5 things about this week (15 Feb 2019)

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2019

So we’re heading for a no-deal Brexit. That, at any rate, is the mood music this week from well-informed observers like ITV’s Robert Peston and Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh.

Waugh’s account is particularly eye-catching for its claim that Theresa May’s preference for a cliff-edge Brexit is motivated by the need to preserve Conservative party unity:

One source says: “She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls.”

Of course, it’s impossible to read a Brexit story now without wondering whether it’s been briefed as part of a strategy.

Is the hyping up of no-deal actually just a clever bluff by Number 10 to try and rouse Remainer Tory MPs (and pragmatic/Leaver Labour MPs) to get behind Theresa May’s deal? Or is it a double-bluff to try and convince no-deal Leaver Tories that the PM is actually on their side, after all, so to give her the benefit of the doubt if she comes back from Brussels with some more backstop reassurance? Or is it just indiscriminate bluff, with Theresa May desperately hoping that someone else will blink first before she eventually has to?

Who knows, it may even be entirely accurate. Perhaps Theresa May is convinced the best way to save the Tory party is to fix it to the no-deal mast. No-one can be sure.

‘A sphinx without a riddle,’ was Bismarck’s famous epigraph of Napoleon III; ‘from afar something, near at hand nothing’; ‘a great unfathomed incapacity.’

* I loved this cartoon, from The Economist’s KAL, when I first saw it. It seemed to sum up so much about the un-meeting of minds during the UK-EU Brexit negotiations (although in a sop to Brexiter grand-standing, the British plug is actually, genuinely superior).


Churchill: hero or villain? It’s a debate which spikes up on social media every few months or so, with predictably entrenched results. The performative woke left dusts off its version of history to decry his infamies. Meanwhile the brittle nationalist right cries foul at any attempt to besmirch this great Briton’s virtues. Attempts at nuanced reflection rarely prosper in this binary echo-chamber.

But, for me, this New Stateman piece by Simon Heffer – from 2015 – best captures the contradiction of Churchill, both hero and villain:

The myth keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history in the first half of the 20th century. The false and romanticised picture we have of him, created by his reputation from 1940-45, is a huge obstacle to true understanding. In one aspect of his life, when the man met the hour, he was as outstanding as anyone in British history has been. In all others he was just another politician on the make, firing out opinions at random in the hope that one, now and again, would hit the target. He had a bellicosity that in all circumstances other than 1940-45 could be intensely dangerous, and that had its downside even in the fight against Hitler.


I was a huge fan of Jeremy Hardy. One of the first Radio 4 comedies I remember laughing at was At Home with the Hardys (1987-90), and I loved listening to him, whether on his eponymous ‘Speaks to the Nation’ series or ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ or ‘The News Quiz’. Yes, he was an unreconstructed lefty; but he was also self-aware, happily taking the piss out of his own views as well as his opponents’.

I remember once blatantly stealing one of his lines in my only ever stand-up (well, actually sit-down) comedy performance, at a university open mic event, when I took the easy gig of playing an old-school racist Tory, reminiscing about how “we turned the map of the world pink before homsexuality was even fashionable”.

I once asked Channel 4’s head of comedy why Jeremy didn’t have his own show: “some people are diminished by TV,” she said. And it’s true, as he himself admitted, that radio was the medium where he thrived.

I loved Hugo Rifkind’s tribute to him, especially this line: “… he also knew that a person’s political identity, however fierce, may just be their own formalisation of a broader morality on which others, with other politics, will agree.”


The third (final?) podcast – The As Yet Unnamed Political Podcast – from Mark Pack and me is now live. Topics we discuss in 30 minutes include universal basic income and (relatedly) self-styled radicalism, as well as the prospect of a new centre party.

And, crucially, if we do actually make it a regular thing, what we should call the podcast. My suggestions of ‘Stick it on a podcast’ (inspired by David Penhaligon), ‘Lib Dem Ear Trumpet’ and ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ have all been pooh-poohed by Mark. However, we’re both resolved not to open it up to a public vote. That way, disaster lies.

PS: I cling to my Lib Dem membership, in spite of the best attempts of the party (this time in the person of Lynne Featherstone, someone for whom I’ve previously had huge respect) to make itself look ridiculous – this time by claiming that anyone still supporting the Equality Act 2010 cannot be a feminist and should just quit.


A fortnight’s bronchitis has at least had one compensation: I’m pretty much up-to-date with my TV backlog: Netflix’s Sex Education (quite remarkably good), as well ultimate “warm bath telly”: ITV’s Grantchester (new vicar shaping up pretty well) and Cold Feet (I remember watching the first episode in 1998), and BBC1’s Call the Midwife (no, still haven’t watched it without crying).

Now I just need to get the energy back to start reading books again…


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