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.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The election I wish wasn't happening

With less than 24 hours to go before the polls open, here are a few random thoughts on the election.

1. I wish it wasn't happening at all. Two months ago, Parliament had Boris Johnson just where it wanted him but it allowed him to wriggle free and call the election he wanted on the day he wanted while he was still at the height of his Prime Ministerial honeymoon. If, as I expect, he wins a majority tomorrow, the question future historians will ask is why Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon agreed to the election in the first place. The answer in the case of Sturgeon is obvious - the SNP wants a Johnson majority government so it can continue to fan the flames of Scottish separatism. It is less clear what Labour and the Lib Dems thought they had to gain from holding an election when the Tories were miles ahead in the opinion polls.

2. If there has been a gamechanger in this election, it was the decision by the Brexit Party not to field candidates in Tory-held seats, in return for the Tories giving a pledge to exit the transition period at the end of 2020 without a trade deal if necessary. This has certainly enhanced the prospects of a Tory victory even if the price for the Tory Party has been to have effectively become the Brexit Party. By contrast, the Remainers have not been nearly so hard-headed. Tactical voting may help maximise the anti-Brexit vote to some degree, but if they really wanted to stop Brexit, there should have been many more local pacts between pro-Remain parties - including Labour.

3. Far from "getting Brexit done," Johnson's decision to rule out an extension to the transition - and to make it an explicit manifesto pledge - is almost certain to lead to another Brexit crisis in a year's time in which the country is faced with the prospect of a no-deal exit from current tariff-free trading arrangements with the EU. I do not see how the EU can possibly agree to any sort of trade deal in that timecale unless it is one in which the UK agrees to stay very closely aligned to EU rules while no longer having a say over them - an outcome which, even if Johnson were to agree to it, would be opposed by many of his MPs and which would, of course, render Brexit completely pointless. Tony Blair has been right all along - we can either have the painful Brexit, or the pointless Brexit. There is no third way.

4. In these final days, we are seeing why the Tories were so keen to hold an election this side of Christmas - because there is going to be a winter health crisis and it is going to get worse. If Johnson is re-elected, I confidently predict that by the end of February he will be the most unpopular PM on record and people will be genuinely wondering why they gave this clown another five years in which to wreck our National Health Service.

5. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the campaign has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that neither Johnson nor Corbyn is fit to be Prime Minister. Johnson is a proven liar who has already shown in the conduct of his personal relationships that he does not have the right character to lead the country. He has no convictions other than a belief in his own right to rule and when confronted by a genuine crisis - the London Bridge stabbings - he sought to play the situation for narrow political advantage rather than demonstrating national leadership. This, coupled with his refusal to apologise for deeply racist comments and articles made earlier in his political career, or to submit to cross-examination by Andrew Neil, shows the true measure of the man - more Alan Partridge than Winston Churchill.

6. By contrast, I do not believe Jeremy Corbyn is a racist, but by his own admission he has done far too little to tackle the scourge of anti-semitism in his party. For me, this is less an indicator of racism, and more an indicator of his inability to manage the party and the people around him, some of whom, notably Seumas Milne and Len McCluskey, are deeply unattractive individuals who appear to be engaged in some sort of class war. The calibre of the Labour front bench is appallingly low and gives people little confidence that it could form an effective government. Only Angela Rayner, of the leading shadow cabinet spokespeople, emerges from the campaign with any sort of credit.

7. Whatever you think about Johnson or Corbyn, the biggest disappointment of the campaign has been Jo Swinson. After their strong performance in last year's Euro-elections, the Lib Dems finally looked to be back in the game, but after replacing Vince Cable as leader, Swinson completely misjudged the public mood by shifting the party's Brexit policy from second referendum to revoke and then spent the first weeks of the campaign whingeing about not being allowed to take part in TV debates alongside the two main party leaders. In retrospect it is clear that Sir Ed Davey would have been a better leader. That said, though, the Lib Dems appear to have assumed the mantle of the sensible party when it comes to the economy, in contrast to the fantastical spending promises of the Tories and Labour.

8. It follows from all of the above that I believe another hung Parliament would be the best outcome from tomorrow. It would leave Johnson fatally wounded while Corbyn will have failed twice to win an election outright against Tory opponents who between them have come close to wrecking the country. Whichever of them ended up as Prime Minister would have little room for manoeuvre in terms of their more outlandish policies and would probably have no option but to call a second referendum on Brexit ahead of a fresh election. It might sound less than ideal, and it is, but better that than either of the nightmarish alternatives.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

From May to Johnson: Some reflections

Some reflections on the departure of May, the accession of Johnson, the reshuffle to end all reshuffles, and what could lie ahead.

1. Theresa May did her best to carry off a dignified departure, but as usual her best was not quite good enough. Her valedictory PMQs highlighted some of the issues that ultimately made her an unsuccessful PM - in particular her inability to think on her feet, and also to master the peculiarly British art of using self-deprecating humour to take the wind out of an opponent's sails.

Asked by Jeremy Corbyn whether her successor should now call a General Election, she could have replied along the lines of "I think I'm the last person he'll be taking advice from about election timing." Instead she called on the Magic Grandad to follow her example and stand down, which was all rather petty and demeaning.

2. That said, history will, as it usually does, judge May less harshly than her contemporaries did. Brexit was not a crisis of her making, and it fell to her to try to clear up the appalling mess bequeathed to her by her predecessor in a way which, rightly or wrongly, she judged would do the least harm to the economy and the least damage to the Union.

People who have described her as the worst PM ever clearly have never read up on Bute, North, Goderich, Rosebery, Chamberlain, Eden or even Cameron. In the annals of PMs of my own lifetime, she will go down alongside Douglas-Home, Callaghan and Major as decent public servants who were ultimately swept away by events beyond their control.

3. I generally agree with those, such as my old lobby colleague Bill Jacobs, who have argued that behind Boris Johnson's bluff and bluster there lies a very sharp mind. Johnson is certainly the biggest intellect to have occupied No 10 since Brown and possibly since Thatcher, and that actually augurs well in that he will need every one of those brain cells to think his way out of this crisis.

Does he have a cunning plan? Well let's hope so, because as the brilliant Liz Kendall has already pointed out: "Optimism is not enough to get things done - otherwise we'd all be spending today waltzing back and forth over his garden bridge and then jetting off on our holidays from Boris Island in the Thames."

4. Although the new Cabinet is clearly both more Brexity and more right-wing than the old one, I don't necessarily buy the idea that Johnson has snuffed out the Tory Party's One Nation tradition in one brutal afternoon of bloodletting.  There are still more Remainers in it than Leavers, and on every issue except Brexit, I would regard the PM himself as a liberal Tory.

For me the biggest issue was not so much the number of sackings as the number of comebacks by previously discredited ministers. Gavin Williamson (leaking state secrets), Priti Patel (making unauthorised contact with a foreign government without telling the PM) and Grant Shapps (overseeing a bullying culture in the party when Tory chairman) are all back as if nothing had ever happened, which does little to rebuild trust in politics.

5. Sacked Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt must now be regretting not going harder at Johnson during the leadership campaign. Beforehand he promised him the 'fight of his life' but he failed to subject Johnson's Brexit 'plans' to the kind of forensic scrutiny that Rory Stewart or even Michael Gove might have done and also shied away from making 'character' an issue in the contest even when presented with a fairly open goal.

Hunt's dismissal along with those of his supporters Penny Mordant and Liam Fox was politics as Mafia hits. While some inevitably compared it to the baptism scene in Godfather I, the scene that sprang to mind for me was the exchange between Tom Hagen and Michael Corleone at the end of GF2 - "C'mon, you won! Do you have to wipe out everyone?  "Tom, I don't feel like I have to wipe everyone out, just my enemies."

6. I suspect Johnson is genuine in wanting a deal with the EU, but I also suspect he is not so naive as to believe he is actually going to get one. By the same token I suspect he is also not so naive as to imagine Parliament will let the UK leave on 31 October without a deal.

But by my reckoning, all that's already been factored in. The EU refuses an accommodation, the Remainer Parliament blocks no deal, and Boris - who let's not forget is much more interested in power than he ever was in Brexit - has the perfect pretext for calling an autumn election. Brenda from Bristol, be warned.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Tears for a beloved country

I did not vote for Brexit and continue to believe it is the greatest act of political and economic self-harm this country has inflicted on itself in my lifetime, and probably even my parents' and grandparents' lifetimes too. Nevertheless, I respected the result of the referendum and recognised Theresa May's sincere belief that it was her duty to deliver an outcome that reflected the narrowness of the result - namely to take Britain out of the EU, but to do so in a way which minimised the damage to jobs and the economy.

Although I wish we had never reached this point in our history, I would have been happy to see her deal pass the Commons for the simple reason that it would have removed the baleful spectre of a no deal Brexit and all the chaos which that would undoubtedly inflict on businesses both large and small, not just in the disruption of trading relationships with our closest neighbours but more broadly in the recessionary knock-on effects it would have on the economy.

In her resignation speech on the steps of Number 10 today, Mrs May exhorted her successor, whoever it turns out to be, to seek the consensus in Parliament which she herself has found elusive, but this seems a forlorn hope. The truth of the matter is that the political space for a sensible compromise such as May's deal has shrunk dramatically over recent months and we now have two factions who, by turn, are either hellbent on Brexit at any cost or alternatively hellbent on stopping it at any cost.

The forthcoming Tory leadership battle will only exacerbate this. The contenders for Mrs May's crown will now spend the next few weeks seeking to outdo eachother in a virility contest to see who can promise the hardest Brexit, and knowing the nature of the electorate, it is self-evident to me that the candidate perceived to be the most out-and-out no-dealer will win. Boris Johnson's latest comments ruling out an extension to the current 31 October exit date confirm this.

So where does that leave Parliament? The Cooper-Letwin device that prevented a no deal exit in March is no longer available, and since a new PM set on no-deal would not need to bring a Withdrawal Agreement back before the House, the Commons would have little or no opportunity to take control of the process in the way it previously managed.

Virtually the only sanction Parliament would have in such circumstances would be to pass a vote of no confidence in the new PM, but this would require Remainer Tory MPs such as Dominic Grieve to vote to bring down their own government in the knowledge that it would provoke a general election their party would be certain to lose.

Accordingly, I think Mrs May's departure has appreciably increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit followed by the worst recession since the 1930s and the break-up of the UK, given that - irony of ironies - the first consequence of any move to trading on WTO terms would be that the EU would have to erect a hard border in Ireland to stop the UK having a back door into the single market.

I suspect the tears at the end of Mrs May's speech today were not just for herself, but for the country which she - entirely genuinely - so professes to love.