Indulge me for a few moments but let us imagine that I am the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). What would my candid advice be to Boris Johnson as Parliament return? Here is what I would say:
Dear Prime Minister,
You appointed me to be your eyes and ears in Parliament to help keep you abreast of developments before they engulf us. So, here are my top 5 observations as we enter the autumn session:
1. Colleagues – and by that, I mean old and new intake – have come back in the foulest of moods from their summer holidays. In fact, I have never known a time quite like it. In the space of a few days I have been told everything from the “party is in a bad way and new MPs are very depressed” to “there is a lot of unhappiness amongst colleagues about the current situation”. These are some of the milder comments. Amongst old and new MPs there is a general sense the Government is drifting off course and if nothing is done about it then it could cause longer term damage. The chorus of MPs expressing disapproval about the Government’s general handling is growing louder by the day and it is imperative that the Government is seen to get back on the front foot after the summer debacle. I know that is not easy in the middle of a pandemic and a severe economic downturn, but colleagues are sick and tired of being caught off guard by Government announcements which can change by the minute. There is a lot of grumbling about the whipping situation and it might be a good idea to put a member of the new intake into the Whip’s office as a morale booster for the new intake?
2. Members are getting a very rough ride when they return to their constituencies and are faced by disgruntled councillors, many of whom could be out of a job soon. Our local government base is up in arms about our proposed changes for reorganisation and many feel they will be side-lined when the Government publishes its plans for more Metro Mayors and Unitary Authorities. This is on top of planning reform White Paper which, depending which area of the country you live in, could see a significant rise in housing numbers. A combination of these two so quickly could inflame already hot tempers. Could there be a way of delaying the plans for further devolution until the New Year at least?
3. Some colleagues are getting jumpy by the prospect of a collapse in trade talks with the EU, and I am not talking about the usual suspects! The proposal to rewrite parts of the Withdrawal Agreement as part of the Internal Market Bill; some believe this leaves us exposed to running roughshod over international treaty obligations. If we can suddenly re-write clauses of an agreed treaty, how we can be judged seriously if say we are telling China to respect its international treaty obligations to Hong Kong? For some colleagues this does not bode well. On top of this, an imminent collapse of talks would be a gift for the SNP ahead of Holyrood Elections next year. How can we dial down the rhetoric between ourselves and the EU on this matter?
4. Several colleagues have questioned the need for a No10 press conference from October onwards to take the place of lobby briefings. Aside from finding the right person to head up these daily briefings, some MPs are concerned we are spending too much time focusing on the delivery of our message at the expense of the substance of our message. Would it not be a better use of time and resources to find someone within No10 to help shape the over-arching message for the Government as it begins to articulate a vision for the UK as we emerge out of the pandemic?
5. Back again on the trade deal, between ourselves and the EU are we creating a rod for our own backs with any new occupant of the White House? Colleagues have been struck by the willingness of senior Congressmen to come forward to denounce any proposals which might lead to a harder border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This would pose a real obstacle to any future trade deal between the UK and the US – we cannot risk that, surely?
I appreciate all above points are part of a bigger, fast-moving picture and chain of events within the Government but thought as your “Virtual PPS” that I should bring to this your attention.
While the observations are mine the quotes are real and if left ignored could pose real problems for the Government longer-term. Between now & Christmas, Covid aside, the Government needs a stronger centre to deliver a narrative that instils confidence in MPs across its backbenches & to demonstrate that it has a plan and a vision for the country.