The hopes and fears of rural business

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The Royal County of Berkshire Show never fails to entertain. My highlights this year were the return of the Army motorcycle display team, The White Helmets, and a brilliant New Zealander and his “sheep show”. I could explain the last one but you really have to see it. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff.

I also had some work to do at the show. I met with the Institute of Advanced Motoring to talk about the campaign to improve safety on the A34. I met with our local broadband provider, Gigaclear, to see how their roll-out of superfast broadband is working. I am starting to hear satisfied voices from some areas where many who missed out on the BT contract are now being connected. For a local MP the show is a great opportunity to meet, listen and learn from interests across the constituency. But most of all, it was a chance to catch up on the hopes and fears of rural business as we enter the uncertainties of Brexit and a time of volatile commodity prices.

I spoke to farmers and others at the Country Land and Business Association stand. I started by saying that there was more chance of an accurate forecast of what would happen to agriculture by consulting the clairvoyant who was to be found a few stands up on the same avenue. What I could offer was my belief that this was the time for bold ambition by the Government. There is much that is wrong with the Common Agricultural Policy and grim though I believe the referendum result to be, it does offer us the chance to create a new rural policy that combines support for farmers with an improved environment and, at its heart, a social policy. This means integrating housing, broadband, schools and business opportunities in rural areas. I believe we have to get away from the concept of farming subsidies. Good farmers manage the raw material (the land) from which many others benefit. The billions earned by tourism, retailers and other businesses, off the back of what farmers do, allow for some measure of support. In addition, farmers can be compensated for reduced income if, say, they ensure cleaner water comes off their land or if their management of the land can protect towns and villages from flooding. Despite the many current difficulties, I met many farmers optimistic for the future.  

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In the departure lounge

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The referendum result was a surprise to pollsters, betting agencies and even many in the Leave campaign. In the following weeks, the media has concentrated on the political impact rather than on what Brexit actually means. The establishment of what is effectively a new Government has been dramatic, even brutal. The new Prime Minister has made a firm start showing that she has thought hard about the job. The fallout has also affected other parties with leadership elections taking place in the Labour Party and UKIP.
 
Now as MPs return to Parliament, tanned and hopefully refreshed, the realities of the referendum vote are starting to be understood. Britain will leave the EU. Those who wrote to me pleading for another referendum must be starting to understand that under this Prime Minister the will of the British people will be honoured. 
 
At this stage there are clear irreconcilables in delivering Brexit. It seems almost impossible to imagine Britain remaining in the single market without accepting free movement of labour. Ending free movement was a key requirement of the campaign that won the referendum. But then without remaining in the single market Britain risks losing jobs as companies have to move factories and head offices to countries that are in the single market. This all needs to come with a clear health warning: what looks impossible today may not be so as negotiations get underway. 
 
Alongside this there is another factor to consider. The reform agenda that Britain has been leading on in Europe was never just the wish of one country. Other EU countries, spurred on by their voters, want reform and it might just be that in areas such as free movement they will come closer to our needs than seems possible at this early stage.
 
As you can see, I am being unbearably optimistic in the face of a decision that did not go my way. But better that than gloom and apocalyptic predictions. That may be for a future date… 
 

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In Honour of Honours

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David Cameron’s one time policy wonk, Steve Hilton, took to the airwaves to attack the honours system on the back of the publication of the ex-Prime Minister’s resignation honours list.
 
He joined a chorus that included the increasingly rent-a-quote regular Sir Alistair Graham.
 
Even Tim Farron defied ridicule by criticising Cameron whilst temporarily forgetting the fact that he has 141 Liberal Democrat Peers at a time when he has just eight colleagues in the elected chamber.
 
In all the froth and fury of a silly season story, it is worth just thinking for a moment what our honours system is for. Some people get honours for kicking or hitting a ball well, some for pleasing TV audiences and yes, some for being quite good at politics. But most recipients of this denigrated system are the worthy and the hitherto unthanked. The long-serving dinner lady, the mountain rescue stalwart and the children’s football coach are the types that make up the vast majority of the Queen’s Birthday or the New Year Honours list.
 
Steve Hilton claims that the recognition of those who were around David Cameron in his six years as Prime Minister is an example of a “corrupt” system. Really Steve? The most senior politician in the land is paid £143,462 per annum. Local Council Chief Executives are nearly all paid more; in many cases much more. The median pay for FTSE 100 Chief Executives is just under £4 million. I am not saying that the prime minster should be paid more, but we should recognise that it is a job that requires life and death decisions, an 18 hour day and intense intrusion into their private life.
 
It is therefore reasonable that one thing our system can offer an outgoing prime minister is the ability to reward those who have also made sacrifices to make a success of his or her premiership.
 
Of course, they shouldn’t take it too far. Indeed I think we would all look unfavourably on an ex-prime minster who had lavished honours on his nearest and dearest after only being in the job for a few months and who was leaving with dire approval ratings.
In David Cameron’s case it was different. Up until the referendum fiasco his was an astonishingly successful six years in No 10. He left with approval ratings that most political leaders would envy. Those around him were part of that endeavour and worked long hours for little acclaim. They could be seen in the back of meetings in varying stages of exhaustion and often exasperation. They must have frequently wondered why they weren’t working somewhere that involved sane hours and more money. We shouldn’t begrudge them a gong.
 
Steve Hilton’s attack is part of a pattern. He seems to want to find a way to damage someone to whom he owes so much. For most of us, if we found ourselves in disagreement with someone to whom we had personal links in the good times and the very bad, we would just keep schtum.
 
Steve’s claim that there is nothing personal in his attacks on Mr Cameron sound absurd but may have something to do with wanting to maximise publicity around the launch of the paperback edition of his book or the launch of a new business venture.
Whatever the reasons, it strikes many people as an unpleasant way to behave. For those of us who have experience of Steve in Government there is actually something comedic in his recent descents from Olympus (California) to lecture us mere mortals on how to improve our sad little lives. With Steve, self-regard has never been a commodity in short supply and the patronising pomposity of his interventions do have the ability to be unintentionally comedic. In Government many of us have had moments with Steve that could have come straight off the script of The Thick of It. He has a superb mind and one that played an important part in getting Cameron into No 10. By contrast, in Government many of us found Steve to be a nightmare. His style involved temper tantrums and an inability to understand how much compromise is needed, particularly in coalition.
 
To listen to the fury on radio phone-ins following the announcement of the resignation honours you would have thought that our whole honours system was corrupted and just for the “elite”. Anyone can propose people for honours. I do so regularly for worthy constituents. The vast majority go to those who are not well known and have never been near to politics. But within that system it is right that a retiring prime minister who holds down one of the most difficult jobs in modern life, should reward those who have made great sacrifices to play their part in public life.
 
As seen in the Daily Telegraph on Monday 8th August 2016
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/08/why-is-steve-hilton-so-upset-with-david-camerons-honours-list/
 

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End of term report

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The Parliamentary term ended in sweltering heat with many of us wondering what the hell just happened. In the space of less than a month a Prime Minister who was enjoying reasonably good approval ratings was gone, the country has a new Government (albeit from the same party) and new foreign and economic policies. Theresa May established herself as the new Prime Minister with a powerful performance at Prime Minister’s Questions and then set out on a tour of our nearest and dearest European neighbours where she looked and sounded the part. Meanwhile Her Majesty’s Opposition announced plans to nationalise medical research (think about that one), condemned choice in public services and got stuck into an increasingly bitter leadership election. A powerful voice close to Mr Corbyn declared that MI5 were behind attempts to undermine him. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote about what he called “The end of history”. It doesn’t feel like that now.

When you analyse it, what happened with our referendum fits into a pattern across western democracies. The rise of parties that challenge the established order in Europe and the rise of populists like Donald Trump are just two examples of what one diplomat told me is a “global spring”. The so-called Arab spring was, he claimed, only part of a wider malaise with politics. OK, understood; so what do we do about it? Politicians need to accept that most people feel insecure. Whether it is stagnating pay, the sense that they might not be able to afford their rent or mortgage at some point or just the lack of power they have to counter global economic forces, all of these are some of the root causes of this insecurity. Add Jihadist terrorism and the migrant crisis and you can understand the prevailing mood. The difference now is that such is people’s dissonance from politics and politicians, there is no margin for error. Mrs May must instil into every Minister the need to deliver on our promises - and to be seen to do so. If she is going to succeed in the bold ambitions she stated on the steps of Number 10 she will need to get runs on the board in quick time. One upside: politics is cool again. Everywhere you go people want to talk about it. West Berkshire Conservatives have increased their membership by over 200 in the last three weeks. Keeping politics cool, in every sense, is something to strive for.

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Cameron’s legacy

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On Tuesday evening I went to 10 Downing Street for what was labelled as the last supper. Around 30 family and friends of the Camerons were there. I found the Prime Minister, as he then still was, relaxed and his children were running around determined no doubt, to enjoy their last moments in this historic house. When I left I walked through a building that seemed eerily quiet, almost as if it was holding its breath. The door to the Cabinet Room was open and I wandered in. The French windows were open to the garden and a breeze was blowing through the room. I half expected to see the ghost of a past Prime Minister sitting at the table. As I left No 10 I found Larry the cat sitting on the road outside. His face was inscrutable but he seemed to exude a sense of continuity.

The next day must have been a tough one for the Cameron family. David's performance at Prime Minister's Questions was as faultless as it was poignant. Then the well-choreographed process of transition got underway.

Theresa May took command and showed from the start that she will be a strong and resolute Prime Minister. As for David Cameron, how will his premiership be remembered? At the moment his failure to convince the nation on our membership of the EU occupies minds but over time he will be seen as what someone on Tuesday night called "the quiet revolutionary". He reformed so much of government in a way that has changed so many lives for the better: many more children now in good or outstanding schools; more families with wages coming in rather than welfare payments; fewer people waiting too long for an operation; more people running their own businesses; and Britain a greener and healthier place for future generations. In 2005, I sat in David's House of Commons office with seven or eight colleagues as we discussed whether he should try to lead our Party. My faith in my friend then has been more than repaid by what he has achieved for our country. I hope his successor builds on his achievements. Her words on the steps of No 10 showed she has every intention of doing so.

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Richard Benyon was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Newbury on 7 May 2015, with an increased majority of 26,368. Richard won 61 per cent of the vote share.

 

 

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