Downing Street facing 70-strong rebellion over planning reforms to boost house building

Senior Conservatives are poised to ambush the Government with a series of backbench debates over the coming weeks

By Richard Vaughan, September 18 

Downing Street is facing a furious rebellion of up to 70 Tory MPs over plans to overhaul the planning system in a bid to radically boost house building across England.

Senior Conservatives are poised to ambush the Government with a series of backbench debates on planning reform in the coming weeks that will provide dozens of MPs the opportunity to attack the proposals.

The move is to send a signal to No10 over its plans to introduce an algorithm into the heart of the planning system that will determine how many houses should be built in each area in order to meet the Government’s promise to build 300,000 new houses a year.

Johnson warnings

Several analyses of the algorithm have shown it will lead to a major increase in housing in Tory-held shires and suburbs, as well as rural parts of the north, but force a decrease in housing in more Labour dominated urban areas.

Boris Johnson is now facing warnings that the proposals, which are currently at consultation stage, will not get through the Commons as the opposition on the Tory benches is “bigger than his majority”.

Tory MPs are expected to stage a debate on planning reform in the coming weeks to display the level of anger to Downing Street with the aim of forcing a fresh u-turn.

This will then be followed up by a series of debates on local planning in the counties staged by individual MPs to ram the point home.

One Tory backbencher, who described themselves as a government loyalist, said the anger over the plans runs “deeper than No10 realises” and laid the blame at the door of Mr Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings.

“There are 40 of us regularly meeting about the issue, but easily  70 are opposed to it, including ministers and government whips.”

Downing Street is eager to push through the policy as part of sweeping reforms to the planning system, which it sees as vital to consolidating its control in former Red Wall seats. But MPs fear it could backfire in local elections next year and in the general election in four years time.

“This is being driven by Cummings and No10. [Housing Secretary] Robert Jenrick doesn’t have the political leeway to push back because he is on borrowed time. No10 is determined to push it through because Cummings hates the Conservative Party, he hates Conservative MPs and he hates Conservative members,” the source added.

Change to come

The Prime Minister and Mr Jenrick have been listening to MPs’ concerns, but no changes have yet been forthcoming.

Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, said he was “optimistic” the plans would be dropped following meetings with the Housing Secretary last week.

“The algorithm is flawed,” Mr Bridgen said. “And I think they are aware of this. If they do not reconsider then the plans will not get through the Commons. The number of MPs concerned by this is bigger than the Government’s majority.”

A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Local housing need proposals provide a guide for councils on how many homes may be needed in their area and councils will still need to consider local circumstances to decide how many homes should be delivered.

“We are consulting on the proposals and will reflect on the feedback.”


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Sasha Swire’s diaries are treacherous, socially contemptible, rude – and gripping -The Oldie

The plain, self-effacing title of this book contains its secret and its joke. The wife who was treated as a nobody turns out to be a deadly double agent. 

Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

Little, Brown £20

Review by Sarah Sands

In a moment of dramatic irony, David Cameron signs his own dull old work of statesmanship to Sasha with thanks for ‘love and support’. She accepts this warmly, while writing, ‘Of course, unless he is prepared to settle scores and wash his dirty linen in public, it won’t exactly fly off the shelves and I doubt he will do that as he is too much of a gent.’

The secondary joke is that it is not really the diary of an MP’s wife. It is a joint enterprise. Sasha Swire is mostly reliant on secondhand anecdotes from her husband, the former Tory Minister Hugo Swire, and his own rather self-satisfied quips and observations are polished like brass.

Sasha’s diaries have been treated by the Cameroons as the worst betrayal since Kim Philby. One acquaintance pointed out to me that Sasha’s mother was Slovenian – AS IS MELANIA TRUMP – and there is an East European deadliness borne from eyeing up Russia. Slav blood. It is a thrilling notion that Melania could also be keeping a diary…

Sasha and Hugo infiltrated the innermost sanctuary of the Cameron mateocracy – so what is the calibre of the secrets they have betrayed? There is nothing to worry the intelligence services, but there is plenty to interest Netflix.

There has been an understandable closing of ranks. The responses range from lofty dismissal of the Swires (‘We barely knew them’) to wounded gravitas (‘They did not see or describe the seriousness of government’), to the revelation that Hugo Swire was allegedly unfaithful to his wife.

Funnily enough, in the book this exposé tactic is associated with the May regime, who tried to take down Boris by revealing his affair with Carrie Symonds. It did not stop Boris Johnson and, in a different way, I do not think it will stop Sasha Swire, who has many more unpublished diaries still to come.

Her first volume is socially contemptible – and it’s also selling out. It is a twist that her agent, Caroline Dawnay, is related to the Johnsons. The Mateocracy turns out to be full of cracks. Treachery is everywhere. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson betray David Cameron, and Cameron responds by saying the Gove family is no longer welcome in his house. It is personal.

Cameron once said in print that a consequence of power was that he stuck to old friends, for safety’s sake.

This is how Sasha Swire describes in the book that circling of the social wagons.

‘The closeness of this circle is unprecedented. They are all here; the ones that eat, drink, party together, they are all intimately interlocked some from university days, some from the research unit, some later. We all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace-and-favour homes; our children play together, we text each other by passing the civil servants… This is a very particular narrow tribe of Britain..’

Never mind Kim Philby, this is Iago. A trusted confidante who harbours a grudge.

This makes the Diary of an MP’s Wife both compelling and shrewd. Of course, it is not how the protagonists would wish to see themselves portrayed. But there is, in its odd, crass way, a ring of truth about the book. There is no particular self-awareness about any of them but they reveal themselves by what they say. The character of the narrator is also undisguised. Sasha is seeking something – perhaps status – and does it by being consistently rude to everyone in a flirtatious, devil-may-care manner. Sometime she launches into policy tirades about Syria or Brexit, which must have been more tiresome.

David Cameron is the central character of the diaries since they cover his time in power and because Hugo Swire is a friend whom he unaccountably promotes and protects. Cameron is sensitive about the charge that his was a government of Etonians, because that was his Achilles heel. He was comfortable among Etonians.

He could be himself among them, not having to pretend to be interested in football, able to make off-colour jokes about fanciable women and the size of Michael Gove’s member, enjoying his grasp of the class and wealth distinctions of the Swires, and able to chillax in the middle of a crisis. This was his political weakness and Cameron has described the diaries as ‘mildly embarrassing’.

I reckon that mildly embarrassing is a good description. Cameron also comes across as a decent and loving husband and an extremely capable Prime Minister who rose to every challenge except the final one: the referendum.

George Osborne too is sketched in terms which may be selective but capture a political character: clever, calculating and a bit vulnerable.

Political autobiographies are about historical destiny. Political diaries reveal a different aspect of power. They are about houses and ministerial cars. George Osborne beats Nick Clegg to Dorneywood and plants his toothbrush there, as if it is a flag. This diary is about placements at state banquets, rivalries and perpetual plotting. It is modern-day Hilary Mantel.

This is why Sasha Swire is probably right in her damning assessment of David Cameron’s political biography. Nobody will remember his, and everyone will remember hers.

The pesky MP’s wife may have a better sense of public taste than all the players strutting on the political stage.

Sometimes the tone is horrible: the witticisms in the report of the Westminster Bridge attack, for instance. A politician complains to Hugo Swire that the lockdown means he is missing dinner and Sasha lovingly records her husband’s response.

‘”I hope the first course isn’t soufflé,” H says, which greatly tickles Norman.’

She goes on to describe Tobias Ellwood coming to the aid of a fatally wounded police officer. ‘Pictures are immediately beamed round the world of Tobias, covered in blood, being the hero. This might give Sir Alan Duncan, who has issues with him, a nervous breakdown.’

She adds a po-faced sentence – ‘This is not to dismiss what a terrible human tragedy this was’ – but the damage is done. The prism of politics and society, rather than humanity, can become repulsive.

She may also regret her attacks on the dead, both Jeremy Heywood and the tart references to the wife of Owen Paterson, who recently committed suicide.

Yet, on the whole, her vignettes and observations are entertaining. She is terrific on Boris Johnson. To use a non-Swire expression, Sasha feels ‘seen’ by the Prime Minister. And she is hopeful in return. ‘Yes, he’s an alley cat but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics and, best of all, a wonderfully comic vision of the human condition.’

David Cameron was unfailingly attentive and kindly towards the Swires but Sasha’s Slav blood leads her to believe in Boris. I can’t wait for the next swathe of Swire diaries and the film rights for these ones.

Sasha Swire writes in her acknowledgements: ‘To all the Cameroons for not mentioning me or barely mentioning me in their memoirs… this is payback!’

Now that she is ostracised, she has nothing to lose.


What costs far less than £100bn, can detect Covid-19 – and is cuddly too? Owl’s readers know the answer

It is simple and pain-free, could be used to test for coronavirus in care homes, airports and schools, and might just be more realistic than the UK government’s £100bn “Operation Moonshoot” mass screening plan. Its name? Fido.

Nicola Davis

Around the world – from the UK to Finland, Spain, Brazil, Lebanon and Australia – teams of researchers are training dogs to sniff out Covid-19. And some say the idea of training hundreds of thousands of canine noses to check for coronavirus is not as far-fetched as it may sound.

How do dogs do it? At Finland’s Helsinki airport, where four Covid-19 sniffer dogs have begun work in a state-funded pilot scheme, passengers dab their skin with a wipe, which is placed in a beaker next to others containing control scents. If the dog detects the virus – shown by yelping, pawing, or lying down – the passenger takes a free swab test to verify its verdict.

Speaking to the Guardian, scientists said any breed could in theory be trained – a process that takes between two and 10 weeks – raising the prospect of pet canines joining an army of Covid sniffers.

Prof Dominique Grandjean, of the national veterinary school of Alfort in France, who is leading a research team using bomb detection, cancer detection and search and rescue dogs, said the canines were not sniffing the virus itself but rather tell-tale volatile chemicals produced when the virus infects cells, and released by the body.

The chemicals should be produced whether or not an infected person has symptoms, and only if the virus is active – suggesting that unlike current lab techniques, dogs are unlikely to pick up “dead” virus, Grandjean said.

Results from Grandjean and his colleagues, which are yet to be peer-reviewed, show sweat samples from Covid patients were correctly identified by eight dogs at least 83% of the time, with some making a correct identification in 100% of the trials they underwent. The team say they have since validated their approach in three separate trials, although the results have yet to be published.

Grandjean thinks the approach has potential to become widespread. “We can have one dog per retirement house that is trained and this dog would be able every single morning to check everybody, just by walking by,” he said. His team plans to work with a French organisation to provide Covid-sniffing dogs to care homes.

“Pet owners could have their dog trained in order to search for Covid, but not only for them,” he added. “If we had 10,000 dogs able to sniff for Covid, well, that means that every dog should be able to sniff 200-300 samples a day, so that means 2-3 million samples a day.”

He said it would be better to use samples from individuals rather than let dogs wander among crowds sniffing for Covid.

Another research project is under way in Germany, using saliva rather than sweat samples. In a pilot study using eight dogs and 1,012 samples, the animals correctly spotted Covid-positive samples 83% of the time on average, and correctly identified Covid-negative samples 96% of the time.

The lead author of the research, Prof Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, said the current “have you got it” Covid lab test correctly identified the virus was present about 75% of the time, and correctly ruled it out almost 100% of the time.

It took Volk’s team just two weeks to train their dogs – he said hunting breeds were best suited to the work – but the French team said any breed, including mongrels, could potentially be trained. Grandjean said it could take eight to 10 weeks to train a dog with no prior experience of scent detection.

Rowland Kao, a professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, who is not involved in the work, said larger studies would be needed but the approach appeared to be simple, non-intrusive and “a very good addition to the surveillance ‘armoury’”.

Prof Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, was less optimistic, saying such efforts detract from the real challenges of mass testing. “All that dogs can detect is an odour difference,” he said. “For explosives and drugs and even chronic disease like MS, that is fine, but many viruses infect the same cells as Covid and lead to similar changes in metabolism – so the gas you exhale is the same.”

Volk said his team was working on whether the dogs can distinguish between different viruses, and Grandjean was upbeat. “Different types of virus have different volatile organic compounds coming from cell cultures, meaning [these] compounds are specific to each virus,” he said, although he noted this had yet to be proved for Sars-Cov-2.

Dr David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said the canine approach was likely to be hugely beneficial.

“If dogs can be appropriately trained, there is a high likelihood that they will have a higher success rate than the current screening strategies, given that they will be able to pick up the scent from wherever it emanates not just for those who have Covid in their upper airways,” he said. “Real time” screening could be particularly useful when infection levels fall.

“They could work in ports, harbours and airports to limit the risk of travellers returning with the infection,” he said. “Importantly to the economy, all of this can be performed at a fraction of the cost of the ‘Moonshot’ program, and are likely to be with us much sooner.”


New coronavirus mutation could be evolving to get around mask-wearing and hand-washing

Covid-19 may have become more contagious as it has mutated, the largest genetic study carried out in the US into the virus has suggested, as scientists warn it could be adapting to interventions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

By Josie Ensor, US Correspondent

One variant of the novel coronavirus is now one of the most dominant in America, accounting for 99.9 per cent of cases in one area studied.

The paper concluded that a mutation that changes the structure of the “spike protein” on the surface of the virus may be driving the outsized spread of that particular strain.

Researchers have been sequencing the genomes of the coronavirus at Houston Methodist, one of the largest hospitals in Texas, since early March, when the virus first appeared in the city. To date, they have documented 5,085 sequences.

In the first wave of the outbreak in Houston around March, some 71 per cent of the viruses were characterised by the mutation, which originated in China and is known as D614G.

By the second wave, which began in May and is ongoing, the D614G mutation leaped to 99.9 per cent prevalence. 

A tiny tweak in the spike protein of the dominant variant switches an amino acid from aspartic acid to glycine. The new mutation appears to be outdistancing all of its competitors. The graphic below explains more. 

The researchers, who include some from the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin, found that people infected with this strain had higher “loads” of virus in their upper respiratory tracts, which allows a virus to spread more effectively.

One of the authors offered that D614G has been increasingly dominant in Houston and other areas because it is better adapted to spreading among humans. 

“Strains with a Gly614 amino acid replacement in the spike protein, a polymorphism that has been linked to increased transmission and in vitro cell infectivity, increased significantly over time and caused virtually all Covid-19 cases in the massive second disease wave,” according to the authors. 

Their paper, published on Wednesday by preprint server MedRxiv, however, did not find that it was more deadly.

A similar study published in the UK had similar results, finding that D614G was increasing in frequency at “an alarming rate” and had rapidly become the dominant Covid-19 lineage in Europe and had then taken hold in the US, Canada and Australia.

By failing to control the spread in the US – which has the highest number of cases in the world – the virus has been given more opportunity to mutate in a shorter amount of time.

David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told the Washington Post the findings point to the possibility that the virus has become more transmissible and that this “may have implications for our ability to control it”.

Mr Morens cautioned that it was only one study that had not yet been peer-reviewed and “you don’t want to over-interpret what this means”. But the virus, he said, could potentially be responding –  through mutations – to such interventions as hand-washing and social distancing.

“Wearing masks, washing our hands, all those things are barriers to transmissibility, or contagion, but as the virus becomes more contagious it statistically is better at getting around those barriers,” said Mr Morens, senior adviser to Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of NIAID.

As a rule, the more genetic diversity a virus has the more prepared it is to evolve away from future treatments and vaccines. 

Other virologists downplayed the importance of the study, saying much is still unknown about the various mutations of the virus and how virulent they are.

Studying mutations in detail, however, could be important for controlling the pandemic. It might help to pre-empt the most worrying of mutations – those that could help the virus to evade immune systems, vaccines or antibody therapies.