Election notebook #6: The silent Brexit election; polls-axed; emergency Ward

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2017

In one sense, the big news today was Angela Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag warning Brits not be under no illusion that exiting the EU means the UK will no longer enjoy the same benefits of membership as it does now:

“A third-party state cannot enjoy the same advantages or be better positioned than an EU member state. I have the feeling that some people in Britain maintain illusions in this regard. They’re wasting their time.”

Perhaps the German chancellor had in mind Brexit secretary David Davis who told parliament he was aiming for “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.

I say Ms Merkel’s speech was big news, but it’s not, not really. What she’s set out is what has been clear since very shortly after 23 June, a point David Allen Green has been expanding on this week in the Financial Times. He makes the point, persuasively, that it is the EU which has set the terms of debate and stuck to them: no negotiation without triggering Article 50; an orderly exit; no access to the single market without acceptance of the four freedoms (including freedom of movement); and the 27 remaining members of the EU to act in unison.

This position, he notes, was in place even before Theresa May had become prime minister. It’s just that the British government appears to think the EU is bluffing and doesn’t quite mean what it says — over-estimating (as we Brits usually do) our own importance to the rest of Europe.

You’d think all this would be the subject of vigorous political debate. That the media would closely question the Government’s strategy and expect clear answers as to what Theresa May defines as the best deal possible. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead the Prime Minister has been allowed by the media (let’s not even bother to mention the Labour ‘opposition’) to make the patriotic pitch that every vote for the Tory party is a vote to strengthen her negotiating hand — as if the size of the Tory majority is of anything other than passing interest to the EU.

This is the so-called ‘Brexit election’, yet it’s unlikely the issues will be explored in any depth. There will be no TV debates. Theresa May is making occasional, tightly controlled, public speeches. The aim is to avoid any risks and let Labour’s hopelessness make its own case for the Tories. This is ‘submarine’ campaigning, rarely surfacing and instead focused on torpedoing the opposition by staying well out of sight.

And let’s be clear: it will work. There’s scarily plausible analysis in the Guardian today suggesting the Lib Dems could make net losses, down to just six seats, while Labour would be scythed to 150 seats — meanwhile the Conservatives would win a 190+ majority, with over 420 MPs. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Mrs May’s party is currently riding high at 45%+ in the polls. Even with the Lib Dems improving our position a bit since 2015, that still represents a national Lib Dem -> Conservative swing, so talk of 20+ seats seems far-fetched unless and until the Tories’ ratings subside.

I’ve attached a chunk of blame to the media here and I make no apologies for that. The BBC does its best, but the broadcasters all too often follow where the right-wing press (which is the vast majority of it) leads.

However, I don’t believe in blaming products for what the consumer demands. There’s little sign, yet, that the British public wants another chance to have its say on Europe. It seems, rather, to be quite content to leave the difficult Brexit stuff to its elites. And as Mrs May appears currently to be the only ‘grown-up’ around she’s the one who’s going to get the job by popular acclaim. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

**

In lieu of any serious debate, polling is once again dominating the media’s coverage of this campaign — despite the promises of journalists after the 2015 debacle that they’d learned their lesson, and despite the warnings of the pollsters that they’re not sure they’ve yet worked out how to put right what went wrong last time.

We’re yet again seeing even quite respectable journalists make silly over-claims for poll movements which are likely just statistical noise. I’m not a fan of banning things generally, and I know there are all sorts of problems with banning polls during election campaigns. But, nonetheless, I do wonder if, sans surveys, the media might actually try filling the vacuum with some serious analysis of what the different parties’ policies would mean for the country? A naive fantasy, I realise.

**

Tim Farron has been getting more stick this week. Having put his troubles with gay sex to bed (so to speak), he was then hit by the news that the Bradford East local party had re-selected David Ward as its parliamentary candidate.

He it was who, as an MP, caused huge offence by casually referring to “the Jews … inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”. Though he (eventually) admitted fault then, he’s continued to post inflammatory remarks, including, following the Westminster terror attack last month, that “all terrorist attacks in UK stem from our foreign policy”.

The announcement appeared to catch the Lib Dem leader on the hop. He initially pointed out to the media (quite correctly) that he has absolutely no power over the (re-)selection of candidates. The Lib Dems’ attachment to internal party democracy never ceases to non-plus journalists who are so used to the Conservatives’ and Labour’s command-and-control structures. As the Chris Rennard scandal showed, the power of the leader to hire-and-fire at will is limited to the front bench.

So how did Tim Farron manage to announce within a matter of hours that he’d sacked David Ward, after all? The credit must go to some cunning member of the party’s ruling federal board, which delegated to the leader during the election campaign the power to re-instigate disciplinary procedures against previously suspended members. He did so in the case of Mr Ward, thus rendering him automatically ineligible to stand on the Lib Dem ticket.

While some in the media still criticised Mr Farron for taking a few hours to take action, those of us in the party were left pretty amazed that the leader was able to deal with the matter with due process in anything less than 18 months. Believe me, that’s almost unheard of.