David Cameron met vaccines minister before firm he advises won health contracts

David Cameron met with the UK’s vaccine minister less than two months before a private health firm, which pays him for his advice, won £870,000-worth of public contracts.

Martin Williams www.opendemocracy.net 

The UK arm of Illumina Inc. was awarded two contracts relating to genome sequencing by Public Health England in late April.

But openDemocracy can reveal that Cameron discussed “UK genomics sequencing” with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi on 1 March. Official disclosures also make it clear that Illumina was being represented at the meeting.

Cameron has previously claimed that his role at the company is simply to promote the benefits of genome sequencing, and that he does not lobby the government for contracts on Illumina’s behalf.

But questions have been raised previously about his role at the company. In 2019, Illumina secured a £123m contract the week after Cameron appeared at a genomics conference with the then health secretary Matt Hancock.

Cameron set up Genomics England, which is wholly owned by the department of health, during his time as prime minister. A £78m deal between Genomics England and Illumina was later announced.

Cameron visited Illumina’s headquarters in the US, shortly after resigning as prime minister in 2016, and “shared optimism for the opportunity for Illumina’s technology”. He was signed up as an adviser to the company in 2018, while also becoming chair of its international advisory board.

“David Cameron’s behaviour is evidence that the rules that are supposed to regulate lobbying are completely unfit for purpose and need a radical and urgent overhaul,” Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, told openDemocracy.

“There appears to be nobody in government who the former prime minister has not lobbied in an effort to enrich himself and his clients during this pandemic.”

David Cameron’s behaviour is evidence that the rules that are supposed to regulate lobbying are completely unfit for purpose

When he was appointed to Illumina, Cameron said he “would not play any role in contract negotiations between Genomics England (or DH) and Illumina”.

He confirmed that the role “might involve some very limited contact with UK ministers from time to time”, but said he would not lobby ministers on behalf of the company.

Rose Whiffen, research officer at Transparency International UK, said: “It will make troubling reading for many that a former prime minister can meet with his past colleagues in government on behalf of a paying client, yet there are no enforceable rules to prevent this from happening.”

Whiffen added: “Given what we know now about his lobbying for Greensill, the appearance of David Cameron elsewhere in official transparency disclosures suggests that was not an isolated attempt by him to exert influence in Whitehall after leaving office.”

‘Reputation in tatters’ after Greensill

This month an official parliamentary inquiry accused Cameron of a “significant lack of judgment” after his intensive efforts to lobby for Greensill Capital were revealed.

Between March and June last year, the ex-PM sent at least 62 emails, texts and WhatsApp messages to former government colleagues, desperately trying to get them to help the supply chain finance company, in which Cameron held a “very significant personal economic interest”.

When Boris Johnson was self-isolating with COVID symptoms before being admitted to intensive care, Cameron messaged cabinet minister Michael Gove saying: “I know you are manically busy – and doing a great job, by the way … But do you have a moment for a word? I am on this number and v free.”

And in a text to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, he said: “I can’t see the case against helping to fund supply chains and SMEs in this way […] Could you try and give it another nudge over the finish line.”

Appearing in front of a parliamentary committee in May, Cameron was told he had left his “reputation in tatters” and had drawn the position of prime minister into “disrepute”.

The committee’s report, published this month, said Cameron had not breached lobbying rules, but argued that this “reflects on the insufficient strength of the rules”.

Kirsten Oswald, the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, told openDemocracy that the government “can no longer continue to dodge accountability and scrutiny”.

“At a time when the government’s focus should be on protecting lives, the Tories have instead been driven by self-interest – with friends, contacts and party donors rewarded with lucrative COVID contracts.”

She added: “The prime minister must now act upon his words and immediately commence the COVID-19 public inquiry.”

A spokesperson for Illumina told The Independent: “Illumina always follows the correct and necessary process in its negotiations with customers.

“We have worked with Genomics England since 2013, when we won a competitive tender process for the £78m contract for the 100,000 Genomes Project. Our ISO-accredited facilities in Cambridge were chosen by Genomics England as being the most appropriate in the UK in terms of being able to deliver this advanced genomics programme.

“The vast majority of David Cameron’s work with Illumina is outside the UK, representing the best practices of the UK in genomics to other countries.”

Cameron did not respond to a request for comment.

Boris Johnson’s support is slipping away in true blue territory

Boris Johnson’s support has collapsed in Conservative heartlands in the southeast and east of England, according to a poll that suggests the party could lose 17 seats.

Eleni Courea, Steven Swinford www.thetimes.co.uk 

The Tories’ rating is down by eight points from the 2019 general election levels in so-called blue wall areas, a YouGov survey for The Times has found.

The findings are based on 53 Tory-held seats that voted to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum and had a higher than average share of university degree holders.

They have similar voting profiles to Chesham & Amersham, where the Conservatives suffered a surprise by-election defeat to the Liberal Democrats last month. The electorate rejected the Conservatives for the first time, by 8,000 votes.

The polling suggested that the Conservatives would lose 12 seats if an election took place now.

They would lose constituencies that have returned Tory MPs since their inception, such as Chingford & Woodford Green, which is represented by the former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith; Chipping Barnet, held by the former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, and Wycombe, held by the former Brexit minister Steve Baker.

Nine of the 12 seats would go to Labour, which was up by four points in the blue wall areas surveyed, and three to the Liberal Democrats.

A further five seats were on a knife edge, including Esher & Walton, held by Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary.

Patrick English, a research manager for YouGov, said: “The results of the blue wall poll highlight just how difficult a job Boris Johnson has in balancing his new voter coalition.

“The exact sorts of policies and priorities on issues such as Brexit and investment which are winning him support in the north and Midlands are quite clearly costing him and his party in the south and east.

“This divergence and the political realignment which follows has only been growing stronger in recent years, as the Conservative’s contrasting fortunes in the Hartlepool and Chesham & Amersham by-elections this year show.”

In May the Tories took Hartlepool, which had not returned a Conservative MP since 1959, from Labour.

English added: “Unless the prime minister can find some way to appeal to both houses, the closer we move to the next general election the larger the cracks in the foundation of Conservative support will grow.”

While Johnson enjoys a national ten-point lead on the question of who would make the best prime minister, in the blue wall areas surveyed he was barely ahead of Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader.

Just 35 per cent of blue wall voters said they thought Johnson was the best person for the job, while 31 per cent backed Starmer. Only two thirds of blue wall voters who backed the Tories in 2019 said they believed that Johnson would make the best prime minister now.

Support for the Conservatives in those areas was at 44 per cent, down from 52 per cent in 2019.

Labour’s support was 24 per cent, up from 20 per cent. The Liberal Democrats dropped from 24 per cent to 18 per cent. Support for the Green Party rose by seven points during that period from 2 per cent to 9 per cent.

A majority of blue wall voters — 54 per cent — said they thought the government was not listening to their concerns, compared with 27 per cent who thought it was.

Some 47 per cent said they thought the government was taking the country in the right direction, compared with 32 per cent who thought it was going in the wrong one.

The blue wall voters surveyed were sceptical about Brexit, with 52 per cent saying the UK had been wrong to leave the EU compared with 40 per cent who thought it was the right decision.

They expressed particular concern about plans to build more housing in their areas, which is thought to have been a key reason behind the Tories’ defeat in Chesham & Amersham.

Forty-three per cent of those surveyed said they would support new housing in their local area, compared with 52 per cent who were opposed. By comparison, 37 per cent of people nationally are opposed to more housing being built in their area.

The construction of HS2 also emerged as a significant issue, with 46 per cent of blue wall voters saying they were opposed to it compared with 24 per cent who supported it.

Is this peak Boris?

Boris Johnson is in trouble. Public support for his government is tanking. His approval ratings have slumped. His own voters are fed up. His MPs are livid. His former advisors have declared war. The Great Reopening is rapidly making way for what some are calling his “Summer of Discontent”.

Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent. He is the co-author of National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (Penguin) unherd.com July 30, 2021

“The Tories are blundering and the vaccine bounce is wearing off amid rows over pay rises for nurses and police officers,” writes The Mirror, “as well as cuts to foreign aid and the planned undoing of the pensions triple lock”. Speaking for many, Robert Shrimsley at the Financial Times similarly asks: “Is it possible that the UK will look back on the last few months as the moment we reached Peak Johnson?”

There is no doubt that dark clouds are hovering above No 10. There is the infighting in Downing Street. The U-turn on self-isolation. The Pingdemic. The unpopularity of vaccine passports on the right-wing flank. The failure to define “levelling-up”. Two by-election defeats. And then the former consiglieri who is repeatedly undermining the credibility and authority of his former Capo.

But are things really that bad for Johnson? I’m not convinced. In the polls, the Conservatives have certainly taken a knock. In the last two weeks alone, their lead is down by 9 points with both YouGov and Survation and 5 points with Redfield & Wilton. Across all polls, at the start of July the average Conservative lead was 8 points. In the very latest polls, it has fallen below 5 points.

In fact, they have led in every single one of the last 130 polls. When it comes to Conservatives only Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher know what this feels like and neither of them had to deal with a global pandemic.

Johnson has already achieved a level of stability and support in the polls that neither David Cameron nor John Major ever achieved. He has only fallen below 40% on 16 occasions this year. Labour has not held a lead outside of the margin of error since January. If I were Johnson’s strategist and woke up to find this as my bad day, then I’d grab it with both hands.

Look under the bonnet and you will see why. There are certainly some things for Team Johnson to worry about. Public approval of the performance of the Government and Johnson himself are both down by 10 points. Only this week, pollsters Redfield and Wilton put Johnson’s net approval rating at minus 15, his lowest since they began asking the question in March 2020.

But compare and contrast. Keir Starmer is also at minus 15 and trails Johnson on the most important indicators of leadership. Who can build a strong economy? Johnson leads by 15. Who would stand up best for the UK? Johnson leads by 8. Who knows how to get things done? Johnson leads by 10. Who is a strong leader? Johnson leads by 9. Leadership is one of the most reliable predictors of election victories and this one really is not close at all.

More to the point, the people who are questioning the direction of travel are not switching to Labour. It is a negative reaction against the Government not a positive endorsement of the opposition. Starmer has not won them over because most people have no idea who Starmer is or what Starmer believes.

The blunt reality is that the Labour brand remains deeply problematic. So much so that its supporters should probably look away now. What follows are numbers that have simply never been held by a party on the way to power.

Only 20% of Britain think that Labour is trustworthy while more than twice that number say that the party is untrustworthy. Only 15% of people think that Labour is competent while half of them say it is incompetent. Only 7% think that Labour is strong while 64 per cent say that it is weak. Only 6% think that Labour is united while close to 60% say that it is divided. Only 15% think that Labour is in touch while 56% think that it is out of touch. And only 15% think that Labour has a clear sense of purpose while over 60% say it is unclear what it stands for.

Labour’s weakness is compounded by longer-term problems that have still not been resolved. Even if these numbers were stronger, the electorate of the Left and the liberal Left remains deeply fragmented. Close to two-thirds of Britain’s Leavers are lining up behind the Conservatives but less than half of Remainers are lined up behind Labour. Close to one in five progressives are still breaking off to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, which is making it harder for Labour to concentrate and mobilise support under a first-past-the-post system.

One of the main reasons why Johnson and the Conservatives are wobbling in the polls is not because their supporters are switching to Labour, but because a larger number of their supporters are taking a time out.

The challenge to Johnson would be much more serious if his voters were instrumentally endorsing an opposition leader who had a compelling message. But that is not what is happening right now.

What is happening is that a larger number of people who voted Conservative in 2019 now say that they no longer know who to vote for or will not vote at all at the next election; it has jumped from 16 to 24%. Only about three-fifths of the people who backed Boris Johnson two years ago now say that they would do so again were an election held tomorrow.

It is worth remembering that two months before Johnson won power in 2019, about the same proportion of people said the same thing before drifting back to the Conservatives to keep Labour out of power.

But while I do think that Johnson’s critics are exaggerating the case against him, there are two red flags that he would be well advised to watch closely.

Between now and the next election, Johnson needs to shore up his support among two groups in particular. The first are Conservatives on the libertarian wing who he has alienated throughout the pandemic. Even today, a rather large 40% of Conservative voters think that his government is still managing the pandemic badly. Depending on how you ask the question, between 16 and 32% also appear strongly opposed to anything that looks like a Covid-19 “vaccine passport”, which could be another problem.

The other group are cultural conservatives who are starting to take notice of something that the whole Brexit saga was supposed to solve and which Boris Johnson struggles to relate to: immigration. Only this week, Conservatives put immigration alongside the economy as the most important issue facing Britain.

With the salience of immigration beginning to rise as the media and Nigel Farage focus on illegal migrants crossing into Britain, this has the potential to cause a major problem for a Conservative Party that now relies on a far more culturally conservative electorate. Throw in a surge of net migration after the pandemic is resolved and it is not hard to see how this problem escalates into a far more serious one, much as it did through the 2010s.

The key question is have Team Johnson learned that lesson? Keeping their electorate culturally aligned and leaning into the realignment of British politics is ultimately the only thing that will keep them in No 10.

Documents we can now disclose

Good Law Project had a court hearing last week in connection with our challenge to the award of a lucrative public contract to associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings at Hanbury without competition.

Documents we can now disclose show that Hanbury, under the instruction of the Cabinet Office, was given taxpayers’ money to conduct ‘political polling’ on key opposition figures, including Keir Starmer and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

The decision to spend public money polling on opposition politicians left civil servants deeply, and rightly, uncomfortable. One said on email: ‘hanbury measure attitude towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using government money, but they have been asked to and it’s a battle that i think is hard to fight.’

Documents unearthed in the course of our hearing also include this March 2020 email from Dominic Cummings to civil servants demanding approval is given ‘immediately’ for Hanbury to commence polling work, adding ‘Anybody in CABOFF whines tell them i ordered it from PM.’

News of Hanbury’s involvement was not well-received. One civil servant wrote: ‘this all makes me really uncomfortable. ben warner wants us to spend £110k of public money per month with the agency who were behind vote leave who have no mainstream polling experience.’

The evidence also shows Dominic Cummings’ close ally and former No.10 advisor Ben Warner (another Vote Leave veteran) was directing civil servants to his private WhatsApp rather than his official email address. In one email to civil servants, he claims: ‘often its easier to catch me over WhatsApp than email’. Needless to say, Government hasn’t disclosed any of Mr Warner’s WhatsApp messages.

This money doesn’t belong to the Tories. They shouldn’t be spending it working out how to win elections. It’s public money – from taxes we all work hard to pay. And it’s a kind of theft for them to misuse it for the purposes of the Conservative Party.

Thank you,

Jo Maugham – Good Law Project

Should Devon have just one big council?

Cornwall already has. Somerset’s going that way.

Circa 2010, EDDC , led by Sarah Randall Johnson, spent more than £250,000 to persuade us – and the Government – that they should NOT be forced to amalgamate into, basically, a “Greater Exeter” OR a unitary authority.

Under the government guidelines for unitary authorities Devon would be too big and therefore likely to be split into smaller units.

However, DCC leader John Hart has gone on record in2018 as saying two unitary councils for two different parts of Devon can never happen, since however you split the county there would always be a poorer authority and a richer one.

Could he be the dynamic personality to lead us to the promised land? – Owl

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Earlier in July, it was announced by the government that five councils in Somerset are to be replaced by a single unitary authority.  If matters progress as expected, the county and four district councils will cease to exist on 1 April 2023.

A similar slimming down for Devon’s local government has been discussed for years,  often meeting with fierce debate.

Between 2007 and 2010, significant energy was put behind attempts to reorganise Devon’s two-tier structure.

The two options on the table included a unitary authority for the whole of Devon. The other would have promoted Exeter to its own unitary authority. 

The Exeter option was given the green light by the Labour government only to be scrapped when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came to power.

But the issue is still bubbling away. Speaking this week, several Devon’s MPs declined to dismiss the idea outright, citing the potential efficiencies and cost-savings of streamlined local government services.

Simon Jupp, Conservative MP for East Devon, said; “I believe we need a conversation as a county about the future of local government and value for money for the taxpayer. 

“I don’t think a single council covering the whole county would be advised by government due to the significant size of our population.

“However, our neighbouring counties have all now decided to reduce the number of councils to help neighbouring communities work stronger together, build better services and squeeze every taxpayers’ penny.”

Kevin Foster, Conservative MP for Torbay, said: “Over the next two years it is right councils across Devon focus on the recovery from the coronavirus, rather than their own structures, yet in the longer term a discussion about a unitary system of local government for Devon is inevitable as the two-tier structure disappears across England, having already been abolished in Wales and Scotland. 

“Unitary structures work well across the south west and few in Cornwall would now argue for a return to the previous two-tier structure abolished in 2009.

“Torbay should be a pro-active part of any discussion about how a unitary system would work across Devon and the potential boundaries of new councils created to cover the current two-tier area, for example, Torbay becoming part of a wider South Devon Unitary.

“A core part of any move to unitary status would also be deciding how communities across Devon could still shape and influence items which related to their own community.”

Meanwhile, Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon said: “Devon is a very big county so would one unitary work here? I think there are benefits of having local councils.

“The joy of North Devon council is that it’s here in North Devon and therefore it properly understands the people of North Devon and the local area, whereas when a lot of issues arise I know our county council is a very long way away from us.

“But similarly I do think there are benefits from a unitary and I think talking and working in the pandemic with different authorities and knowing what’s gone on in Cornwall I think there are some advantages of having a bigger authority managing everything in one place. 

“To bring planning and infrastructure and schools all into one body so they’re not separated I can see some advantages to this. 

“So I think it’s something we should probably look to in case there are advantages that we can benefit from moving forward.”

Councillor Philip Bialyk (Labour), leader of Exeter City Council said that, having spoken to council leaders across the county, that a unitary authority “is not the direction we would want to go.”

“However, we do feel there are a number of areas we can work together in the interests of Devon and we will hopefully be bringing a county proposal to government for a county deal which clearly will be lead by the county with all the district councils participating.”

“We think this is the best way to have a collective forum in which we can do the best things for Devon.”

Cllr Bialyk said discussions for this proposal were in an early stage at the moment  and included Devon County Council and other district councils and said that he hopes it would “bring forward a good deal for Devon.”

Asked what areas he would like to see these councils collaborate on he said that was all part of the discussion, adding: “We are diverse county. Rural meets urban. We’ve got to make sure we get the right mix.

“We’ve got to try to make sure that we get an attractive proposition to government which reflects the needs of our residents.

“We know what we want in Devon. We’ve got to get around the table. We’ve got to get our heads together and that’s exactly what we all want to do.

“We want to work together with the county council and we feel we can get a good deal which represents everybody.”

Explaining his thoughts of a unitary authority for Exeter, like that which almost came to pass early in the 2010s, he said: “That’s not on the agenda.

“I’m not giving that any thought because that’s not a possibility. We are a strong sovereign district council, we want to remain as that.”

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service in July last year about the potential to unify Devon councils, leader of Devon County Council John Hart (Conservative) said: “I have no wish to open up a guerrilla war and start something and get us into a position that might not be resolved in the short term and argue with the districts for years on end and ruin the current good relationship.”

Councillor Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, added: “There is clearly no appetite in Devon for another costly and disruptive reorganisation of our local government. 

“To blow everything up now would be an act of political vandalism to our local communities, and a terrible barrier to making the progress that we need to make across the whole county.”

In his ‘Levelling Up’ speech on 15 July, the prime minister set out a new County Deals system that would look to devolve more power to local communities. More details will be announced in the Levelling Up white paper, due later this year.

Commenting on the potential for unitarisation in Devon, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said:

“We’re open to discussion with councils about unitarisation where there is a good deal of local support.

“We are clear that any reform of an area’s local government is most effectively achieved through locally-led proposals put forward by those who best know the area, the very essence of localism to which the Government remains committed.”

The MHCLG said it was conscious that councils are more focused on service delivery than any structural changes in the wake of the pandemic.

They said they want to see the Levelling Up White Paper before developing proposals for local government reform or county deals, as they did not wish to see councils spending money on developing new proposals at this time.

The department said that there will be no requirement to unitarise for the forthcoming county deals.

Sunak’s stamp duty cut did more harm than good, economists say

Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty cut – an effort to keep the pandemic-hit property market afloat – did more harm than good, economists have said.

www.thelondoneconomic.com 

The stamp duty holiday for properties worth more than £500,000 was introduced by the Treasury to ease the impact of Covid-19 on property transactions. It ended in June, having fuelled a remarkable surge in house prices.

Yet despite the tax break boosting the number of house sales, economists believe that any saving for buyers was mostly subsumed by a spike in house prices.

The average UK house price increased by 10 per cent in the year to May 2021, and 9.7 per cent in England, according to the Office for National Statistics.

That left the average UK property costing £255,000 in May 2021 – £23,000 higher than in May 2020.

‘Wasn’t needed’

In June, Andy Haldane – then the chief economist at the Bank of England – said the residential housing market was “on fire”, increasing the gap between incomes and house prices.

“If you asked the chancellor if he could go through it again, he wouldn’t have done the stamp duty cut, because we have got a surge in housing demand anyway,” Andrew Burrell, chief property economist at Capital Economics, told The Independent.

This added a spike up and a spike down, at the end, that probably wasn’t needed. You’d have still had strong house prices.”

House prices have nearly tripled in the past twenty years, despite the average salary not yet doubling in the same period.

The average home in Britain is now worth £163,700 more — £106,800 once adjusted for inflation — than it was in 2001, according to research from Zoopla.

The company’s research shows those who bought their home before the financial crash saw a dip in its value between 2008 and 2012, but these losses have been offset by strong price growth since 2013.

‘Race for space’

Prices have risen the most in Kensington and Chelsea in west London, where the average house price is about £1.2 million. Properties in the Royal Borough are worth £739,800 more on average than they were two decades ago.

A pandemic-induced “race for space” led to huge demand for country houses and buyers rushed to meet the stamp-duty holiday deadline in June.

This pushed up prices in the countryside, where property values increased by 3.7 per cent in the three months to June — the biggest quarterly rise in 15 years, Knight Frank, the estate agent, reported.

Nearly a third of home movers surveyed said they were more likely to move to the countryside as a result of the latest lockdown.