Johnson’s lurch to the right adds to momentum for leadership vote

Boris Johnson’s lurch to the right after Partygate is fuelling even more anger among rebel Tory MPs, with momentum now building for a leadership challenge next week.

Decision time for Simon Jupp may be approaching. Predictions from Electoral Calculus suggest that he might not be secure in the newly redrawn Devon East constituency (and that is before we know how badly the Tories do in the by-election). – Owl

Rowena Mason 

Conservative whips spent the first day of recess anxiously phoning round the parliamentary party to shore up support for the prime minister, as four more MPs called on him to resign, including Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general.

Several Tory MPs told the Guardian they believed the threshold of 54 letters withdrawing support for Johnson was close to being crossed – or may have been already. This would trigger a secret ballot on whether they still have confidence in the prime minister.

It is understood that Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, will have to use his own judgment about whether to announce the milestone being passed straight away if it occurs while parliament is off this week, or wait until Monday, when the House of Commons returns after the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.

One backbench critic of the PM said MPs from the 2019 intake were “gathering their courage” to put in letters before next Monday, but were worrying about repercussions if No 10 were to identify them after an unsuccessful coup. They said the opposition to Johnson was increasingly coordinated and determined to trigger a vote, with almost 30 MPs having publicly declared their opposition so far.

In his statement withdrawing support for the prime minister, Wright said Johnson had done “real and lasting damage” to the institution of government, and while he could not be sure that the prime minister had misled parliament, Johnson had been at best “negligent” in how he had approached the issue.

Elliot Colburn, a Tory MP with a small majority against the Lib Dems, said he had put in a letter “some time ago”, while Nickie Aiken, the Cities of London and Westminster MP whose council turned Labour this month, called on Johnson to bring an end to the situation by submitting a no-confidence letter in himself. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen also told constituents he had resubmitted his letter.

The dismay over Johnson’s premiership is worsening among Tories in so-called “Blue Wall” seats at risk of losing them to the Lib Dems, and “Red Wall” marginals where they have narrow majorities over Labour.

With Johnson’s future in the balance, No 10 has begun launching a number of rightwing, nationalistic policies in recent weeks. These include the return of imperial measures, plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol, a hint about expanding grammar schools, a review of fracking, and repeated promises to tear up more EU regulation.

A cabinet minister told the Guardian that Johnson appeared to be trying to stop the right of the party turning against him in the event of a leadership challenge, citing policies such as the review of fracking – which is electorally unpopular but appeals to a minority in parliament.

But Tory pollsters and some centrist MPs warned that this “core vote” direction was the wrong route to go down with public trust in Johnson so low among swing voters. Tobias Ellwood, a Tory former minister and chair of the defence committee, warned: “We will lose the next election on the current trajectory as reflected in recent elections.

“There is not only just a concern on the conduct of behaviour in No 10, because that has breached the trust with the British people, it is now concerns about No 10 thinking what our policies are.”

On the weights and measures policy, he told Sky News: “There will be some people in our party which will like this nostalgic policy in the hope that it’s enough to win the next election. But this is not the case. This is not one-nation Conservative thinking that is required to appeal beyond our base.”

One Tory cabinet source said the imperial measures policy was “absolutely bananas”, while another cabinet source said they had “no idea which muppet had come up with that idea”, as “this is not what the government’s overall strategy is about”.

Another Conservative MP said he represented a seat in the “heart of middle England” and about half of the core Conservative voters there had lost faith in the prime minister.

Some local government leaders also expressed a lack of confidence in Johnson. Rishi Sunak’s local council leader, Carl Les, the Conservative leader of North Yorkshire county council, said he thought it was time for a leadership election, blaming Johnson for heavy losses in the local elections.

“I am very disappointed that the strong majority we had in North Yorkshire has diminished down to a working majority, but only just, and a lot of the comment we were getting on the doorstep was about the impact of Partygate,” said Les.

The warnings from MPs and councillors were echoed by pollsters and political strategists, including former No 10 advisers James Johnson and Will Tanner. Both said Johnson was on course to lose the election by swinging to the right instead of focusing on delivering goals on schools, hospitals, housing and the cost of living.

Tanner, a former No 10 aide and the director of Conservative thinktank Onward, said: “My view is that while it’s understandable that the prime minister and Downing Street would want to demonstrate their commitment to rightwing policy issues, to satisfy some of his backbenchers at a moment where clearly the prime minister is worried about his future, those issues are not going to win the Conservative party the next election.”

He said he had “never sat in a focus group or conducted a poll where issues like imperial weights and measures or Channel 4 privatisation has come up repeatedly” from the voters Johnson is seeking to court.

He added: “It is NHS, immigration, crime, wages, good jobs in my town. Those are the fundamentals that the Conservative party needs to be focusing on, not these quite small and niche issues, which only matter to a few people.”

James Johnson, a pollster at JL Partners, who worked for Theresa May, said: “Some of these things that might have raised a smile in the past will actually invite ridicule, the pounds and ounces thing being a good example of that. We’re approaching the situation with Johnson similar to one we faced with Corbyn, where the individual policies might be popular, but the brand attached to them is toxic.”

Electoral Pact Poll May 2022

Latest polling results show that an electoral pact between Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens could make a fundamental difference to the outcome of a general election. (extract)

Current opinion polls show that Labour might be largest party after a fresh general election, but there is no guarantee that it would have enough seats for an outright overall majority. The latest Electoral Calculus monthly poll of polls suggests that Labour would be short about 10 seats of a majority. The recent local election results also suggest that Labour’s support is partial and patchy.

But if there were an electoral pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in England and Wales, then the Conservatives could lose two-thirds of their seats and would be ejected from government. The pact parties would have a landslide victory, with a parliamentary majority of over 300 seats.

Within the pact, all three parties benefit from it. Labour nearly doubles its seat total. The Liberal Democrats go up to 71 seats, which would be the best Liberal performance since 1923. And the Greens could win 17 seats compared to their existing single seat. This could be perceived as win-win-win for these three parties.

The poll did not include Scotland and the calculations assumed no change to the 2019 election result there. In Wales, the poll suggests that Plaid might lose a couple of seats to the pact.

Loss of 25,000 NHS beds caused ‘serious patient safety crisis’, finds report

Over the years Devon Watch has chronicled the zeal with which local Tories have pursued local cuts and slapped down all criticism, it’s all “on the record”. – Owl

The NHS has lost almost 25,000 beds across the UK in the last decade, according to a damning report that says the fall has led to a sharp rise in waiting times for A&E, ambulances and operations.

Andrew Gregory 

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said the huge loss of beds since 2010-11 was causing “real patient harm” and a “serious patient safety crisis”. At least 13,000 more beds are urgently needed, it added, in order to tackle “unsafe” bed occupancy levels and “grim” waiting times for emergency care and handover delays outside hospitals.

Patients are increasingly “distressed” by long waiting times, the college said, as are NHS staff who face mounting levels of burnout, exhaustion and moral injury. The UK has the second lowest number of beds per 1,000 people in Europe at 2.42 and has lost the third largest number of beds per 1,000 population between 2000 and 2021 (40.7%), the report said.

There are currently 162,000 beds in the NHS across the UK, according to the college.

“The situation is dire and demands meaningful action,” said Dr Adrian Boyle, the college’s vice-president. “Since 2010-11 the NHS has lost 25,000 beds across the UK, as a result bed occupancy has risen, ambulance response times have risen, A&E waiting times have increased, cancelled elective care operations have increased.

“These numbers are grim,” Boyle added. “They should shock all health and political leaders. These numbers translate to real patient harm and a serious patient safety crisis. The health service is not functioning as it should and the UK government must take the steps to prevent further deterioration in performance and drive meaningful improvement, especially ahead of next winter.”

The college’s report said 13,000 staffed beds are required in the NHS across the UK to create “meaningful change and improvement”, which includes a “significant” improvement in A&E waiting times, ambulance response times, ambulance handover delays and a return to safe bed occupancy levels. It recommends opening at least 4,500 of these before winter.

The NHS Confederation said a fully funded long-term plan for the health and social care workforce was needed as well as immediately investing more cash in social care to make sure patients medically fit for discharge can be cared for in the community.

Rory Deighton, acute lead at the NHS Confederation, said: “This report lays bare the scale of the challenge the NHS is facing in terms of capacity and workforce. NHS leaders see first-hand that capacity in urgent and emergency care and ambulance services can simply not cope with the level of pressure we are seeing in the whole system.”

Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Even before the pandemic hospital beds were short, but Covid-19 has created its own extra demand for beds, claiming around 3,000 beds for almost a year now.

“We also desperately need additional beds in social care. Without these, hospitals will continue to be full, with knock-on effects in emergency departments and on ambulances. The fact is, it’s simply not possible to have more staffed beds without increasing the number of doctors, nurses and other clinicians available to care for the patients that need them.

Pat Cullen, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said the report spotlighted “a health service on its knees”, adding: “Hospitals are full to bursting, with patients in inappropriate locations all too often.”

Downing Street fails to deny reports of Boris Johnson birthday gathering in flat during lockdown

Downing Street has failed to deny that Boris Johnson took part in a birthday gathering in his flat above No 11 during lockdown in 2020.

Andrew Woodcock 

Reports at the weekend suggested that Mr Johnson joined his wife Carrie and friends in the flat to celebrate his 56th birthday at a time when indoor gatherings were banned.

The alleged event, which supposedly took place just hours after a cake presentation in the cabinet room for which both Johnsons were fined by police, was not mentioned in last week’s Partygate report by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

Asked eight times at a regular Westminster media briefing on Monday whether the event took place as described, a senior No 10 spokesperson failed to deny it.

Instead, they repeatedly referred to the terms of reference for the Gray inquiry, telling reporters: “That was clear that they were able to look into other gatherings that they received credible allegations for, and those would be covered in the general findings in her final report.

“Downing Street staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information and cooperate fully with the investigation. And you’ve seen the result – Sue Gray published her final report last week and the Met Police have concluded their investigations also.”

Ms Johnson is alleged to have sent texts to a No 10 aide that indicate she hosted a gathering with at least two male friends in the Downing Street flat on the evening of 19 June 2020. Covid rules at the time prohibited indoor gatherings of two or more people, except for work purposes.

According to The Sunday Times, the aide sent Ms Johnson a message saying her husband was on his way back to the Downing Street flat at 6.15pm. The Daily Telegraph reported that Ms Johnson responded: “Great. I am already here with the gays,” an affectionate reference to close gay male friends.

Downing Street had previously acknowledged two birthday events on 19 June – one in the cabinet room and another when Mr Johnson lawfully met with siblings outdoors in his garden. However, in January No 10 dismissed the existence of a third event as “totally untrue”.

It is understood that the Downing Street aide reported the existence of the messages to the Gray team in January, but it is unclear whether they were handed over for consideration by the inquiry.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has called on the Commons privileges committee to investigate the allegations as part of its inquiry, expected to start next month, into whether Mr Johnson lied to parliament.

She said: “It appears that No 10 has now stopped denying that another lockdown-breaking secret gathering took place in the Downing Street flat.

“Less than a week after the release of the Gray report, this raises serious questions about whether Downing Street has been caught lying yet again and why the event has not been investigated.

“The prime minister must come clean with the British people.”

Downing Street today confirmed that Mr Johnson will “engage” with the privileges committee inquiry, expected to be led by senior Labour MP Harriet Harman.

Asked whether the PM was ready to give evidence to the inquiry, the No 10 spokesperson said: “We’ve said before that we will engage with the committee. It’s obviously for them to set out the process and the next steps.”

Flood work at Feniton scheduled

Rail line will shut for a week

Work on flood preventions to protect 65 homes in Feniton in East Devon will begin again in September after being delayed because of the pandemic and funding issues.

Radio Exe News

An under-track rail crossing which forms phase three of the Feniton Flood Alleviation Scheme. The first two of four phases have already been completed.

It will involve 24-hour working near to the village for a week.

The nearby Waterloo rail line is already due to have work in the week of 16 September, and the Feniton construction will coincide with it. Pre-crossing works are likely to begin in early September, and post construction works will continue until the end of the month.

Phase three involves creating a small compound to the east of Green Lane, so manhole chambers can be put in on either side of the railway. Once the railway line is closed to rail traffic, a section of rails and trackbed will be removed, and a trench made for a new pipeline.

This will then be backfilled before the track bed is re-laid and rails are reinstalled.

Feniton’s Flood Alleviation Scheme is designed to take flood water from the north of the village, via a culverted pipeline around the village and back into the stream south of Feniton.

Downstream channel improvements to properties south of Feniton and in Gosford have already been delivered as part of phase one and two, however their performance will be further investigated as part of the ongoing works. 

Once the under track rail crossing is complete, it will allow phase four to begin: a 900-metre long, 1.05-metre diameter culverted pipeline running from Station Road, via phase three’s works to Ottery Road.

Depending on contractor availability, the council aims to start construction of phase four in spring 2023.

Councillor Geoff Jung, EDDC’s portfolio holder for coast, country and environment, said: “At long last the saga of this long-awaited scheme to alleviate the surface water flooding at Feniton seems to be nearly over. I am sure the long-suffering residents who will shortly be able to sleep a little more soundly when there is a storm, and no need to clamber out of bed to act as volunteer flood wardens.”

EDDC’s Feniton ward councillor Alasdair Bruce added:”This is fantastic news for Feniton. After having to put up with the constant threat of flooding for years, an end at last may be in sight. I believe these works will go a long way to securing a dryer, safer and less stressful future for Feniton.”

New redevelopment plans announced for former East Devon District Council site

The redevelopment of The Knowle in Sidmouth looks set to be revived by a partnership between McCarthy Stone, the developer and manager of retirement communities, and the care home company Porthaven. 

Philippa Davies

They have acquired an interest in land at the site and are working up proposals to redevelop it with specialist retirement housing. 

The plans include a purpose-built care home, retirement living apartments and affordable housing.   

The site already has planning permission for an assisted living scheme which was granted at appeal in 2018 and was being progressed by the property developer LifeStory – but the company said in March last year that it was ‘reviewing the consented development’. It has now sold the site to McCarthy Stone. 

The principle of the site’s redevelopment has also been established within East Devon District Council’s Local Plan for the period up to 2031, adopted in January 2016.  

The site consists of a variety of disused buildings that were formerly used as offices by East Devon District Council. It is considered suitable for older persons’ accommodation, and is near local services and the town centre. 

McCarthy Stone and Porthaven say they will soon begin a pre-application community consultation programme, to ensure that the revised proposals respond to the concerns raised by the community when the original consent was granted.  

This includes creating a better relationship with the occupants of neighbouring properties as well as the wider community, stakeholders, East Devon District Council officers and Sidmouth Town Council over the coming months, and drawing up proposals for a high-quality, specialist retirement scheme which also contributes towards Sidmouth’s housing needs.  

Shane Paull, Divisional Managing Director for McCarthy Stone Southern, said: “We are delighted that we have acquired an interest in The Knowle site. We are committed to bringing forward its development, which presents an exciting opportunity to meet a strong local need for specialist retirement living accommodation.  

“Over the coming weeks we will be sharing our initial proposals for the site, that seek to propose a sensitive, well-designed development that will help improve accommodation choice for older people in the local area.” 

Unleaded petrol to cost  seven pounds fourteen shillings and seven pence a gallon!

Tossing “red meat” to the “true blue”, Boris Johnson has decided that it would be fitting to bring back imperial measurements in time for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

But “Unleaded only £7.73/gallon“ looks a certain loser on garage forecourts in Tiverton and Honiton.

Dead cat story of the week backfires?

Boris getting desperate? – Owl

By-election news Monday

From Politico London Playbook:

Tiverton and Honiton: It looks increasingly plausible that the Devon seat vacated by porn-watching MP Neil Parish could go Lib Dem, despite the Tories defending a 24,000 majority. The Lib Dem campaign there has been up and running for weeks and there are already signs that Labour is encouraging its voters to go yellow as the opposition parties’ unofficial pact continues. The Liberals have cemented themselves as the blue wall mid-term protest party after winning Tory seats in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham in the last year. And today the confident Lib Dem operation releases figures showing Tiverton and Honiton has the worst ambulance waiting times in Devon.

Wakefield: It’s not much better for the Tories in the seat given up by Imran Ahmed Khan after he was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. A minor candidate there has put “I have never sexually assaulted anyone” on his campaign literature, which tells you everything you need to know about how that contest is going to go. Labour will be expected to overturn the Tories’ 3,000 majority in a seat that is usually always red.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 16 May

Anger grows over second homes energy windfall

Both the Observer and Sunday Times carry articles on Rishi’s generosity to second home owners giving them twice the fuel discount, and how it plays within the local communities. – Owl

‘It’s not on’: Whitstable rages against extra £400 for second-home owners’ fuel bills

Mark Townsend 

Peter Robinson stared out to sea and shook his head. “It’s not on. They don’t need more money.”

The “they” in question are the thousands of second-home owners who have converged on Whitstable in recent years. According to the 68-year-old, 40% of all the houses on Albert Street, where he has lived for two decades, are now second homes.

And Rishi Sunak’s latest intervention to help the nation pay its energy bills – £400 for every household – means that Whitstable’s expanding cohort of second-home owners will be rewarded with a double rebate, one for each home.

In the Kent coastal town, such generosity has left many – largely those who own a single home – bewildered. “The house next door to me has been sold to a wealthy developer to convert into holiday homes. The same with the one opposite,” said Robinson, a retired council worker.

Further along Whitstable’s beachfront promenade, retired teacher Sarah Houseman similarly lamented the chancellor’s largesse. “It would seem unfair to give these people more money,” said the 65-year-old. Houseman noted that neighbouring three-bed terraced homes were being rented out to tourists for between £700 and £800 a weekend. “And they have no problem getting that. These people don’t need extra help.”

Like many in the town, she felt that Sunak’s announcement was rushed out last Thursday in order to deaden the outrage that followed Sue Gray’s Partygate report. “It’s not fair to use this [the energy crisis] in order to save their political skin,” she said.

Outside the Sea Farmer’s Dive pub, electrician Max Legett was convinced Sunak’s initiative would be modified to stop it rewarding the wealthy. “There’ll be uproar if it’s not changed.”

Whitstable’s locals call the second-home owners DFLs – Down From London, a reference to the fact that many who own second homes live in the capital. It’s a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

A recent national survey listing the most popular places for second homes included Whitstable as the only town in the south-east, the remainder being largely in Cornwall.

Legett was a DFL once, arriving from south-east London 16 years ago. Now a self-described native, he worries at what has unfolded in the south-west of England. “So far, it hasn’t yet changed the character in the same way as Cornwall.”

For another long-term Whitstable resident, the fact that second-home owners will be given an extra windfall was greeted with a resigned shrug. John Baker admitted he’d given up caring who was buying what in his adopted town. The 70-year-old said that coping with a ruptured achilles tendon and a brain tumour diagnosed in 2017 had made him philosophical. “Some haven’t, but the reality is that some of these second-home owners have worked bloody hard for them.”

Further along a street called Sea Wall, one of those second-home owners – who asked to remain anonymous – conceded that Sunak’s handout to the 772,000 households with two homes rankled.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s impossible to justify. That money should be given to the most needy,” she said, adding that she donated to local charities and helped out at a food bank to alleviate her conscience.

She said: “I for one will certainly not be keeping that extra £400.”

Subsidising the wealthy: the village of second homes … and they all get a fuel grant

Hannah Al-Othman 

It is easy to see why second homeowners love Chapel Stile, a beautiful village close to both Windermere and England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike.

About 85 per cent of the 160 or so homes in the village are holiday lets or second homes, according to the local MP, the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

For people who actually live in the village — an increasingly rare breed — the takeover by outsiders is worrying. Many are angry that second homeowners will get the same £400 discount on their energy bill this year, announced last week by the chancellor, as they will.

“That extra £400 benefit for people who do not need it is to completely fail to read the room, to fail to understand one of the biggest things affecting rural communities,” Farron said.

Many of the few remaining full-time residents of Chapel Stile are pensioners — younger people have mostly gone elsewhere, in search of better job opportunities and more affordable housing. On the Rightmove website, properties being advertised for sale around the village include a £725,000 three-bedroom end-of-terrace house in Elterwater, near Ambleside.

“It’s terrible,” said Gordon Smith, 87, who has lived in Chapel Stile his entire life. “There’ll be no local people left. In fact, we’re being driven out.”

Last year a four-bedroom semi-detached house in the village sold for more than £1 million, far beyond the reach of those who have lived here all their lives, often in rented accommodation.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Sue Monk, 71, said. “They have pots of money to start with. They do local people out of being able to own a home because we can’t afford them. We’re all in rented accommodation. Why they should get it for their second homes, I have no idea.”

Monk, who lives alone, is keeping her head above water but only because she manages her money carefully. “I’m on the basic state pension — I’ve nothing else,” she said. “I don’t put the television on till five o’clock at night, and I usually switch it off at about eight. I switch lights off, I limit the washing machine to a couple of washes a week.”

Chapel Stile is just a few miles northwest of the tourist honeypot of Ambleside, with its cafés, pleasure boats, and watersports. It is an enviable place to call home but locals pay a premium to live in the Lake District.

Housing costs are high here and incomes are low, with many working in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Public transport is expensive and unreliable, leaving many households no choice but to run a car. Even local shops charge higher prices for a loaf of bread than city convenience stores.

Asked why the money is being given to second homeowners, the Treasury insisted that it would be impossible to differentiate between which energy bills are paid by those with more than one home.

The average median full-time salary for somebody living in Farron’s constituency, Westmorland & Lonsdale, is £20,400 a year, below the average of £23,700 in the North West of England, according to ONS data for 2019-20. Farron said: “The thing to remember about an area like ours is we’ve got very low unemployment, but low incomes. And on top of that, the cost of living in a rural community is that much greater.”

However, Jeremy Lewis, 57, who runs the local shop in Chapel Stile, puts it bluntly. “I basically earn my living from the tourists,” he said. “So I don’t want anything to stop them coming.”