Government stability

Remain, Labour and many in the media are running endless stories about the possible fall of the PM or the government. These stories are false mischief.

Let me remind you of the process to remove a Conservative PM. 15% of the Conservative MPs have to ask for a Confidence vote in the leader.Then more than half the MPs have to vote No Confidence. As most Conservative MPs support the Leader neither of these two events are about to happen.

For there to be an early General election the government would have to lose a Confidence  motion in the Commons. I know of no Conservative. MP who would vote to do that. The DUP are not after an early election either.

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Getting in to Oxbridge

I have read with interest the allegations that Oxford and Cambridge do not admit enough pupils from poorer and non professional backgrounds. From my regular contacts with Oxford I think it is a much more welcoming institution than when I went there, which does much more to reach out to people who do  not come from communities with strong Oxbridge links. The University spends time talking to schools that have no history of sending pupils to the university, time encouraging more students to apply, and provides a range of bursaries and scholarships to help some students with costs. It has made good progress in changing attitudes within the University and in welcoming people from all backgrounds.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I was surprised when a teacher suggested to me that I put my name in for the Oxford entrance exam at the beginning of my fourth term in the 6th Form. I was just 16, as I had jumped a year at  prinary school. What little I knew about Oxford made me think it was unattainable. They told me at school I would  be in  with a chance, and I am grateful to them for putting opportunity in my way. Everyone with a chance needs an adult in their school or family circle who suggests they try. Governors, Councillors and teachers must ensure all state schools look out for talent to apply to the best universities.

I was  very self critical in the 6th form, struggling to develop a  well informed voice I was happy with. I pitched myself against the great minds I read in books and thought I always fell short. I tried out  various styles of analysis and writing. One essay attracted particular criticism from a teacher which it doubtless deserved. When challenged why I was writing like that, I replied  defensively without thought or good reason that I assumed that was what Oxford would want.

Then came one of those defining moments that teachers sometimes achieve without realising it. He replied, “In that case why do you want to go there?” The sheer irreverence of the quip made me realise Oxford could be for people like me, and was only worth going to if it could further my development. He in a way liberated me from possible  failure, and confirmed a realisation I had often flirted with that  study  was about me, the quality of my enquiry  and the development of my ideas. There are strict limits to how much anyone else can teach you once you have grasped the conventional wisdom of your subject. I was already grappling with what I thought were the imperfections of the contemporary work in my discipline.

I was invited to interview. The system was you went to stay at your first choice College,  but had to stay for longer in case other Colleges in their group – there were 3 groups – also wanted to interview you for a place.

I was staying in a noisy room in an annex building on  a main road. It was cold and the room friendless as the student that usually lived there had had to strip the room for my arrival. I waited and waited until I was finally summonsed to an interview. It was perfunctory. There was no apparent intellectual challenge. I assumed they were going through the motions and had decided against me by the time I got there. I had not researched who was likely to be interviewing me and felt cheated there was no good argument.  I did not understand the significance of the hypothetical question about which year I could turn up if offered a place.  I waited and waited for an interview elsewhere but none came. I was finally told I could go. By this time I was thinking I was glad I would go off to London who had already offered me a place if I got 2 E grade A levels . In London they had engaged with my views at the interview.

I was amazed when a letter came some time later offering me a place and an Open Scholarship. My bad feelings about my sojourn  at Oxford were banished by the offer and by the positive reaction to it of my school. It certainly changed my life. Oxford did not need  me to take any  A levels but I stayed at school to complete them. 2 Es were needed for a local authority  grant. Although that took all the pressure off, for me it did the opposite. I now felt I had to live up to the faith placed in me. I got permission to go to the local university library to work, as I had run out of books to read at school.

In those days we were not to my knowledge invited to any preparatory or introductory discussions. There was no attempt to reach out when you arrived for interview. The Oxford I went to was full of ex public school boys who were better prepared.  They were more used to the College life as it reflected patterns from the richer boarding schools. They had been  tutored for the exams and made conversant with the dons who would interview them.

The modern Oxford I meet has a much  better range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. There are many more women with the strict segregation of old Oxford with just 5 women’s colleges broken down completely.  The student groups I have spoken to do not see their past school or social origins as significant as it was in the Oxford I attended. Oxbridge provides a good home for those with the discipline of self instruction and study. I just hope every school does encourage their brightest and best to apply. One of the best features of  Oxford when I was an undergraduate was the open lecture lists. You could go to any lecture in any subject. I tended to go to the most interesting lectures in some other subjects to provide a more rounded education, rather than to the ones in my subject which did not normally present new material if you had read enough.


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Remembrance Day in Wokingham

This year there was no march to the Church given the disruption to the town centre owing to the building works and the replacement of road surfaces and pavements. Instead Councillors and representatives of the uniformed organisations made their own way to All Saints for a moving Remembrance service.

We returned to the Town Hall to lay wreaths before the list of names of the dead from the World wars and other conflicts. The service and ceremony were well attended.

I would like to thank the organisers and all who joined in to show how the community as whole remembers.

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Today we remember the many who died in the two world wars of the last century and later conflicts. I will lay wreaths in Burghfield in the morning and Wokingham  in the afternoon.

As this year is part of the centenary remembrance of the Great War, there have been plenty  of historical films and books of what happened in that prolonged and devastating conflict.

There have been attempts to defend and explain the actions of those in charge of the armies which  suffered such terrible losses in attack after attack. All too often  the promised impact of preparatory bombardment did not work, leaving the attacking troops to be killed in their thousands  as they stumbled through barbed wire onto machine gun emplacements. There was little understanding and little ability to handle the many medical conditions  brought on by the water, mud and  disease that spread in the trenches, and even less sympathy for  the psychological conditions many soldiers developed after prolonged exposure to shells,  mortars and bombs.

The recruitment of massed citizens armies made politicans and Generals more blase about the extent of the  losses.  Wellington in the Peninsula was careful to protect his troops and avoid battles where losses would be large because he knew he could not easily replace his professional small army. In contrast   the Generals in the First War on both sides just assumed they could recruit many more replacements. The French had to face a mutiny when troops protested about their mistreatment, whilst many  Russians ended up as revolutionaries appalled by the suffering they had experienced in their army.

The bad  political failures included  the Peace Treaty at the end. The terms of this seemed to help set up another gruesome conflict twenty years later. A war is only successful if after victory the victors secure a stable and well founded peace.

The two wars have cast a shadow over the lives of those of us who came after the carnage, as we have sought to understand the suffering of our grandparents and parents and the sacrifices of many in their generations. It cast a far worse cloud over those who lived through the violence. Twice liberty was defended and the allies were  ultimately victorious, but only after herculean effort.

We should  take away from the events of more than one hundred years ago the need to expect more of politics to avoid conflicts becoming so violent. Where armed conflict is unavoidable we should  expect those who do lead or direct troops into battles to take more care of them, working out how to concentrate and use force more effectively than either side managed for much of the First World War. That war is infamous for the deployment of chemical weapons on a large scale, for the cruel dominance of the machine gun and shell, and for the many heroic but  too often futile attempts by infantry to break through massively strong defensive positions.

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The EU overplays its hand

It is a bit rich the EU demanding more money or else no talks on trade.   There can only be one answer to that bullying – no money.

The UK needs to reverse the argument. If the EU does not start talkig about a free trade agreement with the UK before the end of the year then the UK will press ahead with the WTO option as Plan A and work with business to trade without an FTA with the EU.

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Lets have a budget that helps the UK for a change

Instead of thinking of giving away more of our money to secure talks with the EU the Treasury should be preparing to spend  the money we save on our own priorities as soon as possible. That is what we voted for in the referendum. There is no need to pay to talk!

If we could be sure of an extra £12 bn from March 2019 we would be free to get on with spending increases and tax cuts to power faster growth and improve public services. Why is cutting the EU contribution one of the few cuts the Treasury will not contemplate?

The Treasury also needs to avoid doing more harm. Its Stamp duty and  Buy to let taxes harmed housing. Its VED and diesel attack harmed new cars. Now there is briefing around the idea of more taxes on diesels which is an odd proposal given the importance of diesel car engines to the UK auto industry. There have been past rumours of tax attacks on the sef employed, on pension savers and anyone of enterprise   or prudence.

What we want instead is a budget that provides more incentives to save, to invest, to produce, to build homes. We need a budget that rediscovers the truth that lower tax rates and faster growth bring in more revenue. At a time when the Republicans are planning major tax cuts it would be a bad idea to be still putting taxes up to make us less competitive and to encourage people and companies  with enterprise  to move abroad.

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The EU now threatens the Republic of Ireland with a hard border

A desperate EU now says it will impose a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK should carry on with its  plans for no hard border controls when we leave the EU and the customs union which it has set out in published papers.  We need not impose any new barriers on the UK side of the border. Will the EU really insist on them on the Republic side? They would be wise to work with the UK to ensure good arrangements on both sides  of the border.

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We will leave the EU on 29 March 2019

It is good the government is moving an amendment to confirm our exit date. It is two years nine months later than many Leave voters wanted. It means we will have paid the EU  an extra £30bn after we decided to leave in extra contributions which gives them a win. Around £8bn of that extra cost came about thanks to Gina Miller and the courts, delaying our exit by a costly nine months. Let’s now get on with it and have no more delays.

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Negotiating with the EU – again

There are more talks underway between the UK and the EU. So far the EU has acted toughly with unfriendly actions and rhetoric, whilst the UK has behaved with diplomatic charm  constantly stressing the wish to have a positive and wide ranging relationship once we have left. It is important that the UK continues to be warm and friendly about the future relationship, but also important that UK negotiators are not tempted to make offers on money or on the rights of the European Court against  eventual promises to talk about trade and the wider relationship. We should not pay for talks, and there is no need  to pay for trade either.

The EU has broken normal diplomatic conventions in the way they are handling their side of the talks. Usually states negotiate government to government, or in this case EU to government. They do not at the same time open talks with the opponents of the government.  Instead the EU has welcomed delegations from the official opposition, from parties and individual MPs hostile to Brexit, and others who are in disagreement with the UK government. I see press articles which look as if they have been sourced from the EU or its friends claiming that the UK government may be about to fall, or there might be change to a Labour government, or there is about to be a change of PM where there is no evidence to support any of these claims. At the same time the EU issues instructions to its member states seeking to prevent them talking to the UK on the grounds that they want a single view for the negotiation which will be the view set out by the Commission. There have been stories and quotes implying the EU wants to punish the UK for leaving. Their idea of punishment seems to be more punishment for them, as it entails imposing tariffs and obstacles to trade where they have a large surplus.

The EU has insisted throughout that there is a Brexit bill to pay though it cannot produce any legal basis for such a bill. It has insisted on only talking about three main chosen issues, and declining to talk about the important wider issues of the future relationship at the same time. As both sides agree nothing is agreed until everything is agreed it is silly to refuse to talk about the wider issues. With the clock ticking the UK government should now privately explain to the EU that if there is no prospect of talks about the free trade offer the UK is making before the end of this year then the UK will have to tell businesses to get on with planning for exit under WTO terms.

The UK is offering the rest of the EU great free access to the lucrative UK market. Translating this into the format to register as a free trade agreement with the WTO is easy as we already have the full framework in place. For the EU now it is a simple binary choice. Do they want to carry on with the access they currently enjoy to the UK, or would they prefer to access the UK as a third country under WTO rules and with WTO tariffs?

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The official and the political government

One of the difficult things any Minister has to grasp and handle is the distinction between their government roles and their political roles.

In the UK if a Minister wishes to act as a Minister, changing policies, spending government money or leading the administration in their department, they need to do so working with the relevant officials, and keeping the department and the wider government informed of their actions. Cabinet members have various delegated powers to spend  money and change policies, and in some cases Statutory powers to operate in a quasi judicial capacity without consulting other departments and colleagues. Any major decision or decision that has an impact on other departments needs to be cleared in correspondence or debated at Cabinet or Cabinet Committee unless it is a decision solely entrusted to a named Secretary of State.

If a Minister wishes to be involved in a local or national election, wants to change Manifesto policy for their party, wishes to attend a political function or otherwise act as a party politician they must not involve the civil service. They may not normally use a government car to get to the event unless there is a security need to do so. They have no duty to report the matter to the government machine, and will only tell the official government of decisions or problems that they come across at any such event  that are relevant for the government to consider.

If a Minister travels abroad and wants to meet senior representatives of a foreign government it is normal to advise the Foreign Office and to study any brief they send so that the Minister sticks to the government view of the issues that relate to the UK’s relationship with that country. If a Minister goes abroad for a holiday or to visit friends and family there is not usually any need to consult the Foreign Office or to understand  the government line on all the issues, as the Minister is not speaking as a Minister or becoming involved in public policy. If a Minister goes to a foreign country to participate only in a conference or series of  meetings that are clearly party political, again they cannot use government assistance and do not have to tell officials.

Various officials in Whitehall clearly do not like Priti Patel for whatever reason. They started briefing against her, claiming she had held meetings when on holiday in Israel that should have been reported to the Foreign Office, and cleared in advance of holding them. The Prime Minister was brought in to adjudicate. According to the press she asked for a full statement of what Priti Patel had done on holiday and told her she should not  freelance in this way. When it subsequently emerged that the Minister had not made a full statement of what she had done, the Prime Minister clearly decided to take further action.

It is ultimately for the PM’s judgement whether any given meeting or event was a political or an official one, and whether any given Minister has stepped too far from government policy in what they have said and done. It is clearly best if Ministers can work well with their officials, or can at least trust the official machine with details of their activities. It can also be the case that sometimes officials have their own reasons for wanting to criticise their Minister through unofficial and anonymous briefings, or by report to the Prime Minister. Only the Prime Minister can ultimately decide the merit of these criticisms. Establishing control when something has gone wrong is not easy. Some say sacking the Minister gives the PM control, but it also gives a win to the officials who wanted the Minister out.

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  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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