Theresa May Does

This morning, no work was done in Whitehall. From about 10:30 until 12:00, the day was given over to speculation, gossip and armchair psephology. Was she calling an election? What was the significance of the lectern not having the Downing Street crest? It was either that, or start tearing up our work-plans on a speculative basis.

Most people are sick of elections; not least the PM. You got the sense that she really had intended to avoid this. But ultimately, there comes a time when the open goal in front of you is impossible to ignore. Many’s the person who judged Gordon Brown on the basis that he could have gone to the country in 2007 and won, but didn’t – forever after he was Bottler Brown.

And life for Theresa May is not going to be easy. She may have no opposition, but with a majority of 14 she is at the mercy of every crank and crackpot in her own party. If the story turned against her (and it almost certainly would, given how tough Brexit will be), every assessment of her failure would end with the words ‘if only she’d called an early election…’.

This looks like an election no one can lose. But…

If you’re in the Tory Party, you’ve never had it so good. The poll leads here require Borisisms to capture their magnificence – whopping; ginormous; stonking – up to twenty percentage points according to some pollsters. It shouldn’t be possible to lose an election from a start like that – anything less than an absolute massacre would look like a failure.

But don’t get carried away. This may be a lot closer than it first appears. Let’s take a look at the seats with the smallest majorities in 2015.

majorities

It’s fair to say that Chris Matterson, Labour MP for City of Chester with a majority of 93, will be spending the campaign polishing his CV. Indeed, the Tories need to go a lot further than this list if they’re going to claim victory. But note a few quirks in this list:

  • A lot of these seats with small majorities are already Conservative. In 2015, the Tories were really good at targeting the marginal voters that matter. Winning a lot of seats means overturning a lot of majorities in the 1,000-3,500 range – definitely doable, but not simple.
  • A lot of these Labour seats are in areas that voted remain – especially London. London hasn’t followed the rules in the last few elections. Indeed, if someone wants to have a bet over whether Wes Streeting will retain Ilford North on a majority of 589, I’ll offer you good odds.
  • The blue seats aren’t all Labour-Tory marginals. Quite a few of them are Tory-Lib Dem seats, whose dramatic fall to the blues was the shock event of election night 2015. The impression is that this was a one-off, as the Tories played off the fear that a Labour-SNP coalition was in the offing unless people voted for David Cameron. This fear has probably passed by now – and detailed Tory polls apparently suggest the government could lose a lot of these seats.

My instinct says that the government starts the story down about 15-30 Lib Dem seats, and probably won’t win more than two or three seats in London no matter what. That means that they need to collect about 40-50 Labour seats in the north and midlands to come out noticeably ahead.

To put this in context, Copeland – the by-election win a few weeks ago that was seen as a huge victory for the government – was Labour’s 27th most marginal seat. To get up to 40-50 without a lot of London seats, the Tories need to win old mining towns; chunks of post-industrial cities like Stoke and Bolton and Barnsley. To me, that sounds quite hard.

It goes one of three ways…

Fortunately, we’ve been busy testing out the election mechanics that will dominate this general. In a laudable commitment to evidence-based political science, we have had three by-elections that have tested a lot of the factors that will determine the final outcome.

theresa-may-by-election-copeland-771819First, we have Copeland. The government is betting the house that this story can be repeated up and down the country. It was an area that had been Labour since 1935, but where no one could remember why. Labour fought a campaign on tested tactics – cuts and the NHS. The Tories made it all about Corbyn, and they won. Not only did they secure a big swing from Labour, but they also drew in a big share of the UKIP vote too. Do that everywhere and they’ll have their dream outcome.

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-electionThat’s the good news for them. The bad news is Richmond Park. Tories walk in with a majority of 23,000, and go home empty handed. This isn’t just London – this is deepest, darkest Remainia, where people happily fly EU flags outside of their houses. The Lib Dems are working to make sure it isn’t a one-off. It won’t win them a majority, but it can take a lot of seats off of the Tories (Lib-Dem-Labour marginals now being almost totally extinct).

corbynstoke-1400x788And then there’s Stoke Central. The ‘capital of Brexit’ where Labour fielded a deeply flawed candidate under an atrocious leader, and the UKIP leader still couldn’t pick up the seat. People look at this election and ask if Labour will collapse – but you could ask that question equally of UKIP. A strong UKIP would seal Labour’s defeat – instead, it looks like the party isn’t going to be able to eat into Labour’s old heartlands. That probably puts a floor on how far Labour can drop.

All of that is a lot more complexity than you usually see in a general election. So anyone who says they know the outcome is being very brave.

Stupid prediction time

What do I think? I think the government will do this. To be honest, if the government can’t pick up a seriously increased majority under this situation, when Labour is this badly broken, I think it would be a pretty awful indictment on the democratic system as a whole.

But ask me the question in betting terms, and I think the value is in predicting a hung parliament. Not because it’s likely, but because it’s more likely than you’d think. Labour can only get so battered; I don’t think it’s unbelievable that the Lib Dems could end up with 40-50 seats if luck is with them. And while my base assumption is that the UKIP vote from the last election can be convinced to back the Tories in current circumstances, I’ve never been confident of how much of the UKIP vote is ‘a plague on both your houses’ and therefore not really in play.

That’s what makes this exciting. I have no idea what will happen. Expect May to win – maybe with a majority of 20-50. More than that, she’s done well. Less than that, and she’ll look like Don Quixote on a battlebus. And all the obituaries will end ‘If only she hadn’t called an early election…’

Enter the dragon

demo_brexit

So it’s official. Parliament must vote on Article 50. Lord Neuberger, like some gold-ringed boxing promoter, has confirmed that we are about to enjoy the parliamentary rumble of the century.

The news shouldn’t surprise anyone; the interesting points of law had been decided at the High Court, and this judgment was largely a rubber stamping of sound reasoning. Nor does the judgment itself say anything other than that parliament must vote before article 50 can be triggered – hardly enough to set you on the edge of your seat.

But do not be fooled by this quiet proceduralism. In less than a fortnight, we could see the beginning of the end for Theresa May, the House of Lords and/or the Tory and Labour parties as we know them.

Or not. Probably not, at least in the short term. But we haven’t had a parliamentary vote this significant in three quarters of a century, and what’s at stake is a hell of a lot bigger than membership of the EU.

The game

Let’s start with the basics. What is happening next? Everyone is agreed that parliament will have to vote before Article 50 can be triggered. Government has said that it plans to get this power as soon as possible, probably by a very short bill introduced into parliament next week.

This bill will almost certainly pass the Commons – the question will be whether it gets amended before it does. The government wants a blank cheque in order to act however it chooses. But if the right to trigger is hemmed in with limits, caveats, requirements, reversions, checkpoints and so on then it will probably prove impossible to use.

Then, if it makes it through the Commons, it has to get through the Lords. The Lords don’t have to pass the bill at all; and they can also amend the bill themselves and send it back to the Commons. The Commons then votes on those amendments  and so on (a process known as ping-pong) until both houses are agreed. Or, quite possibly, not.

In order for Theresa May to meet her deadline of March, this process has to be completed in about 8 weeks. The parliamentary process can run that fast; but if you can’t get an underlying agreement then it can’t be forced to a conclusion until a year has elapsed.

So the three things you have to watch here are:

  • Supporters
  • Amendments
  • Time

Who’s with me?

You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:

  1. How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
  2. How many Tories risk dire vengeance by voting for the amendments?

Loosely speaking, if Labour tries some concerted opposition and convinces about 20 Tories to rebel, plus one extra for each rebel of their own, then the government will lose.

The numbers here are anyone’s guess. Most MPs backed remain, including all-but-ten Labour MPs. But the reality of the referendum result will not be lost on them; and nor will the pressure of their own leadership not to look at odds with public opinion. That goes double for the government side.

Many MPs will also realise their vote isn’t going to be forgotten. A whole generation of Labour politicians were judged by how they voted on Iraq; this will equally totemic. Do you want to be the one who defied the will of the British people and betrayed the 52%? Or do you feel that the PM’s lurch to a hard Brexit has broken the link with popular sovereignty altogether, and risks damning the country to economic collapse?

And then there’s revenge. There are definitely 20 Tory MPs who, to put it crudely, wouldn’t piss on Theresa May if she was on fire. They know that if she loses this vote then she is grievously wounded. This group is less reliable – they will pay a very heavy price for treachery – but equally this is the best chance they’ll have to get even. Watch what happens with some of George Osborne’s best friends, particularly if the process drags on.

U.K. Chancellor George Osborne Launches National Loan Guarantee Scheme
Remember me…?

The question looks different again in the Lords. Here, the government is a stonking 300 peers short of a majority, and even those peers that it does have are far more remain-inclined (and far less beholden to the PM) than MPs. The only thing that can ensure a clear passage here is fear of undermining the whole democratic process (something that hasn’t traditionally bothered our upper house), which brings peers into line.

I suspect that the level of support in both houses depends on what sort of question you are asking, which brings us onto…

What the hell are you doing?

The government wants to do this quick and fast, and with the minimum amount of debate possible. The plan goes something like this:

  • The PM set out a clear twelve point plan for Brexit. That’s all the plan you need, and asking for anything more is asking for things the UK can’t promise.
  • Democratic accountability demands that Parliament get out of the way of the referendum result.
  • Behind the scenes, the whips make clear that this is not an area where rebellion of any kind will be forgiven.
  • If the House of Lords gets in the way, let them know that the much-delayed abolition of the House could finally happen if they are so flagrantly out of line with the views of the people.

That would be an easy plan for a government with a 100+ majority; our government has a majority of 16.

Instinctively, I don’t think the ‘no negotiation’ strategy is likely to work. Parliament hasn’t had a big Brexit debate, and every bloody MP will want their thoughts to be on the record. That stands against discipline. There are also some points on which I think you can get an easy majority for amendment – guaranteeing continued rights for EU nationals living in the UK, for example. And once you’ve got one amendment, the floodgates are open.

Balanced against this though is that there doesn’t appear to be much of an alternative. No alternative leadership (despite the Lib Dems’ best efforts); no idea of what the likely amendments might be. Government has been pretty slick in terms of presenting a joined up and disciplined message on its plans. By contrast, the letter at the weekend that 46 Labour MPs sent to the PM read like a list of demands from a student debating society.

So it will all come down to a frantic battle for the support of individual members over the next week or so. For the moment, I think odds favour the government; but that could be reversed by one well-placed speech.

You want it when!?

The other thing worth noting is that the government is on a timetable; the amenders are not. If Theresa May can’t get a deal by March, she’s seen as having failed. This is the other weakness of the force-it-through approach, particularly given the delaying power of the Lords.

This would naturally push you towards finding a compromise. But government is taking an approach that makes compromise structurally almost impossible. It isn’t obvious how those two are resolved by anything short of total victory.

And if I don’t…?

No one is yet asking whether losing this vote means the government falls. Historically, it would have; though there’s not exactly a lot of precedent here.

I don’t think the wrong amendments would force the PM to step down – it’s not quite a direct enough repudiation (though outright losing the vote would be different). But the government does have in its back pocket the threat to turn the whole question into a confidence vote, and thereby potentially trigger a general election.

A general election would both solve the government’s majority problem, and also give it the right to overrule the Lords (the Lords traditionally does not impede any measure in a winning party’s election manifesto). It’s a clear platform on which to go to the country, and few Labour MPs will want an election with polls being where they are. Government is far better-placed to thrive in an election than its opponents.

But if you’ve got to the point of holding an election, the Tories already have rebellions in their own ranks. This turns a family quarrel into a shooting war, and almost certainly forces the rebels to find a new, permanent allegiance. If the election is only about one thing, it also risks uniting the opposition into a single team – which would be catastrophic for the longer term.

Anyone’s guess

There comes a point at which you have to give up prediction and get out the popcorn. The next few weeks might just see the start of the biggest political shake-up since the 1910s, or even the 1840s. And it could well depend, not on the great flows of impersonal social factors, but the tongues and minds of individual parliamentarians.

Maybe 2016 was just the warm-up act for a real year of revolution…

Old masters

You can’t get ahead of the news these days. No matter how fast you try and think ahead, events prove you a fool. Today’s Evening Standard set out the Tory leadership landscape in the morning. By the time they went to press, Andrea Leadsom had thrown in the towel, and by the time their papers were on the stands Theresa May was about an hour away from being declared leader of the Conservative Party. Why bother killing trees when the news changes this fast?

But presumably the newsmakers have to sleep, and eat, and do the occasional bit of ironing. And that gives a chance to try and get a few hours ahead of the news. With that in mind, some Cabinet predictions that May or May not play out.

U.K. Chancellor George Osborne Launches National Loan Guarantee Scheme
Were you expecting someone … different?

#1 Osborne for Foreign Secretary. Not long ago, Osborne was political dead meat. But, much like a comic-book supervillain, his demise may only be temporary.

I’ve long fancied George to be the kingmaker of a Tory leadership race, rather than a PM in waiting. His open endorsement was something to be actively avoided, given his popularity with one wing of the party; but George doesn’t need to be that obvious. I first got a hint something was up mid-way through the first week of the contest, when Patrick McLoughlin and Michael Fallon very visibly came out for May. McLouglin in particular has very strong links with Osborne, without the toxic image. I don’t think you get the kind of majorities that May was getting amongst MPs without having George there making it possible.

Everyone knows that he can’t stay on as chancellor, including him. So since referendum day he has been clocking up the air-miles, trying to prepare the ground for a new trade deal with every nation in the developed world. He couldn’t be more transparent in saying ‘pick me, pick me’ for this job, and I suspect he’s already got it on a promise.

#2 Chris Grayling for Home Secretary. I didn’t see this coming, but Chris Grayling has made himself into a valuable politician. Traditionally, he’s been one of the barnacles attached to the Cameron cabinet – not quite troublesome enough to be worth scraping off; not nearly useful enough to be worth bringing on.

chris-grayling_2733609bBut now, as May’s campaign manager, he has surprised me. A vital Leave endorsement, he now ticks the right boxes to be promoted to something big. Unless he takes on a Francis Maude / Oliver Letwin style role as a powerful internal functionary, I think he’s destined for one of the great offices of state. With foreign secretary taken care of, and without the necessary brain power for Chancellor, and with a reputation for hanging, flogging and shooting at Justice, he’ll be a good grassroots-pleasing choice.

This assumes that May doesn’t want to give Home Secretary of Leadsom as a way of genuinely ending her career. I think that feels gratuitous and unkind, given recent circumstances.

2738#3 Michael Gove for Exit Negotiator. May is weak on her Brexit credentials. She needs a big-hitter from Leave to make her commitment credible. Trouble is, there aren’t many big hitters from Leave left. Boris has self-destructed; Leadsom couldn’t last a weekend’s campaigning, let alone two years of brinksmanship; and almost every other brexiteer is too junior to count. That leaves Michael Gove as the only person left.

I may have this wrong. It could be that a relative unknown could be elevated to command. It would be better for Britain if we had someone with less baggage. It’s just possible a left-field choice like William Hague might be able to sneak in. But I think this is the one choice that can really jeopardise the relationship with the membership.

#4 A N Other for Chancellor. Normally, you start building a cabinet from the Chancellor. This time, this is the hardest one to guess. No one candidate stands out, and May isn’t sufficiently beholden to anyone to have to give it as a reward. You can’t keep Osborne; you can’t trust Gove; and Leadsom is reportedly held in contempt by Treasury officials from her time there as a junior minister. What are your options?

mystery-customer-person
This is Philip Hammond’s actual photo

The safe choice is Philip Hammond, our invisible Foreign Secretary. He has a forensic mind for numbers and detail, and also lacks the charisma to be any serious political threat. But he’s also seen as being heavily pro-Remain, which might be a weakness. If another female face was needed (which, admittedly, doesn’t feel like May’s style) then Justine Greening was the other person who nominated her for the leadership. I think Justine is a far more logical choice for Education or DWP, though. Sajid Javid might be a contender, though the asleep-before-it-started Crabb-Javid campaign leaves him looking a lot less credible than before.

The lack of obvious alternatives makes me call it for Hammond; but Hammond himself is so politically expendable that he could easily be a casualty of the next 48 hours.

Not making the top rank

  • Andrea Leadsom: If she’d held out for the campaign, she’d have been a cert for high office. As things stand, she’ll get a mid-ranking ministry – if she’s lucky BIS; if she’s less lucky, something like Justice. Anything more is May being charitable to avoid blowback for being elected unopposed.
  • Stephen Crabb: The man who threw a party and no one came. He’ll be saved by his working class roots, but won’t go up by much I suspect. See also Sajid Javid – both now confirmed as political second raters.
  • Robert Halfon: ‘Who?’ you might ask. I’ll come back to him shortly.
  • Nicky Morgan: Backed the wrong horse. Could have been Chancellor under Gove. Probably moved out of education
  • Jeremy Hunt: Heaven knows what he was blackmailing Cameron with, but he’s not doing it any more. And with the Junior Doctors’ contract imposed, his work is done.
  • Boris Johnson: A man without a future. Would be lucky to be junior minister for unmatched socks. Likely to be in the Lords before 2020.