Caption competition

At this time of year, I thought a caption competition may be in order to give readers a bit of light relief.   The picture is one taken at the recent launch of the Higher Education Commission report on the export of higher education, as detailed in my earlier post.  Having given an opening address, I subsequently took part in a panel discussion.  When I saw the picture, I thought it may make a good one for the caption competition.   I do have a habit of being expressive.  Suffice to say, it was not the only photograph I could have selected.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who in my opinion provides the entry that is the most witty and appropriate to the context.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.

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‘Challenging’ for the leadership…

I have made the point previously that rules and structures are not neutral in their effect.  Utilising one set of rules can result in a different outcome than if another set is employed.  In a previous post, I observed that if the Labour Party had the same rules as the Conservative Party for electing a leader, it is unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn would have been elected party leader.  (One doubts he would have made it to the final two candidates to be placed before the party members.)  Had the Labour Party the same rules as the Conservative Party for getting rid of a leader, Jeremy Corbyn would likely be out of the leadership.  In the PLP, a vote of no confidence in the leadership has no formal consequences.  In the Conservative Party, such a vote is definitive.

In 1990, Michael Heseltine stood against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party.  His leadership ambitions had been well trailed.  Mrs Thatcher failed to get enough votes in the first ballot in order to be declared re-elected.  Media stories are now appearing suggesting that Boris Johnson may ‘challenge’  Theresa May for the party leadership.  The terminology is somewhat ambiguous, appearing to imply that there may be a battle similar to that of 1990, a blond, ambitious, publicity-seeking former senior minister challenging a female Prime Minister for the party leadership.  The problem with this is that since the Thatcher-Heseltine battle the rules have changed.  No one can stand directly against the party leader.  Party members will not be able to vote in a May v Johnson contest.   The party leader no longer comes up for annual (or indeed any) re-election.  A leader who wishes to continue in office can be removed only by a vote of no confidence of the party’s MPs.

For a vote of confidence to be held, 15% of Conservative MPs (which means, on current numbers, 48) must write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee requesting such a vote.  If that number is reached, a vote is automatic.  The leader can address the 1922 before the vote takes place.  A vote of no confidence was triggered in 2003 when Iain Duncan Smith was leader.  Despite him making what was possibly his best speech as leader to the 1922, he lost the vote.  Under the rules, a leader who has lost the vote cannot then stand in the subsequent election.  Instead, new candidates are nominated.  If there is only one, that candidate is declared elected, as was the case in 2003 with Michael Howard.  If there are more than two candidates, eliminating ballots are held until only two remain and those two names then go before the party leadership.

If Boris Johnson wanted to challenge Theresa May for the party leadership, he would need to (a) persuade 48 MPs to write to Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922, to trigger a no confidence vote, (b) get a majority of Conservative MPs to vote for the motion of no confidence, (c) assuming he was not the sole candidate or one of only two nominated, get sufficient support among MPs to ensure he was in the final two to be put before the party membership, and (d) get a majority of party members to vote for him against the other candidate.

Does what happened in 1990 have any relevance to today under different rules?  The Heseltine challenge was seen by many as confirming that whoever wields the dagger rarely inherits the crown.  Challenging the leader is fraught.  A contended only has to fall at one of the four hurdles to be denied their goal.  Even if successful in removing a leader, it may result in someone else reaching the top of the greasy pole.

For those thinking the prize may be within their grasp, there is always the possibility of an ‘I forgot Goschen’ moment…

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The export of higher education: staying ahead?

In a previous post, I reported on the debate I initiated in the Lords in July on the value to the United Kingdom of the export of higher education.  Exporting HE, principally in the form of recruiting overseas students to study in a UK HE institution, is a major resource for the United Kingdom, not just in economic terms, but also in educational and political terms.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, the economic value is not confined to fee income from overseas students or the major contribution those students make to local economies, but encompasses trade.  Business people overseas who have studied in the UK are more likely to trade with the UK than those educated elsewhere.

The debate came ahead of the launch of the report of the Higher Education Commission on the value of HE as an export.  I chair the Commission and co-chair each inquiry.  The report, Staying Ahead – Are International Students Going Down Under?, can be read here.  It was launched to a packed meeting in the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House. It draws out not only the value of HE as an export, but also the serious challenges we face in recruiting overseas students.  We are losing out to our main competitors, not least Australia, hence the title of the report.  We need to take action if we are to maintain our competitive position in an increasingly intense market.  Our competitors are recruiting fairly aggressively, whereas in the UK Home Office policies are acting as a deterrent.  The report identifies what needs to be done if we are to retain and enhance our position globally and at time when the economic benefits are especially important.  As I stressed at the launch of the report, looking at the position now may not convey a sense of crisis.  Looking at it from a dynamic perspective – the trends in recruitment – then we can see that the need for action is pressing.

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Winner of the bank holiday competition…

After much deliberation, I can now reveal the result of the Bank Holiday caption competition.  Given the number of visitors to the site over the past week or so, the entries must have proved a draw or readers are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the winner.

There were some splendid entries, with some very imaginative contributions.  Tony Sands was clearly on a roll.  Some entries attracted a mix of emotions.  Alex M (‘It seem that I have received a large number of emails relating to the “fire risk” in my office’) raised a laugh, but a nervous one.  Those entries that related to library books elicited an attempt to remember the last occasion when I actually borrowed a book from the library – it must have been ten or twenty years ago, possibly closer to thirty.  The picture may hint at why I don’t need to go to the library.  Dean Bullen has recognised the value of flattery (‘I’m sure there’s something here somewhere that I didn’t write’) and, not for the first time, his entry came close to winning.

A couple were fairly close to the reality, one perhaps surprisingly so.  Peter Foster with ‘Lord Norton is still in his office at midnight and wondering which key to press next or should he just give up and go home’ would win the category for closest to real life.  More surprisingly, Neil M came up with a characteristically splendid entry ‘Keen to revive the best traditions of early 20th century cinema, professor celebrates reaching the interval of his seminar by rising through the floor of his office on a mighty Wurlizter’ that was not totally divorced from experience.   (It was also so good an entry that Mark Shephard decided to replicate it!)  I used to have a office chair that I could raise or lower, so whenever a class came in I was able to raise it so that I could see above the paperwork on the desk (much higher then than in the picture) and then lower it when the class left.  I miss that chair.

On this occasion, the prize is shared.  We have two winners.  Tony Sands may be pleased and suprised to know that he is one of them.  His entry of ‘“Bookish peer and academic seeks domestic help.  Duties include light dusting.”  Splendid that will do nicely’ met the ‘laugh out loud’ test.  (His entry of ‘Online update of 2019 Who’s Who Entry: Hobbies:  Lord Norton: Erm…’ was also a contender.)  The prize is shared with Matthew Kavanagh, whose entry – ‘The “paperless office” drive in the University of Hull Politics Department hits a snag’– was very funny.

If both would like to get in touch, their prizes will be despatched.

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Bank holiday caption competition

By popular demand (well, the request of Tony Sands) here is a another caption competition.  The photograph is one a colleague took recently of me while I was busy working as well as listening to whatever it was he was saying to me.  I am not sure it lends itself that well to a caption, but I often think that of pictures I post, only for readers to demonstrate their ingenuity with some brilliant responses.  As usual, the winner of the competition will be whoever posts the entry I deem the wittiest and most appropriate to the actual picture.  The prize will be one of my publications.

Let the entries roll in….

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Sir Peter Tapsell

I was very sad to learn of the death of Sir Peter Tapsell. I had known him for over fifty years, ever since I corresponded with him when I was a young schoolboy and he was selected as parliamentary candidate for the then seat of Horncastle.  He served from 1966 until his retirement in 2015, the seat variously changing shape and name (East Lindsey, Louth and Horncastle), his continuous service making him in 2010 Father of the House.  He was first elected in 1959 for Nottingham West, losing the seat in 1964.  Had he served continuously from 1959 he would have become Father of the House much sooner.

He was one of those Members who made his mark as much behind the scenes as in the chamber.  He was a regular at meetings of the 1922 Committee.  His stance on various issues did not always endear him to the party leadership.  When Edward Heath was PM, Tapsell predicted what would happen as a result of his U-turn on the economy.   The fact he was proved correct did him no favours.  Although he had been a neighbour of Heath in the Albany, Heath thereafter never spoke to him.

In his later years in the House, he was very much a grand figure, basically raising a cheer when he rose.  However, he was no Sir Tufton Bufton.  His questions were often barbed and prescient.  He was a self-made man and a remarkable character.  In 2011, he gave one of the Speaker’s Lectures covering eminent parliamentarians in the century since 1911, selecting as his subject his hero F. E. Smith.  The talk was remarkable: well informed, but also extremely witty – and very long.  The lectures normally started at 7.00 or shortly thereafter, finishing by 8.00 and followed by questions.  By 8.40, Sir Peter had not even reached F. E. Smith’s ministerial career!  For reasons of time, people started drifting away, but some of us saw it through to the end.  It was certainly an occasion.  I subsequently edited the lectures given that year (Eminent Parliamentarians, published by Biteback): his lecture still reads well, and there are points where it is difficult not to laugh out loud at his asides.

He never quite achieved the advancement he perhaps deserved, serving under leaders with whom he was not always in agreement.  Although knighted and later made a Privy Councillor, a rare (but not unknown) honour for a backbencher who had never served in ministerial office, and becoming Father of the House, he did not make the transition from one House to the other.  He would have been a natural in the Lords, but it was not to be.  I last saw him, some time after he retired, at a church service at St James’ Parish Church in Louth.  Although using a walking stick, he looked his usual robust self.  He will be sadly missed.

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The value of parliamentarians

In a previous post, I raised the issue of how to value the work of the House of Lords.  How does one ascribe monetary value to thousands of improvements achieved to measures passing through Parliament?  In that post, I touched upon the problems of ascribing value to individual parliamentarians.  Some analysts have sought to do it through looking at measurable activity in terms of the number of speeches made or the number of votes cast.  That, as I mentioned, is to confuse quantity with quality.  Speaking frequently in the chamber may have little impact – indeed, may be counter productive if one has a reputation for speaking too often – and there is an opportunity cost.  Sitting in the chamber may not be as rewarding as having a private meeting with a minister or questioning a witness at a committee meeting.  I have drawn attention in an earlier post to the importance of the use of informal space in Parliament: meeting informally with colleagues may achieve more than through making a speech on the public record.

During my time in the Lords, I have achieved various changes to legislation, but the main work in doing so has not been in the chamber: proceedings in the House have been the culmination of work done away from the chamber or through work in (or giving evidence to) committees.  One of my most productive periods was when I chaired the Constitution Committee of the Lords, which included using the chair’s prerogative to draft reports.  I wrote the Committee’s report on Parliament and the Legislative Process, which was accepted by the committee essentially as it stood and has been something of a template for subsequent legislative reform. Indeed, my main work throughout my time in the House has been through committee rather than the chamber.

My work, though, is minor relative to what has been achieved by some other parliamentarians, some of whom are especially adept at working to influence outcomes.  Such work, though, does not necessarily lend itself to observable decision-making.  The most effective MPs and peers can sometimes be those who do not have a high public profile.  Conversely, some who are busy gaining a public profile – a number are especially adept at gaining media attention – may not carry a great deal of weight with colleagues.  The emphasis on quantifiable activity – number of questions tabled, speeches given – may not only be misleading, but can be harmful.  MPs in particular are conscious of the attention given to such quantification, so can feel pressured to make more speeches or table questions in order not to appear to be neglecting their duties.  This can absorb time and resources of both the Member and the House – tabling questions carries a cost to the public purse – and is  time and energy that could arguably be more productively employed for the public good.

The most important question addressed to parliamentarians should not be ‘what have you done?’, but ‘what have you achieved?’   That would help focus the mind.  The importance of the question needs to be recognised, though, as much by the media and other commentators as by members at whom it is addressed.  Journalists are drawn to the easy data because it is cheap and available.  Addressing what parliamentarians have actually achieved, be it for the wider public good, local causes or constituents, is more demanding, but it a question that merits asking.  For MPs, it may also be helpful in focusing the mind on outcomes rather than sheer activity.  For members of the public, it may help them realise that there is more to parliamentarians than sitting in a chamber, heckling one’s opponents, and looking for the camera.

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