With a CON leadership contest in the offing a look at what makes a good leader

May 19th, 2019

So the race is on, with likely as many contenders as at your average Grand National. Will it be a dyed in the wool Leaver? A born again or a politically convenient one? Blessed by the ERG? A Remainer? Cabinet member or backbencher? And will it even matter given the government’s tiny majority, at the DUP’s pleasure?

Obsessed as they are by Brexit, Tory MPs and members have forgotten that a person’s stance on this perennially neuralgic issue is not necessarily a good guide to whether someone will make a good leader. Traumatised by May’s failings, they are thrashing round desperately looking for a Moses to lead them to the Promised Land. (Only 37 years to go to a final Brexit resolution!)

Perhaps a step back to understand what good leadership consists of might help them when marking their race card. Unlikely as this is to happen, let’s give them some pointers.

The quality of the “primus” is insufficient. Don’t forget the “pares”.

All the focus these days has been on the “primus”. Not surprising, really, given the dominance and longevity of Blair and Thatcher and, before them, Wilson, Attlee and Macmillan. By contrast, recent PMs have struggled: May spectacularly so, her personality utterly devoid of any leadership qualities, Brown – so exhausted by the fight to get what he believed he was entitled to after so long – that when he got there he had no idea what to do (paging Boris) and Major, struggling to control a party so consumed with guilt at its defenestration of Maggie, that it decided to torment her successor by way of expiation. But an individual, however talented, does not a leader make.

The ability to build, develop and lead a team

No one person has everything it takes. Good leaders understand this and surround themselves with strong people, people with skills and qualities they lack, people with more natural feeling for different groups of voters or party members, people with the willingness to challenge the leader. They understand that strong leaders have strong teams around them, other “big beasts”, pulling together, that this makes for strong government. Look at Blair and Prescott. Or the members of Wilson’s various Cabinets: Crossland, Healey, Callaghan, Castle. These were serious, strong, experienced and thoughtful politicians. The same could be said of many post-war Labour and Tory governments.

It is not something we have been blessed with recently. People have been dropped into government with all the care applied by a Project Manager appointing a junior to fill in Excel spreadsheets. Cabinet Ministers have been as interchangeable and bland as slabs of cheese displayed at hotel breakfast counters the world over – and about as effective. At the heart of any strong, competent government is a good relationship between a PM and their Chancellor and a Chancellor with political heft.  Blair and Brown had this, for all their difficulties. So did Thatcher and Howe, then Thatcher and Lawson. Indeed, Thatcher would never have been the political star she became or achieved as much as she did were it not for these relationships and the strength, depth and cohesion it gave to her governments. Cameron and Osborne too were an effective team for a period, if in the end fatally complacent.

May and Hammond, however, give the impression of scarcely knowing each other. At a time when Britain’s economic future is being decided on, the Chancellor is missing in action and sidelined. It is unpardonably negligent and a dangerously frivolous approach to one of the most serious decisions, outside of war, any government has ever had to take.

When choosing a leader, who they are likely to pick as their key advisors/colleagues, how they work with them, their ability and willingness to take responsibility, to have their team’s back, to engender respect, trust and loyalty, to be worthy of that trust (from both colleagues and staff) will be at least as important as the leader’s individual qualities. Arguably more so.

The vision thing

It was Helmut Schmidt who reportedly said: “If you have visions, see a doctor.” Wise words. Nonetheless, a leader needs to have some idea of what they are trying to achieve. And how. Particularly the how, now more than ever. They need to be able to say about themselves and their government: “This is who we are. This is how we behave.  This is where we are going.  And this is how we are going to get there.”  And then be able to follow through and deliver – at all levels of government, and not just on its main policies but in response to events. Any fool can say what it is they want. But being able to deliver this, being able to inspire others to deliver, to communicate and support and defend and fight for what you are trying to achieve, being able to persuade people to support you – or give you the benefit of the doubt – that’s hard.

“Why should I follow you?”

Anyone aspiring to be any sort of leader should be able to answer that in a convincing way. Not just to the small Tory party electorate. But voters too. They need a sense of a leader’s default instincts, their political compass, their judgment, what might be termed as their moral character, the grit and steel behind whatever ability to charm or make people laugh or to look concerned or to make barnstorming speeches they may have.

At this point, the opinion polls showing who is or is not most popular will be waved around. This person can win, can beat the Opposition, can bring all those Brexity sheep back into the fold, they will say. Ignore those polls. Leadership is not about popularity – or not just that. Any leader worth their salt, any leader trying to achieve something worthwhile, trying to effect change will at some point be unpopular, will need to speak truths, hard truths, to their party, to voters, will need to make tough decisions, will need to persuade and sell difficult compromises and bring people with them.  If an evanescent poll lead (that sound you hear is May moaning at the disappearance of her 20% poll leads) is all they bring, what do they fall back on when they are no longer the people’s darling?

Looking at the likely contenders, beautifully pinned and dissected by our political lepidopterist [1], which of them have any or some of these qualities?  Gove can be effective but is not trusted. Boris is entitled and crowd-pleasing though perhaps past his best. (More of an Archie Rice character rehashing old tunes to familiar elderly audiences; out of his depth when asked to perform on a bigger unfamiliar stage.) Raab ran away and has never provided any indication of what he would do or how. But probably has the Boden catalogue vote sewn up. Stewart and Morgan have shown unreciprocated loyalty and some level of thoughtfulness, which will do them no good at all.

And will the Tory electorate care anyway? Panic, a desire for magic, a wish to have their egos stroked and political views reinforced, a belief in ideological purity so intense it is practically Leninist seem to be the deciding factors.

It is surprising anyone wants the role, unlikely as it is to enhance one’s CV: ex-British Prime Ministers are practically two a penny these days and probably not high on international head-hunters’ lists. Whoever gets the job will likely be the fifth Tory Party leader to be tortured then destroyed by the European question.  And could also have the honour of losing to Corbyn, assuming they last until 2022. Or face a reverse takeover by Farage. The one quality they will need above all (and will have little control over) is luck. They’ll certainly need it.

[1] This is in honour of @AlastairMeeks who likes having unusual words by which to remember thread headers.




The latest Euro polls find BRX reinforcing its position with the LDs starting to nudge LAB out of second place

May 18th, 2019

In London the LDs have 3% lead


Oh the humiliation! CHUK not even listed as a runner on the Euros spread-betting markets

May 18th, 2019

So much is going on in UK politics at the moment that it is hard to recall that just a month ago the new Party formed by breakaway CON and LAB MPs, Change UK, was talking about it taking over the Lib Dems. From reports at the time it considered itself to be the powerful force and were treating Cable’s party as almost supplicants in any relationship.

The new grouping didn’t contest the local elections on May 2nd but their first big opportunity to show their electoral potency comes next Thursday in the Euro elections. The party is fielding a full slate of candidates across the country but if the polling is anything like on the mark then the chances are that it is going to be a struggle to win a single MEP.

Sporting Index has just opened a range of spread markets on Thursdays election and the main one, how many seats each party will win in the bottles Parliament, is shown above. As can be seen there is one big emission from the list of that is Change UK. It is extraordinary they they weren’t even regarded as being in the running.

You can understand this. It doesn’t have any MEP incumbents seeking re-election, it has yet to build up an activist network and it has seen poll ratings down to just 2 percent.

As PB regulars will know I love spread betting on the outcome of elections. The job is that the more you are right the more you win and the more you are wrong the more you lose. It is not for the faint-hearted. You “buy” and “sell” positions as though they were stocks and shares in this case with the final level being the number of MEPs that are elected.

At the last general election I “sold” CON seats at the 393 level. They ended up with 318 seats and my winnings were 75 times (the gap between the ell level and what happened) my stake. Be careful, though you can lose.

Mike Smithson


Why Revoke is now very much on the table

May 18th, 2019

May’s departure and a flight to the extremes aids stopping Brexit

A zombie government will bring a zombie Withdrawal Agreement back to parliament next month, and in true zombie style, it will get bashed and still not really die. Ever since the first Meaningful Vote in January, when the government lost by well over 200 votes, Theresa May has been locked in a political vice where she couldn’t countenance No Deal, couldn’t accept No Brexit but couldn’t deliver any Brexit deal either – yet one of those three outcomes must ultimately conclude this phase of the process.

First things first. As predicted, the Con-Lab Brexit talks had long since run their course and in the face of haemorrhaging support from the electorate, neither party was going to be willing to concede the necessary ground to enable a deal to be struck. The European Parliament elections next week will no doubt drive home this new reality much further, and the Peterborough by-election after that.

In truth, those conclusions – that the Tories should take a firmer line and that Labour should be more actively Remain – might well be wrong. Certainly, some voters are strongly exercised by Brexit but many are simply fed up with two divided parties who either can’t decide on what their policy is or can’t deliver it once they do decide. In the absence of competence, voters are looking for certainty and that’s unsurprisingly to be found at the extremes: No Deal , and Revoke.

Where Jeremy Corbyn was right was in stating that the government’s authority is draining by the day and that even if a deal had been done, it was highly unlikely to be one that the PM could carry her party on. Naturally, he didn’t say the same for himself but despite his stronger internal party position, he could well have done.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that May will lose her Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill at the second reading. There are sound tactical grounds for letting it through at that stage, not least that the easiest way to deliver a confirmatory referendum is to attach one to that Bill’s enactment.

However, chances are that Labour will vote it down, as they’ve voted down the Withdrawal Agreement before. What then? Well, first there’ll be a Tory leadership contest and a change of prime minister in the summer: probably in early September, possibly in late July if the timetable can be shortened to that extent. Simultaneously, we’re very likely to see a parallel contest for the Lib Dem leadership. As a result, both parties’ policies will likely tilt towards their members’ views.

Following on, there’ll be the party conferences. For the Tories and Lib Dems, these will simply be echoes of their internal summer elections, albeit that they might force commitments or set policy.

More important will be Labour’s conference. Corbyn has so far stuck rigidly to the last conference composite which set as the party’s first priority to seek a general election – which has enabled him to avoid doing anything to set a clear Labour policy but has allowed Labour to frustrate the government in delivering anything either. That position cannot hold. With only a month to the current Brexit deadline, a general election would be of no use. The conference could try to endorse some kind of Cooper 2 procedure but Cooper 1 only worked because the EU was willing to play ball, because the PM felt obliged to ask for the extension anyway, and because the numbers added up in parliament. None of those can be guaranteed to fall into place a second time.

Instead, when faced with the very real possibility that the new Tory PM will make demands of Brussels that Brussels will not accept and that given that, a Cooper 2 might fail to deliver its objective even if it could be rammed through parliament against the government’s wishes, as Cooper 1 was, Labour might have to turn to the nuclear option of Revoke – the only means within the UK’s control of stopping (or pausing) Brexit. And of course, we know that the great majority of Labour members, MPs and voters believe that Brexit is a mistake. There has to be a good chance that a Revoke motion could carry against the leadership’s wishes.

Could Remainers in the Commons carry off the same trick it did before, grab control of the timetable and push a Bill through parliament? The advantage to this procedure – as opposed to trying to insert a referendum into the Implementation Bill – is that it’s simple. A Revocation Act might only need one meaningful clause whereas, for comparison, the 2015 Act that authorised the first referendum ran to well over a hundred sections, if you include those within the Schedules. Similarly, it’s far easier and quicker to implement.

But is there a majority for Revoke? In isolation, almost certainly not. The question, however, would be whether there’s a majority for Revoke when the near-assured alternative is No Deal. In that scenario, there might well be.

We could ask at that point what would happen after that but there we enter a whole new discussion deserving of its own article. As far as this one goes, I’ll simply note that the Betfair odds on Brexit not taking place before 2022 are 3.25, which is probably now a little generous (there are of course other routes to No Brexit before 2022 beyond the one laid out above).

As always, pushing for your own radical outcome both legitimises your opponents pushing for their own radical, opposite one – something they might well not have felt able to do without that legitimisation – and also makes them believe that there’s an imperative to push for it, to forestall the original initiative. When the stakes are so high, pressure so great and time so short, Revoke will undoubtedly move more and more into view as a very real possibility.

David Herdson


Boost for Johnson in the first CON membership poll since TMay announced her exit timetable

May 17th, 2019

His biggest hurdle’s still getting through the MPs round

Quick off the mark we now have the first YouGov poll of CON members following the news that TMay agreed her exit timetable.

The poll was slightly different from the standard. Members who formed the sample were not asked who they would vote for but rather were presented with a list of nine names and asked to rank them. The outcome is in the Times Tweet above.

Sure Johnson is at the top, no surprise there, but quite a significant part of the sample rated him bottom. If the outcome is Boris as CON leader and PM  he’ll be heading a divided party. We haven’t seen the full poll detail yet but I wonder how many would have rated him at the bottom if fellow Etonian, Rory Stewart, had not been on the list.

It does say something about the current party that the two names at the bottom both had the same educational background. 

The first challenge, though, for Mr. Johnson is getting though the MP rounds of voting and here we have little data though I’ve no doubt that will be forthcoming.

In the betting Johnson is still favourite but has edged down a touch.

Mike Smithson




The Ladbrokes 7/2 that the LDs will come top in London looks a good value bet

May 17th, 2019

Today’s YouGov/Times Euros poll with a 7k+ sample has LAB on 15% nationally below the LDs who are now second in the race. The Tories on 9% are fifth behind the Greens.

All this should help the LDs underpin their claim to be the strongest anti-Brexit party in the three-way battle in England between them and CHUK and the Greens. In Scotland the strongest anti-Brexit party is the SNP and in Wales PC.

Looking at the betting the Ladbrokes London market is, as far as I can see, the first for a region and the latest odds are above. Hopefully there will be other regional markets put up.

This one is on votes and the standout bet for me the 7/2 that the LDs will be top in the capital. The YouGov poll has a large sample which means that the regional subsets are more meaningful. In London BXP are on 25%, the LDs 21% and LAB on 20%.

In 2014 UKIP got 16.87% of the London votes and it is hard to see BXP+UKIP getting that much more.

The LD 7/2 looks good value.

Mike Smithson


The Con-Lab Brexit talks are dead and the parties should say so

May 16th, 2019

The differences are unbridgeable and any deal unratifiable

Like a sketch show parody of a Victorian dinner crossed with Weekend at Bernie’s, the negotiators in the Con-Lab Brexit negotiations have been determined to maintain the pretence that all is still well despite the talks having died some time during the soup course; it’s just that everyone is too polite to say so.

That pretence has finally begun to break down as both the realities of the talks themselves and the combined effect of the local elections just gone and the European elections pending take their toll on MPs of both main parties. All the same, Lidington, Starmer and co will still resume and – who knows – might even produce an agreement.

If they do, it’ll be another classic case of conferencitis, where those in the room were so keen to do a deal that they forgot to take adequate account of the need to get that deal ratified. It wouldn’t be the first time this’d have happened in the Brexit process, of course. Cameron’s initial negotiations produced an outcome so meagre that he’d probably have been better either not starting the talks at all. Even more obviously, May’s Withdrawal Arrangement has proven unratifiable despite the risks of not ratifying it.

With Con and Lab MPs already in mutinous mood, the demands on the negotiators were always impossible. Con MPs certainly won’t sign up to any major concessions and if sufficiently provocative concessions are included, might well react by moving directly against the PM. By contrast, Labour MPs, uncomfortably aware of the Lib Dems, Greens and other Remainers breathing down their necks, were hardly likely to sign up to a Brexit most are already deeply uncomfortable with, especially if the PM couldn’t be trusted to deliver it.

The demand that any deal be put to a ‘confirmatory referendum’ should be the last straw that forces a breakdown. It stems from Labour’s conference and is an excellent example of why policy shouldn’t be made by composite. A referendum is inimical to any Brexit deal. Opinion has moved so far against compromise and into mutually hostile No Deal and Remain/Revoke camps that it would be impossible to legislate for a referendum without both those options being on the ballot, and impossible to deliver any deal if they are there.

What incentive then is there for the government to sign up to something it knows could not pass? Likewise, though less often stated, it would surely have to be a quid pro quo that if the government signed up to many Labour demands, then Labour would have to be obliged to campaign for the deal in a public vote: a requirement that MPs, members and the NEC would be highly likely to reject in favour of Remain.

Put simply, Labour (although not yet its leadership) will not now allow any Brexit to occur, except by accident. The Tories (although perhaps not yet its leadership) will not allow any possibility of Brexit not occurring, except by accident. The demand for an EURef2 is a deal-breaker.

In all probability, we were always going to end up here anyway. Even if the referendum demand hadn’t been made, Corbyn’s insistence on membership of the Customs Union and for the UK to mirror a whole swathe of EU regulation would probably have made any agreement unratifiable on the Con side.

When the talks do break down, where does that leave the key players? For Labour, most will be unaffected. Starmer will gain credit for engaging and then effectively disengaging. Corbyn won’t be damaged so much by the failure of the talks as by his continuing clear acceptance of the principle of Brexit, if not all the current details. MPs will feel emboldened against the leadership again (a feeling likely to grow if the Euroelection results are poor for the party) but his position remains largely secure.

By contrast, May will have run out of road. The Withdrawal Agreement remains the only deal on the table but one whose best chance of ratification has passed, as both Tory and Labour MPs retreat from the compromise it represents, in reflection of the public doing likewise. What purpose does the PM then serve? It’s hard to see any, other than acting as a tactical bed-blocker against disliked potential successors.

But that’s not a sustainable position, as the clock is running down on the October Brexit extension, on May’s 12-month notional protection from a leadership challenge and on the next general election (which may be a lot sooner than 2022). If the Tories do as badly in the EP elections as polls suggest, members and MPs will demand changes and may well conclude that the change needed is to appeal to the voters attracted by Farage’s simplistic populism – which would at least make clear the choice that’s been implicit for weeks: No Deal or No Brexit.

David Herdson


Following the firmer news on TMay’s exit Johnson declares that he’s running and moves to a 27% favourite in the betting

May 16th, 2019

Betdata.io chart of movement on the Betfair exchange

So the CON backbenchers who have been unhappy with Mrs May’s handling of the brexit process have sort of got their way and there is agreed process for how she will go and when. The 1922 Chair Graham Brady summed up things like this:-

“We have agreed to meet to decide the timetable for the election of a new leader of the Conservative party as soon as the second reading has occurred and that will take place regardless of what the vote is on the second reading – whether it passes or whether it fails.”

Already ERG figures are wanting it earlier and Mr Johnson, the former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary, has made that he will be entering the race – developments which have led to more money going on him on the Betfair Exchange.

So the post by Alastair meeks that we published overnight was nicely timed and I think his assessment is good. Because it is not clear cut and there is a lot of anxiety in parts of the Conservative Party about whether Johnson is up to being Prime Minister we’re going to see a whole raft of names, possibly, coming in. Some have declared themselves already and had expect others to follow.

In all of this remember the old matra that the long term favourite for the CON leadership never gets its. Will Johnson be the one to break this “rule”?

Another factor is that we could be heading for a Maidenhead by-election if TMay decides to step aside as an MP once she is no longer PM.

Mike Smithson