PLUS: New royal polling
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The Times and Sunday Times
Friday March 12 2021
Red Box
Patrick Maguire
By Patrick Maguire
Good morning,
If you're old enough to remember the 1980s you'll be delighted to learn that today's Red Box is all about coal mines and Prince Charles. Recommend this email to a friend and you could win a free Thompson Twins LP.

Trivia question: Yehudi Menuhin, the virtuoso violinist, died on this day in 1999. Which British party leader did he have a close friendship with, playing at a memorial service for their first wife? Answer at the bottom of today's email
Patrick Maguire
Red Box reporter
Twitter icon @patrickkmaguire
New this morning
  • Another day, another row between Boris Johnson and his MPs: Northern Tories are in uproar after Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, took the decision to call in a planning application for Britain's first coal mine in 30 years in Cumbria.
  • The prime minister also faces a difficult day of headlines over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spoken of her five years of torture at the hands of the Iranian regime to independent investigators for the first time.
  • Sir Keir Starmer's plans to turn May's local elections into a referendum on the NHS pay dispute could be derailed by plans to increase nurses' wages by more than 2 per cent as ministers to try to defuse a mounting row, The Times has been told.
  • Meanwhile Scotland Yard faces an inquiry over an incident of indecent exposure allegedly involving the police officer suspected of the murder of Sarah Everard three days before she disappeared.
  • In the House: It's a long day of Private Members' Bills in the Commons. Keep an eye out for Tory MP Chris Loder's Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which has government backing and would extend prison terms for those convicted of cruelty to animals.
  • On Times Radio: David Challen, son of Sally Challen, speaks to Gloria de Piero about violence against women (10am); Jim Down, intensive care doctor and author, speaks to Giles Coren; as does Bunny Guinness, landscape and garden designer (1pm-4pm); and Professor Sue Black, forensic anthropologist, reflects on her career with Cathy Newman (6.30pm).
Miner difficulties
How Britain's first deep coal mine for 30 years is likely to look
The Conservative Party’s capacity for reinvention is almost endless but even its most heterodox thinkers would have struggled to convince me that its MPs would ever become the champions of Britain’s coal mining industry.

For decades cursed in the pit towns and villages of the north, Margaret Thatcher’s heirs now not only represent many of the places so scarred by memories of the miners’ strikes at Westminster, but are mounting a rebellion to save Britain’s first deep coal mine for 30 years.

Last night, after months of pressure from environmentalists, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, called in the planning application for Woodhouse Colliery in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Though already approved by councillors, everyone from the Liberal Democrats to Ed Miliband and John Kerry, Joe Biden’s climate envoy, had questioned the wisdom of opening a new mine in the year Britain holds the presidency of the COP26 climate conference.

To which Alok Sharma, who quit cabinet to run it, said: well, yes. The former business secretary had been privately irritated by Jenrick’s failure to call in the application in January.

His U-turn not only gives the mine’s many opponents the chance to kill the project once and for all but, more worryingly for Boris Johnson, opens up a new skirmish in Conservative Party’s culture war.

MPs in the Northern Research Group by and large support new mining developments — last year Jenrick rejected another at Highthorn in County Durham — on the grounds that they create skilled work. They also maintain that the coal in question is used for coking and steelmaking, not fuel, and that Britain will otherwise just import it from China and Russia anyway.

They were predictably furious last night. In a statement released by NRG spinners last night, Mark Jenkinson, the MP for neighbouring Workington, accused ministers of a “capitulation to climate alarmists” and described Jenrick's decision as a blow to the levelling-up agenda.

Meanwhile Lee Anderson, the only Conservative MP to have been a member of Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, complained to colleagues on WhatsApp last night: “Most of the Red Wall MPs have been vocal in supporting this mine. Now this.”

Green issues are at the heart of the government’s post-pandemic vision and it is tempting to write complaints such as these off as backbench criticism that can be safely ignored: modernisers can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

But just as central to this Conservative Party are MPs like Jenkinson and Anderson, who make up the PM’s majority and represent his new electorate in the country. Here’s another: Trudy Harrison, his parliamentary private secretary and, awkwardly, MP for the mine itself. She is now under serious pressure from colleagues who believe she should quit, which she is desperate not to do.

A little local difficulty, perhaps. And it is certainly true that the gulf between Westminster and Tory voters on climate is often overdone by hacks in search of a culture war. But there will be occasions where ministers have to choose between one agenda and the other, if only on symbolism. This is one of them.
Quote of the day
This represents a complete reversal of the position taken just eight weeks ago, and a capitulation to climate alarmists
Mark Jenkinson, Conservative MP
Polling the royals
Boris Johnson has done his best to pretend that there is nothing he could possibly say about this week’s royal controversy. Not for want of trying by Britain’s journalists, the prime minister has contributed very little by way of substantive comment to the debate over the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their allegations of racism against an unnamed member of the royal family.

It was, for once, something of a masterclass in communications. When the lobby asked Downing Street for comment on Monday morning, Johnson’s spokesman told reporters to wait for a press conference that afternoon.

Then when it arrived the PM offered the straightest answer it was possible to give in the circumstances. After expressing his admiration for the Queen, he said: “As for all other matters to do with the royal family, I have spent a long time now not commenting on Royal Family matters and I don't intend to depart from that today.”

It was a more substantial gesture than it appeared to be, not least because the PM has, in fact, commented on the royals before. In effect it put up a constitutional cordon sanitaire around the question. Arguably it would be weirder if a Tory prime minister hadn’t done so.

Yet as a difficult week for the royals comes to an end, what’s arguably more striking is the fact that his deference is far from the consensus position not just between the party leaders — Sir Keir Starmer was notably critical earlier this week — but even within his own party.

Last night Caroline Nokes, the former minister and chairwoman of the equalities select committee, told HuffPost that Buckingham Palace needed to make public how the Queen dealt with the Sussexes’ accusations of racism. And on Monday morning Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, responded to initial reports of the claims by implicitly accepting them: “Racism has no place in our society.”

As dissent goes, it is pretty mild and hardly Cromwellian. But is is criticism of an institution that the prime minister said in 2019 was “beyond reproach”. True, for all the hyperventilation about Oprah Winfrey having sparked the biggest crisis for the royals since the abdication, there has been no great explosion in republican sentiment.

But the monarchy is as political an institution as the Commons or Lords and maintaining consent for it in the coming decades will become a political challenge, as polling for Red Box by Redfield and Wilton makes clear.

The headline finding? 51 per cent of Britons want the crown to pass directly to Prince William after the Queen, while 31 per cent believe it should go to Prince Charles as normal. Yet the Prince of Wales has an approval rating of only 38 per cent, far lower than the Queen (59 per cent), William (58 per cent) and the Duchess of Cambridge (57 per cent).

As an institution, the monarchy is far more popular than its heir apparent too: 55 per cent say they support it, 16 per cent oppose it. Ask the question differently and the picture is less rosy for the royals but still far from fatal. Some 31 per cent, for instance, say the monarchy is unfit for purpose in modern Britain, while 30 per cent say there should be a referendum to retain it after the Queen passes away (though 52 per cent disagree).

And, in the event that one chose to ran, 37 per cent of people would vote for a “well-regarded member of the royal family” to become Britain’s first elected head of state. Only 27 per cent would vote for a well — regarded politician, if such a thing exists.

Crisis? Perhaps not. At least not yet. But, as Danny Finkelstein wrote earlier this week, the succession will demand Prince Charles reimagines a monarchy able to survive for the rest of this century. Political possibilities long dismissed will, if only slightly open up. Managing that fraught transition would be a difficult job for the Prince of Wales even without a public that is far from convinced that it wants him to do so.
Chart of the day
While the Conservative Party's yawning 13-point lead has fallen slightly since the morning after the budget, they remain nine points ahead of Labour in this week's YouGov poll for The Times.
Red Box: Comment
Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick
Vaccinating the homeless means no vulnerable person is left behind
Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick – Health and Communities Secretaries

"Until now people who are homeless were being offered their first jab based on individual risk, and we would like to thank councils for the excellent progress they have made so far. Now local teams can vaccinate all who are homeless based on their judgment. We are doing all we can to ensure that not having a roof over your head does not become a barrier to vaccination.

"The vaccination programme is the best way of getting us back to normal life, and reducing the risk for the most vulnerable in our society. We’ll stop at nothing to give everyone the protection and hope that a vaccine provides, so we can continue down our road to recovery."

Read the full article >
Zesha Saleem
Students are paying for experiences they won’t get and rooms they don’t live in
Zesha Saleem – Student and writer
Alexander Walker
We need a secretary of state for the Union
Alexander Walker – Freelance journalist
John Kampfner
TV should offer more than extreme bombast or extreme caution
John Kampfner – commentator
Scott Benton
Tories like me can’t afford to over-regulate their voters’ lives
Scott Benton – Conservative MP
The cartoon
Today's cartoon in The Times is by Peter Brookes
Worth your time
It's now been a quarter of century since Bill Clinton told America that "the era of big government is over", and Tony Blair promised to match John Major's spending plans, and don't we know it. As James Forsyth notes in his column this morning, the world has turned away from the small state: just look at Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus package or Boris Johnson's turn away from spending cuts.

He offers a cautionary word for subscribers to the new consensus: "In a new era of big government, attempts to boost productivity have to work because if they can’t succeed at boosting the growth rate, government will fail at everything else." Rishi Sunak agrees.

Over at the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson is thinking about a fourth lockdown, despite the surfeit of coronavirus good news. "When Britain reopens, we can expect a third wave of Covid. It won’t be nearly as big, thanks to the vaccines. But not everyone will be protected and no jab is 100 per cent effective. So we should expect more illness, hospitalisation and Covid deaths."

But to govern is to choose and soon, he argues, ministers will have to decide what level of risk we'll live with in future if they are to withstand the inevitable pressure for a fourth lockdown.

In the New Statesman, Stephen Bush departs from the conventional wisdom on the SNP's woes and argues that it's vaccines, not Alex Salmond, that have hurt Nicola Sturgeon's chances of a majority at Holyrood in May. Rishi Sunak is often spoken of as the Union's best hope, but maybe Matt Hancock is the next best thing.

James Marriott is always worth reading and as ever his latest is one to make you think. As you fill in the census, remember this: "Almost all of us are averagely intelligent, averagely agreeable people with predictable tastes in music and predictable political beliefs, leading the sorts of lives demographers contentedly expect of us." Well, not all of us turn in such thought-provoking copy so often.

In the wake of the disappearance of Sarah Everard, meanwhile, Hannah Rogers and Flora Henry share their experiences of navigating London's streets at night, as so many women have this week.
In yesterday's poll I asked you to identify yourselves with a class. To misquote John Prescott, Red Box readers are all middle class now — 74 per cent of you, anyway. Meanwhile 6 per cent identify as working class, 4 per cent as upper class, while 15 per cent of you went for none of the above.
Have your say
Yesterday I asked you how Labour and Sir Keir Starmer might win back working class voters.

David Innes: "Talk to Tony Blair, who won three elections."

Fiona Campbell: "Shift funding towards skills and open access courses for late developers, and ensure that the courses are well run and useful. Remove the oversupply of ideology and pretentious aims cluttering up education at all levels. These waste time, hide incompetent teachers and poor courses."

Steve Myers: "Promise to level up the north. Say the UK is better off outside the EU. Invest development money in northern marginal seats. Dye his hair blonde. Have a couple of affairs. Start quoting Latin phrases in a bumbling fashion at PMQs."

Patricia Judson: "Free this, free that, free the other."

Bill Giles: "Labour has forgotten how to woo the working class: their last working class leader was Jim Callaghan some 42 years ago."

Norma Hornby: "By challenging inequality and every form of deprivation in England’s poorest communities and by demonstrating a real commitment to address these issues without compromise or party division."

Kevin Alldred: "They should shine a light on Tory graft. Cosy contracts to friends and insiders with excess costs vastly outweighing the nurses pay rise. Hood Robin, robbing the voter to pay the rich."

TODAY: After Robert Jenrick called in Cumbria's controversial new coal mine, what controversial building project would you cancel? Email and we'll use some of the best tomorrow.
Today's trivia answer
Trivia question: Yehudi Menuhin, the virtuoso violinist, died on this day in 1999. Which British party leader did he have a close friendship with, playing at a memorial service for their first wife?

Answer: Jeremy Thorpe.

Send your trivia to
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