Monday 31 October 2022

Ending the Bolsonaro Disaster

The end of the Bolsonaro experiment has come into view. A malignant blight on the Brazilian body politic, he stuffed the state apparatus with military and ex-military figures, which partially paid off with police deploying to prevent Lula supporters from making their way to the polls on Sunday. An environmental vandal who escalated the deforestation of the Amazon, making the climate crisis worse and green lighting the brutalisation of indigenous peoples. And, following the play book of right wingers from Trump to Orban, coarsened public discourse with the most disgusting scapegoating, boorish commentary, and attacks on anyone who had the temerity to criticise his criminal enterprise. Another thing he shares with the fascist regimes he's frequently compared to.

Since Bolsonaro came to office, he scrapped the anti-corruption unit behind Operation Car Wash. This revealed the looting of billions of dollars from public coffers by officials at all levels of the state, with a clustering of activity around the Brazilian state oil giant, Petrobras. Bolsonaro said the agency was no longer needed because his state was "free of corruption". He also doled out billions to Congress like a sweet bowl to trick-or-treat'ers to buy allegiances, and just like this country Covid procurement was a means of funnelling more cash into the bulging pockets of Bolsonaro supporters. Corruption in state contracts became routinised to the point of being a cost of doing business. And most appalling of all was the criminal negligence with which Bolsonaro handled the pandemic, with things getting so bad that the police accused him of spreading disinformation. He systematically undermined coordination between national, regional, and local state responses, attacked official social media campaigns, and peddled quackery as solutions to the Covid crisis. It was no accident it disproportionately hit working class people and racialised minorities - those most unlikely to support his grotesque government.

Bolsonaro would not have won office without the backing of key layers of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. At the outset, he was very clear about whose interests his administration would be serving and, of all the guff he promised his gullible mass voter base, this was one pledge he faithfully delivered. Inequality, already extreme by Latin American standards, widened under Bolsonaro's watch. It's so bad that even he was forced to act, with a 50% bump in welfare payments conveniently landing just prior to the election. This was after cutting spending on social security for the previous 18 months. He also raised the retirement age, and in another quid pro quo for his wealthy backers, set about attacking the labour movement.

His defeat at the hands of Lula and the Workers' Party is a stunning achievement in the face of Bolsonaro's efforts at undermining confidence in the election process, police interference with voting in PT strongholds, and a refusal by the electoral court's top judge to extend voting following reports of widespread voter suppression. All of the incumbent's advantages couldn't save him. And, much to Bolsonaro's chagrin, his allies in Congress and in industry have mostly spoken about the need to respect the result. No Capitol-style insurrection is to be tolerated, a point underlined by Joe Biden in his communique quickly recognising Lula's victory - a signal to the coup-minded that they don't have Uncle Sam's permission.

Despite striking a mighty blow for the left, the reason why many centrists are happy about Lula's victory - his popular frontist strategy - could easily become the incoming administration's Achilles Heel. There's nothing wrong with dragging bourgeois layers in one's political train if front and centre is a programme for empowering our class and elevating our movement. In such circumstances, they've accepted your terms. But it's quite another to tack right and effectively give them a veto over the politics. Lula having right winger Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of Sao Paulo and Lula's presidential opponent in 2006, as his running mate typifies this. Unveiling the alliance at the beginning of the month, the rhetoric on abortion rights and police corruption/violence was significantly toned down. Significant stress has been placed on Bolsonaro's attacks on institutional legitimacy, with Lula co-opting arguments about business confidence and the need to calm the markets. And riffing off this, several trade unions have designed a corporatist plan similar to post-war West European tripartism - a recipe, one might argue, for disciplining rather than empowering labour.

Also worrying is the surge in Bolsonaro's support over the course of the campaign. In September, Lula routinely enjoyed double digit leads. Which one might expect when his opponent is a disaster zone. Yet despite the record, and the incredible scandals - such as paedophilia allegations against Bolsonaro, which were sparked by his own comments, the margin of victory was far narrower than many were forecasting in the Summer. The unpalatable truth is there was something about Bolsonaro that appealed beyond the core constituencies of fascists and right wing populists traditionally enjoy. Obviously, Lula must show no quarter in clearing out Bolsonaro's people from the state, but the more difficult task is fashioning a programme that brings millions more into the PT camp without watering down existing commitments, nor making the working class pay for cleaning up the damage of the Bolsonaro years. One that is easier said than done, but has to be accomplished if Lula wants to be in power, not merely in office.

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Aphex Twin - Come to Daddy

It's Halloween!

Sunday 30 October 2022

Why are the Press Going for Braverman?

Not even the news that Liz Truss's phone was (apparently) hacked by Russian intelligence can smother the bad smell that is the political resurrection of Suella Braverman. Going into the weekend, we've had leaks of emails that are supposed to throw into doubt the "accidental" character of her security breach. You know, the one where she shared confidential information with a backbench friend and a parliamentary bag carrier who was not the intended recipient. More seriously, but counting far less where mainstream news outlets are concerned, was her decision to keep thousands of refugees illegally detained against repeated legal representations. Undoubtedly because tough posturing counts for more than imprisoning innocent people. Braverman is a liability for Rishi Sunak, but why has a section of the Tory press got it in for her? You'd think, after spending decades agitating for hardline immigration policies, they'd be happy to see her inclusion in the cabinet. What's going on?

First is the obvious dysfunctionality of Braverman re: the rest of the Tories. As far as their press are concerned, there's still plenty to be scared about where Labour are concerned. Keir Starmer has gone out of his way to court the press, and they have been mostly nice in return. But there are things that scare them, such as the day one commitment to trade union rights, an apparently serious pledge to decarbonise the economy, and the fact they won't be able to lean on Labour ministers in the same way they can the Tories. If keeping Labour out is the aim, Braverman is a persistent pain. It's not just the incompetence, it's the politics. The power of anti-immigration politics is much weaker than it was during the Brexit referendum. Braverman can help consolidate what's left of the Tory base, but it's a barrier to wider support as the electorate becomes more increasingly socially liberal.

What's at stake is more serious than simply winning an election. Liz Truss recklessly destroyed the teetering reputation the Tories had on economic matters. This comes after Boris Johnson's behaviour threatened a crisis of legitimacy, which occasioned the turning of much of the Tory press. Braverman's security breaches threaten to make Sunak's the third government on the trot to stoke a major crisis of state. The problem is if the security apparatus and the police can't trust the Home Secretary with confidential matters, that's a major problem for a reliable elite prop for the Conservative Party. This creates problems from an operational point of view, and makes it much harder for the Tories to rebuild the alliance it needs at the state functionary level if it's to recover from the damage caused by Sunak's predecessors. It's doubtful many in the press have thought this through, but do they need to when their instincts and vibes nudge them in this direction?

And there's the power of the press itself. We've seen this recently expressed in the hack attack on the Tory party's very limited internal democracy. The papers are a waning force in the land, but are determined to keep hold of their chief-making and agenda-setting influence for as long as they can. Power without responsibility, as the famous media studies book put it. By kicking up a fuss about Braverman and delivering pain unto Sunak's government, they're attempting to reassert themselves. Johnson flattered the press when he wanted something, but otherwise ignored them. Truss refused to accede to their wisdom as well, and so Sunak's Braverman problem is the means by which he learns that he has to pay them heed. Or they will make his life difficult.

Given the pressure on Sunak, surely Braverman won't last much longer. Having dominated the agenda of the government's first few days, she has got to be on course for the shortest serving Home Secretary ever, regaining the record set by Grant Shapps's six day stint before he took it from her two short weeks ago. Something to put on the politics CV, I suppose. But for Sunak, there's a simple choice. He can cling on to her as she gets shredded by more scandal until she goes, or he caves to the press - but opens himself up for future pressure. It's not an enviable position to be in, but Sunak's poor judgement is responsible for landing his government in this mess.

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Friday 28 October 2022

The Tory Death Spiral

On Wednesday I sat down with Gareth from the Death // Sentence podcast to talk about (what else?) the Tories, the book, and the Tories some more. The conversation might also be interspersed with some metal. Give it a listen and do drop Gareth a follow on Twitter here.

Local Council By-Elections October 2022

This month saw 34,707 votes cast in 18 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Eight council seats changed hands. For comparison with September's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Oct 21

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were two by-elections in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes in October
**** Others this month consisted of Residents for Guildford and Villages (185), TUSC (45, 23), UKIP (55), Workers' Party (158)

Thinking about the collapse of the Tories' poll ratings, you could be forgiven for thinking they'd experience an outright rout on the by-election front. And yet, it didn't happen. While coming out of October with the net loss of one, they took seats from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. In some of those cases local factors were at the fore, particularly in Labour's spectacular loss in Leicester. Does this suggest anything about the national picture?

Two things. As observed here many times before, consistent with older people's greater likelihood to vote this becomes even more pronounced at local by-elections. This has over the last decade advantaged the Tories given their disproportionate backing by pensioners. Hence their drop in support as reflected by council by-elections will be shallower than the polls suggest. Conversely, the backing for the other parties are also going to get dampened by this age effect. Second, older people are more likely to follow the local press and therefore be more aware of town hall shenanigans. Volatility here follows through with volatility in the voting. Therefore, when there's an unexpected swing away from the national polls chances are it's a comment on local performance and not what's going on in Westminster.

6 October:
Birmingham, Sparkbrook & Balsall Heath East, Lab hold
Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole, Highcliffe & Walkford, Ind hold
Ceredigion, Lampeter, PC gain from Lab
Eastbourne, St Anthony, LDem hold
Mendip, Butleigh & Baltonsborough, Con hold
Shropshire, Bridgnorth West & Tasley, Lab gain from Con

13 October:
Epping Forest, Waltham Abbey South West, Con gain from Grn
Gloucester, Tuffley, Con hold
Hartlepool, Throston, Lab hold
Leicester, North Evington, Con gain from Lab
Stockport, Edgeley & Cheadle Heath, Lab hold

20 October:
Broadland, Thorpe St Andrew North West, Lab gain from Con
Fareham, Portchester East, Con gain from LDem
Guildford, Tillingbourne, LDem gain from Con
Monmouthshire, Devauden, Con hold
St Helens, Moss Bank, Lab hold

27 October:
Derbyshire, Long Eaton, Lab gain from Con
Sandwell, Wednesbury South, Lab hold

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Wednesday 26 October 2022

Sunak's Braverman Gamble

I don't like egg. But if it must be served, my preference is on the face of pundits stealing a living by pretending to know things about politics. Rishi Sunak's hello speech outside Number 10 was one such occasion. Gone was the awkward delivery of his CCHQ address on Monday, this was nice guy Rishi. Relatable Rishi. Grown-up-in-the-room Rishi. Indeed, briefcase commentators - such as James O'Brien and Ian Dunt - used that exact phrase in conjunction with our new Prime Minister. The qualities they crave in a leader, which boils down to a suit, calm and fluent speaking, and vibes are all present. Following Boris Johnson's defenestration and the brief but destructive reign of Liz Truss, they can sleep easy at night knowing one of their kind of people is in charge.

Having got carried away on a reverie of fantasy, they were brought crashing down when Sunak's cabinet appointments began. In particular, the re-appointment of Suella Braverman, who was sacked/resigned in disgrace a week ago, as Home Secretary. At that moment, the hearts of a thousand centrist dads broke and illusions were shattered. They had convinced themselves, without any evidence, that he was a nice Tory who'd respect the rules of political decency. More fool them for their stupidity. He is as unconcerned with their normative expectations as any of his predecessors: power politics within the Conservative Party must always come first.

It's not hard to see why Sunak gave Braverman her job back. Christopher Hope suggests there was a deal over the weekend between the two. It's said she received six calls and a home visit from Sunak to bring her round, and to ensure she didn't sign up for Johnson's comeback bid. The job is the quid pro quo she extracted. If the story is true, it demonstrates Sunak's complete lack of nous. Braverman is of the party's far right, but she's not a leader among the Tory fringes as her dismal performance in this summer's contest demonstrated. It's doubtful her declaration for Johnson would have made any difference. She, like any other Tory with half a political brain, knew his return was a non-starter, but Sunak's desperation to avoid the chance of a membership vote meant she could name her price. It doesn't speak well of future judgement calls the new Prime Minister is going to have to make.

Unfortunately for Sunak, there are plenty among Tory ranks who think this appointment was a big mistake. The Times, who played a role in shafting Truss and Johnson as they undermined the basis of Tory legitimacy, have an axe to grind for as long as Braverman sticks around the cabinet. Surely he will face the same lack of discipline, the same shooting from the hip, and the same behind-the-scenes rows over immigration as his short-lived predecessor did. And she will prove to be a major road block to catching votes. Tory voters swinging towards Labour, the people Sunak needs to keep on board, find her politics grotesque. The days of political profiteering on the backs of immigrants are diminishing, even if the newspaper editorials give the opposite impression.

At the same time, while Sunak has unnecessarily saddled himself with the Braverman liability he's hoping that his cabinet is broad enough to get his programme through. On paper, it is an alliance of the hard right and far right. The return to austerity appeases those of a Thatcherite bent, and the hope is Braverman and Badenoch will produce enough anti-woke outrage to please the Tory papers and keep the red wall'ers on side. If you can't shield their constituents from cuts because the Westminster wisdom has it that these seats voted Brexit for bigoted reasons, they'll chew on some racisms and transphobias instead and be happy with that.

Unfortunately for Sunak, it appears he missed one of the key lessons of the Truss interlude: that if you threaten people's living standards, they will turn against you. He's not about to imperil the incomes of pensioners or deliberately stoke inflation further, but another round of austerity will impact on millions of votes the Tories need to keep to stand a chance at the next election. If this happens, no amount of state cruelty or inflammatory rhetoric will stop his party from getting the historic drubbing it so thoroughly deserves.

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Monday 24 October 2022

The Tories after Sunak's Coronation

It was a hard fought election, except it wasn't. With Boris Johnson realising the game was up before it started, Rishi Sunak finds himself appointed our new Prime Minister. And I, for one, am glad. This is because Penny Mordaunt is an unknown quantity as far as the public are concerned, but has always stood out as a relatively charismatic, competent, and normal figure - a rarity among the Tories, and the sort of politician a repeat of the Ruth Davidson strategy would benefit. Danger averted.

Unfortunately for Sunak, his first public appearance as Prime Minister "elect" was as wooden as anything Liz Truss attempted. But does this really matter? From the standpoint of the ruling class, there are three things that do. That Sunak will have a becalming influence on the markets, which appears to have been the case. The second is a programme that will make everyone but the British bourgeoisie pay for the crisis Truss's idiotic budget touched off. And third, he has to unite the party. In his closed speech to the 1922 Committee, he said the Tories were facing an existential crisis (yes) and needed a government that brings on the Tories' warring factions. A move that already shows a better handle on political realities than his predecessor. And, according to those present, there was a real desire for unity. Maybe there was for those who were there, but what about the dozens of Tory MPs who were not?

As discussed many times in recent weeks, managing the Tory party was never going to be easy for whoever came next. Johnson would have produced an absolute meltdown as the briefcases took their briefcases away. Mordaunt might have put noses out of joint because she did not command a majority among the parliamentary party, while Sunak lies between the two. Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman positioned themselves for jobs with declarations of support for him, suggesting both prefer ministerial office to impotent backbench posturing. But while reaching out to some on the right and including them in the cabinet is smart politics, there are others who won't be reconciled. There are the die-hards like Nadine Dorries, who (rightly) observes that Sunak lacks a popular mandate of any kind. While her relationship to Johnson seems anything but healthy, she is channelling an energy welling up from thousands of members who, not unreasonably, aren't taking kindly to an imposition of the candidate they comprehensively rejected. Indeed, the warning from the Bow Group that tens of thousands will leave the party is credible. How much this feeds through into the wider parliamentary party to cause Sunak trouble remains to be seen, but you can be sure it won't be long before Andrew Bridgen calls on him to step down.

A bigger problem is with Sunak's programme. We don't know how much of Jeremy Hunt's mini-budget he plans on sticking with, but given his desire to calm the money markets' animal spirits it's unlikely there will be many (if any) changes before this Friday. If there are, the policy direction will be regressive as per past behaviour. The failure of Johnson's levelling up wheeze was largely because Sunak was uninterested in using the state to drive regional economic development. It was Sunak - the wealthiest MP sitting in the Commons - who pushed for clawing back £20/week from Universal Credit recipients. Sunak oversaw the increase in National Insurance and had to be forced into offering a energy price relief. If anything characterises Sunak's politics, it's a determination to reverse politics to the time before Covid and Corbynism and get people into the habit of not expecting anything from the state. He wants to close the popular political imagination and scrub out the hopes and the memory that government can do things, like abolish homelessness, and provide a better welfare settlement - if it was minded to.

Sunak's mutterings about "economic choices" suggests another round of cuts are at hand, but this is where he could hit the buffers. The acquisition of former Labour seats in 2019 has made a layer of new Tory MPs either sympathetic to impoverished constituents, or to the consequences of neglecting them. Those in and around the so-called Northern Research Group will not be favourably disposed to more cutting, while the ERG/Johnson hold outs might find common cause around defending "levelling up". Sunak could avoid implementing another round of cuts if he chose. No one is forcing him to give billions of state cash to energy generation and supply, but there is an Overton window to be slammed shut and the politics to be managed. If this week shows this is his primary concern, it won't be long before the 1922 Committee's call for unity is ripped apart by the gnashing of teeth and chaos descends once more.

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Sunday 23 October 2022

Our Anti-Democratic Comment Journalism

Boris Johnson's return to front line politics has come to nought. But for a while it did look like he might reach the nomination threshold and put himself in front of the membership. While this seemed likely, a major tic asserted itself on the face of opinion journalism: the idea members of political parties should have no say over who leads them. John Rentoul mined this seam at the start of Liz Truss's premiership, and no doubt feels vindicated following her descent into a complete shambles. But it's not just him. There appears to be agreement among most centrist and right wing commentators that party democracy is a bad thing because the members frequently get it wrong.

This argument is reactionary and anti-democratic. It's assumpting MPs know politics better and have a stronger handle on what's happening in the country, and so choosing a leader should be up to them. It's a dangerous argument as well. There is no qualitative difference between this and thinking the franchise should be withdrawn, because ordinary people have a weak grasp on political issues and only a fleeting interest in the Issues That Matter. Also, the suggestion MPs are more representative than party members is preposterous. True, an MP is voted in to represent their constituents but they are elected because they're on a party ticket. Only a tiny handful of politicians can claim to have a personal mandate. And second, far from knowing their constituents the £85k salary, the drama of the Westminster village, the status and the freebies that come with it, and their access to the media offers a very privileged life that puts social distance between them and their voters. The membership of a political party is much more representative, sociologically speaking. Yes, even the 170-odd thousand Tory members have more in common with 'the people' than their parliamentarians. They feel the pressure of everyday life, and it speaks of Liz Truss's stupidity - and isolation from the membership - that she inadvertently targeted the Tories' voter coalition for a round of attacks.

It's not enough to set out and repeat the argument. A blue tick is not about to have a light bulb moment because these points are politely explained to them. There has to be something driving this surge of reaction toward its elitist consensus. I would suggest two things. We have had three leaders in the two main parties voted in that threatened this country's political and economic establishment. On the right there was Truss and Boris Johnson (and maybe him again, in the future), and on the left Jeremy Corbyn. The first two did untold damage to the legitimacy of the British state, while the latter threatened a fundamental rewriting of politics and the reversal of 40 years of ruling class gains at the expense of workers. To be a paid commentator is a small-c conservative endeavour, because one has a stake in maintaining all that is as is. If party members' democracy impinges on their role, then it needs putting to bed.

The second is power play. It takes time to cultivate trusted relationships inside Westminster, and as we saw when Corbynism erupted the hacks were caught off balance because they had no lines to the new Labour leader nor his team. Without those lines, not only could they not say what was going on with any accuracy but their avenues for influencing proceedings were shut down too. To a much lesser extent, the same was the case with Johnson and Truss. They were doing their own thing, in the main, regardless of what the briefcase-adoring commentariat thought. With Keir Starmer and Labour's return to suited-and-booted politics, that influence and framing of issues is working again. The media obsession with trans women, for example, finds an echo in the timidity and capitulation of the shadow cabinet. The commentariat's 'there's no money left' take on the economy after Truss is repeated in Starmer's commitment to "wait" to do Labour things and work on the problems. If Rishi Sunak wins the Tory leadership, that same soft influence over policy will be there in ways that wouldn't have been the case if Johnson had won. In other words, the hacks are protecting their unspoken power and reach over ministers and MPs generally - something that can be pushed back against if a leader's legitimacy lies in a democratic vote outside of Westminster. Corbyn and Johnson are both examples of this.

It's very obvious we need a new politics in this country, and one that better reflects the dynamics and preferences of our class than the exclusionary and corrupt Westminster system we're stuck with. And such a renewal means tackling and curbing the institutionally conservative influence of our thin, unaccountable layer of professional gawkers and talkers. They enjoy too much influence over politics than they warrant.

Friday 21 October 2022

The Return of Boris Johnson

Two polls today. YouGov have the Tories on 19%, some 37 points behind Labour. And new outfit People Polling has Keir Starmer soaring away at 53% with the Conservatives languishing on 14%. That is the lowest score awarded to the Tories by a pollster ever. And you know what? It could go lower, especially if Boris Johnson returns to Number 10.

It's an obviously bad idea. For the amnesiacs among us, Johnson undermined his own government by scandal, hypocrisy, laziness, and authoritarian behaviour. He partied while we abided by tough Covid lockdowns, blew up his polling position by defending the corrupt behaviour of Owen Paterson, and finally demanded ministers go out and lie to protect the sexual predator he covered for and promoted to the heart of government. He was forced from office in disgrace, and had to be dragged out after Tory MPs went on strike. It's unconscionable that within two months of leaving office, he's a viable candidate for replacing Liz Truss. And that many of those who took their ball away are giving it back. Jonathan Gullis, part-time Tory MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and full-time Tunstall town clown was one of the first to quit government in July. And is now publicly backing him. Sleaford's Caroline Johnson (no relation), who resigned because her former boss had "squandered the goodwill of our great party" has since repented and added her name to the Guido Fawkes spreadsheet.

All of Truss's replacements can look forward to a rough time, but Johnson especially. Assuming he wins, and he will if his name is among the last two, straight away he faces resistance on his own benches. Can he rely on briefcase Toryism to give him cover, like they did last time? Doubtful. Can't see Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps staying on in their new gigs. How about Tories that fancy they retain some integrity? Also doubtful. Straight away Johnson will be scraping the barrel for his top table. And then we have the Privileges Committee. Throughout November, if Johnson is back in Number 10 every witness statement is going to get splashed across the papers and broadcast news. It will be excruciating, and at the end of it the sanction could well mean his suspension from the Commons. And the possibility of triggering a by-election the Tories would lose. Johnson might move to shut the committee down, but that would only split the parliamentary party. This is the most damaging course of action Tory members could take. Naturally, I'm in favour of it.

But no one's asking why a load of MPs and members want Johnson back. Presumably, they can see the same as the rest of us. Where is the unerring Tory instinct for taking and keeping power? Why are a significant chunk of the party determined to torch their chances and, in all likelihood, their organisation? Supporting Johnson might not seem a rational choice, but within the fevered lifeworld of (mostly) right wing Toryism he is just that. For some, it's a question of vibes. Johnson was a strong leader who didn't give a fig about propriety, convention, and the feelings of the woke lefty media establishment. He might not win an election, but he could sock it to the Tory party's enemies and arrest the growing slide to social liberalism. If your politics is about maintaining an illusory feel for stability, Johnson (ironically) is the man. And then there are the pragmatics. Nadine Dorries has spent the last day saying Johnson won an election, and has a proven track record as an election winner. This much is true, though it's fair to say his "luck" has been somewhat assisted. Given his propensity to get into and out of scrapes, his residual reservoirs of support among traditional Tory supporters, and unswerving loyalty from a section of the Tory press, not unreasonably he might be the best placed to achieve the least worst result. Assuming everything else about Johnson is ignored. If he was able to barrel through most of Party Gate, might he not do the same with its return to the headlines?

It could all be moot. Rish! Sunak is presently on 97 declared, versus Johnson's 51 (103 versus 68 if anonymous backers are counted). If the establishment want a coronation, they're going to have to go all out and pile everyone behind Sunak and hope Johnson doesn't get the hundred. A less catastrophic outcome perhaps, but one not likely to claw back lost ground from Labour nor secure an outbreak of unity on the Tory benches.

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Thursday 20 October 2022

After Truss

"I'm a fighter and not a quitter" said the Prime Minister at Wednesday's questions in the Commons. Not for the first time, Liz Truss was forced to U-turn by events. Following the disintegration of government discipline, there was nowhere else for her to go but out. With the announcement of her resignation, she can look forward to an annual stipend of £115k for the rest of her days, which isn't bad for a month's work. Meanwhile, someone's got to pick up the pieces and Graham Brady, the busiest chair the 1922 Committee has ever had, stepped into the breach.

The common sense among the press pack and (always nameless) MPs is that giving members a vote for party leader is a dreadful mistake, and it should be left to very sensible honourable members to select their first among equals. Truss's disastrous leadership proves this. And the argument might have a point, if it wasn't for the fact that she had more MPs in her camp than Rish! Sunak by the end of the leadership contest. But clearly the mood amongst leading Tories is this cannot be allowed again, and so a members' vote has to be guarded against and a coronation declared. Therefore, the contest timetable set a high floor for participation. Whereas the summer saw practically the entire parliamentary party put themselves forward, Truss's would-be successors have to find 100 nominations each. If there are three candidates who make the cut, the lowest place is eliminated and the final two go to the membership. The MPs' ballot takes place early afternoon on Monday, and via the wonderful medium of the internet party members will have to have cast their votes by 11am the following Friday, and bang. It will all be done. Barely any time for a televised hustings and their associated embarrassments.

There are two problems. During the summer the party abandoned electronic voting because they were warned about the scope for overseas interference. All it would take is for Vladimir Putin to order in the troll farms and subvert the vote. Except the Tory elite are so up to their neck in Russian oligarch money and influence it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. But still, a whiff of overseas interference would not be helpful for Tory prospects.

And then there is the law of unintended consequences. By setting the nomination bar high, the 1922 Executive are trying to engineer the result for Sunak. With the briefcase coup installing Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor and Grant Shapps at Home, a Sunak premiership would top it off. But they weren't reckoning on Boris Johnson. According to a tracker over at Guido, as of writing 44 MPs have publicly declared for Johnson. Sunak is on 30, and Penny Mordaunt on 15. By carving out the way in for far right candidates (i.e. Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch), there's only really one choice for that wing of the party.

Just stop for a moment and take in the spectacle. Dozens of Conservative MPs are going public with their support for a candidate who was sacked by his party less than two months ago because of his cack-handed cover up of a sexual molestation scandal. Nothing has changed since Johnson went off to spend more time with his American tour of six-figured speaking engagements. Public support hasn't warmed in the interim, nor has enthusiasm among the parliamentary party. Throughout November the Privileges Committee findings about his Downing Street partying will capture the headlines, and dominate them if he becomes leader again. But he has retained enough of his standing among the party membership to win the ballot. Johnson is only "taking soundings" at present, but his return presents the briefcase establishment serious difficulties. Do they move heaven and earth to make sure Sunak and Mordaunt are the final two? Are they even capable of doing this?

And this underlines the big problem the Tories have. Assuming someone can swoop in and make everything better is a false prospectus. If Sunak gets in, Andrew Bridgen will call for his resignation within minutes of taking office and the right, and not a few red wall'ers, will prove to be a pain in the arse. Who knows if he'll bring back his National Insurance increase? Mordaunt isn't as well known to have earned enough enemies yet, but with competing policy priorities and her proximity to briefcase Toryism the right will likely give her the same headache. And if it's Johnson, we're in resignations and painful by-elections territory and many MPs will simply refuse to serve in his cabinet. Rumours of defections to Labour persist, and the right wing press - apart from the Express and Mail aren't uniformly onside. As far as the Tories are concerned, it's division and chaos all the way down.

Truss didn't have to blow up the Tory party and make it an ungovernable mess. But she did. By stoking inflation and forcing the increase in interest rates, she made the cardinal error of directly attacking the Tories' mass base. Winning them back is a big ask for whoever succeeds her, and is surely now a case of damage limitation. A matter of of making sure a rout doesn't turn into a massacre.

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Wednesday 19 October 2022

A Day of Conservative Carnage

How do you begin to describe what happened to the Conservative Party on 19th October, 2022? For a brief moment in time - a day - it looked like things might have stabilised under the backseat premiership of Jeremy Hunt. But one should never, never overestimate Liz Truss and her propensity to screw everything up.

At the weekend, the Sunday papers were briefed by a Downing Street source that Sajid Javid was "shit" and wouldn't be considered for high office under a Truss government. This morning, her spad Jason Stein was suspended pending an investigation. Javid, as one of the least disliked front rank Tory politicians but also one of the most thin-skinned was furious, and threatened to tear Truss a new one at Prime Minister's Questions. Stein had to go to save her blushes.

As it turned out, Truss managed to get through Prime Minister's Questions without stepping on a land mine, though eyebrows were raised when, responding to the SNP's Ian Blackford, that she was actually against scrapping the triple lock on pensions. Reportedly, Hunt is not so taken with keeping it (demonstrating, if anything, his instinct for self-preservation is weaker even than Truss's). And then late afternoon, what would (surely) be the big political news of the day dropped: Suella Braverman was out as Home Secretary, and was replaced by Grant Shapps - the first time two people have been appointed a great office of state on a job share basis. The good reason for Braverman's sacking/resignation (depending on who you ask) was her sending classified materials from her personal email account. The real reason was Braverman's contempt for cabinet discipline. She attacked the reversal of the 45p tax rate's abolition and scuppered Truss's efforts at landing a free trade deal with India. Reasons enough to get rid, but she clung on, freelancing on what the government's position should be on cannabis (make it class A), "dreaming" about planes taking off to Rwanda loaded with refugees, and setting her face against temporary visas for seasonal workers. She was too right wing, too overzealous Facebook group moderator for Truss, and had to go. Indeed, according to someone who's usually in the know about such things, the impulse came from the Prime Minister without any input from Hunt. Perhaps this was her effort to try and reclaim some authority.

That alone would be enough to keep a Tory watcher happy, but that did not reckon with the utter shambles that was about to unfold. With Truss's enthusiasm for fossil fuels and commitment to restart fracking, Labour put down a motion to keep the ban Boris Johnson put in his intentionally thin 2019 manifesto. A lot of Tory MPs were upset by the party reneging on this promise, and this morning the whips' team put out the instruction that this was to be a "hard" three-line whip, with suspension the punishment due on any dissenter. Seems straightforward. But then, during the Commons debate, what was once clear had become unclear. It was no longer being treated by the government as a confidence matter. The minister speaking for the government said it wasn't, then said he didn't know, and the parliamentary party imploded into pandemonium. As Jacob Rees-Mogg and Thérèse Coffey were physically forcing reluctant MPs through the no lobby, the chief and deputy chief whip resigned on the spot. As Craig Whittaker, the former number two in the whipping operation put it, "I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore", As Truss was firefighting this new sudden threat to her barely existent authority she missed the vote, effectively abstaining on her own government's position and theoretically falling foul of the sanctions she wanted applied to any rebel. She got the chief whip to unresign, but very obviously the parliamentary party was left on the point of disintegration. This farce would have been rejected as a Thick of It plotline for being too preposterous. Such is the Tory party in 2022.

The only surprising thing is Truss is still in post this evening, and will probably limp on until morning. But surely the game is now up. You would have to go back 120 years to find the Tories in such a state, but the difference then was the Tories as a party were in the ascendency. The better years lay ahead as they dominated the politics of the 20th century. Now, not only have the Tories been negotiating with long-term decline for over a decade, Truss has slammed down the accelerator pedal.

Even if the end for the Prime Minister comes quickly, changing the face in Number 10 won't becalm internal turmoil nor improve its electoral fortunes. It does look like we're in the end of days for the Conservative Party.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Number 10's Fightback

After some of the hardest days ever seen by the Tory party, Liz Truss is letting the world know that she's dusted herself off and is coming out fighting. This missive, circulated to MPs this evening, has key lines emphasising how everything is safe in Conservative hands and that Keir Starmer is a dangerous red in cahoots with militant unions. It's not going to win many ordinary punters over, but as a reminder of what the Tories are against? It might mollify some MPs and get them used to the fact that the new arrangement - with Jeremy Hunt in charge - might head off complete annihilation. As long as they stick with the programme.

Monday 17 October 2022

Prime Minister In Name Only

Another first for Liz Truss. Never in parliamentary history has a government U-turned on practically the entirety of the programme they came to office with. Whatever happens now, her place in the history books are assured. But what it means in practical terms is that Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng torched the economy, stoked inflation and interest rate rises, took the Tories to depths not seen in the polls since Tony Blair was at the height of his powers and have got absolutely nothing to show for it. The exposure of the Conservative Party for what it is has severely wounded it, perhaps to a point beyond recovery.

What made matters worse, in the Commons on Monday morning Truss just sat there passively as Jeremy Hunt detailed his total unpicking of her budget. This was a magnitude worse than the humiliations meted out to Theresa May in the heaviest Commons defeats ever seen for a sitting government, and was compounded by Truss making herself scarce at the end and wheeling out Penny Mordaunt to face Keir Starmer at this afternoon's urgent question. Never before has a Prime Minister not only been such a failure, but has seen to be such a failure.

For all intents and purposes, Truss is now Prime Minister in name only. She has been couped by the Tory briefcase brigade, that section of the Tory party to have been rejected at the two last leadership elections by the membership, and it's only thanks to her stupidities that they've come back. Still, Hunt's appointment might mean she gets to enjoy the environs of the Downing Street flat a little longer. One of their own is at the heart of government (and is effectively running it), and so why upset the apple cart?

However, while the Tories' fraying factions are agreed that Truss is awful there's not been much in the way of unity about the way forward. Some are touting a triple ticket of Hunt, Mordaunt, and Rish! Sunak as Prime Minister. Supporters of Ben Wallace, who pointedly decided not to run in the summer, are touting him. Even though he's shown no interest in taking over. And the far right of the party sense a chance, with Suella Braverman likely to pitch in to prevent there being a straight coronation. Keeping things as they are now with Truss as figurehead and Hunt as backseat driver is the least politically painful course of action in the immediate term. For one, Hunt's programme is something a lot of Tories would like. They get to riff off their greatest hits from 2010 to 2016 as the government wrings its hands and makes "tough decisions" about public spending.

But there are problems. Even if Hunt's puppetry of Truss is swallowed by the markets and the press, there are three immediate concerns. Hunt's walking back of the energy price freeze and limiting it until April next year slashes the government's projected borrowing, but leaves uncertainty about the politics and how people can meet (what are likely to be) even higher bills. But given how things are (36-point lead for Labour in today's Redfield Wilton, for instance) surely it can't get any worse. Second, the parliamentary party has filled out with so-called working class Tories who like their lashings of authoritarianism with paternalist economics. If Hunt is going to cut public services as promised in today's statement, given the seeming collapse of party discipline and coherence will they even go along with this? They are highly electorally exposed to any backlash. And lastly, what of the Trussites and the hard right? These are the people who are disappointed in the Prime Minister not because of what she did, but the fact she didn't stick to her guns. Now Hunt has declared their fantasies fantastical aren't they also likely to oppose what ever's coming down the budgetary pipe in a fortnight's time?

At this point it's immaterial whether Truss stays or goes. The battle lines are drawn for another round of agonising Tory civil warring and I for one am looking forward to it.

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