Thursday, 21 March 2019

No, Mrs May - you do not speak for me

Theresa May (Photo: BBC)
On the face of it, there was little new or interesting in Theresa May’s “statement” last night.

Hours of media speculation as to the significance of the Prime Minister’s address culminated in a two minute speech which basically regurgitated the same soundbites – “delivering on the will of the people”, “acting in the national interest”, etc – while saying absolutely nothing of substance.

However, the attitudes that her short speech pointed to were of much greater interest. This was not the professional  “less is more” kind of speech political leaders tend to give in difficult situations. No, this was something else altogether – an egotistical, desperate, arrogant and divisive attack on Parliament itself.

Adopting a populist anti-politics approach the Prime Minister announced she was “on the side of the public” and berated Parliament for its refusal to be bullied into submission. She said: “Of this I am absolutely sure. You, the public, have had enough. You are tired of the infighting, tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children's schools, our National Health Service, knife crime. You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side."

That might have made more sense if the Prime Minister had, at any point in the last 32 months been keen to talk about schools, the NHS or knife crime – or if she had run a general election campaign on such policies rather than on her own supposed personal qualities and her suitability to deliver Brexit.

It might also have been more convincing if the cause of the “infighting” and “political games” had not been her own dismal leadership, intransigence and insistence on arbitrary red lines. Mrs May offered no insight into her own responsibility for the constitutional mess, no acceptance of the way in which her actions have served to alienate rather than unite. Mistaking obstinacy for strength, the Prime Minister’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes has served her badly for some time; however, her decision to blame her own MPs, and Parliament itself, for a situation of largely her own making is truly breathtaking.

Was this the most inept speech by a serving Prime Minister?

Taking on the side of the public versus parliament is, in practical terms, highly risky at a time when she needs parliament most. What can realistically be gained by appealing to the public when she has ruled out a public vote, and when she urgently needs parliamentary support? Theresa May now appears an authoritarian who has lost all authority – and whose instinctive reaction is to go on the attack, attempting to bully rather than persuade. More worrying still, in referring to Parliament as “they” and proclaiming herself the Defender of the People, she has moved into highly dangerous territory.

She lacks the political courage to make personal criticisms, instead projecting her feelings, frustrations and prejudices onto the public. This is ill-judged and dishonest. It’s also difficult to see who she’s actually seeking to appeal to here, as few other than one or two malcontents are likely to feel she speaks for them.

Identifying with “the people” against supposed elites, blaming subordinates for one’s own failures and setting oneself up against Parliament are the kind of tactics that are associated with authoritarian dictatorships – not the “mother of democracies”.

Aside from what this tells us about Theresa May’s mindset, it’s factually dishonest to claim the public simply want politicians to “get on with it” when it is clearer than ever what the implications are. The situation calls for reason and continuing conversation, not kamikaze tactics and incendiary speeches.

No, Mrs May – leadership does not involve attacking civil servants and parliamentarians, but accepting responsibility and facilitating ways forward.

No, Mrs May – invoking the spirit of that great supporter of Parliamentary sovereignty, King Charles I, is not an acceptable way for a 21st century political leader to behave.

No, Mrs May – MPs of all parties, and of all views on Brexit, scrutinising your proposals and expressing dissent is not “politicians arguing among themselves”.  They are doing the country a service by carefully exploring the available options and rejecting what is either unworkable or damaging. It is your own failure to engage with politicians from across the political spectrum and propose an acceptable arrangement that has led to this impasse.

No, Mrs May – you are not entitled to prevent people questioning you. In fact, you have a responsibility to uphold our democracy, respect Parliament, protect standards and bequeath a flourishing, fit-for-purpose legislature to future generations. You are a guardian, not a dictator.

No, Mrs May – the Speaker standing up for Parliamentary sovereignty and insisting on applying the kind of rule that every local council follows is not an “arcane procedural row”. (Such criticism is also a bit rich coming from someone who attempted to circumvent parliament with “Henry VIII powers”.)

No, Mrs May – you do not speak for “the People”, only yourself. Do not put your poisonous words into our mouths or patronise us by telling us what we have had enough of.

No, Mrs May – this is not a problem of Parliament’s creation but your own. History will remember it as such, and none of your cowardly words will enable you to evade responsibility.

No, Mrs May – you will not succeed in having Parliament approve your Withdrawal Agreement, for the simple reason that you have treated Parliament with utter contempt – and continue to.

Whatever the Prime Minister manages to gain from the EU in Brussels today, there can be little doubt that her tenure is ebbing towards its undignified conclusion. It is difficult to see how - having alienated and insulted her own MPs, Parliament itself and the civil service - the Prime Minister can command any kind of authority, let alone respect.

Theresa May once seemed to revel in her reputation as “a bloody difficult woman”. Being difficult can have its advantages if used to apply pressure in fraught situations, to command respect or to advance policy positions when lacking a parliamentary majority. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, she has all the “difficulty” with none of the attributes necessary to win people to her side.

The game’s over for Theresa May. Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go for Brexit.

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.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Why I have no sympathy for Theresa May

I have a six year old daughter, Xanthe, who is developing something of an interest in politics.

She likes to see women in politics, which is both understandable and positive. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she admires many women she sees working in the political arena - irrespective of which party they belong to. There is one thing we disagree on, however: she has remarkable sympathy for the Prime Minister.

Her logic is that Mrs May works hard, has a cabinet of out-of-control self-serving idiots, has inherited an unenviable situation and feels bound to honour the pledge of the former Prime Minister in "respecting" the result of the referendum. Xanthe told me she felt "very sorry" for the Prime Minister last night. I told her that I'm sure Mrs May does indeed work very hard, but that she's working hard doing all the wrong things.

Last night's vote was historic for several reasons, not least the unprecedented scale of the defeat. It was nothing if not spectacular and exceeded the most pessimistic of predictions. In a little over 18 months the Prime Minister's supreme confidence in her "strong and stable" leadership (confidence so great she called a General Election believing the likely result would be a 100+ Conservative majority) has been replaced by the humiliation of suffering the worst Commons defeat by any Prime Minister in history. To unite the Commons against her so completely is quite an achievement - something even Margaret Thatcher failed to manage.

And the scale of defeat is fully merited.

It is true that in the early days of her "leadership" I did feel some sympathy for someone who looked out of their depth trying to manage a situation of others' making. But that rapidly evaporated, and I have no sympathy for her now. She has reaped what she has sown.

Theresa May's problem is that while the Brexit decision was not hers, the red lines were. There was no need to categorically rule out ongoing membership of the customs union and the single market. There was no requirement for her to invoke Article 50 so immediately, or to set an arbitrary date for leaving. Such red lines have made her "deal" much harder to sell to both Parliament and the British public.

But it's not just those decisions that have damaged her project - her attitude throughout has been contemptible. In sneering at pro-Remain activists, dismissing them as an out-of-touch "metropolitan liberal elite" and labelling them as "citizens of nowhere", Mrs May showed herself to have little interest in forging consensus. She had no desire to reach out to the 48%. Wrapping herself in the union flag and resorting to the simplistic nationalist rhetoric of the Little Englanders was designed to speak to a particular section of society. As Neil Warnock might have said, "to hell with the rest of the world". Any goodwill the Prime Minister may have had from the international community or moderate Remainers rapidly disappeared.

Mrs May at no point has sought to work with others to achieve her objectives. Had she proposed a softer Brexit, and worked across party lines to sell a deal that might reasonably be expected to satisfy (in not please) most, we would be in a very different position not.  But it was always "my way or the highway", to the point of calling a General Election in a vain attempt to give her such a thumping majority that no need for collaboration would be necessary. Suggesting the EU was the enemy, and insisting repeatedly that "no deal is better than a bad deal", further alienated those who could have reasonably supported a moderate Brexit deal. The hostility towards EU leaders was as baffling as it was irresponsible.

And then there were the bizarre appointments of the most incompetent parliamentarians to the cabinet, including the great offices of state. At the time, some within the media praised the Prime Minister's decision to give positions of responsibility to arch-Brexiteers  Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox - ensuring that these people would have to deliver on their promises rather than take pot-shots at the government from outside. Such logic assumed that the Prime Minister would be able to control Mr Johnson and his allies. It also assumed that they would be at least sufficiently competent to carry out their remits.

Appointing people ill-suited to the task in order to maintain Remain-Leave balance in cabinet not only demonstrated the new divide in British politics, but proved manifestly disastrous. Johnson's behaviour often undermined the government - even more so when it became evident that the Prime Minister was so paralyzed with fear at the consequences of dismissing him he became, in effect, unsackable.

And there was also the problem that from the outset the government's negotiating position was not only led by incompetents who had imposed unnecessary and damaging red lines, but was also based on poor planning. The thinking behind the plan (and I use the word "plan" in its loosest sense) was based on denying the economic reality of Britain's place in the world - both geographically and politically. It was a plan that failed to look facts in the face. It was a plan that put romanticised and jingoistic notions of British identity first, and practical considerations second. It was a plan that grossly overestimated the UK's leverage in negotiations. And it was a plan that gave little consideration to the complex situation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic - something that had never loomed particularly large in Leavers' thinking.

The Chequers Agreement at least went some way to reversing these mistakes, but it was too little too late and was - predictably - handled in such a cack-handed way that served only to alienate more people while failing to convince those Mrs May had previously estranged.

But critically, the Prime Minister has talked about "delivering the will of the people" without ever seriously engaging with "the people". It was as if the binary referendum question settled the matter for all time and that she alone knew exactly which deal would conform this expressed "will". So confident was she in her belief that she represented "the people" and that her aims matched theirs that she naively believed she would cruise to victory in the 2017 General Election she didn't need to call. In her defence, the opinion polls suggested as much. But she failed to learn from that experience, and she has never had any real rapport with the British public in the way that some previous Prime Ministers had.

Finally, there are her double-dealing tactics, keeping ministers in the dark, playing for time, cancelling votes - none of which would ever win her the support of the very people she needed to make her deal a reality.

So no, I have no sympathy for the Prime Minister. It is true to say that she inherited an unenviable situation, but she has handled that situation badly and fully merits last night's crushing defeat. The failure to deliver the deal is her failure, and it is a failure of diplomacy, statesmanship and leadership. The outcome of last night's vote was not an inevitability, but the product of catastrophic ineptitude.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Prime Minister heavily defeated...but what does it mean?

The Prime Minister's proposed Brexit deal suffered a
bruising defeat this evening. (Photo: BBC)
Well, that wasn't remotely close.

Before Christmas I actually thought the Prime Minister might actually get her deal through Parliament. And while in recent days it was obvious Theresa May would fail, I didn't see such a crushing defeat on the horizon.

The result: Ayes 202, Noes 432. 

That is massive. Absolutely stunning - the worst defeat for sitting UK Prime Minister. And the scale of this defeat will inevitably lead to questions being asked about both the Prime Minister and the substantive issue in question - Britain's exiting the European Union.

There is no doubt the Prime Minister, her government and the Brexit strategy are all seriously damaged. Eventually Mrs May's approach of playing for time would come unstuck, and now it seems she has nowhere else to turn. From what we've seen tonight she appears resolved to continue regardless, refusing to look facts in the face. That is a huge mistake, but in her mind it was always "my deal or no deal". Parliament has now rejected them both.

Theresa May does have one advantage, however. And that is that the opposition is led by Jeremy Corbyn. He has, over the last two years, consistently failed to take key opportunities. There are reasons why Labour, even now, trails the Tories in opinion polls. And while the government has presented labour and its leader with a historical, glorious, and unprecedented opportunity it remains to be seen whether Jeremy Corbyn understands how to seize that opportunity.

So far he's played the predictable game in calling a vote of no confidence in the government. But it's a vote he's very unlikely to win. What happens if/when he loses? What is Labour's Plan B?  

Labour sees a General Election as the way out of the constitutional mess. That might make some sense if it was clear that Labour would win that election, or if it had a distinctly different view on Brexit. As it stands, polling suggests we might be looking at yet another hung parliament, with Labour improving their parliamentary numbers but still having fewer seats than the Tories. Electoral Calculus's recent poll has the Conservatives on 291 seats and Labour on 280. Crucially, the SNP would hold the balance of power. 

Just think about that situation for a moment. How would such a General Election result resolve the Brexit impasse? It may actually worsen the situation, and we would have a full scale constitutional crisis to deal with.

Jeremy Corbyn has stated tonight that "the result is the greatest defeat for the government since the 1920s....The House has delivered its verdict and that verdict is absolutely decisive..."no deal" must be taken off the table, a permanent customs union must be secured and people's rights and protections must be guaranteed."  And I can't argue with that, other than to point out tonight's defeat was worse than those he refers to in the 1920s. The problem is that he only sees one way out - and that is bringing down a government and forcing a General Election. On Brexit he proposes nothing more than a slightly improved version of Theresa May's deal - he doesn't say how he will address the complex and controversial issues such as the Northern Ireland "backstop". Neither does he explain why he believes the EU would be open to renegotiation, or why Parliament would necessarily vote through a deal not so dissimilar to that it has rejected this evening..

Compare this with what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said tonight: "The SNP supports the tabled vote of no confidence in the Government – but regardless of who leads the government, the reality is that a second EU referendum, with the option of remain on the ballot paper, is now the only credible option to avoid untold damage to the economy and the prospects of future generations. It is also the only option, within the UK, that would allow Scotland's democratic wish to remain within the EU to be respected." Just think of the possibilities if Jeremy Corbyn could bring himself to say something similar - something that actually offers a realistic way out. If only he had the courage to support the only realistic means of resolving the central issue once and for all. As things stand, Ms Sturgeon is right as far as Brexit is concerned: it matters little whether the party of UK government is red or blue. I have confidence in neither.

I am not a huge fan of referenda, and I am a reluctant convert to the People's Vote idea. What is now apparent is that, as the First Minister and others (such as Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas) have pointed out, with Parliament unable to move forward the British public should have a say on the final outcome. They can tell us if this deal was what they voted for in 2016. Theresa May says we should listen to the British people, "who want this issue settled". For once I agree: how exactly do you intend to settle this, Prime Minister? With only ten weeks to go, it's far from obvious that there is any single way forward that Parliament can support. 

The detail of how a People's Vote would work is for another discussion. Right now, the question is what this defeat means for the government. While the defeat was both crushing and humiliating, a decisive blow has not (yet) been struck. The Prime Minister may be wounded, but she's struggling on. Some grandstanding from the Labour leader won't worry her unduly. There is no easy way out of this constitutional mess and a General Election is definitely not the answer.

If tomorrow's vote fails as expected, the Prime Minister may well revert to her usual strategy of playing for time and running down the clock in the hope that the risk of leaving without a deal on 29th March frightens the rebels into line. With so many rebels, however, that's a very dangerous approach to take.

It's not clear whether either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn have a Plan B. Given that this saga has rumbled on for the best part of 30 months, that defies belief. Rather than provide certainty, tonight's drama has raised more questions than answers. Indeed, it's very difficult to know exactly what the longer term meaning of the "meaningful" vote might be.

This isn't over yet. Not by a long distance.

I'll leave the final word to James O'Brien. I think he captures perfectly the reality of the situation: 

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #3

Cheers to David Lammy MP for that speech: “Brexit is a con. A trick. A swindle. A fraud. A deception that will hurt most those people it promised to help. A dangerous fantasy which will make every problem it claims to solve worse.”

Cheers to the four single mums who won a High Court challenge on Universal Credit. While the decision is an important one in many respects, not least in underlining the reality that Universal Credit isn’t fir-for-purpose, the four women concerned deserve applause for standing against the unfairness inherent within the system.

Jeers for Andrew Bridgen MP - not only for his shameful remark made during Layla Moran’s tribute to Paddy Ashdown but also for the pitiful apology that followed it.

Jeers to former footballer and Talksport radio host Alan Brazil, who criticised Andy Murray’s retirement announcement for being too tearful. He should “move on, roll [his] sleeves up and stop bubbling” said the former Scotland striker. Cheers to co-presenter Ally McCoist and various others who called out this antiquated attitude and demonstrated the need to strip away stigma.

Jeers to Chris Grayling and Stephen Barclay, who both suggested that the best way to deal with the far right is to give them what they want. When government ministers argue against democratic votes on the basis that it might upset some racist protesters, how strong is that democracy?

Tears for Steffan Lewis, the Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales East, who has died of bowel cancer at the age of only 34. Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, said of him: "When he addressed the chamber you listened, because you knew he always had something thoughtful to say." So sad to lose such a talented man so young.

Tears for Andy Murray, who has announced he will be retiring from tennis this year due to a hip injury. Let’s hope he gets the chance to say goodbye properly - at Wimbledon.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Cheers and Jeers #2

Here are my cheers and jeers for this week:

this week for the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), which has argued that large-scale testing is detrimental to pupils' wellbeing.   The wisdom of starting testing at the age of 5 has, rightly, been contentious. While much of the debate around National Standardised Assessments has often been political, the EIS’s intervention shows the need for not simply a “review” but a new evidence-based approach to primary education.

Cheers to Billy Connelly, who talked openly about life at the age of 75 and his refusal to fear death. His explanation of “slipping away” as being an “adventure” and another aspect of a life fully lived was not just poignant – it’s a challenge to an ageist society.

Cheers for Kyrsten Sinema who, on being sworn in as the first bisexual member of the Senate (and Arizona’s first female senator), refused to use a Bible to make the oath. “I imagine Vice President Mike Pence, who administered the oath, died a little on the inside” suggested author and activist Hemant Mehta.

Cheers to Mathew Hulbert (@HulbertMathew) for agreeing to make the occasional contribution to this blog. I look forward to what he has to say. Of course, other liberal voices are also welcome...

Cheers for the Bishop of Chester, who this week had a letter published in Church Times in which he criticised the over-the-top reactions to the Church of England’s guidance on transgender people. Asserting that “being transgendered should not in principle be an impediment to being considered for ordination”, he went on to say that “the principle of the welcome to transgendered people in the life of the Church was settled some time ago”. Indeed.

Cheers to Austria, where same-sex couples can now be married. The irony that ministers from the People's Party and Freedom Party, both bitterly opposed to LGBTQ equality, were forced to respect the decision of the Constitutional Court was in itself quite delightful.  Cheers also to the Austrian Green Party (Die Grünen) for their perseverance and commitment to making this a reality.

Cheers to Greggs for introducing a vegan “sausage roll”.  Not only is this a much needed extension of the Gregg’s menu, it’s a welcome gesture towards vegans as well as sound business sense. Thanks!

Jeers to the many, many people who took to social media to express their outrage at Greggs’ action. Who dare anyone want a diverse menu that caters for a growing section of the population? Some of these reactions are beyond parody, believing a business responding to customer demand represents some kind of PC conspiracy - and many were highly vitriolic. For the life of me I can’t understand what there is to get so worked up about, but it does highlight the way vegans are often viewed and underlines the degree to which the outrage machine resists any progressive change, however small.  

Jeers to Savid Javid for his “Dad’s Army” handling of the supposed migrants crisis and his cynical questioning of whether  asylum seekers were “genuine”. He seems ignorant of the fact that the Dublin Convention directs EU member states rather than refugees themselves...

Jeers to the BBC News, which reported on the sad death of transgender activist Julia Grant by deadnaming her and referring to transitioning as “having sex changes”. The article was edited later following complaints, but it really is time they learned the basics. 

Jeers also to Toby Young, who dismissed concerns raised by University vice-chancellors on the effect of a no-deal Brexit as "the usual ultra-Remainer hysteria". Jeers too to the BBC for giving credibility to the reactions of a man widely deemed to be unfit to help manage universities. That’s not “balance”...