Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Blaster Master for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Consider the tank. Great clunking machines swathed in armour plating, and a big gun for shooting things. Ideal fodder for video games you might think. And indeed, a number of arcade and simulator titles have gone off and run with it. Top view, first person view, these are the most sensible ways of rendering tank combat in digital form. See Battlezone, M-1 Abrams, and Granada, for example. Much rarer is a tank game as a horizontally-scrolling affair. And rarer still is to keep the side on view and, um, place the tank in a platform game. Yet this is exactly what SunSoft did with Blaster Master, one of the most beloved and consistently praised games in the old Nintendo library.

As you might imagine, platforming in a tank lends the game to some quite unusual features. And so it proves. The most stark of which are the two game modes. On the one hand there's your huge levels with plenty to discover and few hidden power ups to find, and then there's ... when you get out of the tank. Occasionally you come across small doors and gaps in levels too small for the tank. Here you press select and out you jump, a super deformed little man (supposedly Jason, a young lad in search of his radioactive frog as per the nonsense Western release plot). You enter the room et voila, the game switches to a pseudo-top down Zelda-style blaster. Not an addition many platformers can boast of, all told. Back in the tank, as you progress through the levels and after facing off against the end-of-level baddies, each victory awards your tank an upgrade. These include the ability to hover, shoot through destructible bricks, drive up walls and across ceilings ... all of these are needed to reach certain areas to advance the game. Further assistance comes in the form of weapons you can pick up through the level, which consist of homing missiles (essential!), bolts of lightning (only any good for enemies on the platform immediately underneath) and a multi-shot, which isn't so useful. Likewise, as you guide Jason through his overhead mazes you can acquire all kinds of power ups, which go from upgrades for your peashooter sidearm to bits and bobs for the tank.

What makes Blaster Master special can't be conveyed by drily describing the game's basics. For a lumbering tank you move with the kind of precision you'd find in a Mario game. With all the gizmos at your disposal and the hefty gun that comes as standard, it never feels underpowered or vulnerable, which - at least initially - tempts one to rush in without thinking about the next steps. With plenty of enemies flying about you almost feel compelled to try and take them out. As for the rest, you'll have to take me on trust or check out the multiple shrines on YouTube to the game. And yet there are certain features dedicated to drive the more casual gamer to distraction, especially those who are unused to retro titles and are dipping in.

First off, it is ridiculously hard, and in the unfair cheap ways NES games often are. Enemy placements on very tricky jumps are a nightmare, but particularly so in the overhead maps. Later on there are plenty of occasions where as soon as you enter a room there's an enemy there to sap your energy and, worse, bump down the power of your gun. Basically, on the higher levels unless your gun is at full power you can forget about making it through the maze of rooms, let alone taking on the boss. And also, like many NES games, you can't shoot straight when the gun is fully powered up. Instead of shooting a beam or bullets directly in front, we get instead a helix pattern of lasers. There's many an occasion where you have to be at an angle to take out a would-be assailant - if they're directly in front, forget it. And some of the bosses are ridiculous as well, especially the end of game nasty who not only takes an age to kill while you dodge endless bouncing balls, but you have a "bonus" boss to tackle as well. What jolly fun.

Also interesting are the changes Blaster Master underwent outside of Japan. As Nintendo were (still are) notoriously conservative, SunSoft pre-empted their family friendly expectations by toning down the sci-fi war theme and added the ludicrous frog plot - replete with cinematic introduction. The problem is our frog never appears in the game, nor is he rescued at the end. And when your sat on your tank staring off into the distance on the ending screen, it seems you had the time to dye your hair from brown to blue. If you're going to localise, be sure of consistency ... though, to be honest, not many of the kids who purchased it back in the day would have completed it. So it's a moot point.

The classic qualities then lie in its originality: the two-game mode, the versatility and growing power of your tank, the unlocking of the levels as you become more able, and the general production values too. For a NES game the graphics are good (and the tank animations are very well done) and the music, I suppose, is fine if not too memorable for those whose appreciation of the game aren't framed by nostalgia goggles. But crucially, Blaster Master retains its status because nothing else like it emerged on the NES. Its mechanics, chiefly the dual mode, didn't receive tributes in many other if at all any platformers for the system, and the slow build of the tank's abilities was another mechanic seldom copied. There were sequels later for other systems that weren't terribly well recieved, but Blaster Master was a one-off. It stood out back in 1988. It stood out when it entered the European market. And 31 years after its release, it stands out now.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Alastair Campbell's Tantrum

"Though I would win my appeal against expulsion", goes the blurb fronting up Alastair Campbell's thwarted resignation letter from Labour, "your losing mentality and lack of Brexit leadership mean I won’t return". I'm sure readers share with me the deep sadness that his malevolence won't be returning to the party for the foreseeable. Truly a black armband day.

Before we look at Campbell's letter proper, let us briefly examine his claim that he would win his appeal. The grounds for this boast are fanciful to say the least, assuming the appeal would be conducted by the rules and the panel isn't stuffed full of old Blairites. Readers will recall he invited automatic exclusion from the party for using the very considerable platform he commands to say he voted Liberal Democrat in the EU elections. As a voluntary party, Labour as per any party has the right to oblige its members to do certain things, like vote for it. As the rule book says, anyone "who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party" will "automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member". Campbell's argument would have rested on the ambiguity around whether an after-the-fact confession of voting LibDem constitutes supporting them. An argument unlikely to pass muster considering his pattern of activity aimed at undermining the party and using his profile to rubbish it. In other words, fessing up to voting for the LibDems was the very public crowning of a recent record of scabby behaviour. Considering what he did 15-16 years ago, Campbell ought to be grateful expulsion from Labour is the only sanction he's had to face.

As for the content of his letter, it's entirely predictable. Boris Johnson is Prime Minister (really?) and what he fears the most is a no deal vs a no Brexit referendum. The first polls of his premiership show the Tories eating into the Brexit Party's figures and that means Labour has no chance of winning an election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. There follows more wrangling about the mechanics of his expulsion (which clearly stung him - rules, after all, are for the little people), and moaning about how the party doesn't represent his values any more. Which, if they mean sucking up to media oligarchs and telling packs of lies to wage an aggressive war, is no bad thing. He accuses Corbyn of having no strategy for addressing the policy challenges in front of us and, as a consequence, he might not vote for Labour at the next general election.

What a devastating critique. How can Labour possibly recover?

When you've spent your career manipulating news, telling lies, bullying people, and manufacturing the truth to serve the powerful, those skills don't automatically lend themselves to writing polemic. And Campbell's letter shows. It is, frankly, a dishonest dish of shit. If he paid more attention to British politics, he might have noticed Labour has adopted calls for a second referendum come what may. Yes, that includes after a general election when Labour has negotiated its own deal with the EU. However, just because the party has this position it does not mean it can happen. I know centrists are fixated with their magical grandpa nonsense, but Corbyn cannot pull a referendum out of a hat. Remember the indicative votes in the Commons almost four months ago? It seems the repeated failure to command a majority for a second referendum or, for that matter, any kind of Brexit save opposition to no deal has fallen down the memory hole. As for Johnson, Campbell is a fool if he genuinely thinks the polling will stay static. What the new Prime Minister is doing is entirely predictable, despite the hype surrounding Dominic Cummings and his supposed galaxy brain master strategies. And the boost, as anyone with a bare acquaintance with political history knows, is the kind of bounce most new leaders and new Prime Ministers customarily receive. The final missive, that Labour aren't facing up to the current policy challenges, borders on gaslighting. Tackling climate with a green industrial strategy - you can't get more relevant than that. Sorting out the housing shortage, tackling crap wages and zero prospects, making sure public services are properly funded, among many other things, are these simple hobby horses that count for nothing? They might be irrelevant to Campbell and his chums Tony and Mandy, but they are not to millions of people. 2017 saw Corbynism tap into the frustrations and grievances politics had hitherto ignored. And while Campbell might not entertain them, they haven't gone away.

Campbell's letter then is damaging, but only to himself. He comes across as an entitled yesterday man throwing a look-at-me tantrum. Doubly feted during the Levenson inquiry and for his role in continuity remain, he nevertheless barely registers for most people. And in the Labour Party itself, few hold a candle for him. The media platform he enjoys gives him pin money and a self-satisfied illusion of counting, but this is a simulacra of relevance doomed to diminishing returns. If Campbell's letter is the last straw and causes some to resign in solidarity, they're demobilising the Labour right further and reducing whatever residual influence the likes of Campbell has left. And this, all told, is no bad thing.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Labour, Anti-Semitism, and Jewishness

A guest post from @jake_srowland

If you’ve been living under a stone for the last few years you might have missed Labour's anti-semitism crisis. That Labour has a problem with this form of racism is undeniable, and there have been many members found to hold and share these repugnant views. Labour has never denied this is the case, and the party's educational leaflet for members, No Place For Antisemitism acknowledges a “number of Labour members hold antisemitic views and a much larger number don’t recognise antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories.” Labour has taken a long time to make its position clear, but isn’t action without serious thought beforehand dangerous? As Horkheimer made clear: “action for action’s sake is in no way superior to thought for thought’s sake, and is perhaps even inferior to it”.

Can the problems Labour has with anti-semitism be called a crisis? If here we were to take a leaf out of Stanley Cohen’s great book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, we learn ‘crises’ or ‘panics’ are not natural events. They are created when a “group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people”. The hysterics most of the mass media have had since Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party must be argued to fit this bill, not just when it comes to the labelling of him and the movement that he fronts as anti-semitic, it also extends to the idea that Corbyn hates Britain or that his views run counter to "British values".

Though other parts of the establishment's four-year moral panic about Corbynism are easily dismissed as nonsense, the charges of anti-semitism cannot and should not be treated in this way. Doing so would further alienate the Jewish community from the left, which must be remembered fought side by side against Mosley’s fascists at Cable Street and the East End. How then can Labour renew this alliance and win back parts of the Jewish community turned off by the current crisis? Can this be done by uncritically accepting the demands placed on Labour by the Board of Deputies? Probably not. Could a political party survive having an outside, 'independent' body decide disciplinary issues for it? The demand for investigations to be done on a much quicker basis must also be rejected as what good does it do to rush into a decision only to have it revoked at a later date, as has too often been the case. Anyone demanding that any Labour member under the suspicion of anti-semitism must be kicked out of the party is hysterical. Much better to educate them on how “anti-semitism is the poor man’s socialism”, rather than write them off, as we have recently seen. However, if members are unrepentant or refuse to take direction, then they should no longer be welcome. With firmer rules, a better understanding of what constitutes anti-semitism, and more people working in the complaints process, because the crisis hasn't gone away than clearly something more than an administrative response is needed.

If this then is not the route to a better relationship between Labour and the Jewish community, what is? Some say the answer is to stick with domestic politics, because leftist critiques of foreign policy and international affairs tends to focus disproportionately on Israel, laying it open to charges of obsession and inferences of anti-semitism. That said, how can Israel not be critiqued from the left? One reason for the focus on Israel are the hypocrisies that arise from its famous claim of being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. When you consider how Palestinians live under a state of occupation, have their movements tightly policed, homes demolished, land stolen, the write to vote denied, and suffering punitive beatings, shootings, and have their protests raked with gunfire, you can understand why some see Israel as an apartheid state. As such plenty of Jews feel like the Jewish state does not represent their Jewishness, be it Jewdas, who describe themselves as an ‘alternative diaspora’, or the orthodox groups who struggle against the Israeli state from within, and the Israeli peace movement comprised of Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. In Jewish communities outside of Israel you often find community leaders describing Jews who are critical of Israel as ‘self-hating Jews’. For instance. In my view, these luminaries are often just as anti-semitic as those they rail against in the Labour Party because they demand Jews should believe certain things simply because of their Jewishness. They stereotype the Jew and dismiss the Judaism and Jewishness of those who do not fit and are not "acceptable". And in this case, the official policing of Jewishness means forgetting how Zionism has always included left wing ideas. Like most national movements, it has a right and a left and leftism played an important role in the founding of the Jewish state: the Kibbutz and the historic strength of Israel's Labour Party were hugely influential on the polity.

The only real option for the Labour Party is for it to keep doing what it is doing. The party must keep its messaging clear and to continue to remove from the movement those that hold anti-semitic views. But it must do so without falling into hysterics and internal warfare as many would like it to, especially its enemies in the Conservative Party, who have made no concerted effort comparable to Labour to tackle the Islamophobia or, for that matter, the anti-semitism of its members. Even if it takes a few years for the Jewish community to see that the Labour Party is not a threat, Labour must remain resolute in its efforts to communicate with the Jewish community what it is doing to put this issue to rest.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Boris Johnson and Cynical Optimism

It's easy to be pessimistic. Since 1979 the key industrial battles have all been lost by the left, resulting in the imposition of the economic settlement we now groan under. And while it looked like social liberalism was all-conquering and irreversible, the appointment of Boris Johnson, the Windrush scandal, the cynical manipulation of Labour's anti-semitism wars by the right, and the rising hate crime figures against women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities underline how we can never be complacent about such things. We're in a bit of a funk because the world is looking gloomy. To find some reasons to be cheerful would be nice.

Cheerfulness is the cornerstone of Johnsonism, if we can now speak about such an abomination. His first appearance at the dispatch box as Prime Minister was pretty terrible, all told. Jeremy Corbyn's statement fired no less than 10 questions, to which Johnson replied that he didn't hear a single one. This then is how it's going to be. As we've already seen, Johnson's first day in the job was geared around the impression of getting to grips with things, but all done with a smile and a thumbs up. The Commons performance was part of the same piece. As the otherwise guileless Jeremy Hunt observed in his first leadership debate with Johnson, while you're chuckling away at his response you've forgot that he didn't answer your question. The Johnson fans lapped it up, but not everyone was convinced. As an inveterate crowd pleaser, that more than a few Tory MPs were sitting there wrapped in scowls and frowns should give his team pause for thought.

But Johnson is on to something. You don't need to pretend Number 10 has read Gramsci to observe that the new Prime Minister and friends have read the country's mood, and are responding accordingly. Looking back at Theresa May's first few months in office, she was able to speak vaguely about a better future with her remarks about tackling injustice and poverty. At the spectacular level she made a break with Dave's grim vision of austerity forever, while appearing to be the best figure to consolidate any post-Brexit national renewal. We know how that turned out. And then in 2017 we saw the unexpected happen. You will recall how, as soon as the election was called, Labour's polling inexorably rose which gave the party its second best vote tally for 50 years. According to recent rewrites of history, this was because many mistook Labour for a remain party. In fact, as actual polling at the time indicated Brexit was not the primary concern of the bulk of Labour voters. Corbyn's message of a different future, of, again, a break with the tired status quo and actually holding out the possibility of hope and how things could get better resonated.

And now? Johnson and co know people are fed up of Brexit, are sick to the back teeth of hearing about Brexit, and can't wait for Brexit to be over. Alas, if you're one of these people I've got some unwelcome news for you ... So the public don't want to know or would prefer it gone sooner rather than later. Therefore the huge stress, some might say overemphasis, Johnson has placed on the 31st October deadline. There is more to it than placating the kamikaze base - he thinks the done and dusted approach has a wider purchase beyond the Leave-committed. The second is, well, folks are pretty teed off more generally. In the months to come Johnson will tediously talk about the record numbers of people in jobs yadda yadda, but behind the scenes Dominic Cummings and some of the smarter Tories know that low wages, low prospects, high debt, unaffordable housing prices and rising rents, and substandard services are stirring up real trouble for the Tories, especially for voters under 50. i.e. The majority of the working population. The immediate sticking plaster is to talk up the eye-catching items, like 20k more police (pinched from Labour's manifesto) and a bit of money to improve rail links between Manchester and Leeds, and wax lyrical about how these are going to help catapult a "global" Britain into a new golden age with a new economics. That and all the bluster about industries of the future and high-paying jobs. Well, some who should know better have fallen for it.

By talking things up all the time and unveiling a set piece improvement here and there, Johnson's hope is this will be enough to distract attention, or at least soften awareness of the difficulties arising from a likely no deal Brexit. Because, in early November, if we leave without a deal the sun will still rise the next day and the apocalyptic predictions of no flights and no medicine won't come to pass, Johnson can claim the absence of cataclysm as proof of the power of can-do. And this is how it will be until his ejection from Number 10. However, when you look at the people he's appointed to his cabinet - easily the most right wing ever - you've got to ask how Johnson hopes to square his everything-is-fine messaging with his coterie of arch-neoliberals, cutters, privatisers, corporate welfare enthusiasts, and the rest. Because when the axe starts to fall, no amount of bluster and funny haha hi-jinks will save Johnson from the political fall out of this idiocy.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Local Council By Elections July 2019

This month saw 21,830 votes cast over 16 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Six council seats changed hands. For comparison with June's results, see here.

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- 
June
+/- July 18
Avge/
Contest
+/-
Seats
Conservative
           13
  6,013
    27.5%
  -3.6%
    -8.7%
    401
    -4
Labour
           15
  2,714
    12.4%
 -11.0%
   -19.2%
    181
    -2
LibDem
           13
  8,096
    37.1%
+11.2%
   +22.1%
    623
   +5
UKIP
            5
   349
     1.6%
 +0.2%
    +0.2%
     70
     0
Green
            4
   474
     2.2%
  -4.6%
     -0.4%
    119
     0
SNP
            0
    
  
 
     0
PC**
            3
   742
     3.4%
 +2.9%
    +0.6%
    247
   +1
Ind***
           16
  2,252
    10.3%
 +3.3%
    +2.9%
    141
     0
Other****
            7
  1,190
     5.5%
 +5.5%
    +1.7%
    170
     0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were three by-elections in Wales
*** There were five Independent clashes this month
**** Others consisted of the Brexit Party (111, 152), Communist Party of Britain (18), For Britain (166), Herefordshire It's Our County (304), Yorkshire Party (349), and the Women's Equality Party (90)

Congratulations are in order for the Liberal Democrats. Not only did they come away this month with five extra councillors, but they won the popular vote handsomely. The Tory vote more or less held up but Labour's? Oh dear. While I'm sceptical four-party politics is here to say, considering all the pollsters bar YouGov indicate a movement away from this, the surge of the LibDems is held up by this and last month's local poll tally. Yet it is far too early to say definitively things have changed at the local level, considering most seats contested in July were not Labour territory and the independents and small parties (collectively) had a better-than-normal show. A few more months like this then we'll see.

Meanwhile, there was a new entrant into the by-election fray, and that was the Brexit Party. Standing in the two Gloucester seats on the 25th, they managed 111 and 152 votes apiece, which works our at 16% and 10% respectively. In other words, where UKIP used to mostly be before their collapse after the general election. As if to rub it in, the purple party also stoof in both seats and got 17 votes between the candidacies. Surely UKIP are not long for this world now, and their place will soon be occupied by Nigel Farage's party.

4th July
Chorley BC, Ecclestone & Mawdesley, Con hold
Middlesbrough UA, Park End & Beckfield, Ind hold
Rhondda Cynon Taf UA, Rhondda, PC gain from Lab
Wiltshire UA, Trowbridge Drynham, LDem gain from Con

11th July
East Riding of Yorkshire UA, Bridlington North, LDem gain from Con
Herefordshire UA, Whitecross, Oth hold

16th July
Cardiff UA,  Cyncoed, LDem hold

18th July
Ashford BC, Downs North, Con hold
Ceredigion UA, Llanbadarn Fawr, PC hold
Daventry BC, Brixworth, LDem gain from Con
Richmond-Upon-Thames LB, Sheen, LDem hold
Wiltshire US, Westbury North, LDem hold

25th July
City of London, Farringdon Within, Ind hold
Gloucester BC, Barnwood, LDem gain from Con
Glocester BC, Podsmead, LDem gain from Lab
Hartlepool UA, Hart, Lab hold

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Day One on Boris Island

If you're reading this, you've survived the first day of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Well done. With a bit of luck and fortuitous politics, there won't be many of these we'll have to endure. There are two notable things the Johnson administration accomplished in its opening hours: a speech outside Downing Street (with a new lectern, no less), and controversial new appointments - but what do they say about the government Johnson's leading?

When Theresa May stood on the Downing Street steps for the first time, she made an audacious pitch that sounded like a real break with Dave's government. No more demented deficit determinism, a planned approach to economic policy, a commitment to (nebulously defined) social justice, and a one nation community in which everybody had their place. Not my cup of tea nor I suspect yours, but it resonated and awarded the Tories a seemingly unassailable lead over Labour. Even worse, it suggested we could look forward to a new authoritarian consensus. Thankfully, we avoided that fate and all of May's objectives remained aspirations. What of Johnson's first address?

Unlike May, whose speech was peppered with generalities, Johnson's pitched a set of promises. More money for schools (a 0.1% spending increase), more coppers "forthwith", and a social care plan were among the more eye-catching pledges (more here, but overall and as you would expect, Johnson inflected his speech with sunlit uplands optimism. He talked about Britain as a beacon of democracy, and how leaving the EU by 31st October is the best way of affirming this most British of values. He talked up the potential of the country by unleashing the productive power of the regions, and waxed lyrical about science and technology (gene therapies for blindness, world leading battery power research, more satellites). This was a polemic against "the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters" which does characterise continuity remain, and set out to strike a settling tone with unbounded optimism. Whether we'll see these pledges realised, it is clear the tone of government is enforced cheerfulness with the less ebullient cabinet members required to paint on their rictus grins.

And those appointments, what can we say? The headlines were fixated by the greatest round of sackings of government by a sitting party, ever. The night of the blond knives, as The Sun predictably put it, saw practically all the remaining, er, remainers sent packing to the back benches. Jeremy Hunt said no to the defence brief and tried clinging on to the Foreign Office, but his vote share in the leadership contest was such that his disposal was a formality. As for the rest, hints of past impropriety didn't imperil the returns of Priti Patel and blog favourite, Gavin Williamson. They're back with big jobs - Home Secretary and Education Secretary, respectively. Sajid Javid gets the Treasury, a position he's long coveted, and Dominic Raab was appointed Foreign Secretary to ensure the Prime Minister doesn't go down in history as the UK's worst chief diplomat, among everything else. Gove gets the Duchy of Lancaster non-brief, where he will overlook Brexit preparations, Liz Truss replaces disgraced former minister Liam Fox at International Trade while Andrea Leadsom, another firm favourite of ours, goes to Business. After her public selling out of Never Johnson-ism, Amber Rudd stays at the DWP, and Nicky Morgan - another so-called hard remainer (and proof there's really no such a thing as a Tory rebel) - heads over to Culture. Jacob Rees-Mogg gets Leader of the House, where he'll no doubt look forward to tangling and wrangling with the Speaker over procedural matters - especially as the latter proved to be a frustrating opponent of May's. And Grant Shapps makes a come back too, replacing Failing Grayling at Transport. Alas, there were no spare positions for his stable of aliases so he had to make do with the one. And perhaps the most interesting appointment is Dominic Cummings as Chief of Staff. Needless to say, he hasn't been hired to sort out HR issues.

As many have observed, this is a Leave cabinet. Well, yes, would you have expected anything else? Cummings is a bruiser whose legend was amplified by victory in the EU referendum, the Machiavellian casting of him by "Shippers" in his popular and compulsive gossipy tell-alls, and getting played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War. This suggests a number of things. That Johnson has brought him in to give the faint hearted the hair dryer treatment should they deviate from the true path of Brexit, that Johnson (eventually) wants to take an axe to the civil service, that Johnson needs someone to strategise his premiership and appeal to the same bundle of frustrations Cummings tapped into in 2016, and that sooner or later Johnson is planning an election. Good job we have a good idea what this could look like.

A good first day for Johnson? The optics, they say, look good. A bombastic speech followed by a norovirus-level clear out of government confers the impression of someone urgently wanting to get on with the job. Johnson promised decisive leadership, and his first actions in office confer the right impression. But might he have already made his first missteps with such brutality? His cabinet is overwhelmingly composed of the hard right and leave ultra-tilting wings of the party, but has pushed out most of the remainers May had hanging around as well as leavers who didn't display the requisite gushing sycophancy - like Penny Mordaunt. Johnson, never known for having much nous, thinks a cabinet of true believers and loyal bandwagon chasers can ram his will through the Commons where Theresa May failed. But his situation, while not as precarious as hers was, is still tricky. The would-be leaders aren't circling for the moment, but the parliamentary arithmetic is still against him and his majority is pitiful. Getting no deal across the line is tricky, and his preferred option - expertly burst by Andrew Neil during the campaign - is not credible nor available. The only other option is a return of May's deal with a lick of paint. That might satisfy the backbench remain grumblers whose ranks Johnson swelled yesterday and a few lily-livered Labour MPs, but even with Rees-Mogg on board the ERG are going to have a hard time swallowing it, as well as the members (remember them?), and Nigel Farage's Brexit Party. When Johnson proves to be as fixated as keeping the party together as his predecessor, he's going to be hit with a great stonking headache.

For the brief moment of right now, Johnson's government are looking confident and assured. We'll see how long that lasts as it faces up to the hard realities of a deeply sceptical Commons and a not-at-all-amused European Union. Johnson is about to find out his mindless boosterism can only carry him so far.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The Worst Prime Minister?

Was Theresa May the worst Prime Minister this country has ever seen? She's up against stiff competition, from both her immediate predecessor and the utter void following her. Whatever verdict history decrees, her record in government is almost singularly awful. Even if you sit and meditate on the last three years, surely the most earnest Tory would have difficulty picking out a May achievement that isn't spin and hot air.

A fair few words have been expended on May on this place, so I won't try your patience by saying much more. Except to reiterate two things about her legacy, both of which are inseparable. On Brexit, May bears a large share of the responsibility for normalising the idea of a no deal Brexit with her idiot mantra of no deal is better than a bad deal. This line, more than anything Nigel Farage has said, strengthened and emboldened the hard right of the Tory party. You know, the people tied to the most backward and reckless sections of capital. She offered them succour as she lived from one crisis of the parliamentary party to the next, up to the point where she couldn't hide her deal any more and enraged them with the Irish backstop nonsense. In reality, if May had read the runes correctly she might have interpreted her position as one of strength. As explained here many times, because everyone around May was jockeying for position they all balanced out, giving her a some leeway. She could have told the ERG to hop it from the off, but failed miserably to do so.

This is because Brexit was subordinate to Tory party management. As factions proliferated and the party grew consumed by row after bad headline after record-breaking defeats, her sole concern was keeping the show on the road. Like Dave and, inevitably, like Johnson, May instinctively knows that ultimately, her party is the only one who can be trusted with the interests of her class. The LibDems are too weak and aren't about to make a comeback, regardless of what YouGov says, and Labour is always at risk of getting swamped by the hoi polloi and articulating their interests against capital. Therefore the preservation of the Tories is and will always be the number one concern of its leading figures, even if the increasingly unhinged base are a touch more sanguine. Therefore the twists and turns of May's Brexit strategy, and studied refusal to budge despite losing the vote three times were driven by keeping the Tories together. And it is why Johnson too has made a song and dance about leaving the EU on Hallowe'en regardless. If he gives away this hostage to fortune, it's curtains for Johnson and perhaps the party itself.

May will be best remembered for her Brexit incompetence, but we cannot let her off her other obsession: immigration. No matter how weak she was, this was the one issue she refused to budge on. Indeed, her pitiful withdrawal deal happily trades away unimpeded access to EU markets - the UK's biggest trading partner, in case you had forgot - just so she could impose a points-based system for EU nationals. Why was the author of the racist vans that drove around parts of London, and of the Windrush scandal completely consumed by this question? Was it because May herself was racist? That really is irrelevant: what did May gain, or hope to gain, by being seen to be tough on immigration? And the answer is, just like Brexit, the continued health of the Tory party. Her preoccupation with this matter didn't begin with Brexit, but having imbibed the common sense of the right wing press over decades, and the antipathy they stirred up and was reflected in poll after poll, May believed the route to Tory hegemony meant owning it. She knew the Brexit vote was largely driven by concerns about immigration, and that this had cost the Tories dear in the past as UKIP grew and, eventually, disposed of her predecessor. A revolt on the right could be permanently foreclosed, and another 10 to 15 years in government would be there for the taking.

And there you have it. The premiership of Theresa May. Someone who, at every turn, put her party before the country because, as far as she was concerned, the minority interest of her class is the national interest. If it meant permanently weakening the UK economy, that's a price worth paying for untrammelled bourgeois rule. If people are stripped of their jobs, their healthcare, and bungled on to the next plane to the Caribbean, then their suffering is absolutely fine as long as the Conservative Party continues. Yes, May was and is an appalling human being. But until her party is driven from office and put into a place where it can never form a government, we will see the likes of her again, and again, and again.