Why is HS2 so expensive?

Party season Unusually, the Conservatives are holding their party conference before the Labour party. It has become tradition that the Lib Dems hold theirs one week, Labour the next and the Conservatives the week after that, with the latter concluding in the first week of October. The tradition held even in 2020 when conferences moved online due to Covid. But there was a year when the normal conferences didn’t take place: 1974, when the second general election of the year was held during that time. Labour did, however, hold a shorter conference in late November in London. With October touted as a date for next year’s general election, we may

Is university still worth it?

Imagine that, just as Britain was closing down for the first Covid lockdown in the spring of 2020, you were 18 years old and had received an offer from the university of your choice, subject to good exam results. The grades proved to be no problem – with all exams cancelled, you were graded in accordance with your teacher’s estimate of how you would perform, and sailed through. But then the time came to go to university and you couldn’t – not properly, anyway. ‘Lots of students end up in jobs deemed to be low-skilled that would not need a degree in the first place’ You kept finding yourself imprisoned

Jonathan Ashworth: ‘We are at risk of a lost generation’

Jonathan Ashworth has started carrying a card in his shirt pocket. It’s the licence his father was given when he got a job in the 1970s at the Playboy casino in Manchester. ‘It’s silly, really. But it’s just a reminder that my dad was able to start a job as a croupier from a very poor working-class background in Salford and that completely changed his life,’ the shadow work and pensions secretary says when we meet in his Commons office. It was at the casino that his father met Ashworth’s mother – a Playboy bunny girl working as a waitress. ‘Every week, the Playboy bunny girls had to queue up

The civil service’s exercise in navel-gazing

Are you happy in your work? In 37 years of journalism I don’t remember once being asked that question by my bosses. Nor did I expect to be. But in the civil service there is a bureaucratic machine to make sure employees are asked once a year if everything is all right, dearie. At unpublicised cost, the People Survey invites penpushers to complain. Guess what – they do. Three mandarins explained this time-consuming exercise to the Commons public administration select committee. They were: Alex Chisholm, the civil service’s chief operating officer; Fiona Ryland, ‘government chief people officer’; Dr Claudia Roscini, head of the civil service People Survey team. The survey

Portrait of the week: Rise in sick leave, more rights for renters and moving mountains

Home The number of people not working due to long-term sickness rose to a record 2.5 million, many with mental sickness or back pain, according to the Office for National Statistics. Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said that income tax could be cut by 2p in the pound if Britons who had left the workforce during the pandemic returned to work. Pay growth in the public sector rose to 5.6 per cent, the highest rate since 2003. Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing union, said that the Health Secretary should ‘start off in double figures’ in pay negotiations. The Bank of England expected

Stop broadcasting your ‘personal news’

‘Some personal news! Delighted to announce I’ll be joining [insert major company] as the new [insert extremely impressive-sounding, well-paid, prestigious job title] this week! It’s been great working at [insert other major, if slightly less gleaming company] but I’m so [insert word denoting excitement or thrill, including “excited” and “thrilled”] at what the future holds! You can find me at [new prestigious institutional email address].’ It is no exaggeration to say that over the past week, half of my Twitter feed has been composed of alerts that follow this exact script. As the trickle thickened to a deluge, I wondered if there was some secret spoof going on. Were they

The myth of the career woman

The image of the single, childless ‘career woman’ is drawn so sharply in our minds, so deeply ingrained in culture and overused in media, it obfuscates the real story. Contrary to popular belief, most working women are not putting their careers ahead of love, marriage and motherhood. Never mind that there are no ‘career men’ – no one accuses a single, childless man of prioritising career over love and family just because he’s single and can pay the rent. But women are made to wear this label – though I have yet to meet a woman who has declined a date with a guy she’s interested in because she’d rather

Britain needs more honesty about unemployment

Is low unemployment causing us more problems than we realise? The suggestion might seem absurd, offensive even. It’s reminiscent of the days of Mrs Thatcher’s supposedly ‘cruel’ monetarism, when we had three million unemployed. Some on the fringes liked to argue that unemployment was good for the economy because it made people work harder, being fearful for their jobs. Mass redundancies would not, of course, help the economy now or at any other time. If a million people were to lose their jobs, as happened in the early 1980s, that would be a million households suffering a collapse in the spending power. As well as a human tragedy, it would

Did P&O use an EU loophole?

Brexit, as Boris reminded us many times during the referendum campaign, would give Britain the power to make its own laws, unencumbered by constant directives from the European Commission. But it will take a long while to disentangle UK laws from the influence of the EU, as the government may be about to discover in its attempt to punish P&O ferries for sacking 800 workers and replacing them with agency staff. It will take a long while to disentangle UK laws from the influence of the EU At last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson declared that P&O had contravened section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992,

What the P&O debacle really tells us about Brexit

It goes without saying that sacking your entire staff via a ten-minute video call while their cheaper, foreign replacements sit outside in buses is a pretty disgusting way to treat people. True, P&O’s cross-Channel operation has been rendered unprofitable as a result of Covid, but this wasn’t a case of a headcount reduction or management urging pay restraint until the company can get back on its feet again. It was a wholesale dismissal of workers, plenty of whom will have had decades of service. No wonder some refused to leave their ships. How ironic, however, that so many of the biggest critics of P&O this week are ardent Remainers. What

In Japan, being a token westerner is big business

About ten years ago I was interviewed in Tokyo for a job as a fake Catholic priest, performing wedding ceremonies for Japanese couples who wanted the aesthetics of a Christian service without all the hassle of actually being Christian. In a room cluttered with tacky plastic religious paraphernalia I watched a training video of the company’s ‘top man’, an American Tom Cruise-lookalike in a cassock, ‘marrying’ a young couple. I was offered the job and it paid well but, fearing I might fluff my lines, collapse into giggles or, worst of all, come face to face with an ex-girlfriend approaching down the aisle, I turned it down. That was the

Bad news, Governor: the wage-rise spiral is already raging

I’ve had the opportunity recently to take part in wage-rise discussions for several small entities in which I’m involved. The conversation has been much the same everywhere. ‘How about we offer them 3 per cent?’ ‘But that’s less than current inflation and they didn’t have a rise when they were on furlough last year.’ ‘So how about 5 per cent?’ ‘Safer to say 7, but they’d still be worse off than before the pandemic. And they’ll get 10 per cent or better if they move anywhere else.’ All of which was perfectly confirmed by official figures this week: annual pay settlements running at 3.7 per cent but (because so many

Lionel Shriver

What’s to become of Africa’s teeming youth?

Demographers are attached to their theories. The field’s most enduring is the ‘demographic transition’, whereby modernisation inexorably lowers a society’s once-high fertility to replacement rate. Unfortunately, reality is obstreperous and doesn’t always obey the rules. The United Nations Population Division bases population projections on the assumption that all countries will eventually follow the pattern of plummeting birth rates first observed across the West. Edward Paice’s Youthquake addresses the exception so far: Africa. The continent is hardly a minor asterisk. Although for many regions demographic forecasts for this century have been ratcheting downwards, in the past 20 years the UNPD has had to revise its median-variant forecast for Africa by 2050 upwards

Douglas Murray

Work is no place for your ‘whole self’

One of the few things I have learned in this life is that Dante Alighieri was wrong. In the Inferno portion of The Divine Comedy (the only part most people read), the great Florentine poet describes hell as having just nine circles. Whereas whenever I survey matters it has always seemed me that this figure is on the low side. In fact I would go further. I would say that if you look down there is always a circle below every circle. The other week I wrote about our nation’s ambassador to the Ukraine — a woman who seems to think that expressions of vulnerability and not-quite-coping are somehow helpful

Who survived the sinking of the Titanic?

Prime numbers As of 29 January Boris Johnson will have been Prime Minister for two years and 190 days. Currently he is 38th out of 55th in the list of longest-serving PMs, sandwiched between Henry Campbell-Bannerman, whom he overtook on 22 November, and Spencer Perceval, the only PM to have been assassinated. Johnson will have to survive in office until 1 March to overtake Perceval. If he is still in Downing Street on 6 June, he will have overtaken Gordon Brown. He would overtake Theresa May on 5 August and Jim Callaghan on 23 August. Men overboard A new exhibition challenges the idea that women and children aboard the Titanic

Boris’s hostage to fortune

Most prime ministers would be worried about supply chain shortages. But as became increasingly clear at the Tory party conference in Manchester, Boris Johnson has instead spotted a political opportunity. He denies there is a crisis and claims that the recent ‘stresses and strains’ amount to nothing more than the economy reawakening after lockdown. As for the worker shortages, he believes they are proof of a ‘robust economy’ which will result in people being paid more. This has been the Tories’ theme in Manchester: set up a dividing line between a government that wants workers to be paid more and those who want to ‘reach for the same old lever

It is hard to take Sunak’s jobs plan seriously

At some point, Rishi Sunak is going to need to pick a lane. There is only so long that the Chancellor can claim to believe that excessive borrowing is immoral while borrowing to such excess. His trick yesterday was to make all the right noises about restraint while unrolling a £500 million ‘plan for jobs’. Take away his earnest delivery and it’s still not clear whether he’s the boozer at the bar telling the world about the dangers of alcoholism, or the sensible friend ordering the taxi home. Let’s be fair. Sunak has had to deal with exceptional circumstances in the last 18 months, and is taking steps to cease

Was furlough the worst £70 billion ever spent?

Concorde obviously. The Iraq War perhaps? Or Scottish devolution? It is not hard to come up with a list of really terrible ideas that the British government has wasted money on over the last 50 years. Even so, and despite some tough competition, we now have a fresh contender. It looks as if the furlough scheme will top them all. The scheme ends today, with roughly a million people still collecting a slice of their wages from the Treasury. The total bill is set to come in at around £70 billion. To put that in context, for the same money we could have tripled spending on policing and just about

The pandemic’s employment paradox

The pandemic continues to cause surprising events in the labour market — and challenges too, many of which were wholly unanticipated when the Covid crisis began. Today’s update from the Office for National Statistics on labour market numbers is case-in-point: the unemployment rate again, down to 4.6 per cent from May to July. Forecasts of nearly 12 per cent unemployment, once predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, are long in the past. The furlough scheme has starved off an unemployment surge and there’s good reason to think it’s been avoided altogether. Over one and a half million people were still on furlough at the end of July. But even

How to solve the looming pigs-in-blankets crisis

This is getting serious. Never mind global shortages of microchips, plastics, copper and container ships; now we’re running out of pigs in blankets. The British Meat Processing Association says its members are so understaffed that annual production of 40 million packs of this popular pork item for the Christmas market is under threat. The British public have so far stoically accepted occasional empty supermarket shelves as a pandemic knock-on, to be blamed in part on necessary pinging of key workers and delivery drivers and in part on neighbours’ stockpiling, rather than on systemic government cock-up. But if the succulent sausage-in-bacon delicacy is nowhere to be found, trouble will surely follow.