5 things about this week (18 July 2019)

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2019

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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.



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.



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.



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.



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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