The Moggcast. He is “very concerned” delaying Brexit would allow “Tommy Robinson to win the European elections”.

“I don’t think a new Farage Party will be where the votes go.” Plus, Rees-Mogg’s view on Corbyn and May’s letters, and Tusk’s “confused” theology.

You can also listen and subscribe to the Moggcast on iTunes, through our YouTube channel, or through the RSS feed here.

The Tories can either deliver Brexit and benefit politically or delay it and never be trusted again

I’m not going to sugar the pill today. Instead I intend to raise some questions upon which I do not think many Conservative parliamentarians have reflected sufficiently. Questions like: Why should any of the 17.4 million Leave voters ever trust the Conservative Party again? Why should they take the Tories seriously as a pro-Leave entity at […]

The post The Tories can either deliver Brexit and benefit politically or delay it and never be trusted again appeared first on BrexitCentral.

I’m not going to sugar the pill today. Instead I intend to raise some questions upon which I do not think many Conservative parliamentarians have reflected sufficiently. Questions like:

  • Why should any of the 17.4 million Leave voters ever trust the Conservative Party again? Why should they take the Tories seriously as a pro-Leave entity at all?
  • Why does a party that keeps Philip Hammond as Chancellor, Greg Clark as Business Secretary and Amber Rudd as an out-and-proud Cabinet champion of overturning Brexit via a second referendum, even expect to be trusted by Leave voters?
  • How come Conservative Campaign HQ and various party luminaries dare to tweet out criticism of Labour for wanting to rule out the so-called “No Deal” (WTO) Brexit, when people serving in senior government positions are publicly calling for the same?
  • Do they think us all idiots who will forget about them betraying their manifesto promises in government before our very eyes, just because many Labour people are doing so in opposition?

These are all questions currently running through the minds of Leave voters as the calendar whirls on towards 29th March.

Oh yes, 29th March. There is no dodging that one, my Conservative friends (and I do still have a few). This is the moment of truth for the Tories.

I would like the many Conservative readers of BrexitCentral to understand one thing: if, after all your Government’s unredeemed Brexit promises, after recklessly creating a hung parliament not formally bound by its predecessor’s commitments, after cravenly agreeing to the EU’s preferred sequencing of negotiations, after signing up to the indefinite Irish backstop, after your Prime Minister promised clean Brexit even as Olly Robbins was – on her instruction – getting down and dirty in Brussels, after not taking No Deal preparations seriously until the eleventh hour, after coming back to the Commons with a veritable “turd” of a deal that was always going to be heavily defeated, if after all that your party fails to take the UK out of the EU on 29th March, you will have been well and truly rumbled. The game will be up.

You may, of course, still be able to make a decent fist of it in the battle for the future votes of some middle-class, prosperous Remainers, who don’t like the look of Jeremy Corbyn much. You will, after all, be able to tell them: “We came through for you in the end. We ran Brexit into the ground. We demoralised the Leavers. We dithered the thing to death. We are a safe bet for people like you. So please vote for us.”

But what message will you have for the Leavers who form two-thirds of your potential electoral support? “Don’t worry, this is just a delay. We will still get there in the end. Honest.” Forget it. When the third anniversary of the biggest vote for anything ever passes with the UK still locked in the EU, we will all know. Corporate money will have won the day again.

The party that took us in without a mandate to do so will have kept us in without a mandate to do so. The party that chose a Remainer Prime Minister to replace a Remainer Prime Minister will have wilfully failed to seize the rich and exciting opportunities of the Brexit vote.

Even those many superb Tory Leave campaigners who have never flinched – the Steve Bakers and the Priti Patels – will rapidly lose credibility if they continue to urge people to vote for the party that oversaw the death of Brexit.

A giant political space will open up for something new to better serve the pro-Brexit millions. The unmerited luck you enjoyed when UKIP marched off the Brexit pitch last year will have run out. You will have Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party ready and waiting for you at the next round of European Parliamentary elections. The “next round” – what an appalling and sick betrayal of democracy that would be! They will swallow up your Thatcherite supporters.

You will have my rapidly-growing party, the SDP, offering a genuine pro-Brexit pitch to the many sensible Leave voters who do not wish to follow where UKIP has gone, but will not again vote for a Tory Party that has treated them like mugs. And I promise you, we will be ready and waiting for you – and for Labour too – in any Peterborough by-election held in the shadow of the great betrayal.

You will have UKIP there as well as an outlet for the terrible anger that some Leave voters will need to express. You will be blamed for the Yellow Vests that will likely cause economic disruption so major as to make any short-term adjustment issues associated with a WTO Brexit pale by comparison. You will go down in the political folklore of this country as the least trustworthy party there has ever been.

Or you could remember that you told us that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. You could remember that you set 29th March in law as Brexit day. You could decide to deliver, thereby forcing Messrs Hammond and Clark to undertake some awkward calls to a few corporate CEOs who thought they had the whip hand (it would take a heart of stone not to find that amusing).

You could take us properly out of the EU and be the most likely political beneficiary of a great wave of patriotic support.

It is not well remembered that in the run-up to the Falklands War, as the task force was on its way to the South Atlantic, several senior ministers tried to convince Margaret Thatcher to back down and sign up to something they were badging as “pooled sovereignty”. Perhaps, if the proposals had ever come to fruition, there would have been an “Argentine backstop” involved somewhere along the line. But thanks to a Prime Minister who actually believed in her country, they didn’t. And I recall that the Conservative Party won three further consecutive terms in office.

The people who voted on 23rd June 2016 to leave the European Union expect to leave the European Union on 29th March 2019. Indeed, as supporters of the cause that won the referendum whose result you promised to implement, they demand it. That is hardly unreasonable. They have waited long enough. It is not just Brexit that is running out of time. It is the Conservative Party too.

The post The Tories can either deliver Brexit and benefit politically or delay it and never be trusted again appeared first on BrexitCentral.

Next, watch pro-Remain and pro-Soft Brexit Ministers push for the postponement of Brexit

Today, May is swinging towards her Party’s leavers. The logic of the Chancellor’s position, and that of his allies, is to block her – or try to.

This site’s reading of the Prime Minister’s Commons’ reaction to the record defeat of her deal was that she would none the less stick with it.  Our assessment of her intentions suggested that cross-party talks would lead nowhere, since opposition MPs would insist on Customs Union membership.  More broadly, they would push her further towards a Norway-type solution.  Either of these ideas would divide her own Party further – and the backbench rebellion against her deal is already the biggest Tory revolt of modern times.  Furthermore, roughly half the Cabinet is opposed to a softer Brexit.  More than half of Tory MPs take the same view.  So will most Party members.  She is now formally safe from a confidence vote for the best part of a year, but other ways of ousting a Conservative leader can be found in a crisis.

In these circumstances, May was always likely to cling to her Party rather than go cross-party – especially since support from Labour MPs is bound to be even less reliable than backing from the European Research Group.  In the last resort, dealing with Jacob Rees-Mogg is easier than dealing with Yvette Cooper.

We aren’t right about everything – far from it – but appear to have been correct in this case.  Cabinet members told ConservativeHome over the weekend that a core weakness in the Prime Minister’s position is that the EU doesn’t know what the Commons wants, and believes that she can’t persuade the House to back her in any event.  So she must now demonstrate that it will support the deal if the EU will agree to in exchange to amend the backstop.  That means relying on Tory MPs, the ERG included, to carry a vote to that effect, with the aid of the DUP.  There is excitable talk of a new Anglo-Irish treaty being proposed, based perhaps on the David Davis “reserve parachute” proposal, or something like it.

We suspect that May is more likely to propose a version of the so-called Murrison amendment, which proposed slapping an expiry date on the backstop.  Readers will remember that the Speaker refused to select it for debate last week.  The ERG is in emollient mood at present, and both it and other Brexiteers might swallow this plan. Whether the EU would do so too is rather more debatable, to put it mildly.

The Prime Minister’s scheme therefore shortens the odds on No Deal – since it revives her game of chicken, eats up more Parliamentary time, and leaves No Deal as the default setting as March 29 approaches.  Philip Hammond and the rest of the Cabinet Remainers and Soft Brexiteers know this.  The next move, as the Prime Minister prepares to make a Commons statement today, is theirs.  First, they must brief that it will fail and that cross-party talks must be revived, perhaps under the Lidington-Gove-Smith troika.  This is already starting to happen.  Second, there will doubtless be further talk of mass Ministerial resignations, featuring Richard Harrington and others.  Third, they will brief in favour of free votes on the battery of pro-Customs Union, Norway Plus and Second Referendum proposals due next week.

Finally, they will throw their weight behind the extension of Article 50.  Hammond hinted at precisely such a development during the phone conversation between senior Ministers and big business leaders last week.  This is where the Wesminster Village conversation will go as the mood in parts of the rest of the country hardens in favour of No Deal.

The minor parties in the Commons mostly back extension already.  So do the band of Soft Brexit Labour MPs among whom Yvette Cooper is prominent.  So do Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles and assorted other Conservative Second Referendum or Norway Plus or Customs Union supporters.  They can rely on the Speaker’s aid.  Jeremy Corbyn will be very reluctant to nod assent.  Backing extension would mean legitimising claims of Brexit betrayal in Labour’s midlands and northern heartlands.  But it is hard to see where else he can go.  He is opposed to a second referendum.  Much of his own party outside London is resistant to it.  All his eggs are in the basket of Labour’s fantasy renegotiation.  What little credibility it has left will soon vanish if he does not back a later deadline for it.  That requires supporting extension.

Which leaves the Prime Minister.  The logic of her chicken game requires a firm deadline – in order to bluff MPs into supporting her deal rather than risk No Deal or No Brexit.  This explains why she has been resistant to extension when the idea has been pushed by Lidington and others.

None the less, in the last resort, a bid for extension without a clear outcome in sight would represent kicking the can down the road again, or trying to.  And we all know that May isn’t averse to doing that.  Menaced by Remainer resignations and a No Deal deadline, it is conceivable that she would throw what weight she has left behind extension.  If a Grieve or Cooper or other Bill is successful, she could argue there is no alternative.

But let the fledgling extension consensus be warned: to put back the date of Article 50 would revive both the hard right, in the democratic form of Nigel Farage, and perhaps the far right, in its various undemocratic guises.  All would claim that extension was but a milestone on the road to revocation.  And they might well be recorrect.

Today, the Prime Minister is swinging towards her Party’s Leavers.  Tomorrow, it could be back towards its Remainers.  From one perspective, it is all a great, mad, glorious game – chess crossed with chicken crossed with the wild card of the Speaker, as we’ve said before.  It would be fabulous entertainment were most of the country not heartily sick of it – and the honouring of the biggest electoral verdict in our country’s history at stake.

Iain Dale: As they prepare to vote next Tuesday, here’s why Conservative MPs should back May’s deal

Plus: Marion Little carries can for CCHQ – and many agents of all parties will think: “there but for the grace of God go I.” And: Am I creepy?

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

One of the most common questions I get asked at the moment is: “What’s going to happen next?” As if I know any better than anyone else.

My best guess is that events are going to lead to Article 50 being postponed/extended, which in turn could mean that Brexit never happens. When Conservative MPs weigh up how they are going to vote next Tuesday, one point ought to bear heavily on their minds. if they are Leave supporters. If you vote against the deal, you will be putting any form of Brexit at risk.

For if the Prime Minister’s deal doesn’t pass next week, or whenever it’s brought back afterwards, there seems to be little alternative other than for the Government to request an extension of Article 50, either in preparation for another referendum or some sort of other deal.

We saw the Remain establishment at work on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it’s perfectly clear that the Speaker will leave no stone unturned in helping Remainers in Parliament put every obstacle in the way of Brexit.

Whatever the trials and tribulations No Deal might offer up, these surely couldn’t be worse than this absolute clusterf**k of a parliamentary shambles that Number Ten and the Prime Minister have created.

– – – – – – – – – –

When you’ve had a court case hanging over you for three years, I can only imagine the relief you must feel to be cleared of the serious charges against you. Craig Mackinlay was cleared of election expenses fraud this week, in relation to the South Thanet by-election of  and can now look to the future and put the case behind him.

However, the same cannot be said for Marion Little. I’ve known her for 35 years, and some of you reading this will have come across her in her role as an official at CCHQ.

She was convicted of two counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence. Sentencing Marion, Mr Justice Edis had some harsh words for CCHQ, accusing it of “a culture of convenient self-deception” and “inadequate supervision” which allowed or encouraged Little to break the law. He said that “Mrs Little acted dishonestly by preparing [election] returns she knew were not completed nor accurate. She had presented papers to Mackinlay and his election agent, Nathan Gray, for signing, which “they did in good faith not knowing what she had done”. She had been “carried away by her conviction” that defeating Farage was an “overwhelmingly important political objective”. Marion was given a nine month suspended sentence and fined £5,000.

She will be devastated by this verdict. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened, she is a professional party agent who has given nearly 40 years’ service to the party and is respected by all who she’s worked with. It is not for me to question the decision of the jury, but anyone who has had to fill in election returns knows how difficult it can be and, in that particular election, we all know the pressures people were under from above.

So in these circumstances I hope the party rallies round Marion, and offers her any support that she needs. It’s yet another example of someone down the food chain copping it for the sins of others. Perhaps she should have offered greater resistance to the instructions from above, and perhaps she should have spotted the dangers better but, whatever the truth of it, many party agents from all parties will be looking at this and thinking: “there but for the grace of God, go I”.

Let’s face it, the reason this kind of case hardly ever gets to court is because there is an unspoken conspiracy between the three parties to never complain about each other’s expenses. By and large, election expense returns are based not on fact, but are a work of fiction. The spending limits are so ridiculous that agents have to be incredibly creative in order to file a return that comes in a few pounds below the limit. They don’t actually lie – but the ‘notional’ expenses which you have to list often bear little relation to the real amount a campaign actually spends.

So when cases like this come to court, it’s often because they are brought by candidates outside the pseudo-cartel of the three main parties. It’s time for a wholesale reform of election law and, in particular, election expenses rules and limits. If the Electoral Commission had been doing its job properly, this would have been done years ago.

– – – – – – – – – –

I decided not to shave over Christmas and, much to my own surprise, opted not to remove the beard when it came to going to back to work. I’ve never been a great fan of beards and am still not convinced I will keep it, but we’ll see.

Who was it who said: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”? Well, if that’s the case I probably won’t keep it for very long. I’ve always thought grey beards on middle-aged men look slightly creepy, and even though I keep being reassured that I don’t look creepy, I’m not so sure. Maybe I did anyway!

Brexit: The Uncivil War. Graham gives us Cummings Agonistes – and a Tory work of art.

The noise that he picks up, with an almost clairvoyant sense, is not that of a queue waiting to vote but of a mob pitching the mighty from their seats.

“Coming to a television set near you: Farage the movie,” the Daily Telegraph reported in August 2017.  “A major Hollywood studio is poised to sign a deal with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks to make a £60million, six-part film of Mr Banks’ best-selling diary of the referendum campaign “The Bad Boys of Brexit”.  The script is nearly finished and shooting will start in the New Year. The series will air in April, once the deal is signed next month at a meeting in Los Angeles.”

Eighteen months on, there’s no sign of the film.  Instead, we have one centred on the man who has a better claim to have swung the EU referendum – Dominic Cummings.  There really is a God after all.  Or, if there isn’t, at least there is James Graham, who wrote Brexit: The Uncivil War, shown yesterday evening on Channel 4.

A virtue of his film is that it gets Banks’ measure, nailing him as a comic sideshow. An even bigger one is that it gets the referendum campaign’s too, correctly fingering Cummings as the man who made the difference.  Had he not been appointed, Vote Leave would almost certainly have missed official designation.  Had he been fired from it – there was a coup to oust him – the organisation would have collapsed.  There would have been no Take Back Control.  And, like it or not, that’s what the British people were persuaded to vote to do.

Banks has complained about the drama.  So has the woman who has done so much to project him – Carole Cadwalladr.  He doesn’t like being played for laughs and she doesn’t like it side-stepping her conspiracy theories.  These were nodded to in the closing credits, but otherwise mostly avoided.

In a sense, though, one sympathises with both of them – at least, if hoping for documentary rather than drama.  We could offer a list of corrections and clarifications.  Douglas Carswell didn’t avoid parts of his former constituency as the local MP.  Michael Gove made his mind up far earlier than the film suggests (though he kept quiet about it).  Cummings himself uses focus groups to test voter opinion, not random visits to pubs.  But all that would be beside the point – like expecting a piece of poetry to be a chunk of prose.

No, a more substantial problem for Brexit: the Uncivil War emerges from its greatest strength – that’s to say, putting Cummings, portrayed with eerie verisimilitude by Benedict Cumberbatch, at the centre of the film. Graham balances out Cummings with Craig Oliver, then David Cameron’s Director of Communications.  This neat piece of parallelism sets them up as the contending antagonists of the drama.

But Oliver wasn’t Cummings’ real-life equivalent.  George Osborne was Remain’s chief strategist, if anyone.  And he is missing from the film altogether in fictional form.  So for that matter is Jeremy Corbyn.  Indeed, the film’s fire is largely blue-on-blue.  Back in the real world of the referendum campaign, Corbyn’s lethargy depressed Remain’s Labour vote, just as Farage’s energy, over a longer period, helped to deliver Leave’s core support.  Graham’s palette is striking for the absence of red.

Again, it’s worth stressing that art isn’t fact.  None the less, a structural flaw in a drama’s foundation can collapse it – especially, perhaps, if it looks back to recent events.  Some will say that the film doesn’t work because it scarcely strays from SW1 (which will also have provided the core of its audience), and is shy of probing the cases for and against the EU itself: that it’s real title should be Vote Leave: the Uncivil War.

Others will claim, we think with justice, that the campaign didn’t pit head, in the form of rational Oliver, against heart, in that of romantic Cummings, as Graham seems to suggest.  Rather, two different emotions went head to head: fear and anger.  The drama shows a lot of the stoking of one but very little of that of the other – Project Fear.  The balance between data and message on the Leave side is better, but it was the latter that counted most (at least, if you agree with Oliver which, in part, we do).

None the less, Brexit: the Uncivil War has an emotional strength at the heart of it: it gets why so many people voted Leave.  The focus group scene in which a woman protests in tears that she feels, ignored, by-passed, and treated as if she has no value – and will back Brexit in consequence – has the raw power of truth.

It’s a force that drives the progress of the plot, from Cummings stumbling upon “Take back control”  as a winning slogan through the failed coup to depose him through the campaigning switch to immigration to the very end.  A mention in dispatches, and then some, for Rory Kinnear, whose Oliver is a sleek fictional foil for Cumberbatch’s angular Cummings.  Graham may at heart be a man of the Left, but a more primal politics comes out of the near-final scene in which his protagonists square off against each other over a pint.

“You won’t be able to control it either,” says Oliver of the energies that Cummings has helped to unleash.  In the film, the latter can almost hear them, so finely-tuned are his sensibilities.  The drama begins with him picking up noise like a wireless picking up a signal – straining for it with a concentration that is almost clairvoyant.

Later in the film, he lies down, his ear pressed to the ground, in order to hear it better.  The noise is voices.  What are they saying?  Cummings may not be sure, but Graham seems to be.  Surly, turbulent, angry, swelling to a roar – this is the clamour not of a queue waiting to vote, but of a mob pitching the mighty from their seats.  We have before us not so much the ballot box as Pandora’s box.

Graham is not a Conservative, but this sensibility – this fear of riot, of disorder from below, of revolt – has been linked to the Right of politics for longer than the Left.  He might not thank us for saying so, but he has produced a Tory work of art, in tone as well as personnel.  There are worse ways of sketching a first draft of history.

The man to ‘make the British establishment’s head blow off’

Tommy Robinson now commands an online prominence to rival Britain’s best-known politicians.

LONDON — The man known as Tommy Robinson is a 36-year-old father of three from Luton, England, with a history of violence and multiple spells in prison.

A veteran of far-right street movements, he does not — yet — have a political party to call home, refuses to talk to the mainstream media and has been kicked off Twitter.

Yet Robinson — whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — can lay credible claim to being one of the most influential people in British politics, alongside top-rank politicians such as Prime Minister Theresa May, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.

With more than 1 million followers on Facebook, the anti-Muslim activist is the biggest beneficiary of a burgeoning ecosystem of right-wing populist media — a loose web of networked social media pages, video accounts and hyper-partisan news sites that amplify each other’s messages, providing figures such as Robinson reach rivaling traditional media outfits.

The power of this digital uprising to reshape politics offline has yet to be tested at the ballot box, though many argue recent Yellow Jackets protests in France illustrate the ease with which memes and viral videos can have real-world consequences. The U.K. government increasingly worries about the threat posed by this populist web, whose editors are nameless and whose stars, like Robinson, command huge followings.

“How could somebody like [Tommy Robinson] appear in British politics in normal times?” — Veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke

After he was jailed for contempt of court in May, Robinson became a cause célèbre among the international populist right. His cause was picked up by figures such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon and far-right Dutch leader Geert Wilders.

More recently, Robinson has been in the news again — this time for taking a step in the direction of electoral politics. Late last month, he was appointed as a political adviser to Gerard Batten, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, triggering an exodus of the party’s old guard, including former leaders Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall, who said they were dismayed at the party’s swerve toward the far-right.

Concern about Robinson’s increasing influence is shared across the political spectrum.

“How could somebody like [Tommy Robinson] appear in British politics in normal times?” said veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke, when asked about the far-right figure.

Robinson became a cause célèbre among the international populist right after he was jailed for contempt of court | Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Robinson could not be reached for comment for this article.

Contempt of court

Robinson is short, squat and angry, with closely cropped hair, a jutting jaw and a sleeve of tattoos, including a crusader knight and a quote from Winston Churchill: “There is a forgotten, nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is England.”

He first laid claim to notoriety as founder of the English Defense League, an anti-Muslim street movement that bubbled up out of simmering race tensions in the town of Luton, north of London, in 2009.

Robinson, who took his pseudonym from a prominent football hooligan, was previously a member of the overtly racist British National Party for a year in 2004. The EDL consisted mostly of loose groups of football hooligans leading street demonstrations against “the rise of radical Islam.” It gave Robinson a platform, allowing him to lead rallies and appear on television talk shows.

Robinson resists being labeled as racist or even anti-Muslim, and in 2013 he quit the EDL, expressing concerns about “far-right extremism.” He then worked with Quilliam, a think tank dedicated to countering extremism, especially radical Islamism, before quickly returning to anti-Muslim campaigning.

“He’s a drifter, who is chaotic and untrustworthy,” said David Toube, Quilliam’s director of policy. “He’s a guy who’s seen the main chance and gone for it.”

Before being jailed for contempt of court earlier this year, Robinson had already spent time in prison for assaulting a police officer, mortgage fraud and entering the U.S. on a false passport. But the contempt conviction turned his incarceration into a political cause.

“Tommy Robinson was able to play on the perception that liberal politicians and institutions were turning a blind eye to the issue of grooming gangs” — David Toube

By then Robinson had built up a powerful social media presence, which he used to highlight crimes by Muslims and refugees, including terrorist attacks and so-called grooming gangs: the systematic rape and abuse of girls as young as 11 by groups of mostly British Pakistani men.

He was held in contempt of court for violating reporting restrictions by carrying out a Facebook live video report outside a rape gang trial at Leeds crown court.

Robinson’s imprisonment turned him into right-wing social media martyr. News of his travails ricocheted across Britain’s rapidly growing populist media, then shot across the Atlantic to right-wing U.S. news sites and burst through into traditional media.

“Tommy Robinson was able to play on the perception that liberal politicians and institutions were turning a blind eye to the issue of grooming gangs,” said Toube. “That failure allowed him to step into the breach and capitalize on the issue. Worse: It has made it easy for Tommy Robinson to dismiss proper criticism of his scaremongering as the sort of thing that the ‘liberal elite’ would say to ‘cover up the truth.’”

“Brexit betrayal” march in London | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

It is a theme Robinson returns to again and again. After a “Brexit betrayal” march on Sunday December 9, which was widely panned as a flop in the media, Robinson took to his Facebook page to attack the “lies.”

“TENS OF THOUSANDS of normal everyday people descended on London today to peacefully protest about the Brexit Betrayal,” he wrote. “The MSM and establishment are just so scared!”

In June, the conspiratorial U.S. media site Infowars warned that Robinson faced “certain death” after being transferred to a “Muslim prison” in the U.K. as he awaited his appeal.

Robinson was released on August 1 after an appeals court ordered a retrial. The case is still ongoing, even as Robinson’s influence has continued to grow.

Winning the numbers game

Robinson’s 1 million Facebook followers make him the second most-popular British political figure on the social media platform, behind Jeremy Corbyn, with 1.4 million. Theresa May and Boris Johnson both have fewer than 600,000.

On social media, often more people are reading and sharing stories about Robinson than almost any major political figure, according to figures compiled by the social media monitoring service Newswhip.

The week following his imprisonment for contempt stories about him were read, shared and commented on 1.2 million times on Facebook and other social media sites.

Apart from May, no other major political figures in the country reached this level of online interest over any seven-day period this year.

Robinson’s numbers are undoubtedly boosted by interest from the right in the U.S.

Corbyn’s high point came in mid-August at the height of an anti-Semitism crisis, when stories about the Labour leader topped 600,000 social media interactions in a week. Up until December, May’s was in July — as her Cabinet came close to falling apart after the Chequers summit to agree a new Brexit plan — when she hit 2.7 million interactions in a week.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prime minister is by far the biggest U.K. political figure on social media, averaging 607,000 interactions a week. Robinson meanwhile, racked up a weekly average of 175,000, putting him in the same league as Boris Johnson (180,000) and Corbyn (219,000).

But when it comes to interactions per story, Robinson is the runaway winner. Over the whole year, Robinson stories generated an average of 1,164 interactions each. That’s more than double the next political figure on the list: arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who gets 660 interactions per story. Next is Nigel Farage with 550, then Corbyn with 326 interactions per story, then Johnson with 245, followed by May with 177.

Robinson’s numbers are undoubtedly boosted by interest from the right in the U.S. Four of the most viral stories about Robinson, according to Newswhip, were written by popular U.S. conservative websites, InfoWars, Breitbart, Fox News and Dangerous.com. But U.K. stories about Robinson in the mainstream publications MailOnline and Metro.co.uk have also gone viral.

Inside No. 10 Downing Street there is a weary recognition of the Robinson cut-through. “We’re not oblivious to that fact,” one government official said.

Small base

Were Robinson to try to leverage his online popularity into votes at the ballot box, there’s no guarantee he would succeed. Exclusive polling for POLITICO by the U.S. firm GQR research reveals Robinson’s support base remains small.

In a survey of 1,447 adults in September, only 8 percent said they knew what he stood for and agreed with it. Some 32 percent knew and disagreed, while the rest didn’t know. Only 11 percent said he was “on their side,” while 40 percent said he was not.

For people who did know about him, his defining features were racism, prejudice against Muslims, and being dangerous. Overall, the public did not believe he was patriotic, brave or genuine — the traits his supporters see in him — though almost a third (28 percent) said he was “fighting for what he believes in.” This, however, is smaller than the proportion who think he’s racist — 30 percent.

Numbers like these haven’t stopped UKIP leader Batten from taking a gamble on Robinson and his army of online followers. Batten maintains that Robinson represents “ordinary, decent working-class people … who were the backbone of the [Brexit] vote in 2016.”

Both men have made no secret of their desire that Robinson join UKIP, with Batten, 64, expressing admiration for the younger man’s social media firepower.

“Let this be the start of a political mass movement in this country” — Tommy Robinson

“I’m not an unqualified supporter of his,” said Batten, who has been working to transform UKIP into a populist party, similar to those found in Europe. “He’s done some things he shouldn’t have. He’s rash and reckless. But if he wasn’t that man, he wouldn’t have had the courage to stand up against the forces he’s standing up against, which are evil. He’s far more good than he is bad.”

It doesn’t hurt, Batten added, that Robinson brings so much internet star power to a political party that has struggled for support after the 2016 Brexit referendum. “To get anywhere under [Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system], you have to be a mass movement. Sometimes you have to take risks to do that.”

Robinson has hinted about where he sees his future. Speaking at the December 9 Brexit “betrayal” rally, he said: “Let this be the start of a political mass movement in this country.”

Robinson has said he would like to join UKIP, but has been prevented from doing so by a Farage-era ban on members or former members of far-right political parties.

The party’s ruling body deferred a decision in December on whether to make an exception for Robinson. They are expected to take the matter up again after March 29, 2019, when the U.K. is due to leave the EU.

Were he to be allowed in, Robinson would be eligible to stand for any position within the party, including the leadership.

Robinson addresses protesters at a Pegida gathering in Dresden, Germany | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Steve Bannon, a vocal supporter, insisted Robinson was not thinking of the leadership, but appeared to welcome the chaos it might cause.

“He doesn’t even want to do it,” Bannon said, sitting on the rooftop of Hotel de Russie on Piazza del Popolo in Rome in September. “It’s a great story. I mean why wouldn’t it be? First off you get Tommy Robinson, you get to lighten up guys that like Tommy Robinson — and you make the British establishment’s head blow off.”

As part of the emergency agreement which saw Batten take over as leader unopposed in the spring, the party veteran promised to hold another election after a year in the job. With Farage’s departure, alongside a dozen other senior figures, the party is devoid of big names to challenge Batten.

Batten himself has not decided whether he is the man to lead the new UKIP and even said he might give up on politics entirely if Brexit is overturned.

“I’ll be 65 next year,” he said. “Do I really want to work seven days a week until I’m 70 years old?”

The rise of UKIP’s YouTubers

A trio of social media stars are helping push the U.K.’s Brexit party to the right.

LONDON — It started, as most things Markus Meechan does, with a social media post.

“If this gets 10k retweets, I will join UKIP,” Meechan, a Scottish political YouTuber known online as Count Dankula, wrote on Twitter on June 15. “I’m not joking, this is not a meme. I’m being completely serious.”

The next day Meechan and two other rising stars on the video sharing platform joined the United Kingdom Independence Party in what one of them described a “soft coup.”

The “coup” description was meant as a joke, but they might as well have been serious. Less than half a year later, the party that put Brexit on the political agenda is undergoing a transformation driven in no small part by the online star power of Meechan and his fellow YouTubers, Paul Joseph Watson and Car Benjamin, who posts under the name “Sargon of Akkad.”

Count Dankula youtube page/Source: Youtube

“The political landscape in the U.K. is blighted and ripe for a bold UKIP to rise up,” Benjamin told POLITICO in an email. “We are the party of freedom, and we will win.”

While the U.K.’s Brexit party — which hit its electoral peak in the 2014 European elections, finishing first with 24 seats — has largely faded from view in Westminster following Nigel Farage’s departure in 2016, it has been slowly trying to rebuild and remodel itself, supported by the U.K.’s growing online ecosystem of right-wing populism. The new UKIP has yet to be properly tested at the ballot box but its re-emergence as the U.K.’s first post-referendum populist party fueled by social media is symptomatic of a broader international shift in how politics in conducted today, with potentially transformative effects.

Two of UKIP’s former leaders, Farage and Paul Nuttall, quit earlier this month, in protest at the direction the party is taking. Half of its members in the European Parliament followed.

Their departure is likely to hasten UKIP’s swerve toward the far-right, Farage and other internal critics have said, from a party that billed itself as representing “the true voices of Little England” to one that’s more eager to embrace the European or American-style nationalism embraced by Meechan and his friends.

The new UKIP is part of a wider international “Freedom Movement,” alongside the American conservative right, said Benjamin. They “very much consider each other brothers in arms, despite the many thousands of miles that separate them,” he added.

Watson agreed. “It’s one, unified effort to preserve Western civilization,” he said in an email.

YouTube army

Meechan, Benjamin and Watson reject attempts to tag them as far-right, alt-right or any other label implying they are racist. They prefer to portray themselves as free-speech warriors pushing back against political correctness.

“If we try to speak about the things we want to speak about, we are called racists, Nazis, bigots etc.,” said Meechan. “We get de-platformed [banned from speaking, either at events or via online platforms] and we are even threatened with violence.”

In a YouTube video setting out his reasons for joining UKIP, Watson said: “I’m pro free speech and against an ethno state. The alt right are for an ethno state and against free speech.”

Watson and Benjamin describe themselves as classical liberals. On Meechan’s Twitter profile he prefers “Professional Shitposter,” adding “I’m not a Nazi, but my dog is.” That’s a reference to a conviction for a hate crime last March, for posting a video in which he had taught his girlfriend’s dog to raise its paw in a Hitler salute whenever he said “Gas the Jews.”

It’s not just Meechan who comes with baggage.

Markus Meechan on youTube/ source: YouTube

In 2016 Benjamin was roundly criticized in Westminster for tweeting he “wouldn’t even rape” the Labour MP Jess Phillips, after she said rape threats against her were becoming commonplace online.

Watson works for Infowars, a site accused of peddling conspiracy theories, including false claims that the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut that killed 26 people in 2012 was a hoax.

Whatever the controversies, the three YouTube stars bring UKIP an online reach comparable in British politics only to Corbyn and his left-wing Momentum movement.

Watson has 1.4 million subscribers; Benjamin, 860,000; Meechan, 360,000. That makes them some of the biggest beasts in Britain’s growing online nationalist ecosystem, where a web of networked social media platforms, news sites and video accounts amplify each other’s reach.

Watson’s figures alone are enormous: 500,000 views for each YouTube video once it has been up for a couple of weeks, he said. 150 million Twitter impressions a month, 500,000 likes on Facebook a month.

However, only around 12 percent of his YouTube subscribers are from the U.K., according to Watson, though this nevertheless equates to more than 150,000 British YouTube subscribers.

Benjamin’s numbers are also huge. An interview with UKIP’s party leader Gerard Batten uploaded on December 4 on the future of the party had been viewed over 100,000 times by December 10.

The rise of UKIP’s YouTubers can be attributed in no small part to the willingness of Gerard Batten to take a gamble on a change of direction.

All three specialize in short, well-cut but amateur-looking Youtube monologues, laced with sarcasm and attacks on the political establishment.

Watson, the most watched of the three, addresses the camera in front of a large map of the world, mocking the state of international affairs. His hits include “San Francisco is a shit hole” (2.3m views), “Paris is a shit hole” (1.4m views), “The Absolute State of Britbongland” (400,000 views) and “The Islamic State of Sweden” (1.4m views). In his attack video on Sweden, he is pictured dressed in an Islamic face veil.

Meechan’s videos are less overtly political. His hits include “Nazi crackhead wants to fight me” (92,000 views), the Actual State of the UK (871,000 views) and an un-PC song called “Nations of the World” (1.4m views).

Sargon of Akkad, meanwhile, uploads interviews, stage discussions and monologues, focused, again, on questions of identity, populism and free speech.

A video with Tommy Robinson — “Tommy meets Sargon” — from March has 400,000 views. An interview with Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon from October has notched up another 400,000 views — numbers many mainstream British current affairs shows would love to have.

Identity politics

The rise of UKIP’s YouTubers can be attributed in no small part to the willingness of Gerard Batten, who took over as party leader in February, to take a gamble on a change of direction.

“I don’t want to change UKIP, I want to take it to another level,” said Batten, a 64-year-old former telecoms salesman with a penchant for pink suits. “I want us to be a populist party.”

In the 10 months since he took over, Batten has pushed an aggressively hostile line against Islam — labelling it a “death cult” — while embracing Robinson and the controversial right-wing street organization the Democratic Football Lads Alliance.

It was Robinson’s appointment last month as a “personal adviser” to Batten that precipitated the exodus of UKIP’s old guard. Robinson — whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — is prohibited from joining the party because of his previous membership of the overtly racist British National Party.

Batten’s plan for UKIP may sound generically right-wing, but it signals a significant evolution in British politics — the first avowedly mainstream party to offer a straightforward platform for identity politics, junking the (mild) constraints of the Farage era for the type of cultural nationalism which has proved defiantly popular across Europe and now in the United States.

Batten believes UKIP can tap into the populist vote which is finding its voice online. “I think there’s a massive constituency out there who are fed up with what is happening to them. I really do want to address this tremendous untapped market out there.”

Leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Gerard Batten, speaks during a UKIP-backed Brexit betrayal rally on December 9 | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

While many in Westminster have written the party off, there are signs Batten’s efforts are working.

When he inherited UKIP, the party was on its knees. Stripped of a reason to exist by the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU and the Conservative Party’s swerve toward a hard Brexit, it was hemorrhaging members and heading toward bankruptcy. Only an emergency request for donations after Batten became leader saved it from going under.

In the 10 months since, the party’s fortunes have improved — slowly, but perceptibly.

UKIP has seen a surge in members during Batten’s tenure — up nearly 50 percent from 18,000 to almost 27,000, according to senior UKIP officials — much of it do to the influence of Meechan and his friends.

From as low as 1 percent in one opinion ICM/Guardian poll in March, the party climbed to 7 percent in a poll in September.

The party’s numbers continue to fluctuate, however. They dropped to just 4 percent in a YouGov poll in December, amid controversy over Robinson’s appointment and its increasing irrelevance in the day-to-day squabbles over Brexit in Westminster after Farage’s departure.

Batten and his Youtube cheerleaders appear unconcerned. “Conservatives in name only are fast becoming irrelevant and will eventually be swept away by the rise of right-wing populism,” Watson says by email.

Batten believes Robinson’s association with the UKIP, along with its tilt to more openly nationalist positions, could bring another surge in support. “What he [Tommy] can bring to the table is access to a million Facebook followers,” Batten told Benjamin in a recent interview posed online.

And indeed, even as Farage was announcing his resignation on December 4, the party was enjoying a mini surge, with 1,000 new members in the first week of December alone, according to the party.

“Yes, I’m taking a few risks,” Batten told Benjamin. “But if I don’t, I could retire next March and UKIP could just stagnate and fade away.”

This is the second in a three-part series on British nationalism and the internet. The first piece looked at how populist news sites have got the government worried.


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How Britain grapples with nationalist dark web

Pro-Brexit, anti-Islam, right-wing populist — a new breed of hyper-partisan news sites has the government worried.

LONDON — Walk into Number 10 Downing Street, take the first left and straight ahead of you is the prime minister’s press office, an open-plan room of civil servants sitting in rows outside the grand corner office of Theresa May’s director of communications, Robbie Gibb.

A flat screen television sits on one of the walls, scrolling through what is being read online — the most popular conversations and shared articles, search words and trending topics.

Not far away are two or three officials charged with tackling what No. 10 sees as a rising risk, to the government politically and to the country as a whole: the rapid rise of new populist news sites pushing conspiratorial, anti-establishment content outside the channels of traditional media.

Led by No. 10 Downing Street’s Head of Digital Communications Chris Hamilton, the British government’s five-strong “rapid response unit” spread across No. 10 and the Cabinet Office is tasked with monitoring and firefighting stories set alight on social media, often beyond the radar of many of London’s politicians and journalists.

Stories going viral are discussed at an 8 a.m. prep meeting, usually chaired by the prime minister’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell or deputy JoJo Penn. At 8.30 a.m., the main meeting of the day with the prime minister takes place to plan the day ahead. Three times a day a media summary is distributed inside No.10, setting out what is dominating the traditional news outlets and online publications.

“Who do you ring? You don’t know who these people are” — No. 10 official

Unsurprisingly, mainstream websites come up again and again — the BBC, the Telegraph, the Independent. But increasingly a raft of “half campaign, half news websites,” barely known to anyone in Westminster, have become an issue of mounting concern in No. 10.

According to one U.K. government official involved in the briefings, the sites include publishers of viral content like LadBible and Joe.co.uk, as well as political sites like the Canary on the left and Westmonster on the right.

Increasingly, they also include a new breed of hyper-partisan news sites associated with the populist right. Some, like PoliticalUK.co.uk and Politicalite.com, have seemingly surged from nowhere in recent months to occupy a dominant position in online conversations.

The populist right-wing media is “huge” in the U.K., said Paul Quigley, CEO of NewsWhip, a U.S.-based social media monitoring company, which carried out extensive research for POLITICO.

Tommy Robinson, a far-right activist and new member of UKIP | Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

His company has noted spikes of online interest in once-fringe figures like the anti-Muslim street activist Tommy Robinson, that sometimes eclipse the numbers for mainstream politicians such as May, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “People are extremely engaged,” he said.

With articles that rack up thousands, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands, of clicks, likes and shares, these sites are transforming Britain’s media landscape, empowering fringe groups, amplifying the message of figures like Robinson and — some in the government now worry — putting young people at risk of radicalization.

Into this mix goes Brexit, and the increasing speculation about a second referendum — a suggestion already sparking accusations of “betrayal.” Ministers, government officials and analysts fear any successful bid to overturn Brexit would provide the populist right — and some on the left — with a potentially toxic new grievance upon which to build a movement from the ashes of Nigel Farage’s UKIP.

For May’s government, populist news sites are an increasing threat. Under previous prime ministers, like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown — or even the early years of David Cameron — a handful of newspapers and television stations served as news gatekeepers, picking out what they considered important and beaming it to a mass audience.

Some publications were hostile, of course, but they were known quantities, their editors contactable, their reporters easy to berate. Today’s news media has broken completely free of these bounds.

Since PoliticalUK.co.uk started publishing stories at the end of April, the site has amassed more than 3 million interactions on social media

News, fake news, information and disinformation now reaches voters through a collection of social media pages, messaging apps, video platforms and anonymous websites spreading content beyond the control of anyone in Whitehall — or the Élysée in France, as Emmanuel Macron is discovering.

“Who do you ring?” asked one exasperated No. 10 official when asked about these sites. “You don’t know who these people are.”

Anatomy of an ecosystem

At 12:50 p.m. on April 25, 2018, a new British political news website was registered in Scottsdale, Arizona. Within weeks, PoliticalUK.co.uk was producing some of the most viral news stories in the U.K. and had been included on briefing notes circulated in No. 10.

The website — specializing in hyper-partisan coverage of Brexit, Islam and Tommy Robinson — has no named editor and one reporter using a pen name. Its owner is anonymous, having registered the site with the U.S. firm “Domains By Proxy” whose catch line, beaming out from its homepage, reads: “Your privacy is nobody’s business but ours.”

The website itself does not provide any contact details. It has no mission statement. It has a small but growing following on Twitter but no branded Facebook page or YouTube channel.

And yet, since PoliticalUK.co.uk started publishing stories at the end of April, the site has amassed more than 3 million interactions on social media, with an average of 5,000 “engagements” for every story it has published — far more than most national newspapers.

A screenshot from the homepage of PoliticalUK

The site looks cheap, with one simple strapline — “POLITICAL UK HEADLINES” — in the top left-hand corner, above a list of stories set out in rows of three.

The site usually publishes seven or eight stories a day, none of which attempt to hide their partisanship. “MEDIA SILENCE AS TENS OF THOUSANDS PROTEST AGAINST BREXIT BETRAYAL,” was the headline on a story Sunday following a UKIP-backed protest march against May’s Brexit deal.

“A peaceful demonstration against the governments [sic] Brexit deal took place today in London after UKIP and other political figures promoted the March [sic],” the story read. “As you would expect, the media coverage was much smaller than anti-Brexit protests, that’s the mainstream media for you.”

By Monday lunchtime, the story had picked up 20,351 interactions on Facebook, according to NewsWhip. Meanwhile, a more critical take from the Daily Mail — one of the most-read English language news sites in the world — racked up just 3,481 interactions.

Those types of numbers aren’t uncommon. In one week in November, sampled at random, the site published 36 stories, garnering 291,514 likes, shares and comments, an average of 8,098 for every article published, far outperforming populist sites on the left that support Jeremy Corbyn, such as the Canary and Skwawkbox, which averaged less than 600 social media “interactions” for each published story.

After sending an email to the address provided by Domains by Proxy but not receiving a reply, POLITICO reached PoliticalUK.co.uk in December via Twitter.

In an interview on the social media platform, the person on the other side of the conversation said he was a 20-year-old man from Essex, who writes under the pen name “James W Cooper.” He would not give his real name because of the “risk of harassment by people who disagree with Pro-Brexit stories.”

“My audience like him” — PoliticalUK.co.uk editor on Tommy Robinson

He said he left university to build up the website, which he promotes through Facebook groups he started working on four years ago when he was in school and that have since grown to have tens of thousands of followers.

His goal, he said, is political impact, but he has been able to “monetize” the site because of the number of hits it is generating. He used to be a member of UKIP before the referendum, but he’s since quit. “Don’t like the path it’s taking,” he explained.

UKIP is in the midst of a power struggle, which has seen former leaders Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall leave in protest, after the anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson was appointed as an official adviser to party leader Gerard Batten.

The PoliticalUK.co.uk editor who spoke to POLITICO said he supported some of what Robinson — whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon — stood for, but not all of it. But, he added: “My audience like him.”

Force multipliers

A large part of PoliticalUK.co.uk’s success can be attributed to its place in a much larger network of sites and social media pages, and video accounts, each amplifying the next.

Like the controversial Mainstream Network, which is being investigated by the U.K.’s information watchdog for spending vast amounts of money on “chuck Chequers” advertising opposing the prime minister’s Brexit plan without revealing who owns or runs the site, PoliticalUK.co.uk has amassed an extraordinary following through a web of interconnected networks.

The site’s content is often posted by a Facebook group called “EU — I Voted Leave.” The group is liked by more than 220,000 people. It also has no named administrator. From here, Facebook itself offers “related” groups with sizeable followings, including Nigel Farage’s, with almost 800,000 likes and “Get Britain Out,” with almost 250,000.

For those in the British government monitoring developments on the internet, worries about right-wing radicalism are joining concerns about Russian interference and Islamic terrorism.

Damian Collins, Tory MP | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“This is a really big problem,” said Damian Collins, a Conservative MP, who has been investigating the growing influence of fake news, disinformation and social media on British democracy. “Social media is used as a cheap and effective way of influencing people by feeding them a hyper-partisan diet. These are the tactics the Russians have been deploying for some time now. We have to fight back.”

Social media is transforming the populist far-right in particular, according to analysts and government officials, who add that it is often aided by influential and wealthy supporters in the United States, like Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.

“This is a separate ecosystem, with its own rules, its own communities and its own influencers,” said Ben Nimmo, an expert in online disinformation and manipulation at the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab. “What we’re seeing is the internationalization of nationalism.”

Right-wing extremism is a “growing threat” in the U.K.,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid told POLITICO. “The far right will go to any length to spread hate, exploit grievances, distort the truth and undermine the values that hold us together.”

Last June, an anti-Muslim fanatic named Darren Osborne launched a lone terror attack on Muslim worshipers outside Finsbury Park in North London, killing one man and injuring 12 others. The judge in his trial said Osborne had become “rapidly radicalized over the internet.” In the weeks prior to the attack, he regularly read material by Tommy Robinson and other far-right websites.

Police officers after searching the home of anti-Muslim fanatic Darren Osborne in Cardiff | Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

On December 6, U.K. police investigating extreme right-wing activity arrested three men on suspicion of terrorism offenses targeting “race traitor” Prince Harry: a 17-year-old from London, a 21-year-old from Bath and an 18-year-old from Portsmouth who posted threats online.

Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright told POLITICO the “rise of disinformation” was causing concern in government. “It is clear that there are some who try to use this to manipulate and confuse information to suit their own needs,” he said.

The U.K. government announced earlier this year a dedicated national security communications unit “tasked with combating disinformation by state actors and others.” Proposals on how to tackle “internet harms” will also be published in the new year, with a bill to follow in the next session of parliament.

David Toube, director of policy at the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, said the greatest threat today, across all parts of the political spectrum, was “the growth of conspiracism, feeding into political polarization and potentially street violence and ultimately terrorism.”

‘Waste of money’

Despite the revolution going on online, much of the Westminster routine continues as usual.

Selected senior journalists and commentators are invited in for briefings at No. 10 and other major departments.

The prime minister’s chief spinner Robbie Gibb, a former BBC journalist, is in daily contact with political editors from across Fleet Street and the major TV stations. Journalists in the lobby have the chance to question the prime minister’s official spokesman James Slack twice a day when parliament is sitting.

But outside Westminster, the message is often not being heard. And the government knows it.

“There is quite a discrepancy between government announcements and what is actually being clicked on” — U.K. government communications official

No. 10’s rapid response unit, alongside Whitehall’s overarching Government Communications Service it reports into, now uses artificial intelligence to analyze social media to find out what the country is talking about, according to a response to a Freedom of Information request by POLITICO.

For Her Majesty’s Government, the picture is rarely encouraging.

“There is quite a discrepancy between government announcements and what is actually being clicked on,” admitted one U.K. government communications official speaking on the basis of anonymity.

Inside No. 10, the frequent complaint is that nothing it announces seems to register with the public at large, bar an awkward prime ministerial jig in Africa or a hand-holding episode with Donald Trump. The government is happy if its “top of the grid” announcement that day was shared 5,000-10,000 times on Facebook, the official said.

In June, the prime minister unveiled a pledge to spend an extra £20 billion a year on the NHS. The public barely blinked, according to social media data. Not a single of the 20 most viral stories about Theresa May in the months leading up to and after the NHS announcement were about the extra spending, according to social media data supplied by NewsWhip.

“No-one noticed,” complained one government minister. “It was a complete waste of money.”

Downing Street Director of Communications Robbie Gibb | Leon Neal/Getty Images

The only political announcement that caught the public imagination during that time was Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to create a bank holiday if England won the World Cup. The story picked up more than 100,000 interactions on the Sky News website alone.

Meanwhile, a PoliticalUK.co.uk story published a few weeks before the announcement — “Media SILENCE as THOUSANDS ‘protest’ Tommy Robinson arrest outside Downing St” — had almost no pick up on Twitter, where the Westminster crowd spends much of its time, but was shared and commented on 126,409 times on Facebook.

The loss of media control is having a real effect on the government’s ability to act, officials said.

At the height of the Syria crisis in April when the U.K., France and the U.S. weighed airstrikes on the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons, the Rapid Response Unit noticed the government’s case for intervention was being drowned out online. The government took the extraordinary step of buying a top Google search result to get its message out, one official said.

“You can’t measure how many people are still furious, but kept just this side of being radicalized because of what you’re doing” — Government official

It is now doing the same with Brexit. According to accounts published Monday, the government was the highest spending political advertiser on Facebook in the U.K. in the first week of December, shelling out almost £97,000 on the social network seeking support for its deal taking Britain out of the European Union.

Still, many in Whitehall think the battle is lost.

What is the point, some officials ask in private, of social media buys and a five-strong unit when you’re dealing with millions of websites, bloggers, Facebook groups and YouTube channels, all feeding off each other in an ecosystem beyond state control?

“The problem is, you can’t know how many people are a little bit less angry because of your digital comms strategy,” said one official. “You can’t measure how many people are still furious, but kept just this side of being radicalized because of what you’re doing.”

This is the first in a three part series on British nationalism and the internet.


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James Frayne: Might the UK see its own Yellow Vest uprising?

Let us hope not. It’s unlikely, but not completely impossible. The Government must battle four trends to reduce the risk.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

We should hope not – violent protest is the last thing we want to see – but could there be the equivalent of a Yellow Vest uprising in the UK? An aggressive, popular campaign against higher taxes, poor services and declining living standards? The closest reasonably recent parallel here was the fuel protests of 2000. But could we see something broader, like we’ve seen in France?

It’s generally a mistake to think you can translate one country’s political, economic and social culture to your own. British people have thankfully (usually) shunned direct, highly confrontational protests; and French politics and government administration are very different. But the Yellow Vest movement is interesting because the issues raised and the language used are similar to those that have been used by protest campaigns here in the last 20 years.

In France, working class and lower middle class people have come together to complain about rising taxes, especially fuel taxes, apparently out of touch elites making decisions that hit them hard in the pocket, and the decline of universal public services. People are right to point out there is no coherent political ideology behind the movement (although, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it doesn’t look coherent to those that think of politics on a classic left-right continuum). But the issues raised are not dissimilar to those that have been raised by fuel protesters, early UKIP campaigners, independent Mayors, and, of course the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

So, could the Yellow Vests arrive here? With the organising power of the internet available to all, you can never say for sure, but it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, most of the working class and lower middle class are only now approaching their upper limits on tax. Many have been saying they’d be happy to pay more tax if they knew it would be ringfenced for the NHS, for example. And, consequently, the polls suggest they supported the Government’s announcement for £20 billion in new spending.

The second reason is that they know that this Government is keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power. They know, therefore, that this Government is keeping taxes relatively lower than they would otherwise be – and they also (for now at least) doubt Corbyn’s ability to run public services effectively. They still doubt his leadership abilities and his general competence. It’s hard to generate anger against a sitting Government when you know the financial alternative would likely be worse.

But we’re not a million miles away. For such a movement to become viable, four trends would need to continue. The first is that there would need to be a big increase in irritation with spending on unreformed services. While the public gave the Government’s higher NHS spending their support, a giant caveat was attached. This was the clear warning that it had better work and that the NHS had better sort waste and mismanagement out. In focus groups on this issue around the time of the announcement, people were expressing their deep concern about NHS waste. If this spending does appear to go to waste, a backlash is possible.

The second trend is for Government to continue to charge people for services they once considered theirs “by right”. The anger directed at the Conservative Party at the last election over social care is an example of this phenomenon. People hate being made to pay for things that were previously “free”. For Londoners, the introduction of the new Ultra Low Emission Zone might fall into this category. Although it’s a Labour policy, it remains to be seen whether the Government will take some of the blame for “not stopping it”.

Thirdly, the cost of living would need to continue to rise – with significant, visible rises apparently marking a change, rather than a continued gentle increase. One thing the Government will be keeping an eye on is a possible increase in heating bills in early Spring. This might see an uptick and would irritate massively, particularly against the backdrop of a cold winter.

The fourth trend is for a continued disaffection with the political class. This has been developing for two decades now and it bubbles up to the surface occasionally. If a big chunk of the public – and the majority of working class voters – think that politicians have betrayed them on Brexit, they are likely to be much more open to direct protest than they were in the past. Even if we end up leaving the EU in a way that is acceptable to these Leave voters, it’s not impossible they will have concluded that it all happened despite the best efforts of much of the political class.

It’s a reasonable bet that political activists in the UK will try to artificially create a Yellow Vest movement here; it wouldn’t be a shock to see them appear, literally, on a small scale soon. But several things will have to happen before we see a mass movement. As you can see, it’s possible that we will be in such a place at some point. We should hope that the Government takes action to avert such a movement ever gaining ground.

UKIP leader ‘not sure’ how many members of EU parliament he has

UKIP leader said he wants to turn the party into a ‘mass movement.’

UKIP leader Gerard Batten said he was “not sure” how many MEPs his party now has, as he accused former party leader Nigel Farage of being a liar for saying he planned to shift the party to the far-right.

Batten’s parliamentary group in Brussels and Strasbourg has been rocked by a series of resignations from the party, including those of former leaders Farage and Paul Nuttall. Farage said in an article in the Telegraph Tuesday that he was leaving because of what he described as Batten’s “obsession” with far-right activist Tommy Robinson “and fixation with the issue of Islam [that] makes UKIP unrecognizable to many of us.”

Farage remains president of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the European Parliament, which includes Italy’s 5Star Movement among other national parties. Batten announced today that UKIP would be pulling its MEPs out of the group but did not have immediate plans to join another.

“I can’t sit in a group where the president of the group continually attacks me in the U.K. media, which is what Nigel Farage has been doing,” Batten told POLITICO, adding that Farage’s accusations about Batten’s far-right aspirations for UKIP were “lies.”

“I am sickened by the comments that Nigel Farage has made about me because he’s known me for 26 years,” he said. “It’s not far right. I’ve spent 26 years in a democratic party working to restore Britain’s status as an independent democratic state. That doesn’t make me far right.”

Batten has previously referred to Islam as a “death cult” and called for Muslims to be asked to sign a document renouncing parts of the Quran. He survived a no-confidence vote in his leadership Monday that had been brought over his decision to make Robinson — whose real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon and who is a former leader of the English Defence League — an adviser to Batten on rape gangs and prison reform.

Asked how many MEPs his party now has, Batten said: “I’m not sure myself. It’s about five I think left now.”

He said his objective was to transform UKIP into a “mass movement” and said that its membership had recovered from a recent low of 18,000 to just over 26,000 now.

“We are financially stable … we’ve got members flooding in,” he said, adding the size of the MEP group in the European Parliament was not important because they will be “redundant” beyond March next year because of Brexit. “The majority of [the party’s] MEPs have long been held in contempt by the members anyway,” he said.

The party has no MPs in the Westminster parliament.


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