5 things about this week (10 Sept 2019)

by Stephen Tall on September 10, 2019

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BORIS IS WINNING! (PERHAPS)

On the face of it, this has not been a great week for Boris Johnson.

He has suffered an humiliating defeat in Parliament, which scuppered his no-deal threat, instead requiring the prime minister to apply to the EU for an extension unless he can magic up a majority for a withdrawal agreement by 31 October. He has had to sack 21 Conservative MPs who voted with the opposition to achieve said humiliation, including two former chancellors and eight former Cabinet ministers. He has lost the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, pretty much single-handedly responsible for the recent Tory revival north-of-the-border. His spending review, supposed to end austerity and open the spending taps to woo Labour Leavers in left-behind small towns, was utterly eclipsed. He has lost two members of his cabinet, with his own brother, Jo, accusing Boris of failing to act in the national interest, while Amber Rudd confirmed suspicions that No. 10’s claims of progress in its negotiations with the EU are a sham. And, most damaging of all, his plan of engineering a pre-31 October and capitalising on his honeymoon popularity has been blocked.

All lies in tatters, therefore, Boris is toast? Not so fast.

Let’s fast forward to Christmas Day… Boris Johnson is enjoying a festive lunch at Chequers. He and his top team are in fine spirits. For sure, their victorious election campaign had got off to a stuttering start. The Remain Alliance had seemingly thwarted Plan A (there was only a Plan A). But Boris had placed his total trust in Dominic Cummings to deliver — and how right he’d been! “It doesn’t matter how many battles you lose if you win the war!” had been the rallying cry. The delay to Brexit had given Boris the scapegoat he needed: the treacherous, Remainer Parliament conniving with the EU to deny the British people what they’d voted for. It was just what he needed to unite Leave voters around his banner. The Conservatives’ achieved 36% of the vote. Not great by historic standards (that damn man Farage!), and lower than the combined Labour and Lib Dem share, but enough to achieve a working majority of 23 seats (better than Cameron!). “A toast to first-past-the-post!” roared Boris. He still had no real idea what his withdrawal agreement would look like. Probably something like Theresa’s, a bit finessed, and this time with him selling it. How could he fail? His party was totally in his thrall, not a rebel in sight (goodbye Gawkeward Squad!). 2020 was going to be a good year.

An invention, of course. But impossible? I’d say it’s a pretty plausible hypothesis – a 30% chance maybe, with another hung parliament at 50%, then no-deal Brexit at 15% and a Labour majority at 5%.

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THE UN-CONSERVATIVES

I can’t sum up the present state of affairs better than the final paragraph of this leader column in The Economist:

… the defeat of the government, and its loss of any sort of majority, points towards an election. It will be a contest in which, for the first time in living memory, Britain has no centre-right party. Nor, thanks to Labour’s far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will it have a mainstream opposition. Instead the two leading parties will, in their different ways, be bent on damaging the economy; and both will pose a threat to Britain’s institutions. Brexit’s dreadful consequences continue.

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REVOKE! REVOKE! JUST REJOICE AT THAT NEWS

Meanwhile, the super soaraway Lib Dems are up to 17 MPs and have a new Brexit policy: to revoke Article 50 (in the super-remote chance the next election returns a majority Lib Dem government; if not, the position remains a second referendum). Here’s my assessment:

Problems:
* There’s an unavoidable issue of democracy: a policy of overturning the 2016 referendum without recourse to a second referendum has a pretty obvious legitimacy hole.
* Relatedly, are the Lib Dems really saying victory on 35% in a national election under first-past-the-post is a mandate? The SNP will prick up their ears at that.
* How will the policy land in Conservative-facing Remain seats (ie, almost all Lib Dem targets in England)? Will it deter Tory Remainers unwilling simply to see the referendum outcome set aside? I hope/assume the party has stress-tested it among this group.

Opportunities:
* Key point for me: it’s practical, logical, and honest. As we’ve seen in the last few days, Labour has struggled to defend it’s de facto Brexit party policy of negotiating a better deal to put to a second referendum — and then campaign for Remain anyway, probably. The Lib Dem policy removes the artifice of pretending to negotiate a deal.
* It also puts clear yellow water between the Lib Dems and Labour (whose opposition to no-deal has allowed them to cloak themselves in Remain even while party policy remains to respect the 2016 vote to Leave): it doubles down on the ‘Stop Brexit’ message in a way which Labour can’t and won’t match.
* Finally, it allows the party to pivot effectively: “The Lib Dems will stop Brexit immediately. No need for a second vote, let’s just make it stop, and instead start talking about the issues that really matter to people’s lives, like the economy and public services…”

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LIBERAL EARWORM

‘Lib Dems do the Revokey-Dokey’ was my inspired choice of title for the latest Never Mind the Barcharts podcast, with Mark Pack. Listen to our analysis here.

And if that’s not enough Brexit chat for you, we previously recorded an entire episode talking nothing but Brexit, with Mark arguing (ahead of his time) that Remain is winning really. You can listen here.

And, don’t forget, you can come along to a special live recording of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast, featuring a special guest who’s worked with Dominic Cummings!, on Saturday 5 October: details here.

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CULTCHA CORNER

* I’ve finished listening to Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory (narrated by Tuppence Middleton). It’s an impressive debut — evoking the grimy, radical, suppressed atmosphere of Victorian London, a la Sarah Waters and Michael Faber — albeit a little heavy-handed: the obsessive taxidermist who captures curiosities for display (Silas) stalks the heroine (Iris) in a blatant display of metaphor.

* I’ve been watching Dave Chapelle’s new Netflix stand-up show, Sticks and Stones. My bad, but I’d never heard of him until the controversy about this set broke. To my tastes, it’s a bit hit-and-miss — some great insights mixed with some cheap laughs — but well worth a view if you don’t mind your comedy strong-tasting. And then tuck into Jesse Singal’s long-read, When We Argue About Dave Chappelle, We Should Recognize That Super-Wokeness Is Mostly An Elite Phenomenon.

* I’ve finished reading the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It really is superb, especially its account of her early life. Usually in (auto)biographies you think “hurry up and get famous”, but (perhaps because her time in power is already familiar) it’s the pre-PM years which linger in the memory. And it is commendably even-handed, given Mr Moore’s known Brexity Tory-ness (despite an unsourced swipe at the BBC for “secretly supporting” the Yes campaign in the 1975 European referendum).

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