Saturday, 31 March 2018

Don't you just hate it when journalists explain to us what gender is?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

It's Trans Day of Visibility.

So I'd like to say to all my trans friends (and I have a few) that it's great you're visible - this day and every day. You're fantastic people and I'm privileged to know you and, in some cases, having been able to share in your journey.

It's such a shame then that The Guardian, of all newspapers, chooses to use Trans Visibility Day to come up with something like this: Don't you just love it when a man explains to you what it means to be a woman? Not only does it fail to understand gender - it's far more than "a feeling" - it perpetuates all the lazy assertions and stereotypes, as if somehow Mumsnet contributors have some kind of supreme expertise on issues of gender and sex. Moreover, publishing this on today of all days is as responsible as running an article by David Irving on Holocaust Memorial Day.

There is inevitably some truth in Hadley Freeman's observation that "I surely speak for all of us ladies when I say I love nothing more than when a man explains to me, at some length, what a woman now is." Perhaps that might give her some insight into how trans and non-binary people feel when either men or women tell them what gender is, often going so far as effectively denying their existence. Just as she will argue that her gender identity isn't up for discussion, neither should that of either myself (as someone who identifies as non-binary) or transgender people (isn't it curious that Freeman's objections don't extend to trans men, who have been all but erased in this "debate"?).  Some of us, who much prefer scientifically-led expertise on gender over the feelings and opinions of journalists, don't care to be lectured to by ill-informed and defensive people - whatever their sex or gender.

Two decades ago we were challenging popular misconceptions of homosexuality - the toxic Section 28 "debate", naturally characterised by the "understandable fears" of the 1999 equivalent of Mumsnet. The safety line was wheeled out then as an excuse to preserve the status quo, just as it is now. Then, as now, such "safety concerns" had little or no basis in evidential fact. Then, as now, they were used as a smokescreen for intolerance. In 20 years a great deal has changed, and while homophobia remains a very real presence there can be little denying social attitudes have shifted considerably. The next challenge is that of gender.

It's great to see transgender people being far more visible - but with that comes the inevitable reaction from those who fear what they do not understand. As something actually worth reading in yesterday's Guardian made clear: "Trans visibility is greater than ever - but that's a double-edged sword." To say I admire the courage it takes for my trans friends simply to be who they are against this backdrop is an understatement. On this day - and all days - they deserve better than this kind of dismissal from a supposedly liberal and inclusive media outlet.

So, to my trans friends - keep on keeping on! Stay visible. Stay vocal. Be yourselves! You're fabulous!

And to everyone else - if you want to be informed about what changes to the Gender Recognition Act actually mean, I'd recommend reading this excellent twitter thread from LGBT+ Lib Dems. On Trans Visibility Day, it's infinitely more helpful addition to the discussion than Hadley Freeman's Guardian contribution.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

So, did Vote Leave cheat?

The Liberal Democrats have sent an e-mail to members today, and asked for us to share it. Unusually, I'm doing as I'm told.

Here it is - I suspect further explanation or analysis is unnecessary.

Andrew, last night, Channel 4 and the Guardian made explosive claims about the Leave campaign’s conduct during the EU referendum.

Here’s what a whistleblower claims about the official Leave campaign:

  • They broke spending limits
  • They lied to voters
  • Then they tried to cover it up

Then, after the whistleblower made these claims, one of Theresa May’s top aides, was accused of outing him as gay.

These are allegations that go to the heart of Theresa May’s Government. It’s clear the narrow referendum win for Leave is tainted.

Brexiteers and their allies in the right-wing media will do everything they can to play this story down. We cannot let them get away with it.

Please help us get the facts out there by:

1. Sharing this quick video from Channel 4 with your friends and family

2. Sharing this Guardian article on social media

3. Adding your name to our campaign for an Exit from Brexit

The case for giving the people the final say on Brexit has never been stronger - and with your support, we can win this:

The Lib Dems in Parliament will be doing everything we can to get answers. The same rules must apply to everyone and the people must not be cheated.

Please help us do this by sharing the news today.



Tom Brake
Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson

PS: Please do forward this email to your friends.

On Lib Dem Voice, Tom Brake appears in a video asking whether Leave cheated, insisting "British people are entitled to the truth". Lib Dem Voice itself concludes that "the legitimacy of the referendum result must surely now be in question."

I won't disagree with that, and these are indeed serious allegations that must be investigated properly and thoroughly.

However, I think it would be wrong to focus solely on the "legitimacy of the result". As debates in Parliament prior to the referendum confirmed, the result itself had no legal status (whatever David Cameron personally promised). The government is not obliged to implement anything, simply to be advised by the vote.

I would suggest contesting the validity of the vote is perfectly reasonable, but more significantly the actions of the government in response to the "advice" the referendum gave should also be firmly questioned.

These accusations also open up other questions about the role and fitness for purpose of the Electoral Commission. I've written previously on this, in which I expressed the view that the EC is outdated and ill-equipped for the challenges it is currently facing. So while the investigation will naturally focus on Vote Leave, I hope we also don't lose sight of where the EC fits into this - and hopefully instigate a conversation about how it can either be strengthened or replaced in light of these allegations.

Yes, we need answers from Vote Leave. We need to know what happened and who was responsible. But I would argue that if Vote Leave  has knowingly broken rules, it will have done so by exploiting the weaknesses of the Electoral Commission.  We also need to take a look at how our democracy works, and whether those currently overseeing the processes are the right people to safeguard the standards in public accountability we have been led to expect.

So, did Vote Leave cheat? No doubt we'll soon find out. Perhaps the more important questions however, are these: "Did Vote Leave cheat? If so, so what? What does that mean for our democracy? How was it allowed to happen, and how will it affect who we 'do' democracy in the future? What does this say about those charged with upholding the highest standards in the public interest?"

If it is demonstrated that Vote Leave have, indeed, cheated then I would also argue that, by implication, the systems in place to supposedly prevent this from happening have failed - as too has the organisation responsible for oversight. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

What was our press team thinking?

Vince Cable met with ALDE leaders yesterday
Yesterday afternoon the Lib Dem press team put out a statement making quite a claim.

The media release stated that "Liberal Prime Ministers from eight EU countries have publicly backed the Liberal Democrats' call for the British public to have a vote on the final Brexit deal."  

The statement the Prime Ministers supposedly signed reads: "We regret Brexit, but acknowledge the choice made by British voters for the UK Government to negotiate withdrawal. We further acknowledge and support the Liberal Democrats’ call for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal. All parties need to seek a broad deal accommodating both the position of the UK government and the principles on which the European Union is built.”

As you can imagine, the mainstream media picked up on this, because it was quite a statement on so many levels. Not only was it timed to coincide with the Prime Minister's meeting with EU leaders, it would have represented a historic departure from the usual practice of the leaders of sovereign nations not interfering in another state's constitutional or electoral affairs.

I read the statement with some surprise. Surely no Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader, let alone a Prime Minister, could sign up to such a statement - whatever they thought privately? To make the observation that Brexit is far from a done deal would be reasonable enough, but to go as far as offer explicit support for the policy of the Liberal Democrats (which is only one member of the wider Liberal ALDE family) would be a potentially very dangerous, not to mention unprecedented, step to take. 

I would have thought that anyone with any understanding of European politics would realise that the statement, as written, would prove impossible for any ALDE leader to sign. I was suspicious of the claim that any Prime Minister could have signed this, never mind eight of them. So what actually happened?

Vince Cable did meet with fellow ALDE leaders in Brussels, including the eight PMs, for a working lunch. It seems that conversations were had about Brexit, and that there was some broad agreement on various issues, as one might well expect from a gathering of Europe's Liberal leaders. While this was taking place, the party issued the media release making the extravagant claim.

Immediately following the meeting, the news media naturally wanted to know the detail of what had been agreed. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happy to put on record his view that, if Britain changed its position on leaving the EU, it would be highly welcomed by “almost everyone in the European Union. Of course, whether that happens is up to the UK itself and UK politicians, but I am very happy my friend Vince Cable and his party are very much pleading for a discussion with the UK to make that happen.” A supportive statement indeed, but a more cautious and measured approach that the one our party press team claimed had been agreed.

It got worse. Very soon it became apparent that, while productive conversations were had, nothing formal had been agreed. The ALDE group couldn't have been more frank: "No statement has been agreed upon or released". Ouch!

The end result is that several newspapers today are running headlines that, from a Liberal Democrat point of view, are quite damaging. The Guardian runs with "Lib Dems embarrassed as EU leaders deny Brexit statement", the Daily Mail has "Lib Dem leader Vince Cable humiliated over botched Brexit PR stunt", while the Scotsman takes the view "Vince Cable humiliated as EU leaders disown call for new Brexit vote". 

It's difficult to disagree with either of these headlines, but especially the Mail's. Someone clearly thought this stunt - which is what it was - would be a good idea. That person, or people, should have understood that Prime Ministers of fellow EU states were not remotely likely to make public statements amounting to interference in another country's constitutional affairs. To imagine any ALDE leader would do something so illiberal defies belief. As far as stunts go, this has to be one of the most amateurish and self-defeating I've seen for some time.

I do not know who was responsible for devising this bizarre stunt, but it seems hard to believe it would be someone actively involved in politics. Anyone with a modicum of understanding would appreciate that the pre-written statement could not be publicly agreed by ALDE leaders, whatever their private sympathies. They would also know what the inevitable media reaction would be.

This leads me to ask questions of our press team. Why did no-one, at any point, realise this was a foolish idea that would only leave us looking silly and dishonest? Why did no-one look at the statement and think, "they're never going to sign this"? Why would a media release of this kind be circulated without knowing whether a statement had actually been signed?

It is deeply illiberal to interfere in another state's constitutional and electoral matters and I would have expected the Liberal Democrats to appreciate this. I would also have expected a competent press team to have realised what the inevitable outcome would be, and warn against it. The headlines are as predictable as they were avoidable.

For many people, this simply confirms their view of our party as being dishonest. For me, it confirms my view that our communications unit is amateurish and incompetent. 

If anyone needed evidence of quite how incompetent it is, take a look at the party's website. In spite of ALDE's confirmation that nothing was agreed - and the embarrassing headlines in the national press - the dreadful media release is still there, as the main "news" story...

Sunday, 4 March 2018

About this Thatcher statue...

Parliament Square: The statues of Churchill and Lloyd George (left)
will not be being joined by that of Margaret Thatcher
People talk about all kinds of things. Most lately it's been snow. Go onto facebook or twitter and all you'll see are pictures of people finding imaginative ways to enjoy being outside in the cold. Either that or people complaining that Britain can't cope with a bit of a cold snap.

You'll be pleased to know I haven't posted hundreds of pictures on facebook this week telling all my friends there's snow outside. I am sure they can see it for themselves. But today I have got into a few discussions on social media - about a statue.

Yes, a statue. It's really got a lot of people engaged, and not necessarily in a positive way...and that's because we're talking about a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

For those of you who don't know, Jo Swinson (MP for East Dunbartonshire and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party) wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday arguing that Westminster Council should have given permission for a statue of the former Prime Minister to have been erected on Parliament Square. "Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher's policies, there can be no dispute about her significance", Jo explains. "If we want gender equality, we have to fight for space for women we vigorously disagree with, as well as those we support".

The headline, for which Jo was of course not responsible, screams rather sensationally: "We MUST have a monument to Maggie".

Now, before we talk about the statue it's fair to point out there's a lot in Jo's article that makes perfect sense and I'd recommend reading it before commenting. Jo talks about feminism, equalities, and history. She challenges institutional misogyny. She makes it clear she loathes Thatcher's political legacy - and she goes so far as to suggest if Thatcher should have a statue erected in her honour then so should Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

There is merit in Jo's argument. Certainly, her observations in regards gender equality are perfectly valid. That we should honour people where appropriate irrespective of whether we like them also seems quite fair-minded.

But it's understandably left a lot of people quite angry. This from Owen Jones neatly encapsulates the prevailing mood on twitter: 

I had a chat with Jo on twitter about her article. I understood her points completely, while disagreeing on the main issue for reasons I'll go into in a minute. What I don't understand is why we continue this ridiculous Victorian obsession with putting up statues everywhere to celebrate the lives of the great and the good.

There are quite a lot of statues of women around. Apparently, having done some digging, it turns out that there is a female statue for every 2.5 male statues. So this isn't quite the scale of female invisibility you might imagine. However, take the 78 statues of Queen Victoria out of the equation in addition to the various other Royal statues and depictions of classical or mythological figures, and the picture isn't so good. When we consider solely the statues dedicated to historical people, we're looking at less that 3% of the total being women. 

While accepting the historical injustice, I asked Jo whether there are better ways to remember and reflect than erecting statues. Given the controversy both erecting and potentially removing memorials is creating at home and abroad, surely there are more intellectually honest and imaginative ways of recognising and celebrating human achievement? Putting up more and more statues of women seems an odd way to right this historic wrong, and would only re-open debates about who is/is not deserving - and which historic statues should/should not be removed.

The statues littered around our towns and countryside are memorial stones to a different era. They tell us more about the people who erected them than they do the people in whose likeness they were created - as Jo admits in her own article, she has no idea who Viscount Falkland was. We accept history for what it is, however uncomfortable it might make us feel now. Of course, previous generations esteemed wealthy people, usually men, who were involved in such morally questionable pastimes as slavery or found fame through their "exploits" in fields of mass slaughter; today, our values are somewhat different. But how will future generations judge our "heroes"? Couldn't we leave them something better than a stone likeness that even those who walk past it every day will have no idea who it represents? 

Shouldn't we do more to acknowledge and recognise so many people in other ways, rather than maintaining this (to my mind ridiculously dated) obsession with statues? Do we really have to do the same tired thing in a more gender-balanced way?

To her credit, Jo engaged with my questioning and responded with this: "[But] the visual wallpaper stays mainly male. Even if historic, this has an impact today." As for my suggestion that statue mania should be consigned to history and historical memorials judged in their appropriate contexts, she said: "I am more sceptical about the possibility of eroding visual impact by rational thought. My work on body image shows it's not that easy to disassociate."

Which is all perfectly reasonable. We can agree to disagree - the reality is the visual history of previous eras was male-dominated and there is no real escaping that, but I won't diminish the point she makes about impact.

The question, however, is whether erecting a statue in honour of Margaret Thatcher would help achieve any of these utterly reasonable objectives. We live in an age when we are all familiar with who Mrs Thatcher was, and most of us have some view on her political legacy. It's also an age in which, whether we like it or not, the presence of statues (even historical ones) suggests validation and approval. The nature of public sculpture is changing: we tend not to put up statues of divisive figures, but of sports stars and generally popular local personalities (think Ken Dodd in Liverpool). Today's society doesn't value what previous generations did. Arguments in the US about potentially removing statues of not only Confederate figures but also Christopher Columbus underline the degree to which modern society is increasingly questioning the ways in which we remember history and how - to use Jo's term - the "visual wallpaper" affirms the lives and actions of people many of us find unsavoury.

We cannot simply dismiss the implications for apparently validating Thatcher's politics on the basis that she was the first female Prime Minister. I admire John Major for being the first PM to have grown up on a council estate, but I'm not advocating erecting a statue to his honour outside a high-rise block in Brixton. In recognising the milestone we can ill afford to overlook the inevitable consequences of affirming destructive actions.

Statues would also serve as a focal point for protest and vandalism. I can only imagine the security costs Westminster Council saved themselves by refusing the planning application. Would this really be a good idea? I'm not really sure it's appropriate for a Scottish MP to be publicly questioning the decision of a London council either, but that's a separate issue.

The substance of Jo's argument is not without value - far from it. I appreciate where she's coming from and what her intentions are. It's not those I have a problem with. She's not an apologist for Thatcher.

However, Jo is not a political novice - she is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party still struggling from close association with the Conservatives. She will have known exactly how this would be spun and headlined - and what the likely reception would be. She's managed to upset a lot of Lib Dems and earn the derision of many others who find Thatcher's legacy too toxic.  The headline has certainly been an absolute treat to opponents such as John Nicolson (who WILL use this to great effect in East Dunbartonshire, I'm sure).

He won't be alone. Across the UK, in areas where Thatcher's destructive policies are still felt (and despised), expect Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to have this headline prominently on all their election literature. And why shouldn't they? After all, the Liberal Democrats were quick to seize upon Gordon Brown's meeting with Mrs Thatcher in 2007 to appeal to Labour voters - with some success.

It's not so much what Jo thinks that concerns me. We can agree to disagree on the relative non-issue of public sculpture, and agree on the general issues relating to gender and inclusion. I really couldn't care less about statues of repulsive people - there are already a lot of them around. What's more worrying is Jo's judgement in deciding to unburden herself of those thoughts to the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes nothing is a very sensible thing to say - and when it comes to discussing Margaret Thatcher, it usually is.

As a party we have to find ways of rebuilding trust. I have no simple answers as to how we do that, but it's quite obvious giving our opponents gifts like this won't make the task easier. 

UPDATE: I think it's important to add some context to the discussion. As Jo herself points out, this was a decision taken by Westminster Council. She says: "it was disappointing to see Westminster Council last month turn down an application for a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square...Apparently one of the reasons given for refusal was the state robes Thatcher would have been wearing. Even in death, it seems there are no limits to how society judges women by how they look and what they wear."

Having looked a bit deeper, I think this is in fact incorrect. Jo makes a judgement about the motivation behind the ruling and the societal values that judge people according to clothing.  However, it appears it was neither the council nor "society" but Thatcher's daughter Carol who objected to the statue. She didn't want to see her mother in state robes, but more informally dressed and with her trademark handbag. That's quite understandable - if my mother was going to be immortalised in a statue I'd want her to look as I remembered her. That's not being judgemental; it's wanting to capture someone's humanity.

This undermines Jo's argument - at least in relation to the council's reasoning for refusing planning permission for the statue itself; the wider points remain as valid as ever.(

Given that, I fail to see what is so unreasonable about the council's decision. Surely, if Mrs T's own family aren't happy with the statue, who are we to argue with them? Who are we to express "disappointment" with their wishes? For me that settles the question on the monument, although clearly Jo is right that much more needs to be done on the gender issues she raises.

I do note that the council has no objection in principle and that it was the design of the statue that proved problematic with the perhaps in a few months we'll have to go through all this again! AP, 5.3.18

Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille Regis - a legend, a trailblazer and pioneer.

It was a real privilege to play with Cyrille.
He was then, as always, a class act.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, has died at the age of 59.

As a child, Regis was a hero to me. I was not a West Brom supporter - but you didn't need to be to admire his flair, his athleticism and his creativity. At a time when black footballers were few in number and regularly subjected to racist abuse, Cyrille and his team-mates Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson (known as the "Three Degrees") not only produced some of the most attractive attacking football ever seen at the Hawthorns, but were to prove transformative in other ways too.

It may be difficult for many now to fully appreciate how hostile an environment Regis and other black players were entering every time they took to the field at that time. While they would inspire many, they would also become targets for the worst kinds of abuse. As Batson recounted: "We would get off coaches at away matches and the National Front would be there. In those days we didn't have security. We'd get to the players entrance and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille's shirt. We coped. It wasn't a new phenomenon." Playing at some league grounds was notoriously tough for black players, with ferocious crowds booing every touch of the ball and shouting racist slogans. The trio also received death threats.

But, whether consciously or otherwise, Regis and his friends resisted. And the more they did, the more they inspired more black people to participate in sport. Attitudes didn't change immediately, and one of the short-term effects of the Three Degrees was that they become the focus for a particularly vitriolic form of racism. But they endured, and in doing so helped create a culture in which such racism would no longer be tolerated. Whenever I see "Kick racism out of football" adverts, I can't help but think of Cyrille.

As I mentioned, Cyrille was a hero to me as a child. This was, inevitably, party connected with the great entertainer he was on the football pitch. There can be no doubt about the fact he was one of the greatest players ever to grace The Hawthorns or Highfield Road. He was undoubtedly a football genius, but he was so much more than that. Even as someone aged about 7 or 8, I subconsciously recognised that to be accepted as a black player back in the early 80s you had to be exceptionally gifted, and I had some idea of the unfair treatment people like him had to experience. It's hard not to admire someone you know is standing up to injustice, but in such a way as to let his sporting ability to all the talking.

I played with Cyrille in a charity/legends match in 2007. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to spend 90 minutes on a football pitch with a childhood idol, of course - but what says more about the man is what happened afterwards. After a conversation about our various charitable efforts, he agreed to help support one of my causes through his association with Christians in Sport. We also discussed how we could work together to use football to provide opportunities to underprivileged young people. Challenging racism also, somewhat inevitably, came into the conversations - and I went away feeling that Cyrille was the kind of person who would just want to help in any way he could. That was his nature.

He also did a lot of work for Water Aid and similar charities, and if it is possible to sum the man up in a sentence it would be this: "a humanitarian who changed the way we look at the world". There can be no greater tribute. That he happened to be an immensely gifted footballer allowed him to have the huge impact on challenging the shameful prejudice and abuse that the likes of the FA and the BBC preferred to overlook (the latter famously claimed it was impossible to make out what was being shouted from the terraces). He was a real pioneer - both on the pitch and off it, and committed his life to improving opportunities for others.

I can't count Cyrille among my friends and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, but I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play with him and to have been involved in some projects that made a positive contribution to empowering others. What I know is that, at a time when racism again is rearing its head and needing people to directly challenge it, we need to remember Cyrille's example. The world is a poorer place for his passing.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Farron might regret saying gay sex is not a sin. I never will.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron is making headlines again.

And what would the reason be? Yes, he just can't leave this issue alone.

Much as I try not to identify Tim with any kind of sex (he is a political colleague after all), the inescapable reality is that he has become firmly associated in the public mind with same-sex relations. And sinful ones at that. When you're a former party leader with some forthright views on such things as Brexit, tackling poverty and cancer care at his local hospital, it might be a good idea to make sure the positive messages aren't overshadowed by controversial and rather unnecessary interventions on religion.

The Liberal Democrats' 2017 General Election campaign was hardly a work of genius and it would be wrong to blame one individual for a failure to make significant gains - but there can be no denying that Tim's refusal to answer the "is gay sex a sin?" question damaged our chances. After evading the question on multiple occasions Tim eventually responded to a question from Nigel Evans MP in the Commons, who asked whether Tim believed being gay was sinful. Tim replied: "I do not".

Which seemed pretty unequivocal.

However, today Tim has given an interview to Premier Christian Radio in which he expressed "regret" that he had "bowed to pressure" to say that gay sex was not sinful. He said: "the bottom line is, of course, I did [feel pressured] and there are things - including that - that I said that I regret."

Having listened to the interview, it would appear that Tim privately believes same-sex relationships to be sinful but, as a Liberal, be can hold that view while simultaneously defending individuals' rights to make their own choices. I might - indeed, I do - disagree with that, but his personal views are not what concern me.

What is more worrying is that he is now expressing "regret" about statements he made on the floor of the House of Commons. Taking back an expressed opinion (and blaming others for it!) naturally raises questions of integrity and honesty, and also re-opens the issue, which is only likely to cause the party further embarrassment.

I don't know what his motivations for speaking to Premier Christian Radio are, but while I'd defend his right to do it I have to question the wisdom of his decision. Tim seems determined to project himself as a Christian martyr, unfairly hounded out of the leadership by intolerant pseudo-liberals - but what statements like this actually do is suggest that he is hypocritical and untrustworthy. What sort of leader admits to buckling under pressure - especially when such pressure is a fairly innocuous line of questioning that a more proficient individual would have dealt with far more convincingly?

This is the same Tim Farron who, when pressed on the gay sex question, often responded with the "I don't pontificate on religious matters" line. It now seems all Tim wants to do in pontificate on religious matters, which would be fine if he was the independent MP for his local Evangelical Church. As it is, his continued - and continuing - interventions on religion (almost exclusively about same-sex relationships or Christian persecution) only serve to damage his own reputation and standing and the cause of the party he clearly loves.

During the Premier interview Tim promised that, on the specific issue of Biblical teaching on same-sex relationships, he "will write a little bit about this in the coming weeks". Do us a favour, Tim. Don't. Really, just don't. No good will come of it, and the rest of us will almost certainly regret it. Use your time to talk about something else instead - women's rights, the EU, electoral reform, international relations, the NHS, public transport...even Blackburn Rovers!

Vince Cable also now has to decide whether any discipline is appropriate given Tim appears to be admitting to lying in Parliament, and misleading the Commons (even if he does blame others for "pressuring" him into it). His position on the Lib Dems' front bench team is becoming increasingly untenable.

I have no reason to doubt that Tim genuinely feels regret, just as I also have no reason for doubting that he always believed relations between same-sex couples to be sinful. However, as ever with Tim's public statements on faith, I wonder why he had to say this when he must have realised the damage that will arise from it. I defend his right to believe what he likes, even to say what he likes. But I will always ask why he seems so determined to pursue a course of action that brings the party into disrepute, makes himself appear untrustworthy, leads to people becoming even less open to listening to him and undermining his positive messages on more pertinent political issues.

Tim talked about regret in his interview. He also said this, not referring exclusively to the media: "the idea that the people asking these questions were interested in theology is naïve in the extreme." Well, as someone who has been asking these questions of Tim for almost 13 years (I first asked him the gay sex question in March 2005 and he was no more convincing then) that dismissal actually hurts a little. Some of us are not only interested in theology, we are studying it. Tim should know that many of those who take a completely different view to his are Christians, and for him to deny this is unacceptable. I do not deny his existence or his faith; he should not deny mine or that of other progressive Christians.

I am sorry that Tim regrets saying that gay sex is not a sin. Speaking of regrets, as a proudly liberal Christian I have a few confessions to make too - especially as tonight, as a result of Tim's interview, a fellow Christian asked me if I ever had regrets over my position on same-sex relationships.

No, I do not regret having stated on countless occasions that same-sex relationships are not sinful. I do not regret my own relationships. I do not regret who I am. I do not regret having campaigned for LGBT+ rights for the best part of two decades. I do not regret working within the church to create faith communities that are inclusive and open to LGBT+ people. I do not regret championing LGBT+ inclusion - and same-sex marriage - at political hustings way before it was ever fashionable. I do not regret being part of a church that affirms the lives of same-sex couples and marries them. I regret not a single public statement I have ever made that has challenged the notion that there is something inherently sinful in homosexuality or bisexuality. I do not regret having used this blog to question the wisdom of Tim Farron's many statements on religion or his connections with CARE.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

What I do regret is having a loose cannon of a former leader in the parliamentary party who doesn't seem to understand that it isn't the wisest thing to unburden oneself to the listeners of Premier Christian Radio. Sometimes, Tim, nothing is a very sensible thing to say.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

An inept reshuffle that underlines Prime Ministerial weakness

Justine Greening (Photo: Standard)
In advance of the Prime Minister’s cabinet reshuffle, I thought that the events of yesterday would tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister, her direction, how well she is able to reinvent and rebrand her party and how effectively she can revitalise her cabinet.

My expectations were not particularly high, but even I was surprised by the ineptitude of the attempted reshuffle. It did indeed tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister and her government, some of it quite surprising.

From the official party’s twitter account wrongly congratulating Chris Grayling on becoming Tory Party chair to Theresa May’s refusal to move any of the key personnel, this attempt at a reshuffle was an exercise in ineptitude.  What was supposed to be a show of strength and an opportunity to refresh the cabinet has instead starkly underlined the Prime Minister’s many weaknesses.

Twitter accidents happen, of course, but the Grayling non-appointment won’t have helped convince anyone that the Conservative Party is an efficient communications outfit.  With the outside world – well, the British media at least – watching developments eagerly and expecting some kind of radical shake-up, what actually happened was a series of unambitious reappointments of less than inspiring ministers. As a reshuffle this was not only disappointing, but fundamentally futile: what is the point of a reshuffle when the key protagonists all stay in place, especially when they include David Davis, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt?

This was not a reshuffle worthy of the name. Even the oft quoted “deckchairs, Titanic” metaphor fails here, as the proverbial captain actually moved the chairs around a bit. A generous commentator might see that as a sign of confidence in the team, but it is more likely that May has played safe so avoid political fall-out. Unfortunately, this has served to further undermine her leadership. It has now become painfully transparent – if ever it was really in doubt – that those who hold power in the Conservative Party (and cabinet) are leading Brexiteers that May feels powerless to take on.

If a powerless Prime Minister isn’t worrying enough, the appointment of Esther Mcvey as Work and Pensions secretary should chill us all. This is someone who, as Employment minister, suggested benefit sanctions “teach”JSA claimants to take job seeking seriously  and as late as February 2015 defended such sanctions as “effective” in spite of growing evidence to the contrary.   There are surely more suitable people in the ranks of Conservative parliamentarians for the DWP portfolio, but clearly McVey has friends in high places.

Equally concerning is the fact that not only is Jeremy Hunt continuing at Health, but his brief has been expanded to include Health and Social Care. I have for some time championed greater integration of health and social care, but a merged department is not the way to approach this, and Hunt is certainly not the ideal person to be overseeing it. Anyone who, during the recent pressures within the NHS widely claimed to represent a “crisis” refuses to take any responsibility whatsoever, is hardly the kind of person who should be rewarded in this way. What has he done to merit this?

May’s ultra-cautious approach and reluctance to move people makes her removal of Justine Greening from Education all the more inexplicable.  I can’t comment on how effective a minister she was, but the statements from the teaching unions in the last few hours must count for something. Greening was certainly competent and understood her brief; in trying circumstances, she was seeking to positively engage with teachers and, admirably, kept her focus on young people. As Stephen Bush writes in the New Statesman, May’s ideal Education Secretary would be someone who could “drive through big reforms...during the first real-terms decrease in school spending in the modern era, while not becoming a hate figure with parents, teachers, academics or teaching’s hard to see how Theresa May will find someone better than Justine Greening.”

I quipped in my New Year predictions that Philip Hammond may well be sacked for being too competent. I was half right – I focused on the wrong person. Competence is clearly not an attribute that matters when it comes to cabinet appointments. Inept and disloyal people continue, while a strong performer like Greening is sidelined. The message is clear: ministers who endanger British citizens abroad or mislead select committees are safe because it would be political suicide to sack such “personalities”, however deficient. The likes of Johnson, Fox, Davis and, to a point Hunt, have become untouchable in the post-referendum political climate. The only person to be effectively sacked was a woman who was arguably one of the better performers in cabinet.

Greening was offered the opportunity to move to the DWP, and refused. The Prime Minister was resolved not to back down and the stand-off ended with Greening’s resignation. Hunt, on the other hand, was offered the role of Business Secretary and similarly refused, but was able to convince the Prime Minister to not only keep him at Health but effectively promote him with additional responsibilities. What does that say about cabinet dynamics? What does Hunt have that Greening doesn’t? Why was the Prime Minister unable to impose her will on an under-fire minister like Hunt, capitulating entirely to his demands, while standing firm against Greening?

As an aside, how can we possible trust the Prime Minister to successfully negotiate with the EU to get the deal she wants when she allows herself to be bullied out of a pre-determined course of action by Jeremy Hunt?

Ultimately, Theresa May can’t even manage to carry out a reshuffle properly. It is clear she is not in charge and, in spite of talk to the contrary, the cabinet is far from refreshed. It remains stale; worse, it is full of inept but untouchable ministers who owe their position at the cabinet table to their Brexit stance. In another era, Johnson would have been sacked and Davis would have resigned months ago.

Tim Farron got it absolutely right when he tweeted: "That wasn't a reshuffle, it was a half-hearted stir, with all the useless lump bits unmoved in the middle." That's as apt a description as offered by anyone.

What does this mean for May? I think she has made a huge mistake in her appointments and has undermined her own fading authority. If I can draw a parallel to a previous Prime Minister who demoted a competent colleague in a reshuffle back in 1989, Greening now has the potential to be as difficult for May as Geoffrey Howe was to Thatcher. Neither Howe nor Greening were ever likely rebels but May has now created a potential troublemaker, with many influential allies and a strongly pro-remain constituency, and allowed her onto the backbenches.  Greening has the potential to be equally as dangerous as Johnson or Davis, perhaps more so.

All that bold talk of "strong and stable leadership" last year has now been shown up for the vacuous nonsense it was. The Prime Minister is far from strong; indeed, she appears to be even weaker than most commentators imagined. 

The reshuffle has failed in its key objectives: to detoxify the party in the public mind, to provide a freshness at the cabinet table and to demonstrate the Prime Minister’s authority. As reshuffles go, it was undeniably amateurish – but the real question is whether May’s treatment of Justine Greening will come back to haunt her.