5 things about this week (18 July 2019)

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2019

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BORISIBLE

It didn’t help her bludgeon her Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, but Theresa May’s refrain — “It’s my deal, no deal, or no Brexit” — was a fair summary of the Hobson’s choice still facing the UK. Which will be the legacy of the presumed next prime minister, Boris Johnson?

Seven weeks into the Conservative leadership contest, we’re still, none of us, any the wiser because Mr Johnson is fundamentally flaky. Both Brexiter Tories (enthusiastically, if sometimes warily) and Remainer Tories (reluctantly) have lent him their support in the anxious hope he’ll shaft the other side.

It seems (who actually knows?) he won’t go for a thinly-disguised version of Theresa May’s deal. The current Brexit secretary, the Johnson-supporting Stephen Barclay, declared it “dead” five times in a meeting with the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, according to The Times. Of course, this might just be no-deal posturing, designed by Team Johnson to show the EU that the UK is fully prepared to commit economic hara-kiri.

There had been some conventional wisdom floating round that Mr Johnson would go to Brussels, negotiate some cosmetic changes, and come back pronouncing victory in the hope of using his honeymoon period to drive May’s deal 2.0 through. But his unequivocal disavowal of the Irish backstop — “no to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all those kind of elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop” — seems to rule that out. And, indeed, to rule out any kind of deal, given the backstop is fundamental to squaring the circle of the UK government’s nonsensical, irreconcilable, but official, Brexit position that there be no border on the island of Ireland nor the Irish Sea, but also that there should be no Customs Union with the EU.

Which must mean it’ll be no-deal, right? (Who actually knows?) This is the ineluctable logic of Mr Johnson’s “do or die” vow that Brexit must happen by 31st October — a date, incidentally, demanded by the French which apparently it is now British patriotic duty to obey. Yet the only other Prime Minister to look over that cliff edge decided not to jump (with good reason). Mr Johnson himself has labelled the odds of it a “million-to-one against”.

Because that’s the thing. I can see the path by which a no-deal Brexit could occur. Most likely not through prorogation of parliament, but through a short extension to Article 50 to enable a general election with Mr Johnson leading the no-deal charge, scooping up Brexit party votes against a split Labour / Lib Dem opposition, and winning a small majority. But then he will need to deliver a no-deal Brexit. And does he really think his premiership, even the Conservative party itself, can survive that kind of economic shock?

Alternatively, of course, that general election results in the Conservatives losing, with Labour and the Lib Dems agreeing a temporary pact to legislate for a second referendum, on which no-deal would not be an option, but Remain would.

“It’s my deal, no deal, or no Brexit”. Any of the three could yet still happen. What a ridiculous 100 days await us.

**

LABORIOUS

Labour’s Brexit position — this month’s, at any rate — has deservedly attracted derision for continuing to show some ankle to Remainers (the party now backs a ‘People’s Vote’ in any circumstances) while staying true to Leavers (Labour remains committed to respecting the result of the June 2016 vote).

This could, of course, lead to the ludicrous situation in which Labour re-negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU and then campaigned against its own deal in the subsequent referendum.

That said, it’s not really much more daft than those MPs who voted to hold a referendum in the first place and to implement its decision, irrespective of whether they agreed with the result. Those MPs include, ahem, the Lib Dems.

**

LIBERATED

I did attend the Lib Dem hustings at Gatwick, as promised in my last missive. It was a pretty stultifying event: 90 minutes of two capable candidates earnestly agreeing with each other on predictable topics like Brexit, climate change, and immigration. Against, against, for… just in case you were wondering.

And no, I won’t be voting for either of them (see last missive, ibid.). But for those who do want to cast their vote and haven’t yet — the poll closes on 22 July — I can, of course, heartily recommend Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast coverage. In particular, it’s worth listening to my co-host Mark Pack’s illuminating interviews with both Jo Swinson and Ed Davey.

And if you really want to spoil yourself, here’s Mark and me disinterring the contest, the campaigns, and the candidates:

Trigger warning: this podcast includes me being less than 100% pro-electoral reform… and unloading my hypothesis that the Lib Dems are to blame for Brexit.

**

WOKENDING

And speaking of trigger warnings: they don’t work and are potentially harmful to those they’re designed to help. That’s according to this fascinating study — authored by Payton Jones, Benjamin Bellet and Richard McNally — in which trauma survivors were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive trigger warnings prior to reading potentially distressing passages from world literature:

We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. … Conclusions: Trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors. It is less clear whether trigger warnings are explicitly harmful. However, such knowledge is unnecessary to adjudicate whether to use trigger warnings – because trigger warnings are consistently unhelpful, there is no evidence-based reason to use them.

Another woke fad — here’s Will Dunn in the New Statesman on the irrationality of replacing plastic bags with even more destructive tote bags:

Based on the 140 plastic bags per year that retailers estimated were issued to UK shoppers before the 5p charge was introduced, a cotton bag must therefore be used for at least 50 years to make any positive difference to the environment. Or 140 years, if it’s organic.

And another one to throw in — especially in light of transwoman weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s gold medals in the Pacific GamesDr Emma Hilton’s speech looking at the science behind the differences between the male and female sex and how that translates to sporting performance:

Males can run faster, jump longer, throw further and lift heavier than females. They outperform females by 10% on the running track to 30% when throwing various balls.

* So big is the gap, there are 9000 males between 100m world record holders Usain Bolt and FloJo.
* So early does the gap emerge, the current female 100m Olympic champion, Elaine Thompson, is slower than the 14 year old schoolboy record holder.
* So unassailable the gap has proven to be, virtually all elite sports have a protected female category, to allow females to compete fairly against those with the same female potential, and to win, and, OK, to make a little money maybe.

**

CULTCHA

This week I’ve been… continuing my Stephen Poliakoff binge, courtesy BBC iPlayer. Completed Summer of Rockets, Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers, on to Gideon’s Daughter. Just… mesmerising.

Also, of course, watching Wimbledon. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Roger Federer for throwing away those two championship points. Which meant I missed the cricket World Cup final (though I assumed England would lose anyway, sorry).

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75th birthday present to my mum, Court No.1 tickets for men's quarter finals. Think she enjoyed it, too, which was a bonus 😉

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5 things about this week (25 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2019

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I had thought the most depressing thing about this week would be the near-inevitability of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. A man who failed disastrously as foreign secretary — of whom his old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, writes, “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth” — is about to be entrusted with the greatest of all public offices; and that at a moment when the UK desperately needs a leader of vision, resilience, depth, a capacity for hard grind, and the capacity to unite.

But Mr Johnson’s 99%-certain elevation is a runner-up to the depressing horror of seeing my country remorselessly embracing the US ‘culture wars’, that pitched battle between traditionalist conservative and liberal progressives.

First, it was the rush of Conservative MPs (and commentators) to the defence of their colleague Mark Field, who in a fit of anger slammed an unarmed, female Greenpeace protestor against a pillar before grabbing her by the neck and violently pushing her, an utterly disproportionate act of aggression which seemed to come all too easily to him.

Then it was the nasty attack, led by the right-wing media, against the south London couple who reported to the police (and subsequently The Guardian), a noisy row between Mr Johnson and his current girlfriend Carrie Symonds involving screaming, shouting, the sound of glasses or plates being smashed, along with Ms Symonds telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. Their intervention has been labelled “Corbynista curtain twitching” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, without any apparent irony, added “politicians should feel safe and unmolested in their own homes”.

There are only three questions that matter here. First, were the couple (and other neighbours) right to report what could have been domestic violence to the police? Yes. Secondly, were they right to record the fight as potential evidence? Yes. And thirdly, were they right to then hand over the recording to a newspaper? This one’s more subjective, doubt I’d have done it myself, but I think it’s hard not to accept there’s a legitimate public interest.

Even if you think they were wrong to go to the press, though, it’s unarguable that if, say, the story had been about Jeremy Corbyn and broken by the Telegraph, those same conservative commentators would take a very different view. That the physical safety of a young woman is seen through such a tribal lens reveals how far down the Trump rabbit hole we’ve jumped.

**

As for the Conservative leadership race itself… I was going to write “it’s Boris Johnson’s to lose”, but I’m not sure that’s possible any more. Like Trump, the more that’s thrown at him the less any of it sticks. Their devotees have acquired an immunity to their heroes’ all too evident failings. Every time they feel compelled to defend another lapse, the greater their investment. And the sunk costs are now too large for them to feel able to sell up.

**

There is, of course, another leadership contest, albeit one almost entirely ignored by the media: the battle between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey to take over from Vince Cable at the helm of the Lib Dems.

If, like me, you’re resolutely undecided* help is at hand. There are three special episodes of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts‘ podcast featuring exclusive interviews by Mark Pack with each candidate: the first, with Jo, is available to listen to now:

(Also available at Breaker, Google Podcasts, iTunes, Overcast, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, Spotify or Stitcher.)

The second will feature Ed Davey, natch; and in the third, Mark and I will dissect their leadership pitches. To that end, I’m going to attend the south-east hustings at the slightly improbably venue of… Gatwick. Which is actually a very convenient stopping point on commute home.

* Full confession: I’m undecided whether to vote at all. Both candidates have impressive credentials and will, I’m sure, be capable leaders. But as my regular reader will know, I think the party’s full-throttle enthusiasm for gender self-identification is wrong-headed; and the attempts to shut down debate on the issue unhealthily illiberal. (See this ‘5 things…‘, for example.) It seems highly unlikely either Jo or Ed will make any effort to remedy that, as Ed Davey’s not-terribly-well-received Q&A on Mumsnet made clear. And while I remain an active supporter of the Lib Dems (overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses) I’m not currently in any particular mood to back either candidate. But maybe Gatwick will win me round. We’ll see.

**

I felt genuinely sad over the weekend listening to the latest New Statesman politics podcast, featuring Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush, as it’s the last one Helen, who’s off to The Atlantic, will appear in. They have made it an absolutely essential listen, each with in-depth knowledge of the political scene but also bringing to it their own interests, whether theatre or football. Plus they’re very funny and have a great chemistry.

In her sign-off piece for the Staggers, Helen wrote a typically insightful piece about ‘Why political journalism keeps getting it wrong‘. Do read it in full, but this snippet stuck out for me:

The seductive power of the conventional narrative is one of the most distorting forces in political journalism. Jeremy Corbyn is useless, Donald Trump is a joke, Theresa May is the Iron Lady, Remain will win, the Liberal Democrats are finished, Nigel Farage has retired from politics. All of these seem true, until – suddenly – they are not. For commentators and reporters on the left, that is particularly tricky terrain to navigate, because the printed press is dominated by the right, and therefore the consensus tends to be sympathetic to that point of view.

For me, indulging in the teleological view of history is the first deadly sin of political journalism. It is also the easiest to cure – just stop doing it! Ask questions even if they seem odd or niche. Pin down politicians on under-considered scenarios. We must try to tune out what everyone else is obsessed with, and ask ourselves: what could happen that no one is talking about?

I’ve doubtless written many inadequate things over the years, but one article continues to make me cringe: 7 things I expect to happen in the next few days. I wrote it on the eve of the June 2017 election, despite having previously vowed not to indulge in easy sooth-saying prediction churnalism. It is eye-poppingly wrong on almost every count and it genuinely embarrasses me. ‘Just stop doing it,’ urges Helen, and she’s right.

**

I’ve finished watching BBC2’s Mum, Stefan Golaszewski’s brilliantly observed sit-com about, well, a mum. As Golaszewski noted in an interview with The Times:

“The very naming of the sitcom as Mum, has, in various reviews, been totally misinterpreted,” Golaszewski says. “People saying, ‘Why have you called it Mum? It’s such a bland name for a sitcom.’ Or, ‘This isn’t a portrayal of motherhood.’ And that completely misses the irony of calling it Mum, because it’s a show about a woman trying to shake off the label of “mum”. That was the idea — you have this woman who is forced to live up to the expectations of others as a widow or as a mum.”

The final episode is a treat. The line “Yes, well you can go and f*** yourself” will leave you both cheering the put-upon Cathy and with new-found respect for arch-snob Pauline.

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One of them is 75…

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5 things about this week (17 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2019

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Rory Stewart is the undisputed breakout star of the Conservative party leadership election. What started out, seemingly, as a quixotic tourist excursion into the Westminster souk – with his random Rory Walks filmed for Twitter – has become something altogether more serious.

He’s bagged the support of the de fact deputy PM, David Lidington, as well as (reportedly) the current PM, lest we forget, Theresa May. There is a real prospect he’ll secure the 33 MP votes needed to make the second round cut and secure himself a place at the BBC debating table against Boris Johnson.

That he’s found himself the star attraction is a mix of luck and skill.

Lucky because Mr Johnson’s decision to eschew any public appearances has left a gap in the market for a candidate with fluency and charisma. Lucky, too, because he’s the only candidate (after Sam Gyimah pulled out) to have the guts to begin confronting his own party with the tough choices and trade-offs any form of Brexit necessitates.

The skill, of course, comes from making the best of his own luck. It says much about the current condition of the Conservative party, let alone today’s politics, that being thoughtful, speaking in sentences that aren’t pre-scripted slogans, recognising compromise as a virtue, and displaying compassion and humility mark Rory Stewart out as an exceptional candidate.

**

For all the current Rory-mania, on SW1 Twitter at any rate, the reality is (1) he won’t win, and (2) even if he does, he can’t actually win: the Conservative party would split if he were elected.

But, then, what has become increasingly clear from this contest is that none of the candidates has a plausible Brexit plan which withstands scrutiny. They are all variants of “Theresa May’s deal but done by me”; which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament. And, failing that, a no-deal Brexit (bar Rory) which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament — and, even if it does by default, will likely trash the Conservative party brand for a generation.

No wonder Boris is suddenly all publicity shy.

**

What is Boris Johnson’s plan? He must have one, or at any rate the campaign team in charge of him must have one. I just don’t buy the punditry which asserts “he’s not thought it through, he just wants to be PM”.

My best guess is that he will do his best to surf his new-PM honeymoon – populist tax cuts and public spending increases, a pledge to deliver Brexit by any means possible – and engineer a cut-and-run dash to the polls. It’s not impossible it won’t work, by which I mean it could, just about maybe, resurrect the Conservative party’s poll ratings enough to get them back in power with a wafer-thin majority.

But what happens beyond that? Anyone?

**

It was Father’s Day this week, and to mark it, James Kirkup* wrote a really good account of his own decision to achieve a better work/family balance by choosing to cut his hours. After suggesting the next Chancellor looks at the affordability of childcare, he points out:

In the end, though, this isn’t something that Government alone can deal with. The real changes that working fathers need are cultural. Employment law doesn’t discriminate. Men have just the same right to ask for flexible working as women. It’s just that most don’t.

Since I went part-time, I have lost count of the number of friends who have said that they would like to do the same but don’t feel they can even ask their employer about it. Too many workplaces are still dominated by a male-driven long-hours culture. ‘The guys above me all got where they are by working all hours and missing their kids growing up. They think that a man who’s not willing to do the same isn’t serious about the job,’ says a friend who works in finance.

Encouragingly, there are some signs that things are changing. Big employers are increasingly recognising the importance of helping staff balance work and family. Younger men are more willing to take the plunge and ask for flexibility. But they still need role models in senior positions.

We need more high-profile men who do big important jobs to show that you can succeed at work without 60-hour weeks and missing sports days and birthdays. Believe me, working less to spend more time with your kids really is something you will never regret.

I’m currently working a 90% contract (ie, every other Friday off) for just these reasons; having taken two months shared parental leave last year.

It means I get to watch my pre-schooler’s progress in his gym classes and my toddler’s joy in the swimming pool.

It also means I get to experience the frustration of persuading them to eat breakfast or to put their coat on (or take it off) — because not all parent is full of Instagrammable warmth and smiles.

In short, it means I get a more full-on parenting experience: the amazing, the boring, the tears, and the laughter.

* Extra kudos to James for being the only male journalist to have had the courage consistently to take politicians and his media colleagues to task for their repeated failures to stick up for women’s sex-based rights amid the current woke clamour for gender self-identification. His latest piece — reporting on the NSPCC’s decision to drop Munroe Bergdorf, a model and trans activist, as a celebrity ambassador because she has in the past invited vulnerable children to contact her online in apparent breach of the charity’s own safeguarding principles — is typically on-point.

**

I’ve been continuing to watch Thatcher: A Very British Revolution. Its archive footage is fascinating — I’d never before seen the clip of her tearing up when recollecting her father, Alfred Roberts, being elbowed aside as an alderman (an eerie foreshadowing of her own defenestration) in an interview with Miriam Stoppard. And her full-throated advocacy of free market capitalism is a striking contrast to the current Conservative leadership hopefuls (not one of whom named the economy as their top priority when asked on Channel 4’s debate). The lack of critical analysis — the series over-relies on the hindsight reflections of those who worked with her closely — is, however, irritating.

I’ve also begun, belatedly, watching BBC2’s Summer of Rockets. Nothing Stephen Poliakoff writes/directs is ever anything less than interesting. Plus it stars Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens. With luck, I’ll ave enough time to binge my way through the Poliakoff back catalogue on iPlayer.

I’ve been listening to The Divine Comedy’s new album, Office Politics. I’m not sure it’s my favourite of theirs; in fact, it may well be my least favourite. But I’m still going to listen to it, a lot.

For fun last week, I outsourced my choice of reading matter, asking Twitter ‘I’m in the mood to read a UK political (auto)biography, preferably 20th century. What’s the best one you’ve read?’ Lots of good suggestions. In the end, I’ve plumped for Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher (the daunting length of which had been deterring me) and am listening to Denis Healey’s The Course of My Life (sadly abridged). Then it’ll be John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins.

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It's alright, I caught him. Thanks to the wonderful @flora_westbrook for the gorgeous photos

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5 things about this week (8 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 8, 2019

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So it’s going to be Boris Johnson, then. That’s more of a comment than a question. His momentum in the race to succeed Theresa May appears unstoppable. Pundits mostly caveat that with a “unless he makes a major gaffe”. But it seems unlikely that would de-rail him. The occasional blunder is priced in. Indeed, the occasional blunder is part of his identity: a feature, not a bug.

Conservative MPs are somnambulantly walking towards their fate, lining up behind the favourite. Their rationale, I can only guess, is that either (1) they really do believe he has something of the Churchill about him (a disastrous, unreliable government minister who achieved greatness only at the moment his country faced ruin); or (2) Tory prospects at the next election are so grim, it’s time to play their joker.

I get how Boris gets to be Prime Minister. What I don’t get is what follows. The Conservatives seem set to install as PM the candidate with the highest negative poll rating; whom Labour MPs are least likely to be able to vote alongside; whose solution appears to amount to nothing but a re-hashed version of the Brady Amendment; and who has ruled out both a general election and a second referendum as any kind of fall-back option. We’ve just lost a Prime Minister because she hoist herself on the petard of unreconcilable red lines. Will Boris be the next?

Implicit in his attractiveness as a candidate seems to be that he’s so ideologically flexible, he’ll be able to pivot once in power. Well, maybe, but I don’t see how. Any kind of deal will have Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party wailing betrayal. No-deal will almost certainly collapse the Government. And Boris is the one PM who I can imagine triggering France’s president Macron to mobilise against a further delay to the 31 October Brexit deadline.

I just can’t see a happy ending (for anyone) — can you?

**

The Lib Dem leadership race is officially under way. With Layla Moran having decided not to run (a wise decision, I think), the field’s been left to Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. Both are long-standing MPs; both were Coalition ministers; both are pretty mainstream in the party, neither avowedly Orange Book nor social liberal.

Which means it runs the risk of being a slightly boring contest. And it was that claim which Mark Pack and I discussed in our latest ‘Never Mind the Bar Charts’ podcast, featuring an interview with former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron:

For myself, I haven’t yet decided how to vote. I lean towards Jo Swinson: about time we had a female leader, and I think she’s got the hunger for it. I also think the two involuntary years out of Parliament, 2015-17, has done her a lot of good: she made a success of life beyond politics and I think has emerged the stronger for it. But Ed’s impressive, too, so let’s see. I shall eagerly await my local hustings at the implausible but convenient location of Gatwick (27 June).

**

Wither Change UK. This week saw the party split asunder, with the slightly improbable sight of the most Thatcherite of its MPs, Anna Soubry, ending up leader of the Gang of Five, the other four being ex-Labour; while Heidi Allen, Chuka Umunna and four other ex-TIGgers returned to their Independent Group roots (en route to the now-resurgent Lib Dems?).

I was (am) a ChUK sympathiser. It’s a big decision to leave your party, regardless of the push factor of feeling it’s your party that’s left you. I think all 11 of them deserve credit for having had the guts to act while so many of their colleagues have sat on their hands, even though they, too, despair of their parties’ leadership and direction.

Their timing turned out, in hindsight, to be unfortunate. They were propelled into fighting, unexpectedly, a European election campaign they were woefully unprepared for; and they made some rookie errors (the failure to attract peers and councillors; the name and branding; the media strategy; the rejection of a Remain alliance). Their glib dismissal of the Lib Dems as an irretrievable brand was sadly a bit tribally typical of Conservative and Labour’s historic patronising attitude.

But, regardless, they deserve credit for having tried. And it’s a shame they’re no longer a viable half-way house for future Labour and Conservative defectors who can’t quite face going full Lib Dem (at least yet).

**

You’ve been too kind to comment, but you might’ve noticed it’s been a couple of months since my last ‘5 things’ (11 April). I won’t bore you with the self-indulgent explanation (because it is boring: I’ve been very busy at work). What I did want to bore you with was why I’m resuming…

Time-critical work deadlines were the principal reason I faltered. But it also coincided with a period when politics fell into its post-31 March Brexit deadline stupor: nothing happened for weeks. And I realised that, without Brexit impelling daily events, I had far less to say.

Now, with Theresa May’s departure (and indeed Vince Cable’s), there’s interesting stuff to write about once more. And I do like holding myself to account a bit. And looking back on what I thought contemporaneously. (As an aside, I did write on 21 Feb that The Independent Group was bound ‘after the initial excitement [to] give way to predictable squabbles about leadership and policy direction’.)

I don’t have the self-discipline or interest to keep up a diary unless it’s public. And, given the extraordinary political times we’re living through, I do want my own record of how this period felt. With luck, I’ll be able to look back on it with equanimity knowing everything turned out okay after all.

**

I’ve been:

* reading (slowly) Ken Clarke’s memoir, A Kind of Blue, written in a style entirely redolent of a cigar, an armchair and some background jazz.

* listening to Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. I find him a frustrating author. He writes about subjects that really interest me (I loved the BBC adaptation of The Rotters’ Club, which this is a sort-of sequel to). Yet his characters are often two-dimensional ventriloquist dummies for heavy-handed satirical dialogue. Middle England has these faults, but is better and more interesting. Partly, it’s genuinely interesting to see an author attempt a contemporary Brexit novel. Partly, I found myself quite simply warming to the characters, for all their stereotypical embodiment. Overall, I enjoyed it.

* watching the BBC2’s Thatcher: A Very British Revolution. I’m only up to episode two, but was struck how I ended up more sympathetic to her (on a personal, rather than political, level) than I’d expected. This documentary really brings home to you how unusual she was in being a female leader and how lonely that made her.

**

Oh, there was one other reason I failed to write anything sooner, besides my late nights at work. We went on holiday, to Malta: it was lovely.

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Convoy.

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5 things about this week (11 April 2019)

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2019

Is this the way Brexit ends, not with a bang, but a whimper? Last night the EU27 agreed to the UK’s plaintive request for another extension to Article 50, deferring our departure for the second time, this time by six months, to 31 October.

Of course, it’s way too soon to say Brexit has ended. It’s still just about conceivable that the Conservative-Labour cross-party talks will throw up some compromise that can attract 320+ MPs. Nor is it impossible that we won’t still crash out.

But the big thing which happened was this: the EU once again decided not to force the issue. No ultimatum — pass the deal or prepare for no-deal — was delivered. Instead, the EU has gone out of its ways to leave the British with every available option still.

We can revoke, or legislate for a second referendum, or call a general election, or pass Theresa May’s deal, or take our no-deal chances. It’s our call. And if we don’t do any of those things in the next six months, chances are the EU will give us another breather.

I don’t think the EU is being daft. Far from. They must know that taking the pressure off (and also signalling preparedness to do so again in October) means there is even less chance of Theresa May’s deal passing; her hopes of it passing depended on there being an ultimate, crunch moment, when she could scare up a majority by forcing a Hobson’s choice on MPs of her deal or no-deal.

Instead, MPs now know there’s every likelihood of the EU allowing more road to kick the can down, so they can safely put off the day of reckoning in the hope that time will somehow resolve things. And every month, every successive election, we get further away from that June 2016 mandate, it loses its power to enthral MPs.

Will Brexit happen? Perhaps. It’s hard to put it stronger than that. Quite a whimper.

**

Speaking of Brexit, I spoke of Brexit — at last! — with my co-host Mark Pack on our latest Never Mind the Barcharts podcast. After six episodes of skirting round it, I was finally able to get a few things off my chest about my issues with the Lib Dem approach to Brexit…

That the party was the original champion of an in/out EU referendum — the very thing many Remainers lambast David Cameron for initiating — and yet has ever since refused to take responsibility for the outcome (after all, even a People’s Vote would need a Leave ‘deal’ to compete against).

There is something very Lib Dem about always proposing process solutions to knotty issues: a referendum here, a Royal Commission there, constitutional reform everywhere. When I was in local politics, a favourite trick to avoid coming down on side or the other of a contentious issue was to complain about the consultation process instead: it allowed you to take a strong line, without committing. I’m not saying process doesn’t matter: it absolutely does. The problems happen when it becomes your end, not your means.

Anyway, you can listen to Mark and me discuss Newport West, Brexit shenanigans, and the latest Lord Ashcroft polling on the gaps for new parties here:

**

The traditional news media by and large has not had a good Brexit. Not just the hard-right, tabloid press, like the Mail (‘Enemies of the people‘) and Telegraph (‘The Brexit mutineers‘). Broadcasters have also struggled, most particularly through their quest for balance leading to false equivalence (perhaps I’m jaded from hearing Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s utterances treated far more seriously by Radio 4’s Today Programme than they merit).

Stung by the criticism, some are now pushing back. An example went viral last weekend. It featured Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewing Conservative Leaver, John Redwood — you can see a minute-long clip here. Mr Redwood makes the claim that “most of the public now actually supports no-deal”; Mr Guru-Murthy jumps in, “That’s just not true, there’s no evidence for that”.

Their exchange left me uneasy. The facts are the easy part: Mr Redwood is wrong. Polls sometimes show a plurality of voters preferring a no-deal Brexit (ie, it’s the most popular option); but to the best of my knowledge none suggests even a bare majority, let alone “most”, of the public supporting it.

But I had two problems with Channel 4’s approach. The first is that, while Mr Redwood’s claim was inaccurate, it’s not an outrageous lie: no-deal is a popular option, occasionally the most popular option with the public. (Whether those who prefer it fully understand the dire consequences is a moot point, not relevant here.) For sure, correct it. But this is not the hill I’d choose to die on.

Secondly, and more importantly, was the manner of Mr Guru-Murthy’s rebuttal: simply repeating “that’s not true” is not a good way to challenge an interviewee, as it leaves the audience none the wiser who’s right unless you are able to prove your case, live on air (which doesn’t happen here). Basically, we’re being asked to choose a side, but not on the basis of any evidence presented by either Messers Redwood or Guru-Murthy.

I don’t have an easy solution. Interviewees will sometimes exaggerate their case in a live interview, whether by design or accident (only they can say). Interviewers should be able to call them out on it, but won’t necessarily have the facts at their fingertips to be able to prove the interviewee wrong in real-time.

It’s a dilemma. My best suggestion would be for interviewers to challenge the assertion and ask for evidence; and then move on by saying “we’ll fact-check it later” and broadcast their conclusions.

**

RIP Bill Heine, the Headington shark’s auteur, one of the few indisputable landmarks east of Oxford’s Magdalen Bridge. It’s in my old council ward, though I met Bill more often at BBC Radio Oxford, where he was a much-loved and distinctive voice.

The Labour council at the time went to great pains in the mid-1980s to have the shark removed, but ultimately it was Michael Heseltine who ruled it could stay. You can read all about it on Stephanie Jenkins’ wonderful all-things-Headngton website.

Bill died of aggressive leukemia — you can read his final article for the Oxford Mail, published just a couple of days before his death, here.

Headington was (and, I expect, still is) replete with celebrities. Those I met in my door-knocking days included Peter Hitchens (very polite to me), sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss (“I’ll vote for you over the bloody socialists”), Claus Moser, Lady (Isaiah) Berlin (she wished me luck), David Marquand (once my boss), and Anne Diamond (met her kids, never her). I miss it.

**

I’m listening to Ian Dunt’s Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?, an admirably clear-sighted analysis of all the problems the UK was likely to face during Article 50 negotiations — and has.

And if you’re not yet sick of Brexit, I’d also recommend The Times’s Red Box Politics Podcast, particularly these two episodes:
Could you have done Brexit better?, not least for its contributions from Chris Wilkins, Theresa May’s former speechwriter — including his point that Theresa May’s fate was sealed the moment she created Liam Fox’s department of international trade, which necessitated quitting the EU Customs Union, from which so many other problems flowed.
Brexit Tamed Live Part Two: The History, with Phillip Collins, Sarah Baxter, Daniel Finkelstein, Iain Martin and David Aaronovitch looking at the UK’s fractious history with the EU.

Finally, I’m really pleased David Olusoga’s fascinating A House Through Time is back on BBC2, this time focusing on the 200-year history of 5 Ravensworth Terrace, a Georgian townhouse on Tyneside. I snooped it on Rightmove and it’s clear the current owners have done an amazing job of renovating it.

**

“That’s not the right one, is it?” Milo learning early the disappointment of cover versions

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"That's not the right one, is it?" Milo learning early the disappointment of cover versions

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5 things about this week (2 April 2019)

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2019

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Since I last wrote, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has pre-announced her resignation to the Conservative parliamentary party in a last-ditch, desperate effort to win enough votes for Brexit deal. Ordinarily, that news alone would dominate the headlines.

But these are not normal times. Partly, because Theresa May has reneged so often on her promises that no-one quite believes this one either. And partly, of course, because it got lost in the ongoing Brexit maelstrom of a government drowning in front of our eyes.

Her demi-resignation was symbolic of her failed premiership. She committed to going once her deal was delivered, hoping that would persuade a critical mass of the ERG Euro-headbangers to switch.

In this, she was partially successful: “only” 34 Conservative MPs rebelled against her government, the fewest yet. But it did nothing to win over the DUP, who rightly suspect that her ultra-Brexiter successor would be quite happy to cut Northern Ireland loose of the UK if it secures them their longed-for Canada-plus free trade deal in the Euro-negotiations to follow. And it made voting for her deal even more toxic to Labour backbenchers, nervous both of the backlash of their members as well as the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister.

So, by appeasing the Euro-obsessives on her own side, she lost the chance to win over the persuadables on the other side. How very Theresa May.

Perhaps one day, when we are distanced enough from the disaster she has overseen, I’ll conjure up some sympathy for Theresa May’s position. After all, I remember how despised (not too strong a word) was John Major and his government in the mid-1990s; now they seem simpler, happier times.

But at the moment I can’t get past contempt for her actions. She has failed every step of the way: failed to ready the country for the tough choices any Brexit would have required; failed to reach out to Remain voters; failed to sort out a government position before triggering Article 50; failed to win over sympathetic European leaders; failed to understand the emptiness of her own no-deal “threat”; failed to win an election; failed to realise she’d need to compromise her (utterly unrealistic) red-lines; failed to communicate her deal; failed to get her cabinet or parliament on side; failed to realise you cannot bulldoze your way to acceptance; and, worst of all, failed to accept any responsibility for any of these failures.

So small wonder her deferred resignation barely registered: her’s is a record of failure, a promise of more.

(PS: I wrote this before her latest speak-from-the-podium-direct-to-the-people-like-a-demagogue act, apparently reaching out to Labour to deliver Brexit. My instant reaction, based on the PM’s record to date, is this is merely a ruse to spread the blame around, and that, in reality, she’s no more willing to compromise on her red-lines than before. I will be delighted to be proven wrong.)

**

Talking of failure, last night the House of Commons didn’t manage to pass a vote in favour of any alternative to Theresa May’s deal; though both Ken Clarke’s proposal of a Customs Union and Nick Boles’ long-touted Common Market 2.0 lost by narrow margins.

My insta-take on this (which I think still stands) is that this was (1) good news for no-deal Leavers, as Theresa May’s attempts to squeeze ERG refusniks will be much harder if they see there’s no soft Brexit deal capable of gaining a majority; (2) good news for revoke/People’s Vote Remainers, as these escape clauses may be the only ones capable of preventing no-deal come the 12 April deadline; and (3) bad news for any deal, as it’s hard to see any one capable of securing the support of 320+ MPs.

My Twitter timeline has been full of flak between/against the various opposition parties for failing to coalesce around one soft-Brexit alternative to Mrs May’s deal. While understandable in the heat of the moment, much of it seems unfair to me.

Labour has actually compromised a lot, whipping in favour of both Common Market 2.0 and a second referendum; so did the SNP. The Lib Dems and TIG, for (to my mind) totally rational reasons of self-preservation, refused to back any form of Brexit.

But, whatever your view of the merit of maintaining purity, the Remainer sniping is mis-directed. Even if the 22 MPs of the two fourth parties, Lib Dems and TIG / Change UK, had all voted for the alternatives, they were a long way short of that critical 320+ threshold. And, unless you think it can be viably reached, there is no sensible reason for them to commit potential electoral suicide in non-binding indicative votes.

No, responsibility for the mess we’re in does not lie with Parliament (for failing in a single week to arrive at a coherent, negotiable position), nor with the opposition parties (who — the clue’s in the name — do not have the numbers to defeat the government), but with the governing party and its leader.

The first rule of politics, LBJ famously said, is to be able to add up; and for two years, since losing her majority, Theresa May has ignored it. That is why we are where we are.

**

So who’s had a good Brexit, then? Looking at the green benches my list is a bit thin. Folk who’ve gone up in my estimation, who appear to have grasped the seriousness of the situation (even if their solutions may have been found wanting) and some of whom have put their careers on the line, include Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles, Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke and the TIGgers. [EDIT: I forgot Dominic Grieve!]

Some journalist-commentators, too, have contributed impressive analyses, too. I’m thinking The Guardian’s Rafael Behr and John Harris, The Times’s Rachel Sylvester, New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, Politico’s Jack Blanchard, FT’s David Allan Green, Politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt, and the Telegraph’s Peter Foster. And from think-tank world British Future’s Sunder Katwala, Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter and UK and EU’s Anand Menon. (I’m sure I’ve missed many others — and am aware of the female imbalance.)

Brexit has also converted me to podcasts: the BBC’s Brexitcast has become my The Archers. And a particular shout-out to this Remainiacs’ episode featuring recusant Leaver Roland Smith, which is an incredibly personal, thoughtful, analytical dissection of what’s motivated the Euroscpetic cause since 1992’s Maastricht treaty, and why its believers have descended into this no-deal frenzy we now see before us.

**

One thing Brexit has revealed, as if it needed revealing, is the introversion of British politics: for the past six months, the Conservative party has been negotiating with itself, with occasional, ineffectual inputs from parliament.

Yet unless Theresa May’s deal does, somehow, squeeze through, the UK will be reliant on the goodwill of the EU if we are to avoid no-deal.

The working assumption of (many, not all) our politicians and media appears to be it’s up to us to decide what happens next, and that the EU is bound to agree to an extension once we’ve made up our minds what to tell them.

Well, maybe they will, but it’s within their gift and not all are in a generous mood, according to Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:

The mood in Brussels is pessimistic. Most of those closely involved in the Brexit talks think the likeliest outcome is for the UK to leave without a deal. There is also tremendous frustration with what EU officials see as the incompetence, ignorance and irresponsibility of swaths of the British political class. Over the past three years much of the goodwill that people held towards the UK has evaporated.

The EU expects no deal because it does not trust British politicians not to screw up. There is not much faith that “indicative votes” among MPs will produce a coherent way forward. “We don’t see the transmission mechanism that forces the executive to bend to parliament’s will,” said one EU official. “We cannot negotiate with a parliament.”

They’re right: responsibility lies with the executive and its chief. Theresa May and her cabinet have a few days (maybe longer, if the EU agrees) to avoid the infamy of a no-deal Brexit. Will they — can they? — manage it?

**

I said in my first 5 things about this week blog that “having kids has utterly destroyed my interest in music”. This is true. My tastes are stuck in 1993-2010.

One of my all-time favourites, though, is Scott Walker, who died last week. I discovered him courtesy my lifelong love band, The Divine Comedy, whose creator Neil Hannon has sometimes been likened to him. I have fond memories of cranking up the stereo in my early 20s listening to what would undoubtedly be one of my desert island tracks, The Plague:

A fleeting work visit to Oxford resulted in me visiting the Bodleian’s revamped Weston Library (I spent three years raising money for it) and its latest exhibition Thinking 3D, “tell[ing] the story of the development of three-dimensional communication over the last 500 years”. Fascinating stuff.

PS: as ever when I get the chance to re-visit the city of dreaming spires, my hometown for 18 years, umbilical whiplash propelled me towards Blackwells bookshop:

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5 things about this week (21 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 21, 2019

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Until last night, I was a supporter of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. As I wrote last week:

For all its many flaws, and it’s certainly a marked trade-down on our exceptionally good deal as an EU member, I think Theresa May’s deal is a workable way of honouring [the referendum] mandate. Sorrynotsorry.

Well, scrap that.

Her live TV address from the Number 10 podium, abdicating leadership and accusing MPs of letting her down, was cowardly, delusional idiocy. Even if you agree with her, as I formerly did (ish), that it’s “the very best deal negotiable”, it is quite clearly not the wisest strategy to try and win over the votes of wavering MPs by accusing them en masse of “indulgence” and of being willing to say only “what they do not want”.

It exemplified her complete absence of political judgement. Small wonder, Conservative chief whip Julian Lewis is apparently despairing of her, ‘openly admitting in the tea rooms that PM’s statement was “appalling”‘, according to ITV’s Paul Brand.

Even now, I hear some people expressing sympathy for Theresa May; that any Prime Minister would have found it impossible to deliver Brexit, that it’s inevitable she’s failed. But I simply don’t accept that. I’m in no doubt a different, better, braver PM could have successfully Brexited.

Michael Gove, for example, for all his many faults (and they are numerous), would, I feel sure, have had the political smarts to approach the task with some flexibility. He also, of course, would have had the credibility advantage of being a Brexiter, so could — Nixon-goes-to-China-style — have spent some of that capital negotiating an EEA-style interim agreement. It would have been achievable. It would also likely have brought our divided Remain/Leave country together somewhat.

Sure, she’s had a difficult task, arguably the hardest of any peacetime Prime Minister (though as she did the bare minimum during the referendum campaign to support Remain it’s not like she shares no responsibility for the outcome).

But she’s never once levelled with the public about the trade-offs; never once faced down the hardline ERG-ers in her ranks; never once offered an inspiring vision of life beyond Brexit to the 48%. Her deal deserves now to fall and her premiership with it.

**

So I ended up signing the ‘revoke Article 50’ petition — currently numbering 1.7 million signatures — even though I’m far from convinced revoking Article 50 is the answer. But anything that stiffens the resolve of MPs to take back control from this Prime Minister and do something constructive in what little time is left is better than nothing.

A futile gesture is better than no gesture (and a damn sight more useful than snarking about the uselessness of petitions on Twitter). After all, I marched against the Iraq war in 2003 not because I was a pacifist or even necessarily opposed to deposing Saddam Hussein, but because the case was unproven, the decision-making process flawed, overseen by a Prime Minister who was dissembling and increasingly out of his depth.

I’ve no idea what should now happen next with Brexit (let alone what will actually happen next). I’ve spent the last almost three years adjusting to living in a post-EU country. I wasn’t reconciled, but I was resigned to it.

Yes, I’d like us to stay in. But the breach of a democratic mandate troubles me, still more the inability of our political system to seem to even want to try to find a resolution.

And let’s not forget it was the Lib Dems which were the first mainstream party this century to campaign for an In/Out European referendum #soproud.

**

I accept this isn’t a fair grievance to hold against Theresa May, but still… her Brexit shenanigans this week have completely put me off my reading stride. Instead of, as I’d promised myself, weaning myself off Twitter, I’ve been scrolling ‘n refreshing like a news junkie to keep abreast of the breathless pace of her jaw-dropping infamy.

On the upside, I did as a result stumble across this terrific article by Fintan O’Toole, Are the English ready for self-government?

Aptitude for self-government is not what comes to mind when one looks in from the outside at the goings-on in Westminster last week, when, as Tom Peck so brilliantly put it in the London Independent, “the House of Commons was a Benny Hill chase on acid, running through a Salvador Dali painting in a spaceship on its way to infinity”.

Let’s just say that if Theresa May were the head of a newly liberated African colony in the 1950s, British conservatives would have been pointing, half-ruefully, half-gleefully, in her direction and saying “See? Told you so – they just weren’t ready to rule themselves. Needed at least another generation of tutelage by the Mother Country.” …

Brexit is a dead horse, a form of nationalist energy that started to decompose rapidly on June 24th, 2016, as soon as it entered the field of political reality. It can’t go anywhere. It can’t carry the British state to any promised land. It can only leave it where it has arrived, in a no-man’s land between vague patriotic fantasies and irritatingly persistent facts. But equally, because of the referendum result, the British state can’t get down off the dead horse and has to keep flogging it.

Do read it in full. It’s superb.

**

It was my birthday on Tuesday, so of course I got up at 5.40am to go and record the latest ‘Never Mind the Barcharts‘ podcast with Mark Pack, talking Lib Dem leadership (Vince, Jo, Layla, Ed etc) and conference, plus a bit of TIG — but not Brexit, never Brexit (Mark’s allergic) — so please listen here to show me it wasn’t all in vain:

**

I’ve been watching repeats of the BBC sitcom Outnumbered, which is still funny and rings a whole lot truer now than it did when I first watched it, pre-kids. Though (not to go all Millennial-watches-Friends on you) but I was also struck that it’s hard to imagine Hugh Dennis’s teacher-character, Pete — subject to a complaint of racism for saying to a “fat Turkish kid”, “You could do with Ramadan lasting all year round, couldn’t you, Kamal?” — being portrayed quite so sympathetically today as in 2007.

I’ve been reading… absolutely nothing. * See above, shakes fist at Theresa May *

**

PS: I have now attained wisdom…

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Reached the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything". It's actually cake.

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5 things about this week (14 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 14, 2019

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Even by Brexit’s crazy standards, that was a roller-coaster of a week. It started with Theresa May speeding to Strasbourg in a desperate attempt to maintain the fiction there had been genuine concessions from the European Union on the infamous backstop.

When that swiftly unravelled the following day, courtesy the baritone straight-talking of attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, her deal was crushed, the second meaningful vote losing by a 149 majority.

Then, on successive days, the House of Commons voted to oppose no-deal (without legislating to prevent it) and oppose a second referendum, before finally coming to an agreement to postpone Brexit Day; either by 3 months, if Mrs May’s deal passes at the third, fourth, fifth etc attempt; or by much longer, if it doesn’t.

So what happens next?

Logic dictates that next week’s third meaningful vote on the PM’s deal may well pass; or fail narrowly enough that it might pass the next time (with Theresa May, you just know there will always be a next time).

There are various hints and rumours that the DUP might be amenable to flipping their opposition. There is talk of splits among the Tories’ hardline ERG no-dealers. There is an assumption some Labour MPs will in the end move across as the only sure-fire way of preventing a disastrous no-deal outcome.

In short, despite the complete breakdown of her authority and credibility — with cabinet ministers breaking three-line whips with impunity — the surest bet looks still to be Theresa May landing her deal.

And yet… these are norm-defying times we live in. I’ve made the mistake in the last few years of projecting my assumption of rationality — Project Fear will prevail; Trump has no electoral college route to victory; Corbyn’s Labour will lose badly — only to be sucker-punched by reality. The orthodoxy that no-deal just can’t happen because someone, somewhere, will stop it is, I hope, true.

But I can’t help feeling no-deal’s likelihood is being underestimated by people like me who keep on expecting the old norms to magically reassert themselves.

**

It looks like the People’s Vote (aka second referendum) is dead: 334 MPs voted against, with just 85 in favour. Missing in action, of course, were the Labour party: 201 of its MPs abstained, though even if they’d all gone through the aye lobby it would still have been a sizeable defeat.

From Labour’s point of view, though, their brief dalliance with a People’s Vote has served its purpose. It stalled the momentum of The Independent Group, helping to persuade many wavering moderate Labour MPs not to defect. Now, not least thanks to deputy leader Tom Watson’s fledgling party-within-a-party social democratic parliamentary group, Labour feels safe to revert to its previous over-riding commitment to have Brexit implemented by the Conservatives and keep its hands clean. It’s been an wholly cynical manoeuvre which has worked a treat, practically Mandelsonian in its brazen execution.

For the record, I’m one of those Remainers who think the 2016 referendum mandate lasts until we leave, assuming a respectable deal can be obtained. For all its many flaws, and it’s certainly a marked trade-down on our exceptionally good deal as an EU member, I think Theresa May’s deal is a workable way of honouring that mandate. Sorrynotsorry.

**

Vince Cable has announced he’s to resign as Lib Dem leader. I’ve long been a fan of his, though it’s hard to claim he’s set the political world alight in his two-year stint. Still, the challenge to stand out is much harder these days, as the joint fourth largest party.

While, for good reason, I generally avoid making political predictions these days, I feel safe in stating the next party leader will be a woman, the two front-runners being Jo Swinson and Layla Moran. Jo was a government minister during the Coalition; Layla was first elected in 2017. We know their position on Brexit, but little else, yet, about their economic or public policy positions (that’s not a criticism, just a statement).

So, plenty for Mark Pack and me to get stuck into in our next Never Mind the Barcharts podcast, which should be out next Tuesday, 19 March (my birthday, and what could be nicer than getting up at 5.40 am to make it in time for our recording slot?). Over 2,000 listens to date, for which much thanks!

**

One of the issues I periodically bang on about here is the root causes of the gender pay gap — which isn’t, as is often supposed, because of evil companies illegally paying women less than men, but because caring responsibilities primarily fall on women; that we lack a culture of flexible working (bad for all parents, not just mums); and that we under-value highly feminised employment sectors.

So I was interested to read Adam Corlett’s recent analysis for the Resolution Foundation on ‘the gender parenting gap’ which, unsurprisingly, found it’s still a man’s world:

Concentrating on families with a child under five, 93 per cent of parents making some kind of employment sacrifice were female in 2018, down from 98 per cent in 1992-93. Conversely, men’s share of this employment hit has risen from around 2 per cent to 7 per cent. … If the overall trend of the last 26 years were to continue it would take until the 2220s to reach gender parity on this measure.

The reason?

… parental leave and pay are likely the most important policies for the gender parenting gap, with couples’ later decisions about the division of parenting and employment strongly affected by their child’s first year or two. When the law offers mothers six weeks of leave at 90 per cent of salary (uncapped), and 33 weeks on a low income, but only offers fathers two weeks (albeit with the option of using some of the mother’s weeks) on that insufficient income, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a large gender gap in employment and early years parenting.

Adam’s proposal:

… perhaps we should look to our Nordic neighbours. In Iceland, mothers get three months of generously-paid leave, fathers get the same (also non-transferable, importantly), and couples get a further three months to share between them. Or Spain, where paid paternity leave is in the process of being increased to 16 weeks to reach gender parity. And we should also look to companies such as Aviva that have introduced the same paid leave policy for fathers as for mothers. Individual attitudes matter too, and social norms are perhaps harder to change than policy, but improving the gender balance of both government and corporate parental policy should be something that both men and women can get behind.

PS: I’m working a 90% contract in my current role so that I get alternate Fridays with my two pre-school children. I’m well aware, mind, I’m fortunate to have an employer willing to offer that flexibility (and that I can afford to make the choice).

**

This week I’ve been watching Ricky Gervais’s unexpectedly heart-warming After Life, which I binged in one evening. Even if you hated everything he’s done since The Office, I think you’ll fall a little bit in love with this. (If you didn’t like The Office or anything else he’s done since, feel free to give this a miss.)

I’ve begun reading Robert Saunders’ incredibly readable Yes to Europe!: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain. With every page, it becomes clearer quite how appallingly poorly prepared was David Cameron’s 2016 effort by comparison.

And I’ve enjoyed viewing Don McCullin’s extraordinary photographic exhibition at the Tate, a vast trove spanning London’s pre-gentrified East End, graphic war-torn countries’ suffering, and intimate portraits of domestic poverty. It really is stunning.

**

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

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5 things about this week (5 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 5, 2019

We’ve all had a week off Brexit, courtesy the scuttle-diplomacy of Theresa May and her attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who are both doing their best to look busy in the hope that their blatant attempts to run down the clock to 29th March can retain a mere shimmer of credibility. He has, reports say, given up the hope of persuading the EU to annul the Irish backstop by ensuring the UK can renege on its agreement whenever the fancy takes it (grrr, rotten foreigners, eh?!)… or not, if you believe his partial denial of those reports.

I sometimes struggle to recall I’m one of those Remainers who actually at least half-supports Theresa May’s deal, such has been the mess she’s made of selling it (afraid as she is, as every Tory leaders appears doomed to be, of her feral backbench Brexiters). Her’s is, I suspect, probably about the best that could be made of a bad job: a far, far worse deal than our current privileged Euro membership, but a bespokely realistic means to square the circle of respecting the referendum result while not tanking the British economy.

That I – a happily self-confessed centrist – thinks that probably spells trouble for the Prime Minister. Like many who thought Brexit, Trump and both Corbyn surges were all infinetisimally unlikley because, surely, common sense would kick in, I wonder if I’m continuing to under-estimate the chances of a no-deal Brexit happening. I keep on looking for straws in the wind — chatter of an ERG climbdown, the DUP sounding not impossibly unreasonable — and caught myself confidently tweeting the other day that her deal has >35% chance of passing based on nothing more than my gut instinct that surely, common sense will kick in. I mean, it has to, right? Right, guys?

**

Reacting to the creation of The Independent Group, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, says she “would rather die than join any other party”. It’s a statement best read as (1) metaphorical (I hope), and (2) her latest OTT pitch to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. But it does sum up rather neatly the tribalism of our party system.

To an extent, I understand it. Back in my most Lib Demmy days (when a councillor and editing LibDemVoice) I could be pretty partisan; maybe it’s a necessary pre-condition, if you’re going to (as I did) volunteer 20+ hours a week on top of your day-job, in order to justify such eccentric behaviour. Though I never went as far as making a legacy to the party — I’ve never had quite enough confidence the party’s beliefs and mine will always align — so I’m certainly not signing my life away to it.

But, for all my reservations about the party’s current breadth of vision (lack thereof) and strategic direction (ditto), and the occasional dottiness of its priorities, policies and processes, I do still believe that the country will be better for having more people support the Lib Dems and more Lib Dems elected to positions of responsibility.

So, when the email came through from my party asking if I’d be willing to be a candidate (again) in this year’s local elections, I knew I had to say yes. That’s, I reckon, a sensible level of commitment.

PS: Mark Pack and I discuss the new Independent Group — what we make of it and whether it’s a threat to the Lib Dems — in the latest episode of our podcast, now officially named Never Mind the Barcharts. Listen to it here.

**

[Please admire the following segue, I don’t just throw this stuff together y’know…] ‘Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology’ begins the second paragraph of The Independent Group’s statement of values. You might expect me — a fully signed-up evidence junkie — to cheer and I do.

But with two cautions.

First, there’s nearly always some evidence somewhere to justify pretty much any policy if you look hard enough. What matters, therefore, is (1) finding high-quality evidence, and (2) synthesising it to understand the consistent messages. That’s a lot easier in my area of semi-expertise, education, than it is in many other areas of public policy, where good evidence is thin on the ground.

Secondly, even when you have good evidence, ideology (or, to use a different, softer, term ‘values’) still matters. As I wrote here, in A liberal approach to evidence-based policy-making, if I wanted to boost voter turn-out at elections, simply following the evidence would lead me to recommend making voting compulsory; after all, in Australia turn-out is consistently over 90%. However, as I believe voting is a right, not an obligation, it’s not something I’d support.

Evidence is important, yes, absolutely, but don’t out-source your ideology to it.

**

Evidence works best when you’ve agreed a policy aim and you want to find out how to implement it in line with your values, effectively and cost-effectively. Let’s take a practical example, a bugbear of mine I’ve written about before — that universities are scandalously incurious about how best to spend the £800 million a year they currently plough into ‘widening participation’ schemes which aim to improve entry and reduce drop-out rates for students from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds:

Financial aid for students is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the evidence is clear that scholarships and bursaries do very little to address the biggest issue I think faces higher education: how can you get more young people from low-income backgrounds with the talent to succeed into university in the first place. Universities are focusing too much effort on (very expensive) financial aid in the name of widening participation when in reality it’s often a marketing/positioning exercise. British universities are appalling bad at evaluating the impact of their widening participation activities. If they’re serious about tackling the social divide they need to get a lot smarter and a lot more rigorous about finding out what actually works so they can invest their money effectively in widening participation strategies that truly make a difference.

Congratulations, then, to the Office for Students which, absent any leadership from the higher education sector itself, has stepped up to the plate. It will be funding a new, independent centre ‘providing evidence on the impact of different approaches to widening access and improving outcomes and progression for disadvantaged students’. Long overdue, but very welcome

**

I’ve been listening to Brit-ish, Afua Hirsch’s thoughtful and through-provoking reflection on growing up as a mixed-race person in Britain. She totally persuaded me that our education systems need to de-colonise the curriculum (or, more to the point, give an accurate and rounded account of this country’s people and its history which doesn’t erase/gloss the problematic bits). I was less persuaded by her arguments on cultural appropriation. I would have been interested in some international comparisons – eg, is our race problem peculiarly British, or could a similar book have been written called French-ish? But it’s well worth a read/listen, particular for its central thesis that progressives claiming “I don’t see colour” are part of the problem.

I’ve been reading Caroline Criado Perez’s essay in The Guardian, The deadly truth about a world built for men, excerpted from her new book, Invisible Women. Lots of everyday examples, from air-con to toilets in theatres to the size of phones, which exemplify how patriarchy unthinkingly discriminates against those born female (yes, it turns out — who knew? — biology matters!).

**

Usual quiet Sunday

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5 things about this week (21 Feb 2019)

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2019

This week saw the birth of the long-awaited new centrist party, The Independent Group. Who knows what’s going to happen?

My heart says I hope it thrives. At last, a handful of the grown-ups in our two main parties have had the courage of their convictions and done something constructive, positive. Just perhaps it will force a response from the Conservatives and Labour, a reversion to the sensible, moderate mainstream; a rejection of their current adherence to their controlling extremists, whether ERG or Momentum.

My heads says it’s bound to get squashed by our stultifying electoral system, which stifles at birth all insurgents (ironically, Ukip only prospered thanks to the proportional system of the Euro elections). That the initial excitement will give way to predictable squabbles about leadership and policy direction.

But, for just a few days, I’m going to suspend my analytical pessimism. There’ll be plenty of time for that. For now, I’m just enjoying the sight of 11 MPs once again happy in their own skins, liberated, feeling free to express the views and values they’ve always held without the cold disapproval of their rigid parties.

And what absolute stars Luciana Berger and Heidi Allen turned out to be. There’s long been a commentariat assumption any new party would need a famous name with gravitas to succeed. But maybe the opposite is true, and the pleasant surprise of calm, honest, down-to-earth decency is what will give TIG traction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the news with any sense of cheerfulness. It was enough to persuade me to chuck them a tenner, to wish them well.

**

You only have to look at the decision of home secretary Sajid Javid to revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green youngster groomed and radicalised by Islamic State, to see how low our current political leaders will stoop to grub for popularity.

As international law forbids a citizen from being made stateless, it’s highly likely Mr Javid’s decision will be overturned. But, from his point of view, it’s served its purpose: he can pose as the strong voice of common sense for the right-wing media, no matter that the tough-minded decision would be for this country to step up and take responsibility for one of our own, rather than attempt to shunt the problem onto another country.

As The Times’s Anthony Lloyd, who interviewed Shamima and reckons she would be an ideal candidate for a de-radicalisation programme, writes:

… if the home secretary were to make his decisions based upon security, then he would push for the prompt repatriation from Syria of every single British Isis member, including Kotey and Elsheikh. The current situation, whereby more than 900 foreign fighters and nearly 3,000 foreign family members from 49 countries are cooped up in camps alongside thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Isis members in one of the most unstable parts of the Middle East is unsustainable; a calamity waiting to happen.

Yet so far, in the week since Ms Begum’s story emerged, little evidence of reasoned, informed consideration and debate has appeared. We would do well to realise that victory against Isis will be measured in no small part by our ability to have the confidence in our own legal system and values in dealing with British citizens who joined the jihadists.

If our institutions and sense of worth cannot deal fairly and appropriately with a runaway schoolgirl from Bethnal Green, who may well be more deserving of rescue and rehabilitation than hatred and condemnation, then we will indeed have become a very little England.

**

Speaking of little England, here’s the obligatory Brexit paragraph… I don’t know to what extent the UK’s bonkers decision to leave the EU played a part in first Nissan’s decision to shift production of its X-Trail from Sunderland to Japan, or of Ford to to scale back engine production in Bridgend, or of British carmaker JLR to cut 4,500 jobs, or of tyremaker Michelin to close a factory in Dundee, or of German car-parts maker Schaeffler to close factories in Llanelli and Plymouth, or of Honda’s decision this week to shut its Swindon plant with the loss of up to 7,000 jobs… but, alongside the downturn in the Chinese economy, it’s fair to say it was in the mix.

This is the Brexit reality: a sharp and sustained economic decline which Leavers will shrug off, pretending either its unrelatedness or else reckoning that the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain.

Remember: here’s the link to donate to The Independent Group.

**

I never much liked Martina Navratilova in the 1980s. I hope it was simply that I preferred underdogs and that’s a label that never really applied to one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. But, looking back, I was probably also influenced by the distaste some felt at the time for a no-nonsense independent woman who was an outspoken advocate of gay, lesbian and trans rights.

But I was nothing but impressed by her article in this week’s Sunday Times pointing out that allowing transwomen to compete against women in sports events is intrinsically unfair. It’s not just that I agree with her, but also the way she modelled her argument, noting that, after her initial comments a few months ago triggered a Twitter row, “I promised to keep quiet on the subject until I had properly researched it”:

Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened. To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.

She’s right and her bravery in speaking up (in spite of the inevitable wokelash) has prompted many other female athletes to make the same point, such as Paula Radcliffe: “If you are born and grow up male you cannot be allowed to compete in female sports simply because you ‘identify’ as female. It makes a mockery of the definitions of male and female sports categories.” Let’s hope this opens up the space for a long-overdue debate, minus the tedious slurs that those sticking up for single-sex spaces for women are ‘transphobes’.

**

This week I watched Netflix’s documentary, Fyre: the greatest party that never happened, about the catastrophic failure of a “luxury music experience on a posh private island” orchestrated by a compulsive liar called Billy McFarland, who seems to have taken The Wolf of Wall Street as an inspiration rather than a cautionary tale.

And this week, I resume my 9-day fortnights Yes, I’ve opted for a 90% contract at work at least until my eldest child starts school in September: time to enjoy with him every possible moment of his last few pre-school months.

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No need to ask "Did you enjoy nursery today?"

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