Election notebook #6: The silent Brexit election; polls-axed; emergency Ward

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2017

In one sense, the big news today was Angela Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag warning Brits not be under no illusion that exiting the EU means the UK will no longer enjoy the same benefits of membership as it does now:

“A third-party state cannot enjoy the same advantages or be better positioned than an EU member state. I have the feeling that some people in Britain maintain illusions in this regard. They’re wasting their time.”

Perhaps the German chancellor had in mind Brexit secretary David Davis who told parliament he was aiming for “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.

I say Ms Merkel’s speech was big news, but it’s not, not really. What she’s set out is what has been clear since very shortly after 23 June, a point David Allen Green has been expanding on this week in the Financial Times. He makes the point, persuasively, that it is the EU which has set the terms of debate and stuck to them: no negotiation without triggering Article 50; an orderly exit; no access to the single market without acceptance of the four freedoms (including freedom of movement); and the 27 remaining members of the EU to act in unison.

This position, he notes, was in place even before Theresa May had become prime minister. It’s just that the British government appears to think the EU is bluffing and doesn’t quite mean what it says — over-estimating (as we Brits usually do) our own importance to the rest of Europe.

You’d think all this would be the subject of vigorous political debate. That the media would closely question the Government’s strategy and expect clear answers as to what Theresa May defines as the best deal possible. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead the Prime Minister has been allowed by the media (let’s not even bother to mention the Labour ‘opposition’) to make the patriotic pitch that every vote for the Tory party is a vote to strengthen her negotiating hand — as if the size of the Tory majority is of anything other than passing interest to the EU.

This is the so-called ‘Brexit election’, yet it’s unlikely the issues will be explored in any depth. There will be no TV debates. Theresa May is making occasional, tightly controlled, public speeches. The aim is to avoid any risks and let Labour’s hopelessness make its own case for the Tories. This is ‘submarine’ campaigning, rarely surfacing and instead focused on torpedoing the opposition by staying well out of sight.

And let’s be clear: it will work. There’s scarily plausible analysis in the Guardian today suggesting the Lib Dems could make net losses, down to just six seats, while Labour would be scythed to 150 seats — meanwhile the Conservatives would win a 190+ majority, with over 420 MPs. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Mrs May’s party is currently riding high at 45%+ in the polls. Even with the Lib Dems improving our position a bit since 2015, that still represents a national Lib Dem -> Conservative swing, so talk of 20+ seats seems far-fetched unless and until the Tories’ ratings subside.

I’ve attached a chunk of blame to the media here and I make no apologies for that. The BBC does its best, but the broadcasters all too often follow where the right-wing press (which is the vast majority of it) leads.

However, I don’t believe in blaming products for what the consumer demands. There’s little sign, yet, that the British public wants another chance to have its say on Europe. It seems, rather, to be quite content to leave the difficult Brexit stuff to its elites. And as Mrs May appears currently to be the only ‘grown-up’ around she’s the one who’s going to get the job by popular acclaim. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

**

In lieu of any serious debate, polling is once again dominating the media’s coverage of this campaign — despite the promises of journalists after the 2015 debacle that they’d learned their lesson, and despite the warnings of the pollsters that they’re not sure they’ve yet worked out how to put right what went wrong last time.

We’re yet again seeing even quite respectable journalists make silly over-claims for poll movements which are likely just statistical noise. I’m not a fan of banning things generally, and I know there are all sorts of problems with banning polls during election campaigns. But, nonetheless, I do wonder if, sans surveys, the media might actually try filling the vacuum with some serious analysis of what the different parties’ policies would mean for the country? A naive fantasy, I realise.

**

Tim Farron has been getting more stick this week. Having put his troubles with gay sex to bed (so to speak), he was then hit by the news that the Bradford East local party had re-selected David Ward as its parliamentary candidate.

He it was who, as an MP, caused huge offence by casually referring to “the Jews … inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”. Though he (eventually) admitted fault then, he’s continued to post inflammatory remarks, including, following the Westminster terror attack last month, that “all terrorist attacks in UK stem from our foreign policy”.

The announcement appeared to catch the Lib Dem leader on the hop. He initially pointed out to the media (quite correctly) that he has absolutely no power over the (re-)selection of candidates. The Lib Dems’ attachment to internal party democracy never ceases to non-plus journalists who are so used to the Conservatives’ and Labour’s command-and-control structures. As the Chris Rennard scandal showed, the power of the leader to hire-and-fire at will is limited to the front bench.

So how did Tim Farron manage to announce within a matter of hours that he’d sacked David Ward, after all? The credit must go to some cunning member of the party’s ruling federal board, which delegated to the leader during the election campaign the power to re-instigate disciplinary procedures against previously suspended members. He did so in the case of Mr Ward, thus rendering him automatically ineligible to stand on the Lib Dem ticket.

While some in the media still criticised Mr Farron for taking a few hours to take action, those of us in the party were left pretty amazed that the leader was able to deal with the matter with due process in anything less than 18 months. Believe me, that’s almost unheard of.

Election notebook #5: This really is the last time I’ll write about Tim Farron and gay sex

by Stephen Tall on April 25, 2017

I’d intended already to have said my last on the “does Tim Farron believe gay sex is a sin?” thing which Channel 4’s Cathy Newman has been banging on about, egged on by fellow hacks and lefty tweeters who enjoy watching the born-again Christian Lib Dem leader squirm.

But it wasn’t to be, as a week later it’s the only question our lazy media can be bothered to ask him (despite his very strong record defending LGBT+ rights over the years). And so Mr Farron has been forced to give the only politically acceptable answer that’s allowed: that he doesn’t think gay sex is a sin.

Which may help shut down the media witch-hunt — though there’s plenty of other material in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Exodus for journos to quiz him on, sin-by-sin, for the next 50 days. After all, that’s what people really want to hear about; not Brexit or the economy or public services. [/irony]

Personally, I preferred his earlier argument, that we should regard his private beliefs as just that, and judge him on his public actions. It’s a pretty fundamental liberal tenet, one underpinned by a long-held argument for the separation of church and state.

I think it admirable that Mr Farron is prepared to campaign and vote for his fellow citizens to live their lives as they choose, not as he would choose. That takes more liberal guts than it does for those of us whose personal views happen to happily coincide with the majority’s secularism.

The demand of the illiberal left for Mr Farron to atone for what they presume his private views to be is driven by two imperatives.

The first is drearily partisan: embarrass the Lib Dem leader to try and bolster the depressed Labour vote.

The second is more revealing — the bullying desire that everyone must think the same thing. It’s not enough simply to support freedom of choice; you must also advocate for those choices. You must conform to their credo. The illiberal left doesn’t just want you to be persuaded. It requires you to embrace all their feels.

Well, I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing.

**

As a coda, I find it interesting to compare Tim Farron’s treatment with that of David Cameron when he was running for the Conservative party leadership in 2005.

He was asked repeatedly if he’d used drugs and declined to give a straight answer, referring vaguely to a “pretty typical student experience”. Media pressure grew, and eventually he and his team came up with the line, “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we err and stray.” He stuck to it, as did his party. And the media (mostly) happily accepted it.

Which I suspect simply shows there are more former drug-users in the media than there are born-again Christians.

Election notebook #4: A first prediction; Blair’s contortions; challenging Bercow; precedent Macron; & LibDems hit 100k

by Stephen Tall on April 24, 2017

Just how bad can it get for Labour? We’ve seen polls in the past few days suggesting Labour could lose its last remaining seat in Scotland and be pushed into second place even in Wales. Combine that with the Tory absorption of the Ukip vote across England and there’s a gathering, perfect storm.

Just as opinion polls are perfect filler for newspapers, so are speculative predictions the handy stand-by of the political blogger.

I fed what I considered a plausible end-of-campaign set of figures into the ElectoralCalculus website. It produces a Conservative majority of 154, Labour losing 69 MPs, and the Lib Dems gaining only 5 MPs: Con 402, Lab 163, SNP 49, LibDem 13, Others 23. What a prospect.

Tony Blair has long been, and still remains, this country’s greatest political communicator so it’s fascinating to see the rhetorical contortions he’s performed recently to avoid saying, officially, that he supports anti-Tory tactical voting. Urging the public to back candidates who are prepared to keep an open mind on Theresa May’s Brexit deal (or no deal), he was asked if this might mean backing the Lib Dems: “What I’m advocating may mean that. It may mean voting Labour. It may mean, by the way, that they vote Tory, for candidates who are prepared to give this commitment.”

Corbynites have been expelled from Labour for lesser statements than that. Realising his words may have been correctly interpreted, Mr Blair has now sought to obscure his meaning in an article for The Guardian: ‘… for the avoidance of doubt, I have not urged tactical voting. It is up to each voter to make up their mind on how they will vote. I only want people to make an informed choice. Of course, I hope people will vote Labour, as I will.’

Bet he wouldn’t if he lived in Vauxhall, though.

But he puts his finger on the key election-winning argument the Tories are making: ‘Essentially, the Tories – who no doubt have done their own polling – have hit on a way of getting votes by presenting the election as about “strengthening the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiation”, ie, they have turned a partisan Tory vote into an act of national interest.’ He’s surely right, which is why (as I pointed out last week) the Tories’ claims of a ‘coalition of chaos’ are cleverer than they’ve been treated by some commentators.

His counter-strategy is intellectually sound — ‘my strong advice would be to make a virtue of saying: let’s make up our minds when we see what deal Theresa May gets’ — though I’m more doubtful than Mr Blair that “let’s keep an open mind” is the slogan to blow away the Tories’ “give us the tools to finish the Brexit job”.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, will face a challenge from the Lib Dems in his Buckingham constituency. This goes against protocol, as the Speaker’s not meant to sully herself with party politics and so is usually given a free ride by the main parties. However, he has previously pledged to stand down in 2018, which, if he keeps to his word, would mean that for 80 per cent of the next parliament he will serve as in the Conservative ranks. So it seems only fair and proper his constituents gets a chance to have their say on whether they want that.

As someone who’s sympathetic to a new centre-left party forming out of the ashes of the Labour party, you might think I’d be pushing the easy hot-take that newcomer Emmanuel Macron’s first round victory in the French presidential election proves it can be done. But not quite:

And finally, kudos to my team, the Lib Dems, on hitting the 100,000 members mark, a doubling of the ranks since the 23 June referendum. Bad news isn’t only good for newspaper sales, it seems. And if the election result is anything like as gloomy as my prediction that suggests another growth spurt beginning on 9th June.

Election notebook #3: Lib Dem targets; Tory landslide upside; ‘Coalition of Chaos’

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2017

What are the Lib Dem targets? In past elections, it’s usually been pretty obvious which seats the Lib Dems can hope to win – find which ones we came second in last time and where we’re within c.10% of whichever is the governing party.

On that basis, there are 16 seats the Lib Dems would hope to win: 9 from the Tories and 3 each from Labour and the SNP. That would take the party’s tally to 25 MPs (if we hold our gain in Richmond Park). A decent haul, though not quite the breakthrough some more excitable commentators (and activists) have been touting.

The question is: does Brexit upset that rule-of-thumb? Should the party be looking less at how we did in 2015 and more at which seats have the highest Remain vote-shares instead? In which case, suburban seats like St Albans (Tory majority 15,316) or urban seats like Vauxhall (Labour majority 12,708; 22,466 over the Lib Dems) come into genuine contention.

After all, in 2005 the Lib Dems scored some spectacular swings against Labour in seats where the Iraq war was especially unpopular (such as in my own then home of Oxford East) while our so-called decapitation strategy against top Tories with slim majorities — including one Theresa May in Maidenhead — proved an almost complete failure. (The sole exception was Tim Farron in Westmoreland.)

The truth is we just don’t know. Which is a little worrying because, before we all get too carried away by the Lib Dem resurgence, the spectre of 2010’s Cleggmania haunts us.

For a couple of weeks which now seem fantastically long ago the Lib Dems plauibly looked like they might top the poll and certainly beat Labour. Party activists got distracted, suddenly believing their patch might triumph, and our target seats suffered as a result. Though the Lib Dem vote went up our total number of MPs went down. Which is what happens when third parties take their eye off the ball in a first past the post system. There’s a risk history will repeat itself.

**

There are few upsides to the likely Tory landslide, but one might just be the axing of bonkers policies from their 2015 manifesto. Notably, the promise to protect the ‘triple lock’ — which guarantees decent increases in the state pension for all pensioners regardless of their income even as the working poor are hit by further benefits cuts — and the economically illiterate guarantee the party wouldn’t raise income tax, national insurance or VAT in the next parliament. The former was required last time to fend off Ukip’s appeal to older voters, but it’s no longer a threat. And the latter was made on the assumption that if the Tories ended up in power it would be in coalition, and they could drop it and blame the Lib Dems. With victory this time all but guaranteed, the Tories can afford the luxury of a bit more honesty. On that score, at any rate, good.

**

Can the Tory threat of a ‘coalition of chaos’ work? In 2015, fear of another hung parliament and Ed Miliband cutting a deal with the SNP was one of the key reasons Lib Dem / Conservative waverers ended up plumping for Cameron and handing him his surprise win. The Tories clearly want to try and repeat the trick, suggesting an alliance of Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems could thwart Brexit.

Conventional wisdom seems to be this won’t work in 2017, with polls pointing to a handsome Tory win. But I wonder. The Tories don’t need to convince the country as a whole that such an outcome is remotely plausible; they need persuade only the few thousand voters in those seats which might change hands, especially the Tory / Lib Dem marginals. Their friends in the right-wing media can always be called upon to help — as tonight’s risible effort from the Mail on Sunday shows: ‘Tory lead cut in half’ even as the Tories hit 50% in the polls — so don’t be so sure history can’t repeat itself.

You can imagine the direct mail: “You live in one of the 18 seats which could decide this election. Don’t take the risk of letting in Corbyn and seeing Brexit defeated: vote Conservative.” No wonder Tim Farron has moved quickly to promise the Lib Dems won’t go into coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives. Given the party wouldn’t vote for it this time anyway, best to make virtue of necessity and hope the message reaches the same voters absorbing the Tories’ campaign literature.

Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

by Stephen Tall on April 21, 2017

kate atkBehind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

This is the thirteenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list.

I absolutely loved her later historical books Life After Life and its sort-of-sequel A God in Ruins, so I was curious to read her debut, breakthrough novel, which beat Salman Rushdie and Roy Jenkins to the 1996 Whitbread prize — a literary shock which provoked much sexist comment, as Hilary Mantel noted in her LRB review.

It’s not quite as good as those, but then that’s a very, very high bar. Behind the Scenes tells the first-person story of Ruby Lennox, from the moment of her birth (“I exist!”) in a exhuberantly jaunty and omniscient tone, revealing much of what’s going to happen, such as her sister Gillian’s death, while simultaneously suppressing some major surprises.

But this book is about more than just Ruby, with capsuled footnotes gradually unveiling five generations of Ruby’s family history. These vignettes are gorgeous stories in their own right, though not as compelling as Ruby’s own, so they do disrupt the narrative a little. However, they accrete to form a complete account of the Lennoxes, a melancholy family saga of guilty secrets (especially disappearing/abandoned children) and guiltier love.

Election notebook #2: The article on the Lib Dems’ EU strategy I didn’t write. Until now

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2017

A couple of weeks’ back, Mark Pack asked me if I’d write a piece for the next issue of his Lib Dem Newswire (required reading, btw). “Perhaps something on ‘what the Lib Dems are currently getting wrong’?” he suggested, knowing I have my reservations about the party’s ultra-Remain stance. I demurred a bit, I’ll explain why below, and in any case it’s been rather taken over by this week’s events. So here’s more or less what I would (probably) have written…

I don’t think Tim Farron has put a foot wrong as Lib Dem leader since at least 23 June, despite the repeated sneers of SW1-fixated journos who think gravitas = smooth, middle-class Oxbridge clone. (For what it’s worth, I positively drip gravitas.)

His instinctual response to Brexit — that passionate, rejectionist speech delivered the morning after at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn was demanding the Prime Minister immediately trigger Article 50 — has rescued the Lib Dems from seeming oblivion, given the party new-found purpose. And, by the by, delivered thousands of new members inspired by his leadership. Meanwhile, his one-time rival for the job, Norman Lamb, abstained on the A50 vote; an understandable decision for an MP representing a 59% Leave constituency, but imagine how disastrous it would have been for the party if he’d done that as leader.

Tim Farron’s decision wasn’t just emotionally intelligent. It is also the right choice politically and tactically. Politically because it is absolutely right that the 48% who voted Remain (or whatever substantial minority they now are) are represented in parliament. The risible mess that is Corbyn’s Labour party can’t do it, so it’s a good job the Lib Dems are there, punching well above the weight of their nine MPs. Especially as Theresa May appears determined to fight this election refusing to provide any detail about what she considers a good Brexit deal to be. And tactically because it has given the party a USP, a reason for being, at a time when it risked drifting into decades’ worth of happy irrelevance urging fanciful radicalism and constitutional utopianism.

So, to Mark Pack’s point, I don’t actually think the Lib Dems have got the strategy wrong currently. I think they’ve got it bang on. And yet…

And yet, I also can’t but help asking myself two hypothetical questions:

1) What if we were in government right now, dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum?

What would the party being doing differently? I suppose we’d be aiming for some form of EEA+ outcome, a Swiss/Norway kinda deal which retains our membership of the single market while allowing some form of immigration controls. Well, it’s possible — though I’m not sure it’ll help answer the electorate’s concerns about loss of sovereignty or high immigration, however mis-judged they are. And it’s what I assumed Theresa May would go for when she became PM. But, as I wrote here, I don’t find her decision to opt for a hard Brexit that surprising:

Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result. But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge. It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark.

2) What if we are in government later? What will our policy be then?

I guess there will always be a market for ultra-Remain voters wanting to turn back the clock to 22 June. But the Lib Dems can’t be a mainstream political force by appealing only to A.C. Grayling. At some point, assuming Brexit does actually happen, we will have to accept it however much it pains us. And given the UK’s only way back into the EU will (probably) be accepting full membership, without the opt-outs and rebates and concessions our neighbours have conceded to keep us inside the tent, do we honestly think re-joining the EU is either a realistic or desirable goal?

It is conceivable our exit terms will be so appalling, and the damage they wreak so economically disastrous, that the country rises up to reject the deal (or no deal) Theresa May comes back with. However, while I think Brexit will be damaging (indeed, is already) I suspect it won’t be so bad that enough voters are going to be willing to admit they were sold a pup. Especially once the right-wing media points the finger of blame at those dastardly foreigners for refusing to give us all the perks of membership even after we’ve cancelled our subscription and set fire to the clubhouse.

So my discomfort with the current Lib Dem strategy is that it’s fully focused on disputing the referendum outcome, not on dealing with where we are now. However, I also accept that’s probably the most profitable electoral strategy, at least for the moment.

And as I remarked to Mark, that’s probably far too much of a hand-wringing conclusion to make a good article.

Election notebook #1: TV debates, Farron’s liberalism, Labour woes, Ukip who?, Naked run 2.0

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2017

TV debates… I guess it was inevitable Theresa May would try and un-invent them. After all, what’s in it for her? There’s no reward, only risk. Tim Farron would relish the spotlight, and as the Lib Dems are the only actual threat to Tory seats it’s only rational for her to avoid sharing the stage. Heck, even Jeremy Corbyn might out-shine her; he’s a lot more experience of hustings than she has. The truth is that while Theresa May is a serious politician with plenty of strengths, she’s actually not very good unscripted. Even semi-scripted occasions (aka PMQs) she struggles with. She looks and sounds nervy, uncertain, unconvincing. By contrast her one-on-one interviews are blandly innocuous, and her set-piece speeches usually pretty good. So she’ll stick to her trite-and-tested ways.

I’m not so sorry. It’s a shame for Mr Farron — he’d be darned good — but the TV debates are tedious, unenlightening theatre. Sure, they draw in millions of viewers, and maybe, perhaps, some of those might even be tempted to vote as a result. However, I won’t miss the media’s self-obsessed build-ups and post-match commentary. And, in particular, I’ll be glad to say good-bye to the “who was the winner?” insta-polls which dominates the coverage to the exclusion of any serious analysis of what was actually said.

Tim Farron… I didn’t see his Channel 4 News interview which got Twitter all in a lather last night, but the clips I saw suggest it was nothing new. Mr Farron was asked “Do you think gay sex is a sin?” and he replied he was a strong supporter of equal rights but wasn’t going to get into theological discussions. From which folk who should (and probably do) know better decided to infer he is an illiberal homophobe. This in spite of his voting record — strongly for same-sex marriage — and his many public statements pushing for LGBT+ rights. Anyway, I’m not going to rake over it all again, especially as Jennie Rigg has already said it here, rather brilliantly.

The reaction was interesting. Folk who I guess would call themselves liberals lambasted Tim Farron not for the way he’d voted when the issue was before parliament, but for not necessarily holding the same set of beliefs as they do. (Ironically I’m sure they also would have been among the first to take umbrage at the Daily Mail’s OTT front page – Crush the Saboteurs – with its proto-fascist demand that parliament should fall in line behind Theresa May on Brexit.) Tim Stanley, a leader writer for the Telegraph with whom I don’t ordinarily agree, put it best: ‘There’s Liberalism as a philosophy & liberalism as cultural identity. Farron eloquently represents the first; his critics embody the latter.’ Quite. In fact, I’d argue that voting against your personal beliefs in order to give others the right to live their lives as they choose (rather than as you would choose) is about the biggest statement of liberalism you can make.

The Labour train wreck… It’s pitiful, really, what’s happened to this party. In 2015, I assumed Labour members would see sense and elect Yvette Cooper, the candidate her opponents least wanted (and her spiky performance at PMQs today showed why). Instead, they indulged themselves, and in doing so helped hand victory to the Brexiteers and the next 15 years in government to the Tories. Now they face a snap election and reality is, belatedly, dawning. I don’t feel sorry for the Corbynites, whether soft or hard left: they voted for this crushing inevitability. I do feel sorry for (what’s left of) the moderate, sane progressives, caught between wanting the defeat to be just bad enough Jeremy Corbyn has no choice but to go, but not so bad the next leader (Yvette Cooper?) is doomed from the start.

Whatever happened to Ukip…? It’s early says, I realise, but at the moment they’re the mad dogs not barking. Unless you count Arron Banks, who is.

Good news… It’s good to see Nick Boles given the cancer all-clear and able to stand again for parliament. And a last (?) hurrah for Ken Clarke, too. Great that Jo Swinson is standing again in what is the Lib Dems’ top target seat in Scotland. And, while I did everything I could for a decade to unseat him in Oxford East — and despite his pivotal role in getting Mr Corbyn on the Labour leadership ballot paper — my best wishes to Andrew Smith for his retirement. After very narrowly holding on in 2005, he turned the constituency into a Labour fortress with the highest canvassing rate in the country. Which, I hope he appreciates the irony, is one of the best illustrations of the transformative power of market competitiveness.

And finally… Sorry, but I couldn’t resist:

Election 2017: actually, this is good for all parties

by Stephen Tall on April 18, 2017

Well, who saw that coming? Not me. But Theresa May’s decision to call a ‘snap’ election actually suits all parties pretty well.

First, the Tories will win, and will win big. Two recent polls suggest leads over Labour topping 20%, and that’s before Lynton Crosby gets to work on Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and record. Assuming the Tories win back a chunk of Ukip support, dozens of Labour seats will tumble even if there’s no Labour-to-Tory swing. And there will be a Labour-to-Tory swing. The only real question is whether the Tory majority can be restricted to double-figures.

But there is an upside for Labour: a crushing defeat will at least trigger the ending of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Who knows who’ll follow him (Yvette Cooper, Clive Lewis, Keir Starmer?), but they won’t – just can’t – be any worse. Labour will recover and have in place, at last, a leader capable of holding Theresa May to account. Which isn’t anywhere near as difficult as Mr Corbyn has made it appear.

For the Lib Dems, the timing is pretty much ideal. Anger among Remainers, still very real among a very significant minority of the electorate, has had no electoral outlet. And Tim Farron’s the only leader with a clear position, to reverse Article 50. The Lib Dems can (and will) benefit from Brexit backlash. The party can also hope to get a boost from this May’s local elections. And then there’s the still-to-be-seen impact of the as yet largely unknown-to-the-public Mr Farron in the TV debates (if, big if, they happen).

And of course the SNP can hope/expect to keep most of their MPs, while being able to frighten Scots voters into turning to independence in order to escape Tory rule for the foreseeable.

So, all parties are winners, Mrs May most of all, yes?

Well, maybe. She will have a bigger majority, an election victory in her own right. And that may be the only metric for measuring success. But elections have a funny habit of throwing up tricky unforseens – David Cameron’s catastrophic downfall was the result of his winning outright in 2015 – which is why most leaders avoid them unless forced.

How smart will Mrs May’s decision appear in 2019 if… there’s still no good deal with the EU in sight and British manufacturers and consumers are facing up to the no-longer-hypothetical-but-real economic impact of Brexit… if Labour is once again breathing down the Tories’ necks, led by a sensible, plausible PM-in-waiting… if the Lib Dems have regained a parliamentary toe-hold in former Tory seats… if Scotland has voted for independence and she’s the Prime Minister who ‘loses the union’?

A large part of Theresa May’s popularity has been built on being boringly safe. Voters, tired of the raging arguments unleashed by the referendum, have felt reassured by her stolidity. Today, she’s done something exciting, unpredictable, risky. Let’s see how that lands.

A new Centre Party? Here’s my take…

by Stephen Tall on March 31, 2017

ns oppostnThe New Statesman’s striking cover story this week — “Wanted! An Opposition” — is well worth a read.

In one article, George Eaton reports the musings (they don’t seem to be much stronger than that) that a new centrist party might emerge, uniting Labour and Conservative moderates left homeless by their parties’ lurches to the left and right. Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry’s quote is the most enthusiastic:

“If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

Better get on with it. Hmm. But that doesn’t look likely, does it?

Which prompted me to tweet a THREAD on the train home from work late last night:

Article 50 and the Great Brexit Opportunity Cost

by Stephen Tall on March 29, 2017

Brexit could be okay. It might happen.

Maybe it will be possible for the UK to negotiate constructively with the other EU states an exit which respects the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, maintains good trading relationships, doesn’t jeopardise Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, and ensures continued cooperation to defeat security threats within and beyond our continent’s borders.

There is no rational reason why either our Prime Minister or the other 27 heads of government in the EU should want anything other than that to happen. Of course, the opportunity costs of this process are immense. The UK has committed itself to the biggest ever political and legal process any peace-time government has undertaken in order to try and retain what we already have.

David Davis has promised the Government will deliver the “exact same benefits” as we have now. It is almost impossible to see how it can make good on that pledge. The Prime Minister has notably avoided offering such a hostage to fortune.

We will, as a nation and as individuals, end up worse off as a result of Brexit. How much poorer is open to debate. Hopefully the economy will keep growing, albeit most likely at a slower pace than it would have otherwise done, and therefore the financial sacrifice will be invisible. A sacrifice, we shouldn’t forget, that has been imposed on those who work (who voted Remain) by those who don’t (who voted Leave).

For all that the British economy has proved itself more resilient than expected since 24 June — propped up by the Bank of England’s swift actions — the bounce from a Remain win, and the avoidance of sterling’s collapse, would have meant the UK today would have been better off than in fact we are. That’s another opportunity cost.

But the biggest opportunity cost is that Brexit will dominate our political lives for the next five years (at least) when there are much bigger issues to worry about. “Terrible infrastucture, v low productivity, political instability, low wages, economic polarisation. UK goes into Brexit in really bad way,” as the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe gloomily but accurately remarked.

Instead of focusing on fixing the problems we have — and which are the actual root causes of the reasons for Brexit, such as the skills shortage in our workforce and under-pressure public services, especially health-care — we’ve chosen as a nation to create a whole heap of new ones. Brexit will push out all else.

Nothing is inevitable. Brexit may defy expectations. The UK could emerge from the Article 50 process in two years’ time domestically intact and ready to try and work out its post-EU role in the world. I hope so, genuinely.

But even if that happens, don’t believe for a moment it has been a cost-free exercise. Those opportunity costs are already being racked up.



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