Dominic Cummings should beware pointless Whitehall reorganisation

Now that Brexit at the end of January has become a foregone conclusion, MPs and their advisers are already preoccupied with the next big event in each of the parties. For Labour, their whole future direction is at stake in a momentous leadership election. Somewhere out of sight of the media, the Liberal Democrats are also choosing a leader and trying to work out what on earth went wrong.

Among the victorious Tories, every minister is inevitably weighing their chances of promotion or dismissal in a reshuffle of responsibilities that cannot be long delayed. Boris Johnson has earned the right to hire, fire and reorganise in any way he wants, while his powerful adviser Dominic Cummings has appealed…

A time for giving

This time of year is hard for those living alone or with a serious illness and for disabled children in families that cannot afford the Christmas gifts and feasting that the rest of us take for granted. The three Telegraph charities this year were chosen with these people in mind. Silver Line volunteers spent part of their Christmas Day on the phone to isolated elderly people who need someone to talk to.

These volunteers will be in action all over the festive period and, indeed, throughout the year manning the confidential helpline (0800 4 70 80 90). The helpline gets more than 10,000 calls a week and, with an ageing population, demand is rising, so donations to what is a relatively new charity…

The BBC looks dangerously ill-equipped for the new media landscape

The ground is shifting under the BBC’s feet. Its coverage of the election campaign, marred by accusations of bias and startling errors of judgment, provoked the ire of political parties on all sides. Changes to the wider media landscape have exposed it to fierce competition from deep-pocketed commercial rivals, which are able to innovate in ways the BBC appears institutionally incapable of matching. Now the national broadcaster faces another challenge, in the unlikely area of local news.

The BBC has long treated its local news coverage as a burden, a public service obligation which it meets in return for guaranteed prominence for its channels on TV channel menus. Its rival Sky, however, has been…

The election was a triumph for the SNP, but let’s not label it an independence upsurge yet

At any other time, it would have been the story of the election. The SNP won 48 out of 59 Scottish seats, up from 35 in 2017. The nationalist party won even in Kirkcaldy where its candidate had been suspended over anti-Semitism, but too late for his name to be taken off the ballot paper.

Anti-Jewish feeling was recently unthinkable in Scotland, its people steeped in psalms, its national church represented by the symbol of the Burning Bush. Yet voters in Adam Smith’s home town were prepared to overlook the scandal and back the secessionist candidate anyway.

From old mining towns in the central belt to sparse Highland moors, Scotland turned pale yellow. Nicola Sturgeon could almost be forgiven…

Leavers, don’t waste your vote on the Brexit Party. Only the Tories can beat the Remainers

The British people will tomorrow vote in a new Parliament that Boris Johnson hopes will allow him to get Brexit done, but a fair few Leave voters may still be making up their minds all the way into the polling booth.

Lord Ashcroft’s last pre-election survey shows in recent days that just over a third of Tory Leave voters had not definitely decided how they will vote, with far more (41 per cent) Labour Leavers feeling the same indecision. Those Labour Eurosceptics have been front and centre of Nigel Farage’s electoral pitch, as he has argued that there are around 130 seats that had not elected a Tory in living memory, making his party the best alternative for them.

"Leavers, don’t waste your vote…

Donald Trump’s visit to Britain could turn out to be a humiliation… for Jeremy Corbyn

Readers will no doubt be weary of commentators’ oft-repeated dictum that this election is entirely unpredictable, and the associated assertion that the same applies to just about everything else in the political sphere too. It happens to be true, of course, but that doesn’t make the enduring of this campaign any easier.

That tension, that fear (or hope) that any external action or incident could completely reshape the campaign and affect its result, has oddly come to define a contest that, according to the polls, doesn’t appear to be unpredictable at all. This is the “Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop” election.

And the shoe just flew into London aboard Air Force One.

That the Labour Party seems…

Sorry Greta, all that kids want for Christmas is environment-trashing plastic tat

“Daer Fathr Cristmas plese can I hav a LOL doll and some biscits plese I will giv you a mins pei I jus wan to hav the best cristmas evr.”

My daughter wrote her Christmas list and stuck it on the fridge back in October, so that Santa would have no excuse for failing to deliver the requested goods. (He has been known to pack his sack so late that all the must-have toys are out of stock.) This year, however, Father Christmas faces a new difficulty: environmental guilt.

How quickly the children have forgotten Greta’s exhortations! Every toy that is expected to be a Christmas bestseller is an ecological horror show. The Fortnite Nerf gun, the Singing Elsa doll, the fluffy robot alien and the talking…

The Government’s warped review still hasn’t convinced me to back HS2

In the nineteenth century, private capital built one of the most comprehensive transport systems the world had ever seen. There were booms and busts in UK railways and many schemes made losses. This happens with any entrepreneurial venture in new technology. In many ways, the railway boom was similar to the dotcom boom of the early 21st century.

The history of our transport networks shows that private capital can fund large ventures. Although entrepreneurs make mistakes, they always face pressure to invest in projects that add value.

We should therefore be suspicious that not a penny of private capital will go into the government’s Leviathan High Speed rail 2 project. No risks will be taken by anybody volunteering to put up their own money. No individual, bank or pension fund will be investing in it.

And we should be even more suspicious when we’re told that the rail project is to the public’s benefit. Just today it was reported that Douglas Oakervee, the former HS2 chairman, thinks the railway should continue to be given the green light, despite its undisputed drain on taxpayer resources (estimated now at £88 billion, but likely to be revised upward yet again).

The review claims that the north could still benefit from the existence of the line – but when cost analysis is taken into account, it seems this large investment project is being driven by political considerations.

HS2 has been driven directly by local and national politicians. Schoolboy errors made in the cost-benefit analysis, such as not properly taking account of how people use travel time on the train to work, have been brushed under the carpet and an army of consultants has been paid to make the case for the project.

HS2 illustrates exactly the failings spelled out by Professor David Myddelton in his research into why government projects go wrong. It began with strong political support and little economic analysis to back up the political case. The proponents seemed impervious to any criticism no matter how reasonable. Even the review into it is being undertaken by a former chairman of the project.

The costs of HS2 have been hugely under-estimated. The initial estimate was £30 billion – this has now been revised to nearly £90 billion. Rail may even turn out to be defunct technology by the time it is finished. If we are lucky, the line might be built by 2040 – though reaching Scotland could take decades longer. By then, who knows whether self-driving cars and buses on roads or some other form of travel will be preferred to rail.

The classic argument for high speed rail is that it leads to spill-over benefits as a result of greater economic development arising from better transport links. This is questionable at best. Places such as Doncaster, Derby and Crewe currently have amazing rail links to London. Whilst all may be great places to live, they are not the kind of hubs of prosperity that the proponents of HS2 hope to create.

In fact, all investment creates spill-over benefits, whether it be the building of a shopping mall an office block or a road. Every penny that is spent on HS2 could have been spent on other investment projects. The claimed benefits of HS2 are simply displacing those that would have arisen from alternative projects had £90 billion been spent on other things. Indeed, spill-over benefits from local projects are likely to be greater than those from HS2.

This leads to the question of what we could do with the money instead. Unfortunately, our whole road and rail system and much of our airport infrastructure is centrally planned and lacks the very market disciplines that are also absent in HS2. And this is the first thing that must change.

For environmental and other good economic reasons, we should ensure that we charge road users at the point of use. This would mean that private capital could be attracted into road building and the risks and returns could be assessed by those who are taking the decisions.

We know that there are commercial airports desperate to build runways with their own money. And local rail improvements are likely to have higher benefit-cost ratios than HS2. The HS2 review is likely to argue that there are no shovel-ready alternative projects. Apart from a huge list of deferred and potential road projects with significant economic benefits, there are also many rail improvements that could easily be finished by 2040.

Coming from Hull, I am familiar with the most political of all infrastructure projects. Barbara Castle intervened in the vital Hull North by-election in 1966 to promise “you shall have your Humber Bridge”. Somewhat neatly, George Osborne, the greatest proponent of HS2, was the very Chancellor of the Exchequer who wrote off much of the Humber Bridge debt that lay with local councils. This had accumulated to twice the exorbitant cost of the bridge because tolls did not even pay the interest and maintenance.

There will be nobody to write off the debt left to us by George Osborne due to HS2. That will be a legacy borne by future generations of taxpayers.

Prof Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham

Letters: This general election is about Brexit – which only one party can deliver

SIR – As the general election campaigns gather pace, coalitions are mooted and considerations of tactical voting emerge, there is one simple truth. This election is unique and exclusively about Brexit. It is, in effect, a referendum by another name. A vote for a party other than the Conservatives will strengthen the probability of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, and a continuation of the Brexit debacle forever.

The only tactical vote worth considering, which demands head over heart, is to vote on this occasion for a Conservative majority. Subsequent elections could then be taken as a reflection of the real political map of the country.

Charles Holden
Micheldever, Hampshire

SIR – The appeal from Ian Austin, the former Labour MP, to the electorate to vote Conservative calls to mind the February 1974 general election, when Enoch Powell left the Conservative Party and joined the Ulster Unionists because of his implacable opposition to our membership of the European Economic Community (as it then was) and his visceral dislike of Edward Heath, the prime minister.

Powell urged voters to support Labour, stood down as a candidate for re-election in his Wolverhampton South West constituency and said he would vote for the Labour candidate – my sister Helene, now Baroness Hayman. Labour, then in government, went on to hold the 1975 referendum. Ian Austin says that he will not become a Tory; Powell said that he would always be a Tory.

Déjà vu? Not quite.

Laurence Middleweek
London NW3

 

SIR – The Liberal Democrats have joined with the Green Party and the Welsh Nationalists in a general election pact to prevent the Tories from winning seats in Wales.

Once again this demonstrates what lengths the Lib Dems will go to in order to further their cause, while forgoing their support for the Union. They are already demanding a second referendum on membership of the EU. This plays into the hands of the Scottish National Party, which can claim that holding a second vote would set a precedent for a second independence referendum in Scotland.

Tim Jackson
Gullane, East Lothian

SIR – Last Friday Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader, kicked off her party’s election campaign by making a statement in which she declared that “the NHS is not for sale at any price”.

I am mystified by her concerns. Surely when her party takes Scotland out of the Union and it becomes an independent country, the NHS will not be available in Scotland and will need to be replaced by a Scottish health service of some sort funded solely by Scottish taxpayers – or is that something else she assumes will be paid for in perpetuity by the English?

Roger Wilson
Fareham, Hampshire

 

Britain needs fracking

Fracking operations by Cuadrilla Resources have been put on hold Credit: OLI SCARFF /AFP/Getty

SIR – Having lived for many years in north-west Colorado in America, and having been part of an energy group which gave detailed consideration to fracking, I am dismayed that the British Government has called a halt to fracking operations in this country.

After careful investigation, trials, analysis, and testing, our group concluded that any dangers to the local community, environment, and water table supply, were very minimal. Minor earthquakes were nothing out of the ordinary. The local and state governments agreed with our findings and granted licences for fracking in various locations. The local communities were engaged in consultation discussions and the authorities imposed some tough conditions on the drilling operations, with severe penalties in the event of non-compliance. The shale gas operators themselves understood and accepted their responsibilities, and went to great lengths to allay any concerns.

Britain needs to become its own energy supplier, and fracking can be a way towards that end.

William Cousins
Salisbury, Wiltshire

 

SIR – The determinant for shale gas production is the permeability of the shale, and this varies widely. The first test results from Cuadrilla, the oil and gas exploration company, were published a few months ago and the flow rates were not viable.

There will be no more fracking in Britain. This has nothing to do with the environment or the protests – just plain old geology.

V T Evenson
Didcot, Oxfordshire

 

Brave Allied troops branded ‘D-Day dodgers’

Crosses laid at Westminster's Field of Remembrance in tribute to those killed in conflict Credit: Dan Kitwood /Getty

SIR – I hope that this weekend the country remembers a “forgotten” war in Italy. Seventy-five years ago this bloody campaign was coming to a successful conclusion for the Allies – but not before many thousands had been killed or wounded.

Having begun in Sicily and advanced north, the real battle started at Monte Cassino. Then came the landings of Allied troops at the resort town of Anzio. My uncle took part in the latter and eventually participated in the capture of Rome and Florence before being killed in the Apennines on the Gothic Line.

During this time the Normandy landings were taking place. Those soldiers came home heroes while, unfairly, the Italian campaigners were ridiculed as D-Day dodgers.

I have just returned from Faenza where I visited my uncle’s war grave, exactly 75 years to the day after he was killed. He was aged 21 and died two months before I was born. I had a guided tour of the Gothic Line and saw for myself the inhospitable terrain where our brave soldiers fought in atrocious weather conditions. In many respects it was far worse than the war in western Europe.

My lasting thought is how genuine, even today, the heartfelt thanks of the Italians is, for the sacrifices the Allied army made for their country.

David Hartridge
Leicester

 

SIR – During the Second World War, it was the Merchant Navy that ensured that we didn’t starve, and that we had sufficient coal, raw materials, ammunition and weapons to fight.

The ships were poorly armed and there were no major battles to mark their skill, determination and heroism – just individual encounters with a well-armed enemy. Without that skill, endurance and heroism we wouldn’t have won. D-Day would have been impossible.

Over 3,000 British flagged merchant ships were sunk by enemy action in the First World War and 2,828 in the Second World War, with losses of over 14,600 and 32,000 merchant seamen respectively.

Cdre Malcolm Williams RN (retd)
Southsea, Hampshire

 

Checks on volunteers

SIR – I recently needed an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check – the most rigorous that can be requested (“Magistrate protests at ‘ridiculous’ checks for hospice work”, report, November 3).

It took two weeks, cost a few tens of pounds and, for volunteers, the update service is free. It is hardly a deterrent to volunteering.

John Landamore
Lutterworth, Leicestershire

 

Real-life Hornblower

Ioan Gruffudd as Horatio Hornblower Credit: MERIDIAN/pa

SIR – Your article about Patrick O’Brian (Books, November 3) served as a reminder that the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower were based on the real life of the Earl of Dundonald, earlier known as Lord Cochrane.

He was a daring and successful captain during the Napoleonic wars, to the point that Napoleon called him “the sea wolf”. However, his efforts to expose corruption in the Admiralty earned him the enmity of the establishment. He was falsely accused of fraud and stripped of his honours.He left England, became admiral of the Chilean navy and was instrumental in helping the revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins achieve independence from Spain. After other experiences with the Brazilian and Greek navies, he returned to England in 1832 and his honours were restored.

When he died, he was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey. As a hero of Chilean independence, he is remembered on May 21, Chilean Navy Day, with a wreath-laying ceremony at his tomb. This is attended by the Chilean ambassador and diplomatic corps as well as by senior representatives of the Royal Navy.

Peter Heap
Manuden, Essex

 

The NHS lottery

SIR – As is the norm at election time, all political parties have a lot to say about the NHS. The NHS has many good points, but it also has many failings – not least of which is the fact that it does not live up to its name.

If it truly were a national service it would not be unreasonable for the population to expect to receive the same service throughout the country. Instead, the care provided by the NHS varies enormously depending on where you are. What we have is a regional health service.

Richard Holloway
Bristol

 

Suffolk’s signal failure

SIR – The ongoing saga of the elusive mobile phone signal here in beautiful but relatively mastless Suffolk keeps throwing up new problems.

I have one spot in the house that gives me two bars of signal – and that’s with my arm hanging out of the office window, nowhere near a place where one might fit a smart meter. Texts from anyone are always a surprise as they arrive anything between five minutes and five days after being sent. Thankfully, electricity and landlines have at least found us.

Off-grid hamlet living is idyllic, but also rather isolating in this modern hi-tech world.

Heather M Tanner
Earl Soham, Suffolk

 

Getting the measure of your pub’s wine menu

Several drinks in: Louis Capdevielle’s 1879 painting of cardplayers in a Spanish tavern Credit: www.bridgemanimages.com 

SIR – Bruce Denness (Letters, November 3) asks what to call a 125 ml glass of wine when ordering in a pub.

On a recent visit to the Peak District, my wife and I stopped for a glass of wine. The lady behind the bar asked if we would like a small, medium or normal measure.

Nigel Harrison
Edgefield, Norfolk

 

SIR – One should simply ask for a minimum-size 125 ml glass of wine, as stipulated under the Licensing Act 2003, explaining if asked that it is a legal requirement for this to be offered and served.

This option is often listed in very small print somewhere on a drinks menu, hidden from easy view.

Adrian Patrick
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

 

Compost hotel

Paul Clements in his garden with his new host composting bin Credit: Rii Schroer 

SIR – Paul Clements (Gardening, November 3) is lucky to be able to “have the hots for compost” with his new plastic bin.

In the countryside, the plastic or metal compost bin is frequently used by rats as a multistorey, waterproof, heated condominium with a restaurant attached. During the bin’s brief time in use here, the dogs seldom left it alone, and were assured of entertainment. It was the only time that farm cats and dogs were able to combine in harmony.

Caroline Charles-Jones
Dinas Cross, Pembrokeshire

 

Tights spot

SIR – Now that manufacturers are finding alternatives to single-use plastics, will someone start producing sustainable tights?

I’m sure it must be possible to produce longer-lasting ones at a reasonable price – or am I destined to a life of thick tights?

Teresa Ward
Woking, Surrey

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Nigel Farage may be sparing Tory seats, but he could still destroy Brexit and Boris Johnson’s deal

As arresting as Nick Timothy’s comparison of Nigel Farage to Frodo Baggins is in today’s Telegraph, surely the more appropriate character to invoke is Gollum?

He clashed with the Hobbits during their epic journey to sort out the One Ring once and for all, just as Mr Farage did with the Tories since the referendum. But Frodo and Sam came to rely on him to reach Mount Doom, keeping him at arm’s length as much as Vote Leave did to Mr Farage in their shared battle for Brexit.

The Prime Minister has reached the end of his quest to get Brexit done. Unlike Frodo when faced with the fires of Mount Doom, Mr Johnson shows no sign of succumbing to weakness by failing to finish the job. But it is still possible that…