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Theresa May – the wrong woman for her time?

January 21st, 2019



So this is how constitutional settlements are brokered: not at a measured pace with Olympian detachment and the wisdom of Solomon but at high speed in a blind funk with a deal cobbled together in shadowy alcoves. It’s not pretty.

It’s also something that the Prime Minister must hate. Successful governing politicians who have to answer to the electorate often try to avoid making hard choices. Angela Merkel has been so effective at this that her name has been verbed in German. Theresa May has adopted the same approach throughout her premiership, seeking to make her own views unknowable, letting the views of others percolate through until the decision makes itself.

She started by setting out her parameters for Brexit, first in outline form in the summer of 2016 and then in more detail in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. After that point she has simply let matters unfold before her, allowing the EU, the ERG, the DUP and anyone else who so chose to put their views forward, and then just waited. When the deal emerged from the primordial gloop of opinions, she no doubt expected it to slouch onto the statute books with a horrid inevitability.

This came to a shuddering halt last week when her deal was rejected by a majority of 230. The deal now looks very evitable: indeed, it looks hard to resuscitate. Theresa May’s entire approach has been refuted by events. She needs to rethink and fast. To fail to do so would be to make a decision by default or see the decision taken out of her hands completely by Parliament.

Unfortunately, fast thinking is not one of Theresa May’s fortes. It is her temperament to consider evidence thoroughly and slowly in order to come up with the optimal policy. Having determined that she has already come up with the optimal policy, her response is not to rethink but to decide how she can repackage it. In her mind, it seems, nothing has changed.

Something, however, has changed. Her command of Parliament has been demonstrated to be illusory and her authority has scattered across the floor of the House of Commons like pearls from a broken necklace. She should be scrambling to gather what she can back together again.

There is a hard deadline of 29 March 2019 and unless something is done, Britain is going to leave the EU without a deal. Theresa May has given no indication that she regards that as a desirable or acceptable outcome, yet it is emerging as her policy by default.

Sometimes it is better to be wrong quickly than right slowly. With a hard deadline, a House of Commons that has fractured into six or more groupings and the nerves of loyal MPs fraying, the political imperative is to provide a strong lead in a direction that has some chance of attracting new support.

Her most successful predecessors understood the importance of initiative. When David Cameron was defeated in Parliament in a vote over military action in Syria, he immediately stood up to announce that he recognised the vote and would not proceed with the idea (even though Labour had not ruled out supporting a more restricted version of military intervention). A defeat that might otherwise have been career-ending was brushed off as essentially unimportant. Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher would similarly have looked to take the bull by the horns.

Theresa May has instead simply languished in Downing Street consumed by inertia, continuing with her strategy of making her policy the only one capable of adoption. But it is not. It is now just one policy among many that could be adopted and one, moreover, that has been decisively rejected.

She seems to be relying on the possibility that her opponents will remain divided. Perhaps they will. That does not, however, seem particularly likely, especially since one thing that her opponents in the House of Commons can all agree on is that they should collectively have more say. It therefore seems more and more likely that Parliament will snatch the reins of Brexit for itself.

If that happens, the government will become curiously almost irrelevant. Conservative party discipline has been stretched beyond the limit ever since the EU referendum was first announced and despite a supposed restoration of collective Cabinet responsibility in July 2018, it has been honoured in the breach rather than the observance. It is hard to see how it can be reimposed this side of a resolution of the Article 50 departure process.

By that stage, the fissures in the Conservative party may have widened beyond the point of repair. That’s a downside of their leader not making difficult decisions. The indecision might end up consuming them all.

Alastair Meeks





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Kamala Harris, betting favourite for the Democratic nomination, chooses today, Martin Luther King Day, to launch her campaign

January 21st, 2019

Will she be able to stop Trump?

The big news in the 2020 White House race is that as expected, Kamala Harris has formally announced that she is running for the Democratic nomination, and of course, the presidency.

In recent months her star has been rising within the party following some widely publicised Senate grillings in which she has given some of Trump’s nominations for high office a hard time. She’s the former Attorney General of the biggest state in the Union, California, and is of Tamil and Jamaican descent. Appropriately she chose today, Martin Luther King day, for the big announcement.

She enters a field that is already becoming crowded not the least with some of her fellow senators. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was first in on New Years Eve while New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand put hat her hat into the ring last week. Another Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown, is likely to follow her. He first won his Ohio Senate seat in 2006 and only 2 months ago retained it with a majority of 6.8%. That compares with the 8% margin that Donald Trump had in the state at at the WH2016. A nominee who could win in swing-state of Ohio could be very attractive to the party.

We have yet to hear from the second favourite for the nomination, Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who had a very good result in the November Senate election against the Republican Ted Cruz.

All this is building up to a fascinating primary battle and it is hard to make predictions until you’ve seen how the first States to participate actually rate the candidates.

Remember the runaway odds on favourite Howard Dean in 2004 who apparently could do no wrong until he failed at the first step in a Ohio and made a speech afterwards that effectively knocked him out of the race.

It will be interesting to see how Trump reacts to Harris’s arrival in the field. So far, unlike with other prominent Democrats, he has failed to attach a tag line to her which has stuck.

Mike Smithson




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Why HealthSec Hancock should be factored in as a potential TMay successor

January 21st, 2019

The ambitious Osborne protégé who wasn’t purged by Theresa

Over the weekend I’ve been trying to look through other possible contenders for TMay’s job which might become vacant in a matter of weeks or a few months. Who are the dark horses who might be a good punt at long odds?

Of all the Tory ministers who have been wheeled out recent weeks to argue the government’s Brexit position two of them, to my mind, stand out. One is the prisons minister who used to run a province in Iraq, Rory Stewart and the other is the ambitious Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The latter was a protégé of the the former Chancellor George Osborne and a key member of his team. He entered Parliament at the 2010 General Election. He did not have to wait too long before he got promoted to being a minister and in the chopping and changing that we’ve seen post GE2017 he is now the Health Secretary.

This is part of a ConHome profile on him written by Andrew Gimson last May.

Hancock is a modern man, and that is one reason why he has bubbled to the surface. He has a capacity, and willingness, to express unbounded, if painfully bland enthusiasm for any modish cause….

He is particularly enthusiastic about digital transformation, and is reckoned by Whitehall warriors to have done well to keep it out of the hands of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, where it could equally well belong.

In February [2018] he brought out the Matt Hancock app, which produced a burst of derision at his expense, with even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer making jokes about it..

One of Hancock’s many useful characteristics is an ability to get people to laugh with him, rather than at him. Beneath the laughter could be detected a note of respect..”

Gimson goes on to report the observation of a mandarin who worked with him.

“I have to say I never took to the man. Clearly able in a Bank of England sort of way. But devoid of principle, transparently ambitious and pleased with himself beyond measure.

Given that none of the frontrunners has appeared to have gathered any traction I just wonder whether Hancock would be tempted to put his hat into the ring. He is good communicator with a confidence that compares so well with the incumbent.

I’ve got him at 65/1 for next leader and 90/1 for next PM.

Mike Smithson




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Desperate times. A new way out of the Brexit impasse

January 20th, 2019

The train is hurtling down the track and the cliff edge of 11pm on 29 March 2019 approaches. The overwhelming majority of the House of Commons is unwilling to countenance no deal, but there is nothing approaching a majority on what they would in practice countenance. Different groups compete for power, some reaching for the brake and some arguing that we should speed up to get to 88mph to zap us back to 1955. No resolution is in sight and a terrible fate beckons.

What are the options? Britain can leave with no deal. It can sign up for a deal that has just been rejected by a majority of 230 MPs. It can try to negotiate something new, though the EU has consistently and repeatedly said that it won’t renegotiate. It can decide to remain in the EU. It can ask for extra time, which it might not get. Or it can revoke its notice to quit and do some further thinking that way. None of these options look anywhere near commanding a consensus.

Is there anything else?  There’s always something else. All you need is a little imagination. The problem essentially comes from the fixing of the deadline. Let’s work on that then.

The measurement of time has been under state control since the beginning of time, right up to the present day. Following the example of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the former president of Turkmenistan renamed the months, including one for himself and one for his mother. But I deplore his lack of ambition and think we should be raising our sights, just as the early Romans did. For what we are in urgent need of is an extra month.

There are 365 days in the year. We can reallocate these into thirteen 28 day months. (This leaves a day over and the challenge of leap years, but I’ll come back to that aspect.) The past convention of naming months after the political leader would not work, since we already have a May.  Perhaps the naming right could be auctioned in order to reduce the national debt. Amazon, for example, sounds suitably classical.

This has numerous advantages. For starters, calendars would never need to change. They can go from being throwaway items to luxury objects. Next up, if we make 1 January a Monday, paraskevidekatriaphobia will be a thing of the past. Every monthly paid worker would get a one-off 8.33% pay rise, helping to alleviate the long squeeze on wages growth at a stroke.

This leaves the question of the 365th day and leap days. This can be dealt with by adding intercalenary days, attached to no month and not being a day of the week. Britain doesn’t have enough Bank Holidays, so Meeks Days (like school inset days, I expect they will be known by the name of their creator) will serve yet another valuable function. Stick them – one, or two in a leap year – between June and July and we can hope for good weather and a day off for the Wimbledon final too.

What would this mean for Brexit? The timid might hope to buy another 28 days by inserting a new month between February and March, and hope that might be enough to sort things out. The observant will note that with each month having 28 days, the 29th of March becomes the twelfth of never. Brexit would not have been revoked or delayed. It would simply have been teleported safely into an alternate universe.

Now it might be argued, perhaps by those who have advocated that Britain should go into union with Australia Canada and New Zealand or by those who have advocated that the vote should be removed from the over 75s, that this idea is far too eccentric to be worthy of further attention. The time has come, however, to think laterally. What the country needs is more time. Parliament with its newly-rediscovered sovereignty should legislate to provide us with exactly that.

Alastair Meeks




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A 16/1 tip to start off your Sunday

January 20th, 2019

Why I’m betting on Farage to become an MP in 2019

I suspect whatever the outcome on Brexit Nigel Farage will be screaming betrayal as it will not be the precise type of Brexit he wants. I expect that screaming will be heard on Jupiter if Article 50 is extended or revoked. If Parliament does what pre referendum Farage suggested in the event of 52%/48% result in 2016 and hold another referendum then Farage might be very cross.

So how does Farage channel that anger? I hope he won’t be picking up his rifle, I wonder if he might stand in the potential Peterborough by election, he has said in the past he wouldn’t but given the right circumstances he might, especially as outlined in the previous paragraph.

Peterborough seems ideal for Farage given that it voted Leave and if the current MP is disqualified for her conviction for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It isn’t hard to imagine Farage using the by election by asking the voters to send a message to a dodgy Parliament, Brexit means Brexit perhaps?

If Parliament descends into further deadlock we could see a 2019 general election which could also Farage a further opportunity to become an MP.

Now perspicacious PBers will be pointing out Nigel Farage’s lamentable record when attempting to become an MP, including the memorable occasion when he finished third in a two horse race but at 16/1 I’m happy to put a few quid on it, but not much more. After all Farage will become unemployed from elected office in a little over two months, he might need something else to fill the void.

TSE



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Now we’ve got some non-YouGov polls showing CON leads the position looks a tad less good for LAB

January 19th, 2019

With three new voting intention polls out in the past couple of hours this has been the biggest evening for Westminster surveys June 7th 2017 – the day before the last general election.

One of the positive things for LAB until this evening is that no other pollster than YouGov had shown a CON lead since the first week in November. It became a little bit easier to portray YouGov as an outlier.

The big thing in polling analysis is the general direct of travel rather than one particular poll and it does appear as though the Tory position in relation to LAB has edged up a notch.

Certainly LAB ambivalence on Brexit, the biggest issue for years, had actually worked but I just wonder whether that is changing. This demonstration earlier in the week shows the tensions.

Another thought is that if this parliament does survive until the 2022 then Brexit will be done and dusted and will have much less of a political impact.

Mike Smithson




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A Customs Union deal needs to be on the table if No Deal is to be avoided

January 19th, 2019

The only way to get Brexit Deal votes is to go softer

It’s lonely at the top. It’s probably lonelier if you cut yourself off and isolate yourself from your colleagues, even if they are after their own interests and your own job. This last week has proven just how politically lonely Theresa May is, yet still she carries on. There’s something admirable in that and perhaps it’s no small part of the explanation for the rise in rise in the level of sympathy the public feel for the PM, as noted in the previous thread, and also in her rising ‘Best PM’ lead (the two times YouGov have asked that this year, the leads – 18 and 16 per cent, respectively – have been the biggest since the 2017 election).

However, despite having tried to keep her Brexit strategy very close to home, the disastrous defeat of her Brexit plan means that if she’s to avoid a No Deal outcome, she can’t just carry on as if nothing has changed. Nominally, she’s recognized that by arranging meetings with opposition MPs and party leaders (though not Corbyn, who’s launched his own No Platform protest against the PM), but in practice, unless she’s willing to change any of the fundamentals, it’s hard to see what benefit that can bring her.

Had she been a more people-person sort of leader, she’d have been cultivating these links since the election, when it became obvious that they’d be useful (or at the very least, she’d have authorized senior members of the government to do so). Unfortunately, that’s not her style or character. Nor, as Ken Clarke noted, is transactional politics or flexibility.

That said, when circumstances have demanded it, she has made concessions or changed course – and circumstances most certainly do demand that now. For all that the scale of the defeat of her plan was record-breaking, it wasn’t the most important aspect of the result. What the numbers revealed was that there aren’t the numbers in the Commons for a harder Brexit.

Of all the MPs who voted against, it’s only within the Conservative ranks that those who want a cleaner break with the EU are to be found. To that might be added the DUP, for whom the NI-GB relationship is more important that the UK-EU one and who might support a No Deal outcome (but would only support a No Deal outcome as a harder Brexit from where we are, because any other deal would require a stronger N Ireland backstop; they might just as easily go for a softer Brexit if that reduces the need for any Irish Sea divisions). Beyond that, the Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and others are uniformly for some form of closer relationship.

If the PM is serious about getting a deal then, she’s going to have to offer something substantial. This immediately creates two problems. Firstly, the reaction among a large number of her own MPs is going to range from anger to rage to apoplexy. Having suffered more than a hundred of them voting against her, to then move the deal further away is not exactly conciliatory. On the other hand, they’ve hardly earned the right to be given a veto, having tried and failed to remove her and having voted down the best chance of an orderly withdrawal. With May now safe for a year from a leadership challenge triggered by a minority of Con MPs, she doesn’t need to act as the captive of the ERG.

The other problem is that the EU said they wouldn’t renegotiate. However, when they said that, they effectively meant that there wouldn’t be any more concessions from Brussels. If May were instead to go back and say “we’d like in on the Customs Union”, I suspect the door would be open. The EU doesn’t want No Deal either and the UK within the Customs Union permanently would solve some (but not all) of the N Ireland questions. Having conceded the principle of the issue for the transition period, it’s a small step to make the arrangement permanent.

Labour has of course demanded more than just Customs Union. They also want permanent alignment on a rule-taking basis on employment and environmental regulations too. These would, I think, be a step too far for Tory MPs. It’s one thing to give up trade rights which have proven illusory so far, it’s another to see large parts of what could easily otherwise be domestic legislation be dictated from Brussels. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was precisely this point that kicked off the whole Eurosceptic movement within the Tories, in Delors’ Social Europe and Thatcher’s response to it in the Bruges Speech.

However, might Labour prove more flexible there than is being assumed? Probably not but it’s not impossible. There’s a reason that Corbyn has always been sceptical towards Europe, which is his suspicion that it’s a Capitalist Club. He may be right. There’s no guarantee that the flow of social legislation from Brussels will continue to be progressive. Might the rise of the New Right eclipse the consensus of the Centre Left on the continent and revise the Brussels policy? It’s certainly possible. Would Corbyn, as a potential PM, then be bound by treaty to repeal employment rights in order to keep the mirror with the EU and not impose artificial barriers? It’s not a happy prospect. Better to leave them off the table altogether? Perhaps.

Besides, how viable would it be to continue to refuse to engage with the government if they made a serious offer? The risk to Corbyn is twofold: firstly, that May got her deal through by splitting Labour as badly as her own party, and secondly, that if she didn’t get it through, Labour’s intransigence makes it complicit in the No Deal failure (which its own supporters will be much more upset about).

On the other hand, offering Customs Union membership would provoke further resignations from the government, including the cabinet. May could lose her third Brexit Secretary in barely six months, plus the likes of Chris Grayling (so it’s not all downside). The cries of ‘betrayal’ would be inevitable, and would be reinforced by the Article 50 extension that would have to be requested if a revised deal could be agreed.

The question – the gamble – is could the stars align sufficiently to find a majority that could back such a plan in the Commons, that could enable to the EU to sign up to it, and that could not prompt an outright mutiny among Tory MPs? The answer is that I don’t know. On balance, my guess would be not, though not by much. But given where the numbers are, it’s the only solution that seems capable of preventing No Deal.

David Herdson



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Trump is clearing the road to his own impeachment

January 19th, 2019


‘La Famiglia’by Marf

His shutdown has backfired and he’s vulnerable

For all the attention on Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign and associated activities, the thing that will ultimately do for Trump – or save him – is politics. The latest reports, that Trump directed his lawyer to lie to Congress, are certainly not good news for the embattled president but nor are they catastrophic. For one thing, as he is fond of noting, Michael Cohen is not necessarily a reliable witness (although Trump’s relationship with the truth is hardly straightforward). More importantly though, impeachment is and has always been a political process rather than a legal one – and the politics have favoured him so far.

Trump’s presidency has been all about keeping his base happy and generally he’s done a very good job of that. That has two related effects. Firstly, it all-but assures his renomination, barring accidents; and secondly, it creates a very significant disincentive for Republican senators and congressmen to act against Trump’s interests, for fear of a backlash.

    Take away the support of his base though and he begins to look a lot more vulnerable. And Trump’s problem is that his support is falling and it’s his own fault.

Having taken ownership of the federal shutdown right at the start, the public are taking him at his word. More than half of those polled in nearly all the polls on the shutdown blame the president, against about a third who blame Democrats in Congress, and the figures are, if anything, getting worse for Trump.

Worse, his ratings have taken a hammering with his natural support. His net approval rating in one poll fell by 18 points among suburban men (+12 to -6), 13 points with white evangelicals (+56 to +43), 10 points with Republicans (+83 to +73) and 7 points with non-college white women (+20 to -4). Now, some of those scores still look pretty good – and they are – but they have to be offset against the very large numbers who hate him with a passion.

Given that the Mueller investigation has been going on so long that it’s essentially become background music, the Cohen revelations have probably been treated by those who choose to believe in Trump as a combination of fake news and Deep State conspiracy. It’s Inside-the-Beltway talk. By contrast, the federal shutdown isn’t. Even if it doesn’t affect all that many people directly, it has a big indirect effect and it’s undermining Trump’s reputation as the Great Dealmaker. After all, the government has been in shutdown with workers furloughed for longer under Trump (within just his first two years of presidency), than under Carter, Reagan, Bush-41, Bush-43 and Obama combined.

Will it affect his support enough to cause Democrats to pull the Impeachment trigger? That does depend on whether Mueller can find something of a smoking gun. It also depends on whether they wouldn’t rather run against what ought to be a very beatable incumbent if he can’t rediscover his touch. But some Republican senators are already wavering on the shutdown; the hyper-partisan period of his presidency might already be coming to an end. If Trump’s ratings with his base continue to fall, that will have a knock-on effect on the generic Republican brand, which senators will have to take seriously (and note that the Republicans gained 9 seats in the 2014 senate elections: that’s a very high tidemark to be defending).

At present, Trump is 5/4 against with Ladbrokes to be impeached in his first term, and 2/1 to leave office due to impeachment or resignation. I don’t think there’s yet any value in either of those bets. It’s getting closer though.

David Herdson