The moment my girlfriend and I concluded we had been civil servants for too long was when, confronted by the same parliamentary question, we independently came up with the same answer, virtually word-for-word. Civil service correspondence is a language all of its own, with its own quirks, rules and secret meanings.
Since the must-read item for today is the Article 50 letter, which has been written by some of the best drafters in the business, I thought I’d perform a public service.
The key points to take away:
We want a deep and special partnership. To the extent of mentioning it about every two paragraphs, with those exact words. Style to one side, the idea is to say that it’s better to be friends (especially with people who keep saying how important you are in the world) than it is to go our separate ways.
We are doing one deal, and only one. We aren’t going to let you cherry pick the economic points that most suit you; we are going to talk about overall cooperation, especially on security. While we don’t want to, if we can’t reach a deal we will walk away from existing cooperation.
We really don’t think you can get a deal done in two years. So we’d better start making arrangements now to make sure that doesn’t fling us off a cliff-edge.
It’s a good letter. The Department for Exiting the EU may or may not prove capable of organising a piss-up in a brewery, you could invariably rely on them to produce a good letter. It also marks our first proper attempt to set the terms of the negotiation and to do so in our favour.We haven’t got a great card of hands, but the job of a civil servant is to play them as best we can.
But the question I’m left with is this – we’re linking an economic deal to counterterrorism cooperation. Do we really plan to go through with that? To the extent to which we’ll let people die? It’s not a bluff that I’d want to have called. And if that’s the best we’ve got, where does that leave us?
Helicopters overhead, armed police on the corners, dangerous lunatics on the loose – all of that is business as usual for the myrmidons of Westminster. After a while, you don’t notice it. Yesterday, though, you certainly did.
Yet every cloud has a silver lining. Let me offer one for the residents of London. This was a really awful terrorist attack. Not in the sense of being dreadful carnage; but in the sense of being a bit rubbish.
On the scale of terrorist attacks, it’s something like a C-, and only half a step up from a total fail. Which is a sign that, hard as it may be to believe against the backdrop of the past two days, we’re winning the war on terror.
I’m aware that it sounds incredibly insensitive to talk in this way when good people are mourning needless deaths, and when the price of keeping the bodycount low was heroic sacrifice. But if we are to be resolute, rather than terrified, we need to put these events in context.
The fact that we are a free, open, tolerant society exposes us to a risk of terrorism. It is, in principle, quite easy to find ways in which homicidal maniacs can do us harm. Our world is a bit like the glass window of a department store, thin, fragile and endlessly tempting to the maladjusted.
Except, of course, that department store windows rarely are smashed. That’s not because the glass has been made unbreakably tough; it’s because the world outside the window has been arranged such that the glass is seldom attacked.
Likewise with terrorism. The trick, if you are in counterintelligence, is not about lining every street with police snipers, or having the cast of 24 on speed-dial. Ideally, it’s about making sure the attack doesn’t happen in the first place. And, if that fails, it’s about making sure the damage is as limited as it can be.
In 2005, London saw what happens when that goes wrong. Four terrorists, linked to an international network, acquired enough explosives to detonate four simultaneous suicide bombs in the space of an hour. That represented multiple failures on the part of the authorities – a failure to spot the bomb-making, the recruitment, the links to terrorists overseas, the planning and the attack itself.
But in 2017, the best that terrorism can do is inspire a lone loony to drive a car down a pavement and attack passers-by with a kitchen knife. This wasn’t a Paris, where men with automatic rifles launched a military-style assault; this wasn’t a Brussels, with bombs on the underground. It wasn’t one of the nightmare scenarios that SO19 spend their time training for.
That reflects years of careful, patient work by MI5, GCHQ, the police and other agencies. It’s not that Tuesday’s attacker didn’t want to cause more damage – I’m sure he did. But I suspect that, if he had tried to get his hands on a gun he’d have been picked up; if he’d tried to build a fertiliser bomb, he’d have run into the invisible watchers; and if he’d tried to get help from the people around him, someone would have turned him in.
You can’t stop a loony with a breadknife who decides, on the spur of the moment, to kill. But, touch wood, we seem to be stopping all of the others. The ones with the brains and the plans and the evil ambition to turn our world into a tool of destruction. If ISIS has reached the sorry state of having to claim this as the best they can do, then they are not half as scary as they’d like us to think.
None of this detracts from the tragedy of yesterday. But it gives me the confidence to walk across Westminster Bridge tomorrow.
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.
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:
Who’s with me?
You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:
How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
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.
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.
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…
Waking up this morning, and hearing the results of the by-election in Richmond Park, I had my first warm feelings about democracy for a long time. Setting aside the wider politics, as a local I have been wanting to see the back of Zac Goldsmith for many years – and finally my neighbours have agreed with me. Next time, Zac, show up in Parliament and do your job.
But it’s the wider story that really matters. This is a really, really important by-election result. First, a bit of context for those who haven’t been watching closely:
Richmond Park is historically a Lib-Dem/Conservative marginal. Zac Goldsmith had held the seat for the Tories since 2010.
Zac resigned in the wake of the decision to build a new runway at Heathrow, as he’d promised to do at the general election.
The Conservative party, after some deliberation, decided not to put up a candidate against him. UKIP and the Greens also both stood aside – UKIP because Zac was a Brexit backer, the Greens because they wanted to give the Lib Dems the best run at victory.
So the contest boiled down to a Zac-Lib Dem contest, with Zac standing in for the government.
And Zac got a thumping. A 23,000 vote majority vanished in one go, and the seat turns yellow.
On the back of that, you can now rule out an early general election.
Why? The only reason that the Tories have a majority in parliament at all is that they took 24 Lib Dem seats across the south. Without those, they stand virtually no chance of holding a majority in the house. While some of those are probably lost to the Lib Dems for good, if a 23,000 seat majority isn’t safe then some are definitely in play. And for each one that’s lost they need to take another seat in what has historically been seen as Labour’s heartland.
Not only that, but the Lib Dems have shown that they are the political lightning rod for the hardcore Remain voters. If anything, that’s a bigger problem for the government. Not because these people can carry many constituencies; but because under a first past the post system a few thousand votes in the wrong place can play merry hell with a candidate’s majority. If many of those Remainers were previously voting Conservative (as they were in Richmond), they can be added to the pile of people who are just generally voting against the government. It would take just 1,800 well-placed Tory voters across the country switching to the Lib Dems to wipe out the government’s majority – even though they wouldn’t win a single seat for themselves.
Theresa May’s caution already meant she passed up a general election when she looked guaranteed to win; now, when she’s likely to lose, she will certainly bottle it.
(There is one caveat here – the same logic applies in reverse if the Tories are fully allied with UKIP, and UKIP tell their voters to back the government. I’ll come back to this ‘unholy alliance’ option on another occasion).
But if there is no election, then the parliamentary maths just got that bit nastier – the working majority goes down to 13. Now, you only need seven grumpy Tory MPs to hold the government to ransom – coincidentally the same number of Secretaries of State that Theresa May sacked from the cabinet on coming to power. And, on the back of the Richmond result, the critics will feel bolder.
If you want to get a preview of what this will look like, the Garrick theatre has just put on a revival of the play This House, about how the 1974 Labour government bled itself to death as its majority ticked down ever closer to zero. It’s great theatre. It’s going to make fascinating current affairs.
An American election is a bit like a Wagnerian opera. Loud, shrill, indecipherable, populated with violent and flawed characters and going on longer than any sensible person would permit. Nevertheless, there comes the moment when the voices reach a crescendo; the Rhine bursts its banks and, in the following silence a new age begins.
Tonight is Gotterdammerung. If you are joining the legions of political anoraks around the world hoping for Trump to lose, and staying up into the small hours, what do you want to look for?
You might not even want to stay up at all. The polls are pretty much unanimous that Clinton has a lead of 2-4 points, which means the night ought to be hers. But then again, the past two elections that I cared about have seen the polls get the results substantially wrong; and this can be a third.
So I’m spending election night looking to measure two potential sources of error.
1. Brexit2 – A lot of hope in the Trump campaign at the end is for a Brexit style upset. This isn’t completely mad – one of the challenges we had during Brexit was that the polls were built to examine a different sort of election with different kinds of voters. Trump taps in to a similar vein. Angry, working class whites might show up in significant numbers, and more than the mainstream media would have reason to expect.
If that’s the case, the places this is going to show first are in post-industrial east coast states. I’ll be watching New Hampshire and especially Pennsylvania – if both of these go for Trump, he’s likely to win the night; and Michigan and Wisconsin will prove it.
But balanced against this we have…
2. Ground game – If you find yourself interested in the number of campaign offices that the Trump and Clinton campaigns, you probably need to get out more. But this stuff matters. One aspect of the campaign that’s not got much attention is that Trump & co. have been quite spectacularly disorganised. They don’t have as many operatives in the states that count; they have had to change campaign managers three times. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump has effectively fired his pollster and refused to pay back bills – meaning that he’s been flying blind.
If Trump has adopted the ‘entourage’ approach to management, Clinton and the Democrats are the well-run production line. The tricks they have up their sleeve are the same ones that the Tories had in 2015 (because they rely on the same people), and they proved to be enough to swing 20 marginal seats that no one was predicting. If the Democrats have an ace in the hole, this is it.
The place you’d see this earliest and most clearly will be Florida – given that voters here have strong loyalties and winning is normally a matter of turnout for the two parties. I could imagine Clinton securing a much higher margin here than we’re expecting; and if so the trend is likely to repeat elsewhere, and she is pretty much guaranteed to be president.
And with that, we take a five minute break, and then we start talking about who’s going to win in 2020.
PS – Also keep on the lookout for an unlikely, but real nightmare scenario, is where the election is won by a single state with a vanishingly thin margin, triggering months of talk about recounts. Imagine Bush v Gore, but with Donald Trump in the starring role…
Sometimes the English courts, in their idiosyncratic glory, produce a result that makes you proud to be British. Today is one of those days. I say that partly because the High Court has made a fundamental assertion of individual rights in the face of executive action, upholding centuries of proud constitutional tradition. But mostly I say it because it’s bloody funny.
Before getting into the detail, an important caveat. This court case does not stop Brexit. If it did, I would feel much less warmly towards it. What it does mean is that the decision to leave has to be debated in parliament first – more on what that means below – and once that is done Brexit can of course proceed.
The reason to be truly proud of this judgment is not because it delays us leaving the EU (if it does), but why it has stopped the government from doing this on its lonesome.
To explain, I’d better start with a bit of constitutional background.
The central tenet of British constitutional law is parliamentary sovereignty – the idea that there is no body that can overrule Parliament once it has made up its mind. That includes the monarch, and it includes the prime minister and government of the day – known collectively as ‘the Crown’.
This principle was established over a long period of time – one king lost his job over it; another lost his head. But because this was done slowly and contingently, there are a few leftover areas where for reasons of expediency the Crown is still allowed to do what it likes, known as ‘prerogative powers’. These mostly relate to international diplomacy: and crucially includes the signing or abrogating (unsigning) of treaties.
The complexity in today’s case comes from the fact that in 1972, ahead of joining the European project, Parliament passed a law saying that all relevant future European legislation would be adopted into domestic law. In triggering article 50, and effectively overruling that act, are you also overruling Parliament? If so, the constitutional precedent is clear that it can’t be done without going back to Parliament and getting them to repeal the act.
The plaintiffs were smart here. I’d expected their case to be based on the minutiae of prerogative powers versus parliamentary sovereignty. So, to judge by their submission, did the government’s lawyers.
But instead, the plaintiffs made a much more fundamental appeal. They point out that the 1972 Act didn’t just absorb European law – it gave people rights. The right to live and work in other places; the right to appeal to a set of courts; the right to be protected from the government interfering in their lives. And one point on which the history of prerogative powers is exceptionally clear, is that the crown has absolutely no right to unilaterally deprive people of rights given to them by Parliament and the law.
I suspect that there will be a lot of grumbling in the Leaver camp about the unpatriotic nature of this legal challenge. But the simple truth is that only someone who truly understood the British constitution and its protection of individual liberty could have even thought of such an argument. You can trace its ancestry straight to the Bill of Rights and Magna Carta.
And this is hilarious. I have spent years patiently putting up with Europhobic bores endlessly moaning about the way in which the EU has been taking away fundamental British liberties.
People like Jacob Rees Mogg or Daniel Hannan have droned relentlessly about how they are standing up for the fundamental rights of British people under the common law. And now those rights have come back to bite them on the fundament.
The logic is impeccable – there is no more basic principle of the British constitution than the idea that parliament will protect individual rights from being taken away by the government. This is what we were taking back control in order to protect! The look on their faces!
Whatever your views on Brexit, we should all be profoundly glad we have a court system that prevents the government taking away our rights without getting the permission of Parliament. It doesn’t matter how loudly the public call for it, or how strong the case for taking those rights away is made. They cannot come for you or me without the consent of our elected representatives.
Stepping back into the more practical business of government, what does this ruling actually mean? Let’s assume that the Supreme Court upholds the ruling (which is not guaranteed – there are other fundamental points of law that could be brought to bear). What next?
First, government doesn’t have a choice about going back to Parliament; without its approval we don’t meet the provisions to trigger Article 50. So expect government to bring forward emergency legislation – quite likely sooner rather than later.
In one sense, this isn’t complicated – pass the legislation and we’re back on track to leave. And even if remain MPs have a notional majority of over 300, in practice most MPs belong to the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ camp. Brexit won’t fail in the Commons. But…
Just because Brexit passes the Commons, it doesn’t mean it passes without conditions. If legislation is needed, that legislation can be amended by MPs to make it match their wishes.
Those conditions won’t say ‘no’. But I could easily imagine them requiring government to share a plan and convince people it is credible before Article 50 is triggered – which would in practice be a big delay. Involving Parliament changes the tone of the debate, away from the simplicity of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ towards the much trickier question of how much you trust the government to get Brexit right.
This will create a climate of deal-making and influence trading, and probably new groupings who are willing to attach particular conditions to Brexit – either to soften its edge or to keep it ‘true’ to the referendum result. That pushes us towards whole new parliamentary alignments, which probably cross conventional political boundaries. The debate on Article 50 could see parties made and unmade live on television, as hardcore leavers and remainers fight for floating voters. Even if you forget the majority of 16, it’s probably the hardest vote the Tory party has faced since the abolition of the Corn Laws – and that split the party in half and kept them out of power for thirty years.
If it’s a free vote, parliament writes its own Brexit; if it’s a whipped vote then a few remainers rebel and government loses; and if it’s a vote of confidence, the government will fall. It’s a no-win scenario for Theresa May.
Second, even if it makes it through the Commons, it has to get through the Lords. That’s even harder. The government doesn’t have a majority here, and the red benches are packed with remainers. There are constitutional precedents about what the Lords has to say yes to – notably around enacting manifesto commitments in an election. This decision doesn’t fall into this category.
Now, in practice the Lords isn’t going to stop Brexit this way – blocking a legitimate referendum result would be the best argument possible for abolishing the Lords altogether. But again, the Lords can attach conditions, and send the legislation back to the Commons. This isn’t a viable delaying tactic, but if you assume a bloody fight in the Commons, the Lords can start exactly the same thing up again.
The conclusion is this – Brexit is now parliamentary property, and will have to be negotiated in the open. Don’t expect it to start in March, as promised. And don’t be surprised if 2017 is the year that all our politics changes.
The Labour leadership contest gets serious tomorrow. Ballot papers go out, and as they come back the party’s bloodletting takes a more solid form.
The consensus is that Corbyn is going to win, and probably win comfortably. Since he took over, the Labour Party has experienced a surge of membership, and you can reasonably infer that they are more likely to be from the red-underpants wing of the party. With knocking on half a million members, a very large proportion of which joined in the Corbyn era, this has the feel of a statistically compelling argument.
But… I do wonder if there’s scope for a surprise here.
My reasoning here is anything but scientific. It mostly comes from looking at weekend political blogs, especially the long, soul-searchy ones where people have time to wrestle with their conscience. And of these, I’ve noticed a lot of hard-left writers saying that it’s time to get rid of Corbyn.
These aren’t the usual suspects. It’s people like young Guardian leftie Owen Jones. Often these are people who were fervent Corbyn backers last time around. And I’ve found almost no one saying the opposite.
If the Labour party decides to keep Jeremy Corbyn, there’s a tacit assumption that the members have decided either a) Jeremy Corbyn’s mass appeal is being covered up in a gigantic establishment conspiracy; or b) electability doesn’t actually matter in the first place.
The first of these is delusional, but it’s a neat, self-contained sort of delusion that someone can comfortably live within without being challenged to reconsider, especially if they’re on twitter. But the second feels like a different sort of thought – a sense that the left can’t win, and therefore should focus on the noblest kind of losing. It’s not a positive statement – more a kind of depressed apathy.
I’ve heard people on the Labour side argue in favour of noble defeat before. Owen Jones was a good example of that. Not so long ago, he was the kind of hardline leftist who was clear that there was no point Labour winning elections if they were just going to repeat the policies of the Tories. He was the kind of person who talks about things like ‘shifting the Overton window’ and destroying the establishment – politics as seen from the ivory towers of NW1.
Now, he talks about more practical matters. Polls, elections, results and, ultimately, governments. Winning matters, now it seems so far away.
The fear behind it all that Labour could be out of power for twenty years, and all the damage to beloved causes that can be done in the meantime. And with a clear sense that Jeremy Corbyn is making that problem worse, not better.
I’m not blind to the fact that you have to be pretty well connected to things to grasp the dysfunction at the heart of the Labour machine. It could well be that 90% of voters don’t know how serious a pickle Labour is in. But if so, the 10% who really are the heart of the party are fundamentally changing the way they view the world.
I’ve often thought that Labour supporters treat politics like a game; but I think that’s changing. For a lot of people on the left, it is Corbyn, not Brexit, that will be the defining experience of their political education. These are people who know the perils of utopianism, when asserted without the means of achieving it. Whoever wins, the Labour party is having a mass lesson in the virtues of pragmatism.
I don’t know whether this will be enough to swing this election – I suspect probably not. But watching this reminds me that it’s much too early to write off Labour. The party looked like a basket case in the eighties, but that struggle created the well-drilled New Labour army of 1997. There’s a similar process of discipline going on right now, and provided Labour actually survives this parliament, it will go into the 2020s as a stronger force.
All revolutions come to an end; and mercifully the last month is over. We have a Prime Minister; the economy is proceeding vaguely OK; UKIP and Labour are back competing for the prize for best circular firing squad – and we can afford to breathe a little easier as we slap on the factor 15.
But the underlying politics hasn’t gone away. And one of the questions which is going to keep coming up is whether or not Theresa May is going to call a snap election.
The conditions couldn’t be better – a honeymoon period for a new PM; an opposition far down in the polls and so divided that the only way it can become more split is if they bring in nuclear physicists. For most of the country, the slogan can be ‘Conservatives. Have you seen the alternatives?’
The prize is worth having too. Right away, it gives the PM her own electoral mandate – both with the country and with her own MPs. That will be jolly handy in the Brexit deliberations, especially if the deal turns out not to be to everyone’s liking. Second, it is a chance to expand that woefully thin majority into something actually workable. Third, if timed right, it could send the Labour party so far into the electoral wilderness that it guarantees a decade of Tory rule.
Balanced against that, though, elections are risky. And as far as the public is concerned, we’ve had more than enough votes, thank you very much. At a time of crisis, it sends the wrong message for everyone to go back to their constituencies – especially for what might look like a nakedly political stunt.
You can balance the presentational arguments any way you want. But the one question you can’t duck is ‘would this actually work’?
The election wouldn’t be worth calling if Labour weren’t in such a dire state. The latest polls show a Tory lead of something between 6% and 14% (at the election, it was 6.6%). That’s before the Tories unlock their filing cabinet of everything Jeremy Corbyn has ever done – which they’ve so far had no need to open. According to Electoral Calculus, the Tories could expect a majority of about 50 from current poll shares.
It could get a lot better for them though. If the Labour party does split (and, for a loose enough definition of ‘split’, that boat has already sailed), the gap opens up much wider. Out of interest, I pulled out the 2015 General Election data, and looked what would happen if the Labour vote was cut precisely in half. The results shocked me.
If you combine a perfect split with the current poll numbers, the two halves of Labour combined win just 98 seats; and Theresa May comes home with a majority of 264. The Tories win seats like Sunderland Central and Islington South. If you assume the two halves of Labour get a fair split of MPs, the SNP becomes the largest opposition party.
And this is without a single extra person voting Tory who isn’t currently planning to do so.
It’s the same method that the SNP has used to capture all but three seats in Scotland with only 50% of the votes – with your opposition split, the ruling party always wins big. If you don’t like it, you should have thought about that when we had the AV referendum.
Of course, this result is an arithmetic fiction. Labour won’t split neatly in half (the worst possible outcome in a first-past-the-post system), and more generally a catastrophe like this would not occur through a neat two-party swing without a lot of strategic swirls to shape its position on the ground.
But in 1983, when the SDP walked away from the Labour party, it took about a quarter of Labour voters with them. Some of that is already priced into the poll numbers. But even with just 10% of current Labour voters splitting off, the government could expect to take about 42 seats. Parliamentary maths turns that into a majority of 100.
But there’s always a ‘but’
Based on that, you think someone from CCHQ should be out picking the battle-bus already. But before they start checking the sockets and steaming the Boris off the back seats, I offer one cautious question. Where have the Remain voters gone?
If my twitter feed is anything to go by, Remain voters are still somewhat upset. They are unlikely to be voting Tory any time soon. And what we saw from the Scottish referendum is that when people are mobilised in a referendum, they often go through quite a fundamental change in their political identity. Dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters looked in the mirror and suddenly realised that they now voted SNP.
I don’t know where the Never-Leave camp will end up. But the Liberal Democrats are the ones making the clearest and most direct pitch for their support, drawing on a long and committed history of pro-European activism. And while this isn’t showing up in a big Lib Dem surge in current polls, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t manifest itself over the next 18 months.
The last election was all about the Tories stealing Lib Dem votes. The next election could well see those same voters flooding back. In West London, where I live, the Tories have driven out all but one Lib Dem MP; but with stonking Remain majorities I think they are very vulnerable here. Other seats, like Bath or Oxford East, also look primed to fall.
In addition, the Tory victories in these seats was driven in a large part by a belief that it was a choice between Cameron or Miliband. While people might choose Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn, it won’t feel like the same kind of decision. If anything, the Lib Dems can make a convincing claim that it would be folly to give the Tories that kind of power without an effective opposition.
So I suspect there could be 15-40 seats where a Lib Dem resurgence could eat into that Tory electoral margin. And human beings are loss-averse – one seat likely to be lost feels more real than one ready to be won. Especially when losing eight of them means you’re a minority government. Without Labour disarray, an election becomes very risky.
Never mind if; when?
Setting aside whether this is a good idea, an election definitely is not a good idea right now. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake, and at this moment both Labour and UKIP are busy destroying themselves. Another six months of self-destruction leaves more time and space for the coup de grace. The thing the Tories really want is to go into the election fighting an officially divided Labour party, busy screwing each other out of voters.
But the longer they wait, the more time government has to be pinned to a plan for Brexit. Right now, the government position satisfies about 75% of the country – the people have spoken and we promise to try and figure out what they said. The negatives of having to choose, and potentially getting quite a poor deal, have yet to filter through. When the choices are explicit, the politics becomes a lot more complicated. Given that the government will be seeking a compromise, it can expect to be attacked from both sides.
There’s probably a sweet spot in early 2017 – long enough for Labour to be in open warfare; soon enough that Brexit still feels like a distant thing happening to other people.
While I stop here, there are still plenty of surprises lurking in the shadows. If Labour splits, does anti-Corbyn Labour partner up with the Lib Dems? Is the Tory party immune to splits, or is there mischief to come? Where is Scotland in all of this? Will the politics of parliament find a way around the ballot box? There’s room for a book’s worth of caveats.
But as things stand there are good reasons for an election, and soon. And there’s no fixed terms parliament act in the world that’s capable of stopping them.
You know you’ve got too much news when, for most of a week, the catastrophic disintegration of a major political party struggles to make the front page. Spare a particular thought for Angela Eagle, whose leadership launch had the misfortune of clashing with Andrea Leadsom withdrawing from the Tory contest – meaning that as she set out her vision for the party, all of the top journalists were running for the exits. At the Q&A at the end, she was left talking to a half-empty room.
As someone who admires effective politicians, you can’t help but be impressed by the Tories – a shock leadership contest completely resolved in sixteen days. By contrast, the Labour party will be publicly banging its head against a wall from now until late September. Throw the Trident vote into the middle of that, and political journalism will start to resemble investigating a rail wreck and counting the body parts.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, we’ve been watching to see whether his leadership could be made to work in the general terms of Westminster – new electoral ground broken; government forced to climb down; etc. In those terms, Corbyn has failed. We are now into a very different contest: not a courtship of the public, but a messy and spiteful divorce, complete with thrown bricks and death threats.
It’s so intractable because at the its heart there is a clash of two completely watertight mandates.
As leader of the opposition, Corbyn is expected to be the person most able to form a government if the ruling party gives way. His mandate is established by his ability to carry something approaching a parliamentary majority, and to mobilise the biggest team to hold the government to account. Corbyn can’t do this.
But as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has a direct mandate from the membership. His job is to stand up for what Labour members believe. In terms of the party constitution, authority radiates from this position, and not from his abilities in Parliament. Corbyn’s mandate here is still strong.
This is a muddle, created by the mistaken opinion that more democracy is always a good thing. In practice, split authorities are usually a deadlock waiting to happen (just look at Congress in the US). And when people insist on completely ignoring all but one source of authority, the results rarely look democratic.
For most of us, the hint’s in the name. It’s ‘leader of the opposition’, not ‘opponent in chief’. But Corbyn’s claim is entirely in terms of the latter.
It’s not impossible to reconcile these two requirements. You could argue that the leader of the Labour arty needs to be able to do both, or has to go. Alternatively, you could imagine a Labour party where Corbyn has a title of ‘leader’, and someone else is the public face. In the event of a win, that person becomes PM with Corbyn hovering behind their shoulder as the party’s spiritual leader. But the first has been tried, and the second would require a heavy reworking of the party constitution, which isn’t going to happen half-way through a leadership contest.
And it also doesn’t address something deep in Labour’s soul. For a decent part of Labour’s membership, victory is a dirty word. In their mental thesaurus, you’d find it next to ‘compromise’. The head of Momentum prompted astonishment early in the week with the tweet below.
This conflict is anything but new. It was best shown in the 1920s and 30s in another battle for the soul of the Labour party. Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s first Labour PM. The reason very few people have heard of him is that he is pretty much damnatio memoriae within the party because of his reaction to the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash.
His own party wouldn’t back him and his Chancellor on an austerity programme. In 1931, unable to get any business done at a time of national crisis, he tried to form a National Government with the Tories. His followers reacted by expelling him and his friends from the party; there was a snap election where Labour lost 235 seats and the man left in charge was a sainted, otherworldly pacifist called George Lansbury.
Post-Iraq, the Labour party is dominated by the Lansbury wing. The New Statesman recently pointed out that three quarters of the Labour party membership are ABC1s – affluent people – and most are living in the south east and London. It’s an ideological commitment far more than it is an upsurge of the working masses.
I’m wary of calling this leadership election. It’s wrong to assume that former Corbyn voters will stick with him, after his catalogue of disasters. The electorate in this contest is sufficiently weird that you can predict little. However:
There are 180,000 new Labour members since May 2015 – almost half the party – and I’m willing to bet they break more for Corbyn than against.
The unions are still backing Corbyn, and will bring their own votes to bear.
The moderates haven’t found anyone compelling as an alternative.
Labour’s capacity to vote for electoral suicide is already proven.
So I think Corbyn’s chances are pretty good. Which, for those of us who would like at least the threat of Labour winning a general election, is very bad news.
Normally, I’m very clear that political parties in the UK never split. It’s just too costly and has little chance of success. But this is different. It’s too fundamental a question about what Labour is there for. After the loss of Scotland, there’s a sense that nothing is safe and that no Labour MP can guarantee their own job. Right now, 36% of Labour voters think Jeremy Corbyn would make the best PM, and 40% say Theresa May. Before the last election, Ed Miliband was getting 73%, and that was judged disastrous.
Against such a backdrop, the costs of cooperation may be greater than those of disloyalty. Unless Corbyn loses, this story isn’t going to be over.
There is one moment when the British political system demonstrates its total superiority over the rest of the world. Only in our country, plus a few direct descendants, could two men be PM and Chancellor one day, and be unable to get an inside table at a local bakery the next. Normally that kind of descent takes either months or handcuffs.
My own predictions for the Cabinet may not have been spectacularly perspicacious – though I take a certain pleasure for having been as accurate as both Robert Peston and Iain Dale, and a whole day earlier. And the source of the error was misreading how the need to Brexit-up the cabinet would be resolved – not by putting a lightweight into May’s own Home Office, but by handing over the Foreign Office to a Brexiteer. And also leaving Osborne’s severed head out for the birds.
If you want to characterise this reshuffle, there are two points I’d draw out:
This is a cabinet built for Brexit. Having a Brexit-heavy team means that May has quite a mandate with the Leavers, implicitly, for whatever deal emerges. Tory Brexiteers would have been able to shout ‘fix’ if a Remainer team had stitched together a deal that put the Single Market first and quietly forgot about restricting freedom of movement. But with Boris, Fox and Davis in charge, they can’t say it’s been done to them. Plus, there isn’t really anyone to lead the fight back.
May has eliminated almost all current rivals. Only non-threatening leadership contenders have been allowed near power: Andrea Leadsom (Keeping Up Appearance’s answer to Sarah Palin) at the Department of Bovine Misery and the reanimated corpse of Boris Johnson as minister for all the bits of the Foreign Office that don’t matter. Osborne, Gove and Morgan – three actual threats – are as far from power as they can be thrown. The top team are a bunch of political emasculates with no significant backing within the party without the backing to launch a coup, so a leadership challenge from within the Cabinet looks very unlikely.
This configuration makes me fairly confident that May means what she says when she says no early election and no second referendum. She’s built one of the few cabinets that could actually do an EU deal without needing to secure some kind of extra mandate. I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible.
But before you get carried away with the brilliance of this – beware two weaknesses.
First off, ruthlessness isn’t without its consequences.
This is not Game of Thrones, where you throw the bodies of your defeated rivals into a ditch. When you fire George Osborne, you’re effectively inviting him to spend more time plotting his vengeance upon you.
Macmillan could carry out the Night of the Long Knives because he had a majority of close to a hundred. May has a majority of sixteen, which drops to fifteen when they elect Jo Cox’s replacement in a few weeks.
She’s betting heavily that Osborne and Gove were backed by shallow careerists who will melt away now they are powerless. That’s not a given. Even the ministerial sackings make up enough people to make her majority meaningless, when the right moment comes – and while I don’t think she’ll lose anything totemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months’ time she finds herself getting frequently frustrated on small things and looking subtly less in control.
And then, there’s weakness number two.
Boris is a disaster waiting to happen, at least in the political sense. May had no choice but to put a Brexiteer here, and there were almost no alternatives whatsoever. When Boris cocks up (and cock up he will, for reasons that seem almost Pavlovan) there is the question of who fills his place.
There are only three choices from the Leaver ranks. I think May might have put Priti Patel in at DfID for precisely this reason – so she has a replacement for Boris ready to go with some international experience. Unfortunately, Patel is famously undiplomatic in her nature and far from an ideal choice. Neither Grayling nor Leadsom look like they are up to the job. So where can you go?
I think the logic takes you back round to George Osborne (for the contacts) or Michael Gove (for the Leave credentials). But whereas it would have looked magnanimous to appoint either now, it will look weak in a year or two’s time, if it’s on the back of a Boris resignation.
In terms of Leave-Remain, it’s an extremely clever reshuffle. But in purging the Osborne/Cameron set at the same time, she’s chosen to play for high stakes. The government needs plenty of successes before the recession hits, the negotiations bite or Boris explodes. The clock is ticking.