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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

nintchdbpict000336661881-e1499371979950
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.

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.

Unforced Errors

gettyimages-681870004This election campaign isn’t short on changes. The last time I posted it seemed that nothing could stop the Tories from romping home to victory. Since then, team May has been proving that it is perfectly within their power to turn a landslide into subsidence.

Never mind that the policy was a good ‘un (or, more accurately, the least-worst ‘un) in that it takes wealth from the group who need it least (the dead) to relieve pressure on the overloaded working population. The fact is that if you’re planning to do something like this, you do not under any circumstances do it in the middle of an election campaign. You should not need to be told this.

I’ve been wondering for a while why the Tory campaign was failing to dominate the news cycle. After all, they did call this election and they’re meant to be pitching for a massive popular mandate. But so far the only party that has had a good national-level campaign has been Labour – and with a leader who is meant to be poison.

One hypothesis was that the Tories wanted to give air time to team Corbyn, because that’s the sort of advertising money can’t buy. But I’m coming round to the view that it’s got more to do with the fact that Team May is bloody useless at managing a media campaign.

I don’t actually think this story will have much of an effect on the end result of the campaign. The election is being decided outside of the Westminster bubble, and out there the main fact (at least among the C2DEs whose shift the Tory strategy depends on) is that Jeremy Corbyn is a pillock who should be allowed no closer to Number 10 than is required to take out the non-confidential bins.

But I do think this should concern people who watch government for the long term. Number 10 is run by a very small clique of people who Theresa May trusts. This mess-up has been placed at the door of Nick Timothy, the most influential member of May’s coterie. Such a public emballsage seriously weakens his power and standing. Plenty of people want to take him down, but if he disappears there’s an honest question whether anyone else can take his space inside May’s bunker. Once a team like that falls apart, the PM either has to change her way of working, or her colleagues will quickly hunt around for a better option.

They say the Tory party is an absolute monarchy punctuated by periods of regicide. Failure is not something that is long-tolerated in a Conservative leader. Right now, there’s no chance of anyone threatening the PM. But based on the past few days, one or two people will be remembering to oil their daggers.

The Workers’ Flag is deepest blue…

249px-blue_flag_waving-svgIf you’re a Tory, this has been a good 48 hours. It’s not going to be often that you look at the electoral results for Teesside and see ‘Conservative gain’ next to it. I imagine it kindles the same sort of feeling an old friend of mine would have got from seeing Surrey vote in the Socialist Workers.

Indeed it’s almost impossible to find a gloomy angle on yesterday from a Tory perspective:

  • The Tories have penetrated deep, deep into Labour heartlands. If they can win council seats in East Glasgow, there is literally nowhere that they’re not cutting through.
  • Good campaigning will not help their enemies. Sion Simon was a good candidate for West Mids mayor, but still he lost, in an area with a 2015 lead of about 9 points.
  • Contrary to my earlier expectations, the Lib Dem pull doesn’t outclass that of the Tories. They lost seats overall.
  • And most dramatically of all, UKIP lost every council seat it was defending, and picked up only one new one. That means their total haul was smaller than that of the Cornish independence party Mebyon Kernow. All the benefits of this run to the Tories.

Against that, it would be futile to pretend that the Tories aren’t heading for a three-figure landslide. It would also be silly to pretend Labour isn’t heading for a historically dreadful result – one of those yardsticks used by television pundits when they want a ‘worst since X’ comparison.

Labour’s near-death experience

Notwithstanding this, the results from the local elections make me cast my mind forward five years. If it’s obvious that Labour is about to lose badly now, what happens afterwards? Is the Labour party about to enter a death spiral, or not?

For me, I think not. It’s tempting to sketch out the final demise of a party which has fundamentally lose touch with the British public – but if you look at the results, this is not the case. Even in yesterday’s shock Tory wins, some of those results were very close. A 2% swing would have turned West Mids, Teesside and West of England into Labour victories – and I’m willing to bet the depressive power of Jeremy Corbyn is substantially larger than that.

If you want to imagine the end of the Labour party, it isn’t enough to say that the party loses votes – it has to lose its status as the real opposition. It can happen – it has been happening in Scotland since 2014 – but it’s not happening in England. The coming general election looks like being a very extreme example of a conventional election, and not one of those elections (like Canada in 2011, for example) where the rules of the game fundamentally altered.

If you assume that Labour comes to its senses after the election, it has a lot of ground to make up. But equally, it has a lot of voters who are primed to listen, and where Labour remains well-placed to win. It will take more than one electoral cycle to repair the damage of this, but unless there is an alternative opposition Labour’s decline has to bottom out at some point. I’d argue they can’t scrape much lower than this.

Tories should enjoy this moment. Right now, they are achieving results which match the faith of their footsoldiers, rather than any expert’s rulings of what is and is not ‘possible’. It would be unkind to begrudge them such a moment. But I wouldn’t expect it to become business as usual.

A secret message from the Prime Minister

4-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8At the weekend, I sat down with a cup of tea, and tried to figure out why I was wrong. After too many elections where I, like the rest of the herd, expected a wholly different outcome, it felt sensible to assess my likely mistakes before I actually made them.

Indeed, the polls are already giving me reason to doubt my earlier assessment of a 20-50 seat majority. I’ll take national polls with a 20-25% lead with a pinch of salt; but the poll suggesting the Tories are on track to win the most seats in Wales, and two suggesting the Tories could pick up as many as twelve seats in Scotland both made me realise I could be seriously underestimating how much change might be on the cards.

My post last Tuesday was based on a handful of assumptions:

  • The Tories are in a strong place, have momentum behind them and can be expected to pick up seats.
  • The Lib Dems have even more fire in their bellies, and had an unusually bad result last time. That gives them a double potential to gain seats, which is likely to be more powerful than what the Tories can muster (at least in the seats the Lib Dems choose to target).
  • Labour is doing very badly, and is unlikely to field a good campaign. They will be losing seats, not taking them.
  • But Labour also has a strong reserve of support that never seems to go away no matter how badly they do.
  • And all of these points apply better to England (excluding London) than they do to the rest of the UK.

Assumptions one to three look fairly sound. But I am left wondering about numbers four and five.

Listen for the dog whistle

It was while I was reflecting on this that I listened again to the PM’s election announcement. There was one section which everyone picked up on in the media coverage:

“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standsill. The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, the Tories have retained the services of the legendary Lynton Crosby – a man famed for making dog-whistle appeals to voters’ basic instincts. I would expect this message to have been well-crafted. And the message that’s coming through is that the Tories are being opposed by everyone – Labour, Liberals, Lords – in their desire to deliver the Brexit that people have agreed on. Or to put it simply, the PM and the Tories are actually the opposition, arrayed against a set of old establishment cronies.

If that’s intentional, it’s interesting, because it links up with one of the subtler trends in the last election.

Where Tories fear to tread

There’s an established narrative that there are some seats that no opposition party will take. Labour is not about to win Saffron Walden (57.2% Con); the Tories won’t take Knowsley (78% Lab) unless something truly strange occurs. There are seats that haven’t changed hands since Labour first won them off the Liberals nearly a century ago.

If you look at those Labour certainties, though, you find a quirk. Though the Labour share of the vote didn’t change much in 2015, there was a dramatic change in what happened with two other parties – Lib Dem and UKIP.

LDUKIP

I’ve picked out a random selection – the same trend was repeated over and over. Up to 2010, the Lib Dems were the alternative to Labour across the North. The coalition years blew that apart, especially in the north where cuts hit hardest. In 2015, there was a remarkable similarity between what the Lib Dems used to get in vote share, and what UKIP picked up.

You shouldn’t run to the conclusion that these are the same people – it will be more complex. But it makes me think that there’s a ‘plague on both your houses’ vote in the north, which refuses to vote Labour or Tory, and which could be as much as 20% of the electorate in some constituencies. And these are the constituencies that the Tories have to win to get that comfortable majority.

I’d drawn the conclusion that safe northern seats stay Labour because there really is no other alternative – the Lib Dems are now toxic; UKIP are incompetent and the Tories are Tories and there the thought process stops. But what if Brexit finally breaks that mental barrier, and makes northern voters decide to overcome their parents’ prejudices? What if people now think the way to do over the system is to aid Theresa May in getting Brexit to work? And if so, what’s to say that this process stops in the north – why not Wales and Scotland too?

Fuck the system – I’m voting Tory!

If this is what the PM is trying to do, you have to admire her chutzpah. Trying to brand the Tories as the anti-establishment rebels, when they’ve managed to get 175+ seats in every election since the First Reform Act, is a bit like packaging Robert Mugabe as a respected financial consultant.

But Brexit makes strange truths. And if those people who used to vote Lib Dem, or used to vote UKIP, because it was their way of speaking out against the system suddenly find themselves represented by Tory party, that really could shake up the electoral landscape.

I ran a quick check – what happens if the Tories were able to take most of the UKIP vote (which I take as a proxy for dissatisfied voters) in every constituency? If UKIP polled no higher than 3%, and the rest all turned blue, then 58 Labour seats would go Tory. That’s before a single Labour voter changes their own vote or stays at home, to show their distaste for Corbyn. The list includes Rother Valley, where Labour has almost a 10,000 majority.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 20.34.08

This is a bit of a statistical fiction – most of the ‘screw you’ voters are probably staying home on election day. But it makes me realise that there is the potential for quite a spectacular outcome – one where the Tories genuinely channel an unrepresented section of the electorate (like Trump), and where Labour is left flailing. The result might be more of a one-off than a grand political realignment, but it would mean that a three figure majority would easily be possible.

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…’