David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
No doubt most Conservatives are disappointed about not winning the Batley & Spen by-election – but one would have to be a very tribal Tory not to have some mixed feelings.
Kim Leadbeater demonstrated great courage and commitment to public service by putting herself forward to stand for Parliament after her sister had been murdered, . And seeing the ghastly George Galloway defeated should provide some cheer to all decent people. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at him crying foul as he went in search of the Batley branch of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in order to threaten court action for some reason or other.
It is possible that some Conservatives consider that a result which stabilises Keir Starmer’s position as a good thing, although I am sceptical that the prospect of Angela Rayner as Leader of the Opposition will cause much lost sleep within the Government.
What I am aware of is that some Conservative MPs in southern seats – a little jittery after Chesham & Amersham – worried that the capture of another northern constituency might further re-orientate the Conservative Party away from its traditional base.
Even though the Conservatives failed to win, it was still a pretty decent by-election performance with a swing from Opposition to Government which, until recently, was very rare.
It also highlighted a challenge for Labour in maintaining its traditional support from conservative Muslim voters. At a time when the party has to work hard to rid itself of a reputation for antisemitism, some of their voters were demanding a policy of supporting a Palestinian State that runs “from the river to the sea”. In other words, voting Labour was conditional on supporting the destruction of the State of Israel.
Labour is also a socially liberal party that usually receives a lot of support from very socially conservative communities. Most Labour voters would want their party to defend wholeheartedly gay rights, but this risks being a vote loser in places like Batley if a populist candidate is willing to exploit widespread homophobia.
Labour will hope that this is a problem that is only material in by-elections. Galloway, for example, won the Bradford West by-election in 2012, but lost it to Labour in 2015. Nonetheless, Batley & Spen highlighted yet further tension within Labour’s coalition of support. It is not just the split between Leavers and Remainers that makes it hard for any leader of the Labour Party to hold their coalition of support together.
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Universal Credit has been one of the success stories of the Government’s response to the pandemic. There was a huge surge in claimants during the spring of 2020, but the system was able to cope, for which all at the Department for Work and Pensions deserve much credit. It is impossible to believe that the previous benefits system would have managed so well.
The Government also rightly increased the level of financial support available under UC by introducing a £20 a week uplift, which provided a greater level of economic security during the crisis. As we come through the crisis (we hope) and the temporary uplift due to be dropped in September, the question is: what happens now?
The six of us who served as Secretary of State for Work & Pensions from 2010 to 2019 (Iain Duncan Smith, Stephen Crabb, Damian Green, Esther McVey, Amber Rudd and myself – a politically disparate group, it would be fair to say), have written to the Chancellor arguing that the additional resources put in the UC should be maintained.
There are some tough choices to be made in respect of the public finances, but if we want to support those who are most financially insecure following the pandemic, maintaining the additional support in UC is the best way to do it.
That is not to say that maintaining the uplift is necessarily the right way approach. A simple £20 uplift was the best way to provide quickly additional support to those in need, especially at a time when many were not able to work. In normal times, however, there are better ways to improve the way UC works – such as increasing the work allowance or lowering the taper rate.
Consequently, we have argued for maintaining the current funding levels, but that the Government should consider how that money is spent. That will still come with political challenges – some people will see their UC payments reduced from current levels if there is any reprioritisation – but it will leave us with a system more generous than pre-pandemic and still focused on making work pay.
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It turns out that Matt Hancock wasn’t the only politician to have been contacted by the tabloid press recently and asked about his relationship with a glamorous colleague in his Ministerial office.
“I’ve just interviewed Love Island contestant and former civil servant Sharon Gaffka”, said the email from the Daily Mirror journalist, asking to talk to me about her. Sharon had worked in my private office when I was at the Ministry of Justice and she had mentioned this in an interview. Very kindly, she had even made some generous remarks about the experience, describing me as “the funnest Minister” she had worked with (it is possible I was the only Minister she worked with, but let us put that point to one side).
I have not had much to do with celebrity culture over the years, although I did become quite good friends with the chap who used to be the regular tax expert on Radio 4’s Moneybox. Flattered by the approach, I agreed to be interviewed but then realised the perils.
Getting the tone right would not be easy – one unfortunate phrase and I could sound po-faced or like a dirty old man; out of touch or trying too hard. I attempted to work out likely questions, but my mind filled with wildly inappropriate and (for the avoidance of doubt) inaccurate answers.
“What do you think about a former civil servant appearing on Love Island?” “I’m just disappointed that Nicholas Macpherson turned them down”.
“Will you be watching Love Island?” “I’m really not sure if I can get ITV2 on my television set”.
“She says you were ‘fun’ – how did you make her laugh?” “Tickling, usually”.
No, no, no!
I have done some challenging interviews in my time, defending unpopular policies to the toughest interviewers at moments of high political drama. I was more anxious about this interview than any of them.
As it turned out, my conversation with the Daily Mirror journalist was innocuous enough and, when subsequently published, had not been sensationalised for which I was largely grateful. But, I am ashamed to say, at one level I was ever so slightly disappointed that the headline was not “My fun with Cabinet Minister, says Love Island beauty”. Maybe another time.