Monday, October 03, 2022

Wanted: A 'boring' PM

I've now lived through 13 Prime Ministers and, in my former incarnation as a political journalist, even interviewed a few of them.

Most historians would rate Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as the most significant PMs of the last 60 years, but the ones I have the most respect for are three of the more under-rated figures to occupy 10 Downing Street - James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown.

All three faced economic crises of varying degrees, with some success in turning around those situations around before leaving office. All three radiated a sense of decency, commitment to public service and respect for institutions. And all three eventually lost elections to superficially more 'exciting' figures who, irrespective of their other achievements, all left the country more divided than the one they inherited - Thatcher by the nature of her industrial and social policies, Blair by the political catastrophe of the Iraq War which indelibly stained the reputation of an otherwise great PM, and David Cameron by the equally catastrophic Brexit referendum which led directly to the political and economic chaos the UK faces today.

So when this country finally gets a chance to cast its verdict on the current shitshow that's masquerading as a government, I don't want an 'exciting' PM. I want one who is compassionate, honest and humane and one who will seek to re-unite this country around a belief in the common good.

Sir Keir Starmer is not a Thatcher or a Blair, he's not going to pull-up any trees in No 10, and he may well turn out to be a transitional one-term PM who then hands the torch on to one of the younger, brighter stars in the Labour firmament such as Bridget Phillipson or Wes Streeting.

But neither is he someone who is going to trash our economy, our institutions, our civil service and our international reputation in the way Liz Truss and Boris Johnson have done. And for now, that's more than good enough for me.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Johnson to Truss - some reflections

I have been reserving judgment on the new Prime Minister until we knew the shape of her Cabinet and specifically whether she intended to emphasise party unity and recognise talent by building an inclusive team, or whether she merely intended to prioritise loyalty by rewarding her own supporters.

Well now we know, and even though both Nadine Dorries and Priti Patel have thankfully gone, we have probably the most right-wing Cabinet the country has seen for 100 years or more.

I have watched the long-drawn out tragi-comedy of Boris Johnson's downfall and the equally interminable farce of the subsequent leadership election process with a growing sense of despair for the future of our country.

Here are a few reflections on the transition from Johnson to Liz Truss and why I believe we may have just achieved something that many thought impossible: electing an even worse Prime Minister than the one we have just got rid of.

1. A few months back, post-Partygate but pre-Pincher, some good friends asked me how on earth Boris Johnson was still in office. I responded by saying that many Tory MPs had not yet moved against him for fear that they could end up with someone even worse.

If the MPs had been in a position to control the choice of his successor, the letters to Sir Graham Brady would have gone in much sooner, but there was always a risk that once the decision went to the party membership, they would put in someone even less palatable to the MPs than Johnson.

At that time, the obvious successor and most popular choice among the MPs was Rishi Sunak, but as I explained to my friends, there was never the remotest chance that the party membership would choose him as leader. I'll leave it to your imagination to work out why that was the case.

Tory MPs should have worked this out and ensured that Penny Mordaunt got onto the ballot paper as the Stop Truss candidate. But the momentum was behind Rishi at that stage and the support of the extreme right-wing European Research Group (of whom more below) was enough to see Truss through.

2. All of the above happened because of what now has to be seen as the spectacularly misguided and arguably unconstitutional decision made by William Hague in 2001 to extend the franchise for electing party leaders from MPs to the party membership, copying a decision made by Labour in 1980.

Because of this, we have now ended up with Truss as Prime Minister with the support of less than a third of her MPs, in the same way as we ended up with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party with the support of only a small rump of his MPs, some of whom only put him on the ballot paper out of a misguided desire to be 'inclusive.'

It is time both parties recognised that we live in a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidency, and that a party leader always needs to be able to command the support of a majority of his or her backbenchers - particularly when a party is in government and electing not just a leader but a Prime Minister. 

The past few weeks have done the Conservative Party absolutely no favours, with decisions affecting the whole country being made by a tiny and very unrepresentative section of the electorate, rather than the MPs who we supposedly elect to Parliament to make those decisions for us. This is not democracy in any meaningful sense.

3. Boris Johnson showed what a political operator he continues to be with a barnstorming speech from the steps of No 10 this morning, in contrast with Ms Truss's truly dreadful acceptance speech the previous day.

As usual, though, there was the complete abdication of responsibility for his own downfall and attempt to blame his colleagues for "changing the rules half way through" (er, they didn't) when really he only has himself and his own character flaws to blame for the premature conclusion to his premiership.

The great irony is that the public would probably have forgiven him a few lockdown gatherings if he had been honest aout the fact they had taken place. Instead he threw his press secretary Allegra Stratton under the bus and pretended they had not happened.  

Although it was the Chris Pincher affair that got him in the end, his premiership was doomed from this point, proving once again the old Watergate truism: "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up that gets you."

4. Athough Truss is a terrible public speaker (look up her 2014 party conference speech on cheese imports and pork markets on YouTube if you don't believe me), that need not necessarily be an impediment to being a great Prime Minister (think Clement Attlee.)

Her speech outside Number 10 this afternoon was a considerable improvement on yesterday's and at least had the merit of being more honest than Johnson's - admittedly both fairly low bars - but it's the content of what she says rather than her wooden style of delivery that really matters.

Sure, she demonstrated that addressing the energy crisis and sorting out emergency care in the NHS remains at or near the top of her agenda, although if today's briefings are anything to go by, the measures set to be announced to freeze energy bills remain somewhat in a state of flux.

But talking about "getting Britain working again" and tackling the issues that are "holding Britain back" merely implies that she is inheriting a country that isn't working and is being held back - presumably by the government of which she has been a part for the last eight years.

5. And so to that Cabinet. By not reaching out to Sunak or his supporters - in fact by sacking every single one of them who previously served in Cabinet - Ms Truss has made her task of uniting the party after a particularly divisive leadership election that much harder.

While the appointment of Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor was expected given their long personal history, I'm really not sure what she sees in new Foreign Secretary James Cleverly who, nice chap though he is, has always struck me as an example of reverse nominative determinism.

As was often the case with Tony Blair's cabinets, there are also some square pegs in round holes. Why make Kemi Badenoch international trade secretary when both the education and culture briefs were up for grabs?  Why move Anne-Marie Trevelyan to transport when Penny Mordaunt was available?

Badenoch and Mordaunt were both leadership rivals so maybe Truss didn't want them in jobs where they might have started to feel too comfortable. If so, it's another example of putting party management considerations before the good of the country.

6. But the appointment I am most seriously concerned about - and the one which most clearly signals the direction the government intends to go in - is that of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. This is an appointment which genuinely fills me with dread to the point of actually making me feel slightly physically sick.

It is clear from her previous comments that Braverman will try to take Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights in order to implement the absurd and immoral policy of deporting economic migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda, undoing an historic British post-war achievement that was credited in part to Sir Winston Churchill.

Braverman probably owes her preferment to some sort of deal between Truss and the European Research Group to back her rather than Mordaunt in the final ballot of MPs which resulted in Truss and Sunak being the two names which went to the party membership (see above.) 

The ERG have been a consistently malign and divisive influence on British politics over the past six years and if Truss is in hoc to them in any way, it does not bode well for her premiership

7. It follows from all of the above that I believe Truss faces an uphill struggle even to survive the next two years without facing a vote of confidence from her own MPs, let alone get the party into a position from which it can win a General Election in 2024. All of which begs the question: can Boris come back?

You don't have to re-read his leaving speech too many times to see the clues - the references to Cincinnatus, a Roman politician who did indeed "return to his plough" but was also later recalled to power, and the analogy of a rocket booster splashing down in a "remote corner of the Pacific." 

For me this has all the hallmarks of what used to be known in political circles as a retreat to Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, after the quiet French village that General de Gaulle retired to after the war while awaiting the call to return as President of France, which he eventually did 13 years later.  

Any hope of a comeback would require the Commons Privileges Committee to clear him of deliberately misleading the House over Partygate, but if it does so, it could be game on.  And since Boris Johnson has already brought down three Prime Ministers, including himself, a fourth would seem no more than par for the course.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A grim night for progressives

Well, it's all over. Here's my take on a grim election for progressives - and where Labour, the Lib Dems and the country go from here.

1. The seeds of what has been a catastrophic defeat for Labour were sown in the disastrous leadership election that took place in the autumn of 2015, following Ed Miliband's defeat on a programme that was markedly to the left of the one Gordon Brown had fought and lost on in 2010. It ought to have been clear to Labour at this point that it needed to return to a more centrist position next time round, and it had three such candidates to choose from with recent ministerial experience in Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham - all of them MPs from the North or Midlands where Labour most needed to win back support. Instead, it chose a grizzled old Trotskyist from North London who had never held government office and carried more baggage than a 747. The theory, oft-heard among the fantasists of the hard left, that Labour lost elections through not being left-wing enough, has now been tested to destruction and found to be the arrant nonsense it always was. The truth is Britain will never elect a hard-left government because, unlike Italy or Greece but like Germany and the US, Marxism is simply not in the country's political DNA. Neither will the British public ever elect someone who they cannot trust with the nation's defences, or someone who, rightly or wrongly, they perceive to have been the friend of terrorists.

2. The normal rules of politics - that elections are won and lost in the centre ground - have thus reasserted themselves, and unless Labour returns there, it is finished as a party of government. That does not mean abandoning its principles or even all of the policies it fought this election on, but it does mean they have to be properly costed and it does mean having a leader who inspires confidence and hope rather than anxiety and fear. Kier Starmer is perhaps unlucky in that, while he would fit the bill, there will be huge pressure for the party to choose a woman this time round. Cooper, whose reputation as a parliamentarian has continued to grow since her 2015 defeat, should certainly stand again, while Jess Phillips is the standout candidate among moderates of a younger vintage. Angela Rayner could be a Kinnock-type figure who comes up to the leadership from the left but then tacks towards the centre, but the choice of Corbynite favourite Rebecca Long-Bailey would indicate that nothing has been learned. Whoever they choose, Labour is going to find it even harder to win next time as, armed with their majority, the Tories will now introduce the boundary changes that have been blocked in the last two hung Parliaments.

3. I do not buy the argument that Labour lost because this election was all about Brexit and specifically because it changed its policy from respecting the result of the 2016 referendum to holding a second one. This will be the main point at issue in the leadership election, and it will be deployed against both Starmer and Emily Thornberry, who are both (in the Corbynistas' eyes) guilty of forcing their dear leader to change tack. The truth is Jeremy Corbyn's handling of Brexit has been a catalogue of misjudgements from the start and a salutory lesson in being careful what you wish for. I say this as a passionate Remainer, but it is clear in retrospect that Corbyn should have backed Theresa May's original deal, which would kept the UK in a temporary customs union while the over-arching trade deal was being negotiated. Had he done so, we would have had a markedly softer Brexit and we might also have been spared the Johnson premiership. Instead Corbyn chose short-term tactics over long-term strategy and party politics over the national interest, and the public has duly punished him for it.

4. Labour also needs to stop blaming the "hostile media" for its repeated election defeats. I don't approve of The Sun or the Mail any more than most people of a centre-left persuasion, but at the end of the day newspapers do not exist in a vacuum; they are commercial entities which reflect what they perceive to be the opinions of their readerships. If a sensible, centrist Labour Party was to re-emerge from this debacle, one with clear public appeal and a leader with positive polling ratings, the newspapers would soon follow suit. The Sun would not have backed Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 had its readers not liked him more than they liked the Tory alternatives at the time. Newspapers always want to be on the winning side, because it shows they are in touch with their readers - but Corbyn always looked like a loser.

5. As I said in my earlier post on Wednesday, the big disappointment of the campaign was Jo Swinson and hence I am not surprised that it culminated for her in the loss of her seat. I had high hopes for her when she was elected Lib Dem leader but her handling of the role has been hubristic in the extreme and showed that Lib Dem leaders should always avoid talking about what they will do if they win an outright majority - because it has as much credibility as me saying what I would do as England football manager. From the point of the view of the party, I think her defeat could prove to be something a blessing in disguise, in that it has removed a leader who, sadly, was not up to the job. The choice will now surely lie between Sir Ed Davey - highly experienced but, like Swinson, possibly tainted by having held office in the Coalition - and Layla Moran - unproven, but possibly the fresh face the party needs as it seeks to rebrand.

6. And so to Boris Johnson. He has won the majority he craved partly because of the incompetence of his opponents - see points 1-5 above - but also because once again the Tories have demonstrated that they are the most ruthlessly effective election-winning machine in the democratic world. On the central issue of Brexit, they had a very clear message that could be easily understood and, by doing a deal with Nigel Farage, they united the Leave vote while leaving the Remainers bitterly divided. At times, the Tories' hard-headedness has overstepped the boundaries of what I would regard as decent behaviour, and the rise of political lying has been perhaps the most concerning feature of the entire election. There was a 48-hour period, between his refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil and his unsympathetic response to the plight of the boy found sleeping on a hospital floor, when I began to wonder if it was beginning to unravel for Johnson, but it turned out - and this is the hardest thing for me to write in this entire piece - that Dominic Cummings did know what he was doing after all.

7. As to where Brexit goes from here, the big hope of those of us who wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit and who now want to avoid a no-deal exit from the transition period is that the size of Johnson's majority will enable him to shaft Farage, marginalise the ERG and ultimately pursue a softer version of Brexit than was implied in the Tory manifesto, either by agreeing to extend the transition period or by agreeing to keep the UK more closely aligned to EU rules than the purists in his party would like. Equally, though, it may enable him to pursue a harder Brexit without any fear of it being blocked by Parliament. Given the need to protect manufacturing and jobs in the 'left-behind' towns that have just voted Tory for the first time, my hunch is that his instincts will be towards the former and his 'let the healing begin speech' earlier today appeared to bear this out, but, on this point, it is too early to tell which version of Johnson is going to turn up.

8. While the immediate focus will doubtless be on 'Getting Brexit Done' - in the narrow sense of us actually leaving the EU - the bigger story of the election, and possibly the bigger challenge for Johnson, may well turn out to be the future of the Union, with England and Scotland now clearly pulling in different political directions. Johnson boasts of leading a 'One Nation' government but if he is not very careful he may well turn out to be the Prime Minister who presides over the fragmentation of this one nation into two or even three. He faces a catch-22 which he will need all his political skills to navigate. If he denies Nicola Sturgeon her wish for a second independence referendum next year, the SNP is likely to win big again in the 2021 Holyrood elections and thereby claim an even more compelling mandate for holding the vote. If he gives in to the demand, there is a chance the Scots might actually vote to leave the UK. Given Johnson's propensity for political gambles, he might just calculate that holding indyref2 sooner rather than later would give the Unionist side the best chance of victory - but as we know only too well, PMs who gamble on referendum outcomes can easily come a cropper.