Sunday, 23 January 2022

A Detonation of Grievances

When William Wragg got up to speak about the intimidation party whips use to keep Tory MPs in line, the Johnson-loyal response was there's nothing to see here. When Labour's most recent recruit complained about the underhanded methods used by Gavin Williamson to support the government's position on free school meals, which implied the then education secretary would pull funding for a high school in Radcliffe if Christian Wakeford didn't vote the right way, this was just belly aching from a turncoat looking to make trouble. And even when the charge is more serious, the Tory record doesn't change.

On Friday, the Tory member for Weaden, Nus Ghani, said she was sacked from her ministerial post in 2020 partly because her "Muslimness was raised as an issue." Chief whip Mark Spencer outed himself as the one who allegedly told her this, while denying he ever uttered these words. Dominic Raab was forced to do the rounds on the Sunday morning shows to deny the Tories have an Islamophobia problem, but in the absence of a direct rebuttal it fell to Michael Fabricant (Michael Fabricant) to defend Boris Johnson with this gem: "She’s hardly someone who’s obviously Muslim ... seems a lame excuse she was sacked because of that." This is the same Conservative Party that was found to have a very deep well of Islamophobia, with 57% of members harbouring negative feelings toward Muslims, 47% who thought Islam was a threat to the "British way of life", and 58% believed they were no-go areas for non-Muslims. Before this, the always-ridiculous Alison Pearson decided Sajid Javid was a loser because he had the temerity to raise Islamophobia during the Tory leadership hustings, and do we even need to talk about Johnson's frequent forays into Muslim bashing?

"Why didn't Nus raise a complaint at the time?" has been the wiseacre retort of Johnson's self-appointed praetorians. Perhaps because she did try. In her Sunday afternoon statement, Ghani took her grievance right to the top and was told by the Prime Minister to make a complaint through party channels, something she did not think was appropriate because this was a government matter. It's worth noting, if not eyebrow-raising, that Javid and (the normally ultra loyal) Nadhim Zahawi have made public their support for Ghani against the whip's office and therefore the prop of Johnson's authority in the parliamentary party. Ouch.

The status of Islamophobia in the Tory party is not just a problem, it's a conscious strategy. An indispensable tool from their catalogue of divide-and-rule ploys. And the dirty tricks highlighted by Christian Wakeford and William Wragg are not new news. Indeed, there will be politicians in the Labour Party issuing their forthright condemnations today while being chill about the same strong-arm tactics used by the PLP's own whipping operation. Blackmail, or what polite circles would call leverage, has been used for centuries to get parliamentarians to vote the right way. However, there does come a time when murky but long-established custom and practice is no longer acceptable, and this might be one of them. As Wragg speaks to the Met about the Tories' organised blackmail operation next week, there are dozens of new MPs who haven't come up through the party the traditional way and for whom the petty tyranny of the whip invites revulsion, not obsequiousness. In both cases, the persistent sore of Islamophobia and the inability of the Tories to properly socialise their new entrants were bound to come to a head sooner or later.

Why have these stories come out now? Because of the present moment of crisis. Up until December Johnson has a pretty tight grip on his party, only suffering an anonymous briefing here, a rumour of defection there. But the double whammy of the Owen Paterson case and the Christmas party revelations, plus the incredulous efforts Johnson has gone to to save his hide has not just destroyed his polling position, but his authority in the party. Now he is weakened and the power dynamics in the parliamentary party have loosened up, what was frozen in aspic by prevailing patterns of loyalty and preferment is fluid again. In such moments when the old authority is in its death throes, the discontents it held down erupt into the open - a point underlined by ministerial support for Ghani, and the number of ministers who have more or less intimated publicly, including Raab on Sunday morning, that breaking the Ministerial Code is a resigning matter. We saw a similar breakdown with May after June 2017, and we're seeing it again. How many more damaging stories are going to come out, and is this a moment for farsighted Tories to excise these overly awful characteristics of their party? If Johnson stubbornly stays, then no. If Liz Truss succeeds him, also no. Both of these outcomes would allow the frustrations and anger to accumulate - only to detonate with more force later on.

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Saturday, 22 January 2022

Understanding the Johnson Moment

Watching the Tories is an uncommon preoccupation for leftists, but it really shouldn't be. Tracking their strategies, following their debates, keeping tabs and doing the Kremlinology, knowing them and what they're doing should help guide our opposition. Constantly reacting and being surprised by latest round of bastardry is disarming and exhausting. Investigating and understanding the divisions in their ranks, and how Tory thinkers, politicians, and activists are addressing the significant challenges they face can, in its own way, be empowering. It shows that as rigged as British politics is, it remains fundamentally open too. Conservative rule is an accomplishment and a collective effort. It doesn't happen by itself, and mistakes can have calamitous consequences not just for the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party but for their system of class rule as a whole. Indeed, the book makes the case set out many times here: they have an existential crisis brewing. This presents Labour and the labour movement a historic opening to cement itself as the hegemonic political force in this country. Whether they take it up is another matter.

Therefore, Tories reflecting on the Tories is a genre of writing that repays studying, and David Gauke is one such Tory who has reflected on the whats and wherefores of his (estranged) party. Part of the "nice chap" school of conservatism along with Rory Stewart, a fellow exile, Gauke is one of those with an attachment to the constitution, to probity in public life, and a sense of what is right. Not that any of this prevented him from nodding through acres of repressive and vindictive legislation as a backbencher and minister. But like many inhabitants of Westminster and, for that matter, the watchers of its comings and goings, Gauke believes in the rules of the place. He's a fully paid up member of the game. And, as we've long known, Johnson is anything but. How he clings on in the face of scandal that would have brought down any of his predecessors offends the spirit and the conventions of the place. How then does Gauke explain the position the Tories have got themselves into, from what he would describe as the moderate governments of Dave and Osborne and Theresa May, to the immovable blimp wedged in Downing Street?

Unfortunately, while his latest piece for the New Statesman promises to offer an explanation, like Johnson's levelling up promises it never materialises. Gauke acknowledges the oft-made take that Boris Johnson was known as feckless, lazy, and lacked integrity among Tories when they elected him their leader. He was put there to solve the Brexit logjam, and this is what he did - even if it meant bulldozing his own parliamentary party to pave the road to the famous election win. While the forces broadly aligned with remain or the second referendum were divided among themselves, Johnson united the leave vote by ostentatiously demonstrating his seriousness about putting Brexit to bed - even if it mean rhetorically thumbing his nose at the law, packing off Tory grandees, and basically having nothing to say on any other topic apart from getting it done. This most untrustworthy of politicians established trust through demonstrable seriousness and commitment - two words never associated with Johnson before. Or since, come to think of it.

Considering the political novelty of the truncated period between 2016 and 2019, Gauke suggests that for some Tories Johnson is the aberration tailor made for our aberrant times, and who can now safely be disposed of without any lessons learned nor any need to reflect much on what has happened. It's all water under the Brexit bridge. This, in Gauke's opinion, would be a mistake.
Just at the moment, this prospect is somewhat tempting for many Conservatives, but it would be a misreading of events. It ignores the causes of the Brexit impasse, it ignores the political risks that faced the Conservative Party in 2019 and it ignores the political opportunity which Johnson seized at the last general election and which the Conservatives are likely to want to replicate.
And does the Gauke uncork on these causes? Unfortunately not. Instead, he centres a particularly egregious example of Johnson's light-minded approach to governing and detail: the border issue in Northern Ireland. Gauke argues May became unstuck because her negotiations with the EU had to square an impossible Brexit circle: reinstate the Irish border and undo the Good Friday Agreement and risk two decades of progress made since the end of the Troubles, place the EU custom's barrier in the Irish Sea and compromise the UK state's sovereignty over its territory, or stay aligned to the single market with the possibility of future divergence - in other words kicking the can down the road, and potentially nullifying the point of Brexit. As a consummate ditherer, and in the best traditions of Tory statecraft she went for the last. Delegate to the future what might otherwise be done today. Readers will recall Johnson's own fanning of the backbench insurgency against May, and when he ascended to Number 10 he promptly forgot the earnest arguments about sovereignty and went with the internal border, which he has dishonestly tried unpicking - and failing to - ever since.

Not that Johnson has ever been held to account for this. While an internal border was a non-negotiable as far as May and the rightwing European Research Group were concerned, the ERG kept mum about Johnson signing it into law. Curious. Or perhaps because they had bound their fortunes to each other. Johnson adopted the Brexit ultra rhetoric while they happily gave him their blessings, and when he came up short all concerned would look stupid if there was an honest accounting of the mess. Still, that didn't wash with the Tories' erstwhile partners in the DUP, but by the time they let their displeasure about the danger Johnson's deal represented Northern Ireland's status in the UK, it was too late and the Westminster media was more consumed by their frenzied attacks on the Labour Party.

Okay, but none of this is new. Yes, the complexity of the Brexit negotiations were simplified by Johnson's insurgent populism, and it did see Jeremy Corbyn off while exorcising the Faragist spectre to the Tories' right, but what of it? This is where the essay shifts gear away from not answering "how we got into this pickle" to "what does this mean for the future of Tory politics."

For Gauke, a section of the parliamentary party is, effectively, beyond reason. They live in a world of absolutes bounded by the culture wars and beholden to their obsessions - the war on woke, against public health, and bow to sovereignty as their most sacred of shibboleths. Gauke rightly argues they see Brexit as an extension of their Thatcherite instincts ("We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level ...", as she put it in her famous Bruges speech). And, f anything, despite the failures of Brexit and Johnson's promises to launch state-led regeneration in deindustrialised parts of the country, the Tories' wingnut wing of the vicious and the stupid will emerge from the Johnson years strengthened. Gauke doesn't spell it out, but whoever comes next, be it Rishi Sunak whose instinct is to put clear distance between him and them or Liz Truss, who is politically adjacent to the mainstream fringe, they have to be reckoned with.

The second is the seeming closure of politics to the Tories' right. The party would care not to have a UKIP/Brexit Party fright ever again. Gauke notes how Johnson doesn't so much govern but is in permanent (media) campaign mode. He doesn't spell it out, but the political advantage of this is keeping alive the right wing populism that powered Johnson's election campaign so there isn't space for a Farage to make a scene. If the Prime Minister is dumped from office, by no means a foregone conclusion, how is this to be managed in the future? As Gauke notes, the dinghies in the channel is the stuff from which anti-immigrant moral panics are made. If Tories sense there is a space opening to their right the next leader isn't filling, there will be more pressure on them from the backbenches to keep with the present politics and all that entails.

And lastly there is the realignment of British politics, which is so obvious even right wing politics profs are talking about it these days. Gauke writes,
Whereas once the economically secure voted centre right and the economically insecure voted centre-left, voting behaviour has become increasingly influenced by cultural matters. The way in which a particular constituency votes increasingly depends not on income levels but upon population density, ethnic diversity and education levels.
Cynical or ignorant empiricism when every poll shows the economics of voting remain unchanged? You decide. I suppose one should be encouraged that the Tories misrecognise the basis of their recent successes, because it locks them into a strategy that can only have diminishing returns. The old age/propensity to vote Tory is largely a consequence of asset ownership, and for as long as millions of working people remain locked out of it while the growing layer of petty landlords snap up properties unabated the Tories are unbeknownstly, if not cheerily undermining their future viability. The advantages the Tories presently enjoy here - the greater likelihood for their support to vote, their more efficient distribution of voters across constituencies, and the coming gerrymander, their refusal to do anything about this situation cannot shield them forever. Gauke suggests the Tories' present coalition rules out a return to the social liberalism of the Dave years, and yet polling shows it's Sunak, not Truss or any of the other horrors, who polls least worst in the seats won from Labour in 2019. As a result, his perspective is entirely skewed. Gauke thinks the future is bright for social conservatism, just as Tory support is collapsing among those who lent them their votes.

Writing as a liberal Tory, Gauke's insights aren't original or profound. He forecasts where Tory politics is likely to go in the immediate future, but there is no grasping of the dynamics that made Johnson possible. This is precisely why he couldn't offer an explanation of the situation. While the effects of Johnson can't be shrugged off by the post-Johnson Tories, the fact he was there in the first place wasn't an unlucky happenstance. He is the culmination of an authoritarian politics pushed by the Tories for over 40 years. His personality and prominence a product of celebrity and media overexposure, and his 2019 victory the consequence of the class - refracted through age - polarisation set in train by the 00s property boom, the crash, and a decades' worth of austerity politics and debasement of public discourse. Gauke doesn't mention it perhaps because he was a willing participant in making the Johnson moment possible, and would rather not face up to this realisation.

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Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Welcoming Christian Wakeford

"Let's give comrade Christian Wakeford a big welcome to the labour movement!" said no leftist this lunchtime as he crossed the floor to sit behind Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions. As broken clock David Aaronovitch noted, leftwing Twitter seemed more upset about his defection than anyone else. This was borne out on my timeline too for the obvious reason that Wakeford's politics haven't changed ("I'm still a centrist", he remarked), but Labour's has to the point it appears attractive to Tory deserters.

Subsequent social media debate descended into the calm exchange customary between different wings of the Labour Party, with the only riposte offered by leadership supporters being "we need to win". Which, having boiled down the dregs of the New Labour years is the only sentiment that matters these days among the ever-so-wise. Leaving aside the politics for the moment and looking at "the look", does it help Labour's chances of winning? It depends on who you ask. Contrary to the myths peddled by the Labour right, the left are very aware of having to win over enough people who've voted Tory on previous occasions. Tens of thousands wouldn't have door knocked in the damp and the cold two years ago if this wasn't the case. As far as the left are concerned, it marks the distance travelled since Starmer shammed the membership with his Corbyn-lite leadership pledges. How about ordinary Tory-leaning punters? Are they likely to take this as permission to start taking Starmer seriously as an alternative? Maybe if Wakeford was a bigger name with some recognition. As it stands, he's likely to enjoy as anonymous a career with Labour as he had among his 2019 cohort.

Let's be honest here, this is primarily about keeping a nice job. As a government backbencher he was almost as solid a loyalist you'd find anywhere on its benches. And now he's a Labour MP I'm pretty certain his future votes will fully align with the leadership's wishes. Like many of the so-called Red Wall'ers, Wakeford probably didn't expect to get elected and perhaps saw Bury South as a stepping stone toward a safer seat down the road. He did the hard yards as a school governor, borough and county councillor, and constituency bag carrier for another MP - a familiar pattern for those set on a career in politics locked out of the London-centric Oxbridge/think tank/Spad route. Interestingly, Wakeford kept pocketing the council allowances - totalling £22k - for a year after his election despite barely keeping up with his local government duties. A very cushy number, and if one isn't strongly motivated by political principles one might look at the change around in the polls, the very slim majority, and the fact Labour largely recovered its local election vote in Bury back in May, and conclude the healthy bank balance is served by defection.

Is there more to it? Probably. It does speak to a certain failure of the parliamentary Tory party, especially as it has and continues to hosts characters of a similar stripe. The so-called Northern Research Group formed in Autumn 2020 is designed to prosecute "northern interests", concerns the Tories have traditionally not paid much mind to, and press for delivery on Boris Johnson's infrastructure pledges. Its true role was and is to act as a collective shock absorber to brace Tory MPs against car crash constituency surgeries and their painful postbags. Having done this work myself, almost all the problems people had with the NHS, the council, the DWP, and any public service was lack of funding or unnecessarily cruel restrictions introduced by the Tories. Careerist he night be, Wakeford won't be the only recently elected Conservative discomfited by the realities of his party and the punitive policies he's supported in the chamber. Thanks to Covid and therefore the limited opportunities for in-person gatherings, the NRG has not been able to discharge its protective function as it might and act as a salve for guilty consciences. Who knows if other Tories in marginal seats, confronted with the imminent end of their careers and the consequences of their policies, are thinking of striking out on a similar path? Reports from conference season suggests there might be.

What conclusions can we draw from this affair? It's demonstrative of a defeatist mood among that layer of victorious 2019'ers, which could be leveraged in the tête-à-tête of parliamentary games playing to Labour's advantage. The second is the risible idea that this has saved Boris Johnson, and it's all part of a super clever-clever game the Labour whips are playing. I.e. That a defection would rally the Tory tribe to their wounded chieftain, making them less likely to no confidence Johnson and therefore leaving the government stuck with its idle, lying albatros. Explaining causes by consequences is lazy, wrong, and concedes Starmer far too much Machiavellian credit. And third, as per Starmer's Blue Labour/social conservative branding, the welcoming of Wakeford into the fold could help destabilise the core vote, just as previous right wing posturing and poicy pushing did this time last year. Contrary to popular belief, the new working class doesn't just live in safe Labour seats - they are everywhere, including the key marginals. Our natural supporters have plenty of places to go, therefore parading a new parliamentary recruit who's joined up because Labour is Tory enough these days might not be the election winning masterstroke the leadership thinks it is.

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Monday, 17 January 2022

Conservative Friends of Covid

First, there was Operation Save Big Dog, the officially disavowed but entirely accurate leak - borne out by events - to get Boris Johnson off the hook by refracting blame for those parties onto hapless civil servants. Then 'Operation Red Meat', a blitz of Tory announcements designed to fire up the base and hog the headlines. Bang! Nadine Dorries trailed the abolition of the TV licence fee in 2027, with a two year freeze coming in from this year. Wallop! The navy will be prowling the Channel to keep the wretched of the earth at bay. Kapow! Another promise to deliver the levelling up funds. We've talked about dead cats here before. On this occasion the Tories have gone out and slaughtered a pride of lions.

It hasn't worked, of course. Not even the Daily Mail front pages desperately pointing to the drink Keir Starmer had during a work meeting has knocked Tory wrongdoing from popular consciousness. Nor will it. Everyone has an opinion about it, and Johnson's transparent arse coverings are only going to make matters worse for him. They see you, and everyone knows what you're doing. Nobody is fooled.

Amid the politics knockabout, there is a cost. One of Johnson's juicy sirloins are plans to relax Covid precautions further. In England, the mandatory period for self-isolation following a positive test has fallen from seven to five days, putting it at odds with the "the science". Come January 26, as heavily trailed by Nadhim Zahawi this weekend, the plan B restrictions brought in before Christmas are likely to be shelved. And self-isolation itself is, apparently, due to be scrapped. Covid's little helpers on the back benches are sure to be thrilled.

Writing about Covid makes me sound like a broken record. For the umpteenth time, it is more than a respiratory disease. It can attack the brain, storing up possible neurological trouble down the line. It leaves lesions on internal organs. And Covid also depletes T cells, reducing our capacity to fight off future infections and making us more vulnerable to serious long-term health conditions. Like cancer. Like MS. I know this, medicine knows this. And this knowledge is littered throughout government briefing notes and the research summaries Chris Whitty presents to ministers. Meanwhile, Johnson, the rest of politics, and the entirety of the media carry on as if Covid is a bad case of the flu and nothing, except for an unlucky few, people need worry about. This alone is damning and should see them in the dock for reckless endangerment.

Let there be no doubt about this, the Tories know what they're doing. Boris Johnson knows his decisions have consequences. He knows the tumbling number of infections, which is real and not an artefact of test kit shortages, is thanks to simple measures like the mask mandates on public transport and self-isolation. And as per every previous time, as the numbers head in the right direction he's champing at the bit to abolish these protections. Act late, lift early, how many more times do we have to see it before this is regarded as something more than an error? Except this time, as part of his doomed effort to save his premiership, Johnson is actively contriving a situation where others pay the ultimate price for his stay in office. No regard for the rules, no regard for the wellbeing and livs of others, what an utter grotesque the bowels of the Tory party voided into office.

What can we - the left and the labour movement - do about it? Keep pushing for the retention of present protections, fight Johnson's efforts to abolish self-isolation, carry on wearing masks to protect others. Covid has been and remains a clear danger for our people, a manageable scourge turned into class war by epidemiological means by the Tories. If the government won't protect our collective health, we have no choice but to do so ourselves.

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Sunday, 16 January 2022

Labour's Double-Digit Poll Leads

The double-digit lead for Labour queried here and pretty much everywhere else in left onlineland has at last arrived. Four out of the last five polls taken since 11th January grant Labour a 10-point advantage or greater, depending on who you ask. YouGov returned a 10 and an 11, Opinium a 10, and new kids on the pollster block Findoutnow 14 points. Focal Data stuck out with a "measly" nine-point lead. Pretty encouraging for Keir Starmer and the so-called doctrine of strategic patience, the post facto argument cooked up to explain how everything Labour did over the last year was right. Even when the party and the leader's personal ratings were tanking.

Nevertheless, there is jubilation among Labour rightists because it appears their self-serving argument for smiting the left has been proven by events. Stitch up Jeremy Corbyn, publicly disavow anything that could be construed as leftism, fix selections, and magically millions of people will notice and the party becomes electable again. A cynical empiricist will note the leads posted by Labour this last week are better than anything achieved by his predecessor, even in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 general election and the dog days of Theresa May's premiership. This means the rightwingers' argument is half correct.

Since taking office, Starmer has abandoned most of the Corbyn-lite leadership pledges that won him the top job. The strategy taken since plays up the social conservative vibes and makes a big deal about where Labour have tacked to the right of the Tories on tax cuts for businesses, for instance. Given a lot of this was rolled out this time last year when Starmer started heading south in the polls, it's not likely the ordinary punter had their imagination captured. But what it did was tell the Tory press, still the primary gatekeepers of political discourse in this country despite their waning audiences, that here was a safe pair of hands with whom they could do business. Therefore when Peter Mandelson declared there were millions of voters cheering Starmer on as he tightened up party democracy and attacked bothersome leftists, there were spectators (somewhat fewer than "millions") willing such an outcome: the editorial mouthpieces of the billionaire press barons. The quid pro quo for moving toward their commonsense is the kinder coverage Starmer has received than any of his predecessors, including Tony Blair when he was on his way out.

The thing is, Tory-adjacent/friendly positioning is not all that Starmer has said. Obviously, what has been announced so far isn't Corbynism with an expensive haircut, and can be pretty weak sauce (VAT cuts to fuel as bills rocket skyward springs to mind). But the interesting stuff about collective bargaining and trade union rights and green spending (more on this some time) is also out there and isn't raising the collective ire of the boss class. Perhaps they don't think Starmer means it and it's all a sop to win back the fast disappearing union finance, or that they recognise some modernisation is necessary for the continued health of their system, or they simply haven't noticed it given their lowkey announcement. For whatever reason, the media have barely covered these more recognisable Labour policies, which means it's unlikely the electorate have noticed either.

Taking this on board, there can only be one credible argument for understanding Labour's resurgence in the polls: Boris Johnson is calling the storm down upon himself while all Starmer has had to do is reap the benefits of not being the Tory leader. This, however, is a risky business. During the Ed Miliband years, with his usual cynicism Dan Hodges argued Labour was content to let the Liberal Democrats collapse, soak up their vote and win an election without winning over Tory supporters - an orientation dubbed the "35% strategy". Not true, but given the policy holiday the Labour leadership went on for their first two years there was little to define them and when they tried it looked incoherent. It came too late.

Starmer is fortunate thanks to the more favourable press environment and Johnson's desperate situation, but what if Johnson goes? The Tories have a track record of reinventing themselves in office and going on to win - a feat Labour has never really pulled off. As a dive into recent YouGov data shows, just under half of the 2019 Tory support are sticking with them (for the moment), while only five per cent are switching directly to Labour. 33% are don't knows/won't vote. In other words, a large pool of Tory voters who would probably flock back to the fold with a new leader in situ. Where would that leave Starmer then?

Plenty of times this last year I've attacked Starmer for being utterly useless and bereft of ideas. His leadership was sure to be doomed unless something unforeseen came along and pulled the irons out of the fire for him. That "thing", partygate, has come along and Tory ratings have collapsed. But the argument made many times here about turning Labour's back on the left and alienating the new core support also applies. The polls might shift in the coming weeks, but at present Labour are topping out at 40-41%. Corbyn at his peak achieved 45%, and in the Smith-Blair years of opposition the ratings were well in excess of that. Labour are permanently hobbled by the destruction of Scottish Labour and the gifting of its support to the SNP, the stronger showing for the Greens in the polls, and a LibDem return to double figures. Permanently, unless Labour tacks back from the right and starts speaking up for the interests of those at the core of their coalition: the low paid, the renters, the growing new working class who could give Labour a permanent majority.

Starmer leads by default because he's not Johnson, and he can't rely on him being there when the next election comes round. We need less triangulation and more an appreciation of who the Labour coalition is. The Tories understand their natural support and who's likely to swing their way. 120 years after its foundation, it's about time Labour did the same.

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Friday, 14 January 2022

On Operation Save Big Dog

The dust had settled, and along comes another revelation to kick it all up again. This Friday has had three such stories, prepped to dominate the weekend's papers and news bulletins. Just when it can't get any worse for Johnson, it does. Learning yesterday the booze was flowing before the Queen was forced to sit alone at the funeral of her husband, since then the former head of the Covid taskforce has apologised for attending her leaving do at Downing Street. Then the plan to save Johnson's skin leaked, of which more in a moment, and this evening another Pippa Crerar scoop: wine time Fridays indoors every Friday at Downing Street during restrictions with the Prime Minister's blessing (and, apparently, occasional attendance).

I suppose a Thick of It comparison would be a cliched thing to do, but I've never pretended originality. Number 10 staff splashed out on a fridge to store their capacious prosecco purchases, and would come back from Tesco with suitcases full of bottles. Arranged by the press office, there were drop ins from other departments with one regular being Captain Steve Higham, now commander of HMS Prince of Wales, and parties held for senior figures as they left or to celebrate their departure in absentia. Such as toasting Dominic Cummings's goodbye. It therefore seems the culture of impunity Johnson has contrived to build around himself and his ministers grew to encompass the civil servants at the heart of government, all of it endorsed if not encouraged by the chief rule breaker himself.

And this is where Johnson's get out of jail free card comes in. 'Operation Save Big Dog' means finding civil service patsys who are going to take the fall for their boss. We've already seen how his evasive non-apology tried portraying the regular shindigs as part of everyday work culture in Downing Street, and that these parties were just al fresco working. An argument precisely no one has found convincing, but it gives those Tories unlucky enough to have to defend Johnson to the media something to say. The problem with this utterly stupid and self-serving plan is even if it hadn't leaked, this was transparently the intention when Johnson offered his overwrought apologies to the Commons on Wednesday. The way the Prime Minister plans on styling it out is talking up the need for a restructure, wheel out supportive ministers, affect a contrite tone in public - a real difficulty for a bombastic narcissist like Johnson - and get the favourites to succeed him to back him in public. Liz Truss, sensing her proximity to the big prize, didn't even need to be asked to make a right Charlie of herself.

Does this change anything? The gift of Johnson's future still likes in the hands of Tory MPs, and though while a few have put their no confidence letters in - likely to increase after this weekend - the wider politics makes them nervous. Hope it will go away, the media will get distracted by something else (Barry Gardiner and the alleged Chinese agent, anyone?), or the Tories' allies are going to find opposition politicians guilty of ill-behaviour, like this old story about Keir Starmer getting the front page Mail treatment. Burying specific wrongdoing in a landfill's worth of shit has worked before, but probably not this time.

The longer this goes on the greater the difficulties for the Tories, and the rest of us. What started as a crisis of confidence for Johnson is well on its way to toxifying his party, 1990s style. But the danger is a corrosion of state legitimacy itself. It's clear flouting of the rules wasn't just a Downing Street thing, but common across Whitehall among staff in close proximity to their ministers. Combine this with the studied refusal of the Met to launch an investigation, it doesn't take much for this to solidify into a popular (if not populist) backlash and the problems that poses mainstream politics. But more worrying is what it means for public health advice. Omicron appears to be receding, but the government might bring in restrictions if a new variant emerges or infections pick up again. Except Johnson and his government have completely lost all credibility, and so millions won't pay their advice and rules a blind bit of notice. An outcome that will cause unnecessary disease and, consistent with the rest of their pandemic management, needless deaths.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Why Won't Tory MPs Sack Johnson?

Boris Johnson is the cockroach of British politics. Toxins nor radioactivity can get shot of him. Driven by a single-minded survivalist instinct, judging by his behaviour in the Commons and the dad-dancing gyrations of his lackeys, this seemingly terminal crisis of his premiership is to be faced down. Nothing, and certainly not a question of personal conduct can be allowed to terminate his Churchillian legend-in-waiting. Given Johnson's determination to ride it out, a situation so serious that even Keir Starmer is posting a double digit lead, will he?

Johnson's ludicrous line, that the advertised bring-your-own-booze party was a normal working day outside in the sun will only wash with those who want to believe. But ultimately, just two things can bring him down. A sense of shame that is yet to manifest in his 57 years of existence, or Tory MPs. Here, matters are apparently febrile as divisions are propagating faster than new allegations of Downing Street partying. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross - installed as Johnson's man north of the border - has called on him to resign. Ruth Davidson, without any surprises has joined in, as has over half of the Tories' 31 MSPs. They're not stupid - any opportunity to put distance between the Scottish and the Westminster parties. Amusingly Jacob Rees-Mogg snapped back at Ross, branding him a "lightweight". Wounding.

Also joining the fray is the long-out-of-sorts Caroline Nokes, the 1922's vice chair William Wragg, well-oiled Johnson critic Sir Roger Gale, who sent his no confidence in the wake of the Barnard Castle escapade, and Sayeeda Warsi. Not exactly a critical mass that would make the Prime Minister sweaty. Indeed, Johnson's pressing of the flesh in the Commons tearoom - reportedly a frequent occurrence in times of strife - his non-apology, and the inquiry that's bought him some time seems to be enough to buy the backbenchers off for the moment. We'll see if a weekend with their Associations helps focus critical minds.

Looking from the outside, it looks straightforward, as is what needs to be done for the Tory party's continued health. Partygate is the culmination of everything we've known about Johnson, his carelessness and, indeed, his no-shits-given for the people who put him into Number 10. His authority with the wider electorate has completely shattered, and few are the leaders who've had the skills and patience to piece it back together again - qualities Johnson most definitely lacks. The longer he stays in office the more his ballast will sink the Tories, and the greater the difficulties they'll have refloating the boat. Which begs the question: why are Tory MPs so nervous about moving against him?

Writing for the FT, Robert Shrimsley lists a number of reasons. They fret about who might be the next leader - who would get promoted or left languishing by the ostentatiously loyal Liz Truss and the mysteriously missing Rishi Sunak? Others are holding out for events to reverse Johnson's fortunes. Some might be a touch more Machiavellian, hoping he'll take the hit for everything coming down the line and a new leader, and a reinvented party, will emerge phoenix-like from the ashes if Johnson is disposed of later in the year. Cathy Newman tells a slightly different story, of leadership campaigns on the launchpad and multiplying plots. And if the MPs haven't got the guts, the Tory money men (and they are nearly always men) will make their displeasure clear and parliamentary hands will be forced.

All these things are true but contrary to the Tory party's ruthless reputation, it is instinctively aware and circumspect about context. Thinking of the last two Tory leaders who were ejected by their party, Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, both times were owing to failures on their own part and it was games at Westminster that finished them. Compare to Margaret Thatcher. The Poll Tax destroyed her political position but Europe was the pretext the Tories used to get rid of their most successful leader. In other words, mass opposition could not be seen to be the root of her defenestration, otherwise people (if not the people) might start getting ideas. Chucking Johnson out while under popular pressure runs a similar risk. If outraging public decency is a career-ending matter, then future Tory administrations have less room for manoeuvre. A real problem when serial wrongdoers like Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, and Rees-Mogg are in the frame for future top jobs regardless of who succeeds Johnson. In other words, the Tories are alive to any manifestation of collective power, no matter how diffuse and vague it is, because out of them political confidences can grow. If Johnson is forced out, it will be after this present moment of danger has passed.

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Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Boris Johnson's Sticky Wicket

No proper blogging from me tonight thanks to a) recording a special episode of Politics Theory Other about the phantom Corbyn party and Boris Johnson's difficulties, and b) writing an article for Tribune on the timing of partygate and why so much of the press and politics establishment have turned on Johnson. Watch out for them!

As a place filler, here's more discourse on the Prime Minister's predicament from Novara.

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Jeremy Corbyn's Prospective New Party

When do you know a news story is largely bullshit? In the case of 'Jeremy Corbyn could establish own party as hopes fade of being reinstated as Labour MP', published by the Telegraph this Sunday, the give away is in the lengthy subtitle: "Former Labour leader is being urged [my emphasis] to upgrade his charity and run under its banner at the next election." Reading through, what we have from the paper's so-called "Whitehall editor" is gossip that Laura Alvarez, Jeremy Corbyn's wife, and a few close confidantes have urged him to set up a new party based on his Peace and Justice project. With chances of getting re-admitted to the PLP and therefore standing as the Labour candidate in Islington at the next election close to zero, he must be thinking "why not?".

For what it's worth, while some would find the prospect of a Corbyn-led left party exciting this is unlikely to come to pass for several reasons. Chief among which is his close allies in the parliamentary party are unlikely to jump ship with him, and any of those who did, apart from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, would very likely lose their seats. And getting union support would be difficult. The unions that kowtow to the PLP's supremacy in the labour movement - Unison, Community, USDAW, GMB - they're not going to. And those with a critically distant relationship - Unite, FBU, CWU - have their own priorities and, in the CWU's case, are running their own worker candidate programme committing the union more deeply to Labour (despite pulling some funds). But such obstacles aren't insurmountable, and stranger things have happened. Like the government being brought low by Christmas parties instead of 150,000 deaths and, of course, Corbyn becoming Labour leader in the first place.

Let's think through what a Corbyn-led left party might look like, its opportunities, and the difficulties it would encounter - apart from the horizon-hogging obstacle of the electoral system. Undoubtedly, it would not be short of members. The 150,000 or so reputed to have left Labour since Keir Starmer became leader are a natural constituency, including others still in the party. New and existing small left parties inspired by Corbyn's example would probably flock to his banner too. And while MPs are unlikely to accompany Corbyn into the new party, ex-MPs and sitting councillors are a different matter. Additionally, while affiliated trade unions are very likely to be non-starters, the same cannot be said for those who aren't. The recently resigned Bakers' Union, for example. And thanks to their long record of support TUSC, the RMT. As extra-Labour left wing projects go, because of Corbyn as a figurehead of a popular left-wing, anti-austerity and anti-war sensibility this party would be head and shoulders above any leftwing split or united left vehicle that has existed in recent decades.

How about its support? When the Independent Group/Change UK launched in a blizzard of friendly publicity, YouGov straight away prompted them on their voter intention surveys. Implausibly, 14% said they would back them at an election. Because of Corbyn's profile, his party would get plenty of hostile attention, but in politics there's no such thing as bad publicity. Initial polling figures of around eight per cent would be a good estimate, assuming it was prompted for, and it might eclipse the Greens (while drawing on some of its support, too). Electorally speaking, it would handily retain Islington North for Corbyn, but elsewhere it wouldn't do terribly well. Probably better than the usual run of far left election results, and maybe some deposit saves and relatively respectable results in places (just as Respect managed in 2005), but the danger it poses Labour is the same as the Greens. I.e. pulling just enough votes away from Labour in tight marginal contests and letting the Tory slip through. Obviously, a new party could use local elections, by-elections, and parliamentary by-elections to build its profile. The more consistent it is doing this, the more it may menace Labour.

The problems? There are two big issues a new Corbyn party would face that might soak up energy that would be better directed outwards. The first are entry jobs from the Trotskyist left, who will refuse to disband their organisations or subordinate their ever-so-wise little Lenins to the greater good of the new party as a whole. By far the largest would be the Socialist Party, who recently split because their (now retired) general secretary would not stand for a smidgen of accountability to the wider international organisation. Among other things. And then there are the smaller groups who delight in taking over branches and other positions of authority. Comrades with long memories might recall one of the reasons why Momentum moved quickly to a centralised structure under Jon Lansman's leadership was precisely because of this sort of toy town behaviour. Having followed every left unity/left fusion project since 1996's Socialist Labour Party, what has been built by the "united" far left has consistently proven somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The second, probably more problematic, hangers on are what you might call, for want of a better phrase, the narcissistic left. These are a ragbag of provocateurs, self-publicists, and big mouth know-it-alls who deliberately try courting controversy and would damage a putative Corbyn project by their association. George Galloway, Chris Williamson, Ken Livingstone, and Alex Salmond cheerleader Tommy Sheridan are prominent exponents of this wrecking tendency, but there are plenty of others. Including those who acted as the Labour right's useful tools during their cynical attacks on Corbyn and Corbyn's Labour as antisemitic. If the press don't latch on to their "colourful characters", their presence at party meetings and public events would damage the party and put people off. Unfortunately for a Corbyn party, there's no easy way of dealing with disruptive elements. Membership vetting, bans, or a heavy-handed constitution are guarantees for further rounds of infighting and paralysis.

The last issue is what the party is for. Apart from getting Corbyn re-elected, what else? A movement/party that builds its strength and influence outside of Westminster, like the official Communist Party did in its glory days? Concentrate on elections and become a sort of UKIP-from-the-left that is able to leverage its support to influence mainstream politics? Yes, but that needs a carefully calibrated strategy and seriousness of purpose. And lastly, what about its attitude to Labour and the unavoidable issue of a Labour government versus a Tory government. Would it pull its punches - which Corbyn would likely favour owing to him, when all is said and done, being a Labour man? Avoid certain seats where there are existing left wingers? Or go all out? The question of Labour cannot be avoided, and it's one likely to produce recrimination between members who see it purely as a matter of strategy and others who cannot forget the disgraceful behaviour of the Labour right.

A good job none of this has come to pass and it's all castles in the sky stuff. But if it does, if the Telegraph are more on the nose than they usually are when reporting left politics stuff, these are the issues a prospective Corbyn party would have to face. It might not be pretty, matters might become more fraught. But certainly, politics would be more interesting.

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The Tory Surrender to Covid

The Tories and their press like their Second World War similes, so here's one for them. Boris Johnson likes to affect a Churchillian pose, but rather than fighting the Omicron variant on the beaches or, to be blunt, anywhere, he's raised the white flag. But this is something worse then Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy or, for that matter, the French authorities who declared Paris an open city just before the German army arrived. No, Johnson and his government are the Covid equivalent of Vidkun Quisling and his collaborationist government in Norway during the Nazi occupation. By letting Covid propagate in the schools, ensuring the mask mandates there are strictly time-limited and even dragging their heels on face coverings on public transport and indoors, if Covid was a conscious entity we'd be asking how large a donation had it given to their party.

And I'm afraid our Covid quislings are at it again. In the Sunday Times, we read plans are afoot to do away with free lateral flow tests in the coming weeks. The tests are only likely to be available in "high risk settings" while, simultaneously, the mysteriously over-expensive Test and Trace is to be scaled back further. The period of self-isolation is likely to be reduced from seven to five days to help the work absentee crisis. And all this while the country is posting record infections and between 200-300 deaths daily. Interviewed for the piece, health secretary Nadhim Zahawi said we are "witnessing the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic", as if this was positive news. He goes on, "vaccines will get better and we are going to have polyvalent and multivalent vaccines by next year." These vaccines, which promise to target the body of the virus as opposed to the spike proteins Covid uses to latch onto and invade cells, are much more difficult for it to evolve around. In other words, Zahawi and the Tories are now fully committed to a silver bullet approach. As it seems are many other countries.

If we want to press the overused WWII button one more time, this is very similar to collaborationists enthusiastically carrying out the dirty work of their Nazi overlords right up until the Allied and Soviet armies roll in. As we saw with Delta before Omicron arrived, the Tories were content to let infections run hot, ensuring unnecessary illness, incapacity, and death, and straining the NHS right at the point exhausted staff could have taken a breather to prepare for the Winter wave that was forecast. Now we're seeing them doing exactly the same thing, except with hospitals overstretched, NHS trusts declaring major incidents, and medical staff being pushed to the brink - with the knock-on effect for waiting times and non-Covid emergencies. Instead of 40,000 - 50,000 infections a day we're at triple or quadruple that, with the flood into hospitals tailing infections. It was all so predictable.

One of the chief conceits of mainstream politics is that the number one priority of government and state is to keep its people safe. The Tories have disastrously failed this test time and again, preferring instead to prioritise capital and property. For the continued health of the wage relation and rent payments, tens of thousands have needlessly died: a clear cut case of social murder. And this is going to continue as we await for the vaccine cavalry. Now, some might not think this matters. We've got to learn to live with the virus, goes the tedious mantra. Here's what that means. Omicron is apparently less vicious than Delta, though the possibility of co-infection and the variants combining is quite likely, but the problem with all the Covid variants is the fact it's more than a respiratory disease. For one, there is nothing to suggest Long Covid is any less likely with Omicron, nor its symptoms less debilitating. Second, it is already well known that survivors are at higher risk of strokes and heart attacks versus other respiratory diseases. It's common knowledge Covid can attack the brain and potentially lead to long-term consequences. Hence the utter stupidity of letting an highly infectious variant run riot in schools where young people's brains are still developing.

The Tories know all this, but they're quite happy to let Covid do its work. At a minimum, it's paralysing the economy they pretend to care about with huge numbers of absences, not least where it matters most - in the NHS. And at worst, tens of thousands more people are going to suffer unnecessarily and die. They are entirely okay with this and the long-term health consequences that will entail, a habit of statecraft that has not altered one iota under the impact of the emergency and, if anything, they've retrenched in the face of the challenge. Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions in local government and Wales, Labour have been useless as well. At best, belatedly calling for the introduction of new precautions, at worst going along with the Tories. The unions have rightly looked out for their own members, and some members of the Socialist Campaign Group did try to push Zero Covid hard a year ago, but there's nothing joined up, no united labour movement-centred collective response. And for as long as this persists, so will the Tories' indifference to the illness and deaths of our loved ones.

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