Wednesday, 12 December 2018

May Survives - What Now?

She won her no confidence vote, but 200 votes in favour with 117 against is pretty bad. While Theresa May didn't want the contest, it provided an opportunity for her to crush the demented europhobic wing of her party. "Drive a stake through the heart of the ERG" was some of the visceral language bandied about by the Prime Minister's bullish allies. Far from doing so, 117 no confidence votes are much higher than either the core group hostile of Moggite malcontents, or the numbers who are added to their famous WhatsApp group. As Mogg himself pointed out in the result's immediate aftermath, 140 Tory MPs are on the payroll. Assuming all of them voted loyally in the 1922 Committee's secret ballot, May can rely on fewer than half of her backbenchers. No prizes for guessing that the situation in the wider party is even grimmer.

Will May carry on? Ordinarily, no. With no support outside of parliament and under siege within it, the situation for her is as precarious as it was before pulling the vote on the withdrawal agreement. As anyone writing on politics can't resist repeating, nothing has changed. But because all we have seen is a temporary disturbance in the status quo, Macawber May returns with a vengeance. Tomorrow she nips off to see the European Council for further clarification on the deal, a meeting which is bound to be a complete waste of time because all will be quoted back at her are the very words she must know back to front by now. Still, some Tory expectations are so low that this would have been just enough to win them over.

Also, May announced at this afternoon's 1922 Committee that she wouldn't lead the Tories into another general election. Assuming we take her at face value (and you'd be pretty daft to do so these days), this gives her opponents space to stockpile support and resources ahead of the inevitable leadership contest. It shouldn't shock anyone if we somehow learn that Boris Johnson voted to support May, given that it suits him nicely for he to remain in post to soak up the punishment and the difficulties so he can later swoop in. And if that's the case for Johnson, the quarter century of Tory MPs who think they have what it takes to become leader are likely to have followed their cynical instincts too.

May then has seen off the immediate crisis to attend to the permanent crisis of the Tory party. She is no closer to winning a vote on her withdrawal, and whatever piece of paper she comes back from Brussels with won't change any minds. The only hope of salvaging something from this mess is forcing an election via a no confidence vote, the chances of which succeeding are better now than it was yesterday when the master tacticians of PLP melts, SNP, LibDems, Plaid and Caroline Lucas banded together to call for one. Yet even now, how many of them 117 would vote to bring down their government? Brexit may have driven them mad, its proximity flooding their synapses with deranged lust for their pathetic fantasy, but they are still Conservative politicians and their instincts recoil at the very thought of Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10. Nevertheless, the time is nearing where one cannot be put off for long and if the DUP are not satisfied with the assurances May comes back with, then is the time to strike.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Malevolence or Ineptitude?

Why do First World War generals carry a reputation for incompetence? Because they would launch offensive after offensive against well-entrenched positions without regard to tactics, uselessly and criminally throwing away the lives of tens of thousands of young men. The stakes aren't as high, but I'm reminded of their example when surveying the strategic geniuses of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Had things gone according to the government's timetable, after Theresa May has lost her vote on the withdrawal agreement today she would have faced a no confidence vote. There was some consideration whether this was going to be a normal vote or one aimed at May personally. It wouldn't have had any constitutional force, but made her position next to impossible. Why did Labour consider this? Because the front bench hold to the peculiar notion that if you're going to put something to the vote, you do what it takes to win it. The DUP are not May's biggest fan after doing the dirty on them on the status of Northern Ireland in the backstop. Nor are the scorned but impotent European Research Group of gurning Brexiteers, who've sat on the sidelines waiting for the number of no confidence letters to tick over the magic 48. Would they accept the opportunity to turf May out of office? Some of them probably would. But at the price of bringing the Tories down and opening the road to Jeremy Corbyn? Not. A. Chance.

Now the Prime Minister has pulled her vote, what game are this bunch of clowns paying at? Almost a who's who of Owen Smith's celebrated leadership campaign (including the great man himself), we have some of the very worst MPs to sit on the Labour benches are calling for a no confidence vote. Are they simply thick? Alas, even they are no strangers to the low skulduggery of our exalted parliamentary democracy.

Their little press conference this afternoon with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the LibDems, and Caroline Lucas that called upon Labour to table a no confidence vote was stuffed full of ulterior motives. All of these people know it can't hope to win, so there are a couple of things going on. First and foremost is an attempt to shift Labour away from its general election first position. The thinking goes if a no confidence fails, then the hopes of an election are dashed with it - leading Labour to formally adopt a second referendum position. The attendant dangers of doing so have lessened slightly in my view, but the same discredited gang are ready to swoop in and front up the remain case (assuming remain would even be an option). And if they're at the helm, they would lose.

But, of course, it suits the nationalist parties and the Liberal Democrats to posture around a no confidence vote. They can point to Corbz and attack him for not being radical enough, for saving May's bacon when her repeated self-owns have her hanging on the ropes. For LibDems desperate to get back into the game, they think it gives them a lever with leftish remainers - once again demonstrating they don't have a single clue about what they need to do. For the SNP and Plaid, they too think there are electoral rewards from being more remainy - keeping Labour down in Scotland remains Nicola Sturgeon's permanent immediate political priority, and for PC supplanting Labour in Wales remains their strategic task.

What then of Labour's malcontents? How is their position advantaged? Again, it's part of the wedge strategy. Noting the ten-a-penny polls that show how remain/second vote friendly Labour members and Labour supporters are, here Corbyn can be shown up for not opposing the Tories sufficiently and manoeuvring to avoid the so-called People's Vote. Meanwhile they can try and abrogate for themselves the title of "proper" opposition and champions of members' views on the subject. Undoubtedly some of the names on Ian Murray's letter are useful idiots, and others are reduced to the level of putting a minus wherever the party leadership puts a plus, but never underestimate the Labour right's capacity for cynicism. It's how they were able to control the party for so long.

Monday, 10 December 2018

When Government has a Nervous Breakdown

Seldom do I feel sorry for Michael Gove. In fact, his state of wellbeing isn't something that should trouble any right thinking person. But to spend part of your morning defending Theresa May and swearing that the "meaningful vote" on her Brexit withdrawal deal was definitely happening on Tuesday ... it's almost as if she set him up knowing she was going to smack his face with a great big egg. It's remarkable really. After spending an eternity of exclaiming my way of the highway, the PM pulled the vote and has promised to go back to Brussels to beg for further "reassurances" on the Irish backstop. To add to the lulz, Ireland's Leo Varadkar said that this wasn't up for renegotiation without reopening the whole agreement - words echoed by Donald Tusk who has called for an emergency meeting. What a mess.

May knows there aren't about to be any last minute concessions or changes to the deal. But by ditching a vote she knows her rump Tory party were bound to lose and rescheduling it to the never-never, she can play brinkmanship without the catastrophe of seeing her deal voted down in the first place. As Paul Mason observes, holding it in late January - which appears to be the consensus among Westminster watchers for the moment - might make soft rebels on the Tory benches and the odd Labour MP sweaty enough to reluctantly back the deal. Another month of the falling pound, delayed investment and business whingeing will surely do the trick for some. Yet this won't matter appreciably. The polarisation out in the country is unlikely to shift, especially after May's egregious and ungracious dumping on parliamentary democracy. Whether you're leave or remain, left or right, she has shown herself up as a dishonest chancer and a bottler.

Nevertheless, in addition to the brinkmanship May has bought more time for another round of negotiations with the Tory party. Speaking on Andrew Marr on Sunday, Boris Johnson - The Economist's Idiot of the Year - did throw May something of a life line. The usual bluster and Brexit fantasyland nonsense got spun. Likewise, when can you tell Boris Johnson is lying? When he publicly affects concerns for others, as he did so when he said he would feel personally responsible if anyone lost their job because of Brexit. But yes, the lifeline. In the sole point of interest during an otherwise wasted 20 minutes, he said his only real problem with May's deal was the Irish backstop. If this could be fixed, he more or less said he'd be prepared to back the deal. Shifting the Ireland position ain't going to happen for as long as May is in power, but the "reassurances" May is seeking might help Johnson evolve toward a position where he "reluctantly" backs her deal. Why? The majority of the Commons are against the deal, and Tory Brexiteers have made enough noises. But say you're in the I-want-to-lead-the-Tories game, who are the biggest bloc of MPs? The Woke Soubz remainers? Pah. The Moggites? They can't even muster a no confidence party. The wider fraternity of Brexit ultras? Nope. The biggest chunk of Tory MPs are, believe it or not, the May loyalists. Johnson has proved himself the most opportunistic, unprincipled and amoral Tory to grease his way around the backbenches for some decades. If moving to support May's deal gets him closer to Number 10 he will do it.

However, the news the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 couldn't have come at a worse time for the government. All of a sudden the remain-minded factions on the Labour benches know a halt to Brexit is, constitutionally speaking, within reach. It doesn't matter that May has ruled out revoking it. After all, what are her promises worth these days? A delay followed by more spanners in the works come January makes its revocation more likely, at least so goes the reasoning. But it also affords Labour's position more weight. If your route to a general election involves not antagonising Labour leavers and keeping remain on board (though the EU vote plays a different role among Labour's voter coalition), then vigorously attacking May's pathetic deal, saying you're going to renegotiate it around your priorities - the central plank of which is a permanent customs union instead of a backstop - and then offer a vote on the final deal is the best way of knitting Labour together for the purposes of winning an election. This becomes all the more credible now Article 50 can be deactivated.

There we have it, another day in Brexitland. The peculiar place where the rules of politics are reversed, and the extraordinary becomes the ordinary. The long grass beckoned and that's where May has thrown her deal. It buys her time, but for what? It reduces May to a Macawber-like character, sat in Number 10 hoping something will turn up. Perhaps Boris Johnson will save her, perhaps the mood of the country will change magically and swing behind the deal. Whatever happens, May's fate and May's Brexit is in the hands of others. Far from taking back control, chaos and uncertainty reigns, and no one has the foggiest about what happens next.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

A General Election is a Necessity

In the then infamous but now largely forgotten behind-the-scenes documentary Vice filmed in the Leader of the Opposition's office, I remember Jeremy Corbyn getting annoyed at something Jonathan Freedland had written in The Graun. Why is something of a mystery, because as media commentators go he is more beige than bilge, and were it not for his parking space at the paper's offices few would pay him any mind. Unfortunately, his recent missive does deserve an answer because his remarks coincide with the opinions of a large number of Labour supporters.

First things first, Labour's position on Brexit isn't ambiguous. Just as it was in the 2017 General Election manifesto, the party accepts the referendum vote and is looking to shape Brexit according to its priorities. These involve the protection of jobs and rights at work, a mitigation of economic damage, and preservation of environmental regulation. Labour's plan involves a customs union with the EU and a trade deal that brings the UK as close to the single market as possible. In other words, as sensible a Brexit as can be. And because it is sensible, it entails rejecting Theresa May's deal - not least because it curbs any future government's plans for state-led industrial activism, and does not allow for either party's withdrawal without the consent of the other. Now, I realise that Labour's position isn't as detailed as the 585 pages of withdrawal documentation drawn up by civil servants, but then Labour haven't done the negotiating. Freedland is mistaking the absence of detail appealing to the technocratic mindset as an absence of a political position.

In case we need to remind ourselves, the Tories wouldn't be on the brink of a terminal crisis if Labour had cleaved to those calling for a second vote or, worse, abandoned Brexit altogether. Labour's position - a customs deal plus a trade deal on top - has far from united the Tories against it, which was always the danger had the advice of your Alistair Campbells and your Tony Blairs been heeded. The Moggites had their offshore tax haven vision, if this dismal prospectus could ever be described as such. Others fancy a straight forward no deal that would crash the country but no doubt provide rich pickings for some disaster capitalist or another. After spectacularly losing her majority, May wasn't really that fussed about what flavour of Brexit there was provided there was some level of continuity and, of course, she got the opportunity to shut down immigration. And who knows what exactly the Cameroons wanted. Amber Rudd is in today's Times talking up the virtues of a Norway-style model just as Norway are saying they will to block it suggest they're all over the place.

For Freedland, Labour's position is fence-sitting. Were one of his Blairite heroes in charge, it would be canny politics. When May loses the vote on Tuesday, which is about the only certainty politics has right now, Labour are going to table a no-confidence vote en route to a general election. With the DUP pledging to defend the government against such a move, Labour are planning a personal no confidence vote in May. It doesn't have any constitutional force, but the DUP could back it and the Tories who've already sent their letters to Graham Brady are out on the spot by this move. If May loses it's difficult to see her ploughing on. Not that this matters to Freedland, for whom the general election is an unnecessary distraction and thinks only a second referendum on the deal is possible. Be careful what you wish for, especially when the Tories are the ones who determine the question. Instead, a new election allows for a refresh, of articulating new arguments and positions on the table. Labour would, rightly, put down an Article 50 extension, ask for the opportunity to negotiate a better deal and, at the end of it, (I hope) look to have it sanctified by an additional vote. The EU might not be in the mood to renegotiate, but I prefer to listen to what those a bit more experienced have to say than either pay cheque pundits or the author of the Harry Potter series.

An election is a risk. Labour might not win a majority, though an arrangement with the SNP on matters pertaining to Brexit would certainly be possible. But this is much less of a risk than letting the Tories carry on, or running a referendum with the same remain people in charge who lost the campaign last time and have learned nothing in the interim. Freedland's page filler is ultimately typical of this trend. He, and they, don't know the way forward, they don't like what the world has become (a feature shared with others they affect to detest), and gear their politics entirely around turning the clock back - regardless of the damage they could cause to democratic politics. A second referendum is a bad idea, and one that cannot be ruled out, but it's more sensible and useful to try and shift the balance of Westminster politics first.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Brainbug - Nightmare

No time for blogging tonight, but there's just enough to squeeze in a top tune.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

A Political Obituary

With Nigel Farage’s resignation, the stake has finally been driven through the blackened, wizened heart of the United Kingdom Independence Party. The head remains to be cut off and the rest cast into the flames, but for all intents and purposes the party is dead – just as the chances of a revival are coming into play again. The rise and fall of UKIP is a tale of bigotry, careerism, opportunism and incompetence. And above all its short history condenses on a smaller and accelerated scale the essential ingredients of the long-term decline and crisis of the Conservatives.

Let's recap. For our purposes, there have, if you like, been two waves of UKIP. The first was in 2004 when the unlamented Robert Kilroy-Silk capitalised on a few anti-Arab racist articles he had written for the Express (then, as now, the Mail's desperate, try-hard mini-me) by joining UKIP and creating a media buzz around the party for the first time. And the second marked the party's move into the mainstream off UKIP's capitalisation of the difficulties the Tories had over getting equal marriage through the Commons. Long time readers and politics watchers will remember this was a central plank of Dave's social liberal strategy, caused great upset among the blue rinsed bigots in the associations and encouraged experienced (and irreplaceable) activists to defect to UKIP. The purple party, smelling the opportunity for new recruits, dumped its previous formal commitment to libertarian values and came out in defence of "tradition" - a process that involved Farage pretty much dumping the kippers' youth section. Still, it was a price worth paying. UKIP surged from nowhere to coming within a whisker of taking a seat from the LibDems at the March 2013 Eastleigh by-election and catapulted them into the big time. Farage became a household name, he was never off the telly, and at every by-election between early 2013 and the 2015 general election the kippers consolidated their position as the go-to protest vote, regardless of who held the seat. They were able to bag a couple of Tory MPs - Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless - who both resigned their Tory membership and forced by-elections they subsequently won on a kipper ticket. And, famously, it was the growth in support that frightened Dave into conceding a referendum on EU membership. We know what happened next.

From the outset, even when UKIP was on the rise it had two big problems. It was a highly unstable political formation full of racists and Walter Mitty chancers, and it was born in decline. This might seem a bizarre claim considering there was a point when membership and votes surged, but not when you consider the human stuff from which the party was fashioned. On plenty of occasions we've talked about the Tory party's declining voter coalition, composed mostly of older voters (particularly retirees) and people in occupations that are on the way out. This wouldn't be a problem per se if these groups were replaced by other voters as they aged, but the conservatising effects of age are breaking down and Tory values are at odds with the culturally dominant social liberalism of younger voters. The rising generation therefore are not necessarily leftists, but they're not going to vote Tory either.

UKIP's take off was part of a reactionary backlash against Dave's efforts to push the Tories through a superficial make over. Therefore not only did the party capture older and mainly (white) male activists, they did so on the basis of backward politics completely out of step with the mainstream. Stability could only be bought at the expense of the Tories, despite the stupid commentator hype that claimed UKIP posed Labour an existential crisis. In other words, from the off UKIP was plagued by a crisis of long-term viability. And so as long as Europe remained an issue for its band of obsessives, for as long as the tabloids did the cheer leading for UKIP's immigration policy, and for as long as the kippers were able to present themselves as a bunch of white imperial Britain nostalgics, they could corner a section of the electoral market.

Well, the referendum came, and the result ostensibly carried UKIP's raison d'etre away with it. Labour delivered them a a body blow in Stoke-on-Trent Central, but the writing was on the wall after May moved quickly to position herself as the custodian and guarantor of hard Brexit. Her authoritarian, anti-immigration project won back the bulk of those who had defected under Dave in terms of polling and at the 2017 general election. In these straitened circumstances and with Farage retiring to spend more time finessing his bank balance, there were two ways of keeping the ship afloat. There was the Paul Nuttall strategy of positioning UKIP as the keepers of the Brexit flame, or of lurching even further to the right. Nuttall was partly correct in his diagnosis, but believed the kipper interest was best served going after disaffected Labour voters. Doh! As we have seen, there has been a little bit of slippage away from the Tories toward the purples since May unveiled her Brexit deal. The other, piloted by the faintly ridiculous Gerard Batten, is to flirt with the fash and double down on Islamophobia and cartoon conservatism. This is hardly the path back to the big time, but as the 00s showed there was a small but persistent voter population prepared to give the BNP their votes on such a basis. The problem for Batten is this soft fash turn is toxic to most voters, including not a few Tories. And, of course, it has proved enough to spark Farage's resignation.

As you might expect, various folks have gone to town on Farage’s announcement. He said the employment of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an advisor to Batten was the final straw. The overt racism of this pathetic petit-bourgeois thug was too much to stomach, he claimed. Well Nige, it’s a good job there is this thing called memory because, along with Theresa May, there are few politicians active in British politics who’ve done more to stir up antipathy toward immigration generally and Muslims in particular than your precious self. Where Yaxley-Lennon prefers the intimidating power of the beered up crowd, Farage exploited fear and encouraged hostility off the back of multiple media appearances and racist billboard posters. No, it’s less the political message of Yaxley-Lennon’s street movement Farage wants to distance himself from and more its crudity and violent revelry. While UKIP’s leader and best known figure, his outsider poise remained just about within the boundaries of official political debate. Establishment anti-establishmentism opens lucrative doors, like the very well paid berth at LBC for example. As far as Farage is concerned, UKIP was a vehicle that transported him, for a time, into the front rank of British politics. He did very well out of it, but now the EDL association and overt racism is, well, embarrassing. When the MEP salary and expenses disappears he's much more marketable without the baggage of pissed up footy hooligans getting dragged from studio to studio.

UKIP lived by Farage, and has died by his hand. There are a few death rattles and spasms of rigor left in the kipper corpse and, for now, Farage is happy to draw his salary and rant from the warmth of his studio. But while UKIP is dead, Farage is not, and the possibility he could affect a return some point down the line cannot be ruled out.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Demystifying Capital

A lot of bollocks has been written about Karl Marx's masterwerk, not least about its alleged difficulties and forbidding reputation. At over a thousand pages in length and on a topic as seemingly arid as the Sahara during a dry spell, Capital's popular reception and perception is in about the same area as War and Peace and Ulysses: a fantastic accomplishment, but more a monument than anything else. This couldn't be further from the truth. Marx may have published the first edition of this book in 1867, but rare are the works of social theory that read fresh and alive after 150 years in circulation.

It has taken me a long time to read Capital. I had a bash at it during my first summer holidays as an undergrad, but got waylaid by Lenin's Selected Works in One Volume. Still, it furnished me with a basic understanding of the labour theory of value, and that made immediate sense to me as a low paid worker for a rob dog "family owned" northern supermarket. And then in the early 00s I had another bash, this time taking very comprehensive and detailed notes. This took me up to chapter eight - Constant and Variable Capital - until distracted by other things again. And there the bookmark remained for 15 years until taking it up again and finishing it over the course of the last month.

One reason it took so long wasn't just the length and the attendant time sink, but because of the literature surrounding it. Having read loads of stuff and commentary on Marx's arguments and on Capital, the various debates had a way of mystifying the book as opposed to opening it up and encouraging others to read it. Althusser, for example, co-wrote Reading Capital arguing that there was a master key to materialist social theory in there but only by wading through his own dense arguments and digressions on Theory, science vs ideology, and what not could we hope to retrieve it. You had the idiots from what was the Revolutionary Communist Party (the boring provocateurs now trading under the Koch Bros-funded Spiked Online, among other guises) arguing that Capital could only be understood in the original German. Even old Lenin was far from helpful when he polemically declared against the official Marxism of the Second International that reading and understanding Hegel's Logic was a precondition for getting to grips with the book. As far as I'm concerned, giving Capital the bible code treatment is not an aid to understanding and is counter productive from the point of view of propagating Marx's ideas.

For readers contemplating the effort, it's worth ignoring the flim-flam and piling straight in. Stylistically, Capital is an excellent read. Unlike Tolstoy's infamous novel, there's no equivalent of a minor Russian princeling popping up several hundred pages after his first introduction. Marx goes through his argument methodically and painstakingly. In places, perhaps he belabours his points too much. But then again, given the level of abstraction and the complex and contradictory ways capital and capitalism works who can blame him? Clarity of exposition is a skill too many latter day thinkers and philosophers have happily abandoned. Sure, sometimes you have to stop and think through the discussion - particularly so with the first part on the commodity (the one Althusser used to get sweaty about), but it's hardly Science of Logic territory. Remember, Capital wasn't written for stuffy academics to build careers out of. Marx's analysis was geared toward a popular readership and, particularly, the very workers at the heart of the book's argument. The only issue I have with the presentation (mine is the 1976 Penguin Classics edition) is the inclusion of The Results of the Immediate Process of Production in the appendix. This is a scrappy collection of drafts and fragments that condenses many of Marx's earlier points about exploitation, the value of labour, the "surplus population" and so on. It's good for the Marxology but going straight into it from reading the book detracts from the coherence and narrative pace.

Writing a review of Capital is a difficult task because there are so many aspects to it. Volume One is, effectively, our The Origin of the Species. The basics are there: the definition and circulation of commodities, the source of profit, class exploitation, the determination of wages, why unemployment is inevitable, the origins of capitalism, the inescapable fact of class struggle. Capital is our way in, it gives us the basics to which we must supply the subsequent detail, such as how exploitation remains with us but is changing. Times have changed but the method remains relevant and the concepts are sound because capitalism in the 21st century is still capitalism.

While reading, I did so with an eye to some of the subsequent debates and trends in Marxism and social theory generally. These included the relationship between the degradation of wage labour and health (including mental health), Althusser's argument that there was an 'epistemological break' between the early, Hegel-influenced Marx and his mature work (unconvincing), whether there is discontinuity between Marx's treatment of machines in The Grundrisse and Capital (no), and Richard Brenner's contention that capitalism originated in the English countryside and not the towns as Marx supposed is challenged by, um, Marx's account that capitalism emerged from the destruction of the English peasantry and the replacement of serfdom by waged labour in the countryside(part eight).

Capital is long, and there are another two volumes to shout about as well. But don't let that put you off. It deserves to be read, demands to be read. Sitting down and patiently making your way through is at odds with our attention economy and the millions of videos, GIFs, tweets, and so much digital babble demanding time. But doing so is rewarding, leaves you wanting to more, and an appreciation why, despite its age, Marx's Capital remains the utterly indispensable work.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Fall Out by Tim Shipman

And so the Speaker is allowing a motion of contempt to be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. For those not au fait with what's happening, the government have been bound by Parliament to publish any legal advice received about Brexit and, hey ho, Theresa May and co are refusing to so. To try and head it off Attorney General Geoffrey Cox took to the despatch box earlier to lift the lid on some of the more embarrassing implications of May's backstop deal - one of which being the inability of the UK to withdraw from it without the EU's mutual consent, and that entering it was a "calculated risk". So much for sovereignty. So much for "taking back control". Nevertheless, it wasn't enough and, rightly, it looks like the government will lose the motion and find themselves before the standards committee. And then what?

We know how we got to this point, but how do others - particularly members of the establishment - view the chaotic path to our increasingly chaotic Brexit? One of the more interesting and readable offerings comes from the right. Fall Out by "Shippers" has come in for effusive praise, suggesting it's a good place to look for anyone trying to make sense of what's going on, and who is this lesser mortal to quibble the wisdom of the great and the good of political punditry? In this case the hype is deserved. "Shippers" reporting opens up the window on the country's Tory elite in all its gossipy, bitchy, vainglorious, um, glory.

Like its predecessor, this isn't a sociological work. In fact, this time round he doesn't even drop in a caveat about his method. It's a straight up account of the ins and outs of establishment politics from the moment Theresa May came to power, all the way through her period of imperial pomp, the debacle of the election, her calamitous handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the early, discouraging signs of the Brexit negotiations. It's an excruciating story that we're still living, and the big spoiler is we're stuck with the consequences these incompetents have laid out for us.

Fall Out excels in its sketching of the regime Theresa May foisted on the Tory party, and then the revenge the party took after her failed election bid by effectively visiting on her a regime of permanent instability of its own. As the main protagonist, and arguably her own worst antagonist, "Shippers" portrays a politician criminally and cruelly out of her depth and beholden to her two - now thankfully departed - advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. The impression is oft-given that not only were "the chiefs", as they were styled, part of a triumvirate with May at the centre but effectively her brains. Timothy was more the ideas/philosophy man, and Hill the one selling the image and wrestling with the press, May is cast little more than an empty vessel. On many occasions we are regaled with tales of bad behaviour, arrogant behaviour, screaming matches, attacks on serving ministers, whispered briefings. Hill and Timothy were living their best lives, if those lives were sixth form impersonations of Malcolm Tucker. And when the election didn't turn out as expected, the cabinet quickly made it clear May would not be allowed to carry on if her crutches were allowed to stay to support her.

Speaking of elections, also interesting is "Shippers" take on why the Tories lost. It wasn't because of Jeremy Corbyn (the book goes out of its way to paint the Labour campaign and the folks around Corbyn as a shambles) nor was it really the awfulness of strong and stable, or even the dementia tax disaster. What stung was supposed to be the Tories strong suit: security. After the atrocity at the Manchester Arena, there was a belief among Tory circles it would play to their strengths and accentuate Labour's weakness. After all, Corbyn had rubbed shoulders with unsavoury characters like representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas while the Tories were the party of Britain's martial defence par excellence. But very quickly Labour muscled in by highlighting the decade's worth of police cuts under May's time in the Home Office, which continued to hit home even while May tried making capital after the London spree killings. This is what did for her more than anything else, and is still an issue the Tories have refused to rectify since.

Naturally, with Hill and Timothy out of the picture May, according to "Shippers", is less the toy of her arrogant bag carriers and more a creature of the civil service. With the chaos of the election result, we are told the late Jeremy Heywood more or less assumed the running of the government while the Tories squabbled about continuing with her, weighing up their own chances for leadership, apportioning blame, doing footsie with the DUP, and getting over their shock. From this point on May is less the author of her own fate, regardless of how debatable that designation was in the first place, and more the prime ministerial flotsam and jetsam of those around her. She doubled down on the hard Brexit rhetoric she indulged in her pomp, while all the time laying the ground for the weird soft for Northern Ireland/hard for the rest back stop deal we're lumbered with now.

The unparalleled access to leading members of the Tory party is the chief strength of "Shippers" account, but it's also the biggest weakness too. As per the previous tome, details on what was going on in Labour were much scantier and coloured by his obvious antipathy to Corbynism. His sources are few and far between, occasionally getting a comment from former Jezza presser Matt Zarb-Cousin or some anonymous-but-hostile full-timer at the Southside offices - comrades wanting the inside view from the Corbyn camp should read Steve Howell's Game Changer. Similarly, as you might expect the perspective from the SNP is largely missing and the Liberal Democrats, well, who cares anyway?

The other issue is, yes, the sociology. The screw up of Brexit, the mess of the general election, and the tedious, incompetent, complacent posturing can't all be laid at the door of the dramatis personae of "Shippers" duology. Political crisis moves through the actions of those caught up in it. The fact the activities of the few dozen Tories the book homes in on matters cannot be separated from what parties are and what politics is: the condensation and struggles of classes and class interests. Shippers then provides a way in, a microphysics of the shiftings and movements of the Tory elite, but properly understanding why their party is in an advanced state of decay and how it has brought the UK to the brink of its most profound crisis in 70 years demands we go beyond the interplay of he said, she said.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

More Notes on the Tory Crisis

To lose one minister is unfortunate. To lose 18 is, well, something else. The departure of Sam Gyimah marks another unremarkable moment in the crumbling of Theresa May's government. I say unremarkable, because there are plenty of other things going on. According to The Telegraph, Penny Mordaunt has "let it be known" that she "has not backed the deal yet, but had said she will support the Prime Minister." Oh my days. Meanwhile, May carries on up the Khyber seemingly oblivious to her government visibly and ostentatiously decaying in office.

Gyimah's widely-publicised resignation condenses the nervous breakdown the establishment are having. Taking the Galileo satellite navigation system as his jumping off point, he noted that much of the technology and investment was UK-supplied. But with Brexit squatting on the horizon, the UK will lose privileged access to the project and be relegated to third country use. Galileo serves as a microcosm of Brexit. Four decades of investment, collaboration, and economic integration across borders, a section of the establishment - whether remain or leave - appear surprised that Brexit is going to reverse some of this. However, faced with a hit to their power and prestige they are paralysed, preferring either a ridiculous three-way referendum or going along with May's deal because it's the only game in town, and allows for more complex issues to get teed into the long grass.

Nevertheless, May can shrug off Gyimah's resignation because there are more pressing concerns. As Laura Kuenssberg rightly observes, support for May's deal is, if anything, shrinking. May is also facing a constitutional crisis as Parliament is set to demand the full release of the documents detailing the legalities of Brexit. Because the government have already ignored one vote there is a possibility of Labour bringing contempt of Parliament claims against them - a headache May could do without. And if that wasn't enough, we know her premiership could finally collapse entirely when the deal is lost in less than a fortnight's time. If you think you've seen political uncertainty and are fed up with it, expect an unwelcome early Christmas gift.

What Brexit has made possible is an acceleration of the slow burn destruction of the Tories, and its demise moves from future possibility to imminent potential. So I was very pleased to read about the latest wheeze from Conservative central office. Accompanied by a nice website, CCHQ are delivering thousands of postcards to its depleted associations. These party-funded and branded post cards are to be mailed to recalcitrant MPs and pressure them into backing the deal. Most opposition MPs would view the receipt of such post cards as helpful contact information, before filing them down the back of the sofa. Most deliciously it puts Tory deal backers in a head on collision with rebellion-minded Tory MPs, while doing is best to destroy relations between the party and its Brexity activist base. Just as Dave sacrificed UK interests for the narrow electoral purposes of denying UKIP one or two Westminster seats, for May her party is so much an offering to get through a crappy deal she has designated in the state's best interest. I suppose there's some poetic justice in that.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Local Council By-Elections November 2018

This month saw 46,377 votes cast over 22 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Just two council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with October's results, see here.

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- 
Oct
+/- Nov 17
Average/
Contest
+/-
Seats
Conservative
           22
17,189
    37.1%
+4.2%
     +0.6%
    781
    -1
Labour
           22
15,975
    34.4%
+6.6%
   +10.2%
    726
   +1
LibDem
           22
 9,410
    20.3%
+0.0%
     -4.7%
    423
   +1
UKIP
            5
  572
     1.2%
 -1.9%
     -0.6%
    114
     0
Green
           14
 1,572
     3.4%
 -1.8%
     -0.9%
    112
     0
SNP
            0

    
    
 
     0
PC**
            0
  
    
 
     
    
     0
Ind***
            5
 1,030
     2.2%
 -4.2%
     +0.6%
    206
     0
Other****
            5
   809
     1.7%
 +1.1%
     +1.3%
    162
    -1

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-election in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** This month's Others consisted of Harlow Alliance Party (99, 63) NFPP (223), Women's Equality Party (79), Stratford First (345)

As by-election tallies go, this has to be the most boring for some time. Only two seats exchanged hands, but seeing as one of the beneficiaries was Labour there won't be any complaints from me. Though it is something of a first. I don't think there has been another occasion where the main three parties of the England/Wales party system have managed to contest all seats. The Tories, as we know, nearly always manage to stand everywhere despite have an organisation that's dropping to bits. By contrast, Labour and the LibDems are, party member-wise, in rude health and now have the numbers on paper to stand everywhere. Will we see more of this next month?

Nothing more to add, really. Tories topped out the popular vote thanks to differential turn outs for council by-elections and the LibDems look like they're topping out with a fifth of support. Is Santa going to bring us a more interesting December, by-election wise?


1st November
Kirklees MB, Denby Dale Lab gain from Con
Newham LB, Boleyn Lab hold
South Gloucestershire UA, Dodington LDem hold

8th November
Ealing LB, Dormers Wells Lab
Harlow DC, Bush Fair Lab hold
Harlow DC, Netteswell Lab hold
Torridge DC, Holsworth Con hold

15th November
Bassetlaw DC, East Retford West Lab hold
Kent CC, Canterbury North Con hold
Oxford CC, Grove and Wantage LDem hold
Stroud DC, Dursley Lab hold

22nd November
Enfield LB, Bush Hill Park Con hold
Westminster LB, Lancaster Gate Con hold
Windsor and Maidenhead UA, Dachet Con hold
Wirral MB, Upton Lab hold

29th November
Bromley LB, Kelsey & Eden Park Con hold
Buckinghamshire CC, Aylesbury North West LDem hold
Northampton BC, Delapre & Briar Hill Lab hold
Oldham MB, Failsworth East Lab hold
Oxfordshire CC, Wheatley LDem hold
Warwickshire CC, Stratford North LDem gain from Oth
Welwyn and Hatfield BC, West Welwyn Con hold