Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Where were Jo, Vince and Tim last night?

Leader Vince Cable was absent from last night's votes.

This is a question social media is asking, after three Lib Dem MPs were absent on the Customs Bill votes. The government narrowly escaped defeat by three votes on amendments relating to EU tariffs and withdrawal from the EU VAT regime. 

The missing three Lib Dem MPs were deputy leader Jo Swinson, leader Vince Cable and former leader Tim Farron. Many who are pro-EU have expressed disappointment that some Lib Dems were not present for the vote - after all, if we are not the party of the EU then who is? I have seen some Lib Dems suggesting their membership hangs in the balance, as they feel let down - especially by the leader.

So, where were Jo, Vince and Tim?

The answer to the first should be obvious: Jo is on parental leave following the birth of her baby. That's a pretty good reason not to have been present for the vote. I am also sure that if there was a system that allowed for proxy voting in such circumstances then she would have voted with the other nine Lib Dem MPs. The criticisms directed towards Jo on social media are grossly unfair, to put it very mildly. I wouldn't have expected her to be present; neither should anyone else realistically have expected it.

As for Vince, we don't know where he was. Until we do I think it's fair to ask the question, but hold back on outright criticism. I am sure all will soon become apparent - once we know his reasons for being absent for last night's key votes, we might be in a better position to determine whether or not he "let us down". I accept it looks bad for a leader absenting himself - very bad - but let's not jump to conclusions. There are multiple possible explanations: I have not yet been able to ascertain whether pairing arrangements were in place for last night's vote, for example.

Which brings us to Tim. Unfortunately we have a better idea of Tim's whereabouts last night. While I'm awaiting confirmation he did actually attend the event, Tim was due to speak at a Christian event entitled "Illiberal Truths", at which he was scheduled to speak on "faith and shared values" and "the death of liberalism".

Further detailed information on the event on Insight's website has mysteriously disappeared overnight, but having read it yesterday I was under the impression that Tim would be discussing "what happens when my truth is not yours". 

I am not surprised by Tim's attendance at this - not in the slightest. I note some fellow Lib Dems feel "angry" and "shocked" at Tim's sense of priorities. I am neither - I might be irritated by Tim but I have long since resigned myself to the kind of person Tim is. He no longer makes me angry, which is perhaps a regrettable reality. However, I was disappointed and surprised that he accepted this engagement during parliamentary time in the final week of a sitting anyone knew would witness crucial Brexit-related votes, rather than - for example - in the summer recess. 

Should Tim have been representing his constituents in an important vote rather than speaking at a Christian event in Dorset? I know it can be difficult to excuse oneself from pre-agreed engagements, but on something so important it does seem odd that he didn't - not least because he will be aware that his reasons for not being present will raise the usual questions about his priorities. His actions, however unintentionally, have once again damaged the party's image and have given the likes of the London Economic the opportunity to run with the headline "May bailed out by 'party of the Remainers'". Unfortunately, mud sticks.

It should be added that while I'm annoyed at Tim and Vince not being around last night, and while I'm irked that our credentials as the pro-EU party of UK politics have been undermined, the official opposition had an opportunity to defeat the government last night and failed. The usual suspects (Hoey, Field, and Stringer) voted to support the government, but more tellingly 14 other Labour MPs abstained. Arithmetically at least, that proved far more crucial than three of our own being absent.

Update (17.7.18): A Lib Dem spokesperson has told The Guardian that "Vince had an important meeting off the parliamentary estate that had been approved by the whips and nobody thought these amendments would ever be so close." That makes some sense, but the inescapable reality is that they were close and when leaders and former leaders absent themselves on votes like these it inevitably affects our credibility as a pro-EU party. When one of those MPs is missing to trot out his now well-known views on supposed illiberal attitudes to faith at a Christian event, the best thing that can be said as that it doesn't look good.

Chief whip Alistair Carmichael has also issued this statement, accepting responsibility for the situation: "
Brexit is the most important issue in a generation. And as Liberal Democrats we have taken on the responsibility of stopping it. We’re the only Party united in this aim.

"Last night I messed up. The government squeaked home by just 3 votes in a key amendment. It should have been 1.

"I was not expecting a close vote - up until 8pm, Labour were planning to abstain which would have meant the vote would be lost by hundreds. In fact several Labour MPs voted with the govenment- which is why they won. By the time it became apparent that the vote was going to be close - it was too late to get two of our MPs back in time to vote.

"I’m taking responsibility and redoubling my efforts to stop Brexit."

It seems therefore that the whip's office messed up. We can ill afford further such complacency or miscalculations, and hopefully lessons will have been learned.

Monday, 16 July 2018

A few thoughts on the World Cup

So, that's the World Cup over and France are champions.

In a surprisingly good final, my pre-tournament prediction to win actually did - what was even more impressive is that this year's winners were unquestionably the best team over the last few weeks. That doesn't always happen.

I have no intention of undertaking an analysis of the various games or the tournament as a whole, but I would like to make a few observations (inevitably, some of these are from a political perspective).

1. England are a good team. Not a great team by any means, but they exit a tournament for the first time in 22 years with genuine reasons to be optimistic. They are managed by an obviously nice guy who understands how to manage both expectations and the media. Sure, England got lucky with the draw, but ultimately they can only play what's in front of them and while they were unconvincing in spells against Tunisia, Colombia and Croatia they looked to play football in the right way and were for the most part entertaining. Jordan Pickford in particular had an impressive tournament and he answered his doubters effectively, and not only in that penalty shoot-out against Colombia. Harry Maguire is another who confounded expectations and showed he has a bright future at international level.

2. Portugal are not a good team. They have a largely undeserved reputation as being a cohesive, attack-minded unit who play aggressive but attractive football, but they won Euro 2016 playing turgid football. They were lucky against Spain that David de Gea was in a mood for gifting silly goals and that Cristiano Ronaldo is the set-piece king, but otherwise they didn't look like the reigning European champions. They're not a team in any case - Portugal is Ronaldo and a supporting cast.

3. VAR adds to the drama, but isn't (yet) fit for purpose. There is no doubt that the VAR system added some interest to this World Cup. There can similarly be little doubt that it didn't actually do what it was supposed to. The delays I expected - the blatantly wrong calls I did not. Clearly VAR is a work in progress and I'm yet to be convinced it is an answer to the often cited problems of consistency and accuracy in refereeing decisions.

4. England fans needed someone to believe in. And that someone turned out to be Gareth Southgate. Who'd have thought it? From having almost zero expectations before the competition kicked off, England fans were singing "it's coming home" as soon as the stunningly poor Panamanians were thrashed 6-1. Southgate has become the most unlikely of role models. I suspect it won't last but it's curious that a man in a waistcoat who doesn't take himself too seriously - and has dared to be both realistic and deeply human in his approach - has for a time become England's national icon.

5. England might have performed well, but the BBC commentary team didn't. I liked watching England, I often hated listening to the commentators (and not just the BBC either, although they were the worst). It's not so much the bias that I object to but the dreadful delivery, banal comments, mispronunciation of names and (one at least one occasion) a lack of respect for England's opponents. It's a shame, because the BBC should have the personnel and the resources to do it so much better.

6. The "big names" failed, and deserved to. For all the Messi v Ronaldo hype, I hoped the World Cup would be won by the best team and not the team with the biggest "personality" (i.e. focus of obsessive media exposure). Messi missed a penalty against Iceland and never seemed to recover; his team, however, were far more disappointing and fully merited being routed by Croatia. Ronaldo looked like a talented player in a mediocre team, and there was always a sense that he felt himself to be above the team game. As for Neymar - why such a talented player needs to spend most of his time rolling around on the floor I have no idea.

When Argentina and Portugal exited at the same stage, an ITV reporter announced that "the two best players are leaving the World Cup". Best players? Isn't that rather subjective to be given as a statement of fact? And doesn't it betray the media approach to international football - an obsession with "big names" and individuals rather than collective effort? Do they even understand football?

7. Roberto Martinez is a genius! Put an ex-Motherwell player in charge of Belgium and great things happen! And he beat England twice in the space of 17 days. Seriously, while he wasn't able (in spite of making various changes) to get the better of France in the semi-final, he deserves praise for the way he changed things against Japan and the approach used in the Brazil game. To think that he was considered too tactically naïve to succeed at this level...

8. As a PR exercise for Putin's Russia, it failed. The Russian government hoped that the World Cup would help change the image and perception of their country internationally. However, Mo Salah's awkward photos with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Pussy Riot pitch invasion in the final ensured that Russia's questionable human rights record came under even more scrutiny.

9. Maradona is a completely inappropriate "goodwill ambassador". There are no words to describe the embarrassment many of us feel at seeing this once great player reduced to abusing fans and making intemperate outbursts. That he's not only tolerated but given an official role by FIFA says a great deal about that organisation's difficulties in moving forwards. On which note...

10. FIFA continues to have all the wrong priorities. FIFA was happy to hand out fines for various things, and did so in a way that underlines its priorities. "Wearing the wrong socks, England? Right, that's a £60,000 fine. And you, Croatia! Yes, we saw you consuming non-sponsor drinks...we have these cameras, see? That's £60,000 from you as well. Now, Russia...you see that neo-Nazi banner? That's not very nice is it really? We're going to have to fine you £8.500,...now, please don't do it again. We know you meant no harm but some people don't really like that kind of thing. Homophobic chanting from Mexico fans? Not good is it, but it's not as if it's like...you know, wearing the wrong socks or drinking the wrong drinks. Here, a slap on the wrist for you..."

11. As England fans surely realise now, it's not all about the winning. For Panama it was scoring their first goal at the World Cup. For Senegal fans, it was having a party and cleaning up the mess afterwards. For Saudi Arabia, it was an opportunity for Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet with Vladimir Putin.

12. The new fair play rules don't work. When teams are tied on points and goals, the number of yellow/red cards is now taken into consideration. In group H, with Senegal and Japan both level on points and goals and both losing in their 1-0 in their respective games, Japan deliberately played out a tedious final 20 minutes with Poland (who seemed equally uninterested in scoring again). Japan's anti-football tactics were widely booed, but the fact they'd received two fewer yellow cards than Senegal sent them through. My issue isn't that Japan played to the rules - I wouldn't expect them to have done anything else - but that the rules themselves encourage the very antithesis of pair play.

13. What a World Cup Final! It wasn't quite in the same league as the 1970 final, but it was refreshing to have a truly entertaining and at times surprisingly open match - especially after some recent finals (I'm thinking of the last two particularly). It was to my mind the best final since 1986, and both teams deserve huge credit for their approach to the game (even if the refereeing was somewhat suspect).

14. And finally, the surprise highlight of the world cup...Tim Farron's tweets! A mixture of patriotic support, personal hopes and disappointments, humorous interactions with fans, football history, geeky explanations of obscure World Cup facts...Tim's commentary had everything. Well done, Tim - you made the World Cup that bit more entertaining!