Keir Starmer

Back in 2016 I went to see Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership rally in Leeds when he was being challenged in the aftermath of the EU referendum by Owen Smith. One of the main reasons (apart from being sad and nerdy enough to have thought going to a political speech was a fun use of a free evening) for going was that I wanted to see and hear first hand what Corbyn had to say and to get a feel for who he was talking to and how it was received, without the intervention of the media. I found that, perhaps surprisingly, in person, Corbyn didn’t come across all that differently to how even our apparently hideously biased mainstream media reported him.

A lot has happened since then (!) and when I find a moment I’ll write up my reflections on the 2019 General Election campaign (as I did for the 2017 Election) when I was the election agent for the Conservative Candidate in Leeds North West. One of the big things that has come out from the result of the General Election is that Labour is once again looking to choose a new Leader (and Deputy). As far as I can tell, the hustings events being put on by the Labour Party itself are restricted to members and others who have a vote (and the media – they are also streamed live), as was the case for the hustings for the Conservative leadership campaign last summer (which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to write up). But individual candidate events don’t have to be – not least because due to GDPR, the candidates themselves ought not to have access to the lists of members and affiliates. So this meant I was able to go to Leeds Minster on a chilly Friday evening in January to hear what the likely front runner in the contest, Sir Keir Starmer QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, MP for Holborn & St Pancras and Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, had to say. One thing that we should have learned from the last few years is that the quality of the Opposition and the approach it takes can have a significant bearing on what the government of the day can do, as well as making the case (or otherwise) for what it might do were it to form the government itself. So it is important not just for the Labour Party who it chooses, but for everyone.

Obviously as a Conservative member and constituency association chair, I will not pretend to be unbiased, but I will try to be fair in my summary of what Starmer had to say. Whether my commentary on it is fair is for you to judge.

Keir Starmer at Leeds Minster 17/1/20

The first thing to note is that the event was very different in feel to the Corbyn rally. Indeed, it doesn’t really sit right to describe it as a rally at all, more a speaker meeting. There was no real stage management and only two other speakers. So there were no queues round the block or an undercard of other speakers who could address the room while Starmer stood on a soapbox outside to give an impromptu speech to those locked out of the room. More than half the session was given over to questions and answers from the floor – this was much more of a listening exercise than a mere broadcast. One of my comments in my blog of the Corbyn rally was half-jokingly, that I’d have feared to have mentioned quite liking Hilary Benn (in whose seat both events took place) let alone outing myself as a Tory. At the Starmer event, I was spotted by the chief of staff for the Labour MP who I’d spent 6 weeks last year campaigning against. We had a nice chat and I went to take my seat. Different times.

The first speaker was the Priest in charge of Leeds Minster welcoming everyone. He turned out to be the most witty and humorous of the three – joking that he didn’t need to give out any information about fire alarms, because the church didn’t have one, and that after pointing out the exits, if they were all blocked, he’d pray for us. One lady sat behind me commented “he’s good, we should have him as our leader”. So plus one to the Church of England.

Next up was Cllr Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council. She spoke briefly and unsurprisingly about the cuts to local government expenditure over the last 10 years and how all the leadership candidates needed to set out what they proposed for local government. She commented “Isn’t it cool to be from the North now?!”. This was the lead in to how she knew that “our aspirations have been raised but we know the promises won’t be delivered” but unintentionally also gave away quite how successful Boris Johnson and the Conservatives had been in appealing to people outside London. The perceived London-centricity of Labour in the Corbyn era was a theme which cropped up several times later in the event and Starmer himself representing a London seat seems to be something he is conscious he has to “deal with” in a way that neither Johnson nor Hunt felt the need to when I went to their hustings in York last summer. Cllr Blake ended by introducing Starmer as having likely spent several of his happiest years in Leeds as he had studied at Leeds University.

Keir Starmer’s speech

In this section I will precis what Starmer said, using his own words as much as possible and not commenting myself until the end. I won’t attempt a defence or rebuttal of his argument here.

Starmer started his speech on that theme by announcing “I love Leeds” and mentioning that apart from having studied here he also came back several times a year to work with the Leeds University Law Faculty. He then addressed the issue of support for local government by saying that the last few years had been very tough for councils which had had their budgets cut and how councillors were “the last line of defence and the first line of support” and how his local council (Camden) had twinned with Leeds to share best practice to learn from the innovative solutions Leeds had found. He then moved on to the main part of his speech.

He said that the General Election result was devastating. That there was no hiding from it and no pretending there was any good in it. Labour needed to identify each and every reason for losing and to address each and every one and to tackle each and every one. This arranging of points by repetition of phrasing in groups of three is of course a very common rhetorical method and its deliberate use here and throughout was a reminder why Starmer was a very successful barrister before entering Parliament. I think he often comes across on TV as rather wooden, but in a live setting you get more of a feel for him speaking calmly, methodically and persuasively to a jury.

He said that it was important to focus on why they lost seats in “traditional Labour areas” in the North but noted that if all Labour did was win them back at the next election it would still lose and be in the same position it was in in 2015 or at best 2017. Having started the 2019 campaign in Scotland with 7 MPs and dozens of seats having small majorities, they should have ended it with 20-25 MPs rather than one. The task was to win everywhere across the UK (sic). They’ve lost 4 General Elections in a row and losing a fifth in 2024 would mean the longest period out of power for Labour since WW2. But there was a mountain to climb.

He went on to say that he believed that he didn’t think there had ever been a time when the country didn’t need a Labour government more than it did now. It wasn’t just income inequality that had risen but inequalities of all sorts – life expectancy was falling and within the space of a mile and a half in his own constituency there was a disparity of 10 years in life expectancy between the richest and poorest. The moral fight against poverty and inequality had not disappeared just because of the General Election result. So Labour needs to be very clear about what to do:

  1. Unite: No more division and factionalism. No more fighting each other. No more asking “which bit of the Party are you from?” Divided parties do not win. He wants tolerance. His experience running the CPS is that this needs to be modelled by behaviours from the top.
  2. Be a very effective opposition: In his time since being elected in 2015 he has faced three Tory PMs and Boris is by far the worst of the lot. Theresa May had a deep sense of public service so he could trust that there were some things she simply would not do. Boris doesn’t. He doesn’t care. He will do or say anything to stay in power and he doesn’t know truth from untruth. He’s already stripped out the commitment in the Withdrawal Bill from before the election on unaccompanied minors – a disgraceful thing and the Queen’s Speech started an attack on Trade Unions, limiting the rights to strike of rail workers. An effective opposition needs to be seen to win the arguments in Parliament and the media but it won’t win many if any votes in the Commons. It needs evidence. It needs to start from fighting hard in the local elections. It doesn’t have 4 years it has to start now. Boris doesn’t like being confronted.
  3. Forge its way to victory at the next General Election: If you’re in Opposition you are losing. You aren’t changing lives. In his first year as an MP he voted 172 times and lost 171 times. That’s opposition and it does nothing.

Underlying these three tasks were the values and principles he would lead Labour by:

  1. Do not trash the last Labour government: It achieved many great things (Sure Start, building lots of schools and hospitals). It didn’t get everything right (Starmer opposed the Iraq war).
  2. Do not trash the last 4 years: Corbyn was right about being anti-austerity, about investing in public services, in industry, in a Green New Deal.
  3. Focus on the future: Now it is the next manifesto that counts. It needs to be forward looking into the 2020s. The party that looks after the vulnerable needs to be brave enough to say that free market trickle down economics doesn’t work and a new economic model where government sets the parameters to focus on long term investment rather than short termism, climate proofing and protection of workers.
  4. More power to local government: decisions about people should be made by bodies closer to them is the thing to take away from why so many supported Brexit.
  5. Green New Deal: It is the only way. Some argue that if a measure is not good for the economy it is not a good way to save the environment. He believes that this should be turned around so that if something is not good for the environment it cannot be good for the economy.
  6. Internationalism: Peace and justice and human rights based foreign policy.

These are, he believes, radical and relevant ways in which Labour can change lives. It is how they will get a hearing. By spelling out a better future, like they did when they achieved the NHS, the welfare state, decriminalisation of homosexuality, Sure Start, the Good Friday Agreement. Making impossible dreams possible.

He finished by calling for people to support him by being alongside him, not behind him. It will be tough, but they have a chance to shape the Party and the future. He wanted to give hope back and he was not standing to become the next Labour leader but to become the next Labour Prime Minister.

Some observations: the tone of the speech was very measured and rather dry. Even though in content politically it sought to retain many of the main themes of the 2019 Labour manifesto, it was a long way away from the style of Corbyn. Although there were repeated references to Sure Start as the totemic policy of the Blair era, there was none of the pantomime call and response worship of the NHS that Corbyn spent a long section of his 2016 speech on. It was a practical pitch for what needed to be done to win, synthesising Labour history, the achievements of the last Labour government and the last Labour leadership. The nearest to passion came from his clear distaste and distrust of Boris Johnson and I think an implicit belief that he is best placed to dismantle him forensically. That is probably true, but I can’t help but think back to 97-01 when William Hague, who is also a very good speaker and debater, regularly outperformed Blair at the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions but this had absolutely no traction whatsoever when it came to the subsequent election. Similarly, if you go back and read the Hansard reports of debates on Gordon Brown’s reforms to financial services regulation and granting independence to the Bank of England, the Shadow Chancellor and other Opposition figures (including, interestingly, Diane Abbott, who gave some particularly forensic speeches in a lonely place on the government back benches at the time) pretty much foresaw and warned against precisely the sorts of things which ended up contributing to the environment for the crash in 2008. Being right in retrospect and expressing that clearly and forcefully doesn’t mean you win when you could do something about it.

There is also a risk in taking a morally righteous line as considered in this Spectator article.

Q&A

Questions were taken in groups of three or four but I set them out one at a time with their answer. I prefer questions in these sessions to come one at a time but can understand that this risks limiting the number of questions that get put and ending up with questions turning into a debate between the audience member and speaker, which can result in a loss of control without a very firm chair.

A Councillor from Morley & Outwood (Ed Balls’ old seat, in which Andrea Jenkyns increased her majority in December) raised the issue of Adult Social Care and asked what approach Starmer would take to the cross party discussions Boris had proposed (interestingly calling Boris by his first name).

Starmer replied that this was a big issue and there was a desperate need for change. Dignity should be put at the heart of social care. He would always enter cross party talks if there was a chance of improvement, as he did in the Brexit talks offered by Theresa May. But he doesn’t trust Johnson. He’d do the talks but they’d need to be clear on their outcome and he doesn’t know what Johnson is proposing.

This answer seemed a little vague or deliberately evasive on what Starmer’s own position beyond “dignity” in care was going to be. Nobody is going to propose a care system which doesn’t focus on dignity, even if you might think that some might deliver one. It is a difficult area politically (as May found out in 2017), but this can be contrasted with his competitor Jess Phillips, who has at least set out what she would like to see (free social care and for it to be funded by taxation). While it will play well to a Labour member audience and might be justifiable, is the degree of bare mistrust of Boris actually a viable negotiating stance? The reference back to the ill-fated negotiation with May over Brexit reminded me of the exasperated comments that came back from those meetings that when Starmer’s own publicly stated words on Brexit were quoted back at him he entirely disagreed with them and in an interview when asked which specific changes he wanted to May’s Withdrawal Agreement, he didn’t have any and admitted that it would allow for Labour’s proposed future relationship agreement to be negotiated were it to be passed unamended and Labour to form the government that negotiated it. These are potential traps for someone who is running on the basis of providing effective and constructive opposition against a PM who won a large majority in part based on having made the opposition to Brexit seem like game playing.

Another audience member asked what Starmer’s specific priorities were.

He replied that on the economy, it was very important to refocus both public and private investment decisions to being looked at on a long term basis and short term investment decisions should be discouraged. Regional Investment Banks lending on long term returns would drive this. On the Green New Deal, it was easy to set targets for the public sector but he wanted these to apply to the private sector too and that businesses should be required to report to Companies House on environmental measures as well as their finances. On Trade and Foreign Policy, these should be driven by a human rights basis. Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade deals properly.

The question was interesting and perceptive because it highlighted how limited Starmer’s speech had been in terms of policy specifics. The answer didn’t go much further than reiterating a couple of policies from the 2019 manifesto and recasting foreign policy in similar terms to those used by Robin Cook. That’s not necessarily bad (it is part of his first and second “values and principles” of not trashing either the last Labour government or the last Labour leadership). But it doesn’t tell of a particular new and distinctively Starmerite thing he might be driven to achieve beyond being a continuation of Labour past, smoothing the factional edges. Is that something to appeal to the broader public?

A Leeds University Student said she’d been let down by the mental health services available to students and asked what he’d do about it.

He replied that mental health was shockingly underfunded and it is something highly prevalent in society. This was the impact of cutting public services.

This didn’t really answer the question.

A wag asked who he would have as his Shadow Chancellor.

He said he was focused on the leadership election and not appointing people to positions. Whoever it is needs to see the need for fundamental change and to share his vision to be bolder than before and not just fiddling round the edges.

The first part of this is a classic politician answer and it makes perfect sense for him not to set out who his team would be ahead of the election – he might well have in mind one of the candidates for leader or deputy leader who he will arguing against for the next 3 months. Just as Boris appointed Sajid Javid to be his Chancellor but might not have said so at the beginning of a campaign in which Javid was a competitor for leader. The second half was more interesting in that it hinted at going beyond the approach of John McDonnell, itself considered radical enough to have had McDonnell wargaming responses to major levels of capital flight and other serious economic instabilities in the first days of him entering Number 11.

Someone asked how he would work more closely with the Greens and SNP who shared Labour values.

He said that where he could, he should, just as he’d done on Brexit, but that he was working for a Labour government.

Well, what else was he going to say? I suspect that he was biting back the temptation to say that the SNP did not share Labour values, having again wiped them out in Scotland as was implicit in his comment in his speech about how if Labour had succeeded in the General Election it ought to have come out with 20-25 Scots Labour MPs.

A former councillor from Elmet and Rothwell (another Conservative held seat whose predecessor seat was held by Labour in the form of Richard Burgon’s uncle, and in which Alec Shelbrooke MP in 2019 won the vote in every polling district of every ward) commented that in the town he was from, the last Labour councillor had been lost to the Lib Dems and asked how seats like that could be won back.

Starmer replied by saying he had visited lots of leave voting towns already. He supported innovation. He wouldn’t talk towns down. He’d come and visit. Whenever he visits towns, like Leigh, where he’d been recently, nobody complains he’s from London, they always appreciate him coming to listen to them.

This was easily his weakest answer in a lot of ways. First, he showed he hadn’t done much local research, even if Elmet and Rothwell is not a target seat for Labour, as nothing much he said had any relevance to it or the towns in it. One thing which I remember from the Conservative hustings was that there was a question about infrastructure investment in Yorkshire. In his answer, Boris volunteered that he was in favour of making the A64 dual carriageway all the way to Scarborough. Hunt was asked specifically about the A64 and replied that he didn’t know the road itself and would have to look it up. This was interesting because it showed that Boris had been briefed AND for someone generally criticised for being too lazy to do the reading, had actually taken in a point about a local issue. It is an easy trick to do, if you believe it worth at least sounding like you care about the place you are visiting. Hunt’s answer was not bad and the right and honest thing to say when you don’t know rather than bluffing. Starmer in his answer could have just admitted he knew nothing of any of the towns in Elmet and Rothwell but would be interested to hear their issues with Labour (Wetherby and Boston Spa are somewhat different from Leigh).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the loss of “towns” is something which is being made an issue of by at least one of his competitors (Lisa Nandy) who has at least tried to listen to people in seats like her own to understand why they were moving away from Labour. The New Statesman recently commented that the issue was not so much towns themselves but their demographic of older, less likely to have gone to university, voters, who Labour lost in large numbers even in Corbyn’s own seat, but who are a larger proportion of some Midlands and Northern “town” seats. To not address either the “town” issue or the demographic one might be a mistake.

A guy called Des said “I’m fed up of losing. I want to know how we can win. I voted twice for Jeremy but knew he couldn’t deliver what he was promising. What do we do?”

Starmer replied that he too was fed up of losing. He totally respected the other candidates. He felt he had the skills and leadership needed as he had run a big organisation when he headed the Crown Prosecution Service. You need to pull people together to work together. He’s radical and has devoted his life to fighting for the powerless, his first big work was a legal challenge to pit closures. “I’ve never walked on by any injustice”.

Again, this wasn’t much of an answer in my opinion. Apart from the experience of leading the CPS, it could have been said by any other candidate. Or Corbyn. Which doesn’t address why he could deliver beyond having had senior management experience his competitors don’t.

A young woman from Sheffield asked how he as a white, middle class man in his 50s could represent those who weren’t any of those things (to the only “hear hears” of the evening).

He replied that his dad was a toolmaker and his mum a nurse. He knew what it was like to have little money. His mum became ill and was in hospital a lot. He worked in a factory for a year before coming to Leeds to go to University. It shouldn’t be that you need to trail your background but he finds himself having to do so because people make assumptions about him. He then told a story of a young person being stabbed to death in his constituency and him quietly going with the leader of Camden Council to visit their mum to comfort and console her. They didn’t tell anyone and she didn’t care that he was a white man.

I share his frustration at being asked the question as the logical consequence of it would be that nobody could be leader or PM because their own personal characteristics would not be representative of many people who didn’t share them. But in part that is a characteristic of policies and approaches Labour has long taken, whether in its rhetoric about the working classes or in more modern identitarian/privilege discourses. So Labour politicians need to be able to address such questions or move their party on from such discourse. It is also slightly odd to talk of going to comfort the mother of a stabbing victim without publicising it, by publicising it. It reminds me of the Harry Enfield/Paul Whitehouse DJ Smashie and Nicey characters who’d talk respectfully of celebrities “does a lot of good work for charidee, doesn’t like to talk about it”.

A Co-operative Party member from Barnsley asked about the role of co-operatives in doing the things local government no longer had the funding to do.

Starmer replied that he’d loved going to the Co-operative conference. Lots of people talking about doing things and no procedural motions all day. He thought the co-operative movement was a great way of delivering change from the bottom up.

Not a lot of substance in question or answer. A bit of an in joke for the audience, used to going to party meetings filled with procedural point taking.

A lady from York said that she’d long been a Unison member but never active as a member of Labour. After the election, inspired by Starmer’s approach to Brexit, her children had joined and persuaded her to join to support him. How could he make people understand that Labour is patriotic and cares about people outside London? How can Starmer avoid being labelled as boring just because he cares about substance?

He replied that the media vilified Corbyn. When he was campaigning on the doorstep, people brought out media lines whole and they amplified Tory lies. He said there were 80-90 clear examples of such lies. But this can’t excuse Labour’s losses. Every Labour leader gets it and has to deal with it. As for patriotism, everyone in Labour is patriotic, why would they go out in all weathers campaigning if they weren’t willing to give up their time and energy to make things better for the country. That is the deepest sense of patriotism.

This was a slightly odd and stilted answer to someone who had personally been inspired by Starmer and wanted him to be able to inspire more broadly. On the patriotism point, while some Labour supporters might disagree, the reality is that almost everybody supporting any party, and certainly those who gave up their time pounding the streets and knocking on doors in the cold, wet and dark of a December election are doing so because they believe their Party or their candidate would make things better for the country. As a Conservative Association chair and election agent who organised a campaign, I know that people who aren’t that fussed about the issues are really not going to bother. It is nice to recognise that effort as patriotic, but it isn’t something that distinguishes Labour supporters, however much they’d like to believe it does. The questioner wasn’t, I think, looking for such soft soap, but was pointing at the perception that Corbyn, who has often in the past taken positions which are not entirely unfairly characterised as being against the interests of the UK, wasn’t patriotic. To skirt around that by talking about media vilification and Tory lies might get a pass in a meeting like this, but won’t for whoever becomes Labour leader when they are addressing a public which doesn’t believe it has been lied to in forming its view of Corbyn. Particularly when making an apparent reference to a study “proving” that 88% of Conservative facebook ads were lies (the “80-90 clear examples” Starmer mentions) when closer examination showed it was itself extremely misleading. It is understandable that he didn’t even attempt to refute the suggestion that his focus on detail might make him seem boring, but I think the questioner made a good point that this is something which does need to be addressed in the context of taking a forensic approach to opposition.

Conclusions

It was an interesting evening and my feeling beforehand that Starmer is probably the most credible and effective candidate at the job of trying to win the next General Election for Labour was confirmed. While I didn’t expect him to be addressing his approach to me as a supporter of his opponents, a sign that he was closer to being able to doing that (which is how elections are won – by getting people who used to vote for the other lot to vote for you) than Labour ever was under Corbyn. Not least by the fact that I felt a good deal safer in a room full of his supporters. I think that he’s right to be looking to form a conscientious, productive and effective opposition to take Boris on rather than just to shout slogans and tales of woe at him and the public. I’m glad that there wasn’t the hint of a chant or a song. But like the last questioner, I do wonder whether a movement which was so energised by Corbyn will feel the same way for someone who is infinitely more competent and analytic, but not a whole load of fun. And whether people who don’t think a couple of hours in a church listening to a politician is a good sort of Friday night (ie 99%+ of people) and who generally don’t pay a lot of attention to the minutiae of politics and policy, will think him more appealing than Boris. Maybe everything in the next few years will be so obviously and irremediably terrible that it won’t matter and people will gladly vote for a safe and sensible pair of hands. But relying on people’s lives getting generally and unignorably worse is not, I think an attractive approach, and it is doomed to failure if people in 2024 conclude that actually things are OK or better, just like Boris said against all the “doomsters”. If he’s Tigger, best be Wol than Eeyore.

Cycling The Netherlands Randstad

Three years ago, Oli and I had a great time cycling the route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal and we’d planned to do another cycling holiday ever since. Apart from being fun, being a bit adventurous rather than just sitting by a pool for a week means there’s a sense of achievement and a lot of experiences to remember from the holiday. The Netherlands was an obvious choice for us as we’re not big fans of hill climbs on bikes and The Netherlands is famous for being bike friendly (for the rest of this blog I’ll refer to Holland as in fact our route only took us through North and South Holland and we didn’t get to the rest of The Netherlands). But we didn’t realise until we got there quite how bike friendly it was! The Randstad (literally “rim city”) route starts in the Hook of Holland, taking in The Hague and North Sea coast, then inland to Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gouda, Rotterdam and then back to Hook of Holland for the ferry home. Altogether about 200 miles, give or take and depending on precise route.

Our trusty steeds taking a break on our last afternoon at Suider Strand

Our last trip was when Oli was 9 and I wasn’t entirely sure how well he would cope with cycling 30+ miles a day so I carried all our luggage. Now he was 12 he could carry panniers on his bike too! This was helpful as we were away for 9 days rather than just 4 so would need to carry more stuff. But it also meant that it was time to get him a new, bigger bike as a (very) early birthday present. His Trek Dual Sport 2 Hybrid was a very comfortable ride and did the trick – thanks to Matthew at All Terrain Cycles for his expert help in choosing the bike. It really helps to have someone who has been on a similar trip to advise what would be appropriate. While front suspension was not entirely necessary (my steel tourer has rigid forks and was fine), it helped with comfort and the weight penalty is insignificant when you’re already carrying 10-15kg of luggage.

When planning the trip I used Cycling in Amsterdam and The Netherlands by Eric van der Horst as a guide. This was useful for planning, understanding the rules of the road for cyclists and getting a feel for what there was to see and what could be done within each day, but in practice was unhelpful as a route map when actually on the bike. A large part of this is because the infrastructure for cycling within and between places in Holland is so good and so well signposted that a route guide which deliberately deviates from the clearly marked and signposted official direct and scenic routes is difficult to use without having it open all the time and trusting it over the natural routes. However, one very useful thing about the book was that it showed that if we took the Hull-Rotterdam ferry (which would have been most convenient for us living in Leeds) it would add about 10 miles to the beginning and end of our trip, all of which would be riding through the docks at Rotterdam. Instead we booked to go from Harwich to Hook of Holland, which was also quite a lot cheaper.

As for Dutch cycling infrastructure, it is almost unimaginable to someone used to cycling in Britain. It is not just because there are lots of cycle paths but because of how useful and well-constructed they are. Often in Britain, cycle paths in towns stop and start abruptly, taking you on detours to avoid main roads but irritating by being obviously long ways round and off road paths can be rudimentary and uncomfortable (eg much of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal “path” away from the main towns and cities is no more than a rut in the grass). In The Netherlands pretty much every road has a cycle path and even those that don’t, drivers give priority to cyclists. But that barely scratches the surface. The cycle paths themselves are well paved and exist between places as well as within towns and villages. They are as well signposted and direct as “ordinary roads” because they are considered ordinary roads. The most impressive are the paths at each roundabout. Even as a learner car driver, roundabouts in the UK can be somewhat daunting. Dutch roundabouts are an absolute breeze for cyclists with a whole concentric ring outside the one for drivers which drivers must stop to give way when crossing – cyclists just need to look left to make sure they don’t cut up other cyclists!

As we were on holiday, we weren’t planning on doing mammoth distances each day. Our longest day was 36.2 miles, which is comparable to our longest day on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal trip. But doing it on paths which Oli described as being like motorways for bikes was a lot easier and we realised at the end of the holiday that we could probably have done the whole trip (187.7 miles) in less than half the time quite comfortably. We were a lot faster than we were 3 years ago due to the better surfaces, which meant that we got a lot more time to explore the places we stopped at each day than I had expected. As we were enjoying the views we tended to average 10-11 miles an hour which we realised in towns when being effortlessly overtaken by OAPs and parents laden with one or more child on the standard Dutch sit up and beg bikes (and one man riding with his arm in a sling), was not too quick! We did feel a bit better about this when we worked out that many of those cycling in towns were on e-Bikes.

Cycling in the UK is still a lot about exercise as well as transport so using an electrically assisted bike seems like a bit of a cheat, but in Holland, where cycling is just the standard way in which almost everyone gets around even for short distances (the big trade off on road space is not so much taking away from drivers but from pedestrians and there were times when walking was a little fraught!), there’s no concept of it being cheating any more than taking a tram would be. This is also why people cycle in the clothes they need for where they are going rather than for how they’re getting there. Hardly anyone wears a helmet unless they are deliberately going extra fast for sport (the fastest routes often have 30kmh speed limit sections and speed cameras). Otherwise, as the risk of being knocked off by a car or van is so low, there’s no need. That said, it did take some getting used to cycle paths also being used by motor scooters, particularly near-silent electric ones which were a bit of a menace).

Day One

So, on to the trip itself (at last!). We took the overnight Stena ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Getting the bikes on and secured was very easy and the crew on the car deck were very helpful. Probably the steepest climb we had to do all trip was the ramp from the waiting area to the ferry! The ferry crossing was very comfortable and civilised in a cabin. A world away from the last time I took the Harwich ferry for a holiday with friends to Amsterdam 25 years ago as foot passengers when we tried and failed to sleep on the sofas when someone managed to get into the DJ booth and played the only record they could find over and over again (the 12″ of Livin’ Joy’s Dreamer). We landed at 8am local time and were out and on the road within minutes and 10 minutes later were on the scenic coastal cycle path heading towards The Hague. The weather was fine and sunny but not too hot (unlike the week before when temperatures locally had hit 39C). We very quickly realised that despite cycling quite sedately we had by 10am nearly reached the outskirts of The Hague but couldn’t get into our room until 3pm. So we stopped for a drink at a beach restaurant at Suider Strand, Kijkduin. But it seemed too early to drop anchor so we set off again and headed towards our hotel, hoping to be able to drop off our bags before exploring The Hague. There’d be more time for the seaside later. Or so we thought.

Zeta Beds on Grote Markt where we stayed in The Hague

My dad worked in the Merchant Navy and when I was little we often used to travel with him on the ship. When I was about 2, we must have been on one of these trips while his ship was docked in Rotterdam and my mum took me to Madurodam. Madurodam is a park filled with miniature models of many of the most famous sights and buildings in The Netherlands. As a little boy, I was apparently captivated by the models and cried “I want to play with them” but was told I couldn’t. Unfortunately my mum couldn’t find the photos I remember we had of a tiny me in tears at the unfairness of being offered up an incredible set of toys I wasn’t allowed to play with. So, with more time in The Hague than I’d planned on, I persuaded Oli that we should go and visit 45 years on. I had rather expected it to be a bit of an anti-climax but in fact Madurodam was still amazing both to me as a 47 year old and to Oli who is on the verge of entering his teenage “meh” years.

“I still want to play with them!”

We then cycled back to our room and put our bikes away in the free secure public bike park before going for a mooch around the city which was very pleasant. The only difficulty was getting used to avoiding trams and remembering to watch out for bikes!

Day 2

When planning the trip, I noticed that midway between The Hague and our next hotel in Nordwijk aan Zee there was a theme park with a waterpark at Duinrell. So our itinerary for day was to break our journey and spend the day at the waterpark and rides. While resting in our room the previous evening Oli had been messaging his friends and, it being a small world discovered that one of his school friends who he knew was on holiday in The Netherlands was actually staying at Duinrell. So rather unexpectedly he managed to meet up. His friend’s mum happens to be the Leeds Councillor in charge of transport but I’m not sure she was impressed by my suggestion that she remodel Leeds to be as cycle friendly as Holland! The waterpark was great fun with some really good slides and one scary one where you entered a tube standing up and then the floor gave way to drop you straight down (I had a go, Oli wimped out sensibly). There were also some good rides but we didn’t fancy the most challenging rollercoasters and stuck to the more sedate ones.

You could make these do barrel rolls, but I preferred to keep my lunch

After our day in Duinrell we set off for the early evening 11 miles to our hotel in Nordwijk. We cycled through the dunes and along the coast and were slightly disappointed not to have chosen to stay in the nearer resort of Katwijk which looked really lovely but the beach at Nordwijk was just as nice and we had a very good meal in a beach restaurant watching a dramatic sunset over the North Sea. It was so pleasant that we decided we would postpone setting off the next day for our ride ending in Haarlem until mid-afternoon as it was only 16.5 miles so that we could spend the morning on the beach.

Oli lining up yet another instagram shot as we enter Nordwijk
Nordwijk lighthouse

Day 3

Unfortunately, as we were having our breakfast, the skies opened and it started to rain. That put paid to the plan of mucking around on the beach for the day so we loaded the bikes back up and set off for Haarlem via Zandvoort. As we rode along it became evident that the rain was intensifying and showed no signs of stopping so we didn’t bother with stopping to look at the racing circuit at Zandvoort and just took the main road to Haarlem, first of our reminders of the Dutch origins of New York as the place Harlem is named after.

We arrived thoroughly drenched and went straight to our room to change and lay out our wet clothes to dry. Sightseeing was not an appealing option in the torrential rain so we sat in the cafe below our rooms, played cards and tried out Dutch finger food, which consists of various shapes of breadcrumbed deep fried mush. Ideal with a pint of lager but the meatier varieties ought not to be looked into too closely after taking a bite. Thankfully the skies cleared in the evening and we had a wander around the historic centre and a rather nicer burger in one of the many outdoor restaurants. Our hotel was coincidentally also on Grote Markt in Haarlem and would have been a good place to see the main square if it hadn’t been filled with a cordoned off set of stalls for the Haarlem food festival which was due to start the next day. Never mind, our soggy arrival had put us off hanging around too much anyway.

Day 4

After two light days of cycling we had a longer day planned going further inland to the windmill museum at Zaanse Schans and then a scenic route into Amsterdam where we were going to spend the next 3 nights. Zaanse Schans is possibly the most twee place I’ve ever been to and was filled with “touristy” tourists hiring bikes to feel like they were doing a Dutch thing without actually going anywhere or experiencing a living place. It has a series of preserved windmills and museums of Dutch life and is very quaint. We spent a while there and took the opportunity to have an ice lolly to cool down after our ride but didn’t feel the need to join the queues to look at the mechanisms of the various windmills and instead headed off towards Amsterdam. Having already seen a lot of the local countryside we decided to go the direct route rather than further into the countryside.

One of the interesting things about Zaanse Schans, which we also experienced in Amsterdam and Utrecht was how, unlike in most of the UK today, there was heavy industry very close to historical and touristy sites. The other side of the river to the windmill museum had an enormous chocolate factory, but apart from filling the air with the smell of cocoa it was not really the stuff of Charlie Bucket’s dreams. Going towards Amsterdam, things remained very industrial, turning to offices as we approached our apartment in Sloterdijk.

Statue of Hans Brinker, the boy in the children’s story who used his finger to plug a leaking dyke while waiting for it to be repaired and so saved his village
Waiting for one of the free river ferries
A herd of windmills at Zaanse Schans

Days 5 & 6

We’d booked three nights in Amsterdam to give us a chance to relax after cycling each of the first 4 days of our trip and to give us time to see the city. We weren’t staying far from the city centre and could have cycled in but as it was only one stop on the train from Sloterdijk we decided to use that instead.

The trains were very frequent but surprisingly expensive (€5.60 each for a day return the one stop) and unlike in London, not integrated with other public transport so you had to choose whether to travel by train or to get a combined ticket for trams, buses and metro. No wonder so many people cycle! That said, once we got into the city centre, we were glad to have left our bikes as the huge number of pedestrians and bikes as well as the trams meant that for the first time it didn’t feel too easy to get around by bike when we didn’t really know where we were going.

Both times I’d previously visited Amsterdam I’d been with other adults so it was interesting to see things from a different perspective travelling with Oli. Going with adult friends the places to stay, drink and go out were rather different and it was surprising that this time our natural routes round the city meant that I didn’t need to explain the infamous Red Light District to Oli because we simply didn’t need to go anywhere near it.

We had wanted to visit the Anne Frank House but knew before we set off that we couldn’t as it needs to be booked 2 months in advance, well before I’d booked the rest of the trip and set the dates. We instead visited NEMO, the science museum and had planned to go on to the maritime museum next door but the heavy rain that day meant we didn’t brave it. NEMO was good fun and interactive, but probably better suited to slightly younger children than Oli. On the way back to the station to avoid another downpour we visited the impressive new city library which had a fascinating exhibition about the future of half a dozen cities in the developing world. But we decided we were probably museumed out after that and I didn’t press Oli to visit any more.

Finding NEMO?
Of course a museum in Amsterdam has an exhibit called Brilliant Bicycles!

One of the first things we were asked when checking into our apartment was whether we were planning to go into the City for its Pride festival. They even gave us a rather nice rainbow rose. Pride is unsurprisingly a very big deal in Amsterdam and was very well supported with a huge parade of literal floats (perhaps a floatilla?) on the main canals. It was quite a spectacle but unfortunately my photos (apart from a panorama which I can’t upload here) don’t quite do it justice.

A different Mister B

You can’t really miss the canals in Amsterdam or indeed any of the other towns or cities we visited and they are very picturesque. We took a boat trip around them which turned out also to give the best view of the Pride parade.

All the boats ahead of us and both banks of this main canal are filled with Pride-goers

Day 7

Time to remember how to load up the panniers and get back onto our bikes. We set off after breakfast for our longest day’s riding, 36.2 miles from Amsterdam to Utrecht. This involved us braving central Amsterdam, albeit on a Sunday morning when many were probably still sleeping off Pride. The route we were taking started off after leaving the city to go along side the huge North Sea Canal. We could have followed this most of the way to Utrecht, which would have been the quickest way and perfectly pleasant if very straight.

Instead we headed a little away from the main canal to follow the path that ran alongside the River Vecht. This was very pretty and a popular route on a Sunday afternoon with local people. It felt like the posh bits of the Thames around Virginia Water where all the celebrities live.

The original Brooklyn Bridge at Breukelen
On the outskirts of Utrecht

Utrecht itself was a revelation as I’d really no particular idea about the place at all before going. The city centre is very quaint even after having had a lot of exposure to historical canalside cities over the previous few days. Unusually, the canals are some way below street level. There were a lot of things to see (including the Miffy Museum and statue) but unfortunately we were only there one evening. Sadly the most iconic attraction, the 460 feet tall Dom tower (which somewhat bizarrely our hotel in Gouda was named after) was like Big Ben, covered in scaffolding. But unlike Big Ben, they hadn’t silenced the bells and it played a variety of tunes in chimes every quarter hour. We were central enough that our hotel provided earplugs and warned us about it! However after a long day in the saddle we had no problem sleeping through it. In retrospect it would have been better to have cut our time in Amsterdam by a day and had another day in Utrecht.

Day 8

Leaving Utrecht to cycle towards Gouda was a very different experience to arriving in Utrecht along the river. As soon as we left the historic centre and got to Utrecht station, the area was a huge building site as they were removing a motorway and replacing it with a new canal (not often it is that way round!). After that, we seemed to go straight into a large area of heavy industry, including the Douwe Egberts coffee factory and modern housing and office developments for quite a way until we reached De Haar. De Haar is described as The Netherlands’ largest castle, but really it is more of a folly as an early C20th millionaire’s house built in fairytale castle style. Curiously, the town of Woerden where we stopped for an (excellent) ice cream actually was once fortified massively as can be seen in its streetplan. The rest of the journey to Gouda was through pleasant countryside and some lakes on the outskirts of the town. Gouda unsurprisingly is very big on its eponymous cheese even to the extent of its bunting being plastic cheese wheels.

Gatehouse for De Haar
Everything in Gouda is cheesy

Day 9

Oh no, our last day before catching the ferry back to Harwich at 10pm. Over dinner in Gouda, Oli and I reviewed our final day’s itinerary. The Randstad route would take us through largely urban areas via Rotterdam and through the docks to Hook of Holland. While there were lots of things to see and do in Rotterdam itself, it suddenly felt like a bit of a slog for the last day so Oli suggested instead that we go back to The Hague, which he had really liked and I agreed that would work and allow us to stop off for our evening meal on the beach so we could have a more scenic final day.

We took the most direct route we could and followed the motorway from Gouda to The Hague. Now, in the UK, the idea of cycling along a motorway for 15 miles would not only be illegal but in any case extremely unpleasant. However, this being Holland, alongside each main road but at a distance and well protected there’s a cycle motorway and it was a slightly dull but very easy hour or so’s journey. The only problem (and the reason for doing the trip clockwise) was that we found ourselves with a strong headwind. No wonder the first few days going up the coast had seemed so easy! But, after over a week’s cycling, we were surprised to find that we were actually quicker on the last day’s cycling into the wind than we were on the first day cycling with the wind behind us.

The Hague when we arrived seemed very familiar and we could make our way around without needing to consult our maps. After lunch we went and found the Paleistuin gardens and lazed about for a few hours in the sun. Then got back on our bikes to head back to the coast to Kijkduin and the beach cafe at Suider Strand where we’d stopped for a drink on our first day to have our tea and a bit of beach time before the last few miles back to the ferry home.

Oli and I can thoroughly recommend going on a cycling tour of Holland. Now, where next? Do leave your suggestions for future trips in the comments!

What Theresa May Probably Won’t Say (but should)

In this post, I will try and sketch out a possible speech which the Prime Minister could give in Parliament in the immediate aftermath of MPs voting to reject the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Personally, I believe that the WA is a good and conscientious attempt, in very difficult political circumstances, to achieve Brexit and many of its key aims while retaining a friendly and co-operative relationship with the EU. If MPs do, as Theresa May hopes and implores them to do, and look at what the impact would be if they were to reject the deal, I share her view that voting for the WA would be the best outcome. I appreciate that I am in a minority in that.

But, more pithily, I think what she is really saying to MPs of all persuasions on Brexit is “do you feel lucky, punk?”- if one is a supporter of leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal, would voting the WA down really lead to a government which could in practice be strong and stable (sic) enough under any leadership, to get through that form of Brexit? If one is a supporter of further renegotiation, a second referendum or some other means of “softening” Brexit or even stopping it, do you, on 11 December 2018 believe that there exists in Parliament today a government which can emerge and deliver that? Even if you do think either of those things, could you bear it if the alternative won out – as a No Deal supporter, would you bear the consequence of voting down the WA being there was No Brexit, as a supporter of No Brexit, would you bear the consequence of a No Deal Brexit? Or is the imperfect compromise on offer in the WA better (however reluctantly and privately you may voice this ahead of going through the lobbies) than the outcome you most hate? We will find out very soon. So, here it is, what I think the Prime Minister should say if (or when) Parliament rejects the WA.

“Mr Speaker, the job of Prime Minister requires many attributes. On a day like today, the two most significant are the ability to face the reality of uncomfortable truths and the ability to make hard choices about how to act when faced with them. The decision by this House to vote against the proposed Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU is one very uncomfortable truth for me and the Government I am honoured to lead. But it is not the only one which we must all in this place now face up to and it is not in itself a decision about the hard choice we must now all make about the future of the UK.

This Government has worked tirelessly to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement over the last two years. I pay tribute to my Right Honourable friends, the current and former Secretaries of State for Exiting the EU, for their conscientious efforts in that regard, as I do also to the teams across Government and the Civil Service supporting their efforts. I  regret that some Honourable and Right Honourable friends, on leaving Government, have on occasion affected an unawareness of the uncomfortable truths they knew full well while in office.

When I became Prime Minister and started the negotiations for Brexit, I said, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that we must make a success of it. Since then, I have been clear that our approach to giving effect to the vote of the people of the UK in the 2016 referendum had to be to one which made a success of Brexit itself. Brexit is a process which will have a long impact on this nation whichever way it ultimately plays out. Nobody of conscience carrying out the role of Prime Minister could approach it as merely an instruction to leave the EU with no care for how that should in practice be effected and that is why there was an overwhelming majority in this House for seeking a negotiated agreement to exit the EU even among those who did not personally agree with the decision to do so. 

Throughout, the aims we have had were clear and based on the reasons for the majority having voted for the UK to leave the EU. We would be ending free movement of people with the EU and regaining full control over immigration. We would be ensuring a continued close trading relationship with the EU while being free to make trade deals with the wider world. We would be acting in the interests of the whole of the UK by ensuring that there was no hard border between the UK and Ireland and no differential treatment of the different nations of the UK. We would be ceasing to be subject to the European Court of Justice. We would be regaining those aspects of our sovereignty which as members of the EU we had agreed to pool with the other Member States. I believed and continue to believe that the Withdrawal Agreement which this House has rejected satisfied all of those aims and would have enabled the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 in an orderly and beneficial manner, giving effect, as promised, to the outcome of the referendum. 

At each step of the process, this Government has worked tirelessly to maintain for itself and the country, the most flexibility possible to enable us to achieve the best available deal with the EU. This is why the Government contested the legal proceedings brought by Gina Miller. It is why it has at no stage done as some have recommended and dramatically flounced out of negotiations. It is also why we resisted to the fullest extent possible the application made to the Court of Justice regarding the unilateral revocability of the notification I made to the EU under Article 50. We have been steadfast in our commitment to negotiate an agreement to leave the EU even to the extent of having had to bear defeats along the way in defending that ideal and that approach.

I also said that ‘No Deal is better than a Bad Deal’. I continue to believe this. But the uncomfortable truth is that the deal which this House has decided to reject was not merely “not a Bad Deal” but a good deal which was far better for this country than No Deal. Another uncomfortable truth is that it is clear from the EU that it has no appetite for any further substantial negotiation and in particular that it will not negotiate any further concession or removal of the back stop. The reality which all in this House and the country must now face is that there is no other deal for the UK to exit the EU under. All alternative deals which may be conceived of, whether they involve seeking to join EFTA or some “different, social Europe” which never existed and is inconsistent with the nature of the EU must include provisions relating to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and so must either indefinitely extend the transition period or have a backstop provision. If there was one clear unifying thread for opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement from the debates before this House it is that any such indefinite backstop or extended transition would be unacceptable. It is therefore now impossible for any government to argue for any renegotiation of substance even if the EU were amenable to it because any form of new deal would founder on the same rocks. 

So, as Prime Minister, I am left with the uncomfortable truth that no deal for Brexit will be acceptable to this House. But there is one further uncomfortable truth that some of my Honourable and Right Honourable friends must also face up to. No Deal Brexit, leaving the EU without any agreement with the EU as to the UK’s future relationship, is also not acceptable to this House or to many in the country away from this place. 

Some have criticised me for not having planned for No Deal. They have breezily opined that it would be easy enough to manage, just as they thought that we could get an agreement with the EU just by turning up with a sunny disposition and a smile. However, as explained by my Right Honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, even if we just look at the NHS, the immediate impact of a No Deal Brexit, however much contingency planning and mitigation were to be put in place, would be substantial shortages of essential medicines. My Right Honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has outlined the likelihood of at best 6 months of logjam at our sea ports. Some in this House may look to Venezuela for inspiration for another way of doing things and bearing material privations in basic goods for some greater ideological aim, but I cannot in conscience say that I do. The uncomfortable truth is that the reality of No Deal Brexit is not a reality that most ordinary people in the country would want to have to bear. And nor should they. This is not World War 2. There is no murderous dictatorship raining bombs on our civilian population to unify ordinary people in the desire to dig for victory and sacrifice their health and services to winning the war. This is not Project Fear but reality. 

This then leaves me with a hard choice. In the circumstances, an easy choice would be to conduct my own personal Brexit and leave this to someone else to deal with. That would be cowardly. I hope that it is clear that I am no coward.

Another easy choice would be to call for another referendum. But that would merely prolong things and leave the country in a state of uncertainty. I would hope that in a second referendum, the country would agree that the Withdrawal Agreement is, for the reasons I have given many times to this House and in the country, the best and only way to secure a Brexit which provides for the bright future the country deserves. But were they to do so, there is no guarantee that this House, where the nation’s practical sovereignty resides would agree. 

Therefore, with regret, I propose that I should exercise the power still available to the UK as a sovereign nation, and in the interests of all, notify the EU of our revocation of the notice given under Article 50. In order to do this expeditiously, my Right Honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU will forthwith introduce before this House a Bill which will provide for a statutory basis for that decision. Further Bills will subsequently be introduced to reverse the legislation for Brexit already enacted. In addition, my Right Honourable friend, the Home Secretary, will publish a White Paper on the future management of migration to the UK within the context of the UK continuing to be a Member State of the EU.”