This 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.
If 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.
It’s no fun being a Liberal Democrat. But that’s sort of the point. It’s a party whose purpose is to lose – witness the past ten years. In opposition, people couldn’t agree with Nick enough. But the sight of a Liberal Democrat actually in government, making decisions and having to compromise, proved the swiftest antidote to their support it was possible to have. Then, after taking one of the worst electoral shellackings of the twenty first century, people are once again signing up in droves.
In theory, a party that exists for beaten liberals is pretty well attuned to the zeitgeist. From a branding point of view, it feels just right for the moment. But a friend of mine posed a very good challenge the other day. He, like me, had predicted that the Lib Dems will finish with more than 30 seats. But he’d then been challenged to name which ones they were, and couldn’t. And, on the spot, I struggled too.
So how would the Lib Dems perform the greatest comeback since Lazarus?
It’s just a flesh wound!
Don’t underestimate just how badly beaten up the Lib Dems are. It sounds bad enough to say that at the last election they went from 49 seats to 8, but that’s only the start of the bad news. It isn’t just the fact that they lost – it’s how they lost.
The UK system can create a situation where you can lose a lot of seats without losing voters (Ed Miliband lost 26 seats, but actually increased Labour’s vote share). But the Lib Dems didn’t just lose a few crucially placed supporters – they lost two voters in every three.
They lost all but one of their seats in Scotland – a traditional reservoir of support and home to two of the past three leaders.
They lost every seat south of London – which you wouldn’t have got odds of 1000-1 on before election night.
Their vote in the north, where they had in effect been the second party, vanished completely.
And since the Lib Dems depend heavily on being good constituency MPs, the loss of so many incumbents destroys one of their greatest selling points.
It’s a sobering fact that there would have been more surviving Lib Dem MPs if, instead of the 2015 election, the entire parliamentary party had been infected with ebola.
Indeed, the scattering of remaining Lib Dems has something in common with a map of survivors after some terrible disaster – not so much reflecting a plan or strategy as a question unto god of ‘why me?’
Not playing by the old rules
The conventional way to win an election campaign is to build support in the most marginal constituencies, erode down opposing majorities and get yourself back into power. That would mean that Lib Dem seat number 30 would be Portsmouth South, where they are 5,200-ish short.
But this strategy probably isn’t going to work. And it probably doesn’t need to for the Lib Dems to meet or beat my expectations.
Instead of campaigning in these sorts of places, the most visible Lib Dem event so far has been in Vauxhall, where Labour lead them by 22,500 votes. ‘Labour’ for the purposes of this argument is the arch-Brexiteer Kate Hoey, representing a constituency that voted 77% remain.
The Lib Dems aren’t planning to re-fight 2015. Like the Tories, they’re betting on a new political landscape, based around a Leave/Remain split. Any doubts they may have had on this score were settled by the Richmond Park by-election, where they overturned a conservative majority of over 23,000, largely on the incumbent’s publicly pro-leave stance. If they can win the Remain vote on a large scale, they have traded a losing hand for one that wins – at least where they choose to play.
I challenge anyone to predict the scale of their success at this with any accuracy. If Richmond Park were repeated in every seat in the country, Tim Farron would be in Number 10. How far short of that these trends stop is anyone’s guess. But a good outcome for the Lib Dems is built out of the following elements.
Holding their existing seats (not tricky) and resurrecting some of the victims of 2015 based on personal followings
Picking up seats where Remain is strong – London and the university towns in particular, and possibly some northern city centres
Profiting from principled voting by arch-remainers in places which are less strongly pro-remain, but where the Lib Dems have historic strength.
Ditto in Scotland from a tactical unionist vote.
Lastly, hoovering up votes from people who can’t bring themselves to vote Corby or Tory, and are willing to give the Lib Dems a go. Ideally, achieving this through signing a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens.
Safe bets are places like Cambridge and Twickenham. If they don’t take Bath they’re doing badly; if they can pick up Oxford East and Abingdon, then they’re doing better than expected; and if they can regain Manchester Withington (big student population) then it bodes very well indeed. Some historic Lib Dem seats like Taunton and Yeovil will be necessary to get to 30, but expect most of them to stay Tory. In Scotland, watch North East Fife (St Andrews) to see if students + tactical unionists = Lib Dem pickup. The shock results, if there are any, will be in London constituencies along the Thames – Bermondsey, Vauxhall, and for a real surprise Kensington or even Putney.
Does that get you to 30? It can do. Does it let the Lib Dems become the third-largest party again? Only if they’re very lucky. But if there’s one party whose performance we’re most likely to get completely wrong, it would be the Lib Dems.
At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First, 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.
That’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).
And 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…’
The EU’s response to my earlier blog post came out on Friday. Now, if I’m honest, I don’t really speak Eurocrat. I know the difference between the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Justice, but I don’t pick up the points about e.g. when the Council is trying to stiff the Commission, or the both of them are ganging up on the Parliament. But nonetheless, like most of the European languages you learn in school, they’re mutually intelligible with a bit of gesticulation to fill in the gaps.
The things I’d take away from this are:
The Commission is far more concerned with orderly transition than anything else. Whereas the UK comes in talking about a grand partnership, you get the feeling that the Council is more concerned about who is going to pay for reprinting the stationary.
The EU is determined to figure out how the UK leaves before it is willing to talk about what the future relationship is. This is a legalistic approach, and probably forces the UK to adopt a position of hard Brexit whether we like it or not.
…But on the plus side, once that decision is taken in principle we can talk through what the new relationship looks like before the overall deal is resolved. So we can get this done without having to have a cliff-edge moment.
There are some points that matter a lot more to the EU than they do to us. There’s clearly a fear we will just ignore past obligations and walk away; there’s also a strong wish to preserve the role of the Court of Justice of the EU as the ultimate arbitrator of what this all means – which I think is a difficult thing for them to ask for. So we have more negotiating power than I’d first expected.
There are some things we’re agreed on – EU/UK citizens living in the other entity; and not screwing up Ireland.
But the big question mark under it all is, do we really believe the EU will be the sole negotiating entity? This document is written in the belief that the only substantive conversations will be the ones between team EU and the Brexit bunch. But you can see things like the last-minute addition on Gibraltar that are clearly driven by single EU members. And I can’t see Angela Merkel sitting this one out. The UK’s push on defence cooperation isn’t really relevant to the EU, but critical to member states. So where does the real balance of power lie?
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.