5 things about this week (31 July 2019)

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2019

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BORIS

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

So said our then foreign secretary, now prime minister, Boris Johnson last year. Is that now his hiding-in-plain-sight strategy for delivering Brexit?

My first thought when I saw his ‘Night of the Blond Knives’ reshuffle — only 11 of the 27 ministers who attended Theresa May’s last cabinet have survived the purge — was this must be the precursor to an imminent general election. No prime minister with a majority of just three seats (including the somewhat flaky DUP) risks creating that many enemies on the backbenches unless they plan to call a general election imminently.

That still feels a plausible scenario, with Boris Johnson’s push for no-deal goading the House of Commons to no-con his government, forcing an election, which he will then fight on a “tell them again” manifesto to finally deliver Brexit. The Tories scoop up the Brexit Party votes, yielding a handy majority over the divided ranks of Remain. It could happen. (Though it could also result in the Conservatives being ignominiously turfed out, Mr Johnson reduced to a footnote in the history books as the shortest-serving PM since George Canning, and the 2016 Brexit vote overturned.)

Also plausible is that the Commons, while opposing a no-deal Brexit in principle, cannot unite behind any enforcible legislative mechanism to actually prevent it: what British Future’s Sunder Katwala has labelled the ‘Meatloaf Caveat’, with Conservative Remain rebels adopting an “I would do anything to stop no deal – but I won’t do that” position on no-conning their own government. And so Brexit happens by default.

Plausible, too, is that Boris Johnson is relying on the EU blinking first when faced with him going in “bloody hard”, and agreeing to scrap the backstop (or, more likely, to re-name it and offer some form of sunset clause that will allow him to claim victory). This was the expectation of many rational political observers in advance of his leadership win. But Mr Johnson’s failure to woo ERG ‘Spartan’ Steve Baker into a ministerial post — together with the continuing dissent of the DUP from any kind of deal that they perceive threatens the integrity of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and the threat to Tory fortunes still posed by the Brexit Party — suggests rationalism is not well placed to win the day. It seems the least likely way to make Brexit happen.

Whatever else can be said for Mr Johnson’s Trumpian approach, therefore, it does at least feel we are nearing an actual deadline, one with serious consequence: Brexit will happen by 31 October, one way or another. And if it doesn’t happen by then, it may never happen. “Do or die”.

**

JO SWINSON

An entirely different kind of confidence displayed by the other newly-elected party leader, Jo Swinson, in her debut at PMQs.

Not an easy gig — remember Ming’s slip-up (from which he never seemingly recovered)? And there was added pressure with this being Theresa May’s final outing, requiring Jo to find the right balance between being herself, making a political point that would clip well for the Lib Dems on the TV news, and paying tribute to the departing PM.

Much kudos then for hitting the mark, pitch perfectly, with this swipe at Boris Johnson and his fellow “Leave Brexit to me” chauvinists:

“Can I ask the prime minister what advice she has for women across the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work.”

More like that, please.

**

JESSICA YANIV

I didn’t vote for Jo Swinson. Nor indeed Ed Davey. It was the first Lib Dem leadership election I’ve sat out since I joined the party 20 years ago.

I’ve explained before why (5 things, 25 June): ‘the party’s full-throttle enthusiasm for gender self-identification is wrong-headed; and the attempts to shut down debate on the issue unhealthily illiberal’. And it’s led to me being labelled by some Lib Dems as a ‘transphobe’ (though never to my face).

But in the last few weeks a real-life case — that of Jessica Yaniv — has come to prominence which has highlighted the concern many people have that gender self-ID is open to abuse by men (NB: not by genuine transwomen) who will exploit the proposed changes in the law which would open up female-only spaces to anyone who says they’re a woman:

A trans woman, Jessica Yaniv, approached a number of female beauticians to ask for a Brazilian bikini wax, all – perhaps by coincidence – were lone home workers, the majority of whom were immigrant women. Unfortunately, Ms Yaniv was unable to find any beautician willing to carry out the intimate wax because she still retains male genitalia and each of these women only worked on female genitalia.

Yaniv has her defenders, such as Pink News, though most activists have, more creditably, tried to dismiss her as an exception, a bad apple. But, as the Economist’s Helen Joyce, has noted:

Yaniv’s demands flow logically from the claim that “trans women are women, period” — that in literally no circumstance is it acceptable to distinguish between males and females, provided the males self-identify as women. And as with any form of logical argumentation, a false premise will lead to a false — and in some cases dangerous — result.

If there’s one good thing that might, maybe, come out of this case it’s that it is legitimate to discuss the safeguarding and other concerns that gender self-identification poses. No more #NotADebate shutting down of women’s right to speak, please.

And that’s the very least both Lib Dem leadership candidates should have been brave enough to make clear.

**

NEW BARCHARTS PODCAST

Mark Pack and I saw down together to record a new ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast this week, ‘Why did Jo Swinson win and what happens now?

Come for the “Can calling Boris only by his forename ever be justified?” argument, stay for my “If Brexit actually happens do the Lib Dems still exist?” existential angst.

**

CULTCHA

Yes, my Stephen Poliakoff BBC Player binge continues… Having polished off Summer of RocketsShooting the PastPerfect Strangers, and Gideon’s Daughter, I’m on to Dancing on the Edge.

I’ve been reading New Scientist’s Why everything you know about nutrition is wrong, as ever flabbergasted at how little solid evidence there is about something so everyday and important.

I’ll be picking my Fantasy Football League team, ready for a new season of hope-turning-to-disappointment (the lot of an Evertonian).

I’ve fallen in love with this 5-minute soliloquy on the state of TV (and so much more besides), filmed 42 years ago:

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Nursery graduations sound ridiculous… til it's your own child. Three years is a long time when you're four.

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