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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

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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.

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They grow up so fast, don’t they?

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