5 things about this week (17 June 2018)

by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2018

I’ve been ignoring all things Brexit. Well, that’s not strictly true; I’m not on Love Island. Eg, I know David Davis threatened to resign (yes, again) over whether the backstop agreement between the UK and the EU over the Northern Irish border is time-limited. I also know that a handful of Tory Remainer rebels threatened to rebel against Theresa May (yes, again) before being shafted agreeing to a compromise that was denied as soon as their votes were in the bag. And so it goes on, and on.

As a pragmatic Remainer, here are my priors on Brexit:
1) it was a stupid decision driven by a number of factors, including racism (a subset of anti-immigration, but a decisive one in such a close vote);
2) it’s officially already made our country poorer, just as predicted;
3) nonetheless, we have to go ahead with it, if only to prevent a future betrayal myth springing up;
4) it’s unlikely it will be a disaster (though, admittedly, Theresa May’s cak-handed approach means we can’t rule that out), most likely we will realise in a few years’ time that quite simply we’ve been diminished;
5) we’ll spend the next few decades gradually opting back into bits of the EU (at great expense) until we end up pretty much where we are now, or perhaps even re-joining.

In short, I see no way of preventing Brexit and don’t think we should try; but the softer it is, the better it will be and the less humiliating it will be for us to reverse. And if my priors are wrong, and Brexit does unleash some hitherto unseen Global British greatness, well we can always go harder later.

I’ve been watching BBC2’s Germaine Bloody Greer, a fascinating, revealing documentary marking the almost half-centenary of The Female Eunuch’s publication. While the images of Greer now (79, unsteadily tramping the woodland at her home) were designed to deliberately contrast with Greer then (31, a smoulderingly vivacious whip-smart intellectual) what it also highlighted was the consistent iconoclasm of her beliefs. She’s not an ‘equality feminist’ if that simply means inheriting equal shares in a man’s world; true female freedom has to be much, much more than that. The film also reminded us why she’s a telly-dream: always caustic, always candid, always interesting, whether talking #MeToo, transgenderism, or pornography. A quite remarkable woman who it seems really doesn’t care what people think of her. We need more of them.

I’ve been listening to Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, an entertaining account of Kim Philby’s role as ‘The Third Man’, double-agenting for the Soviet Union. It shows how far you can get with a slice of luck, masses of chutzpah, and the benefit of the doubt which comes from being a clubbable chap who’s “one of us”. Interestingly, Macintyre suggests MI6 engineered Philby’s defection to Moscow, preferring to appear incompetent in letting him escape their clutches than having to deal with the fall-out from his arraignment for spying.

Macintyre does his best to show the consequences of Philby’s treachery; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died because of the secrets he betrayed. Yet there’s an inescapable glamour to spying — risky undercover lies in the name of a greater good, your ideology – which somehow elevates this crime above the plainer ‘conspiracy to murder’ reality. Even the terms “treachery” and “betrayal” feel somehow quaint now, rather than the utterly damning insults they once were. Philby’s second wife bluntly asks him once, “Which comes first for you: your family or the Communist Party?” He didn’t hesitate before answering “The Party”. Admirable or chilling? A bit of both, is my honest answer.

I’ve been obsessed by the World Cup. No, I don’t like that it’s being hosted in the autocratic kleptocracy that is Russia; but it’s a festival of football which I find joyous to watch. Of the top 4 teams — Germany, France, Brazil and Spain — so far only France has won (squeaking past Australia). I still wouldn’t bet against them being the final 4, but that they’re being put through their paces is all part of the fun.

One question still puzzles me. In political programmes, we don’t rely solely on ex-MPs to be pundits: journalists and other hangers-on who understand the game, and can analyse it perhaps more dispassionately, are also asked their views. Yet in football, it’s always ex-footballers (with varying levels of coherence). I’m a fan of the introduction of VAR; in part because we now get to hear from referees clearly explaining the real-time thought processes of those interpreting the laws of the game. That addition has brought a new dimension to watching a match. Maybe next they could get some football writers on, like Sky Sports’ always fascinating Sunday Supplement. Why not aim for a plurality of voices?

20180611_113427I’ve been enjoying Father’s Day at what is the beginning of my sixth week of shared parental leave. It’s often seen as a somewhat nouveau interloper — when I was a child, we bought my mum a card and present on Mother’s Day, but only a card for my dad on Father’s Day — though their historical origins are roughly equivalent (according to Metro anyway); both trace their genealogies back centuries before becoming popularised in the US c.1908.

I’m glad we have it; though obviously I have to declare an interest. But society has a long, long way to go before parenting is regarded as an equal shares responsibility between mums and dads. Any nudge in the right direction is welcome. Also I got cake for breakfast.

Anyway, I finish with my favourite photo of the week: my ‘threenager’ being a snail.

5 things about this week (9 June 2018)

by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2018

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s a denunciation from a Silicon Valley insider of what he calls BUMMER (‘Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent’) – ie, anything on the internet which hoovers up your data to sell stuff to you.

It’s an interesting enough marshalling of familiar arguments. The one which resonates most with me is the coarsening effect of the outrage-emitter that is Twitter (see last week). I’m more blase about the doubtless pernicious impact of ads popping up scraped from my browsing history or my emails – it doesn’t seem a bad trade-off to me. They get to guess what I might want to buy in return for offering me useful services, gratis. (One of the reasons that my once icy opposition to ID cards has melted away; Google knows way more about me that the state does.)

Lanier argues that BUMMER companies need to re-invent their business model – to stop relying on advertising to stay free (which is what impels them to suck up all our data, dementor-style) and to focus on developing services people will be willing to pay for, including search engines and social media. Seems ridiculous at first, but he makes the point that the renaissance of television has come about not by offering free-to-view, advertising-paid shows — the commercial norm until a decade ago — but through companies like Netflix and HBO persuading punters to pay monthly subscriptions.

I’m a little sceptical the analogy with social media works. Lanier is, too, hence his argument we should delete our social media accounts, thus forcing the tech giants to develop something better. You first…

I’ve been watching BBC1’s A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant as former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, whose career was ended by his alleged involvement in a plot to kill an alleged former lover, Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw). As well as brilliantly acted, it’s impressively written (Russell T Davies) and directed (Stephen Frears).

I watched it a little uneasily, though, as it confidently presented plausible conjecture as historical fact. We don’t know if Thorpe did actually order Scott’s murder. We don’t absolutely know if he and Scott actually were lovers (though they almost certainly were). What we do know is there were conflicting testimonies from a cast of varyingly unreliable witnesses — and, in Thorpe’s case, no testimony at all — which meant it wasn’t much of a surprise when he was cleared of the charges.

Ambivalence is hard to dramatise, but I rather wish Davies and Frears had entertained even a smidgeon of the doubt which still exists.

I’ve been listening to John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies, the final (?) George Smiley novel. My prior view, based on n=1 of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is that le Carre’s books are dully stodgy, but make stonkingly good adaptations. Yes, the Alec Guinness TV series and the Gary Oldman film; but especially the BBC Radio 4 adaptations, of which the best is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — to which Legacy is the prequel/sequel/spin-off. Tom Hollander is its pitch-perfect narrator (if it’s filmed I hope he plays the sly MI6 lawyer, Bunny). It lacks the thrilling denouement/reveal of the best le Carres — instead we get a sightly preachy paean to Europe from old George — but its clever interleaving of plot and characters from novels written half a century apart is pretty remarkable.

I’m eagerly anticipating the World Cup. I’ve drawn Peru in the office sweepstake, which I had presumed was a no-hope cause. But apparently, ranked 11th in the world (who knew?), they’ve a better chance of winning the trophy than England. So it’s only an almost no-hope cause.

IMG-20180604-WA0000I’m half-way through my 8 weeks’ shared parental leave. Summary: it’s going quickly. Sidenote: if you do take shared parental leave can I recommend timing your baby such that your leave falls during the summer when the World Cup is on?

This week was especially notable for our trip to the Sussex seaside, half an hour’s drive away. It was one of those glorious, happy, sunny days I hope my kids come to remember as being what every day was like in summer. Footnote spoiler: actually, neither of their prefrontal cortexes are sufficiently developed yet to remember the day.

5 things about this week (1 Jun 2018)

by Stephen Tall on May 31, 2018

What I’ve been thinking…

Has the centre of British politics really run out of ideas? It’s the kind of casual remark which will get wise politico heads nodding in agreement. But I’m not sure I go along with it. After all, it’s only 3 years since David Cameron’s won a shock election victory thanks to an explicit promise to maintain the status quo:

That’s conservatism for you. It was also unabashedly centrist in its pitch (albeit more so with hindsight than perhaps seemed apparent at the time). So centrists can win.

The problem isn’t a lack of centrist ideas. At any rate, no more of a lack of ideas than afflicts either the contemporary Conservatives (in thrall to its right-wing Brexit obsessives) or Labour (in thrall to a hard-left cult with no political imagination beyond state ownership).

No, the problem is simpler than that: neither of the two current party leaders are centrists. That’s why there’s a crisis in centrism — there’s nobody to actually get on with doing the centrist thing (ie, trying not to bugger up the economy and making sure there are enough decent hospitals and schools).

What I’ve been tweeting…

Actually, I haven’t been. I’ve been gradually weaning myself off Twitter over several months. I’ve never been a natural at it — I’m better at paragraphs than epigraphs — and I dislike its gravitational pull towards negativity and outrage.

I’ve had to mute friends who I reckoned I might not want to remain friends with if I kept reading their tweets. And though I’m careful who I follow I still end up seeing idiot-tweets from the professional controversialists as normally sensible people decide to “call them out”, aka giving them exactly what they want: attention.

I’ve been struck by the comments of a couple of people recently.

First, from the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (in a wide-ranging Guardian interview well worth reading), who said simply, “there’s an ugliness about it”.

And secondly, from this interview of Jaron Lanier by Danny Fortson in this week’s The Times about Lanier’s new book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

Over 160 pages, Lanier uses the term “asshole” 126 times. Indeed, the title of one of his 10 arguments is “Social media is making you an asshole”. … Now, you may not feel like you match that description, but stop and think about that snarky tweet you sent to a stranger, that joke you made at someone’s expense on Facebook, the stolen minutes you spent reading the negative comments beneath a YouTube video. It is a subtle but unrelenting process, like climate change, Lanier argues. But instead of melting the ice caps, it is chipping away at your humanity.

Twitter has been chipping away at my humanity for too long. I’m consciously uncoupling from it. Which, by the way, is why this blog has been revived.

What I’ve been reading

I’m midway through the second of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, Bad News. I loved the first, Never Mind. This one I’m struggling with a little more because (1) I’m not on holiday now, and (2) because needle phobia.

What I’ve been listening to

If you’re expecting music recommendations from me, forget it. Having kids has utterly destroyed my interest in music — nothing to do with time, it’s just I’ve learned to enjoy silence. I can just about cope with choral music. That’s it. Though my Alexa would have you think I listen to an awful lot of Justin Fletcher singing nursery rhymes. And truth be told I do love his rave version of What Does the Fox Say?:

What I do listen to a lot more is audiobooks — to while away commuting, housework, DIY — and I’ve just finished an Agatha Christie; my favourite of her books, in fact, ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case‘. It’s deeply ingenious, with so many twists, deftly done; also both psychological and philosophical, with discussion of Othello, euthanasia and eugenics.

What I’ve been doing

20180524_173123I’ve reached the end of my 3rd week of shared parental leave (of 8 weeks). In short, it’s great. If you get the chance to do it, do it.

Vince Cable: first thoughts on his leadership (and his biggest challenge)

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2017

Finally — after a slightly absurd delay even when it became obvious there would be no other candidates, and a decade after he first ruled himself out of the running for the job on the grounds of his age — Vince Cable has been ‘elected’ Lib Dem leader.

I’d probably have voted for him if the position had been contested, but I wouldn’t take my endorsement as a golden pat on the shoulder. Since I left Labour and joined the Lib Dems in 1999, I’ve given David Rendel, Ming Campbell, Chris Huhne and Tim Farron my first preferences as leader. The only two I backed successfully (Ming and Tim) had the shortest tenures. Correlation isn’t causation, but, still, I wouldn’t blame you for doubting my sagacity.

But sagacity is, of course, Vince’s forte. He was among the few to foresee the dangers lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly unsinkable British economy in 2007. His lowest professional moment — being stripped of his cabinet responsibility for assessing Rupert Murdoch’s bid for outright control of Sky after unwisely letting slip to an undercover journalist that he had ‘declared war’ on the media mogul — was later transformed into triumph after the phone hacking scandal forced all politicians to declare war on Murdoch (very temporarily in the Tories’ case).

I declared him my un-hero back in the days when blogging was cutting-edge social media. For all his brilliance, though, he has his flaws — most notably, for not being collegiate. He launched his ill-fated ‘mansion tax’ on to an unsuspecting Lib Dem conference in 2009, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in neighbouring seats whose constituencies would be most affected. Still, collegiality is less of an essential requirement for the leader’s job now they have fewer colleagues.

The main criticism levelled against him in this non-campaign (other than being too old, which is beyond is control) has centred on an interview with the New Statesman, which led to accusations — obviously, though not only, on the Guido Fawkes website — that he had hand-waved away the idea sexism or racism are issues any more. Here’s the full passage:

… Cable is 74 years old. Is he the right leader to attract youth support? “There was a phase – was it 20, 30 years ago? – when there was a faith in youth,” he says. “You know, Tony Blair, Nick [Clegg] and others. And the mood has changed. It’s more sober. People are puzzled and angry . . . and I think they’re willing to listen to people who’ve got some experience, some historical memory, of the way things are.” …

Yet many Lib Dems say that it’s time for a younger, fresher face. There was widespread disappointment that Jo Swinson, who could have been their first female leader, didn’t stand. Cable praises Swinson, who will be his deputy, but he insists that he is “not standing as a caretaker”.

“Gender isn’t an issue any more, rightly so,” he adds. “Thanks to Obama, race isn’t really an issue any more – at least, we hope not. And age shouldn’t be, either. It should be who you are and what you have to say.”

Now, the quote which got snipped and landed Vince in trouble in some quarters is “Gender isn’t an issue any more”. But, in context, it’s clear he’s talking about whether gender (or race) is any more an automatic bar to being a political leader — which is very different to the accusation levelled against him that he was denying the existence of sexism and racism. An accusation which must be pretty hurtful to someone who started an inter-racial family and whose father didn’t speak to him for four years as a result.

Here are some things I think Vince has going for him (other than being pretty darn clever):

He gives good talking head: the media will actually want to interview him. For a party with 12 MPs, that’s a pretty good qualification in itself. Of course, that does carry with it the risks of occasional loose lips (see above) — but if there’s one thing worse than being talked about…

He will appeal to moderates: as I’ve asked before, who should the Conservative who liked John Major, or the Labour supporter who wanted Yvette Cooper to be leader, vote for? Certainly not the current incarnations of their party. Vince might well be taken seriously by voters who didn’t warm to Tim Farron’s cheeky chappiness.

He’s a grown-up: true, Vince hasn’t been tested by a leadership campaign. As Gordon Brown and Theresa May both proved, that’s a short-term convenience and a medium-term problem. But Vince is a known quantity, for better or worse, and intellectually secure (sometimes, perhaps, to excess). He’s not going to be worried going up against Andrew Neil.

Vince’s biggest challenge is the one regularly posed by Mark Pack and David Howarth: from the doldrums of 8% at the last election, can he help foster a Lib Dem core vote, one that isn’t reliant on the Stakhanovite efforts of (sometimes eccentric) individuals dotted around the country, but which has genuine appeal to enough liberal-minded voters to form a cohesive voting bloc?

It’s no easy task, especially as Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself to be much more adept at appealing to educated, middle-class professionals, the group most likely to label themselves progressive small-l liberals — as evidenced by Labour’s stunning performance on 8th June in places like Bristol, Cambridge and Canterbury, as well as London — than he has Labour’s working-class base, whose support for Labour has declined.

But if the Lib Dems are to have a viable and sustainable future, it’s the only choice. Brexit, of course, gives him a platform, with the anti-EU Corbyn himself at least as committed to a Hard Brexit as Theresa May (probably: no-one really knows), and Labour MPs split, depending on whether they represent a Leave-voting working-class seat or a Remain-voting metropolitan seat. Add to that a stuttering economy and public services showing the strain of austerity and the conditions are there for a revival.

I hope so, anyway. British politics is pretty depressing, at the moment. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown themselves fit to govern, yet they’re currently the only show in town. If a new Centre Party isn’t going to shake things up, it’s up to the Lib Dems. Over to you, Vince…

The deliciously ironic leadership contest Vince Cable’s coronation will deprive us of

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2017

I don’t share the angst of so many Lib Dems that — it appears — the party has been deprived of a leadership contest. First, Jo Swinson, then Norman Lamb, and now Sir Ed Davey have all declined to take on Sir Vince Cable.

Jo’s and Ed’s public reasons were each good and believable.

Both have just won back seats they lost and need to focus on defending them. The fates of their predecessors, Nick Clegg (defeated) and Tim Farron (big majority slashed), hang heavy in the air. Both also have young families and don’t want to miss out on those unrepeatable moments.

The task of Lib Dem leader is, I reckon, the second worst in politics (after Prime Minister), trying to satisfy a notoriously querulous membership on practically zero resource.

Norman’s public reasons for skipping this contest are more contestable. Citing the “gruelling” campaign to retain his Leave-voting North Norfolk seat, he then anticipates that his abstention on the vote to trigger Article 50 would have sunk his leadership chances: “for many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal.”

He’s probably right. The pro-EU fervency among many Lib Dems, especially the 20k ‘newbies’ who joined post-23 June — in large part as a result of Tim Farron’s instinctual anti-Brexit stance — would suggest a ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’ (the term is relative among our ranks) might struggle.

Though that’s not really a reason not to try, especially if you have a message you think the party needs to hear. For Norman to duck the challenge is understandable; but also more than a little disappointing.

It’s also quite ironic, given that it now seems certain Sir Vince ‘Strong and’ Cable will be coronated. For Vince has long been the No. 1 ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’. He once branded the Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace” while opposing the Euro — sensible chap — and (correctly) demanding EU budget restraint despite activist outrage.

More recently, he has questioned the Lib Dems’ decision to bang on about a second referendum, rightly raising awkward questions that many in my party would prefer to shrug off (“Which side would we be on if there was a soft Brexit?”) and arguing for more focus on outcome than process (“I would just like to see more emphasis on what it is we want from these negotiations rather than arguing about the tactics and the means”).

He has also — to the consternation of EU-philes among the party ranks — highlighted the current hypocrisy in which the Lib Dems campaign for preferential treatment for Europeans over non-Europeans (so much for true internationalism!). The same rule should apply to all, regardless of nationality. “The demand for effective immigration control coexists with greater tolerance of diversity,” Vince has noted — a statement reckoned by some Lib Dem activists to rank alongside Enoch Powell, but which probably sounds ultra-liberal to your average punter.

It’s a shame, then, that the Lib Dems are depriving the public of the delicious irony of its two most Euroscpetic MPs contesting the leadership of the most devotedly pro-EU party.

Yet in some ways it’s better a contest is avoided. The actual policy differences between Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Sir Vince Cable are so slight, so cigarette-paper thin, that the campaign would almost certainly have descended into personalised bickering (if not between the rivals themselves then between the factions that would get behind them, projecting their own views onto their chosen candidate).

I’m at ease with a Vince Cable leadership. He’s a grown up, has media smarts, will get a hearing. Of course, there are all sorts of flak that will get thrown at him — tuition fees, Royal Mail, his age — but if anyone can ride that out, he can. And if he can’t, well he’s said he’ll stand down in three years, so we can have another go then. (Did I say ‘go’? I meant Jo.)

Until then, arise Sir Vince.

What do the centrists do now? Here’s my suggestion…

by Stephen Tall on June 27, 2017

I’ve written before about my sympathy for a new ‘Centre Party’ (much as I dislike such a split-the-difference name). The election result means the issue has simultaneously both become more urgent and less likely.

More urgent because who does a centrist voter now vote for?

The Conservatives, already moving to the right as Theresa May made slashing immigration her party’s top priority, have now sealed the deal with the antediluvian DUP. If you’re the kind of Tory who liked John Major, to whom do you now turn?

Meanwhile, Labour is now in thrall to Jeremy Corbyn following his expectations-defying result, with the party’s hard-left even more determined to exert control, and looking to purge MPs suspected of any Blairite tendencies. If you’re the kind of Labour supporter who voted for Yvette Cooper as leader two years ago, to whom do you now turn?

And less likely because 2017 saw the revival of two-party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour hoovering up more than four-fifths of voters on 8th June. Outlier, or reversion to the mean? We don’t yet know, but it’s going to be harder to justify quitting a party polling 40%+ than it is one languishing in the 20%s.

Nonetheless, there are currently a lot of centrist, politically homeless Tory and Labour voters voting for their parties in spite of, not because of, their leadership and their policies. To whom do they now turn?

A new Centre Party, that’s who. So say Conservative MP Anna Soubry and former Labour speech-writer Philip Collins. Heck, even Nick Clegg, sort of.

Such a Centre Party would be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It would promote economic growth in order to fund schools and hospitals. It would accept Brexit while retaining UK membership of the single market. It would invest in housing and roads and safeguard the environment. It would guarantee a safety net for the vulnerable.

In short, it would be unashamedly sensible and boring.

Defining what a ‘Centre Party’ would stand for is the easy bit, of course.

The far harder part is working out how on earth you build from scratch a party capable of winning seats in our first-past-the-post system. And working out who among the current crop of politicians has the vim and vigour to lead it. (Pro-tip: if your answer is David Miliband flying back from New York then try again.)

It is not the lack of ideas, then, which is preventing the birth of a ‘Centre Party’. It is the structure of our electoral system which is tilted against parties with broad national support.

Which is why I have a simple suggestion for the centrists: join the Liberal Democrats.

I know, I know. Only 12 MPs, wasted vote, etc. But, actually, I’m serious.

For a start, we have a great future leader in Jo Swinson — modern, pragmatic, determined — waiting in the wings.

Moreover, membership of the Lib Dems has been transformed over the past two years. In 2015, there were 45k members. Today, there’s over 100k. A good chunk of these new members (to the chagrin of some veteran sandalistas) are moderate liberals.

They liked, or at least understood the need for, the Coalition. They are pro-European (sometimes a bit too obsessively so, but none of us is perfect). They want to be in power, not shouting from the sidelines. They are exactly the kind of people a new ‘Centre Party’ would be trying to attract.

So don’t cannibalise this group; join them. And make the Lib Dems great again.

Brexit, one year on. And no-one is yet any the wiser

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2017

One year on — a referendum and general election later — we’re still no closer to understanding what either of the two main political parties intend to do about implementing Brexit.

The Conservatives committed in their manifesto to the UK leaving the single market and customs union. But, then, they pledged a lot else in their manifesto which they’ve since abandoned. Brexit secretary David Davis has previously promised a deal “that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”, while chancellor Philip Hammond would clearly like to do so by sticking with the very good deal we already have. This enigmatic position is echoed by their ‘friends and allies’, the DUP, whose manifesto promises ‘customs arrangements which facilitate trade with new and existing markets’ — which implies leaving the single market and customs union while discreetly stopping short of calling for it.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has, with Blairite finesse, successfully straddled a position which supports both a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit while still attracting the votes of educated, metropolitan Remainers (and, miraculously, maintaining a reputation for straight-talking). Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has been clear Labour supports leaving the single market (though, like David Davis, he wants to keep the same terms of trade, somehow). Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has been equally clear that Labour supports keeping single market membership on the negotiating table.

Confusion reigns. And let’s remember, both the Tories and Labour voted to set the two-year negotiating count-down clock ticking three months ago.

Little wonder, then, that Brexit is squeezing out time for any other issues — y’know, minor matters like our notoriously sluggish productivity, or escalating social care costs, or the housing crisis — in the next two years. Instead, the politicians are going to be devoting every waking moment to working out the irreconcilable instructions of the British people: to deliver a growing economy while divorcing ourselves from a market which gives our businesses unfettered access to 500 million customers across the continent.

Enough of the electorate bought the half-truths peddled by Vote Leave last year, not least Boris Johnson’s seductive aphorism that “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” Trouble is, reality’s biting away at that cake. And there are no signs yet that either the Government or the Opposition has any real clue what they should be doing about it.

Tim Farron’s resignation: why I’m sad but also relieved

by Stephen Tall on June 15, 2017

I’m on holiday so have only just seen the news of Tim Farron’s resignation as Lib Dem leader. I’m saddened, but also, truth be told, a bit relieved.

Saddened because I voted for Tim and am pleased to have done so. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious – his instinctive, passionate speech the morning after the 23 June EU referendum captured the sadness and anger many of us felt that day (and contrasted with Jeremy Corbyn’s hopeless insistence that Article 50 should be immediately triggered). It inspired thousands to join the Lib Dems. We were, to be blunt, very lucky to have Tim in place, rather than Norman Lamb, whose Leave-voting constituency left him in a conflicted position (he abstained on the Article 50 vote).

But also relieved. It’s a harsh reality that as the leader of a minor party you get limited chances to make a good impression on the voters. Tim’s fumbling attempts to avoid answering whether he thinks gay sex is a sin holed his leadership below the waterline. It was deeply unfair – he’s a social liberal to his fingertips on issues of personal morality with a voting record to match – but that’s beside the point. If you market yourself as a great communicator you can’t complain later that you’ve been misunderstood. (And Tim has often enough put his faith centre stage that he also can’t complain it became an issue of curiosity to a secular media looking to tease out any conflicts with his liberalism.) Despite the baby-steps progress made by the Lib Dems in last week’s election – made in large part thanks to the strategy Tim put in place – he emerged from the election with his leadership diminished.

In the old days, when the Lib Dems were the undisputed third party, he’d have got another chance to prove his mettle. But the electoral landscape is much more competitive these days and much less forgiving of slip-ups. Ultimately, I think he’s made the right decision for himself and for the party.

Election notebook #19: Tory mourning after the night before

by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2017

Well that was all a bit unexpected, for me at any rate. Having confidently predicted the Conservatives would cruise to a 100+ landslide here we are facing a hung parliament, with Theresa May reliant on the DUP for her majority.

My prediction was based on solid enough foundations. Most polls (though not all – kudos YouGov and Survation) pointed to a sizeable win, including, crucially, the parties’ own internal polls – if Labour had known how the night would pan out, they’d have targeted more effectively and likely scored an even better result. The visits of the leaders during the campaign also pointed to the Tories being on the offensive and Labour on the back foot. Heck, it’s only a month since the Conservatives secured an utterly convincing win in the local elections.

But whatever the rationale, my reckoning was wrong. I assumed that the Tories’ scare tactics would work, that their dreadful campaign would dampen turnout and make little difference to the result, that the right-wing media would succeed in its biased bullying – that, ultimately, folk would vote on the basis of who they’d want negotiating Brexit and that wouldn’t be Jeremy Corbyn.

I find myself baffled but oddly cheered by the night’s excitement. I’ve said throughout this campaign that the Conservatives deserve to lose the election but Labour doesn’t deserve to win it. And that’s exactly the result. Well played, Britain! Looking around today, the right people are annoyed by what’s just happened. As Martin Bell, and before him GK Chesterton, once said:

“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”

Theresa May will have to resign, of course, it’s just a question of when. The Tories aren’t going to fight another election with her at the helm.

There will be lots of time to explore how they tossed away a 20%+ poll lead. The dementia tax, fox-hunting and schools cuts will all feature. So too will the Brexit-shaped opening the Tories gave Labour in moving the debate away from tight stewardship of the finances. Tory Leavers promised the voters there would be loadsa spare cash when we left the EU. Then rounded on Labour’s “magic money tree” and wondered why those attacks didn’t hit home as they did in 2015.

In truth, the Labour manifesto is an indulgent mess of middle-class subsidies which does very little more for the working poor than the Tories were threatening. But that reality doesn’t matter. Jeremy Corbyn has — brilliantly, it turns out — played the right mood music: uplifting and hopeful for a nation tired of and bored with a decade’s unremitting austerity.

It was, though – let’s be candid – a crushing night for moderate, liberal progressives, like me, epitomised by the ousting of Nick Clegg. Sure, the Lib Dems made a handful of net gains (and were achingly close to recovering to 16 MPs), which was better than I’d feared. But the party’s vote-share is down to just 7%, its worst performance in over 50 years. We can gloss that all we like, but two-party politics has reasserted itself and it’s going to be the devil of a job to break the mould again.

Two final points. This so-called Brexit election was never about Brexit and still isn’t. Both the Conservative and Labour are committed to a ‘hard Brexit’ – ending free movement, withdrawal from the single market and the customs union – so that’s not going to change. Perhaps, though, now the Prime Minister’s wings have been clipped, it will happen in a less bellicose way (or perhaps more so; I’m going to be more cautious with my predictions from now on).

And finally, I do not think an early election likely. After all, who has the incentive to trigger it? The Conservatives have just seen the unpredictability of what can happen. And I’m not all that sure Labour wants to actually have to get to grips with Brexit negotiations if it did win. And, above all, I’m not sure it would change the result very much anyway. The next five years are going to be a bumpy ride…

Election notebook #18: 7 things I expect to happen in the next few days

by Stephen Tall on June 8, 2017

Following on from my prediction yesterday – an overwhelming Conservative victory – here are seven things I expect to happen in the days ahead:

The Conservative election campaign will be acclaimed. Forget the wobbles and the premature “Is Theresa May finished?” political obituaries. The media will instead be full of analysis of how the Tories defied the polls and the pundits. The fundamentals, we’ll be told, always favoured the Conservatives and their singular focus on “who’s best to negotiate Brexit?” proved to be decisive. Expect particular praise for Lynton Crosby’s ruthless targeting of Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies.

The Labour reaction will continue to be conflicted. The hard-left Corbynistas will, on the one hand, trumpet Labour’s vote-share while, on the other, use the defeat as a reason further to damn the ‘disloyal’ Blairites in their ranks, who (they will claim) are all that stood between #Jezwecan and victory. More sensible left-wingers will reflect on the missed opportunity and recognise that leadership and economic competence still matter most. The moderate centre-left will continue to quietly despair while not putting up any sort of intellectual fight and cleaving tribally to their party.

The Lib Dems will remain defiant, earnestly and eagerly awaiting the Brexit-calypse the party is convinced will validate its “second referendum” position. This will be seen as reason to continue doggedly sticking to a position which appeals to a niche audience, rather than attempt to engage with the mainstream. Largely absent from the post mortem will be a serious analysis of how the party restores its post-Coalition reputation. Expect a fiercely protective defence of Tim Farron’s leadership which will gloss the tougher questions his performance has prompted.

If turnout is down to dire 2001 levels, as I suspect it will be, expect lots of furrowed-brow worrying about what this says about the state of British democracy. There will likely be a stale argument about why young people don’t vote, pitching glib “we don’t see the point” vs “it’s their own fault” arguments against each other. Worthy think tanks will come up with worthy proposals – such as electoral reform, Sunday/electronic voting and polling day bank holidays – which will get tweeted around for a day and then forgotten about, as usual.

Everyone who’s written off the impact of newspapers on the campaign – “look at the crowds for Corbyn!”, “actually this is the first Facebook election” – will remember that newspapers are, it turns out, still hugely influential. Sensible Conservatives will worry what that means for Theresa May standing any chance of landing a pragmatic Brexit deal while squaring the Europhobic Mail, Sun and Telegraph. Meanwhile, the left will muse impotently about press regulation and the hard-left will scream ever louder into its social media echo chamber.

Whichever polling companies’ models have come closest will get the bouquets; whoever’s made the wrong assumptions will get the brickbats. So the real question – of whether heavy weighting and turnout filters are pre-loading assumptions to compensate for the failure to contact truly balanced population samples, which will again lead to a major future polling fail – will be put on the back-burner.

Finally, there will be a belated recognition that we’ve endured 7 weeks of an election campaign which has told us almost nothing about the rival parties’ plans for Brexit, the economy, public services, the environment or international affairs. Never in the field of electoral conflict was so much ignored by so many with a shrug.



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