Brexit II

old_west_duel_by_mackdoodle99-d6hyvtsThere’s a moment common to many great westerns. Two gunslingers are facing off against one another. They stand at twenty paces. The moment comes, they reach for their six-shooters and bang! There’s a moment’s pause. Then, slowly, one of the two topples to the ground.

We’re in the pause. The resignations are in; the Westminster village is fluttering like startled wildlife; and in a moment we’ll see whether Theresa May slumps slowly to her eternal reward.

Whatever happens, peace in the Tory party is over. Theresa May’s government was based on the idea that she could bridge the full range of views in the Tory party to deliver a Brexit deal – by implication one that could simultaneously appeal to the hard Brexit wing of her party, the soft Brexit/remain wing and the wider public.  This has looked increasingly unlikely for some time, but somehow it never came to the crunch. Now, with Davis going, we have crunch-off.

Put up or shut up

The first question is ‘do we have a leadership challenge’? My assumption was, after this, there had to be. (That said, the early signs coming out of the big MP meetings of this evening is that there isn’t the appetite. If so, skip to the end, which is even more likely to be accurate).

The Brexiteers can’t win a leadership contest. They can start one – that takes 48 letters of no confidence, and that’s within their compass. But to win it they’ll need 155, which they have nothing like. The Chequers deal has made sure that all of the soft-Brexit/Remain Tories have lined up behind the PM, and they are a strong majority in the party.

What the hard Brexiteers can do is weaken the PM to such an extent that she is visibly no longer a strong enough leader, at which point she would be in some sense honour-bound to go.

You and whose army?

That sounds like a favourable position for the PM – of the three likely situations, the only situation in which she has to depart is one, to an extent, of her own choosing.

The next step comes the day after the leadership contest is over. Let’s say you’re a hard-Brexit Tory. You’ve held the leadership contest and lost. Most of your members have resigned from government. How are you going to get your voice heard? You have at least 47 friends, some of whom will be of the opinion that Brexit trumps all other considerations of loyalty. The government has a practical majority of 13. This is not a difficult government to hold to ransom.

Oh god, not another one

But then go to the next level. If the government loses its working majority, things get really complicated.

  • It could mean a general election – the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires it now.
  • It could open up a parliamentary realignment – the main part of the Tory party together with some of the natural advocates for a softer Brexit.

These all work against the hard Brexit rebels. The Tories will be slaughtered in any election into which they go divided between rival factions, thereby making Corbyn PM. A parliamentary deal is only going to make Brexit softer – indeed the easiest way for May to get a majority across Parliament is to promise a public vote on the final deal. That would be catastrophic for the Brexiteers. Several of these permutations destroy the Tory party for a generation as well – and relatively few Tory MPs, however Brexit-mad, are willing to actually drive the bus off the cliff.

What’s the point?

So, as the gunsmoke clears, I think it’s likely the PM is unscathed. She drives out her critics, but puts them in a position where they have to show grudging loyalty or risk unleashing the red tide of Corbynism.

So why are the Brexiteers doing it? They can’t win the leadership contest, and can only fight a guerrilla war if they want to drive the PM into the hands of their enemies. It seems futile.

There is one thing they very definitely do achieve by resigning. They distance themselves from the eventual Brexit deal. Previously, Davis and Johnson would be unable to complain about the final deal: they’d set it. Now, they and their allies can call it a fudge. ‘Yes, it’s awful, but it’s not our We resigned to stop it from happening.’

The latter point is the one that really makes my heart sink because it fits perfectly with what Boris and Davis have said today. This isn’t about shaping the Brexit deal. It’s about explaining why the Brexit deal isn’t enough. It’s already clear that the hard Brexiteers have lost. So now, they lay down the lines to show that we need a second Brexit! A real Brexit! One where we regain our sovereignty, where we have the courage of lions, and where we travel to work on unicorns!

Better still, you don’t need to hold a leadership contest for this. You just need to flounce, and be seen to be flouncing. This way, whatever goes wrong afterwards clearly wasn’t your fault.

You also get the advantage, having surrendered any hope of shaping Brexit, that you can focus on shaping what people are going to think after Brexit. The whole stab-in-the-back myth can be up and running while more decent politicians are trying to help the country get through the process

Friday was the end of a kind of Brexit. But my depressing conclusion is that today shows people are getting ready for Brexit II.

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What if Harry Kane had played? (a 2 a.m. ramble, with very little football content)

Years ago, I read a piece of what-iffery by someone who is now a respected psephologist. It all started from the most modest premise: in the 1970 World Cup quarter finals, England’s goalkeeper Gordon Banks couldn’t play because of a terrible stomach bug. After his substitute played poorly, England lost the match and was knocked out. Not a big event in itself, but it happened three days before a general election, and that election turned out to be a surprise win for the opposition. The suggestion of the writer was that a well-timed World Cup victory might have been just enough to put history down a very different path.

Banks KaneFast forward to 2018, and the parallel is striking. This time, we have the nation euphoric about having finally, finally won a penalty shootout, and a time in politics when the future is very, very uncertain. I can see someone else speculating in thirty years, what might have happened had Kane been sent on during England-Belgium, if he’d managed to win the match. England end up elsewhere in the draw, and find themselves knocked out in a surprise loss to Japan. Rather than ending the week with an optimistic sense that the best can always happen, we could have finished with a redoubled sense that England’s glories ended before we were born. And that difference could honestly change the future of the UK.

Previously…

This seems to be the crunch week on Brexit. I’ve thought that before, and the government has kicked the can down the road – but now we’re out of road, and it really might be the moment at which the Tory party descends into civil war.

Politics for a long time has been on a knife edge; now people are pushing it down onto the blade.

On a surface, the news doesn’t seem that different from the past fifty weeks of Brexit discussions. The government is trying to figure out what it wants out of Brexit, and is putting forward some ideas that are not popular with some of their MPs. The hard Brexiteers under Jacob Rees-Mogg aren’t happy, but then they haven’t been happy with anything short of subsidised re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo and mandatory Rule Britannia for the under fives.

What’s special? Two things – time and trust.

On time, we haven’t got any. It’s been said for a long time that we don’t have enough time to prepare for a no-deal scenario. We may now have passed the point at which we have time to make any kind of deal at all. The ‘essay crisis’ model that the British side tends towards isn’t an option for the Brussels machine and its constitutional requirements for clearing a deal. Those in the know said we have until October, and the chances of sorting this out by then is now zero.

In a world where we have no long-term deal agreed, all of the beautiful options are reduced to two – do you crash out with absolutely no deal, or do you slip into the twilight of an endless transition period while you work out the tricky bits. In the past few weeks, the starkness of this choice has become apparent. And one side of the Tory party cannot accept one option; and another side cannot accept the other.

There’s also a sense that the PM has no one left who trusts her. It’s not surprising – trust in politics is about the exchange of political capital, and she hasn’t had any to spend since last year’s election. It was clear, after the reshuffle-that-wasn’t, that she hadn’t the authority to sack or move anyone, and the reason she was in office was primarily because no one wanted to go to the hassle of removing her. Such a situation isn’t compatible with negotiating the greatest rewriting of our system of government in a century.

You can go into exhaustive detail about who lost trust when, but the important thing is that no one has any left now. If you’re a remainer Tory, you feel betrayed by the shenanigans around the EU Withdrawal Bill; if you’re a hard Brexiteer you see so many compromises already made to the vision of a pure, free Britain capable of doing all the things that make you a fan of Brexit in the first place, and feel disinclined to make any more.

I don’t want to get caught up with who is right or wrong here, but it does look a little self-inflicted by the Brexiteers. Both of these problems would have been solved by a credible vision for how Brexit was going to work, rather than just why it’s important and how it’s going to be amazing. The fact that the Moggs and Davises of the world have never deigned to consider the nuts and bolts has meant that pretty much every practical decision that has been resolved has moved us back towards the status quo, and every decision where they’ve thrown a strop and prevented a decision being taken has seen us moved closer to the point where there’s no time to make a deal.

How it starts

These two factors are also leading to something miraculous and unheralded in British politics – Theresa May may be about to make a decision. It seems that her vision of Brexit may finally be laid out. Certainly there’s been a lot of chatter on the wires which would be consistent with preparing to do just that.

It’s a very soft Brexit indeed – softer than I had expected, and so soft I can see the tabloids talking about ‘Andrex Brexit’ once it’s fully explained. There is a transition period that runs on for a while, then another sort of transition period after that while we sort out all of the basic logistics that the public and business expect of a competent government. We stay in large parts of the single market, and potentially trade some of the more acceptable parts of free movement away (e.g. so people with jobs can move here, like they can in Norway).  The ECJ will have a role in policing the process.

It’s an excellent model of Brexit – for anyone who didn’t want Brexit in the first place. And who can stomach the fact that it’s worse than the status quo on every measurable point. But it’s outright offensive to anyone who believes Brexit is the path to the Promised Land.

So where do we go from here?

If this is all accurate, the PM is throwing down the gauntlet to the Brexiteers. This crosses enough of their red lines to force a showdown. The remainers were in this position a few weeks ago, and didn’t take the party over the edge; now it’s the Brexiteers’ turn to choose between backing down or starting a leadership contest.

If I had to guess, they will go with number 2. If the PM’s position is what it has shaped up to be, they have lost Brexit. While the remainers are the type of people who would always judge whether something was important enough to do something so drastic, the Brexiteers lack that level of nuance.  Also think they feel less shame about the idea of putting the party at risk, which was what seemed to stay the hand of many remainers. The backers of hard Brexit are the kind of people who like to remind you some ideas are worth dying for.

I think the PM has already taken this into her calculations. Enough people are pointing out that you need 48 MPs to trigger a leadership contest, but you need 158 to win such a contest. The Brexiteers can’t bring that kind of force to bear, if the remainers line up behind the PM. The best case scenario for her is that she wins the vote, and can then go on to implement her Brexit without further interruption.

However you then have two further questions:

  • Has the PM’s support become so low that, even having won the competition, she would have no authority? This is what happened to John Major in 1995, and Major looked far stronger than May. If that happens, we’ll just have more of the shenanigans of the past two weeks.
  • Do the truest Brexiteers march out of the Tory party altogether? Lose ten of them, and the government no longer has a majority in the Commons, and a general election is probably triggered.

The last one is potentially the scariest outcome for the middle-of-the-road Tories: a general election at short notice with Theresa May in charge could not end well (anyone who says the Tories are ahead 5 points in the polls should remember she had a 24 point lead before the last election). The one thing holding the Tory party together is the importance of keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power – which in turn makes me think that the legendary men in grey suits may try and stop a Brexiteer walkout by encouraging Mrs May to give way to a compromise leader. Right now, that would be either a Gove-Javid duumvirate or some complete non-entity with a pro-Brexit record (no, I have no idea who that would be either).

And the thing that shapes each point along this path is not political science; it’s animal spirits. It’ll be down to psychology and the weighing up of chances, and gut instincts about what risks to take and what risks to leave unrealised. And that’s why something as seemingly unrelated as the ability of Gareth Southgate to exorcise his personal demons from Euro 96, or a chance meeting in a corridor, or the calibre of wine served at a party the night before a crucial conversation, might truthfully shift us from one future to another.

Reinventing royalty

It shouldn’t be a surprise that yesterday’s event went well. Royal weddings don’t go wrong; not after all the effort required to make them happen. My thoughts go out to the Palace helper elves who must be enjoying a well-earned glass of Pimms this afternoon.

I’d not expected much from the hitching of another royal – particularly a royal that doesn’t seem to be particularly happy being a royal, doesn’t appear to behave quite the way a royal is supposed to, and may not even be a royal at all if you’re going to insist on answers to a couple of awkward questions. So I was surprised that yesterday’s ceremony set me thinking about one of the fundamentals of the British constitution.

No firing squads, we’re British

Periodically, you ask yourself what the monarchy is for. Especially if you are the actual monarch. George V (grandfather to the Queen) asked it of himself a lot. During his reign, Britain had major constitutional change, the first world war, the depression and primary responsibility for maintaining peace in a world that seemed to be rapidly unravelling.

George V has a subtle claim to being one of the most important monarchs in British history. When he grew up, the throne and court were still part of the historic round of European capitals. In the reign of queen Victoria, royal marriages were still important diplomatic currency, and the distance from Buckingham Palace to Schonbrunn or Tsarskoye Selo was significantly less than the distance to the Whitechapel Road.

George made a decisive break with that historic model. It was on his watch that the royal family changed their name from the heraldically accurate ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the decidedly more British ‘Windsor’. He also got rid of various unhelpful foreign titles, and ended the centuries-old practice of marrying the eligible young of the royal clan to foreign princes and princesses – it would be Brits only from here-on out. The monarchy became ‘national’, and more integrated into the nation’s civic life.

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George V surrounded by eight other kings. Five of them would be abolished by 1950.

As a result, while Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Spain all found that they could do quite well without a monarchy, the British monarch kept his throne. His son, and then his granddaughter, both stuck to his approach with discipline. Under two Georges and a Liz the monarch became an apolitical head of state who was meant to represent Britain. They were not allowed to have political beliefs – indeed, if pressed their role was to make sure that the will of the people was made law. They were there to open bridges and buildings; they were there to be on stamps; they were there to speak to the nation when someone had to do it. And it was not important whether they enjoyed the experience.

This is what we expect members of the royal family to be. And that’s what Prince William, flying his air ambulance, doing a turn with the Forces or appearing at worthy social projects, is trying hard to continue.

The dark sheep

But while some royals are sitting stiffly on their throne, there’s another type, passed out on the chaise longue. Older readers would remember Princess Margaret – the sister of the queen whose commitment to the British state was limited to supporting the booze and cigarette industries, and running a job-creation programme for the tabloid journalists. Or Edward VIII, who was able to reign less than twelve months before being overwhelmed by his weaknesses. When you hear of Prince Harry’s Las Vegas escapades, it feels very much in this other historic mould. Perhaps the unaccountability of royal eminence, even at one remove, is a licence to debauchery that few can resist.

But alongside this behaviour comes celebrity. George V’s father, Edward VII, showed this well. He spent sixty years waiting for the throne and is credited with 55 mistresses, including Winston Churchill’s mother. But he also had the ear of the public and the press. He was the first royal to formally open something, and stood in for an increasingly distant Victoria as she aged. He might not have been much of a constitutional success, but there was an effectiveness about his fame that I find myself looking at afresh today.

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The future Edward VII pressing the flesh

#Blackroyalwedding

Sober-suited civil servants like me are meant to praise the first model of rulership, and be wary of the second. Indeed, if you look across Europe, it only takes one of the second kind to put a monarchy in serious danger of elimination (and that’s a level of faff up there with Brexit – no thanks). But yesterday taught me something I hadn’t realised before.

 

The marketing fundamentals of this wedding were strong – the American audience has always been a key audience demographic for the royal family, and a photogenic American actress is well-placed to stand in for little girls of all ages who grew up wanting to become a princess.

But yesterday did more than just bank that. The idea that this wedding could be used for a non-toe-curling celebration of black culture and talent was something I wouldn’t have expected. But I’m immensely impressed. It’s well-timed: in a period where our leaders are uninspiring and narrow-minded, there’s a space for someone to speak to diverse, liberal values and be appreciated for doing so. Not only that, but it’s an ingenious message for the royal family to get across – the least diverse people on earth finding a chance to lead the world in celebrating diversity.

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The Royal Family, the Home Secretary and the Times… I think the racists may have lost.

I also think it’s brilliant politics – the people least sympathetic are the ones who would never abandon the monarchy on principle; the people to whom it can appeal most are natural sceptics who are currently desperate for validation. Tony Blair would have been proud.

If this works, is that the sign of something more?

#Monarchy

The power of royal celebrity has been shown before – Princess Diana being the most obvious example. But I hadn’t grasped that it is the dark sheep of the family who are also the best placed to use it. In order to be a pillar of the constitution, you need to be as much stone as human; the ones who are not fit that role might be the ones who can speak more directly to the zeitgeist.

And the model can be repeated. Landmines, refugees, climate change – there will always be a list of things the world wants to see worried about. Just as the monarchy once represented the nation, perhaps now it can represent the viewership. Handled well, and not overplayed, this could be a source of enduring legitimacy.

Harry could not be a good king. But he might be a damned sight better as a younger sibling than Margaret, or Anne or Andrew – certainly if he and his wife can repeat what they’ve done here. I don’t get the impression this vein can be swiftly exhausted, either. Virtuous celebrity might sit well next to constitutional dependability; and global media might appreciate a royal family that has ambitions beyond the Commonwealth. And it matters now, given that many of us are nervous for what will happen when Charles ascends the throne. A new, more relevant unit of the family could do a lot to keep the question about who should be king, rather than why on earth we have a king to start with.

I won’t be taking any bets about the future of this royal marriage, or whether any of what I sketch here will come to pass. But, for a royal wedding in which I had no interest, I find myself thoroughly intrigued. Ask me again after the honeymoon.

Of Civility

the_duel_by_jasinski-d2zvm28One of the most striking things about the British government is its aura of politeness. That may sound like an odd claim to make, especially if you are a fan of the Thick of It. You might suggest that the top echelons of government are filled by a bunch of sweary, terrified bullshit-artists who try to cover their own powerlessness with sheer aggression, and I might or might not disagree. Civil servants pass round tales of where the Blackberries get thrown.

It should, by all rights, descend into a snarling cage-fight, with PMQs like a version of WWF wrestling. Yet it doesn’t. Governments consistently maintain the public fiction that they are united, even as they bicker and snipe amongst themselves. Ministers might not be able to bear being in the same room as some of their colleagues, but in the photograph around the Cabinet table they all have the same smile.

It is the expression of a two-hundred year old tradition of collective responsibility, in which the cabinet agrees to show unswerving support for everything the government does, even if its individual members personally disagree. But I’m beginning to wonder if that tradition will make it to the end of the month.

Laws and sausages

The aura of polite, calm, joined up policy-making was always going to struggle to cover Brexit. Brexit was voted in on a single word – “leave” – but involves the detailed redesign of a large part of the British state. It involves the creation, largely from scratch of a new relationship with Europe.

This is hard enough on a technical level. Yet the real killer is the fact that it must be done with all of the compromises fully visible. Every single one of the EU’s neighbours has a relationship that has evolved over decades and has involved giving ground. Even the Swiss, a nation so isolationist that until 2014 every bridge and tunnel into the country was wired with explosives, are closer to the EU on some key points than we are as members. Similar compromises for the UK – over Ireland, over customs, over trade deals with the rest of the world – now have to be at once, in public and to a timetable not of our choosing.

It’s a process that seems designed to invite maximum dissent. The argument for Leave depends on striking our own trade deals – if you compromise that through a customs partnership then the whole exercise was futile. If you are a middle-of-the-road unionist Tory, there is nothing on earth that can reconcile you to the idea of a customs border in the Irish Sea. And if you are a sane member of humanity, anything that undoes the Good Friday Agreement feels stupid to the point of suicidal. Any of these points might have been suitable for a quiet compromise in the back end of some wonkish treaty, but none of them can be given away in a spotlight this bright.

Six Impossible Things Before Brexit

The parallel for me is from 1931 – the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald were faced with the depths of the depression, and a fiscal orthodoxy that demanded that spending be cut even if it meant more economic hardship. MacDonald, his chancellor and a narrow majority of his party agreed. The minority did not, and resigned. The aftermath was that the sitting Prime Minister and his Chancellor formed a new government with the Tories, their own party threw them out, and Labour combined crashed to fewer than 70 seats at the election that followed. As a result, fifty years later some Labour party members would still turn MacDonald’s portrait to face the wall for his ‘betrayal’.

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Campaigning in the 1931 election had some shortcomings

Without wanting to sound alarmist, our current situation looks a great deal worse. In 1931 it was only money. In 2018 it is money, trade, travel, civil order, international relations, animal welfare, the constitution, chlorinated chicken and Paul Dacre’s wish to have just one Stalinist purge of the British establishment before he dies. We are approaching irreducible points from which people cannot back down. To find a compromise we need a border that is not a border, our own rules that are also someone else’s rules, our own trade deals that do not upset our snug position in the EU’s market. Six impossible things before breakfast doesn’t begin to cover it.

A nation of gentlemen

I see two likely ways out of this. The first is outright government collapse, as one side decides that it cannot live with whichever option the PM signs up to. Whether we go for MaxFac or the Customs Partnership (or some other issue in a few weeks’ time), the losing side sends the requisite number of letters to the chair of the 1922 committee and we’re into a Tory leadership contest.

Except that will only be the start of things, because the winner in such Brexity circumstances is likely to be Boris or Rees-Mogg, and perhaps a quarter of the Tory party would quit before letting that happen.* Labour moderates would then be faced with a choice of Corbyn for PM (which would fall apart in weeks under the current parliamentary arithmetic), or a walk-out of their own. And after that, things get really complicated.

The other option, though, is politeness. That sense that has pervaded British politics for such a long time, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and irrepressible personalities. To bury one’s deep-seated concerns and accept that whatever the group decides will be for the best. I can imagine this more easily of the Remainers than the Leavers, since the latter have more intellectual commitment and/or stubbornness. Plus the Leave position encourages fundamentalism – without the ability to strike trade deals there simply isn’t a case for Leaving. The idea that these deals will outweigh the loss of trade from Europe might be fairy-dust, but it is fairy dust with a democratic mandate – and that might ultimately convince the Remainers to surrender the point in the name of good feeling.

If that happens, it will be a sort of a triumph for our way of government. In other countries there would be splits and protests and riots; in Britain there will be awkward shuffling and tricky interviews on the Today Programme. If you see this, you will see why it is that Britain has maintained continuous constitutional government longer than any other nation on earth. Where other nations start snarling, our upper lips remain stiff. Civility persists, even beyond where common sense would see it go.

But here’s the question – just how British can you be, when Brexit is coming?

* As an aside, Tories MPs are usually more than smart enough to think two moves ahead, and would be at least this far into the reasoning before sending in their letter. For that reason, if this comes to pass I strongly recommend betting on Michael Gove to win the contest – as the person who is sound on Brexit, able to articulate a vision for post-Brexit Britain and not at risk of certification if he finds himself in the company of two medical professionals.

The Stalling Thuds of May

vintage-deck-chair-partyWe’d been expecting a reshuffle for a while. Critics of the government were preparing to say that it as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But after yesterday, it seems that the government has lost the ability even to move the deckchairs.

I’ve been expecting the end of Theresa May’s government for some time, and have been wrong at each turn. It’s started to dawn on me that we’re not dealing with politics as usual. That’s not just on the great strategic party-political level, but on a much more human level.

The PM has been shown to be unable to move anyone. Not the disloyal; not the incapable; not the women and minorities that the Tories briefed that they wanted to put forward as the new face of government. The power to give or withdraw favour this is arguably the PM’s greatest asset, and clearly it has been lost.

Under normal circumstances, ambitious leadership contenders would close in for the kill, but since June we’ve learnt that no one has the stomach to wield the knife. The remain wing of the party fears handing control over to the leavers; and the leavers are worried about handing power over to the swivel-eyed lunatics. So instead nothing happens, and we have a government that increasingly lacks a prime minister.

What could you infer from a government without a proper PM. Well, from the perspective of those working in government, this is only going to be bad news. A chaotic situation, where ministers lack the fear of removal, is a recipe for months of rolling disaster. I can already think of some members of the cabinet who choose to carry out their negotiations with Treasury in public view, daring the chancellor to slap them down. There will be more of this, and from more corners.

But I find myself more intrigued by the implications for Brexit. This is not the reshuffle of a PM who can achieve anything remotely controversial – fox hunting, grammar schools, pensions reform, housing policy. The idea that she can deliver an unpopular Brexit, without a majority, and still fulfil all the promises that she made last year, seems like utter fantasy.

I hadn’t expected this reshuffle to resolve the unanswered questions here, but it goes to show that the elephant is still firmly in the room. And, increasingly, nobody in government looks big enough to take on an elephant…

Suicide by cough sweet

Never plan a blog post in advance. I’d been working my brain around the whole question of how to judge the odds of there being a Tory leadership contest over the next month. Now my only question is who is it who the final winner is going to be.

This may sound like hindsight, but I think I’d concluded the jig was up last night. It was Tim Montgomerie’s tweet below that did it:Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 17.41.53

 

 

He gets the glory of saying it a day before everyone else is forced to agree, following a crash-and-burn conference speech by Theresa May that put Ed Miliband to shame. You can say that it was the cough sweets; you can say it was the heckler with the P45 stunt; you can say it was the letters falling off the wall behind her mid-way through the speech – but the thing that really doomed Theresa May was the sense of flaccid apathy that appears to have dominated the whole Manchester conference. Her career was over by the time she left the stage; but it was already over before she came on.

I first came into the business of government mid-way during the last days of Blair and the doomed Brown ministry. There was a sense of tiredness that pervaded everything; of staying in government out of habit more than conviction. It’s remarkable how fast this government had sunk to the same level. The more ruthless Tories have sensed this, and unlike Labour under Brown, look set to take action on this.

Had it not been for the speech, this would have been subtle. Key people would have let the Tory conference knowing that something had to be done, and in a week or two the men in grey suits would have given the PM the message that the time had come to leave.

Now, however, the end will be public. Don’t expect the contest to start tomorrow – after something that bad, there will be a reluctance to be the one seen to wield the knife. May herself may have to step down, albeit with the chairman of the 1922 committee standing just out of camera shot.

Oddly enough, that shift may significantly change the nature of the contest. Previously, I would have thought that the prize was most likely to go to the person brave enough to set up the coup. That person (presumably Boris) would have a leadership campaign waiting and ready to go when the word came out. A coronation did not seem off the cards.

But with the vacancy at Number 10 so obviously posted, the political environment becomes very different. May isn’t fighting for her life – she’s bequeathing her support to an heir. Not only that, but the fact that her end was so abject and piteous actually reflects back badly on those who went to the trouble of sticking in the knife.

That’s bad for Boris. If the end of May is seen as having been about bad luck and betrayal, it taints everyone who worked to bring it about. Conversely, those who stuck through to the end look like good soldiers. Perhaps the moment in the speech that counts most was when Amber Rudd was caught on camera ordering Boris to stand up and support May with an ovation, so the PM could scarf another throat pastille and keep going for longer. Now the end has passed, those who stuck around till now are in a strong position.

When the contest does come, it’s Boris vs Stop Boris in the first instance; with the role of Stop Boris probably being played by Amber Rudd. I’d assume that Boris implodes for having brought about such a dreadful end to May and generally being a loose cannon, and the hard Brexit wing of the party passes its support over to another Brexiteer.

Whoever this would be would be my most likely winner of the contest overall, but it’s hard to figure out who picks up the crown. Maybe not David Davis given his poor performance as Brexit negotiator and association with the election disaster. Rees-Mogg can be guaranteed to win the votes of the membership, but is probably kept off the ballot by MPs because he is guaranteed to lose the next election.

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This interior is the closest some Tory party members would get to pornography

Gove might do it, but I see him as more of a kingmaker (Rudd’s best chance would come from getting him on her team). If I was a betting man, I’d be checking the odds for Priti Patel, should she put her name forward – she had a good conference and the least male, pale and stale candidate the Tories are going to find. That could work well just now, if you set aside the fact that she’s got all the diplomatic skills of the Spanish national police.

But this is all politics. The question we should be asking is who should the Tories be looking for right now? But then, would you expect a civil servant to answer that…?

Building the machine

When I was a boy, and first getting my head around the idea of government, I learnt that the Prime Minister was in charge of the country. If they said something, we would have to do it.

At the age of six-ish, this was all that was needed to temporarily knock dinosaur hunter off the top of my list of career ambitions. But having spent years on the fringes of government, I’ve learnt that the underlying assumption is deeply untrue. The PM really doesn’t decide everything. And, after the past 72 hours, it seems fairly clear that the PM will now decide nothing.

Practically-minded civil servants won’t spend long grieving this. This isn’t for political reasons – but one of the least reported characteristics of government is its way of taking decisions. In the case of Theresa May’s government, that approach would best be likened to trying to get your passport stamped at a Soviet bloc customs post. Despite you thinking everything is in order, you have to wait an age while a surly apparatchik finds fault with you, before grudgingly waving you through, or possibly having you hauled off as a saboteur. This was not intended to win Whitehall’s respect, and didn’t.

Conversely, one of the unsung pleasures of the Coalition was the decision-making body known as the Quad – the two top Tories and two top Lib Dems – who were able to make decisions swiftly, effectively and on behalf of the whole of government.

Now, after the coup that dare not speak its name, we will have a new way of doing business – something that is judged to represent a consensus of the shadowy group that now runs the government. Whether it works any better will be anyone’s guess, but it will mean that Whitehall’s day-to-day operating model has to change once again.

The timebomb

With that done, government’s next question is what the hell to do about Brexit. If anything could have convinced six-year-old me that I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, the next 24 months would have been it.

Over the past day and a half, it has become clear just how badly government is caught by the Brexit trap.

  • Tory moderates have made a sustained pitch over the weekend that they want a soft Brexit (i.e. retaining access to the single market, and by implication having some kind of free movement of labour). You don’t know how many people this is, but even if you only count the Tories saying this on national television, it’s more than the government’s wafer-thin majority.
  • But if the government were to flip over to a soft Brexit plan, it would only make things worse. The Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party (aka ‘the bastards’ of John Major’s day) will be equally angry, and would launch a rebellion of their own. That would just as easily leave the government without enough votes to do what they want.

So whatever they choose, the government is outvoted, and probably collapses.

I don’t see how you solve the parliamentary arithmetic on this – it can’t add up either way. Nor is it something the DUP can solve – you need a good 30+ extra votes to stand any chance of winning the battle, whichever side you pick.

People outside of the Tory party have been suggesting that the way forward is to have a cross-party group on the shape of Brexit – a frighteningly grown-up idea that therefore has no place in our constitution whatsoever. But for my money, I can’t see another way of fixing this problem that doesn’t tear the Tory party in two or forces them to a second election – which is exactly what the party grandees are trying to avoid.

We can look forward to the Queen’s Speech with interest. If the government is really lucky, someone will have an answer by then.

At the beginning…

That was a shock. So much for my powers of prediction.

Oddly, this feels like a moment of renewal. In this election, Labour have run with a positive platform based on the idea of doing things differently – and that has resonated with the public. Setting aside the questions of how to do it and how to pay for it, it moves the debate beyond the sterile and bland exchange of soundbites. People have found something that they want, and have used the election to push the government towards it.

That said, this is a totally unworkable parliament. How government can deliver the biggest policy challenge in fifty years without a majority is entirely beyond me. Back to the office, to go make things work.

At the end…

Will Theresa May’s gamble pay off?

As with the past two elections, the exit poll will be the big shock moment. Exit polls haven’t been bad in recent years – or to put it another way the ordinary polls have been so poor that the exit poll is a big step up in quality of information. If this says 50+ Tories, and you’ve got a big meeting tomorrow, you can afford to take the night off.

But if you do want to stay up for the whole thing, then watch out for the following:

  • The Tory win depends on winning a lot more votes in the north, and locking down the Midlands. You get your first sign of how well this will work when the first result comes in from Sunderland. I’ll be watching the total number of Tory votes here – if there’s a big rise (or equally, if there isn’t), this is the time to place any last-minute election bets.
  • In the West Mids, there is potential for a lot of permanent-Labour constituencies to elect their first Tories ever. Coventry hasn’t elected a Tory since at least 1964 – if the Tories are doing well, they’ll pick up two tonight.
  • Equally, if you want to see the limits of what the Tories can do, look to South Yorkshire. Seats like Don Valley, Rotherham and (in some of the wilder dreams) Ed Miliband’s Doncaster were looking vulnerable once. I doubt they will fall, but strong Labour holds here bode poorly for the blues.
  • A totemic win for the Tories would be Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s old constituency. With a Labour majority of just under 7,000, and 6,400 UKIP voters, this is within the bounds of possibility.

Will the revolution eat its children?

One of Labour’s problems in the 2010 election was that its top figures were getting ready for a succession contest rather than government. The same is true now. Both pro- and anti-Corbyn people will try to spin the results to blame the other side for what went wrong.

  • For Corbynistas, the key question is how high is the overall Labour share of the vote? Higher than Brown (29%)? Higher than Miliband (30.4%)? Higher than Blair in 2005 (35.2%)? The answer to this could well be ‘yes’ on all counts, given the collapse in third party voting. This is the most likely defence from the idea that the election has been a disaster.
  • The counterargument will be based on seats. A good share might not be reflected in the seat total – given that Labour votes are in the wrong seats. Under 200 would come across as a very bad result indeed, after a campaign that has gone very well. The number of ‘deep Labour’ seats that fall, having never voted Tory before, will be especially sensitive here.
  • And how well do Corbyn’s enemies do? People like John Woodcock in Barrow and Wes Streating in Ilford North are sitting on majorities that should make them dead men walking. If they survive, they will have a personal mandate devoid of Corbyn, which will be very important in the Westminster power game.

Where did all the Lib Dems go?

This has been a dire campaign from the Lib Dems, so any wins will feel sweet. But they may be scant.

  • The best chances of pick-ups will be in South West London. Based on my local soundings, I’m reasonably confident that they will hang on to Richmond and regain both Twickenham and Kingston. If you want to put money on this, Kingston feels the most certain on the strength of a very strong local campaign.
  • The next test is what happens in the university seats. Cambridge is a rare battleground between the Corbynite young and hard-core Remainers – and while it should have been a Lib Dem cert, it’s now competitive.
  • Then there may be some old Lib Dem seats that flip back outside of London. I’d watch Bath (probable gain) and Lewes (probably stays Tory). But the vast majority probably aren’t coming back.

Special Places

  • Scottish politics are weird. I have no idea how many seats the SNP will lose, so there’s potential for a few surprises. Whether the SNP loses seats (or how many it loses, and who the sitting MPs are) will be important to the moral case for a second indy ref.
  • Beneath the radar, Welsh Labour has allegedly had a very good campaign. That could mean some surprise Labour pick-ups. I’m watching both Newports.
  • London has been increasingly strange in recent elections. The reasons for this are even stronger in a Corbyn world. Croydon Central, Brentford and Ealing Central are all currently very close. Kensington could be a surprise Labour pick-up based on local politics. Equally, out to the east you could see heavy Leaving constituencies like Dagenham turning blue.

One last thing

Don’t bother with telly news. Everything you need to know will be on twitter a good 15 minutes earlier. The dog hours of the night, from 11:00 to 1:00, will be nothing but talking heads with nothing new to talk about; but out on Twitter you’ll be right in the thick of it.

Have fun.

The Home Straight

4-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8It’s now less than 100 hours until the polls open. It’s never too late to say that everything could change – that’s been brutally proven more than once this week. But now is the time to recap on what has happened with the campaign, and what it might mean for Thursday’s result:

When this election began, it looked like it was going to be six weeks of Tories shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out the fish know how to return fire. It is a campaign that the Tories have lost, and Labour by-and-large have won. Had Labour not been coming from so far behind, we might now be talking about Labour as the leading party; but given that six weeks ago we were talking about their potential extinction, they’ve come a hell of a long way.

Compared to our assumptions of a few weeks ago, what has changed?

This hasn’t been the Brexit election. Many of us thought it would be – to the benefit of Theresa May and the Lib Dems. But there has hardly been any serious debate about what Brexit should be like, or what we want our politicians to do about it. Can you describe Labour’s Brexit policy? I know I can’t. I think we’ve all agreed it’s too complicated, and we want to talk about something else – and the winners here have been Labour. (Though there is a silver lining for the Tories – the predicted collapse to the Lib Dems in the South West is no longer on the cards, which puts them up about 10-20 seats on where most people expected them to be).

The shine has come off of Theresa May, and in a big way. The social care climbdown has fatally weakened her with the public, and probably with her own party. We’d had hints of this beforehand (remember Hinkley Point?), but now it’s a permanent part of her reputation. All of that strong-and-stable rhetoric really was leaving a hostage to fortune, and the inability to follow-through makes her and her team look like a bunch of amateurs. Her leadership ratings have lost that new-car smell that they once had.

But Jeremy Corbyn has learnt how to behave. Some unsung hero in Corbyn’s office has got Labour working. The man has spoken clearly, been ready for interviews, stayed on-message and was even seen wearing a tie. Unlike his team, he has remained gaffe-free for six weeks. Never mind that this is the type of safety-first politics that Corbynistas despise – it works, and he’s got his hearing with the public. It may not win the election, but barring upsets it looks like he will have outperformed expectations and will therefore be able to resist ousting by the moderates.

But before you reach any conclusions…

…I can’t help noticing that these stories are all views from inside of the Westminster bubble. If we learnt one thing from the Brexit referendum, it was that votes aren’t decided in Westminster alone. When we didn’t listen to ordinary people on the (provincial) streets, we found ourselves with shock results.

When the campaign began, we were actually getting some good reportage coming from unvisited constituencies up and down the country. Since the omnishambles phase of the campaign got underway, all of that has fallen away, as journalists realised they could earn their pay-packets without leaving Zone 1.

One of the main themes coming through from that earlier reporting was just how unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was on doorsteps up and down the country. I got the impression that he had become the most divisive politician since Margaret Thatcher (and though she won three elections, Corbyn is starting from entirely the wrong base to do the same). There’s no evidence with which to test whether this is changing – but to judge by the reactions I get from my non-London friends, the tighter the result the stronger that distaste becomes.

Selling the pig

Tory election guru Lynton Crosby has a favourite saying – that you can’t fatten a pig on market day. In other words, the things that decide elections don’t happen in the campaign, but in the years that lead up to them.

A lot hinges on whether he’s right. If this election is about the past six weeks, the Tories are in for a deserved pasting. But if it’s about what came before, we could easily be shocked by the scale and scope of a Tory landslide.

Thinking mechanically, I think a lot will depend on the turnout in northern and Midlands seats. Do people who don’t like Corbyn actually vote against him, or just stay at home? You should be able to tell a lot by the first few seats to declare – if there’s a big rise in the total Tory vote, a landslide is on. If the Tory vote is stable, but turnout falls and the Labour vote declines, it means that the anti-Corbyn vote is sitting this out and the Tories are in for a much smaller boost than they hope.

Changing the map

The other factor in play is Labour’s hope of bringing in a generation of disengaged voters to help fix the system. A lot of the recent polling surge for Labour comes from young voters doing just this – saying they are sure to come out and vote, and pushing up Labour numbers.

You can afford to be a bit sceptical here. First off, there’s an old saying that it’s dangerous trying to win a campaign by appealing to non-voters, because they have a habit of not turning out to vote. Second, under a first-past-the-post system it matters a lot where your voters actually are. A lot of young university students can win you seats like Cambridge or Manchester Withington, but they’re sod-all use if you’re trying to hold on to Great Grimsby or Rochdale.

Throwing it all away

And the last thing we can’t account for is just how wrong the government will muck things up this week. One terrorist attack, though tragic on a human scale, allows a PM to appear statesmanlike and commanding. Three is a different story, especially when that PM is an ex-Home Secretary. I wonder how many people are privately asking just how good a job she’s actually doing of keeping us safe, and what that will mean in the voting booth.

So, with only a few hours to go, get in the popcorn, brew up the coffee, and prepare for government.