of them attending hospitality events staged by the industry. 

The government also came under pressure from rightwing thinktanks funded by the tobacco industry during the consultation process.

They suggest that as a result of this pressure the plan was dropped.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Suppressing the vote

We are now in the last week of campaigning before voting in person takes place on 4th July, and thoughts are going out to those whose vote has effectively been taken off them because of the Tory Party's suppression tactics.

Individuals attending polling stations will have to produce either a specified photo identification document like a passport or a pre-approved Voter Authority Certificate. Apart from the low turnout Police Commissioner elections eight weeks ago, this is the first time this provision has been in force this side of Offa's Dyke.

Nation Cymru reports that nearly 100,000 people in Wales face losing the opportunity to participate in the general election because of this change in the law.

They say that UK Government figures show that since the July 4 election was called there have been just 57,418 applications for Voter Authoruity Certificates, which can be used at polling stations as proof of identity by people who do not have any of the accepted forms of ID they need to vote:

The deadline for VAC applications was 5pm on Wednesday June 26). The figures also show that there have been only 214,051 applications for VACs since January 2023, when they were introduced. However, that figure is still dwarfed by the nearly two million voters estimated to not have an accepted form of ID. VACs do not expire but they have a recommended renewal printed on them that is 10 years after the date of issue.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is warning that the rules around voter ID risk causing further confusion at polling stations on election day after thousands of voters have already been caught out by voter ID rules at local elections.

Jess Blair, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru said: “We know thousands in Wales aren’t likely to have the correct ID to vote in next week’s election, and these figures suggest many have missed out on their chance to be able to cast their vote.

“Voter ID has only been used in one election in Wales so far- in May’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections, which had a turnout of only 17%. That means that for many voters the general election will be the first where they turn up to a polling station and are asked for their ID.

“There is also a real risk of confusion in Wales. Other elections, such as the Senedd and local elections do not require voter ID, so we are left with a confusing patchwork of rules, where barriers are in place for some elections but removed for others.

“The next UK Government should look again at this damaging policy that risks many being turned away next week.”

In England, at least 14,000 people were prevented from casting their vote at the 2023 local elections due to a lack of accepted ID. This fiasco was repeated during the 2024 English local elections, with more people being caught out, including a decorated Afghanistan veteran who was unable to use his veteran’s ID card, and even Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister who brought in the voter ID laws.

Polling day next week could prove to be yet another occasion when thousands of people are denied their opportunity to have a say on who will govern the UK for the next four or five days.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Raking in the cash

The Guardian reports that companies linked to Conservative donors have collectively received £8.4bn in public money since 2016, more than 150 times what the party has received in support.

They say that government spending and political donation records reveal that key contributors have given £53.7m to the Tory party since January 2015, while controlling firms that have received billions in government and NHS contracts over eight years:

An anti-corruption charity has called for a ban on parties accepting donations from companies with public contracts, which would bring the UK in line with the US and other countries in Europe.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said: “The British public are understandably still angry that so much money from the public purse ended up with the friends and donors of the Tory party.”

There is no suggestion that the individuals or companies named have broken the law or committed any wrongdoing. But the analysis shines a light on the high value of contracts handed to political donors, and raises questions about the risk of conflict of interest.

The donors include:

* Frank Hester, whose company The Phoenix Partnership has received £427.7m from the NHS and Department for Health since 2016 and who has donated £15.3m to the Conservatives since 2023. The businessman, mired in a row about comments condemned as racist and misogynistic, gave the Conservative party £5m in January.

* JCB Service, which donated almost £3.3m between May 2017 and September last year. Companies within the same corporate grouping have directly received £566,161 between April 2016 and April this year.

* Richard Harpin, who has donated £2.7m between May 2016 and March 2024, including a donation from a company he has significant control over: Growth Partner LLP. His firms Harmony Bridge Limited and Liberty House (Hull) Ltd received a combined £730,980 from Homes England between May 2019 and August 2021.

* Dr Selva Pankaj, who has donated £727,000 to the Conservatives since November 2015. His company FP(GB) LTD (formerly known as Fortress Properties) received £4,733,336 from Homes England between November 2020 and August 2023.

The list of donors receiving public money includes many developers and property industry firms. Since 2016, 124 donor-linked companies have received more than £1bn from Homes England, the body that funds new affordable housing. A Guardian analysis of donations last year found that at least 10% of donations received by the Conservative party since 2010 had come from people or companies linked to the property industry.

The figures are almost certainly an underestimate, because transparency thresholds for donation declarations and government spending mean that not all information is made public. The Guardian used public spending receipts provided by the government procurement data provider Tussell.

Previously, any political donation over £7,500 had to be reported and published by the Electoral Commission. Since January 2024 the reporting threshold has been raised to £11,180.

Some donors, such as Frank Hester, may have started donating money after their companies were awarded contracts in the public sector. Others will have been donors before their companies were paid by the government.

A separate analysis by the Labour party shows that £4.5bn in contracts were awarded to Conservative-linked firms without competitive tender during the pandemic.

Interestingly, Labour's response to this research stops short of promising to implement the call for the UK to do what the US and many of its key allies in Europe do and ban political parties from taking donations from companies (and their bosses) that bid for public contracts.

Presumably, that is because they don't want to cut off any possible funding sources when they are in government.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Wales facing cuts whoever wins on 4th July

Wales-online reports that Wales will be left out of pocket if either the Conservatives or Labour win the forthcoming general election.

They say that new analysis by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre (WGC) suggests cuts are likely to hit rail, bus, and road transport as well as business support, communities and regeneration, arts, culture, and sport, and housing and homelessness whoever wins the election:

It is hard for members of the public to get an idea of what party manifestos will mean in real terms. This is especially hard for people in Wales because so much of the money we have here is dependent on what is spent in England.

It is clear from the analysis, put together by Guto Ifan and Dr Ed Gareth Poole, that Wales is in for a really tough time regardless of whether Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak is sat in Downing Street.

These are the key headlines:

* Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos largely maintain the trajectory of existing UK Government spending plans. If they stick to their manifestos the Welsh Government would face “serious budgetary challenges”. This means it would have to implement further deep cuts to non-protected spending areas to fund increases to health spending.

* These non-protected spending areas include rail, bus, and road transport, business support, communities and regeneration, arts, culture, and sport, and housing and homelessness.

* Under Conservative plans the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 0.8% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Assuming the Welsh Government directly ‘passes on’ consequentials from NHS and schools spending in England a further £870m of funding would be required by 2028-29 to avoid real-terms cuts to non-protected areas of spending.

* Under Labour's plans the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 1.1% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Again assuming the Welsh Government directly passes on health and education consequentials an additional £248m of funding would be required in 2025-26 to avoid real terms cuts to non-protected spending areas. This gap which would grow to £683mn by 2028-29.

* It is unclear therefore how these plans would fulfil the promise of 'no return to austerity’ under Labour. The additional consequential spending for Wales projected from the 2024 Labour manifesto amounts to just 5% of the consequential spending included in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.

* Welsh Government capital spending (which funds multi-year infrastructure projects such as building schools, roads, and hospitals) will also be cut in real terms under both parties’ manifesto plans. Under existing plans the block grant for capital spending is set to fall by 7.7% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. The Labour manifesto contains additional investment spending under the Green Prosperity Plan worth some £60m per year for the Welsh Government. This would still however see the Welsh Government’s capital budget falling by 5% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29.

* Crucially both parties’ plans are highly dependent on a swift return to economic growth. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour intend to loosen the current chancellor’s fiscal rules and both parties have also ruled out increases to the main revenue-raising taxes. These pledges will seriously limit the next government’s ability to pump additional resources into public services.

* Moreover the outlook for the public finances is underpinned by Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the economy (and for the resulting tax receipts) and these forecasts are significantly more optimistic than those of the Bank of England and the IMF.

Just how the Welsh Labour Government reacts to this will be interesting especially as the BBC reports that it is unlikely that they will be able to pass a budget while Vaughan Gething remains First Minister.

The BBC point out that should ministers be unable to strike a deal with another party then the budget for this year would be effectively rolled over into the next, but with a cut.

Labour does not have a majority in the Senedd and since the passage of a no confidence motion none of the opposition parties are inclined to assist him in keeping his government on track. 

The latest news of Gething flying in an upper class seat to India and staying in a luxury hotel for a two and a half hour meeting with Tata steel when their senior executives were in London only the previous week, is not likely to help his cause either.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Tories in retreat

There seems to be no let up over this betting scandal. The Independent reports that Rishi Sunak has finally accepted the inevitable and has suspended Tory candidates Craig Williams and Laura Saunders, both of whom are linked to the prime minister’s inner circle and are under investigation by the Gambling Commission.

Meanwhile, the Guardian tells us that a Conservative politician has become the fifth party figure to be investigated by the gambling watchdog for allegedly placing a suspicious bet on the general election date, as the developing scandal continues to overshadow Rishi Sunak’s campaign.

They say that The Gambling Commission has informed Russell George, a Tory member of the Welsh parliament who represents the same constituency as Sunak’s closest parliamentary aide Craig Williams, that he is part of its inquiry. 

And even Labour is getting in on the act, with the party announcing it was suspending the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich candidate Kevin Craig after the Gambling Commission launched an investigation'

Craig, who is a lobbyist and expert in political crisis management, confirmed that he was under investigation for betting that he would not win his own constituency. Labour said it would now return £100,000 he had donated to the party under Keir Starmer’s leadership, while the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, would give back £13,000 donated for staffing costs.

Meanwhile, in the election campaign itself, the feeling that the Tories are under siege and in retreat is growing. The Guardian reports that the party is rerouting resources to defend at least three seats held by cabinet ministers with majorities of more than 20,000 as the party falls back to safer ground:

Tory activists and candidates in nearby areas have been diverted to campaign for James Cleverly, the home secretary, Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, and Steve Barclay, the environment secretary.

Cleverly held his Braintree constituency by 24,673 votes in 2019, but some senior Tories believe the Essex seat, which elected Labour MPs in 1997 and 2001, could be vulnerable.

Barclay held his North East Cambridgeshire seat by 29,993 votes in 2019 and Dowden held Hertsmere in Hertfordshire by 21,313. Neither constituency has ever returned a Labour MP before.

All three seats are in the southern Tory heartlands, which Labour is heavily targeting at this election. They have been altered by the boundary review, but still have Conservative majorities of more than 20,000, according to 2019 modelled results for new boundaries.

There is even talk of the Prime Ministers seat being under threat. How this works out in the end is difficult to say, but the feeling on the doorsteps is that a lot of people are disillusioned and uncertain how to vote, if they'll vote at all. It is all there to play for.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ducking the hard choices

The BBC reports on the conclusions of an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) study that the UK's main political parties have “ducked” addressing stark choices over public finances in their manifestos and that it will be a "considerable surprise" if taxes are not increased over the next five years.

They say that the IFS have accused Labour and the Conservatives of engaging in a "conspiracy of silence" and ignoring "painful choices":

It said the UK has the highest debt level for more than 60 years, taxes are near a record high and spending has swelled - but public services are "visibly struggling".

While the government is paying huge interest on debts and welfare bills have grown, spending on health is likely to rise because of an ageing population while defence funding will have to increase.

Meanwhile, economic growth is subdued.

Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said: "These raw facts are largely ignored by the two main parties in their manifestos."

He said that "huge decisions over the size and shape of the state will need to be taken, that those decisions will, in all likelihood, mean either higher taxes or worse public services".

Whoever wins the election in less than a fortnight faces a "trilemma", said the IFS.

"Raise taxes by more than they have told us in their manifesto. Or implement cuts to some areas of spending. Or borrow more and be content for debt to rise for longer," it said.

"What will they choose? The manifestos have left us guessing."

Mr Johnson also criticised both Labour and the Conservative Party for ruling out increases to income tax, National Insurance and VAT.

“Despite a damaging rush to rule out increases in all sorts of tax rates, it will be a considerable surprise if no other taxes are increased over the next five years," he said.

They add that the IFS has condemned a lack of transparency over plans to keep thresholds on income tax frozen for a further three years, which will raise £10bn a year:

The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would keep the measure in place.

The IFS also questioned if parties could raise £5bn by "cracking down" on tax evasion and avoidance.

"Maybe," said Mr Johnson, but he added that none of the manifestos "make much of the fact that on official estimates most of the shortfall in what HMRC collects is not from big, faceless conglomerates but from the self-employed and small businesses".

The think tank also examined manifestos from the Green Party and Reform.

It said the Green Party had outlined major spending plans which would be paid for by tax rises and an additional £80bn a year in borrowing.

Reform would cut taxes by £90bn and increase spending by £50bn, the IFS said, which would be "paid for" by an unspecified £150bn package of measures such as cutting welfare and "government waste".

Mr Johnson said the policies the Greens and Reform outlined in their manifestos were not going to be implemented.

"But the way they suggest that they have radical ideas which can realistically make a positive difference, when in fact what they propose is wholly unattainable, helps to poison the entire political debate," he said.

None of this of course helps voters have any confidence in what they are being told during this election, or even how to cast their ballot. 

A fear of being branded as being in favour of high taxes and losing votes is causing all the political parties to avoid telling us the truth about what needs to be done and how they will address the problems faced by the country. 

That cannot be good for democracy.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Control freak Labour

In a profile in the New Statesman written by Ed Davey's brother-in-law, he writes: 'Lib Dens generally like to do their own thing and what puts them off Labour is the fear that the party might think it knows best for everyone'. Well it certainly looks like Keir Starmer is delivering as expected.

The Guardian reports that dozens of Labour candidates have been blocked from accessing the party’s canvassing systems, which help them drum up support from voters, because they were deemed not to be campaigning enough in target seats.

They add that in some cases, candidates who have been campaigning every day in battleground seats they are twinned with – as instructed to by Labour HQ – in parts of the home counties and Essex, have still lost their access to key software as their seats are considered either very safe or simply not winnable:

“People in non-battleground seats who are working really hard to gain attention and secure non-Labour voters and could even potentially win have suddenly lost access to this,” a source said. “Some candidates have even been told to stop doing too much because their campaigns are gaining traction.”

Without the software Organise, campaigners are unable to connect with known Labour supporters and mobilise them to canvass. Contact Creator is another key canvassing tool that enables candidates to see local voting intentions. Denying access to these essentially makes it impossible for targeted campaigners to canvass properly.

Meanwhile, Ellie Reeves, the party’s deputy national campaign coordinator, sent an email to candidates, saying: “Anyone who is making more than 500 contacts a week in their own seats will be required to attend five twinned seat campaigning sessions a week.”

Candidates who have been MPs before, or have worked hard within Labour’s grassroots for years, are said to be furious, with some saying they feel “pretty traumatised”. A source said: “It’s a huge mistake to piss off and mobilise senior backbenchers when you will be entirely dependent on totally inexperienced newbies. Most people are telling HQ to fuck off.”

Some candidates have even been banned from printing leaflets in the constituencies they are fighting for, which in some cases have been shown as a neck-and-neck fight in recent polls, and instead ordered to go to a twinned target seat.

Election candidates and activists are concerned at the level of “control” from HQ, and fear it is another example of the party possibly taking Labour voters who are still not sure how to cast their vote for granted.

“It’s unrealistic to expect people to suddenly travel,” said one. “This is meant to be our change election, fighting the far right, fighting for our loyal supporters and winning back those who couldn’t vote for us.”

The Guardian has been told that, on 4 July, seats that Labour currently holds will have no support from the party’s Get Out the Vote, a strategy used to increase voter turnout from loyal supporters. One source called the strategy “just unrealistic” and said that “even under Blair we would be allowed to campaign in our own seats even if they were safe, and then go to marginals later in the day”.

Another said: “They are treating us like children, and particularly the old guard are very pissed off. They want to dictate our every move and are verging on intimidation – it just kills enthusiasm and spirit.”

This strategy “makes sense to people who do things by spreadsheets”, they added. “But this is how we lost Scotland in the past. Luckily for us right now the SNP is falling apart. It seems like HQ are looking at this election as a one-time election win. It’s also bad for many candidates who have been installed and haven’t had to fight for their candidacies. They will be mistaken to believe they will be able to swan around parliament after July 4 without spending time in their constituencies.”

It takes quite a bit to out-do Blair's New Labour in its control freakery but Starmer has somehow managed it.

Another Tory caught in gambling scandal

Just when the Tories felt able to go back out into the world again, the betting scandal that has already touched three senior members of their party claims a fourth victim.

The Guardian reports that the gambling watchdog is looking into allegations that this person placed dozens of bets on the timing of the election before it was announced:

The Gambling Commission has informed Nick Mason, the Tories’ chief data officer, that he is part of its inquiry into bets on the timing of the election, the Sunday Times reported. The Conservative party confirmed that Mason had taken a leave of absence.

Mason is the latest confirmed Conservative figure to be facing an investigation in a growing gambling scandal that has engulfed the party during the election campaign.

It has led to at least two party officials taking an unscheduled leave of absence from its headquarters as they are investigated. Michael Gove, the outgoing levelling up secretary, likened it to the Partygate scandal that dogged Boris Johnson’s premiership.

A Conservative party spokesperson said: “As instructed by the Gambling Commission, we are not permitted to discuss any matters related to any investigation with the subject or any other persons.”

A spokesperson for Mason said it would be inappropriate to comment during an investigation but that he denied wrongdoing.

The Guardian uncovered the scandal by revealing last week that bets placed by Craig Williams, who is Rishi Sunak’s closest parliamentary aide, were the subject of an investigation by the Gambling Commission for betting that the election would be in July, three days before it was called.

The watchdog is also examining bets allegedly placed by Tony Lee, the Conservative party’s campaigns director, who is now on leave of absence, and his wife, Laura Saunders, the Tory candidate in Bristol North West.

One of the prime minister’s close protection police officers has also been arrested on suspicion of misconduct in public office over allegations they also placed bets.

Poor Rishi Sunak can't catch a break as his shambolic campaign trundles on from crisis to crisis.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

The law of diminishing returns

John Crace hits the nail on the head in the Guardian when he questions the purpose of TV election debates.

If, like me, you have reached the stage where you are questioning the point of BBC's Question Time, then these election debates must seem even more pointless.

The one thing that can be said for them is that they enable broadcasters to claim to have fulfilled their mission to educate and inform, to have contributed to the democratic process, but how many people actually watch them?

Crace argues that broadcasters are able to console themselves with the knowledge there must be at least one person somewhere who finds the debate worthwhile, but it just doesn’t feel that way. He says that the apathy and indifference is stifling:

But for reasons best known to themselves, the TV channels cannot get enough of the debates. Even when there’s wall-to-wall football on at the same time. When Netflix, Amazon and Apple are pumping out more new series than anyone can watch. So you can’t help wondering who these debates are actually for. Other than to make the TV execs and the anchors feel important. All hoping for that one gotcha! moment that could change the election. The gotcha! moment that never comes.

As for the politicians from the main parties, they are in a catch-22. Much as they would like to tell the broadcasters to sod off – that the more the public see of them the more disenchanted they become – they daren’t say no. Because to do so would present an open goal to all the others. They would look chicken.

Meanwhile the smaller parties leap at every opportunity. To remind themselves that they exist, as much as anything. Any airtime is better than none. Not that it makes any difference. So far no debate has shifted the polls at all. The public appear to have made up their mind already. Yet the show must go on, so the same politicians travel around the country, symbiotically linked, to wherever the TV cameras happen to be that day.

On Tuesday we were at a Channel 4 event in Colchester for a debate nominally about immigration and policing. Important subjects, you might have thought. Only the prime minister wasn’t there. The Tories have worked out he’s a vote loser. So how about the home secretary? This was his turf. Only, Jimmy Dimly had a subsequent engagement washing his hair.

It’s come to something that the person the Conservatives would ideally have liked to have had representing them was Boris Johnson. In desperation, campaign leaflets are being printed with his endorsement. The bloke who was kicked out for lying two years ago. A national disgrace. It really is that bad at CCHQ.

Instead we had to make do with the junior minister Chris Philp. The nonentity’s nonentity. Whose only virtue is that he will believe anything that he’s told to believe. A man who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. Serial because so many of his companies have gone bankrupt. The ideal man for a crisis. Still, call it a last hurrah, because the Philpster is on course to lose his Croydon seat. As ever, though, he will be the last to know. In a year’s time he will still be wondering why his Westminster security pass no longer works.

No Keir Starmer either. But Labour at least put up a shadow cabinet minister in Nick Thomas-Symonds. Nor was Nigel Farage in view. Richard Tice had insisted he be allowed to do one debate in return for bankrolling Reform. Dicky appeared quite pleased with himself – his default expressions – as he is now Reform’s shadow chancellor after his car-crash performance presenting a series of imaginary numbers at the manifesto launch on Monday. Stephen Flynn had also taken the night off to let his Scottish National party deputy leader, Keith Brown, feel the pain. The Liberal Democrats’ Daisy Cooper, the Greens’ Carla Denyer and Rhun ap Iorwerth of Plaid Cymru are ever-presents.

The less said about the debate itself the better. Its one highlight was the closing credits. A relief for everyone. Not least the contestants. Sorry. The politicians. From about 10 minutes in they all started to look somewhat bewildered. Wondering what on earth they were doing appearing in a debate that only those too out of it to turn over would be watching. When even politicians – usually oblivious to normal levels of conscious behaviour – are having an existential crisis then you know you have hit skid row. What we were getting was performative futility.

It isn't just television that is eating itself, as Crace puts it, but the whole democratic process.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Glacial progress on levelling up

The Guardian reports on the conclusions of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies that progress towards a series of levelling up goals set by the UK government has been “glacial”, and achieving them by the target date of 2030 will require a big increase in resources for struggling areas.

The paper says that the think tank has found that on many measures, regional inequality had widened and the UK had gone into reverse:

In 2022, the government set out a white paper containing 12 goals aimed at “levelling up” the UK.

While praising the clarity and ambition of the plan, the thinktank said the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis had combined to make the period since the last election, in 2019, a challenging time to make good on the Conservative party’s pledge to narrow the UK’s geographic divisions.

The white paper’s missions included goals for primary school attainment, public transport use, high-quality skills training and employment; however, the IFS report found that:

* The share of pupils in England meeting expected standards at the end of primary school dropped from 65% in 2018–19 to 60% in June 2023, against a target of 90% by 2030. In only 10 English local authorities – all in London – did at least 70% of 11-year-olds meet this target.

* The total number of further education and skills courses completed in England fell by 14% between 2018–19 and 2022–23. In the lowest skilled areas, the decline was almost 20%. The goal for 2030 is to have 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training annually, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in the lowest skilled areas.

* A 21-percentage-point gap in the average employment rate between the best and worst-performing local authority areas in the UK – the widest it has been since at least 2005. The aim is to have rising pay, employment and productivity in every area of the UK, and a smaller gap between the top performing areas and others.

* The Conservatives’ aim is for local transport connectivity across England to be significantly closer to the standards of London, but the gap between the use of public transport in London (39% of journeys) and in the rest of the country (7%) during 2022-23 was at its second-widest level since 2002–03, as passenger numbers failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

The IFS said there had been some successes, including digital connectivity and new devolution deals in England.

Christine Farquharson, an associate director at IFS, said: “On many of the metrics that the white paper sets out, progress towards levelling up has been glacial. In key areas such as employment, primary school attainment and self-reported life satisfaction, the country’s overall performance has got worse even as gaps between areas have widened.”

Given the performance so far, the IFS said meeting the ambitious 2030 levelling up targets would probably require both substantial resources and changes in how they were allocated across the country.

All in all, the promises did not meet the actions or the outcomes, not that Labour have done any better in Wales.

Friday, June 21, 2024

The wrong sort of gamble

When Rishi Sunak opted for 4th July as the date of General Election most commentators thought it was a massive gamble. Little did we suspect that there was another sort of gambling going on at the same time, and in a way that has got us all asking: 'Are these people for real?'

Following on from Sunak's PPS, Craig Williams admitting that he placed a bet on the date of the general election, it transpires that another one of the Prime Minister's aides is caught up in a similar betting scandal.

The Guardian reports that a second Conservative candidate and the party’s campaigns director were being looked into by the Gambling Commission.

They say that the watchdog is examining bets allegedly placed by Laura Saunders, the Tory candidate in Bristol North West, and her husband, Tony Lee, who is now on leave of absence from his job at party headquarters:

It is not known when the alleged bets were placed or for how much money.

Labour called for the Tories to suspend Saunders from the party. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said: “This candidate should be suspended and it’s very telling that Rishi Sunak has not already done that. If it was one of my candidates, they’d be gone and their feet would not have touched the floor.”

The Liberal Democrats called for a Cabinet Office inquiry. The party’s leader, Ed Davey, said: “I think it’s quite awful. It needs a heavy hand from the top.”

The cabinet minister Michael Gove said the situation “doesn’t look great” for the Conservatives but said the commission had to get on with its investigation.

A Tory spokesperson said the party had been contacted by the watchdog about “a small number of individuals” who had allegedly placed bets on a July election. A party insider said they were not aware of any more cases beyond those already in the public domain.

But this is not all. The paper adds that separately, one of Sunak’s close protection officers was arrested on Monday over alleged bets about the timing of the election, on suspicion of misconduct in public office.

And now the Mirror reports that a flurry of bets were placed on the likelihood of a July election with a major betting exchange the week before Rishi Sunak announced the date.

The paper says that thousands of pounds were wagered on a July date, starting the day after a “contingency planning” meeting to plan for a Summer election was held in Conservative HQ:

Data from Smarkets, the industry leader for political betting, shows thousands of pounds being wagered either for and against the election being in July between May 14th and May 18th. Mr Sunak announced on May 22nd that the election would take place on July 4th.

And the market probability of the election taking place in May - based on movements in the betting market - increased dramatically between May 17th and the evening of May 21st. A spokesperson for Smarkets confirmed that in April there had only been a “few small trades” on a July poll, putting the probability up to 12% - where it stayed mostly steady for two weeks.

Smarkets said the betting pool for political issues is not as “liquid” as it is for major sporting events - meaning relatively small things, like a Tweet or newspaper article - can prompt activity. But the first real indication a July election was on the cards was a May 18th tweet from the Financial Times’ Lucy Fisher - who reported there had been a “contingency planning” meeting at CCHQ the previous Monday - May 13th.

The flurry of bets began on May 14th.

This is going to run and run.


Thursday, June 20, 2024


If there is one good reason to condemn the Tories to electoral oblivion it is their insane and cruel policy towards England's badger population.

The Mirror reports that Rishi Sunak has vowed to keep killing badgers to prevent cattle from catching disease from them. The fact that this meaningless slaughter does not work in suppressing bovine TB appears not to concern him.

This is a plan that is not working and which is being implemented in defiance of the science. Let's hope that any incoming Labour government puts an end to this nonsense.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Right wing bias on BBC Question Time

This will be no surprise to many people, but Nation Cymru reports on a Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture study, which has found that an analysis of guests on BBC's flagship programme, Question Time over a period of nine years suggests an overuse of rightwing voices.

Their findings reveal that while the Question Time producers have broadly balanced the main political parties, they have frequently relied upon a small number of rightwing guests to provoke entertaining debates:

Question Time has long been accused of bias towards both the left and right – usually a good indication of balance.

But the overuse of rightwing guests, as identified in our analysis, supports some of these claims of a lack of impartiality. The regular appearances of panellists such as Isabel Oakeshott and Julia Hartley-Brewer – the two most frequent non-politician guests in our analysis – raise questions about how producers choose guests.

It is worth pointing out that there is nothing wrong with the BBC inviting guests from these organisations, nor is there anything wrong with political writers from The Spectator discussing the political issues of the day. However, the lack of counterbalancing narratives from leftwing publications is notable.

Debate programmes such as Question Time are subject to the same stringent rules on impartiality as news programmes. But academic research has tended to focus mostly on analysing impartiality in news bulletins. Our findings suggest that researchers should also pay attention to the balance on political debate programmes.

The commitment to due impartiality can indeed mean that impartiality occurs over time – but the evidence does not demonstrate Question Time is achieving this. Instead, it may be sacrificing the BBC’s reputation for impartiality to create provocative programmes.

To be honest I stopped watching Question Time years ago as it was becoming insufferable. The evidence from this study certainly justifies my decision.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Covid Contract scandal features in election

Just when the Tories hoped that it had gone away the Guardian reports that controversy over the way government awarded contracts during the covid pandemic has reared its head again due to a row that has broken out in the USA.

According to the paper the founder of Innova Medical Group, who says his business collected $2bn (£1.6bn) in profits, one of the largest fortunes banked by any medical supplier during the scramble for lifesaving equipment in the early months of the pandemic, has been hit by a storm of claims and counter-claims. This has led to Innova’s boss, Charles Huang, to be accused by former associates of “squandering” or moving $1bn of those profits, spending lavishly on luxury aircraft, an $18m house in Los Angeles and “homes for his mistresses”:

The previously little-known Chinese-American businessman’s fortune was transformed by the British taxpayer through 11 government contracts worth approximately £4.3bn for lateral flow tests (LFTs) made in China and sold by Innova. The government fast-tracked the company after its British representatives sent a direct email to Dominic Cummings, the chief adviser to the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, in July 2020. And, a Guardian investigation has found, the fast-tracking of Innova was supported by the then chancellor Rishi Sunak’s team at the Treasury.

Innova became for a period of at least four critical months the only company authorised to supply rapid Covid tests in the UK, despite scores of others developing similar kits. At the time, the government spending watchdog raised concerns, saying the lack of competition posed “risks to value for money”.

In his evidence to the Covid inquiry last October, Cummings told how he had pushed through the first Innova contract with backing from Sunak’s team. The intention was to allow the economy to reopen by providing enough kits for up to 10 million people a day to test for the disease. The mass daily testing plan, labelled “moonshot”, was met with scepticism by scientists, including Jonathan Van Tam, the then deputy chief medical officer, who has told the inquiry that he had “real doubts about whether it was workable”. The moonshot plan became part of NHS test and trace, known as the mass testing programme.

“In the autumn [of 2020],” Cummings said in his written statement, “Sunak’s team supported me with the mass testing team as we tried to overcome horrific Whitehall bureaucracy, secretly buy hundreds of millions of fast tests before other countries realised their value and there was a PPE-like panic.”

The UK Health Security Agency has confirmed in response to a freedom of information request that the “secret” buying of tests was the first contract awarded to Innova. Agreed in September 2020, it was worth £103m. The government went on to spend billions more with the company.

The information raises further questions about the UK government’s widely criticised decision-making during the pandemic, and the huge sums of public money spent after normal procurement processes were suspended. The apparent support of Sunak’s team also raises questions about how far the Treasury was involved in the government expenditure of billions of pounds on test and trace and personal protective equipment. Sunak has repeatedly presented his work during the pandemic as a landmark success, telling workers at an event on the first day of the 2024 general election campaign: “You know you can trust me when it comes to the economy: I got our country through Covid.”

That this should hit the media now is not just inconvenient for Sunak, but could well lead to further public controversy that will hit Tory poll ratings even further.

Monday, June 17, 2024

From bad to worse for the Tories


Just when you thought that the Tory election campaign couldn't hit new depths, the Deputy poliical editor of the Daily Mail tweets that Rishi Sunak has managed to upset some major Tory donors.

Anna Mikhailova reports that Sunak has pulled out of attending his party's Black and White Ball this week, despite the fact that tickets were on sale at £1,500 each, with him as the main guest.

Already this week the shambolic Tory campaign has had to contend with a betting scandal involving the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary, an expenses scandal in the Welsh Senedd involving a shadow Tory cabinet member and, of course, they are still reeling from Sunak leaving the D-Day commemoration events early, a decision designed to enrage the most hardened Tory supporter.

Mikhailova tweets that donors were told that Sunak will skip the Ball to attend a TV debate, but they aren't buying it:

'He just needs to pop in for half an hour' one said. ‘You leave D-Day early, you don’t go to the summer party, how can you expect other people to turn up for you?’

She adds that the bash - at the Hurlingham Club in London - is one of the party’s biggest fundraisers at a time when the party is already struggling to draw donations, but some donors are already asking for refunds.

Talks are now underway over who will replace Sunak as key speaker at the Ball, no doubt running parallel with manoeuvring to replace him as Tory leader.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Failing upwards

Nation Cymru reports that new independent research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has concluded that the UK Government’s flagship Levelling Up policy has been a failure.

They say that tThe policy was launched by the Conservative government in 2019 with the claim that it would reduce inequality based on where people live across the UK, but according to NIESR, “there are very few signs of Levelling Up, with disparities in living standards and productivity between various English regions and UK devolved nations remaining unchanged or widening since the last General Election.”:

NIESR’s new research shows that the gap in living standards between London and the South East and the North East has grown, and productivity differences between London and the South East and the West Midlands have also increased. Its projections of living standards and productivity suggest that unless some fundamental change occurs, there will be no significant progress by 2030.

The study concludes that the combination of insufficient central government resources and the slow disbursement of relatively small pots of money has meant that progress on the 12 main Levelling Up missions has been “feeble”.

I suspect that most people in red wall areas already knew this.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Another snub for Welsh Labour

It is beginning to look as if senior Labour politicians cannot help themselves. Vaughan Gething may be Starmer's man, but the price he is having to pay for that support is a series of snubs on long-standing Welsh Labour policy.

Yesterday, I blogged on how the Shadow Home Secretary had indicated that she was opposed to her Welsh colleagues position of devolving policing to the Senedd. 

Today's snub is a tad more serious.

The BBC report that Shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens told BBC Radio Wales Breakfast that the Welsh government will not have full control over the replacement for European Union funds, should the party win the general election:

Sir Keir Starmer has previously said that he would restore decision-making powers to the Welsh government over millions worth of grants to help boost Wales' economy.

But the party's manifesto on Thursday said that "representatives" of Wales would be given the power to make decisions, without clarifying who.

The Welsh Conservatives said it was focused on empowering people across Wales, while Plaid Cymru accused Labour of snubbing the Welsh government.

BBC Wales was told that Labour's plans would work much like the EU scheme had in the past.

Last year, Sir Keir promised Welsh Labour conference that Wales would have control over its "economic destiny".

"The decision-making role for the Welsh government on structural funds, will be restored," he said.

Speaking on Friday, Ms Stevens said: "It's exactly the same as Keir Starmer said in Welsh Labour conference.

"Both the UK government and Welsh government under the old EU funding... had a role. It's not a binary choice, one or the other."

Asked if control will go fully to the Welsh government, she said: "No, as I said, it's not a binary choice.

"It's changed from the current circumstances where the Welsh government has absolutely no say in how the Shared Prosperity Funds are delivered in Wales."

Previously, the The Welsh government had administered the EU grants - known as structural funds - while the UK was in the EU. However, after Brexit, the UK government set up the Shared Prosperity Fund which it has controlled rather than ministers in Cardiff.

That caused a row with Welsh government who have accused them of rolling back devolution. It now looks as if a Starmer government is going to leave it that way. So much for Labour's commitment to Wales.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Shadow Home Secretary undermines Welsh Labour

Of course one of the perils of devolution is that a party can pass all the policies it likes at a national or regional level, but if they don't get their colleagues on board at a UK level then they end up whistling into the wind.

This can be particularly embarrassing if you head up a longstandin Welsh Labour administration and have been arguing for some time that you can work more closely in partnership with a UK Labour Government. And so it has proved even though not a single vote has yet been cast.

Wales on Line reports that shadow home secretary. Yvette Cooper has said control over police forces would be retained by Westminster if Labour takes power next month despite the Welsh Labour Government wanting to take charge of policing here:

Ms Cooper could be responsible for overseeing police forces in England and Wales if Labour win power. Responsibility for police forces in Wales currently rests with the UK Government rather than the Welsh Government. This is unlike policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland which are controlled by their respective governments.

Speaking to BBC Radio Wales Breakfast on Wednesday Ms Cooper said it was important to "keep the links" around policing and crime across England and Wales. She also accused the Home Office of "turning its back on Wales" and said there were reasons not to give policing powers over to Cardiff Bay.

"We need to keep the links around policing and crime across England and Wales," she said. "Not least because here in north wales there’s obviously strong links in terms of what happens in Merseyside has an impact on north wales and so on. So you have to have all of those close relationships between police forces."

Home Office figures show the number of police officers in Wales has increased from 7,479 in 2010, when Labour left power in Westminster, to 8,091 in 2023, the BBC reports. There is some disagreement among Labour over whether or not Wales should gain control of its police forces. Previously Mark Drakeford's government had held ambitions of devolving policing to Wales and the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales said in January that policing and criminal justice powers should be devolved beginning with the police, probation, and youth justice. A sub-group of the commission said that there was evidence of a "strong case for change to secure better outcomes, better value for money, increased transparency, and more accountability".

But these ambitions have been tempered by some in UK Labour including shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens who said earlier this year: "We have said that we will explore the devolution of youth justice and probation. But we will not be looking at devolution of policing and justice.

It actually makes sense to give the Welsh Government the sort of control over policing that is held by the Mayor of London and other elected Mayors in England. At present we are in a sort of halfway house in which Welsh Ministers provide half the funding but have no say in how that money is spent, nor is there any proper accountability on a Welsh level.

The reluctance of senior Labour figures to address this issue tells you all you need to know about their attitude to devolution and the new First Minister.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Tory candidate in Betting controversy

Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Of particular interest to Welsh politicos, the Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak’s closest parliamentary aide placed a £100 bet on a July election just three days before the prime minister named the date.

The paper says that the Gambling Commission is understood to have launched an inquiry after Craig Williams, the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary, who became an MP in 2019, placed a bet with the bookmaker Ladbrokes on Sunday 19 May in his local constituency of Montgomeryshire:

On 22 May, Sunak made the surprise announcement that a general election would be held on 4 July.

In a statement, Williams said: “I’ve been contacted by a journalist about Gambling Commission inquiries into one of my accounts and thought it best to be totally transparent.

“I put a flutter on the general election some weeks ago. This has resulted in some routine inquiries and I confirm I will fully cooperate with these.

“I don’t want it to be a distraction from the campaign, I should have thought how it looks.”

A Conservative party spokesperson added: “We are aware of contact between a Conservative candidate and the Gambling Commission.

“It is a personal matter for the individual in question. As the Gambling Commission is an independent body, it wouldn’t be proper to comment further, until any process is concluded.”

It is understood that a red flag was automatically raised by Ladbrokes as the bet in Williams’ name was potentially placed by a “politically exposed person”, and the bookmaker is particularly cautious over “novelty” markets.

The £100 bet, which could have led to a £500 payout on odds of 5/1, is believed to have been placed via an online account that would have required the user to provide personal details including their date of birth and debit card. The bookmaker also knows the location of the bet.

Ladbrokes referred the case to the Gambling Commission, which is understood to have launched an inquiry. The Guardian understands the regulator informed Downing Street officials last week. Using confidential information to gain an unfair advantage when betting may constitute a criminal offence.

Separately, the MPs’ code of conduct prohibits members from “causing significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the house”. The bet was placed while parliament was still in session.

While Sunak’s general election announcement last month came as a surprise to the public and many Conservative MPs, the prime minister is thought to have been considering and debating the timing for months. He is believed to have settled on the July date weeks before confirming it in heavy rain outside Downing Street.

The alleged bet, which would not have received a payout until after the election took place, is likely to be highly embarrassing for Sunak, who has been accused of presiding over a calamitous general election campaign. Sunak and Williams will now face questions about who knew about the election date and when.

It will be interesting to see how this goes down in the new constituency of Montgomryshire and Glyndwr.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Blame Game

Just how much more into denial can the Welsh Labour Party get? 

Not only do we have a succession of senior Labour politicians tramping around the country defending Vaughan Gething and arguing that he should ignore the fact that the Senedd voted that they have no confidence in him, but now we get Gething himself blaming the media for his own self-inflicted troubles.

Nation Cymru reports that the First Minister has appeared to blame journalists for coverage of his scandal ridden tenure saying he regretted “how the whole thing was reported”. 

They say his comments came during First Minister’s Questions on yesterday, less than a week after he lost a vote of no confidence in the Senedd:

Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth led a rigorous line of questioning in the Chamber this afternoon challenging the FM on the donation scandal and the Blythyn sacking.

He said: “What we have here is a First Minister’s judgment repeatedly being called into question. We’ve got the donation from a convicted polluter, but then there was the issue of how a Minister was recently sacked too, one of those not here last week.

“Sacking a minister is a serious matter, but it seems that the normal safeguards of natural justice weren’t afforded to the former deputy minister in this instance.”

Mr Gething replied: “I regret the way that the last three months have been covered and reported, and I regret the impact of the choice I made within all of the rules at the time.”

“I would not want either myself or any of my colleagues to have had to go through that again. I recognise that there has been real damage caused to a range of people in this place.”

Mr Iorwerth, a former journalist himself, hit back at the First Minister asking: “So, it’s the way this has been covered, it’s the way it’s been reported?

“I’m a former journalist, I’m a member of the National Union of Journalists, are you blaming journalists for this? Are you blaming opposition Members for the way that we voted in that vote last week?”

Mr Gething responded saying: “One of the challenges in making choices as a leader is you have to not just think about what the right choice is, but you also have to consider that it’s only you that can make the decision, and you have to consider and balance a range of different consequences.”

I wonder how that line will go down on doorsteps.

Lost in Swansea

When parachutist, Torsten Bell was first selected as Labour candidate for Swansea West, the Welsh Liberal Democrats candidate, Mike O'Carroll offered to show him around. Judging from this story. Mr Bell should have taken up the offer.

The Nation Cymru site reports that a Welsh Labour social media post that placed Mr Bell in the wrong constituency has been seen as a symbol of how the party’s hierarchy has become disconnected from local communities.

They say that the post shows a picture of him with a Welsh flag in the background and a caption which reads: “Britain needs change – and Torsten Bell is proud to be your candidate for Swansea East ready to deliver it. If you want change, vote Labour on Thursday 4 July.”

But it gets worse, Bell himself seems confused as to where exactly he was when he posted a tweet following a canvassing session which referred to the Swansea district of Townhill as “North Hill”.
Perhaps somebody should give him a map.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Revolting Tories Part Ten

I have never known a Conservative Party split so publicly, but to have it do so in the middle of a general election is unprecedented. It is actually getting embarrassing.

The Guardian reports that Tory rightwingers are planning to present Rishi Sunak with demands for tougher action on immigration and human rights law before the election if the prime minister’s manifesto promises on Tuesday fall flat.

They say that prominent party figures including Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick are said by Tory insiders to be among those waiting to see how the manifesto is received by the public before they act:

In the event Sunak’s launch fails to shift the dial on the Tories’ floundering election campaign, one option under discussion is a press conference next week to set out a series of alternative pledges.

They are hoping to capitalise on an already weakened Sunak who vowed to fight on until the last day of the campaign after a terrible weekend in which he was criticised for missing part of the D-day commemorations.

On the campaign trail in West Sussex on Monday, the prime minister said he believed he could still win back voters and he did not accept that the election result was a foregone conclusion.

Asked if he had considered quitting, Sunak said “of course not” and said he was energised by the campaign, after ministers were forced to insist he would not be replaced as leader during the course of the campaign.

In the run-up to the publication of the Tory manifesto, MPs on the right of the party launched a last-ditch attempt to toughen up the position on the UK’s membership in the European convention of human rights.

Two sources from the New Conservatives grouping said they had pushed hard for it to commit to a referendum on ECHR membership or full withdrawal. “A lot of us will be making our position clear publicly,” one MP said.

One former cabinet minister said it was “plausible” that a rebel manifesto could be published in the days ahead, with tougher positions on tax and immigration. “We’ll just have to see what emerges,” they added.

However, the Guardian understands that Sunak is expected to pledge to reform the terms of Britain’s ECHR membership, and to “keep all options on the table” – including leaving – if this fails.

One Tory source said: “Sunak doesn’t want to leave. This is just language to appease the right. It’s signalling. There’s no way he wants a cabinet row over this in the middle of the campaign, and some of his ministers are firmly against.”

Sunak was reportedly facing last-minute calls by cabinet ministers to add new tax cuts and tougher migration policy to the manifesto after early drafts provoked disquiet over the lack of big ticket pledges.

Bloomberg reported that while there were no signals that their demands would be met in the final document, some alterations had been made in recent days as a result of the conversations.

Considering that it was Sunak who called this snap election, the level of unpreparedness at the very top of his party is astonishing. Maybe he had to do it to keep the party together. If so, he has failed miserably.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Another Sunak faux pas

Surely Rishi Sunak has committed enough faux pas during this general election without walking straight into a charge of hypocrisy over traffic regulations. but no, it seems that he actually enjoys the humiliation.

The Independent reports that the Tories are embroiled in a hypocrisy row over Sunak’s “backing drivers bill” to scale back Ulez, ban pay-per-mile road taxes and crack down on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs).

The paper says that having promised that the bill would be part of his first King’s Speech if he is re-elected on 4 July, ending Labour’s “war on drivers” in London and Wales, the prime minister has been accused of hypocrisy after it emerged his own ministers had supported many of the measures he is now railing against:

As chancellor, Mr Sunak reportedly drew up plans to introduce a pay-per-mile road pricing system. And in 2022 one of the PM’s own transport ministers, Huw Merriman, said London mayor Sadiq Khan should introduce a road pricing scheme to replace lost revenues from fuel and vehicle excise duties.

Labour also pointed out that Mr Merriman also suggested Mr Khan’s Ulez expansion was a “bold attempt to reduce congestion and pollution”.

Transport secretary Mark Harper on Friday ruled out introducing any pay-per-mile schemes and promised to reverse the London mayor’s “unfair Ulez expansion.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson introduced Ulez as mayor in 2015, calling it an “essential measure” that would “lengthen London’s lead as the greatest city on earth”.

Tory hopes that they can hold onto the backing of motorists who are counting the cost of environmental policies in the general election are looking more and more far-fetched as it becomes clear that, as well as top Tories’ past support for Ulez and pay-per-mile schemes, Labour have also pointed to senior Conservatives who previously backed LTNs.:

Tory chairman Richard Holden in 2022 said decisions about LTNs should be “entirely a matter for local authorities such as Warrington to make”.

Meanwhile former transport secretary Grant Shapps touted pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements, cycle and bus only streets as “examples of what people will start to see more of” under his £250m Emergency Active Travel Funding plans in May 2020.

Consistency is not a very atrong trait for this lot.

Friday, June 07, 2024

Non-binding but fatal?

Today's Guardian's editorial is scathing about the attitude of Vaughan Gething and the Senedd Labour group towards the non-binding motion of no confidence that was passed on Wednesday.

They conclude that it’s hard to see how Vaughan Gething can survive as first minister in Wales:

Mr Gething won’t survive by just dismissing the vote as “non-binding”. The first minister lost because two Labour Senedd members, one of whom he sacked and the other a vocal critic, did not turn up to support him. Both were said to be ill. The first minister has annoyed colleagues with his high-handed approach. A day earlier, Mr Gething’s predecessor – the usually mild-mannered Mark Drakeford – dramatically criticised the Welsh government’s decision to scrap his proposals for changes to the school holiday.

The first black leader of a European nation, Mr Gething told the Guardian earlier this year that he wanted to be judged not on his skin colour but on his ability. He’ll need those talents to win over his party. In 2021, Labour won 30 seats, or half of the Senedd. Mr Gething secured the support of only a third of those members to win the leadership. Labour has been historically a broad church, where almost everyone was welcome. Mr Gething is wrong if he only wants those singing from the same hymn sheet.

The first minister has attacked Tory opponents for failing to respect Welsh democracy. Yet his apparent contempt for its norms is at the heart of his downfall. In March, it emerged that he had lobbied regulators in favour of a company that has been prosecuted for waste crimes and whose owner had since given him £200,000 for his leadership campaign. Elections cost money, but if the source of the cash fails the smell test then surely the funds ought to be returned. That applies to Mr Gething as well as to the Conservative party, which has taken £15m from a businessman accused of making racist and misogynistic comments, including about Diane Abbott.

Labour is on course to secure a landslide victory in Commons constituencies in Wales. But Mr Gething’s personal ratings are sinking. More than half the public tell pollsters he is performing badly. Only 15% think that he’s performing well. The opposition parties could call a vote of no confidence in the government itself, rather than in the first minister. The result would be binding, and if it succeeded it would bring down the government.

The row over donations also ended the Welsh Labour government’s collaboration agreement with Plaid Cymru. Welsh Labour can only get its budget through the Senedd with support from other parties. Responding to their concerns seems urgent. Since 2019, UK ministers have disregarded constitutional norms by legislating in areas devolved to the Senedd. A Welsh first minister needs to be able to see off such challenges. Mr Gething’s government is, following the recommendations from an independent commission, working on plans for the devolution of justice, policing and rail policy. These have already been rejected by Sir Keir Starmer’s team. A rethink, should Sir Keir enter Downing Street, would benefit Wales and the wider devolutionary settlement. That will be more difficult with a lame duck leader.

There is a meeting of the Labour group later today, let's see what comes out of that.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

The first casualty

In war, truth is the first casualty is a military maxim attributed to Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (I admit I had to check the source). It is a maxim that already has relevance in the general election.

The Independent reports that the Treasury’s permanent secretary James Bowler has distanced his department from claims Rishi Sunak made to the nation in the ITV debate that Labour would have to increase taxes by more than £2,000 per household.

The paper adds that this was later followed by the Office for Statistics Regulation launching a probe into the figure, which was the centrepiece of the prime minister’s attack on the opposition in Tuesday night’s TV debate:

It sparked a barrage of condemnation from Labour’s shadow cabinet, with several of the party’s top politicians accusing the PM of deliberately lying to the public.

In response, a defiant Conservative leader and energy secretary Claire Coutinho doubled down, repeating the assertion.

In the first televised clash of the general election campaign, Mr Sunak had repeatedly pointed to analysis by Treasury civil servants he said showed a £38.5bn black hole in Sir Keir’s spending plans.

This would lead to each working household paying £2,094 more in tax under a Labour government, the PM said.

But Mr Sunak suffered a humiliating setback when the Treasury rubbished his claim.

His claims started to unravel on Wednesday morning when Ms Coutinho conceded on the Today programme that the £2,000 figure was spread over four years.

Soon after, in a dramatic and humiliating intervention for Mr Sunak, a letter emerged from Mr Bowler which he had written to the Labour Party to pour cold water on the claim.

Mr Bowler set out how the costings relied upon by Mr Sunak were nothing to do with impartial civil servants, and stressed that the Treasury was “not involved in the production or presentation of the Conservative Party’s document ‘Labour’s Tax Rises’ or the calculation of the total figure used”.

The figure “includes costs beyond those provided by the civil service and published online by HM Treasury”, he told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones.

“I agree that any costings derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the civil service,” Mr Bowler added.

In a scathing letter, he continued: “I have reminded ministers and advisers that this should be the case.”

Earlier, Paul Johnson, the director of the highly-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, also hit out at the figure. He said: “The £2,000 per working household that the Conservatives are suggesting that Labour is committed to is not independently arrived at or verified. It has been calculated based on Conservative party assumptions about Labour’s spending plans.”

The £2,000 claim is now being looked at by the Office for Statistics Regulation.

It is not known precisely how long its investigation will take.

It would not be the first time the prime mister has been rebuked by the statistics regulator.

Last December, his claim that the government had reduced debt was challenged by the watchdog, whose chairman said the assertion “may have undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics”.

It can only go downhill from here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Social Media bites

With so many last minute candidates being put into place before close of nominations on Friday, it was inevitable that some studious journalist would be digging away in their social media accounts for a story or two.

Here in Swansea, the imposition of a London-based thinktank boss with no connection to the city has aroused some interest, but in his case he appears to have already scoured his own twitter account for anything interesting. That though, has not stopped the inquisitive.

Nation Cymru reports that Labour's Swansea West parachutist, Torsten Bell has deleted social media posts from 2023 that conflict with the party’s current policies:

It has emerged that since he was selected for Swansea West, a series of social media posts he made in January 2023 have been deleted. The posts coincided with the publication of a report by the Resolution Foundation that criticised tax breaks given to those who invest in Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs).

Currently, ISAs allow individuals to save up to £20,000 per year tax-free, with no upper savings limit.

Mr Bell wrote a series of posts at the time of the report, including one that stated: “The problem with ISAs: they do work for the top. Evidence: 1.5m people live in families with ISAs worth over £100,000 per adult! Why on earth is the state spending billions subsidising savings that large?” It was deleted last week.

Another post, also deleted, said: “Our main policy to support saving does nothing for many on low/middle incomes – which is where the public policy priority to encourage saving lies – while doing a lot for the top who I promise you are going to save anyway. We should sort it out.”

Mr Bell’s deletion of the posts calls into question whether he stands by his quoted comments now that he is a Labour candidate.

This is hardly a smoking gun. Bell's deleted comments are backed up by a well-researched Resolution Foundation report and, whether you agree with them or not, are a valid contribution to the tackling poverty agenda. As chief executive it would be a surprise if he didn't support the think tank's conclusions.

The story here in fact, is not what was deleted but the fact that Bell thought he had to take the posts down. Are we being asked to vote for a man who believes that he cannot act or think independently of the party line? Is he a yes man after all?

I would have had a lot more respect for Mr Bell if he had left the posts up and defended them if challenged.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Gething scandal rumbles on

Welsh Liberal Democrats have said that the latest development in the Vaughan Gething donations scandal raises further questions about the integrity and judgement of the First Minister.

They are responding to a report by BBC Wales that the company that bankrolled Vaughan Gething's successful bid to become Wales' first minister was linked to a criminal investigation at the time,

The BBC say that a criminal investigation into suspected environmental offences by Resources Management Limited (RML) is being carried out by Natural Resources Wales. This is a firm which is owned by millionaire businessman David Neal, who donated £200,000 to Gething's leadership campaign:

BBC Wales Investigates can also reveal that a senior Welsh Labour figure offered to lend Mr Gething money so he could pay back the donation in full, but he declined to take up the offer.

Mr Gething, who narrowly won the Welsh Labour leader contest earlier this year, previously said he had done nothing wrong and has not broken the ministerial code.

The continuing row in Wales is an unwelcome distraction to Sir Keir Starmer during the general election campaign - although the Labour leader has publicly backed Mr Gething.

RML runs the Withyhedge landfill site near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, which people have complained since October 2023 is a "stink bomb on steroids".

RML said it would "continue to fully cooperate with any pending investigations by Natural Resources Wales".

But it is not the first time a waste management company controlled by Mr Neal has been investigated.

He was twice convicted for environmental crimes relating to two companies in 2013 and 2017, and one of those also pleaded guilty in March this year to another offence.

The BBC speculates as to who knew about this investigation, saying that NRW is overseen by the Welsh government and it had been briefing ministers about the Withyhedge site controlled by Mr Neal since before Mr Gething became first minister in mid-March:

Health secretary Eluned Morgan and then-climate change minister Julie James both had meetings with the regulator about problems at Withyhedge in February.

It was revealed in March that Mr Gething has also previously spoken to NRW on behalf of Mr Neal back in 2016, asking them to ease restrictions on one of his businesses, Atlantic Recycling Ltd.

The second chunk of money Mr Neal gave Mr Gething in January 2024 was donated the day before another of Mr Neal's company's outlined plans for a new solar farm on the Gwent levels, in an area of Special Scientific Interest.

In a statement Mr Neal said: "All donations made have come from a separate account to those used for the development of our business; we have never requested or expected anything in return."

Now there is going to be a no confidence vote on Wednesday in the First Minister, which the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be supporting. 

Their view is that Gething may have followed all the rules, but his judgement in this matter has been very suspect. They also want to see a cap on all political donations to preveent this happening again.

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