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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