Friday, 15 March 2019

Thank you, Vince

Image result for vince cable
Vince Cable (Photo: The Independent)
Yesterday evening Vince Cable sent the following message to party members:

This has been a dramatic week in Parliament with Theresa May’s Brexit proposals heavily defeated, and a very clear statement that a ‘no deal’ Brexit must be avoided. It is now clear that Brexit will be postponed, and very possibly stopped.

"The future is very uncertain but despite Labour’s continued prevarication, there is still a real chance of securing a People’s Vote and, indeed, of stopping Brexit.

"The fact that these possibilities are still alive is a great tribute to our Party. Unlike the Tories and Labour, we never saw it as our duty to ‘deliver Brexit’.

"The tribute is primarily to you as members, for marching and campaigning so energetically. Thank you for securing the progress we have made.

"I indicated last year that once the Brexit story had moved on, and we had fought this year’s crucial local elections in 9,000 seats across England, it would be time for me to make way for a new generation. I set considerable store by having an orderly, business-like, succession unlike the power struggles in the other parties.

"So I wanted you, our members, to know that, assuming Parliament does not collapse into an early General Election, I will ask the party to begin a leadership contest in May.

"At our spring conference this weekend, members will have the chance to make that contest the biggest and most open leadership election British politics has ever seen. It’s a real opportunity for our party to seize the radical and liberal centre of British politics. We can and should invite hundreds of thousands of new supporters in, with the chance for us to choose a new leader together.

"It has been my great privilege to lead the Liberal Democrats at this crucial time.

"I inherited the leadership after two difficult and disappointing General Elections. But I take pride in seeing the party recovering strongly, with last year’s local election results the best in 15 years, record membership and a central role in the People’s Vote campaign.

"And long after my period as your Leader ceases, I will continue to work with you and my successor to make sure the Liberal Democrats are at the centre of Britain’s rapidly changing politics. By building a movement of voters who share our values, we can help rescue the country from a profound political crisis and give hope of a better future.

"Thank you for all your support."

It is perhaps no great surprise that Vince has made this decision - after all, it was widely mooted a few months ago that he might do so later this year. What is a little surprising is the timing, which seems to indicate he's taken the party as far as he could and implies defeat of sorts over the "People's Vote". 

But I have no wish to discuss how the resignation could be better timed - it's Vince's decision. Various people paid tribute to his leadership yesterday: Tim Farron said: "I've been proud to serve under Vince's leadership since 2017. British politics is sadly lacking in wisdom, Vince has it in spades. You've done a great job boss. Thank you."  Party president Sal Brinton added:"During his time as Leader, he has led the way in increasing public support for a final say on the Brexit deal and constantly been reminding people that our country’s future is brighter as part of the European Union." Others have made similar comments about his good judgement, persistence and strong liberal values. 

Few of us will argue that Vince Cable will go down as one of the great Liberal leaders. That is not a criticism of his leadership, far from it. His leadership has instead been focused on guaranteeing the future of not only the Liberal Democrats but liberalism as a political force. Vince inherited the party at a difficult time, after a disappointing General Election and Tim Farron's decision to resign in a way that can only be described as unhelpful. At the time, there were other potential candidates but no-one willing to put themselves forward for the leadership. Vince deserves real credit for what he has done in a short time: growing the membership, making a distinctive stance on the EU issue, championing a people's vote, and overseeing some spectacular local election successes. He was also leader, like his predecessor, at a time when our limited parliamentary numbers mean the media are not necessarily picking up on our messages, making his task more difficult.

What Vince has been is solid, dependable and forward-looking. His intention was never to serve for a lengthy period of time, but instead to ensure that his party not only survived but could be passed on in a better condition than he inherited it. His concerns were always for the values he so closely identified with. And so, for everything you've done - thank you Vince.

There has already been the inevitable speculation within the media about who Vince's successor might be, and whether this question has already, effectively, been determined rendering any election a mere formality. I do not wish to comment on this other than to say that I am confident there will in fact be an election and, like Tim Farron v Norman Lamb in 2015, will be closer than many suspect.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

May's deal rejected - an inevitable outcome

Image result for theresa may
Theresa May (Photo: BBC)
And so, the inevitable has finally happened.

There was never any other realistic outcome since 23rd June 2016.

David Cameron was never going to hang around once his ill-conceived attempt at simultaneously uniting his party on Europe while neutralising UKIP's threat backfired spectacularly.

And whoever became PM following Cameron's resignation was going to have to inherit his impossible legacy. Yes, Theresa May has proved inept beyond belief, but it is questionable whether Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove would have fared any better in No. 10. Ultimately all of them would have tried, as May has, to deliver a Brexit that kept everyone on board - from reluctant acceptees of the result to die-hard ERG types. And it would have ended in the same way - failure.

Why? Because "the easiest deal in history" was always going to be anything but, and if you want to secure a good deal for the future then it's advisable to go in with a plan. Unfortunately, during the campaigning, no-one on the government side ever thought of putting even the loosest of proposals together as to what would happen in the eventuality of a leave vote. This was irresponsible and meant the referendum simply asked a generalised question rather than established the electorate's view on a specific proposal. This complete lack of regard to forward thinking was also inherited by May's administration - who believed that arbitrary red lines and a refusal to accept basic facts somehow represented an adequate substitute for preparation.

The Prime Minister also called a General Election she promised she wouldn't, simply because she believed the supposed guaranteed increased majority would secure unconditional support for her deal, however bad it was. It might just have paid off, but she appointed Nick Timothy as her campaign manager. And then there was the inability to consider the particularly tricky issue of the border with Ireland, added to the Prime Minister's delaying tactics that made this final outcome no less inevitable.

Like Cameron, Theresa May has been undone by her hubris and determination to put party interest before national interest. She has committed herself - and the country - into committing an act of national self-harm for reasons no-one either remembers or is any longer remotely interested in. "The people have spoken" has become an excuse for intransigent government strategy rather than the expression of a desire to uphold democratic values.

If Mrs May had been willing to listen, she might have come to understand that no amount of wrapping herself in the flag, offering blue passports and making populist noises on immigration was going to convince the ERG or Nigel Farage to support "her" Brexit. She never sought to create a parliamentary consensus - simply impose one via a General Election she vainly believed she would win with ease. Treating Parliament with obvious disdain (on several occasions) only served to unite MPs against her in some of the strangest defeats any government has ever suffered, with MPs such as Jo Swinson and Chuka Umunna going through the no lobby alongside Peter Bone and Esther McVey.

The likes of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Bill Cash were never going to support the PM's deal. Securing a deal inevitably requires some compromise - not for them the tricky business of negotiation and having to actually attempt to answer difficult questions. There were always going to be those who sniped from the sidelines, complaining that their idealised "Unicorn" Brexit wasn't being delivered. May's mistake was to value the support of such people, and to pander to their whims.

There has been a concerted effort, especially from some Conservative MPs, to blame the EU for the Prime Minister's inability to come back to the House with an acceptable deal. Such arguments are simply wrong. The EU gave Theresa May the deal she wanted - including her backstop. It was Mrs May's failure to firstly listen to Parliament and, secondly, to sell her agreement to MPs that has resulted in this disaster. Her confidence that MPs could be bullied into accepting a deal, however bad, was as foolish as her belief that the public viewed her as a tower of "strength and stability".

Was this avoidable? Well, yes - but that would have required a different approach from the Prime Minister from the outset. The lack of openness, the threat to use Henry VIII powers, the "no deal is better than a bad deal" rhetoric, the "citizens of nowhere" insults...all combined to give the impression of a PM determined to steamroller on regardless. She never sought agreement, never formulated a coherent set of proposals. Her only strategy was to bully her way to a deal - any deal - and then blame the public ("they voted for it, I'm delivering") and the EU ("they won't give me what I want!"). At no point has the Prime Minister ever looked ready to take responsibility for her own decisions. Mrs May's failure has been inevitable from the day she took the reins of power promising to "make Brexit a success" without first finding consensus on what that actually involved. Not only has this defeat been inevitable, it's been fully deserved.

The withdrawal agreement was a terrible deal for so many reasons, but it was in all probability the best deal that could realistically have been obtained under the self-imposed constraints and ERG-satisfying red lines. The tragedy for the Prime Minister is that her bluster and unrealistic aspirational rhetoric blinded so many to this reality. She went to Brussels looking for a deal, and got it. She came back telling us what a good deal it was, before rapidly changing her tune after the "meaningful" Commons vote. She never stood by "her" deal, never defended it; instead, like a 12-year old caught with a cigarette, sought to deny her involvement and blame others.

The comings and goings - and all the speculation - around Westminster of late have been absolutely fascinating, even if mainly for the wrong reasons. It has been in turn stimulating, entertaining, shocking, dramatic, sensational and baffling. But there can be no escaping that this has served democracy largely badly, has created a constitutional mess and resulted in crippling uncertainty. To paraphrase Pierre Bosquet, "c'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la politique: c'est de la folie".

This is surely the end for the Prime Minister. She has no power or authority; unlike John Major in his final days, she does not even command much respect. Even in such unusual times as these, I suspect she cannot go on for much longer. As for Brexit - there's a long way to go yet, but if it happens it will certainly not be Theresa May's Brexit. That Brexit is no more, has ceased to be, is bereft of life. It is, to misquote the famous Monty Python sketch, an ex-Brexit.

We will now have a parliamentary vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal. While I think ultimately there isn't a majority for "no deal", what happens in the eventuality of that being rejected is anyone's guess. This has to be the worst game of "Deal or No Deal" ever.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Cheers and Jeers #7

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events.

Cheers to John Barnes for providing both context to Liam Neeson's misquoted words on race and also for helping to aid a much-needed conversation on understanding the thinking behind prejudice in order to combat it.  That Mr Barnes had to do this at all when it should have been obvious to anyone that Liam Neeson was clearly not proud of the thoughts he admitted to once having speaks volumes about the quality of reporting at a time when sensationalist headlines trump critical analysis.

Cheers to Altrincham FC for introducing a new third kit especially for Football v Homophobia. Some of the reactions to this announcement on social media underline how far society has come in the last 15 years, but also the need for the work Football v Homophobia continues to do. It might be a small gesture from a well-meaning football club, but it represents a huge statement in support of LGBT+ inclusion.

Cheers to Welsh football star Jess Fishlock for speaking openly about her experiences of homophobia in school. I am sure her honest reflections and her attempts to normalise same-sex attraction will help to further change a culture that for too long was tolerant of intolerance.

Cheers to Sayeeda Warsi for admitting that David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum on Eu membership was "reckless, awful politics" and that neither Mr Cameron nor the Conservative Party had any developed plan for what would happen in the event of a leave vote. "I'm not sure sorry is enough" said Baroness Warsi. Well, no - it isn't, but it's a welcome start.

Jeers to the Scottish Conservatives for their determination to reinvent themselves as the party of ineffective and counter-productive short-term prison sentences. In criticising the SNP's decision to abolish short-term sentences as "soft on crime", Ruth Davidson's party refuses to accept the evidence-based recommendations of, among others, the Howard League for Penal Reform. With so much to legitimately criticise the SNP government on, it seems bizarre that they have chosen this.

Jeers to Peter Bone for deliberately misconstruing what Donald Tusk had said in his misadvised "special place in Hell" comments. Quite what basis Mr Bone had for complaining to the Speaker of the House of Commons I don't know, but I might suggest he could have been accused of deliberately misleading Parliament.

Tears for the family of Emiliano Sala, whose body was found along with aircraft wreckage this week.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Cheers and Jeers #6

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events.

Cheers to Kay Burley of Sky News, asking this question following Tuesday evening’s votes on the  Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement: "Coming up in just a few moments: is a Unicorn lighting the way in Europe or is it just a Donkey, with a plunger on its head? All of that, after the Sport" Somehow that managed to sum of the nature of this week's news in a singular bizarre moment.

Cheers to Layla Moran, for her significant efforts in bringing forward a private member’s bill to replace the Vagrancy Act.  As Layla explained: “There is no single cause of homelessness, and vulnerable people, those with mental health problems and addictions for example, need support not punishment.”

Cheers to Anna Soubry for her heartfelt and passionate speech in defence of immigration, which concluded with: “Too many people have been told lies and it is now absolutely up to each and every one of us to stand up, make the case for immigration and tell the truth.”

Jeers to Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, who suggested that, in the even of food shortages post-Brexit, poor people can always “go to the chippy”. This sickening arrogance and disdain for the most vulnerable people in society is truly shameful.

Jeers to Sarah Huckerbee Sanders for her “God wants Trump to be President” remarks.  Sorry Sarah, that’s not how democracy works. (I'm not too sure it's how God works either...)

Jeers to John Tanner, an Oxford Labour councillor who seems to want to make war on homeless people rather than homelessness

Tears for workers at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, following news that the Japanese car manufacturer has decided to cancel its plans to produce its X-Trail model in the UK. It’s not a time for getting out the “I told you so”s, but for feeling some sympathy for workers who were sold a lie by people who should know better.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

We need to talk about David Ward (again)

David Ward (Photo: The Independent)
It's been a while since I've felt the need to talk about David Ward, the former MP for Bradford East.

For those unfamiliar with Mr Ward, his membership of the party was suspended pending investigation into alleged anti-Semitic comments shortly before the General Election of 2017. Ward then stood as an independent candidate, finishing third. he was then, I believe, expelled from the party for standing against the official Lib Dem candidate.

Ward has been a controversial figure for some time, not least because of statements he has made on Israel, the Holocaust and the Board of Deputies. I'm afraid I've usually found myself unable to defend him.

Unfortunately, a newspaper local to Bradford - the Telegraph & Argus - reported that "David Ward is back in the Lib Dems".  It stated categorically that "a former Bradford MP has been reinstated as a member of the Liberal Democrats - almost two years after he was kicked out of the party."

This was news to me - and rather disturbing news.

Naturally I looked to find some confirmation of this. I couldn't. The only other news outlet reporting on this was the Bradford Telegraph, owned by the T& A, whose headline was the more cautious "David Ward says return to Lib Dems 'a formality'". That's not quite the same thing. But the situation begs some serious questions: why was David Ward briefing the local media that he had been re-admitted?  Why would he be publicly pre-empt the outcome of his application to re-join? More importantly, why - when various angered Jewish (and other) groups were berating the party on social media for the apparent decision - was Lib Dem HQ not quick off the mark to issue a formal statement denying it?

The Jewish Chronicle was on hand later to quote a party spokesperson as saying "David Ward is not a member of the Liberal Democrats and was previously expelled from the party for bringing it into disrepute." I'm not sure he was, but I won't split hairs. However, by this time the "news" had travelled some distance and was widely believed. It's difficult to put the genie back into the bottle - even more so when it takes several hours to make the most simple of denials.

But more importantly still is what discussions on social media revealed about the relationship between Mr Ward and his local Liberal Democrats.

Firstly there is this, posted on twitter only yesterday:

And then there is this, on the council website:

So, not only are Bradford Liberal Democrats working closely with Mr Ward in defiance of the federal party, they have essentially adopted him onto the council's Lib Dem group as the deputy leader. Ward himself admitted to the Jewish Chronicle today that he is not a Lib Dem member, however much he believes his reinstatement is a "formality" - so why on earth has someone elected to the council as an independent risen to become the deputy leader of a group he is not a member of? How has this escaped the radar of Lib Dem HQ at Great George Street?

It would also seem that the tweets from Bradford Lib Dems were intended as part of a concerted effort to raise the profile of Mr Ward in advance of what they believed would be his readmission to the party. The Bradford Telegraph reported that "both the Bradford and Yorkshire parties said that he should re-apply for membership" and that a decision on his membership would be made at regional level.

However, in pre-empting the outcome of that process the local party has not only miscalculated but has also arguably brought the federal party into disrepute. How long has this relationship been going on for? Just how long has Mr Ward been sitting as "deputy leader" of our party grouping? (I'm led to believe he has been sitting with the Lib Dem group for nine months, giving the appearance of having been brought back into the fold. This, if true, is simply unacceptable).

Whatever our views on David Ward and his controversial opinions, this is not a professional way to behave. We now have some serious questions to answer - about Mr Ward himself, about internal procedure, about how we deal with local parties acting in opposition to centrally-imposed suspensions, about our own communications and, perhaps most significantly, about how we deal with anti-Semitism and other expressions of discrimination.

I suspect the local parties have miscalculated here. But, more than that, in pre-determining the outcome of Mr Ward's membership application, and in developing a worryingly close relationship with an expelled former member, they have to my mind managed to bring the federal party into disrepute.

Update (31.1.19): I've since gathered there was an arrangement and that the "Lib Dem group" may actually be "Lib Dems and others". All the same, it's not acceptable that someone debarred from membership was the deputy leader of that group, or that any member of the public viewing the council's website would reasonably believe he had been readmitted

Certainly the images posted of him on social media by Bradford Lib Dems endorsing their candidates were, to be polite, inappropriate.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #5

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events.

Cheers to Angola, on becoming the latest country to decriminalise homosexuality. The Angolan parliament voted by 155 to 1 in support of the measure, which also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Cheers to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who has indicated he would like to carry out further rescue missions after helping two stranded boys out of Syria.

Cheers for Fiona Channon who made history this week for being the first woman in history to carry the ceremonial mace into the House of Lords.

Cheers to Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, the Prime Ministers of Greece and the FYR of Macedonia respectively, who this week succeeded in agreeing a name change to the latter country that put an end to nearly three decades of dispute and suspicion.

Jeers to the people who made comments on social media belittling rape victims in the aftermath of Alex Salmond’s arrest. I refer to generalised unpleasant comments on women and rape, which have the effect of diminishing the seriousness of the alleged offences.  Jeers also to those pre-judging the case and using the allegations as a means of taking cynical asides at the independence movement. Serious claims about potential abuse of women should not be used as the basis of conspiracy theories or constitutional debate, or to speculate as to the relationship between the current first minister and her predecessor.

Jeers to the “far-right activists” planning “action” at a public meeting in Fleetwood on Brexit, which was due to be hosted by local MP Cat Smith. Consequently, the event has been cancelled.  

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #4

Here's my latest news roundup, in which I cheer or jeer the week's events. 

Cheers to Zoe Ball on becoming the first female weekday Breakfast host on BBC 2. That’s one more unenviable record now consigned to history.

Cheers to the 432 MPs who voted against Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Of course there were various reasons MPs of all colours decided to reject it, but it was absolutely vital to defeat the government on this.

Cheers to everyone involved in putting right the injustice of Glasgow City Council’s unequal pay – thousands of women will now be correctly remunerated.

Cheers for Jasmin Parris, a Midlothian nursing mother who completed the 268-mile Montane Spine Race in an astonishing 83 hours 12 minutes and 23 seconds.

Cheers to the BBC’s subtitling for giving us this moment of comedy during Michael Gove’s nauseating speech on Wednesday.

Cheers for Tessa Ganserer, the German Green Party MP who this week became the first transgender politician to sit in either a regional or national parliament in Germany.

Jeers to the ridiculous and anachronistic system of parliamentary voting, which meant that Labour MP Tulip Siddiq decided to postpone her Caesarian (against medical advice) in order to vote on the Brexit deal. Surely in this era we can “do” parliamentary democracy better?

Jeers to Richard Burgon, who decided to use a Channel 4 interview alongside Jo Swinson as an opportunity to show the public how petty, tribal and belligerent he could be. At a time when Labour should be looking to reach out to as many people as possible, it was a remarkable show of arrogance.

Jeers for Jeremy Corbyn, who has made all kinds of grandstanding noises insisting Theresa May “takes no deal off the table”, while knowing full well this cannot happen without either extending or revoking Article 50. Talk about missing an open tessa ganserer,  goal.

Remind me, Jeremy, who was so keen for the PM to invoke A50 at the earliest opportunity? You voted for it - even demanded it.

Jeers to all those speculating about Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s sexual orientation. And we wonder why there aren’t any “out” footballers? Cheers to Ruben for the classy way he dealt with it, though.

Tears for Paweł Adamowicz, the Mayor of Gdansk and an outspoken campaigner for equality and social justice, who was fatally stabbed at acharity event on Sunday evening.