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55 Tufton Street: The other black door shaping British politics – BBC

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On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, Liz Truss walked through the famous black door of No 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister.

But under a mile away, there’s another black door that’s had a lasting effect on the previous decade in British politics – and looks like being influential under this administration too – No 55 Tufton Street.

The building houses organisations including the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Global Warming Policy Foundation – and is the former home of many others, such as Vote Leave and Brexit Central.

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Just hours after Liz Truss made her first speech on the steps of Downing Street, she announced that her new economics adviser would be Matthew Sinclair, a former chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

And a couple of weeks later, the new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, delivered the most consequential financial statement for a generation, ripping up decades of economic orthodoxy.

He was pictured celebrating with Mr Sinclair – a man who made his name working behind that other black door.

The influence of TaxPayers’ Alliance began in 2008, when the financial crash led to bank collapse around the world.

“If you didn’t want that to happen in the UK, you had to get growth higher,” says Andrew Lilico, chairman of Europe Economics and Matthew Sinclair’s former boss.

“One way you could get growth high was just to get spending down and it might not be a very pleasant way of getting growth higher, but needs must in these kinds of circumstances.

“There was a TaxPayers’ Alliance report called How to Save £50 billion, which to some extent breached the dike on where things were going. And very shortly after that, others all chimed in. So quite quickly there were proposals for cutting spending by £150bn and £200bn.”

In 2010, David Cameron became prime minister and ushered in a new age of austerity.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance was no longer a fringe group frustrated with the Conservatives’ approach to the economy. Instead, they became a key public backer of the government’s approach to the economy.

“The newspapers or the broadcast media would have a spokesperson from an organisation, it could be the TaxPayers’ Alliance, it could be another think tank,” says Nicky Morgan, a Treasury minister in the coalition government.

“As a minister, if you’re going to advance a difficult or a controversial idea, it’s no surprise that before you announce such a thing, what you try to aim for is that phrase ‘rolling the pitch’. You’ve got people outside saying, ‘this is what we need’. So when you announce it, one hopes that it’s going to be well received.”

Donor anonymity

But the organisations at No 55 had started to attract controversy too.

Many of them have a long-standing policy of protecting the anonymity of their donors, something the Lib Dems wanted to change.

The coalition government did change the rules on lobbying. But the BBC understands the Lib Dems wanted those changes to go further – and to include think tanks, which do not come under lobbying rules.

Few would suggest that David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne were Tufton Street’s natural allies – one senior member of Osborne’s Treasury team describes the TaxPayers’ Alliance as “a bit of a joke”. But they were useful in helping sell those austerity policies to the public.

After the 2015 election, David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership – and that’s when the relationship changed.

Vote Leave, which would go on to become the official leave campaign, was originally based at No 55 as well. Andrew Lilico, who was Vote Leave’s chief economist in the latter days of the campaign, says the think tanks there were natural Brexiteers.

“I think that they are people who are quite optimistic about what the market can achieve. And they’re quite pessimistic about grand state projects.

“So the European Union, as a supranational, multinational body would be an iconic example of something that they would be sceptical about.

“Matthew Elliott, in particular, who’s the chief executive of Vote Leave, comes directly out of that that setting. He was the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.”

Vote Leave sign

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After the Leave campaign won the referendum, the fight shifted again. The battle over how exactly to define Brexit had begun.

“People thought that the referendum would be the end of it, and of course in many respects it was just the beginning of the argument,” says David Jones, minister for exiting the EU from 2016.

“Vote Leave wound itself up so there was there was nobody there. A number of other organisations did spring up to fill that vacuum.

“And Brexit Central was a very important one.”

Headed up by Jonathan Isaby, another former chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Brexit Central also ended up being based at 55 Tufton Street.

“So it became almost required reading for those who were on the pro-Brexit side of the argument,” says Mr Jones. “Every day you’d check in at Brexit Central and see what they were reporting.”

Going mainstream

Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019 – and his pledge to take the UK out of the EU’s single market and customs union – was another huge moment for Tufton Street.

After the financial crash, once-fringe views on public spending had become mainstream – and now the same happened with Brexit.

The apparent influence made the argument around who funds these groups rear its head again.

But while privately critical of where the money comes from, the Labour Party hasn’t made it a public priority to reform the rules governing this area of politics.

Until now.

“55 Tufton Street shouldn’t have any more influence than any other street in the UK,” says Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader.

“That street seems to dominate particular policy and what’s happening in government and legislation and it’s not transparent enough.

“Labour would consult on the wider definition of what lobby groups are – so that would include what is currently known as think tanks because we don’t believe that the definition is wide enough, but also around transparency around where their funding comes from as well.”

The BBC did ask representatives from the organisations mentioned for an interview, but no-one came forward.

Angela Rayner

Getty Images

Labour may want to change the rules – but for now, that’s not in their gift.

Instead, last week’s financial statement seemed to confirm that Liz Truss is more aligned with the ideas floating around No 55 than any of the previous recent occupants of No 10.

So what sort of new policies might the government start to enact?

The TaxPayers’ Alliance has had a long-running campaign to crack down on paid time off for trade union officials, including when Mr Sinclair was chief executive.

The new Business Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, met the TPA in March.

The BBC has used a freedom of information request to discover that the meeting was called to discuss paid time off for trade union officials – something Liz Truss has now pledged to crack down on.

Still, no one can be sure exactly what will take place behind the famous black door of No 10 over the next few years.

But perhaps by paying closer attention to what’s happening behind the other black door, we might get a good idea.

‘The Other Black Door’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20.00 BST on Monday 26 September, and will also be available on BBC Sounds.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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Can coal be a pivot toward ‘normal politics’ in Alberta?

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“Normal Politics”: I encouraged my students to embrace and practice this type of politics. Bernard Crick, a British political theorist, imagined this concept decades ago. He believed healthy democratic politics demanded empathy for your political opponents and searching for policies able to reconcile or bridge competing positions. At its best, normal politics is about finding or creating and implementing consensus. It invites political opponents to recognize they have some shared values and to work together to realize them. 

Sadly, normal politics rarely characterizes politics in today’s democracies. Its antithesis is too common in political debate. In Alberta recently, the executive director of Take Back Alberta, an interest group that helped propel Danielle Smith into the premier’s office, accused the New Democratic Party of promoting a “toxic and disease-ridden ideology.” Such extremism slams the door on Crick’s hopeful view of politics.   

With the legislature back in session, I don’t expect to see a lot of normal politics on display. But, in her recent television address, Premier Danielle Smith told Albertans she “must be humble, listen and continue to learn from you.” Alberta’s coal debate issue gives her an exceptional opportunity to back that commitment up with meaningful action.   

Coal has been one of Alberta’s most contentious issues over the past several years. It’s an issue where a consensus exists, a consensus that could be strengthened. As hard as it may be for some residents of the Crowsnest Pass to accept, most Albertans don’t believe coal mining should have a future anywhere in the Rockies and foothills of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Impressive majorities of Albertans have said as much in public opinion polls, the Grassy Mountain coal mine hearings and the Coal Policy Committee consultations.  

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Smith’s government should listen to and implement this consensus. In this legislative session, the premier should introduce legislation guaranteeing that coal mining proposals in our southern Rockies and foothills cannot be revived.  

But I think Crick would want the premier to go one step further. I think he would invite her to try to broaden the consensus, to try to bridge the gulf between coal mining opponents and supporters. Identify positions those camps share; build on them. Community prosperity in southwest Alberta is an obvious candidate here.  

So far Alberta’s debate about coal has offered thin gruel when it comes to what economic future could be built in southern Alberta without coal mining. The UCP and NDP alike must pay serious attention to nurturing in the southwest the range of economic activities central to Alberta’s developing post-industrial society.  

What does this perspective recommend? Begin to craft a regional development strategy. Several paths lead in this direction. One would be to establish a Southern Alberta Sustainable Economic Opportunities Forum. Invite leaders from Alberta academia, business, the federal government, First Nations, labour and municipalities to join it. Task them with thinking about how, without coal, healthy and prosperous livelihoods may be delivered to the people of southwest Alberta. Or, strike an all-party legislative committee, chaired jointly by the UCP and NDP, to do something similar. If this venture bears fruit, it could be replicated for other regions in Alberta.  

Coal offers Smith the opportunity to pivot toward normal politics and show her commitment to listening to Albertans is genuine. Coal has opened the door to privileging conciliation in politics. If the premier goes through that door, she may be able to deliver what all sides of Alberta’s coal debate seek: good, healthy livelihoods for the people of southern Alberta.  

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. 

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