Why the Northern Ireland border has been such a difficult issue

December 18th, 2018

I’ve just come across an article by John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations, which explains very clearly why the Northern Ireland border is such an issue in the Brexit negotiations.

“.. there is no concession that can be given on the backstop or, as it should properly be considered, Northern Ireland. The fundamental problem here is not the intransigence of the Irish government not the trickery of the European Union. It is, put bluntly, because the UK is bound by a peace treaty – the Good Friday Agreement – which ended the 30 years warfare of the Troubles.

The agreement saved lives, and is still saving them, and it dealt with the border – the source of the conflict – in an extraordinary act of imagination. It dissolved it. Not merely within the operation of the EU Single Market but by the UK government repealing the act that partitioned the island of Ireland and by agreeing that the people of Northern Ireland could choose either a British or an Irish passport..”

For many this was all a long time ago but was and remains hugely significant. The agreement was signed in 1998 and most people under 40 have no recollection of the troubles and how they dominated British politics from the late 1960s onwards.

I well remember one of my first jobs as a journalist in Newcastle in the late 1960s being asked to visit the parents of the first British soldier to be killed in the province. A hard task for a 22 year old.

The Good Friday Agreement was massive development and both John Major and Tony Blair are rightly given a lot of the credit. It was approved in referendums on both sides of the border.

Mike Smithson


The detail of the YouGov “LAB would slip to 3rd place behind the LDs ” poll

December 18th, 2018

YouGov/People’s Vote

At the weekend when this came out I was a bit nervous about circulating details without having seen the full form of the question that was asked and the breakdown of the data. Well this is now available and above we see a snapshot of the main question and responses.

I think the wording of the two options is fine but I am quite surprised by the change it brought to voting intentions. What must be worrying to LAB is that it would only retain half its GE2017 vote if the circumstances set out in the second question proved correct.

    Until now it has always been quite remarkable how the party’s ability to ride two Brexit horses at the same time has not got it into trouble. That’s a situation that can’t last and what party eventually does could be remembered perhaps for generations.

We have to recognise that this poll was funded by the main anti-Brexit campaign group which clearly backed it for a reason – to put pressure on Corbyn/McDonnell.

It’s being said that the reason why Corbyn won’t put down a proper confidence motion that fits the requirements of the FTPA is because of the policy position agreed by conference. Once an early general election was taken off the table by a confidence failing then LAB would be committed to a second referendum. That’s not something that long standing Brexiteer Corbyn wants to happen.

Mike Smithson


Boris’s CON leadership betting spurt appears to have run out of steam and others are moving up

December 18th, 2018

It is inevitable with all the political moves relating to the prime minister that there is a lot of betting focus at the moment on who will succeed her both as CON leader and also Prime Minister.

Last week as the Betdata.io chart shows the money moved to the former mayor and former foreign secretary who has hired Lynton Crosby to run his leadership campaign, Mr Johnson. That’s evaporated but he’s still favourite though there are four or five others there waiting in the Wings.

The big factor that impacts on this market is the statement by Theresa May last week that she is[to step down and will not lead the party at the next general election. Quite when this will happen we don’t know but clearly, following the culmination of Brexit however that goes, she’s likely to be seen as a lame duck Prime Minister.

I still wonder whether her eventual successor is not yet regarded as a serious runner and might emerge as Theresa May gives further clarification of when she thinks she might be stepping aside.

Remember the historical factor in CON leadership races is that the long-standing front runner gets beaten.

Mike Smithson


With the DUP and Moggsy backing Theresa it looks as though LAB’s confidence move will fail

December 17th, 2018

Mike Smithson


Given TMay’s said she’ll be out before the next election it’s hard to see why Corbyn remains favourite for next PM

December 17th, 2018

As long as Corbyn remains Labour leader then clearly he has a good chance of becoming, at some stage, prime minister. The above active betting market is not about that but who is going to step into Theresa May shoes when she stands aside.

Probably the most significant political news affecting this market over the past week has been the statement by her that she will not fight the next general election as Conservative leader. That means that it is highly likely there will be another head of the Tory Party before the next general election who would look set to become PM.

TMay’s statement has virtually blocked off the the possibility of Corbyn becoming as a result of him leading his party to victory in the next general election.

If he remains Labour leader then he clearly has a chance to become Prime Minister after the next general election but Theresa May’s announcement means that it will be her successor as Conservative leader that he would be replacing.

Mike Smithson


The magnificent resilience of TMay ploughing on relentlessly against all the odds

December 17th, 2018

And ordinary voters are beginning to give her credit

The week before Christmas and the PM looks set to have another uphill task once again this afternoon facing yet again a marathon grilling by MPs after she reports on last week’s abortive mission to Brussels.

Her position is very straightforward. The referendum outcome must be honoured but she has been determined to do it in a manner that causes the minimum of damage to the economy. The deal that she got in Brussels in November might not be ideal but, as we have seen, it is the best there is and Mrs May is determined to go on trying to win agreement for it.

Chances of success look pretty thin but the strategy has always seemed to be that when faced with the huge problems of a No Deal then what she has got might be seen as a better alternative. The numbers don’t stack up that much but she is sticking with her strategy.

The one bit of positive news is that she is starting to get some recognition from ordinary voters and that might help her along the way. This was from the latest Opinium Poll

Almost half (47%) of voters now see Theresa May has brave, up from 43% in October. Similarly, 41% now see the prime minister as decisive, the highest since the election last year.

47% now also see Theresa May as someone that sticks to their principles, the highest figure recorded for her, even from before the general election.

She’s helped by the fact that her biggest opponents, the ERG gang and Corbyn have yet to come up with a convincing alternative.

Rees-Mogg did himself no good in the aftermath of Wednesday’s confidence vote when he went on television saying he did not accept the result and that Mrs May should quit anyway. Arch Brexiteer, Nadine Dorries, showed more class with her tweet saying that she respected the result.

What looks to be Corbyn’s biggest mistake was not to move a Commons confidence vote in the aftermath of the government’s triple defeats earlier in the month and other opposition parties are trolling the LAB leader on this.

Meanwhile the betting markets make it 62% chance that the UK won’t leave the EU on March 29th.

  • The Theresa May portrait above is by my daughter-in-law, Lucille Smithson, a figurative realist British painter based in Los Angeles.
  • .

    Mike Smithson


    The gilded cage. How the DUP are using the new rules of the game to trap the Conservatives

    December 16th, 2018

    Board games are always a good source of arguments. There seem to be as many views on how to play Monopoly as families. Some place all fines in the centre, to be collected by anyone who lands on Free Parking. Some don’t allow rents to be collected in Jail. Views differ on what is to be done with the properties of bankrupt players. It is important to establish the rules in advance if you want to avoid unseemly rows.

    Parliamentary politics is often presented as a parlour game. It isn’t: but it has rules. Those rules recently changed in a small but critically important way. Most people haven’t properly thought through the implications of that rule change. Unseemly rows will ensue.

    Let’s start with the basics. Government is formed by a Prime Minister who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Where one party has an overall majority, the leader of that party will get the job pretty much automatically. Where there is a hung Parliament, there is some horse-trading to be done. Parties can form a formal coalition, as happened in 2010, or a minority government can be formed with a smaller party offering only supply and confidence for an agreed programme rather than ministers, as happened in 2017 when the DUP backed the Conservatives.

    Such agreements, however, only operate in the sphere of politics. They are not legally binding. The Conservatives found out in 2012 that coalition partners can rat on the deal when the Lib Dems refused to agree to boundary changes. They found out earlier this year that support in a minority government can be just as flaky when the DUP opposed some measures in the budget.

    The reason for the DUP’s unreliable behaviour is well-known. The government’s proposed backstop in the withdrawal agreement would change Northern Ireland’s status in a way that they regard as completely unacceptable.  They are out for blood.

    In times past, the defeat of the government on central measures like the budget would have led inevitably to its fall, the defeat itself demonstrating that the government no longer has the confidence of the House. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 changed all that though. There is now a formal mechanism for selecting governments and, still more importantly, a formal mechanism for getting rid of governments.

    There are exactly three ways of getting rid of a government. The first is that a motion for a general election is agreed by at least two thirds of the whole House (that is what happened in 2017). The second is that a motion of no confidence is passed. The third is if the Prime Minister voluntarily resigns.

    What this means is that the DUP can leave the government becalmed in the doldrums, with confidence but without supply. The government cannot call a general election unilaterally. If a vote of confidence is called, the DUP can cheerfully support them in that. Everything else, however, and the government is on its own. Block the Prime Minister’s deal? That goes without saying. Vote down the budget?  Sure. Support Labour in a vote of censure against the Prime Minister? Naturally.

    This leaves the government potentially paralysed. Unless it can find alternative support in other votes, the government will be in office but not in power until such time as it does what the DUP wants. Such alternative support will not be easily found or come cheap.

    This gives the DUP outsized importance. In many ways they have more power than the ERG, which breaks the Conservative whip only at the risk of losing it, with all of the profound consequences that holds. Maybe the ERG might break away to set up Son Of UKIP but the Rubicon can only be crossed once. Till then, the ERG will need to display a veneer of loyalty to the Prime Minister.

    If the DUP want shot of the Prime Minister – and they may – they have a technique to winkle her out of Number 10 without letting Labour in. It may have done Theresa May no practical good at all to have won her party vote of confidence if the only thing she can achieve in the House is to defeat votes of no confidence. If so, sooner or later she or her colleagues are going to need to change strategy or change the leader, or both. The fact that she is bomb-proof in her own party for a year would be an irrelevance.

    So what does the government do next? For now, it is putting off the moment of decision. Unable to win the meaningful vote on its deal, it is temporising. There look to be only two ways out of this impasse. The first is to continue to temporise up to 29 March 2019 and hope that the nerves of some Labour MPs will be sufficiently worn that they will cave in and support the deal, with an acceptance that no deal might be the result. The second is to switch tactics and seek to build a cross-party alliance for a referendum, throwing the matter back to the public.

    Neither looks appetising for Theresa May. Never one to make choices actively, she might well take the first route by default. Will her colleagues allow her to do so or will she find herself bypassed? We might well find out. Either way, the Conservative party looks set to break.


    Alastair Meeks


    Theresa May’s next move

    December 16th, 2018


    Theresa May’s great political skill, the driving force behind her career, has been the ability to keep her head down. The virtue of ducking out of the firing line is an important one in British politics. When promotion often comes through dead man’s shoes there is a delicate art to making sure others get hit by the flak, of walking through the food fight and coming out only mildly custard-stained. When the other leading figures in your party destroy themselves, and/or each other in ever more convoluted ways it can even get you all the way to being Prime Minister.

    Which is where she is, holding a far more important, prestigious, and difficult job than this humble writer will ever hold (tread softly on my dreams commenters, especially regarding my commas), while facing down the traditional bane of Conservative leaders, infighting over Europe.

    May’s recent victory (there’s an unusual start to a sentence) has confirmed her as the least unpopular of the possible options. Which, given the possible alternatives, is an achievement that ranks somewhere alongside being acclaimed as the party’s favourite STI (decide for yourselves which one matches each candidate).

    It also means she can’t be challenged for a full year, which now seems an unimaginably long period at a time when new disasters come along so often that click-hunting headline writers have to find ways to communicate that this story is actually about a new shambolic crisis and not the one you read about half an hour ago.

    The price for this was a promise not to lead the party into the next general election, which really is up there with a turkey making new year’s resolutions. In the event of a snap election they’re hardly going to hold a leadership election (and there isn’t exactly an obvious, consensus, successor) and I don’t think many were expecting her to make it to a hypothetical 2022 election.

    So having survived the internal rebellion (and I’m sure the ERG will now fall in line as model supporters) she simply has to retain the official confidence of Parliament with a Brexit vote due in January. Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, et al have started a fun Christmas twitter game of baiting Jeremy Corbyn about calling a vote of no confidence (while avoiding the suggestion they could do it themselves and dare Corbyn not to fall in line).

    Corbyn has been very reluctant to do so, probably because he is worried that he doesn’t have the votes and his failure would only strengthen May. The idea that Corbyn would be happier to see May push through a Brexit deal and take the associated blame rather than have to deal with the same policy and party problems himself is of course baseless speculation that I almost totally believe.

    Which leads to my advice to Theresa May. Do what your opponent wants least, force a vote of confidence now. Dare the ERG to bring a Tory government down, let the DUP stare at Corbyn and decide if they’d really prefer him as Prime Minister. This is the closest to riding high you’re going to get so use the opportunity. If you wait for one of your opponents then it will be called at one of the many weak moments to come, stretching your premiership only makes its end more certainly soon.

    Break the habit of a political lifetime and force the battle on your terms, you might just win.


    P.S. If you lose and push the problems of pushing through Brexit into Corbyn’s lap it’s probably the best thing you can do for the long term prospects of the Conservative party. Might even help your legacy.