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Out of the woods

The coalition’s proposed fire sale of English woodland will leave parliament powerless to decide on

It is hard to imagine how the coalition government could have dug itself so deep into the mire over the proposed forest sell-off. On 6 February, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, defended the consultation process that her department launched last month. It was "week two of a 12-week" process, she told us - and urged us all to join in. She pointed out that the "Save England's Forests" letter, published in the Sunday Telegraph on 23 January and signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Judi Dench, among others, antedated the consultation process. By implication, she suggested, the concerns of the signatories were now superseded, if not out of date.

I was among those who signed the letter, invited to do so by my daughter Rachel Johnson, editor of the Lady and president of the Save England's Forests movement. Let me declare some more interests. I have been a Conservative MEP and vice-chairman of the European Parliament's environment committee. I fought Teignbridge in Devon in the 2005 election as a Conservative candidate and I am a patron of the Conservative Environment Network.

I have a great deal of time for Caroline Spelman, but what really upset me was her failure to address the central point made in our letter, namely: "Three clauses in the Public Bodies Bill 2010-2011, currently being debated in parliament, will authorise the government to sell the whole of our public forest estate to commercial interests on the open market. Without asking our permission, the government has already allowed the sale of 15 per cent of our public woodlands. Similar plans have been rejected by the Scottish and Welsh parliaments."

The threat to England's woods and forests lies not only in ill-advised measures the government may take under existing legislation, but in what may happen in the future under the powers that will be handed to the Environment Secretary, and her successors for ever after, if the bill is passed in its present form. Anyone who doubts this should consider the following exchange, which took place at a recent session of the House of Commons environment committee. Spelman and her civil servants were questioned about the powers they were seeking by including forestry matters in the bill:

Chair of the committee: "That's a once-and-for-all legislative permit, that you will never again as a department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?"
Defra civil servant: "That is the intention."
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: "The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling bill on the reform of a wide range of arm's-length bodies."
Chair: "So you will never, ever again have to come and ask permission?"
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: "We should not have to, no."
Chair: "So this is our one and only chance?"
Defra civil servant: "Yes."

Among the things I most loathed, as an MEP, were proposals from the European Commission with clauses for delegating power. Called "adaptation measures", they allowed the commission to amend European law without recourse to the European Parliament. Here, we call them "Henry VIII clauses". Terminology aside, the net result of this bill would mean that parliamentary approval for the sale of the forest estate will no longer be necessary.

National assets

Judging by the quality of the speeches when the matter was debated on 2 February, the floor of the Commons is precisely the place for questions of such pith and moment as the future of the nation's forests to be discussed. And decided. Seeing it from this perspective, it is hard to take the forestry consultation seriously. It looks all the more questionable since the one option that, according to the polls, 80 per cent of the public appears to want - not selling off the forest estate - seems to have been deliberately excluded from the consultation's terms of reference.

What is the solution? I have three proposals. The government should cancel the proposed sale of the first tranche of the forest estate, totalling 40,000 hectares, many times the amount of land disposed of under the last government; withdraw the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, thus reserving to parliament the right to take decisions about the disposal of vital national assets; and either terminate the consultation exercise, or permit full consideration of non-disposal options.

Moreover, if the forest sell-off is likely to cost money rather than save it, as now appears to be the case from the Department for En­vironment, Food and Rural Affairs's own calculations, then not selling the forests should be economically advantageous. Managing the forests today costs the equivalent of only 30p per head per year. Much has been made of the so-called "conflict of interest" in having an institution, such as the Forestry Commission, that is both a trader and a regulator. In the past, however, this issue was handled satisfactorily through Forest Enterprise agencies, operating at arm's length within the ambit of the Forestry Commission. A similar solution could be adopted today if the objections are still felt to be real rather than theoretical.

Adopting the measures above might allow Caroline Spelman respite from the mounting clamour that must be making her life a misery. The future prospects of the coalition will also, I suspect, be considerably improved.

Stanley Johnson was MEP for Wight and Hampshire East from 1979-84

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide