James Frayne: Why a populist programme wouldn’t work for Johnson. Working class voters aren’t values votes.

But in the many dozens of focus groups across English towns over the last few years, I have never once heard voters from these areas complain that, for example, middle class politicians and commentators sneer at them. And neither have I heard them complain about some middle class voters’ hostility to them. The decency and patriotism of the latter aren’t questioned.

This is for two primary reasons: because the working class and lower middle class aren’t generally politically engaged, and not at all ideological; and because they have little experience of middle class Remainers. In a focus group I ran in Warrington last week, out of 16 people, only a tiny number had been to London in the last few years, and a few had never been at all.

In short, middle class hostility to the working class and lower middle class is extremely common, while working class and lower middle class hostility is practically non-existent. If populism were a real force, this probably wouldn’t and couldn’t be true. There would need to be a working class and lower middle class collective consciousness about how they differ in character and values from the middle class. They would need to be mobilised as a group against the middle class. The sort of narrative that you hear from working class voters in the US – where there’s a consciousness about how “Washington insiders” look down on them – doesn’t really exist here.

But what of the views of the provincial English more generally? In my experience, they simply don’t hold theviews that middle class Remainers think they hold. On immigration, for example, while undeniably true they think there’s too much immigration, this is almost never expressed in terms of race and culture. It’s always expressed through very narrow prisms – usually around welfare or pressure on public services.

In other words, they usually say it isn’t fair that the welfare state is accessed by those that haven’t “paid in”, or they complain about the difficulty of accessing GP services quickly. Some may still find such attitudes distasteful and hold those who hold them wrongheaded. Perhaps they’re right – but the fact remains that concerns about immigration aren’t derived from nationalism.

Similarly, it is often suggested that working class and lower middle class Leave voters are nostalgic and that they yearn for a time when England / Britain was a great power. In my experience, this is absolutely, emphatically not true. They never, ever talk about wanting a “strong” country or one that’s “respected in the world”.

On the contrary, most of these voters think Britain is a weak, incompetent country led by clowns – one that’s destined for at best a quiet future as a small country. When Remain-leaning commentators talk about how the country has been “humiliated” and it’s a “laughing stock”, they assume this will wound proud Leave voters. In truth, they couldn’t give a toss. Rather, it tends to be middle class Remainers that want British politicians and diplomats strutting around the world stage, exerting influence.

So what of their national pride? Patriotism for working class and lower middle class voters is something more complex than middle class Remainers think, but expressed in simpler ways. They are likely to talk about pride in the armed forces, the monarchy and times when Britain has stood up for what’s right (the Second World War and against tyrannical regimes).

They never, ever link Britishness or Englishness it to “whiteness”, and only rarely to birth. It’s more common to hear them talk about it in terms of common loyalty and shared memory. They don’t connect the dots in this way themselves, but in my experience, their view of nationalism / patriotism is that it is inclusive racially and culturally, but exclusive in terms of nationality. In other words, they view people as fellow English / British people if that’s what others think about themselves.

There are two areas where Remainers are on stronger ground. Firstly, it’s definitely true that working class and lower middle class provincial England are eye-wateringly tough on crime. They favour punishment over rehabilitation and have no interest in the difficult economic and social circumstances of those that commit crime.

Given the polls usually show general public concern about crime across all groups, it’s really more accurate to say that working class and lower middle class audiences are tougher, as opposed to different. It’s also true that they favour strong leaders. This, however, derives from their tendency to want serious change – and the belief that only strong leaders deliver it.

But we should put all this into context. When you ask working class and lower middle class voters what they’re mostly concerned about, they’re as likely to talk about the NHS, schools and social care as they are about Brexit (when it dominates the news) or immigration. Their deep concern about these issues explains why the Conservatives failed to secure a majority last time around; promises on Brexit and immigration were not enough to secure victory. They are not identity or values voters.

What does all this mean for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party? Firstly, it means that his campaigns have not created a populist surge in this country. The provincial English working class and lower middle class retain their essential lack of ideological and political interest and they lack self-identity as outsiders. Anti-politician campaigns will not shape a Trumpian grassroots in the way Remainers fear (although, I think it’s reasonable for everyone to be aware that, in times like this, respectful discourse is crucial).

Secondly, it means that any such populist appeals would fall flat. To be clear, a full-throttled populist campaign to appeal to these voters would fail and would see the Conservatives vulnerable to a campaign for radical domestic change led even by Jeremy Corbyn.

Dominic Cummings recently told a group of journalists to get out London and stop speaking to rich Remain voters. It was useful advice. These journalists would find that most Leave voters will be primarily interested in talking to them about their kids and about their holidays. If they bothered to talk about politics at all, they’d primarily moan about the difficulty of seeing their doctor. And then they’d be back talking about their kids again. They would be shocked at these voters’ lack of interest in politics, but encouraged that they’re all perfectly decent people.

Read More

LibDem limits

The main electoral impact of the Liberal Democrats in modern times has been to help deny the Conservatives a working Commons majority.  They have done so regardless of whether the latter have been in government or opposition.

In 1974, the Conservatives were in government, the Liberal vote surged, Edward Heath failed to win a majority and Jeremy Thorpe refused to enter a coalition with him.  In 2010, the Tories were in opposition, the LibDem vote rose slightly, David Cameron failed to gain a majority – and Nick Clegg took his party into coalition.

It is significant that sweeping LibDem gains haven’t tended to harm Labour.  In 1997, the party gained 25 seats, taking its total to 34.  In the same election, Tony Blair won a landslide.  He and Paddy Ashdown had crushed the Conservatives in a pincer movement.

The tumultuous effects of Brexit have resuscitated the LibDems and are reviving their prospects.  Coalition nearly killed them, at least at Westminster.  But the EU referendum has given them a new lease of life.  Once again, it is most evident in areas which otherwise return Conservative MPs or councils.

Out of their 14 MPs in England and Wales, all those elected as Liberal Democrats in 2017 had the Tories in second place.  In the local elections last spring, all their councils gained were in yellow/blue areas.  Their revival tends to be concentrated in areas in which they flourished between roughly the late Thatcher and late Cameron eras.

This is the context in which to viewed their latest shift on Brexit, the opportunities it is bringing them, and the defections it is gaining them.  The shift to revocation takes place in the context of their competiton with Labour.  The more red votes the party can squeeze in blue/yellow marginals, the more seats it is likely to win.

So as Labour gradually commits itself more explicitly to Remain, to be delivered through the medium of a second referendum, the more the LibDems must try to outflank it.  Junking the referendum and going straight for revocation is the obvious means of doing so.

The ploy carries risks for Jo Swinson’s party.  Revocation may play well in South-West London or university-type seats.  But it is hard to see how it will be a plus in Brexity South West of England.  Swinson seems to be going for broke in the Remain heartlands of 2016: the capital itself and what might loosely be called the greater South East.  Plus Scotland.

In her perfect world, the Liberal Democrats will sweep up London seats in which they have not been previously competitive.  Hence Chuka Umunna’s flight from Streatham towards the Cities of London and Westminster.  She may also be hoping to have a crack at Labour in some of its north London constituencies.  The prospect is agitating pro-EU Labour MPs such as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry to push harder for Remain.

It is tempting to write off the Revocation policy.  After all, Swinson can only implement it herself with the Commons majority that she won’t win.  That clip of a prosperous-looking LibDem audience whooping it up for Guy Verhofstadt’s imperalist ravings won’t impress Revocation-sceptic centrist voters.

But the shift will have an effect on the conversation at Westminster.  Were Swinson to win that mythical majority, Revocation would be one thing: she would have won the right to implement it, fair and square.  But the policy will be quite another if Brexit doesn’t take place on October 31, and MPs begin to drift in its direction without a mandate.

That would be to flick a V-sign not only at 17 million Leave voters but the entire EU referendum result – with consequences for the stability of our already shaken politics that are potentially shattering.  Revocation in that context would be the real extremism, not No Deal, for which at least there is a mandate if necessary.

Swinson’s gambit may blow up.  It could just be that LibDem support in blue/red marginals collapses, handing the Conservatives new seats in the Midlands and North, and that these outnumber LibDem gains in the blue/yellow marginals.  Or that the Luciana Berger and Angela Smith defections to the party are the start of something bigger

Four-way politics in England and Wales complicates all these calculations, as does its equivalent north of the border: Swinson herself could lose her seat to the SNP, which took it from her 2015, before she won it back two years later.  Which reminds us that there will be more to any forthcoming general election than Brexit.

This should lead us to look at the LibDems in the round, as their conference continues today.  Coalition sobered them up, at least for a while, and provided some good Ministers: Steve Webb’s work with Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions stands out.

But most of the stars of that era have either left the Commons or are leaving: Clegg, Webb, David Laws, Vince Cable.  Their successors look less impressive.  And the Tory defectors, Phillip Lee and Sam Gyimah, may not be in the Commons for much longer (and nor may the Labour ones, come to think of it.)

The LibDems have a core problem that they cannot shake off.  In local government, they may well revive further.  In the European elections, they can build on their second place won this year. In Scotland, they could conceivably govern as part of some rainbow coalition.  That is also possible in Wales, where they are currently weak.  Westminster is a different proposition.

For a lesson of the Cameron years is that first past the post sets the party up for punishment if it goes into coalition.  Doing so tends to have the effect of depressing smaller parties in any event, as Paddy Ashdown used to point out, regardless of the electoral system in question. But first past the post intensifies the effect.

Were the LibDems to go into coalition with the Conservatives again, their lefter-leaning voters would desert them.  The reverse would be true were they to go into coalition with Labour.  (The Lib/Lab pact scarcely helped the Liberals in 1979.)  In any event, a lot of LibDem support comes from protest voters.  In 2015, many of these decamped to UKIP, in defiance of any ideological consistency.

This suggests that the most durable option for the LibDems in any future hung Parliament would be confidence and supply.  It is almost impossible to imagine Swinson going into coalition with Jerermy Corbyn or Boris Johnson in any case.

No Ministerial cars; no red boxes.  No more posts as Deputy Prime Minister, or LibDem Ministers shaping government policy.  It is a grim fate for any ambitious politician to accept, but the LibDem mentality is different to that of Labour, as well as us Conservatives.  They are used to marginality, being squeezed – and the joys of irresponsible opposition. Brexit has changed much for them, but less than one might think.

Read More

David Gauke: The three Brexit policy options from which the Prime Minister must now choose

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

I wrote the first of these columns as a Conservative MP. I write my second still a Conservative and still an MP – but not as a Conservative MP. However, it is not the purpose of this column to debate the wisdom of withdrawing the whip from 21 Conservative MPs – we are where we are – other than to make two points.

First, if the objective of the threat to withdraw the whip was designed to deter and see off a rebellion, it obviously failed. If anything, attitudes amongst potential rebels hardened as a consequence of the Number 10 approach. The number of rebels had been expected to be 15 but ended up at 21.

Second, all that has happened since the rebellion of September 3 has confirmed the analysis held by the 21. This was that the Government had not developed a strategy to reach a deal (as confirmed by Amber Rudd); that crashing out on 31 October would be hugely damaging (as confirmed by the Operation Yellowhammer assessment) and that Boris Johnson was determined – unless Parliament intervened – to leave on October 31 ‘come what may’ (as confirmed by, well, Boris Johnson).

In other words, but for the intervention of 21 now former Conservative MPs, the UK would be crashing out of the EU at the end of the next month and facing a whole host of problems. If anyone is expecting an apology for this action from the 21 MPs, they are going to be disappointed.

So given the string of reversals the Government has suffered, what does it do next? What are the broad, strategic choices available to it?

The first option – perhaps best described as the ‘Cummings option’ – is to double-down, stick with a strategy of squeezing out the Brexit Party, appeal to Labour leavers, take on the ‘Remoaner Establishment’ (Parliament, the courts, rich people who live in London), try to recreate the coalition of voters who voted leave in 2016 and smash divided opponents led by the abysmal Jeremy Corbyn. “A general Eelection cannot be far away, now’s the time to hold our nerve, ignore the Westminster bubble, a battle may have been lost but complete victory is in sight,”  say the strategy’s proponents. “Dom has everyone exactly where he wants them.”

It will not surprise many readers to know that I am not a fan of such a strategy, but it deserves to be taken seriously. There are plenty of people who are fed up with the Brexit saga, just want to get on with it and think that this Parliament is in the way. Johnson is a good campaigner; he could tap into that mood and, if an election is framed as Boris & Brexit versus Corbyn, even some of those nervous about No Deal would back the Conservatives. A vote share of 35 per cent might be enough to win a stonking majority.

Putting aside the small matter that a No Deal Brexit is a terrible outcome for the country: even on pure electoral terms alone, it is a strategy that has enormous risks. The Conservative Party would split. Don’t expect all of the rebels to go gently into that good night. More importantly, do not expect millions of moderate Conservative voters to buy the choice between No Deal and Jeremy Corbyn. Many will conclude that it is perfectly possible to use their vote to try to avoid both disasters.

And do not underestimate how hard it will be to win over Labour Leave seats to replace the inevitable losses in Scotland, London and the Home Counties and Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals wherever they might be. As a recent report by Bristol University shows, in many of the seats that would need to be won, Labour leavers simply will not vote Conservative (as we discovered in 2017).

I also want to make a point about what such a campaign would do to our politics. It would be confrontational, divisive, bitter. It would pit the ‘people’ against our institutions. It would motivate people by provoking anger and hatred. Regardless of whether it was successful electorally or not, it would leave this country a less pleasant place in which to live.

All of this points towards an alternative strategy. The law means an extension will have to be sought if a deal has not been reached. How about getting a deal? (To be fair, even with a deal, an extension will be needed to put in place the legislation, but that was always the case.)

This approach means being realistic as to our demands of the EU (so that rules out scrapping the backstop without a workable replacement) and looking to deliver a deal that will have some cross-party support (assuming that some Conservative MPs won’t support any kind of deal).

This is my preferred option for a number of reasons, including the fact that it would enable the recent split in the Parliamentary Party to be reversed (on which point, I obviously have a personal interest to declare). But, to be fair, it is worth acknowledging the problems.

First, there is no guarantee of getting a Parliamentary majority for a deal. A lot of work will be needed with MPs across the House. (This might be easier were the Commons sitting, but that is another matter.)

Second, it means taking on Nigel Farage and, potentially, losing the support of voters enthusiastic about No Deal. It is a real problem for the Conservative Party. Too many of our voters have listened to those who have argued that any compromise constituted a betrayal, and that this great nation had nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit.

That type of rhetoric has boxed the Government in and made it harder for us as a country and Party to face up to the trade-offs inherent in reaching a sustainable compromise. Only a very skilled communicator could move from being an opponent of compromise to an advocate for it. In my view, we have a Prime Minister with the capacity to do that, but it will not be easy.

In short, Johnson has two options if he is going to face an imminent general election. Tough it out, be a No Deal Brexit Party and lose votes to the Liberal Democrats. Or get a deal and risk the return of the Brexit Party.

There is a third option, of course, if a majority for a deal cannot be assembled. Try to resolve Brexit this side of a general glection by holding a referendum, as suggested recently by Oliver Letwin. This could mean that Brexit will have been resolved by the time we get to that election and, the argument goes, the traditional Conservative coalition of voters can be restored.

This, too, has its risks and downsides. Speaking for myself, I have long argued against a second referendum and still want to avoid it. But unless we can make rapid progress towards Parliament supporting a deal, those calls are only going to grow.

No choice will be easy. Over to you, Prime Minister.

Read More

The plan to force a second referendum, and the prospect of party realignment

Oliver Letwin’s intervention in favour of a second referendum may turn out to be of real political significance.  To understand why, let’s start by returning to Boris Johnson’s options, assuming that he isn’t able to agree a deal with the EU before October 31.

They are, first, to extend, which would mean breaking his word.  Second, not to apply for an extension, which would mean breaking the law.  Third, to resign.  It may be that there is a fourth option unclear at present – for example, a legal appeal against some defect in the Benn Bill.  But at any rate, such appear to be the Prime Minister’s choices, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision next week on progogation, and other action in the courts.

ConservativeHome concluded earlier this week that, faced with these choices, Johnson might do best to resign.  We added that this anti-No Deal Commons might then tolerate Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister for as long as it took him to apply for the extension.  After which he would be no confidenced, and a general election would take place.

We added that there was a danger such a scheme might work too well.  In other words, that Corbyn might be kept in place by MPs as Prime Minister for months, not weeks.  Or that it might not work at all, because he would be unacceptable to the Commons, which would insist on putting someone else into Number Ten.

The Letwin intervention has further complicated these already mind-bending possibilites.  It should be viewed alongside Tom Watson’s almost identical proposal as a kind of pincer movement on Johnson, intended or unintended.  Both now support a referendum before an election.  Which suggests the following.

To date, the so-called rebel alliance has been unable to resolve a simple question about extension, namely: “what is it for?”  The referendum plan answers it by breathing new life into a familiar proposal.  “It is for allowing the Commons the chance to put Brexit back to the people,” comes the response.

Now there is still a majority, as far as can be seen, in the Commons against another public vote.  Motions supporting a second referendum have twice failed, though not by all that much: one fell short by 13 votes second time round, back in April; another by 27, the week before.

So there would almost certainly be a further struggle in Parliament over a second plebiscite.  But one can see how, were Johnson still Prime Minister in the event of extension, his premiership would slowly be bled to death while MPs debated a second referendum and other plans – with his Government still unable to obtain a majority for an election.

And were not still Prime Minister? At this point, further complexities kick in.

As we say, the Commons would be unlikely to settle on a second referendum quickly, if at all.  Were it to do so, a Bill to enact it would take time.  David Cameron’s original EU referendum bill took over six months to pass through Parliament, gaining first reading in May 2015 and royal assent in December of that year.

While it is possible to imagine MPs putting Corbyn into Number Ten briefly to agree an extension, before pitching him out again to ensure an election, it is very hard to picture them doing so for several months.  For even if a second referendum bill passed through Parliament faster than the first did, its passage would surely take many weeks.

It is here that the Letwin/Watson plan begins to run into problems.  One can see why most Labour MPs, perhaps the SNP and some of the minor parties would support a Corbyn-led, John McDonnell-driven government that would hold office for several months.

But Jo Swinson presumably would not, since propping up the Labour leader would run the risk of legitimising him among her party’s target voters.  Nor, it appears, would Letwin, and most of the 21 Tory dissidents who so recently lost the whip.

Instead, the rebel alliance would cast around for an alternative Prime Minister.  Let us call this person Ken Clarke.  Or Hillary Benn.  Or Letwin himself.  Or even Watson.  One can see that how such a premiership would suit all of these, and those who think like them.

For a Clarke premiership lasting several months, with all the above in place in Cabinet, would raise the prospect of realignment.  If they could all work together so smoothly, after all, wouldn’t the old party allegiances look a bit out of date?  Why should not this “moderate centre” coalesce permanently, and isolate “the extremes?”

Nick Boles would come on board.  So would Anna Soubry.  Philip Hammond would already be in place.  The Speaker would provide procedural aid.  This new force of “progressives”, cheered on inter alia by George Osborne’s Evening Standard, would begin to work as an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, who would already be well represented in this new coalition.  But you will already have spotted the red fly in this pinkish ointment.

For if we can work all this out, so can Jeremy Corbyn.  He would fight with as much of the Labour Party as he can command to stifle such a centrist infant at birth.  And would work in strange alliance with someone who has a mutual interest in doing so too: Boris Johnson, or whoever was Conservative leader at this point in time.  Seumas Milne, meet your new best friend: Dominic Cummings.

We apologise for burdening our readers with yet more speculation, all of which could be rendered out of date tomorrow by some new twist in the tale.  But the current floating of electoral reform – as by Amber Rudd in her recent speech which we carry today – isn’t coming from nowhere.

Behind the scenes, conversations are being had; possibilities are being broached; understandings half-reached.  Perhaps Johnson will get his deal after all.  Or the EU suddenly veto extension, and put us all out of our uncertainty.  In the meantime, though, watch Letwin, the man with a claim to the title of: our Real Prime Minister.

Read More

Garvan Walshe: No Deal has failed. The choice is May’s deal, no Brexit – or no United Kingdom.

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Until this week I had thought that Brexit had become inevitable. The referendum victory, though narrow, was clear, and those who continued to oppose Brexit lacked the tactical sophistication to press their case successfully.

That’s started to change. The campaign to take Britain out of the EU is now at risk of failing altogether. But the manner of its failure, the scorched earth tactics of its more extreme partisans, and the increasing radicalisation of the Remain electorate (reflected in the Liberal Democrats’ tactically astute shift in position to direct revocation of Article 50, without a referendum) could cause a significant portion of the public to feel completely alienated from the political system.

So although I opposed Brexit, I still don’t think it should currently be reversed. Around half of Remainers still see EU membership in transactional terms: but David Cameron tested this idea of it to destruction. Many of the rest have turned into pro-European partisans, but out of opposition to Brexit, rather than love of European integration.

Should a stable majority of the British public come to understand that the European Union is a project of political integration that involves the nation states of Europe sharing sovereignty, then the UK should rejoin. But cancelling Brexit now would be bad for both the UK, which would find itself kicking against the loveless marriage to which it had returned, and the EU, which would have an unhappy and divided Britain to contend with.

The Brexiteers have failed internationally because they overestimated Britain’s power.  And they failed domestically because they mistook a moral argument for a political one.

Their claim is that winning the referendum has created an unanswerable case for having some kind, indeed any kind, of Brexit. Both sides of the referendum campaign said that they would abide by the result, and that moral duty, they believe, is sufficiently strong that it should override other considerations, including Britain’s traditions as a representative, not a direct, democracy.

But moral claims on their own do not a political strategy make. Brexiteers needed to convert their victory into a broad and lasting consensus in favour of Brexit. It had appeared that May had planned to do just that when she became the Conservative leader in 2016, but she changed tack during her Tory conference speech that year in pursuit of a very specific hard-right fever dream that came unstuck the following July.

Its effects were to deprive May of a majority, force her to rely on the DUP, whose demands proved incompatible with those of the EU, as well as the need to avoid giving the SNP an argument to demand the same status as Northern Ireland, and resulted in the Withdrawal Agreement, which couldn’t pass the Commons, disastrous EU election results, the rise of the Brexit Party and her resignation and replacement by Boris Johnson.

Johnson inherited a war on two fronts — against the Brexit Party and the LibDems — and devised a sort of Schlieffen Plan to get the Conservative Party through. Complete Brexit by October, then pivot to the kind of One Nation Toryism he professed as mayor, to give a country tired of Brexit and austerity something to unite around.

Over the summer, it looked like he had maintained just enough ambiguity about his intentions to keep his opponents divided. Instead he united them by proroguing Parliament and horrified the party by taking the whip from 21 rebels, sparking the resignation of Amber Rudd, his own brother Jo, and even the Duke of Wellington. Whatever the Conservative Party is these days, it doesn’t have space for the descendants of Britain’s national heroes. Much of this is attributed to his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who combines the flexibility of the younger Moltke with the defence-minded attitude of Marshal Foch.

Unable to force his policy through a parliament in which he doesn’t have a majority, having reduced that majority further by his purge, he has been outmaneouvred by Jeremy Corbyn; his bid to call an election twice blocked by the Commons.

Situation excellente says Cummings, j’attaque.

The quite obvious plan, as is clear from adverts promising a “People versus the Politicians” election, is to reactivate enough anger from Leave voters to win a parliamentary majority against a divided opposition. It’s a plan with superficial possibility. Some pollsters, particularly YouGov, are showing a sizeable Conservative lead. Others give a much closer result.

The fever dream to which I refer is that the Conservative Party will somehow extend its reach into the northern working class while still holding on to its urban professional vote in the cities and suburbs.  Stirring up anger at the establishment and fear of Corbyn worked during the referendum, where Labour essentially gave up campaigning, but failed in the general election when it was able to hold onto their core vote. It would be quite a gamble, albeit in keeping with World War I inspired strategy, to repeat the 2017 plan two years later.

As I write, the Scottish courts have ruled Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful, prompting Number Ten to issue an attack on “Scottish” judges, questioning their independence. This latest Fochian outburst is highly unwise and should not have come from a government of a party that still calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party.

The Supreme Court, which hears the appeal next week, has three options. It can declare prorogation lawful in both, allowing the SNP to say “English” judges overruled their traditions. It could declare it unlawful in both, which would, insofar as it upheld the Scottish verdict, require the Supreme Court to rule in effect that the Prime Minister had misled the Queen; or, it could produce the even more uncomfortable verdict that prorogation might have been lawful in England and Wales but unlawful in Scotland.

Also yesterday, a poll of Northern Ireland was released by Lord Ashcroft showing majority support there for the backstop, and an essentially evenly split vote on reunification with the Republic (51–49 in favour). The even split is maintained thanks to a majority of older voters continuing to support the Union. The youngest age group of voters breaks 60–40 in favour of a United Ireland.

The Johnson Government’s strategy of heightening the contradictions has so far been an unqualified failure. Prorogation united the opposition to require him to seek an extension if he stays in office. The attempts to call an election failed. The removal of the whip from 21 Tory MPs reinforced their determination to defy Number Ten. Polling for the election itself increasingly suggests it would produce another hung parliament

The Prime Minister needs to accept this failure and change tack. Leaving without a deal is no longer possible. Parliament will it. Substantive modifications to the deal are also out of the question. The deal itself allows for a wide variety of Brexits, from Canadian-style free trade to a Norway-style membership of the Single Market.  It would allow the Prime Minister to pivot to the One Nation Conservatism needed to win centrist voters back from the LibDems, and of course, it would allow him to tell Brexit Party supporters that we had left the EU.

The Spartans who consider this capitulation should think very carefully. Theresa May said there were three options: this deal, no deal, or no Brexit. The effect of prorogation has been to take away the option of no deal by constitutional means. The choice left is now this deal, no Brexit, or no United Kingdom.

Read More

Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling. Six out of ten voters accept the backstop. But only one in five Unionists do so.

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information about his work, visit www.lordashcroft.com and www.lordashcroftpolls.com.

Last month, my polling in Scotland found a small lead for independence. My latest research, a survey in Northern Ireland, brings equally gloomy news for Unionists: a slender lead for Irish unification in the event of a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

In my poll, 45 per cent said that they would vote to stay in the UK, and 46 per cent said they would choose to leave and join the Republic of Ireland – a lead of 51 per cent to 49 per cent for unification when we exclude don’t knows and those who say they would not vote.

This is in fact a statistical tie, and well within the margin of error. Such a result might also reflect the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Brexit, the Irish border and its potential effect on life in the province, which could recede when the outcome is settled. Be that as it may, the result underlines what could be at stake in the quest for a workable Brexit solution on the island of Ireland.

People divided, predictably enough, by tradition, though one in 20 self-declared Unionists said they would opt for unification and a further six per cent said they didn’t know how they would vote. Women (13 per cent) were much more likely than men (three per cent) to say they were not sure what they would do. The over-65 age group was the only one with a clear majority for staying in the union (55 per cent to 34 per cebt); 45-64s divided evenly, and a majority of those aged up to 44 said they would vote for unification.

While only eight per cent of unionists said they thought such a “border poll” should take place within the next decade, one in three of them thought it was likely to happen within this timescale – as did nine in ten nationalists.

A majority think that in a referendum tomorrow, Northern Ireland would, in fact, choose to remain part of the UK. But when we asked what the outcome would be in ten years’ time, the result was reversed: most believe the vote would be for unification, with only three in ten believing voters would choose the UK. Unionists are markedly less confident about the chances of winning a more distant referendum: while 87 per cent think Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK if a border poll were held tomorrow, this falls to just 59 per cent if a ballot were held a decade from now. Nationalists are correspondingly more confident: while only just over half think the province would vote for unification tomorrow, 93 per cent think this would be the case in ten years’ time.

Nearly half of Northern Ireland voters say they feel less close to the rest of the UK than they did five years ago. This includes the great majority of nationalists, as well as 70 per cent of those who voted to remain in the EU. Around one in six unionists overall say they feel less close to the UK now.

More than half of voters in Northern Ireland, including nearly one in five unionists, think Brexit strengthens the case for unification. And whatever the merits of the argument, nearly two thirds think Brexit makes unification in the foreseeable future more likely. This includes more than three in ten unionists, nearly one in eight of whom think it makes the eventuality much more likely.

For half of Northern Ireland voters, including 85 per cent of nationalists and remain voters – the preferred outcome of the Brexit standoff would be for the UK to remain in the EU. Nearly four in ten back Boris Johnson’s position of leaving on October 31 with or without a deal – the most popular choice for 70 per cent of unionists, and 82 per cent of Leave voters. Only one in ten say they would most like to leave the EU with a good deal even if this means waiting beyond next month’s deadline.

If the choice on Brexit came down to leaving with a deal that includes the backstop or leaving with no deal, six in ten Northern Ireland voters (including 96 per cent of nationalists) said they would choose the backstop. However, only one in five unionists say they are prepared to accept it: 77 per cent of them said they would rather leave with no deal.

Overall, a quarter of Northern Ireland voters agree that the backstop “is not ideal, but it is an acceptable compromise for getting Brexit done without the risk of a hard border”. Only 15 per cent of unionists take this view. Nearly eight in ten unionists believe the backstop “separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in unacceptable ways, and the government should not agree to any deal that includes it.” Meanwhile, for a clear majority of Nationalists, “there is no problem with the backstop and the government should accept it as part of a Brexit deal.”

By the same token, three quarters of Unionists believe that if it comes to a choice between the two, “making sure exactly the same laws and regulations apply in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK” is more important than “making sure there is no visible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.” Nearly nine in ten remain voters, and 96 per cent of nationalists, take the opposite view.

A majority believe a no-deal Brexit would be “disastrous” for Northern Ireland. Nationalist voters are nearly unanimous in this view. Among unionists, the majority opinion, held by around two thirds, is that no deal “would cause some difficulties, but the risks have been exaggerated.” Fewer than one in ten voters overall believe a no-deal Brexit would cause “only negligible problems for Northern Ireland, if any.”

Despite this, four in ten voters, including more than eight in ten unionists, agreed with the statement that the border issue “is being deliberately exaggerated by politicians who want to stop Brexit – if both sides were willing, a practical solution could be found that would avoid a hard border after Brexit without EU regulations applying in Northern Ireland.” However, a majority overall, including nearly all nationalists, agree that the only way to avoid a hard border “is to keep the backstop, or for the UK to remain in the EU – there is no alternative solution available.”

When it came to the bigger choice, Northern Ireland voters as a whole said it was more important for them to remain in the EU than in the UK, by 55 per cent to 44 per cent. While nationalists were unsurprisingly all but unanimous in choosing the EU, 12 per cent of self-declared unionists said that if it were not possible to have both, they thought it was more important to remain in the EU than to stay part of the UK.

Asked how they felt about various political leaders, voters as a whole put the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long at the top of the list, with Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, second and Boris Johnson – who scores higher marks among unionists than Arlene Foster – in third place overall. Jeremy Corbyn scores highest among nationalists, who give him the third highest marks behind Long and Varadkar.

Johnson pips Corbyn to the title of best Prime Minister among Northern Ireland voters by 45 per cent to 41 per cent. This may be because while nearly nine in ten unionists and leave voters name Johnson, nationalists – perhaps on principle – are more likely to say they don’t know, though 80 per cent of them say they prefer Corbyn.

However, if they had to choose between a Labour government with Corbyn as Prime Minister or a Conservative government led by Johnson, Northern Ireland voters as a whole plump for the former by 53 per cent to 47 per cent – though nine in ten unionists prefer Johnson and the Tories.

1,542 adults in Northern Ireland were interviewed online between 30 August and 2 September 2019. Full details can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Read More

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Johnson makes Corbyn look weak

The Prime Minister looked in ebullient good humour as he entered the Chamber at 10.34 p.m. to Tory cheers. He shared a joke with the Brexit Secretary, read over a few lines of his speech, leaped to his feet the moment the Speaker called him at 10.48, and set about ridiculing his opponent as “the first Leader of the Opposition to show his confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.

What Boris Johnson said was less important than the sovereign way he said it. He conducted himself as a man who holds the initiative, because he knows what he wants, whereas the Opposition parties are reduced to the absurd contention that they are desperately impatient to hold a general election, but also to defer any contest.

So Johnson quoted Labour leaflets put out this weekend, “We need a general election now,” accused the party of “preposterous cowardice” for avoiding one, and observed: “The only possible explanation is they fear we will win it.”

At an early stage, Johnson demonstrated his boldness by moving the microphone onto the Despatch Box so the House could hear him better – the sort of thing a well-brought-up Englishman would not dream of doing, for it would seem both risky and rude.

With Johnson, it demonstrated his sense of freedom, his “why not?” approach to things, his fearlessness in the face of whichever authorities run the Commons sound system.

“I will not vote for another delay,” Johnson declared, and sounded as if he meant it.

If Jeremy Corbyn had wished to make the Conservatives laugh at himself, his speech could have been counted a success.

When he announced, “The Prime Minister is running away,” he provoked huge amusement.

Corbyn was soon reduced to accusing the Prime Minister of making “very poor quality posts on social media”. The Prime Minister chuckled. He was at ease, even though his microphone was by now back in its conventional place.

“The Prime Minister is talking up no deal to one wing of his party,” Corbyn said, and offered one of his over-long pauses.

“Chicken wing,” some Tory wag shouted – not a witty intervention, but enough to make Corbyn look a fool for giving the opportunity.

By the end of these exchanges, one could not help feeling Johnson might have done better to keep Parliament sitting continuously, though it is true that allowing more time would make the exchanges less dramatic.

Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, accused Johnson of treating the whole thing “like a game”, and told him sternly, “this is not a student debating society”.

A lot of people will agree with her. She was better than Corbyn, because she sounded as if she believed what she was saying. The Liberal Democrat vote will be swollen by Remainers who wish to vote for the genuine article rather than for a fake.

But on her point that Johnson treats the thing as a game – an accusation made by many people – it should be said that while it is true that a certain playfulness can usually be detected in his utterances, he is serious about winning any game he plays.

He won last night by 293 to 46 votes, which sounds decisive but was insufficient to meet the exacting requirements of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

More important, he won the debate, made Corbyn looked weak, and reminded everyone that he likes nothing better than to go out in rough weather.

Read More

Why the best course open to Johnson may be for him to resign as Prime Minister

It wasn’t the failure to deliver Brexit that did for Theresa May.  It was something even bigger: breaking her word.  She pledged over a hundred times that Britain would leave the EU on March 29, and it didn’t.  She then said that she was not prepared to delay Brexit later than the end of June, but did.  She declared that it would be “unacceptable” for European elections to take place, but they happened.  She denounced Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to the country, but then sough to deliver the Withdrawal Agreement by making a deal with him.

The most elemental trope about politicians, as Lord Ashcroft’s latest focus groups confirm, is that they are all liars.  So it came about that May dragged the Conservatives down to nine per cent and four MEPs in those Euro-elections.  Tory poll ratings slumped to 20 per cent.

It is Boris Johnson’s promises to take Britain out of the EU by October 31, “do or die”, that has dragged the Conservatives up the polls by their bootstraps.  If he backtracks on it, there can be no doubt that, once again, the Tory ratings will slide into the abyss, and drag him down with them.

By the time the Party crawls out, it would not only find a Marxist Labour Party in its place as the government but, in all likelihood, that the Brexit Party has supplanted it as the county’s main right-of-centre electoral force.  And the Conservative Party’s century-and-a-half run as the most enduring governing party in the world would end.

So it comes about this morning that the Prime Minister writhes amidst the grandmother of all pincer movements.  One the one hand, he cannot implement an extension.  On the other, he cannot (or rather, must not) break the law.  He must choose between the unspeakable and the unthinkable.

Now it may be that he can somehow slip out of the pinch.  Some ingenious means of doing so are being floated.  One is use of the Civil Contingencies Act.  The latest is that Johnson send a letter with the letter of extension contradicting the letter of extension.  Some are reduced to hoping that an EU state simply deploys a veto.

One suggestion put to this site by a reader, apparently in all seriousness, is that he send the first by carrier pigeon, so that it arrives after the deadline.  It may be that the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings have a plan instead that will really fly.  But when matters reach this pass, you know that the game is up.

A Cabinet Minister this morning is reported quoting Sherlock Holmes: “how often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”  Quite so, though not perhaps in the context that the Minister intended.

If Johnson cannot deliver Brexit by October 31, and is barred from doing so by law, there is only one practicable course left open to him: to resign as Prime Minister.  “I won’t break the law,” he must tell the British people.  “But I won’t break my word either.  If Corbyn wants to sign this surrender document, so be it: I won’t.”

Johnson’s hope would be that the Labour leader requests and obtains an extension; that the Commons keeps him in place only for as long as it takes Corbyn to do so; and that it then brings him down in a no confidence vote, paving the way for an election in which Johnson marginalises the Brexit Party and sweeps the board.

There are problems with this course.  The first is that the plan might not work at all.  The anti-No Deal majority in the Commons might of course not let Corbyn become Prime Minister – even briefly, to request and obtain an extension.  It might settle on someone else instead (Ken Clarke?), with unforeseeable consequences.

The second is that it might work too well.  Corbyn indeed becomes Prime Minister, requests an extension and get it.  But the anti-No Deal majority in the Commons, fearing a Johnson victory at the polls, does not then no confidence Corbyn.  Instead, it props him up and keeps him in place, at least for the time being.

And as the weeks drag on, Johnson himself is subjected to a leadership challenge – in which the voluntary party, which backs him, would have no say.  It might well not be successful.  But even so, the consequences for the Party are necessarily unknowable.

It will also be asked: what’s the point of seeking to avoid a Corbyn Government by trying to put in a Corbyn Government?  The question is a good one.  But as so often in politics, we must find the least bad answer rather than search for the perfect one, which doesn’t exist in any case.

The choice may come down to the possibility of Johnson resigning as Prime Minister, Corbyn succeeding him briefly to agree an extension, and Johnson then sweeping a general election…or the certainty of Johnson, were he to agree an extension, consigning himself to the disposal dump of history, and perhaps the Conservative Party too.  Some will say that instead of disdaining the Brexit Party as a competitor, the Tories should embrace it as a colleague instead, and merge the two into an electoral alliance.

We will probe the matter later this week.  But one thing’s for sure: such a pact would have no bearing on the choice that now Johnson seems to face: request an extension, and you destroy yourself (and perhaps your Party too).  Don’t request it, and you break the law (and it doubtless happens anyway).   If there is an escape from this trap other than resignation, we would love to know what it is.

Read More

Lord Ashcroft: What my latest focus groups say about the twists and turns of the Brexit drama

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information about his work, visit www.lordashcroft.com and www.lordashcroftpolls.com.

As last week’s Parliamentary drama unfolded, I decided to find out how things seemed to the people on whose behalf it was supposedly being enacted – namely the voters, in the shape of focus groups in Barnet and St Ives.

It was no surprise that people were sharply divided over their new Prime Minister. For many Labour voters, he was “dangerous”, a “charlatan”, “bullying”, “running the country into the ground” and “trying to baffle people with poshness;” “he’d be an amazing character if he was fictional.”

But Conservative remain voters also had mixed views: while some thought he was divisive, dictatorial and untrustworthy (“I don’t think he’s as proper as some MPs – he can probably go rogue”), for others he was colourful, “flavoursome” and “quite statesmanlike compared to the rest. If you think about how Britain is presenting itself on the international stage, who else would have the personality and persona to stand up and be heard?” “His inauguration speech was actually quite rousing. I thought, we are where we are, but he’s got the right attitude, he wants to try and fix some things.”

A few were less positive than they had once been: “initially, I felt it was a good thing, but after what’s happened in the past 24 hours I don’t know. He’s playing a very dangerous game and I’m concerned the game he’s playing could hand the keys to Jeremy Corbyn, which is my worst nightmare;” “There is a sinister side underneath the foppish hair that I didn’t think was there.”

The notable thing about that view, though, was that it was rare: most seemed to feel much as they as they had previously done, only more strongly. For Leave voters he was “realistic,” “robust,” “a doer,” “more proactive,” “bombastic” in a good way and “kind of like Trump – he’s going to make some changes and make things happen.”

On issues other than Brexit, people had heard the new Government promise money for the NHS, schools, universities, the police and social care. It is fair to say that this agenda had been taken with a very considerable pinch of salt on all sides. “If he came though it would be fabulous” but “he’s promising the moon on a stick”; “He will say anything we want to hear. Where’s it coming from, the money? Who knows. All we hear is that the pot is running dry. Is he banking on not paying the £39 billion divorce bill, is he playing that card?” “I worry because the Tory government has cut a lot of things, so is this a new Conservative policy? I’m a bit confused about the policy of his party.”

On Brexit, the policy was completely clear, for good or ill: “He wants to get it done;” “I don’t like him, but I like that he’s pretty stern and wants to do what the country voted for.” Johnson’s determination to leave on October 31 come what may was well known, but most thought he would much rather do so with a deal than without, if only to show he could succeed where Theresa May had not: “I’m sure Boris would rather have the security of some sort of trade deal, and also for his own ego and press. He wants to be able to say where Theresa May failed, he’s on the front pages shaking Macron’s hand. He wants to be the hero, the one who came in and fixed it all.”

Most participants on all sides were sceptical that a no-deal Brexit would be as bad as the worst predictions had suggested – “I can’t believe Europe won’t want our spending power” – and a good deal of scaremongering was in the air (although for no discernible purpose: “you can scaremonger us all you like, we’re not the ones making the decisions”). Ultimately, nobody knew what would happen and “so much nonsense has been spoken that the truth gets lost. It’s very difficult to know what to believe and what sources to trust.”

For many Leavers, the bigger fear was that despite the PM’s do-or-die attitude, Brexit still would not happen by the Halloween deadline: “My concern is, will he go through with it? I’m a bit sceptical. They say they will do this and then something else will change;” “I like the idea of us pulling out on 31 October, but the chances of it happening are minute.” This had ominous implications for the Conservatives: “If we don’t leave by 31 October, I’ll have no confidence on anything else. They haven’t done what they promised us;” “He’s made such a song and dance about this deadline, he’s hanging himself out to dry.”

Asked who was responsible for the Parliamentary impasse, neither Remainers nor Leavers distinguished between the parties or factions: “It’s all of them. The politicians should have dealt with it in a more professional and grown-up way.” After all, “Parliament came to the country. MPs were voted into Parliament and they should work together to get us out”. “All the parties are so split. Even half the Cabinet don’t agree with what he says;” “Both sides lied in the referendum. It’s led to the public not knowing who they can trust.” Touchingly, some thought they should still be able to expect better from their elected representatives: “They might all be lying cheating thieving bastards, but they should set an example.”

Even among Remain voters, there were mixed views about the prospect, since realised, of a law to take a No Deal Brexit off the table. Undesirable though No Deal might be, people wondered what the point of another extension would turn out to be: “We’re only going go drag everything out with zero result. Nothing’s changed since March, nothing’s changed since June. End it!” “I don’t have any faith that saying 31 January will mean we leave on 31 January.”

Despite their exasperation with Parliament, one thing that united all our participants was that none of them wanted to see an early general election. Going to the country again would be a waste of time, money and energy when what was needed was for the current Parliament to do its job: “the country’s already voted! We’ve made our decision, we’ve made our choice.”

Most also doubted that an election would change the situation, or at least not for the better: “The two main parties will lose, the smaller parties will gain, and chaos will rule;” “We’ll have lots of strange parties doing strange deals. I would rather get it done with.” Labour-voting remainers tended to come to the same conclusion from a different angle: “I would love another election to remove Boris from power, but I don’t want it used in a way to barter against Brexit.”

More poignantly, it was also clear that many – mostly among those who had voted Leave, but certainly not exclusively – had become so demoralised as to wonder whether voting was worth bothering with. “What’s the point? We’ve done the big thing, the referendum, and it was totally ignored;” “People had a chance to vote, and it’s as though that didn’t count for anything. Public opinion is going down the drain. It is a mockery – three years later, we’re still debating if it’s happening or not. It’s embarrassing, really;” “I’m not sure anyone’s going to vote because faith has gone. When they give you the right to vote and you don’t get listened to…”

Though they had a firm grasp of the bigger picture, most had better things to do than follow the relentless stream of breathlessly breaking news. Jo Johnson was a case in point. Had anyone heard of him? “It rings a bell. Is he a singer?” “You might be thinking of Jack.” “Is he Boris’s brother?” Was that a guess? “It was actually.” Those who had noticed the brotherly resignation tended to see it as a dignified and even compassionate move (“and there’s not much of that about”) to avoid a public dispute between the pair, in striking contrast to the Milibands. Still, “Christmas is going to be awkward.”

There was some sympathy for the Conservative MPs removed from the Parliamentary party for voting against the whip on Tuesday (not least because “they’re doing to Boris what he did to the previous PM”): “It’s not very ethical – what an awful position to be in, losing your job or compromising your morals;” “They should be allowed to say what they want and not be outed.”

If anything, though, the balance of opinion was that the rebels knew what they were letting themselves in for given the Prime Minister’s resolve: “He’s trying to get things done. They were warned;” “I don’t think he had a choice, because very early in his time as Prime Minister he couldn’t be seen as being soft on them. I don’t like him but we need someone strong.”

In this respect, there was a chasm between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, whose position on Brexit remained opaque to say the least: “This week it’s stay in and last week it was come out;” “Haven’t a clue;” “He’s so indecisive he keeps changing his mind;” “He’s been tactical for too long. Everyone at one point was mad for him, but now he’s lost all that.” Even among our 2017 Labour-voting participants, there was very little support: “He was elected on a wave and that wave is no longer there;” “I’m a Labour person, but Corbyn does scare me a bit. I don’t think he’s got what it takes to run the country.”

For uncommitted Remainers, if it came to a choice between a No Deal Brexit and a Corbyn-led government there would be no contest: “A Corbyn government would be worse. I would actually be scared;” “My fear is the rise of the trade unions from the 1970s, which we know he’s a darling of;” “His views are so extreme. I still remember him standing on the stage with Sinn Fein after they blew up the pub in Birmingham, and I can’t get past that;” “I can’t think of one statesmanlike quality he has that a leader should have.”

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, had installed a new leader since some of our Cornish participants had voted for the party in 2017. Could they identify the individual? “I think they’re male.” No. “Has she got short hair?” No. It’s Jo Swinson. Blank faces. “Well, she hasn’t made much of an impact if she’s new. I’ve never bloody heard of her.”

Another thing our St Ives Lib Dem voters had in common was that they had also voted Leave in 2016. Didn’t this seem like a contradiction, voting for a party that wanted to stop Brexit, which they supported? “I’d never thought of it like that. We’re a funny breed down here. If there’s someone good in the constituency that you’ve heard of… If David Penhaligon was still alive, he’d probably still be an MP today.”

Moreover, as Theresa May learned to her cost, elections are never about only one issue, however much politicians might want them to be: “It boils down to all the things that affect the public – families, the future, kids growing up…” Still, “I’m not sure that any of that will matter this time. Brexit is such a big monster, everything else pales into insignificance. It’s all anyone talks about.”

The LibDem position on Brexit was at least clear: “They want to remain. At least they have been honest. But it’s not a very good start, is it – ‘however you vote, we want to stay in’.” Most said they would probably switch away from the party in an early election: “The only way the Liberals are going to get into power is if there’s a hung parliament, and that’s not really working.”

Read More

Iain Dale: Bracknell, Broadland, Tunbridge Wells, Conservative candidacies and my future. A statement.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I have to admit to feeling very torn over the whip being withdrawn from 21 Conservative MPs over their rebellion this week.

On the one hand, they all knew the consequences of what they were doing. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t had due warning that the vote was considered a vote of confidence. So the Prime Minister and Chief Whip were quite within their rights to withdraw the whip from them, thereby preventing all of the 21 from standing as a Conservative candidate in any immediate election.

And yet, and yet.  I feel a profound sense unease at this move, just as I did in 1992 when John Major did the same thing to the Maastricht rebels. They were seen by many, albeit unfairly – and especially in the media – as the mad, the bad and the sad.

The current rebels are people of immense stature and, although they differ from me on our views of Brexit, I regard each and every one of them as a proper Conservative. Whatever the proprieties are of withdrawing the whip, sometimes in politics you have to be pragmatic. You need to think how ordinary voters will view these things. It’s a long-established political fact that the electorate hates divided parties.

Part of the problem here is that some people seem to have drunk their own kool-aid. I’ve said before that I think the first month of Boris Johnson’s premiership was a success. He picked the Conservative Party up off the floor, provided a clear direction of travel and exuded some much needed positivity and optimism.

But with success comes the danger of hubris. No politician or adviser is without fallibility and I’m afraid there are one or two people in Downing Street who seem to think they are beyond questioning. The events this week have shown how wrong they are.

– – – – – – – – – – –

A lot has been said about Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to accede to the Prime Minister’s request for a general election, so I won’t add to it much here except to say this: surely the best way to avoid a No Deal Brexit, if that is really his aim, would be for him to become Prime Minister – and the only way that can happen is for him to win a general election? Then he can make sure it doesn’t happen. But there’s the rub. Labour knows it’s very unlikely that he could win it. Democracy, eh?

– – – – – – – – – –

Back in 2009 I was in the final of the Bracknell selection. There were seven of us taking part – an unusually large number. I really felt I had a good chance, although I knew that the local GP, Phillip Lee, was always going to be the favourite.

On the day of the open primary, one by one those seven candidates fell by the wayside. It was a bit like X Factor. I got down to the final three, against Lee and Stewart. At that point, I realised the game was probably up. If they wanted to play safe, they’d go for Philip. If they wanted to take a risk, they’d go for Rory – and I fell somewhere between the two.

My rationale was that they wouldn’t want a compromise candidate; they’d want the real thing. I was right. I won’t pretend I wasn’t gutted, because I was. Bracknell was the perfect constituency for me, I thought, and I felt a connection.

Scroll forward ten years and Bracknell are about to select a new candidate. On Tuesday I interviewed the Chairman of Bracknell Conservatives to get his reaction to Lee’s defection. He was very gentlemanly, and resisted the opportunity to stick the knife in, but it’s clear that this move has been coming for some time. Lee’s done quite a bit of public agonising over the last year so the reaction, rather than surprise, was a bit of shoulder-shrugging.

The point is: Lee is no more a Liberal Democrat than I am. His views on Brexit may partially coincide with theirs, but on virtually everything else he’s a true blue Tory. I wonder how comfortable he will feel with them. No more comfortable than Chuka Ummuna, I imagine.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this week, I’ve been linked with standing in Bracknell, Broadland and Tunbridge Wells – given that in addition to Philip Lee’s defection, my good friend Keith Simpson has announced he’s standing down in Broadland, where I have a house, and Greg Clark in Tunbridge Wells (where I live) has had the whip removed.

Were I 47, I might be tempted, but I’m not. I’m 57, and I very much enjoy my current life. Yes, there’s a part of me that thinks in this dire situation that all good (wo)men and true should come to the aid of the country, but in the end, self-knowledge is a wonderful thing. And I am far better equipped to resist temptation at 57 than I was when I was younger.

– – – – – – – – – –

I can only imagine the agonies that Jo Johnson has been through in making his decision to resign as a minister and quit as an MP. There will be obvious comparisons with the Miliband brothers, I suppose. It is rumoured that Jo didn’t inform his brother what he was intending to do. On the face of it, you’d have to say that appears incredibly ruthless, if correct. Families, eh?

Read More

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: A strange and ominous day in the Palace of the Westminster

What a strange, ominous day in the Palace of Westminster, desultory but tense, nobody quite clear what was going on, MPs swirling about the Chamber as they voted on Hilary Benn’s Bill, the Lords in the early stages of a determined filibuster, a great struggle unfolding between Leavers and Remainers, accusations of bad faith flying back and forth, the outcome uncertain.

Confusion was increased by the continued presence of the Tories who have had the whip withdrawn on the Tory benches. Had there really been an irreparable rift, or did Kenneth Clarke, Sir Nicholas Soames, Sir Oliver Letwin and the rest still belong to the Conservative Party?

Letwin spoke of “the horrors we’ve gone through for the last 18 months”, during which he and his colleagues had become “estranged from a party we love”.

Soames gave a short, valedictory speech, already published on ConHome, in which he observed that he had voted for the Withdrawal Agreement on every occasion it had been presented, “which is more than can be said for my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House, and other members of the Cabinet whose serial disloyalty has been such an inspiration to so many of us”.

As in a marriage which comes under strain, it was difficult to tell whether this was a severe but essentially transitory row which would blow over, or proof of an irrevocable breakdown. Soames still called Boris Johnson his friend, yet accused him of serial disloyalty.

Andrew Percy (Con, Brigg and Goole) accused the Remainers who were promoting the Benn Bill of trying, by repeated delays, to scupper the whole of Brexit.

He reported that his constituents have “figured it out”, and they object to Remainers who “get to tell people who voted Leave what they voted for”, and write them off as stupid, thick, racist Northerners.

In the evening, while the final vote on the Benn Bill was taking place and MPs could wander where in the Chamber they wished, Michael Gove crossed to the Labour side of the House, sat on the step directly beside the bench on which Benn was seated, and addressed him with great force and rapidity.

Benn listened with a frown of concentration, intervened from time to time, gave occasional emphatic nods, and then, as Gove made some parting remark, laughed uproariously. Watching from the press gallery, one could believe friendly co-operation was still possible.

But the prevailing mood was of uneasy flux and deep antagonism. The Benn Bill passed its Third Reading in the Commons by 327 to 299 votes, and Johnson rose to demand an early general election: “I don’t want an election, but the House has left no other option.”

Jeremy Corbyn proceeded to accuse Johnson of making no progress towards a Brexit deal: “Like the emperor’s new clothes there really is absolutely nothing there.”

Sir Patrick McLoughlin (Con, Derbyshire Dales) rose and demanded: “Does the Leader of the Opposition want a general election? A Yes or No will suffice.”

Corbyn declined to provide a Yes or No, but lobbed another accusation at Johnson: “What he’s offering is the poison of a no deal.”

Kenneth Clarke delivered the heaviest attack on a Conservative Prime Minister from his own side since Sir Geoffrey Howe’s denunciation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, which paved the way for her downfall.

But Howe had once been the Prime Minister’s close and loyal colleague, and few people had expected him to be so ferocious in his resignation speech.

Clarke, though a big beast, speaks for a smaller fraction of the party, and few people supposed he would pull his punches. He paid tribute to Johnson’s “tremendous skill in keeping a straight face while he’s being disingenuous”, remarked that the Prime Minister is “now desperate to have a general election”, and told him to “stop treating all this as a game”.

Nobody plays to win with greater ardour than Johnson, but he does now need a general election, and has not yet got one.

Read More

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson sets out to infuriate his opponents

Impudent provocation at every opportunity, producing icy contempt and hysterical denunciations of Dominic Cummings, to a background of cheers, jeers and incredulous laughter.

This was Boris Johnson’s approach at his first Prime Minister’s Questions, which might also be his last. He took no time to get his eye in, but from the first moment set out to infuriate his opponents.

Jeremy Corbyn was dismissed as a “chlorinated chicken” who is “frit” of a general election and leaves his MPs to be “hounded out by anti-semitic mobs”.

Corbyn became angry, raised his game, but could not break the Prime Minister’s flow. Nor could anyone else.

The temptation, faced by a figure like Johnson, is to engage in moral condemnation. His cavalier behaviour seems, to those of a puritanical, roundhead temperament, to place him beyond the bounds of civilised debate.

The most effective attempt at condemnation was made towards the end of PMQs by Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Lab, Slough), a Sikh wearing a red turban, who called on the Prime Minister to apologise for “derogatory and racist remarks” comparing “already vulnerable Muslim women” who wear a hijab to “bank robbers and letter boxes.”

This heartfelt attack produced a prolonged outbreak of clapping on the Opposition benches. But from Johnson it produced the rejoinder that the article in question was “a strong liberal defence of everybody’s right to wear what they want”, and the observation that we now have “the most diverse Cabinet in the history of this country”.

There is no doubt that some of Johnson’s opponents take satisfaction in dismissing him as a racist and indeed as totally untrustworthy.

But this pleasant feeling of moral superiority could lead them to neglect the need to counter Johnson’s argument that he is fulfilling the British people’s instruction, given in the EU referendum, to carry out Brexit, while his opponents seize every opportunity to thwart it.

They might ask themselves why he is so determined to enrage them. Could it be that he wants to distract them from replying to his arguments, by offering them the more tempting target of his character?

Read More

Mark Harper: Yeah but no but yeah but. When it comes to making up their minds about an election, Labour is Vicky Pollard.

Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.

We find ourselves in the middle of one of the most momentous weeks in our political lifetimes. A constitutional tug of war like no other – between Government and Opposition, between Parliament and the people.

Clarity in modern politics is important, and it is clear what we want to do. We want to deliver Brexit as soon as we can – deal or no deal, no ifs or buts. Then we will be able to get on and govern to deliver on the people’s priorities such as levelling up education funding, boosting the NHS and tackling crime.

However, on the face of it, it is not immediately clear what our opponents in the Commons, led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party actually want. Let’s see if we can find out.

Deliver Brexit?

Let’s start with a (supposedly) easy one. Do they want to deliver Brexit?

It is obvious that the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists don’t want to abide by the 2016 referendum result, but what about Labour?

Well, their 2017 general election manifesto was clear that Labour “accepts the referendum result”. Great, but have they made efforts to respect that promise? No.

When they had the opportunity to vote for a deal, they didn’t. Even when the previous Prime Minister and her Cabinet, mistakenly in my view, reached out to Labour to try and meet their demands, they still did nothing.

While some, like Gareth Snell, Sarah Champion and Lisa Nandy, have expressed regret at not voting for a deal to deliver Brexit when they had the chance, behind closed doors, senior members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet are unrepentant and clearly have no intention of delivering Brexit at all.

Dawn Butler, with a straight face, said that “if anyone doesn’t hate Brexit, even if you voted for it, there’s something wrong with you”. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer thinks that “whatever the outcome…deal or no deal, there’s got to be a referendum” with Emily Thornberry saying that Labour should “campaign, unequivocally, for Remain”.

It’s clear, then, that Labour really does not want to deliver Brexit.

Stop No Deal?

Labour’s position on preventing us leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement, something they regard as “the worst possible deal”, is at least clear. However, if they really think this, why didn’t they vote for a deal when they had the chance?

Instead, their stance of ruling out no deal not only fatally weakens the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand and increases the risk of longer delays to Brexit, but it also increases damaging levels of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is business’s worst enemy – just ask Aston Martin’s CEO, Andy Palmer, who says he would “rather leave with No Deal than drag negotiations on”. It’s clear that Labour want to force more damaging on uncertainty business, leaving them unable to plan for the long term.

General election?

When it comes to whether Labour want a general election, the answer we have got has depended on which hour you ask the question.

While Corbyn has said that he is “absolutely ready to fight” a general election, he was then almost immediately contradicted by a member of his Shadow Cabinet.

In wanting an election but not wanting one that they fear they will lose, Labour are once again doing a very uncanny impression of Vicky Pollard.

Stop Brexit?

After all of the above, we are left with one final question – do our opponents actually want to stop Brexit altogether?

We don’t need to look very far to discover the real answer. Section 3(2) of the Bill on today’s Order Paper, if passed, compels the Prime Minister to accept whatever extension he is offered by the EU – be it 3 months, 6 months or 10 years, with whatever conditions are attached by the EU, unless Parliament opts for a no deal Brexit.

I’m afraid the mask has slipped and the plans of our opponents in Parliament are clear. They wish to open the door to indefinite delay – leading to the halt of Brexit altogether.

Conclusion – “constitutional outrage” and stop Brexit

The real aim of our Parliamentary opponents is, as it turns out, hiding in plain sight. Their decision to wrestle the Order Paper out of the control of the Government – for the second time this year – thanks to the gross misuse of the conventions of the Commons is not only a “constitutional outrage”, but it is simply the first step of their plans to stop Brexit.

Brexit has the largest democratic mandate in British political history – it cannot, and must not, be ignored, but that is exactly what Labour and our other opponents in Parliament want to do.

It is clear that only the Conservatives will respect the result of that mandate, end the uncertainty and then set out a sound platform on which to govern and deliver the people’s priorities. If we soon have to prove that to the country at the ballot box, then prove it we shall.

Read More

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: An astonishing level of mutual scorn on the Tory benches

One of the great advantages of a good education combined with polite manners is that one can then be extremely rude about people, but the scorn leading Tories have taken to expressing for each other is still rather extraordinary.

When Sir Oliver Letwin explained to the House why he wishes to legislate against a no deal Brexit, he compared Boris Johnson to a man standing on one side of a canyon, shouting across it that if the people on the other side “do not do as he wishes he will throw himself into the abyss”.

Letwin, sitting high to the right of the Speaker in a group including Sir Nicholas Soames, Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, Justine Greening, Alistair Burt and Sir Peter Bottomley, added that the rest of us “are to be dragged over the edge” with Johnson.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke next, and could find no image that conveyed such murderous stupidity. He was so dull and diffuse that Letwin, Soames, Grieve and the rest started to look a bit embarrassed at receiving support from so inept an ally.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, rose and declared that “what is proposed today is constitutionally irregular”.

He accused Letwin of “stunning arrogance” for supposing that it was all right to engage in this constitutional irregularity in order to defy the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

And he said that if MPs have lost faith in the Government, the proper course is to bring in a motion of no confidence, which if passed could make Corbyn Prime Minister.

But the Government’s critics won’t do that: “They are afraid, they are white with fear because they do not want the Right Honourable Gentleman to be in Downing Street.”

So they have instead, Rees-Mogg went on, engaged in “legislative legerdemain” – pronounced “legerdemane” rather than in the French manner – in order “to create a marionette government” and impose “possibly indefinite vassalage” upon this country.

How Rees-Mogg loves being the voice of the people. But soon after ten, when the vote was declared, it was demonstrated that he is not the voice of 21 Tory MPs.

“It’s not a good start, Boris,” someone shouted from the Labour benches.

Johnson rose and said the people must now decide who should go to represent Britain in Brussels at the European Council on October 17th. If the people choose Corbyn, “he will go to Brussels and beg for an extension”.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister declared, “If I go to Brussels I will go for a deal and I believe I will get a deal.”

Corbyn retorted that keen though he is on an election, he wants to get the Bill to avert a no deal Brexit through Parliament first.

Michael Gove, sitting next to Johnson, became extremely animated, gesticulated wildly at Corbyn, and was rebuked by the Speaker: “Yes, we know the theatrics he perfected at the Oxford Union.”

It was indeed a rather Oxford Union line-up on the Conservative front bench, Johnson and Gove both having been elected president of that debating society, an office for which Rees-Mogg, sitting on the other side of the Prime Minister, also ran.

How will these Oxonian tribunes of the people fare in an election? No one yet knows, but to begin the campaign by withdrawing the whip from 21 Tory MPs is a fairly astonishing way of going about things.

Read More

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Disraeli Johnson inflicts deep pain on serious-minded people

The Prime Minister rushed into the House and slid into his seat like an errant schoolboy who has made it into class in the nick of time. He rose with extraordinary rapidity when called to make his statement on the G7, as if so full of energy and animal spirits that he could not bear to remain seated a moment longer, and held forth in a manner that was quite astonishingly rude to his opponents.

Boris Johnson had decided that the best way to play things was to wind up anyone who disapproves of him. If they began by frowning at his behaviour, let them end by weeping and gnashing their teeth.

According to the Prime Minister, the measure before the House which would prevent a no deal Brexit is “Jeremy Corbyn’s Surrender Bill” and means “running up the white flag”.

Corbyn was provoked by this scorn into a better performance than he usually gave against Theresa May. “We’re not surrendering,” he insisted, “because we’re not at war with Europe.”

And he ended by declaring that the Prime Minister has “no mandate, no morals and as of today no majority”.

No majority was a reference to Dr Phillip Lee, who had just defected to the Liberal Democrats, and could be seen sitting next to  their new leader, Jo Swinson.

But the afternoon belonged to Johnson the pantomime Prime Minister, behaving with an effrontery which has not been seen in a leader of the Conservative Party since Benjamin Disraeli in 1867, when to the horror and disgust of serious-minded men, he wangled the Second Reform Bill through the Commons.

Johnson horrifies and disgusts serious-minded people. Theresa May sat pale and disapproving beside Kenneth Clarke, the Leader of the House.

On the Labour front bench Sir Keir Starmer looked as if he could not bear Johnson. Hilary Benn, several rows behind him, began by laughing but soon evinced a frigid disgust.

Clarke, Benn and Philip Hammond were among the many who demanded detail from Johnson which he refused to give. One could not help wondering, as he batted away specific inquiries with broad brush observations, if he is preparing a trap for his opponents.

Perhaps one morning we shall awake to find a cornucopia of detail pouring out of Downing Street, most of it excruciatingly dull. Perhaps Johnson the conjuror is all the while distracting us with a series of outrageous tricks, so we do not see what he is actually doing.

Huw Merriman (Con, Bexhill and Battle) asked whether whether the whip will be removed from those Conservative MPs who refuse to vote for whatever deal the Prime Minister may bring back from Brussels.

“What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” he replied. Disraeli, sorry Johnson, will stop at nothing to get a measure through which inflicts the deepest pain on the Gladstones of our time, on whichever side of the Commons they may be found.

Read More

What will happen in the Commons this week? Here are 15 possibilites. They are not exhaustive…

  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels fails to gain control of the Commons timetable.  Boris Johnson’s Government sails on into prorogation early next week.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, but fails before prorogation to pass a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  Johnson’s Government carries on.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She accepts the advice. Legal challenges follow.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She rejects the advice. Johnson seeks and then gains a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.  The Government advises the Queen to refuse Royal Assent to the Bill. She rejects the advice. Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, but fails to do so.  He resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place.
  • The alliance of Opposition MPs and Conservative rebels gains control of the Commons timetable, and succeeds before prorogation in passing a Bill seeking to prevent a No Deal Brexit.   Johnson believes that the Bill isn’t legally watertight, and attempts to subvert it – for example, by adding, if the Bill requires a further Brexit extension, conditions to it that he knows the EU will refuse.
  • The courts rule against Johnson’s prorogation decision. He seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and gains one.
  • The courts rule against Johnson’s prorogation decision. He seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, but fails to gain one. He resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place.
  • Regardless of or in addition to any of the above, Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and gains one.
  • Regardless of or in addition to any of the above, Johnson seeks a general election under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and fails to gain one – largely because Labour actually votes against the election it is calling for, arguing that it is unwilling to do so if such an election takes place after Brexit Day, thus ushering in a No Deal Brexit.  Johnson then resigns.  A Government is formed under another Prime Minister.  Or this doesn’t happen – and an election then takes place anyway.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and fails.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and wins an eventual confidence vote.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and loses an eventual confidence vote.  At which point Corbyn or another MP becomes Prime Minister, and wins a confidence vote.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  But Johnson stays on as Prime Minister under the 14 day provision, and loses an eventual confidence vote.  At which point Corbyn or another MP becomes Prime Minister, and loses a confidence vote. An election follows.
  • Or a no confidence vote is moved in Johnson’s Government by Jeremy Corbyn under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Act, and succeeds.  At which point the Queen sacks Johnson, and appoints Corbyn or another MP as Prime Minister. Cue a confidence vote – which that Prime Minister either wins or loses. In the latter event, an election follows.
Read More

Having abandoned plans for an ’emergency government’, Corbyn seeks refuge in Cooper-Letwin

According to today’s Times, Labour have abandoned plans to stage a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s ministry when the Commons returns from recess.

The reason for this is fairy clear: although Ken Clarke is apparently willing to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, not enough MPs are prepared to do so for the Labour leader to be the viable head of an alternative government.

Without another government waiting in the wings, all that no-confidencing Johnson would achieve would be two weeks of paralysis followed by a general election, the timing of which would be in the hands of… the Prime Minister.

Instead, Labour are apparently reviving proposals to have the legislature attempt to impose legislation on the Government forcing it to seek – and accept – an extension of Article 50.

This news has broken alongside reporting that Brussels might be about to offer the Government a unilateral extension, in hope of robbing the Prime Minister of his ticking clock and forcing him to acquiesce.

Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. On the numbers level, the so-called ‘Cooper-Letwin’ bill barely passed last time, thanks in part to inexcusable complacency on the part of certain loyalist MPs. If the Government can hold together nearly all of its Commons coalition of Tory and Democratic Unionist MPs the other side would need to turn out almost every other MP in the House to win.

This time the Daily Telegraph reports that up to 17 Tory MPs might back the Opposition’s bill, although the scale of such rebellions has usually been overstated in the past.

Meanwhile the odds of Johnson being pressured into an accepting an extension by Brussels seem slim. Ever since taking office he has given every impression of believing that finally delivering Britain’s departure from the EU is central to the survival of his ministry.

If his Commons opponents do prevail, that will present its own problems. We have previously explored how having legislation imposed on the Government via fly-by-night accretions of backbench and opposition MPs undermines political accountability.

This Government shows every sign of being better prepared to resist such efforts than was Theresa May’s, but should it pass it seems plausible that Johnson would use the passage of such legislation to justify seeking the election he is obviously teeing up for.

And if Corbyn, Clarke et al fail to muster the votes? Then prorogation takes effect and the Prime Minister’s gamble delivers its first payoff, laying the groundwork for a final climactic showdown over his Queen’s Speech once the House returns from conference season.

Read More

Sarah Pittam: The intended audience for the prorogation is the leadership of the EU

Sarah Pittam is an experienced executive, non-executive director and adviser within the education sector.

There has been no shortage of intemperate outbursts from the chatterati in response to the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament. Those that have condemned it are all convinced that these are the workings of an arrogant, dismissive Prime Minister determined to avoid the rightful scrutiny of Parliament at a time of national crisis.

In fact, they are all wrong and the angry statements of John Bercow (‘a constitutional outrage’), Jeremy Corbyn (‘a smash and grab raid on our constitution’) and Hugh Grant (‘**** off you over-promoted rubber bath toy’) reveal that they flatter themselves. So intoxicated are the commentariat, broadly defined, with their own self-righteousness that it has escaped their notice that this strategic decision was not about any of them.

No-one in the UK is the intended audience for this remarkable decision. The intended audience is the EU leadership. This move reveals the determination of the Prime Minister to inform the EU leadership in word and now deed that the only way to avoid No Deal is for the EU to compromise and that the procedural machinations of the House of Commons will not come to the EU’s rescue in the way that they did in January of this year.

Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin were able to deploy Standing Order 24 and force an extension largely due to Theresa May’s unwillingness to undermine the primacy of Parliament. Boris Johnson has no such reservations. Whilst some may denounce this as a morally suspect move, it is not constitutionally suspect. It is quite lawful and there are numerous historically precedents. The Prime Minister has simply used the executive power (there’s a clue in the title) vested in his office in order to send a message to the intransigent triumvirate of Tusk, Juncker and Barnier that they will not be saved by the arcane niceties of Parliamentary procedure.

Tusk, Juncker and Barnier have been correct thus far to place their faith in the predominantly Remainer House of Commons. The EU was sure that they would never find themselves in the last chance Brexit saloon because the unlikely alliance of Corbyn and the Gaukeward Squad would thwart a No Deal Brexit. The rules have now changed. Johnson has made it clear that he is in charge and has shown the sort of existential and political confidence that May was never able to muster.

This decision illustrates the strategic clarity which now dominates the Number 10 machine. The objective of leaving with EU on 31st October with or without a deal is now unalloyed with what if contingency planning. Number 10 has conducted intricate scenario analyses in order to work out the best and most efficient way of achieving that objective. It has formed an implementation plan, assessed probabilities and allocated additional funds to No Deal preparations. This strategy is being executed down to the last possible level of detail. No amount of theatrical indignation will derail Number 10’s determination and ruthless efficiency.

Those who object to Brexit appear to have lost sight of the fact that this is a negotiation between the Government and the EU, not between the House of Commons and the Government. Further wrecking moves are not going to solve the problem, nor enable the UK to reach an agreement, but will simply prolong the agony. Number 10 has simply removed the uninvited guests of Remainers in the Commons from the negotiating table. Remainers and anti-No Dealers cannot conclude an agreement with the EU and thus Downing Street has decided that their presence is obstructive.

When it comes as negotiation analysis, a dominant strategy is one where both sides will benefit from an agreement. Notwithstanding the face-saving and bravado that has gone on between the two sides, a No Deal must be avoided because nobody can state with absolute confidence the extent to which it will impact either the UK or the EU. If it goes wrong for the UK, the result will be food and medicine shortages and civil unrest. If it goes wrong for the EU, Angela Merkel having held the post of Chancellor for 14 years, will be left with a legacy of tipping her country into a recession and Leo Varadkar will have to explain why he allowed the Irish economy to implode.

The EU leadership hope that Corbyn et al will be able to use procedure to reverse this prorogation but I fear they are mistaken. Come 10th September, the penny will finally drop and the EU leadership will realise that they are the target of this Machiavellian strategy. It will be an uncomfortable experience and the UK’s negotiators should expect resistance until the very last minute. It’s an all-or-nothing strategy from which might fail. But after three years of manoeuvrings and obfuscation, there is no other way.

Read More

Lee Rotherham: What would life look like in Corbyn’s Britain?

Dr Lee Rotherham is a researcher and author. His new book, ‘Land of the Superwoke: A Travel Guide to Corbyn’s Britain’, is available both in hard copy and e-book versions.

Fiction and politics mix. Jeffery Archer or House of Cards aside, my own earliest practical memory of the cocktail was when out canvassing during the 1997 General Election. Peter Lilley had just announced a visionary manifesto policy designed, over the steady course of decades, to shift the state pension system from running on hand-to-mouth taxation into one based on long term investment. The instant response from Alistair Campbell’s team was barefaced deceit, dishonestly marketing it as a wicked Tory plot to halt payments to existing pensioners.

It was shameful gutter politics, proterozoic Fake News, and genuinely frightened vulnerable people. The lie proved an ominous electoral undercoat to what might follow in Downing Street under New Labour.
Satire, though, has a nobler pedigree. It works because there is a hunk of truth contained within, even if exaggerated, though it need not be by too much.

No doubt I will be accused of all manner of exaggerations and injustices with my new book. In Land of the Superwoke, I have put together a tourist guide book to what the future shape of this country could look like of Jeremy Corbyn gets into power.

It is, of course, satirical. I do not genuinely expect there to be in Bradford, for example, an Owen Jones School conducting pioneering work into ESP. Nor that there would necessarily be a cull of the statues in Trafalgar Square in favour of old East German cast-offs; organised tours of the thriving Morning Star offices; or a Belarus guard of honour stationed at Highgate cemetery. Mentioning such whimsical prospects merely adds a level of ornament and frippery to the far more serious projections the book explores.

Yet those are based on actual precedent. Embraced precedent at that.

I do not know Jeremy Corbyn, nor pretend to be able to fathom the brain waves of his advisors like an alumnus from Jones’ imagined academy. I can at most claim to have stood next to him on a couple of occasions in a Commons coffee queue, clutching my reusable TaxPayers’ Alliance beaker. I take their statements therefore at face value, since I cannot peer into their soul. And so I draw what lessons that can be extracted about a future Corbyn Government from a range of sources.

A reasonable starting point is from looking back into the age before the Thatcher reforms. One of the great appeals of Corbynism arises from the simple fact that many of its advocates simply were not around in the 1970s. They do not remember the Winter of Discontent, the unburied dead, and the epoch where irresponsible and unbridled union leaders drugged the economy. What happened in that age does though provide fair precedent, and as Thatcherite curbs are openly regretted and lamented by Corbyn’s people, we can legitimately draw upon its lessons. There are a very large number of known mistakes waiting to be idly repeated, and past errors to be rebranded.

Then there are the role models. If senior Labour figures cite governments and figures with admiration, particularly in Latin America, that too is a fair indicator as to what policies could be imported into new testing grounds (or alternatively, east of a line running from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, from old ones).

Next, the ideologies themselves. Here, it helps having a leader who has been so exceedingly time-generous in signing so many Early Day Motions; has shared so many platforms before flag-waving crowds; and been so openly unstinting in his admiration of various factions and groups, including armed ones.

Additionally, traditional Marxist revolutionary strategy itself comes into play. Whether the future Government leadership itself embraces its ideological proxies or denies responsibility for them, one is drawn into considering the implication of formerly fringe lobbies finding free rein; and the condition of society that must follow if vanguard groups can benefit from state collusion or at least inertia. Smashing the system is easier if those meant to be safeguarding it are hamstrung. As importantly, one can then reflect on how institutions, businesses, society, and exposed individuals would respond to such provocations – whether attacks on property, or wealth, or language, or job security, or reputation, or privacy, or sense of personal safety. Again, there are plenty of examples to draw from, and a hefty measure of traditional Marxist-Leninist doctrine openly setting out how to go about it.

The collective result obviously is an extreme scenario. An economy that has suffered capital flight. A demoralised administration, sidelined by social revolutionary activism and choked by fresh bureaucracy. A red tape machine in full flow. Queues, shortages, surliness, demoralisation, fear, decline.

In short, a bit like the 1970s.

As I say, tourist pastiches aside (like inventing a new jargon called “Jezzspeak”, or revealing who has gone on the new banknotes), the underlying picture is based on hard precedent. We would do well to bone up, for example, on the astonishing range of long-forgotten restrictive practices that once used to hamper productivity, while also reflecting on more recent post-liberal doctrinal developments such as those that are turning gender rights campaigners against one another.

Are we doomed to endure it? A Corbyn electoral victory is far from certain; and even with the trappings of power at his command, were it to happen it is quite possible that enough sensible people would stand up against the nonsenses as to mitigate or halt at least some of them. But that is a hope and not a prediction – and is especially dependent on the quality, ideology, and venality of ambition of the future Labour back benches.

There are many people on the political Left in this country, including some I know on the ‘Robust Left’, whom I personally greatly respect. We hold very different political views, but are all anchored in a profound attachment to our country and to our democracy. For all of his disastrous economics, Tony Benn was a Bennite because of the Levellers, not because of the Storming of the Winter Palace. But even without passing judgment on Corbyn as an individual, I am unconvinced as a national leader that he would keep the Tankies, Wild Left, Wokewangers and PC Stick-Pokers under control, unleashing naïve outriders with a fork lift truck in an egg warehouse. The economic circuitry in John Hoskyns’ celebrated wire diagram, that explained the UK’s spiral of post-war stagnation, has only needed to be marginally updated for the book, and remains both relevant to our age but also deeply vulnerable to Marxist vandals.

I hope my new book will end up firmly shelved in the Fiction section. I fear it will be housed in Politics, meaning we are all in deep trouble. Worryingly, it cannot yet go out under History.

Hasta la victoria siempre, comrades.

Read More

Gareth Lyon: Post-Boris. The Prime Minister is more Lyndon Johnson than his jokey former self.

Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

“Kennedy promised. Johnson delivered.”

It has been often remarked by those who hold grave doubts about the new Prime Minister that the Boris Johnson of 2019 is far removed from the Boris Johnson of 2012.

People who make this remark are drawing attention a certain loss of levity once held by the Mayor of London who was able to defy the gravity of mid-term Conservative unpopularity whilst suspended by a zip-wire.

Inevitably the seriousness of the offices he has held, and the acrimony of politics in recent years, have led to a more grounded and mundane take on the man. Just as in the time before he ascended to City Hall, there are those who doubt that stunts and flights of fine rhetoric alone can carry him to his desired destination.

Ironically, the most serious minded, long-term and conviction-driven decision of Johnson’s career, the decision to lead the Vote Leave campaign, is also responsible for many of the most vehement accusations of vacuity and vanity levelled against him.

Yet, the consequences of the Leave victory and the ensuing train-wreck of his leadership bid may also have been the making of the true Mr Johnson.

For we are now witnessing him in the post-Boris era, in which the whiff-whaff waffle and the loquacious Latin has been stripped away, and the inner Lyndon Johnson is what is left.

Just as it took required the sad and untimely end of an eloquent and widely liked politician for Lyndon Johnson to ascend to the office he had coveted for much of his life, so to it is with our new Prime Minister. The only oddity is that in our modern case both characters were in the same man.

If the leadership election, in both Parliamentary and member stages, were anything to go by, then Johnson is showing an almost cold and brutal adoption of machine politics in the manner of his namesake.

Lyndon Johnson’s focus on delivery was perhaps unlofty but it was effective.

The legislative achievements of his Presidency were great in number and transformative – in marked contrast to the energising but ultimately empty rhetoric of the vastly overrated Kennedy.

Whether good (civil rights, voting rights and immigration reform), bad (medicare, Medicaid, The Great Society) or good but badly executed (public service broadcasting and Vietnam) there is no denying that Johnson delivered.

The early signs are that Boris Johnson’s administration will be similarly focussed on delivery. The appointment of many of the most effective operatives from his time in City Hall and the Vote Leave campaign are mirrored in what now seems to be an almost revolutionary move in having a cabinet united in resolve and purpose.

Some of the most Lydonesque tendencies of new administration were also apparent in the treatment of those who made the wrong choice in the recent leadership election and paid a very public price. The signal this sends to those considering disloyalty in future will have been received by those it was intended for.

Similarly, it is notable that some of those who are loyal and competent and have proven to be so in the past have missed out on the elevation they felt they earned. This too sends a clear message – that these are necessary but not sufficient qualities for promotion and survival.

On a final note which may hold some promise as a precursor – Lyndon Johnson’s early nickname of “Bull***t Johnson” overtime gave way to the rather more complimentary “Landslide Johnson”, as he blew away the opposition party’s ideologically committed opponent in a general election.

Overall this metamorphosis should be seen as a positive one. Whilst we may look back with sadness at the loss of the preceding jovial Johnson, with the need to get Brexit done and get Britain’s politics moving again, we may find that we can “go all the way with LBJ…”

Read More

Henry Hill: Scottish Government’s own statistics punch fresh hole in the case for independence

Unionists pounce as Scottish Government data reveals huge deficit

This week has marked one of the big events in the constitutional debate calendar: GERS Day. This is when the Scottish Government publish the annual figures for ‘Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland’.

GERS – which, again, are compiled by the Scottish Government – at one point formed the basis of the SNP’s prospectus for independence. But these days they’re enough to whip the separatist movement into a frenzy.

Why? Because they reveal that the distribution of wealth around the UK creates a ‘Union dividend’ for every Scot worth almost £2,000 a year, calculated from the amount extra that Scotland receives in public expenditure versus what it generates in revenue.

They also show that Scotland is currently running a public account deficit seven times higher than that of the UK as a whole. Were it an independent country it would have amongst the highest in the EU, and the Scottish Government would face an unenviable choice between swingeing public service cuts or eye-watering tax rises – probably both. No wonder the Scottish Conservatives have accused Nicola Sturgeon of going into hiding.

Unionists have not been slow to jump on these figures: Kevin Hague is the man to follow for number crunching, but Sam Taylor of pro-Union group These Islands has also written up a handy explainer on the benefits of the UK common market for Reaction.

But although the latest GERS figures are undoubtedly a boon to unionists fighting off what might be the imminent prospect of another independence referendum, they do highlight a strategic weakness in the pro-UK case: that it is so dependent on cash transfers and other, rather mercenary benefits. What will they campaign of if (when?) Scotland becomes a net contributor, and is asked to fund fiscal transfers to other parts of the UK?

Electoral Commission trips up the push for a Scottish referendum

But the GERS figures weren’t the only snares to trip the campaign for a re-run of the 2014 plebiscite on independence this week. Two more were laid, this time by the Electoral Commission.

First, the Commission wrote to MSPs to tell them that it would need to assess the wording of the question in any referendum – even if the wording was identical to the previous one. This opens the door for them rejecting a ‘Yes/No’ question, which pro-UK campaigners insist unfairly benefited the independence campaign in 2014.

It could also mean that the question might be altered to refer to both what might be gained and what would be lost, again in line with the new standards set in 2016. The EU referendum wording (“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”) thus offered a more complete picture of the proposition than that on the ballot paper in Scotland two years previously (“Should Scotland be an independent country?”).

A more muscular approach to such questions by unionists is long overdue. David Cameron adopted a strategy of conceding to the SNP more than he needed to – on both the wording and timing of the referendum – in the hope that it would settle the issue. This was a mistake.

Further to its need to assess the wording, the Commission has also informed the Scottish Government that there ought to be nine months between the completion of any legislation to conduct another referendum and polling day. The Guardian reports that this could scotch proposals to hold another plebiscite next year – although the far bigger hurdle seems to be that the legislation has only been tabled in the Scottish Parliament, which has no authority to authorise one.

Corbyn doubles down on wooing separatists

Last week, this column covered how civil war has broken out inside the Labour Party after both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell appeared to rewrite the Opposition’s policy on Scottish independence and declared that they would not stand in the way of another vote.

One week on and, despite some apparent back-tracking on whether or not Labour would seek an arrangement with the SNP in the Commons, the issue hasn’t gone away. Indeed, not only has Corbyn doubled down on his willingness to allow another independence referendum, but ITV report him saying that he wouldn’t be a barrier to one in Wales, giving a shot of publicity and credibility to what remains a very marginal campaign in the Province.

Not coincidentally, the Express revealed that the Labour leadership were in talks with the SNP about collaborating against No Deal at Westminster. The SNP’s willingness to install Corbyn as caretaker Prime Minister has also given them a stick with which to beat the Liberal Democrats – one reason why I suggested this week that the Nationalists might be the real, and indeed only, winners of abortive attempts to set up an anti-Brexit ’emergency government’.

News in Brief:

  • Deep concern in SNP over prospect of cybernat party – The Times
  • Johnson accuses Brussels of jeopardising peace in Ulster – Daily Telegraph
  • Scottish Government failed to audit £500,000 paid to Salmond – Daily Record
  • Pro-UK group call for ‘truth commission’ to fact-check referendum campaigns – The Scotsman
  • PSNI call for ‘progress’ after republican bomb attempt – BBC
  • Tycoon lambasts Scottish Government over ‘expropriated’ shipyard – FT
Read More

I’m a GNU. How do you do?

Let’s start by returning to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  Under its terms, a general election will not automatically follow if Boris Johnson’s Government is defeated in a vote of no confidence,   Instead, there will be a 14 days window in which to form a new administration.  If during these a putative one emerges, it will be subject to a vote of confidence.  Only if that fails will an election take place.

Now let’s look at the current Commons in that light.

It is by no means certain that the Prime Minister would lose a no confidence vote as matters stand.  This is because his opponents cannot be sure that enough Conservative backbenchers and opposition MPs would combine to force him out.  ConservativeHome will look more closely at the numbers later this week.

But if he did, the odds of him then losing a second Commons vote are longer.  To understand why, imagine the following.  Johnson loses a no confidence vote.  The Queen permits him to have a go at forming another government within the 14 day window.  Johnson’s defeat in the vote of confidence that follows would bring about an election, under the terms of the Fixed Terms Act, as described above.  Some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in the original vote of no confidence might therefore be willing to support him in the vote of confidence.  Why?  Because they don’t want to face the voters in a general election.

Of course, the Queen might not allow Johnson to have another go.  But that possibility makes our point in a different way.  The only other plausible Prime Ministerial candidate is Jeremy Corbyn.  And some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in that original vote of no confidence would be unlikely to support Corbyn in a vote of confidence.

In short, they might be willing to turn Johnson out, but not to put Corbyn in.  Again, this site will probe the numbers in detail later this week.

And Corbyn is the only other feasible Prime Ministerial candidate.  Take the talk of Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman as Prime Minister with not so much a pinch as a spoonful of salt.  The J.Alfred Prufrock MPs of the Tory benches aren’t going to back Harman.  And their Labour equivalents won’t support Clarke.  And since Conservative and Labour MPs together form a large majority in the Commons, either outcome lies at the very edge of possibility.

The so-called Government of National Unity or GNU – actually, a Government of National Disunity, since it would exclude all those who want Brexit now – looks like a wildebeest, in the manner of its namesake in the old Flanders and Swann song.  I’m a GNU.  How do you do?

For all these reasons, a no confidence vote will surely be a weapon of the last rather than the first resort for the Prime Minister’s opponents.  They would get a better return by seeking to pass a Bill compelling him to seek a further extension, aided and abetted by the Speaker.  Could anti-No Deal MPs draw up a legally watertight text?  Would Johnson seek an election if such a Bill looked likely to pass?  Would the Commons grant him one?  We may be about to find out.

Read More

The real winners of this abortive ’emergency government’ could be the SNP

At the time of writing, it looks as if efforts to put together a ‘letter-writing government’ – formed with the sole intention of extending Article 50 and then calling an election – are hitting the buffers.

For all the controversy around the handful of Conservative and ex-Conservative MPs who appear willing to discuss putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street for that purpose, there aren’t nearly enough of them to offset the ten ex-Labour MPs who won’t countenance installing their former leader.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Stephen Bush estimates that a Corbyn-led ’emergency government’ (the phrasing varies from advocate to advocate) would require 14 Tory rebels just to offset those hold-outs. He then reveals that they can’t even get Dominic Grieve.

As the Labour leadership are extremely unlikely to stand aside to allow a less divisive figure to do the job, the plan looks as if it might be dead in the water. Oddly, the biggest winners of this abortive effort might be the SNP.

Whilst they may no longer hold nearly every seat in Scotland, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that Nicola Sturgeon’s phalanx of Nationalist MPs would be absolutely crucial to any administration capable of outvoting the Conservative/Democratic Unionist alliance in the Commons. Unlike the hole she has dug for herself over independence, the First Minister seems to have used this leverage fairly well.

Unlike the other potential members of the rainbow coalition, the SNP have not ruled out making Jeremy Corbyn the next Prime Minister if that’s what it takes to halt Article 50. This has had several benefits.

First, they have been able to tempt both John McDonnell and, today, Jeremy Corbyn into undermining Labour’s agreed position on the Union and talking up the prospect of a second independence referendum. This has plunged an already-weakened Scottish Labour into civil war, and will likely see its vote squeezed even further as the SNP corral pro-independence voters and unionists consolidate behind Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

Second, this stance has allowed Sturgeon to put pressure on Jo Swinson. As the Scottish leader of a left-liberal, pro-EU party, SNP strategists might have worried that a Liberal Democrat revival might further chip away at their post-2014 coalition.

But Swinson’s room for manoeuvre is hindered by the fact that her Party’s main targets are mostly Tory-Lib Dem marginals where Corbyn is toxic. Putting a spotlight on Swinson’s swithering allows Sturgeon to paint the SNP as the best advocates for Scottish Europhiles, at very little cost to herself.

And of course, actually installing Corbyn in Number Ten would allow the Tories to re-run their successful campaign against the spectre of a ‘Lab-Nat Pact’ at the next election, not unhelpful if you think that a government led by Boris Johnson is a booster for independence.

The only possible danger seems to lie in the plan somehow working, and Corbyn entering the election legitimised as Prime Minister and as the hero who thwarted Johnson and his dastardly no-deal plans. But that prospect is probably not keeping the First Minister up at night.

It has now been two years since we first highlighted how the machinations of parliamentary remainers were bolstering those who want to break up the Union. It’s time this truth sank in.

Read More

Iain Dale: Don’t mention the war, please. Why Johnson was wrong to suggest Hammond and company are collaborators.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

Last week at the Edinburgh Festival, John McDonnell told me that Labour would insist on Jeremy Corbyn leading any interim government of national unity, following any successful vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s administration.

I told him that this idea was delusional, since the Labour leader wouldn’t be able to command a majority in Parliament in such circumstance.  Yesterday, Corbyn confirmed that this is exactly his intention.  But since there are plenty even of his own MPs who don’t have confidence in him, one wonders how he thinks he could persuade those of other parties to row in behind him.

Jo Swinson has made it clear she wouldn’t. Anna Soubry is p**sed off that she wasn’t even cc’d on his letter. I have never thought a national unity government is a runner, and I think it’s even less likely now. Jeremy Corbyn really believes that defeating No Deal is the be all and end all, he wouldn’t be taking such an uncompromising stance. I wonder if his public aversion to it is as deep as he is making out.

– – – – – – – – – –

Corbyn says that he will call a Vote of Confidence when he thinks he can win it. Well, obviously.  But his rhetoric at the moment leads me to believe that he’s in danger of boxing himself in. The more he talks about it, the more pressure there will be on him to deliver it. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be painted as ‘frit’.

– – – – – – – – – –

The defection of Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats was among the least surprising news of the week. She will surely not be the last of the original Independent Group of MPs to travel that particular journey. I’d have thought there will be at least a couple more before their conference takes place.

And then, of course, there could well be one or two defections directly from the Conservative benches. Guto Bebb and Phillip Lee are the candidates most often mentioned. Both seem to be going through a bit of public agonising. I suspect if either of them, or indeed anyone else does the dirty deed, it will be at a moment of maximum impact. August is probably not that time.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister was unwise to use the word ‘collaboration’ on his Facebook Live session earlier this week. He was rightly complaining that the actions and words of some Conservative MPs – and he clearly had Philip Hammond in mind – were persuading the EU to stick by its guns while they wait and see what havoc Parliament can wreak when it returns in early September.

His sentiment was right – but you can’t go throwing around words which have World War Two connotations and effectively accuse some of your Parliamentary colleagues of being quislings (another word with the same suggestion).

To so so debases the debate. I don’t know if it was a deliberate use of the word, or whether it just slipped out. If the latter, fine; but if it was a deliberate attempt to feed into the ‘People v Parliament’ narrative, well, there are better ways of doing it.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Monday, I returned from my two weeks appearing on the Edinburgh Fringe. In 24 shows, I interviewed Sir Nicholas Soames, Brandon Lewis and Eric Pickles (together), and Johnny Mercer, among many others. We’re releasing all the interviews on a new podcast, Iain Dale All Talk, which you can now subscribe to on whichever platform you get your podcasts from.

– – – – – – – – – –

Today is the first day of my first and only holiday of the year. It will last ten days and I intend to spend it in Norfolk doing precisely nothing. Apart from play golf. And binge-watch box sets. And write next week’s ConHome Diary, of course.

Read More

A Government of national unity is a non-starter – even if its seven prospective leaders take one day of the week each

The cry goes up for a Government of national unity. Boris Johnson will attempt, after 31st October, to provide one.

But that is not what the advocates of such a Government have in mind. What they actually want is a united Opposition, which can stop Brexit.

Far from uniting the country, they intend to go on dividing it. If they get their way, Johnson will be thwarted, the Brexit Party will flourish and cries of betrayal will be heard across the land.

What chance is there of a united Opposition? The logic set out here last week has not changed. Alastair Campbell’s declaration that he no longer wishes to be readmitted to the Labour Party is but one of many signs that members of the Opposition loathe each other.

The Leader of the Opposition insists, quite understandably, that any uniting should be done under his leadership. Yet most Labour MPs consider Jeremy Corbyn unfit even to lead their own party, let alone to become Prime Minister.

And how many MPs from other parties, distressed by the prospect of Brexit and wishing to do everything they can to avert it, will want to unite under Corbyn’s banner?

The answer to that question is not very many. He is not even a genuine Remainer.

Advocates of a united Opposition therefore suggest that some other leader should be found. Names bandied about include Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Margaret Beckett, Kenneth Clarke, Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas.

If one adds Corbyn’s name to this list, one finds, conveniently, that there would be one leader for each day of the week.

This would surely be a fair way to settle the matter, if only they could decide who was to have which day.

The most popular day might be Wednesday, when the Leader of the Opposition has the right, if Parliament is sitting, to put six questions to the Prime Minister.

Corbyn has not made a great success of this, and might be glad not to have to do it, but he would be bound to consider any other day of the week a demotion, and if he were to end up being leader on Saturday or Sunday, it would eat into the time he can spend on his allotment.

The more one thinks about how to unite the Opposition, the clearer it becomes that Corbyn is the problem. If Labour had a leader who was good at getting on with members of other parties, the project might just be feasible.

As it is, Corbyn sits there like a dog in the manger, preventing anyone else from having a go, while himself being unable to use the opportunities open to the Leader of the Opposition.

If he puts down a motion of no confidence in the Government, it has to be debated. Perhaps when Parliament returns at the start of September he will do so, but he is being cautious about saying that he actually will.

Nor can his hesitations be attributed solely to the perverse effects of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, discussed here earlier this week by Paul Goodman.

Even with that wretched Act in force, a no confidence motion might start a process which led to a general election, at which Johnson, a formidable campaigner with a clear Brexit policy, could squeeze the Brexit Party and make hay at the expense of a divided Opposition, with Labour in danger of losing its Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and its Leave voters to the Conservatives.

No wonder Corbyn hesitates. An early election might well be a disaster for him and his party.

In the resulting vacuum, anguished Tory Remainers such as Dominic Grieve hold anxious discussions with their friends on the Opposition benches, and hope they can come up with something.

Perhaps they can. But that something would not be a Government of national unity. It would be a last-ditch attempt to overturn the referendum result, wreck Brexit and destroy the Government we actually have.

Read More

Lord Ashcroft: My new Scotland poll. Yes to Independence takes the lead.

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information about his work, visit www.lordashcroft.com and www.lordashcroftpolls.com.

In the wake of Boris Johnson’s visit to Edinburgh last week, I polled Scots to measure support for a second independence referendum and to gauge opinion on independence itself. I found a small majority in favour of a new vote – and the first lead for an independent Scotland for more than two years.

I found 47 per cent agreeing that there should be another referendum on Scottish independence within the next two years (Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a new vote by 2021), with 45 per cent disagreeing.

While more than nine in ten Conservatives oppose a referendum, a return to the polls is favoured by more than one third of 2017 Labour voters, more than half of EU Remain voters, and by more than one in five of those who voted No to independence in 2014.

Asked how they would vote in such a contest, 46 per cent said they would vote Yes to independence, and 43 per cent No. Excluding those who say they don’t know or wouldn’t vote, this amounts to a lead of 52 per cent to 48 per cent for an independent Scotland. This is the first lead for independence in a published poll since an Ipsos MORI survey in March 2017, and the biggest lead since a spate of polls in June 2016, shortly after the UK voted to leave the EU.

One third of Labour voters, a majority of EU Remain voters and 18 per cent of those who voted No to independence last time round said they would vote Yes. Again, more than nine in ten Tories said they would vote No, as did just over one in ten of those who backed independence in 2014. A majority of voters up to the age of 49 said they would vote Yes, including 62 per cent of those aged 18 to 24.

Overall, a majority of Scots thought that if a second referendum were to be held, the result this time would be an independent Scotland. Only three in ten – including just two thirds of Conservatives and fewer than half of 2014 No voters – thought Scotland would vote to remain part of the UK. A further 18 per cent said they didn’t know.

More than six in ten Scots – including 38 per cent of 2017 Conservatives and two thirds of Labour voters – said they think Brexit makes it more likely that Scotland will become independent in the foreseeable future. Indeed, more than half of 2014 No voters think this is the case, with 32 per cent of them saying it makes independence much more likely.

Just over half – including a majority of Labour voters, nearly one in five Tories and two thirds of EU remain voters – say Brexit strengthens the case for Scotland to become independent.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of all Scots agree with Sturgeon’s claim that a No Deal Brexit would be disastrous for Scotland, including half of Labour voters and nearly one in five Tories. A further three in ten (including most Conservatives) think the risks have been exaggerated but there would be some difficulties.

Asked what their preferred Brexit outcome would be, most 2017 Conservative voters backed Boris Johnson’s position that the UK should leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal – though one in five said they would be prepared to wait longer than October for a better deal, and nearly a quarter said they wanted to remain in the EU. Remaining is the most popular outcome, though favoured by only half of all Scots.

Scottish voters are closely divided as to whether – if it were not possible to do both – it would be more important for Scotland to remain part of the UK, or to remain in the EU. While 43 per cent would prioritise the Union, 45 per cent would prioritise the EU. While Conservatives and SNP voters were leaned heavily as one would expect, Labour voters were split: 46 per cent would choose the UK, 40 per cent would choose the EU, and 14 per cent say they don’t know.

More than half of Scots said there should be a second referendum on EU membership, including 69 per cent of SNP voters, more than half of Labour voters and one in five Conservatives. Should this take place, 67 per cent of those giving an opinion said they would vote to remain.

As for Boris Johnson’s first week as Prime Minister, while nearly half of Scots said they expected him to do badly, a quarter of those said he had done better than they had anticipated.

While only just over one third of 2017 Conservatives they expected him to do well and he had, a further one in four said they had had low expectations but been pleasantly surprised.

Compared to other politicians, Boris Johnson ranks relatively low among Scottish voters – though still above Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, and Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. He scores well below Ruth Davidson, both among Scots as a whole and, to a lesser degree, 2017 Conservatives.

Asked which of the two most likely candidate would make the better Prime Minister, 29 per vent of Scots named Johnson, 23 per cent said Corbyn, and nearly half said they didn’t know. Fewer than four in ten 2017 Labour voters said they thought Corbyn would make the best Prime Minister.

Despite this, when forced to choose, Scots said they would prefer a Labour government with Corbyn as Prime Minister to a Johnson-led Conservative government by 57 per cent to 43 per cent. A quarter of Labour voters said they would prefer the latter, as did the same proportion of SNP voters – perhaps calculating that this circumstance held out the best prospect of independence for Scotland.

3Those who voted SNP in 2017 are the most likely to say they will stick with their party in a new general election. They put their mean likelihood of turning out for the party at 88/100, compared to Conservatives’ 71/100 chance of voting Tory again; 2017 Labour voters put their chance of voting the same way in a new election at just 56/100. Some Tories were tempted by the Brexit Party (their mean likelihood of voting this way being 35/100), and some by the Lib Dems (26/100). The SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all held some appeal for Labour voters. In terms of overall mean likelihood to vote for the party, both Labour and the Tories ranked behind the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens, whose score was boosted by an average likelihood of 55/100 among 18-24 year-olds.

Full data tables for the survey are available at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Read More