Monday 31 January 2022

The Thin Blue Lifeline

How badly does Boris Johnson want to remain Prime Minister? Very, is the answer. With the Metropolitan Police riding to his rescue and a thin Sue Gray "update" omitting anything that might prejudice their investigation, we now know Johnson will endure the police looking into the bacchanalian larks and drinkies at Number 10 if it means delaying the inevitable. But what her limited document contains means Johnson hasn't yet escaped the danger zone.

Gray drew attention to the Downing Street operation's at-work drinking culture ("excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time"), other behaviours not in-keeping when the nation suffered severe restrictions on its liberties, and most damning "failures of leadership and judgement" on the part of the Prime Minister and senior civil servants. We also learned Gray investigated 16 events between May 2020 and April last year, of which 12 crossed the threshold of criminal responsibility and are now the province of the police. One of these events was a private party in the Downing Street flat. In other words, the Prime Minister's residence. Even the most gullible cheerleader would have a job explaining away that one.

Even this massaged and watered down account would be enough to compel virtually any other PM to resign, and there were testier responses from the Tory benches when Johnson rose in the Commons to put his spin on the Gray statement. Backbenchers who, in previous weeks, said they were waiting for the full report before they made up their mind were either asking for assurances it would eventually be published (Johnson repeatedly gave no such undertaking), that among the changes to Downing Street would be a more collegiate Cabinet-based government , or that there would be renewed focus on Tory priorities post-investigation. Quite remarkable to see backbenchers setting out their price for continued loyalty, or at least indulgence of the government in front of the opposition benches and those watching from home. Andrew Mitchell (remember him?) was the latest Tory to withdraw his confidence in Johnson, and Theresa May made a cutting intervention. You could almost hear centrists pining for what once was.

Johnson has survived the day, but what about the coming weeks? He's probably safe for as long as the Met investigation does its work. But herein lies a danger. Conventional wisdom would dictate that nothing less than complete exoneration would save "Big Dog". That would be good enough for Tory MPs who are loathe to dispose of their leader under popular pressure, but would anger the public in the face of open-and-shut evidence. Even worse would be an outcome less damning than the Gray update. Such an eventuality runs the risk of another blow to the legitimacy of the government and the Met - two institutions whose reputations for probity are not peaking at present.

If the Met decide to impose fixed penalty notices, I'd like to think that would be enough for Tory MPs and they would trigger the no confidence vote, but the convoluted defences and cold feet seen this last fortnight means it's unlikely unless a senior Tory takes a lead - such as a member of the Johnson cabinet. But where is such a figure? Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are too compromised by their leadership ambitions and cannot be seen anywhere near a plot, Sajid Javid by his desire to be a frontbencher in whatever regime follows the Johnson circus, and the Priti Patels, Nadhim Zahawis, and Jacob Rees-Moggs hobbled by their fortunes being tied to the Prime Minister. It's almost as if Johnson contrived a cabinet in which no one can ever be in a position to wield the knife.

It's looking increasingly likely that the denouement to this saga won't come until the local election results are in. Tory MPs typically care little for local government and senior Conservatives even less, but when these tend to favour the Tories (older people, among whom they have disproportionate support, are more likely to turn out than younger and working age people), and so if the results are catastrophic this will make many MPs fearful for their careers. In the choice between Johnson and a better chance of keeping the £82k salary, he stands no chance against the pull of their wallets.

Image Credit

Saturday 29 January 2022

Rush'n Attack for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Here's a title that elicits three game-related memories for me. The first is encountering it as Green Beret, as it was known everywhere outside of North America, on my mate's Amstrad 6128. Lots of pretty colours for a military-themed game. And then a few years later, happening upon it on a tape of copies handed down from my cousins when I inherited their Spectrum 48k. And the third was encountering the Nintendo iteration in, of all places, Crest of the Wave in Ripley, Derbyshire. As part of their marketing strategy in the US and Canada, Nintendo would distribute Playchoice-10s, an arcade cabinet from which gamers could select a range of NES games. What one was doing in my neck of the woods at the end of the 1980s is a mystery I can't fathom. Because of the underpowered hardware, it looked very weak in comparison to the more contemporary games you'd find at the American Adventure and the 16-bit home computers, who were at the peak of their popularity. And, apart from seeing Super Mario Bros in action for the first time, I couldn't understand why it had its own version of Green Beret available to play, albeit under another name.

In the mid-1980s the Cold War inspired militaristic movies, kids' TV programming, science fictions (militaristic and oppositional), and video games. Indeed, Konami eyed Western markets with a money-making glint in their eye and rode the wave with a clutch of military-themed games: Jackal, Combat School/Boot Camp, and Contra (a bit dodge that one, naming a shooter after Nicaraguan death squads). Green Beret was the first of this wave of titles, with it renamed Rush'n Attack for the unsubtle alliteration.

As per military-themed games before and since, the (80s) mediascape full of one-man-army scenarios is the necessary context. A bunch of forces personnel are held prisoner by the dastardly Soviets and they're going to get shot unless they're liberated by a hardy commando. In the arcade game, your protagonist walks from left to right armed with nothing but a knife to stab away the evil communists as they bear down on you. Your antagonists come in three flavours. The bog-standard henchman who simply runs at you and does nothing. Then we have the martial artists who take to the air with a flying kick when they venture near. There is the gunman - you'll never guess what he does. We also have guest appearance from parachutists, dogs, and gentlemen dropping bombs from microlight aircraft. Then there's the power up guy. Stick him with the blade and he drops a weapon. It can be a flame thrower, a bazooka, or a grenade depending on the level. Get to the end and the customary boss awaits. Except it doesn't. Instead, a full-on phalanx of bad 'uns come at you. They're very easy to dispatch if you still have the secondary weapon. If not, fancy knife work is your only way out of the pickle.

NES Rush'n Attack changes this up for the better. For one, the game is longer than the arcade and home ports as Konami added two extra levels. And you should think so too considering how much more expensive it was compared to the others. The music here is better and accompanies the game without wanting to turn the speaker off. The plot has also been changed and alterations made to the power ups. Now, instead of rescuing wayward GIs the name of the game is destroying a missile the Sovs want to launch at the Home of the Brave. And along the way, one can acquire a gun (for a time limited interval) to blow all them commies away. And, it seems, the bazooka and grenades are more plentiful. But, sadly, not the flame thrower. You can have a video game glorifying American militarism, one that sees the protagonist stab hundreds of people to death during the course of a play through, but turning them into pixelated flaming skeletons was a step too far for Nintendo's censorious instincts.

The gameplay, however, is entirely the same as its arcade parent. Except there's more of it. Rush'n Attack involves a bit of memorisation, but not heavy on learning the patterns, except for the end-level confrontations. The enemies come thick and fast, but never to the point of being overwhelmed. There's always a way through. Occasionally, a flying kick soldier will be spawned with a grunt and they'll come at you from the same side at once. Jumping to take out the Jackie Chan wannabe risks falling on the other and dying an inglorious death. Another annoying bug, present in all versions, is jumping and getting caught on a ladder. It means dealing with your high kicking foes has to be timed and take place away from the steps. What is properly irksome is the decision to use up on the direction pad as jump, when the NES convention of using a button was already established by the time of release. It can lead to screw ups because making your dude jump accidentally is an ever present risk, and it happened to me all too many times. But this was the 80s, and little quirks of this character were ten a penny in games. They helped add to the challenge, and they didn't usually attract complaints from computer mag. That's how much they were part of convention.

There are a couple of messages we can take from Rush'n Attack. Overt is the might-is-right nonsense. Getting to the end of the game, taking out the waves of baddies, nicking their bazookas and blowing up the naughty rocket, we are treated to a brief, rudimentary sequence in which the base explodes and our hero flees the scene, underneath the legend "You have saved the world! Congratulations! Peace has arrived at last!". Fighting for peace, you've got to love it. The second is much more subtle, and is about weakness. Admittedly, Rush'n Attack wouldn't be much cop if our green beret (who, by the way, wears a blue beret throughout) was well 'ard and could soak up punishment like a sponge, as per other military titles. The one hit death makes for quite a challenging title for the uninitiated. But doesn't this also say something about the jitters underpinning the 80s Cold War mentality? Here we have a special forces soldier who can be slain by the mere touch of an enemy. For all the advantages the player character has over its computer-controlled opponents: occasional ranged weapons, a knife with decent reach, the ability to learn and apply tactics, no matter how prepped and tooled up our character is, just like Uncle Sam he is fragile and vulnerable and can fail at any moment. And so, a Japanese video game developer watching Hollywood from afar was able to encode the bravado and anxiety of Reagan's America into the game mechanics of an enjoyable and otherwise brainless militaristic slash-a-thon.

Friday 28 January 2022

Local Council By-Elections January 2022

This month saw 14,912 votes cast over nine local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, three council seats changed hands. For comparison with December's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb 20

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** No Others fielded a candidate

December was the Tories' worst ever month for council seat losses for at least as long I've been tracking by-election results (nine years now!), and this month? They did alright. Dropping one to the Greens in Wychavon was a headache, but picking up another off the Yorkshire Party, who did not contest Selby, was a nice consolation for them. More encouragingly, considering what's happening, there wre pretty convincing defences elsewhere. Particularly in Dartford and Kent. Their vote took a tumble, but large majorities still separated their victorious holds from second-placed parties. Annoying for those of us wanting to see their vote slashed, but understandable given their pensioner base are even more likely to turn out for local by-elections than younger voters are. And, of course, the ever-present "local factors".

Not much else to comment on this month except to note this is the first time the Greens have managed to field as many candidates as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Given their by-election successes this last year and how their flattering figures in the polls, I expect this serious effort to continue. Still no sign of our new left parties though.

6th January
Gedling, Cavendish, LDem gain from Lab

13th January
Wychavon, The Littletons, Grn gain from Con

20th January
Charnwood, Loughborough Shelthorpe, Lab hold x2
East Lindsey, Chapel St Leonards, Con hold
East Lothian, Preston, Seton and Gosford, Lab hold
Selby, Byram and Brotherton, Con gain from Oth

27th January
Dartford, Maypole and Leyton Cross, Con hold
Dartford, Wilmington, Sutton-at-Hone and Hawley, Con hold
Kent, Wilmington, Con hold

Image Credit

Thursday 27 January 2022

The Tory Culture War on Universities

The Tories are in crisis, but the wheel of vindictive government still turns. Announced at the end of last week, Universities minister Michelle Donelan outlined their latest attack on higher education provision. Branded as a common sense concern with "value for money", what Donelan is proposing is the restructuring of the university sector by the back door using the tried and trusted anonymity of metrics to do the job.

Launching her broadside against "mickey mouse degrees", she argues their proliferation - backed by zero evidence, of course - threatens to undermine the social mobility advances made during the Conservative government. This "progress", according to their own figures, includes half a million more children in poverty since 2012, people from privileged backgrounds being 60% more likely to get a professional job than those who are not, and in 2019 those from working class backgrounds who made it into the professions earned on average £6k/year less than their counterparts. While this is true, Donelan argues there are 25 universities from which fewer than half graduate to professional occupations or what we call "graduate destinations", implying it's HE institutions rather than Tory policy that's responsible for this state of affairs.

Having introduced new targets for apprenticeships and technical courses, Donelan is keen to bring forward a "quality assurance plan". Alongside the recently rested Teaching Excellence Framework, 75% of students will now be expected to finish their degree and programmes will be judged against a 60% benchmark for graduate destinations. Any course that does not meet these requirements will have to carry a 'requires improvement' badge, letting students know a course is inadequate. There has also been chatter on the HE grapevine that this system could be backed by fines for persistent offenders.

From the view of the lobotomised taxpayer, it seems reasonable. Money won't be wasted on unnecessary degrees, students will move to courses with greater remuneration opportunities, and lecturers are going to have buck their ideas up instead of wasting time pushing woke nonsense and trying to shut down free speech. A measure, in other words, designed to play well to the Tory base - a technocratic fix fully in line with culture war objectives.

The outcomes of this would be manifestly unfair and utterly absurd. In the first place, one look at our Oxbridge-dominated media and political elites is enough to show anyone that universities do not exist on a level playing field. They are stratified by class, by prestige, and by the extent institutions can lever their reputation to bring in research monies. Oxbridge for example are directly subsidised by the government to the tune of billions through such grants, whereas provincial universities are lucky to get a couple of million quid. And then there is geography. Universities in the Midlands and the North have a tougher time of it graduate destination-wise because London retains the lion's share of the top jobs. Indeed, it was this realisation that scuppered previous plans to introduce a scheme like Donelan's. And this is where the government is responsible. Two years into his miserable premiership, Boris Johnson's promises to fix infrastructure and rebalance the economy have proven not to be worth the tissue-thin manifesto it was printed in. Universities and the careers of hundreds of academics and thousands of support staff will carry the can of their failure.

This is how it will work. High drop out rate? Sub-par graduate outcomes? Said courses are slapped with Donelan's remedial notice, and future students will steer clear. The consequence will be a further contraction of arts provision, something the Tories don't have time for anyway, and less time for critical research as humanities and social sciences departments invest their time chasing the metrics. To survive, some institutions will effectively redefine themselves as technical institutes (polytechnics, anyone?) and compete directly with the FE sector for recruits. Courses and jobs will disappear, and perhaps entire universities - with appalling consequences for local economies. But the end result, the Tories wager, is a rebalanced system. Technical and vocational education for the many, and the humanities, arts, and social sciences an elite preserve offered by a smaller layer of institutions. An attempt to wind the clock back to before 1992, but with less choice.

This offers up three obvious difficulties. For one, it spells the end of many prospective mature students, particularly those who have or are near to retirement. We're going to see universities actively discourage people from entering HE later in life simply because "graduate outcomes" defined in narrow terms make them a risky proposition. Every older student makes hitting that 60% target that bit more difficult, hence tens of thousands will find their entry into the university system barred. It also raises problems around international students too. Traditionally money spinners for British institutions thanks to the premium fees they get away with charging, tracking graduate destinations becomes more difficult the more a university depends on students from overseas. With some courses having dozens of entrants from dozens of countries, a question mark hangs over how everyone is to be tracked. Therefore some programmes, even at Russell Group institutions, might fall foul of the graduate benchmark simply because adequate returns can't be filed. This says nothing of the amount of resources sunk into this exercise better spent elsewhere. And lastly, it creates an incentive for universities to manufacture graduate outcomes of their own, particularly in areas far from the cities of metropolitan opportunity. There would be more pressure on recruitment from their graduate body, perhaps even rebranding admin roles as requiring a degree. More significantly universities would have an incentive to expand postgrad provision with a range of discounts and postgrad certificates. Certain elite institutions already game the metrics by handing out Masters awards as a matter of course because they deem their undergrad provision exacting enough.

actualité won't trouble the Tories, it never does. Attacking universities fulfils a dual political function for them. It gives the government space to carry on pushing the war on woke rubbish. Divide and rule by another name, in other words. But it also takes aim at a key oppositional grouping - academics. The Tories are against academia not just because the Conservative Party is the stupid party, but because of what it represents. For one, in the right wing imaginary universities are the source of social liberalism that's undercutting conservatism across the Western world. Getting shot of what we might loosely call the liberal arts by shuttering courses and replacing them with vocational and technical programmes might set back the rise of this culture and perhaps send it into reverse. It won't, by the way. The second is directly related to the authoritarian core of the Tory project. From Thatcher onwards, successive Tory and Labour governments have centralised authority in the executive and, particularly, the office of the Prime Minister. Between 1979 and 1997, this meant not just a war on the labour movement, but on the relative autonomy and authority enjoyed by the constellation of the state's institutions. This, which took place under the rubric of Thatcher's war on expertise (which finds its cultural echoes today in Tory anti-maskers and anti-vax idiocy) saw the government exercise its direct authority over different state functions, with internal markets and target cultures designed to police and discipline institutions. Professional knowledge and expertise were secondary to the application of political technologies, effectively proletarianising these occupations and gutting them of the capacity to challenge the government's authority. Academia with its knowledge and, at its best, informed critique of policy and governance is one such potentially autonomous point of authority to bring under the market cosh.

That the Tories prefer to discipline state institutions this way shows there's nothing neutral or technical about the metrics they introduce. The likes of Donelan talk about value for money because they know a direct political attack on occupational groups they want to bring to heel is more likely to elicit public sympathy than an apparent technical tweak to how higher education is regulated. Let there be no doubt that their seemingly innocuous measure is designed to reshape the entirety of the university system over a relatively short space of time. The result will be a more elitist system, job losses, closures, and a restriction of opportunity.

Image Credit

Wednesday 26 January 2022

To Grift or Not to Grift?

A quick gauge of opinion this evening. For a long time, I've been umming and ahhing about introducing a Patreon for this place. In case you stopped following internet trends when Netscape was king, this is a platform through which you can make donations to or pay for paywalled content from your favourite content creators. They're all the rage and nearly everyone in the online comment game has one, so why not here too?

As long-time readers know, this place has slogged on for 15 years now and could well do for another 15, health and the state of the world permitting. And everything that has appeared here is free to view, and always will be. But what do folks think about the introduction of pay-what-you-like, as seen on other blogs and left media? And if I did attach a Patreon to this place, what additional features or topics might you like to see? For example, one thing I would think about doing, following a suggestion from James of The Popular Show, would be making verbal recordings of blog posts available via the Patreon (these would not be paywalled). As for using a paywall, this is probably something I would not ever use. Information yearns to be free, man. Maybe if I'd written a large piece I might have it on early access for a week before reposting it here. Not sure yet. And as far as the Patreon's supporter tiers are concerned, there's a debate to be had about what perks to offer - perhaps requesting an article on a particular topic, or asking a question that requires a post-length response, my opinion on such-and-such, or something else entirely? Nothing is set in stone.

To grift or not to grift, that is the question. Monies raised would go to the need-a-new-computer fund, and if wildly successful I might be able to step back from some work responsibilities and devote more time to writerly pursuits.

None of this is decided so I'd be interested in hearing people's views. Got to love me some feedback. But if you like the stuff I do, there is one concrete way to help out already and get something other than a good feeling in return. And that's by buying the book!

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Ambushed With a Cake

If these are the last days of Boris Johnson's premiership, they are as chaotic as the weeks that opened it. When news broke about a surprise birthday party for the Prime Minister that took place in June 2020, followed by a similarly illegal gathering that evening in the Downing Street flat, any reasonable observer would conclude that it's curtains. The tenant at Number 10 is far from a reasonable occupant, and he is demonstrating - happily causing significant damage to the Conservative Party along the way - how immovable a Tory leader is if they have no respect for the unwritten conventions and vibes of the UK constitution. If his MPs won't swoop in to end it, we'll see if Johnson's resolve to stick it out can take a damning civil service report and a police investigation.

As everyone knows, the main news of the day is the decision of the Metropolitan Police to launch an investigation. Launched is the new way of describing 'dragged kicking and screaming', because they have done everything in its power to remain aloof from what happened behind the shiny black door in the first year of the pandemic. Having been passed some details from the Sue Grey inquiry into Downing Street breaches of Covid rules, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick let us know there was evidence enough to warrant an investigation. Not great news for Boris Johnson. And yet, in the midst of another possibly terminal crisis an opportunity! With the police getting involved, Grey's findings could be shelved because the last thing the government would want to do is prejudice their inquiries. Happily, this means ministers and the PM himself have another line for the press pack: I won't be commenting on an ongoing investigation. Think about it as pressing the nuclear button of delaying tactics: Johnson cannot say anything because he's helping the police with their enquiries. The Met could (and probably would) take months to come to a decision, by which time the current crop of difficulties are going to be ancient history. Johnson and friends hope. Keep kicking the can down the road and everything will turn out alright in the end.

The main consequence of this would be government paralysis. On anything but foreign affairs and marginal areas of policy, Downing Street would grind to a halt. Which might be a boon, because at least the Tories would be unable to do anything damaging in the meantime. A question mark with a flashing blue light atop of it hangs over Johnson's authority, and therefore presents difficulties for getting its business through the Commons. If this Met intervention was anyway planned - Johnson reportedly did not tell this morning's cabinet meeting about it to avoid awkward questions - then it has unravelled pretty quickly. No sooner did Downing Street say the Grey report was over, the Met said they had no problems with the findings being put into the public domain. Apparently it's not in Johnson's gift to decide when it should be published, but Grey herself. Indeed, it could be available as early as Wednesday, just in time for Prime Minister's Questions.

As the day has worn on, all manner of absurd defences of Johnson have emerged. Nadine Dorries distinguished herself with the usual stupidities, saying Johnson's surprise birthday party was a work event. Conor Burns did us a solid by describing the Prime Minister's predicament as being "ambushed with a cake", and tonight courtesy of the New Statesman, news that the Johnsons don't think they've done anything wrong because what happens in Downing Street is part of a household bubble. You almost couldn't make this rubbish up.

Tory ministers in rare honest moments have said the public will make their mind up, and they have. Poll after poll shows they believe Johnson lied about the parties, that he broke the rules, and he should resign. It strikes a chord where 150,000 deaths haven't because experience of restrictions is something borne by everyone, and to know the boss rule maker was also the chief rule breaker very obviously takes the piss. It doesn't matter what Johnson does now, or even if he clings on. The damage to him is permanent, and the longer his stays in situ, the harder it gets for the Tories to come back from.

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.

Image Credit

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 are 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.

Image Credit

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.

Image Credit