Archive for August, 2017


Regrets: They’ve Had a Few

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Cyclefree on Blair, Cameron, May and Corbyn

On Radio 4 Peter Hennessey has been interviewing politicians who are no longer in the front line and asking them to reflect on their careers, mistakes, and things they might have done differently.  Blair does not regret Iraq, his view still being that it is better (for whom one wonders, surveying the state of Iraq these last 15 years) for Saddam to have been deposed.

Perhaps politicians are not the best at analysing their own mistakes. Perhaps it takes a while for us to realise what their worst mistakes really were, and maybe we can only really tell once the consequences of action or inaction have been felt .  Still, in the languorous spirit of a sunny Bank Holiday weekend here are my – possibly provocative – suggestions.


Iraq, surely?  Can there be any contest?  Well, perhaps not – as PM it was one of his worst mistakes.  Arguably, the mistake was perhaps less the decision to go to war and more the way that decision was explained and justified (something which has proved very corrosive of trust in politicians). Crucially, Blair failed to understand the implications of his own largely correct analysis of Islamic extremism, namely, that upending a state with no tradition or culture of democracy via invasion is likely to create the conditions for such extremism to thrive rather than its opposite.  The consequences for the Middle East and the West will last some time and are being felt in death, terror and pain.

But another mistake was his worst as a politician – it was his unwillingness to fight Brown for the Labour leadership. Whatever the justifiable reasons for it at the time, that timidity allowed Brown to create a narrative that he had somehow been “robbed” of the leadership, that he was entitled to be leader once Blair departed (resulting in him never making a case for his leadership, a lack which became painfully obvious once he became PM – and from which Mrs May might have usefully learnt some lessons). And it led to Blair giving him far more control over domestic affairs as Chancellor than was wise.

It stifled others who might have made a claim for developing a post-Blair Labour and led, ultimately, to a hollowing out of Labour, with little chance of the development of a new generation of possible leaders with new ideas and the courage to put them forward.  Little wonder then, that Labour’s most successful leader seems to have left little by way of a domestic or party legacy and, Iraq apart, seems to have been characterised by a lack of boldness putting forward winning arguments for the matters he claimed to care about – Britain’s role in the EU, for instance.  Good leaders leave good successors.  Blair – like Thatcher – left a party with the life sucked out of it.


There is something immensely attractive about someone at ease with themselves, their place in the world, the world they’re in and the role they’re being asked to play.  Cameron was such a man and after the Blair/Brown dramas he brought a welcome calm to government.  But it is all too easy for such people so to take their world for granted that they forget how to argue for it.  They assume rather than think let alone argue.  So it was with Cameron and what will define his legacy: the EU and Britain’s place within it.

If Cameron believed that Britain should remain within the EU – as he said during the referendum campaign – he should have been making that case – and doing so positively – for years beforehand and doing so to all the voters, not just those inclined to agree with him.  Waiting until the campaign was far too late: he discovered that when he needed something positive to say, there was nothing there.  Someone who wanted his party to stop “banging on” about Europe left it banging on about little else.  Complacency led to nemesis.


Too soon to tell?  Maybe.  Still,  what might the interim appraisal say?  Forget the unnecessary election, disastrous as that was.  Her biggest mistake to date has been the failure in the months since she became leader to think through carefully and in detail the implications of the referendum result, the practical choices available, the trade offs needed, how to develop a sensible, sober negotiating strategy and how to sell that effectively to voters and persuasively to the EU.

Why are position papers being published now and not months ago?  Why rush to Article 50, the timing of which was the one indubitable card the UK had?  Rather than wait and think and prepare, a dull, grey politician’s legacy will be a meaningless slogan and early announcements boxing Britain into a corner from which extrication will likely be painful and humiliating.  Even a large majority would not have made up for that.


I am likely going to humiliate myself now.  Corbyn may not even make it to PM.  His time as Labour leader was not, pre-June, glorious.  But Labour’s unexpectedly successful leader has an idea of what Labour should be (however disliked it may be by some) and is not afraid to speak to all and sundry about it in an engaging way.  Many of his criticisms of the current political/economic settlement ring true with voters, even those disinclined for other reasons to vote for him, and he now looks to his party like a possible winner.

So let me stick my neck out. If he comes to power it will be following a Brexit whose consequences will tax a government consisting of Solomons.  European matters will consume his administration, regardless that it may not be important to him personally.  His mistake will be the same as many previous Labour leaders.  He will promise much.  His promises will be well-intentioned (mostly).  Expectations will now be high. His promises will be undeliverable, his solutions being essentially nostalgic (“let everything be as it was before the horrid Tories ruined it all”).  He will let his supporters down.  And as a result he may end up as reviled by some of them as Blair is now.

Corbyn as the new Blair?  Well, I said I might provoke.  Over to you, PBers.



After another stormy period punters make it a 56% chance that Trump won’t survive a full first term

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

Returning once again to what continues to be the biggest political betting market in the UK at the moment – is Trump going to complete a full first term?

This is very much driven by the news coming across the Atlantic and the latest is his pardon to ex-county sheriff, Joe Arpaio. As has been widely reported he’s is a very controversial figure,particularly for his immigration sweeps in targeted Latino neighborhoods, and the conditions in his jail. Six years ago he was convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order to stop detaining people based on suspicion of their immigration status with no evidence.

The polling shows that Arpaio is widely supported by Trump’s core base but not much beyond. Arizona Senator John McCain has been quick to attack Trump saying “The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law”.

Trump will either go of his own accord or there needs to be a bigger change of opinion about him within the Republican party than we have seen so far.

This is not a market I’m betting on.

Mike Smithson


If the S Mirror’s right about TMay’s exit date then the 2/1 on Betfair is a great punt

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

As August starts to wind up and we enter normal politics again a big story this morning is the one above in the Sunday Mirror suggesting that Theresa May has set the end of August 2019 as the time when she will cease to be Party leader and presumably Prime Minister.

This appears to be a strategy that will help her with the non trivial challenge of reporting to the Party conference at the start of October after a huge disappointment in the general election when Cameron’s hard won Conservative majority of 2015 was lost through her General Election gamble.

Whether or not setting the exit date for two years hence will be enough to put the dampers on possible leadership moves over the next few weeks we will have to see. As has been discussed here before Theresa May is helped by the fact that there is no clear alternative to her.

    In many ways, though, she has been a lame duck Prime Minister since 22:01 on June 8th when the exit poll come out. Naming the date now hardens that up and undermines her authority even more.

    We saw on Friday when the Foreign Secretary refused to back the prime minister’s position on immigration numbers how weak Mrs May’s position has become.

PB CON sources suggest that there is a lot of plotting going on beneath the surface at the moment by those who argue that it is vital that the party leader is in a strong enough position to deal with the intricate Brexit negotiations that lay ahead.

There are massive challenges both in Brussels and back home in Westminster where Labour can be expected to use every opportunity to undermine the passage of the Great Reform Bill. In this they can look to support from other parties including the SNP the Lib Dems and the Greens.

The recent suggestion that Labour will no longer agree to MP pairing agreements is going to make life particularly tough for party managers at Westminster.

Surprisingly there has been little movement in the Quarter 3 2019 price on Betfair Theresa May’s exit date market. I took all that was available at 3 to 1 and the price is now 2 to 1. So the betting market view at the moment is that Theresa May has a 67% chance of not going on what’s said to be her stated date.

Mike Smithson


Punters make it a 77% chance that TMay’ll make it to the end of the year which seems about right

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Will the PM face a challenge or not?

In the immediate aftermath of the disappointing general election for the Conservatives George Osborne suggested that the the Prime Minister was “a dead woman walking” a view that was shared by many who expected an early resignation.

The Tories, after all, are the party that is said to be most ruthless with a failing leader and in those few days after the election she was at her most vulnerable. Yet she didn’t going to the backbench 1922 committee saying that she was the one who had got the party into the situation where it had lost its majority and she was the one who would get the party out. Brave words and, as it turned out, ones that resonated.

Coming up though she has to face her party conference in early October and there’s been speculation over whether she’ll make an apology or not.

Perhaps more difficult is whether a challenge will be forthcoming. We all remember IDS in 2003 securing 13 standing ovations in his conference speech and the longest ever ovation any leader has ever enjoyed at the end. Within less than a month, however, he was out and Michael Howard got the leadership with a coronation.

Could the same happen this autumn with TMay? The big difference between her situation and IDS is that the latter was never able to fight an election as leader. TMay has and she lost the CON majority with a a net loss of 25 seats in England & Wales ameliorated by Ruth Davidson’s 12 Scots CON gains in Scotland.

The real issue is whether there will be a challenge and if so will it succeed?

Surprisingly the bookies have really not picked up on this and the only market I can find is the Q4 exit date betting on Betfair which prices her going as a 23% chance.

Her great strength is that there is not a unified view on who would be the successor.

Mike Smithson


Gerrymandered congressional districts could save the House for the GOP

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

But a GOP-controlled House leaves Trump with fewer excuses for 2020

The Great Dealmaker has not had the greatest first seven months in the White House. No wall, no healthcare reform, a chaotic West Wing and innumerable self-inflicted PR gaffes are not an ideal start to a presidency. Ironically, the one president that Trump rates himself behind is perhaps the only one to have had a worse start: at least there’s been no civil war so far.

Those failures and errors, however, have produced record-breakingly low approval ratings. The Gallup polls – a series that goes back to 1945 – repeatedly find disapproval scores in the high 50s and a net rating around -20. For comparison, only two presidents since WWII have received any net negative ratings at any time in their first year (Ford and Clinton), the lowest being a -12 given to Clinton in June 1993. In fact, Trump’s rating with all voters at this stage is almost identical to GW Bush’s among liberal voters.

For Trump, these scores are nothing out of the ordinary. He repeatedly polled badly on approval ratings through the primaries and general election in 2016 but was saved firstly by the strong support from a sufficiently sizable minority, and secondly by a series of poor opponents, including Hillary, that he could campaign negatively against with effect. But that shouldn’t distract from the underlying picture.

Before we get to 2020, there’s the not insignificant matter of the mid-terms. You might reasonably expect a landslide of Democrat gains in these. After all, the Republicans control the House, so have plenty of seats to lose, and on previous occasions that presidential approval has dropped below 50% – particularly when combined with the president’s party running the House, as in 1994, 2006 or 2010 – there will be substantial losses.

That, however, ignores the massively Gerrymandered battleground the Democrats have to fight on. This isn’t a subjective point: the ability to draw up congressional (and other more local) districts is one of the spoils of victory in American political culture and a successful party will redistrict in its own favour where it has the chance. In recent years, the Republicans have had a lot of chances. On top of that, the Democrats’ votes are simply inefficiently clustered to begin with: as in any single-member system, there’s little advantage to piling up huge majorities in individual seats.

The net result of these two factors is that despite the Democrats currently holding a lead of about 7% in generic polling, one website translates that to a likely Republican majority of at least 20. That would mean a net Democratic gain of a dozen or so seats but it’d be poor pickings for such a healthy lead. Of course, the real elections will be contested by real people, not generic parties, but the most important element of that fact is the incumbency element, which again should tend to mitigate Republican losses.

Why does this matter when Trump can’t even get his plans through a GOP-controlled House? There are of course practical considerations: a Democrat-controlled House would surely gridlock the system and make full-on government shutdowns far more likely, for example. But perhaps more significant from a betting viewpoint is that it’s in the House that impeachment proceedings would begin and if the Democrats controlled the business of the chamber and the chairmanships of committees, that would significantly ease the path to an impeachment case being brought (leave aside precisely why a case might be brought – a ‘high crime or misdemeanor’ is whatever Congress says it is, meaning that the action is ultimately a political process, not a legal one.

A stand-off between House of Representatives and the Oval Office would be unlikely to do much for either side’s standing with the public (and the more intense it got, the greater the damage would likely be). Trump would undoubtedly play the victim and he’d have enough of a case that those moderately sympathetic to him would give him the benefit of the doubt. Likewise, the loss of control would provide an ideal excuse for the failure of his policies to be implemented.

At the moment, by another irony, the advantage the GOP has in the House race is therefore lessening Trump’s chances of re-election. (There is the risk that Trump might go before 2020 but it’s nothing like as probable as the odds have it: a two-thirds majority to convict an impeachment is a very high bar). However, today’s polling is, obviously, not set in stone. There is scope for movement to the Democrats during the next 14 months and the flip-side of the hugely efficient spread of seats for the GOP is that they are more vulnerable to heavy defeats, with fewer outright safe-seats and many more with smaller but usually adequate majorities. There is a tipping point where the bias goes the other way. That said, the increasing polarity of US politics and the historic rareness of leads of more than 10% on election day suggest that such scope might be relatively small.

Put all this together and you come up with three conclusions. Firstly, the Republicans stand a good chance of holding both Houses in 2018. Secondly, that impeachment proceedings, if any are begun, are likely to fizzle. And that thirdly, that the 2020 presidential race should be a walkover for the Democrats as long as they can nominate a competent and inoffensive candidate.

David Herdson


Johnson’s refusal to back his boss on student immigration will surely lead to recriminations

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Get ready for an intense 6 weeks of politicking

We are nearly at the end of August and only weeks away from the conferences of the main parties. The most interesting one will be the Tories in Manchester which could just might be the prelude to a leadership challenge and contest.

Mrs. May called the election three year early and appeared to squander poll leads of 20% with prominent CON peer and polling specialist, Lord Hayward, saying the CON brand was trashed just like Ratners a few year back.

Boris Johnson, the former 30% favourite to succeed TMay, was pressed hard on Radio 4 this morning but managed to avoid backing what has become a signature TMay policy – including students from overseas in the immigration totals. According to tonight’s George Osborne edited Standard TMay stood alone in insisting that overseas students be included in immigration totals.

That’s why this is such a big issue – TMay is on the line over this one.

Johnson’s reluctance to back his boss suggests that he is on manoeuvres ahead of the conference which, whether the party likes it or not, will be dominated by leadership speculation. It is not surprising then that he’s taking the stance he is on what is a point of real vulnerability for the PM.

The big question is whether the woman who turned a small CON majority into no majority at all will face a leadership challenge. I’ve said here before that I think she probably won’t but she might. But I’ve just had a small Betfair bet at 11 that Boris will be her successor.

Mike Smithson


What’s next over Brexit? The question that no one is asking

Friday, August 25th, 2017


In their seminal anthem, Busted reported back from the year 3000 that not much had changed (but we live underwater). I don’t propose to look that far into the future but let’s borrow a souped-up De Lorean and head for 2030. By then the current crop of politicians will have written their memoirs or be editing newspapers. Given geological timescales, we can expect the island of Britain still to be sitting off the mainland of Europe. With current rates of technological advances the movement to living underwater will probably not yet have taken off by that date.

So much can be relied upon. Mystic Meeks is less sure of the political developments but right now it seems like a reasonably good bet that Britain will be outside the EU while the EU is still rolling along in its usual fractious, bureaucratic but tolerably effective way.

That leads on to a very simple question which pretty much no one is asking: what kind of relationship do we want in place between post-Brexit Britain and the EU once all the current brouhaha has settled down? The answer to that question has a direct bearing on the type of Brexit deal that everyone should be seeking to negotiate. Let’s take each group in turn.


Large numbers of Remainers are very unhappy about the decision to Leave. Opinion polls consistently show that the nation is just as divided on the question as it was in June 2016, with no sign of Leave persuading Remainers of the rightness of their cause. Some Remainers feel very strongly about this indeed and want to relitigate the referendum.

As a Remainer myself, I can’t say I’m happy about the decision. I think it’s a national disaster. But those Remainers wishing to upend the decision need to think about the long term relationship that they want Britain to have with the EU. For if Britain were now to do a handbrake turn back into the EU, it would look fickle and unreliable. Almost certainly a large minority of the population would continue to be pressing to leave the EU, now with an added sense of grievance that democracy had in some way been thwarted.

Britain remaining in the EU now would be a recipe for at least another decade of constant strife between Britain and Brussels. If you think the political atmosphere is sulphurous now, just imagine what it would be like then.

The EU might very well conclude that it wasn’t worth the candle. Whether or not it did, it would almost certainly be wiser for Remainers to let Brexit run its course before seeking to take over the steering wheel again. A majority of Remainers have already reached this conclusion, if opinion polls are to be believed. For the rest, time to accept that it’s over: O.V.A.H.

What should Remainers therefore be doing? The vote was won on immigration, and so Remainers must concede that restrictions on freedom of movement must be introduced, with all the consquences that entails. But otherwise they are under no obligation to get behind the parochial vision that the government is pushing. They can continue to advocate the benefit of close constructive links with the EU, identify areas where Britain and the EU should continue to work together closely and press the government to strike a consistent tone of cooperation and integration with the EU. After all, Remainers will want a solid base to build on if they want Britain in future to be working closely together with the other countries of Europe.


Leavers actually have a strikingly similar problem to Remainers. Plenty of them want to see the Brussels bureaucracy destroyed like Carthage, with no two stones left standing one on top of the other. Some of them would then wish to imitate the Mannequin Pis on top of the rubble. But this is not an aspiration that is within their means to achieve and in truth it is unlikely to happen. So what kind of long term relationship do they actually want with the EU, the organisation which all their near neighbours look likely to belong to for the foreseeable future?

This is a question to which Leavers seem to give astonishingly little thought. Certainly they don’t talk about it. Even those Leavers who, like Tim Montgomerie, recognise that Britain will need a constructive relationship with the EU have been later unable to resist railing against what they see as its dysfunctional nature. Not exactly a good way to win friends and influence people.

So, Brexiters, do you want a friendly relationship with the EU? How close do you want to cooperate with the EU and on what subjects? If so, how do you propose to get it? Because right now, your charm school skills suck.

I expect that quite a few Leavers will claim that any bad blood has been caused by the EU. Quite apart from the fact that comes from the “he started it” strand of playground complaints, the negotiations would go much better if the UK worked backwards from its proposed longterm relationship to its policy positions. Right now the UK’s policy positions seem to be derived from what can be got through the newspapers.

The EU

This isn’t just a British failing. Some of the EU glitterati are behaving with all the decorum of a teenager who has recently been dumped. They need to get over themselves. Instead of seeking vengeance on an ungrateful ex-partner, they need to be thinking about how Britain will fit into their plans in the future. Seeking to screw every last penny out of Britain is frankly undignified (the sums are small in the context of the EU’s overall budget and it’s only a short term fix anyway). Trying to push extraterritorial CJEU jurisdiction on Britain is shortsighted: the EU will not prosper by having created a resentful satrapy on its doorstep even if it is successful in its aims. It should not be seeking to cru

Britain into the dust.

Again, the EU should be forming a 2030 strategy. Admittedly this is psychologically difficult when your negotiating partners are routinely trumpeting their loathing for you, but the Eurocrats are supposed to be grown-ups. They will want close cooperation on defence with Britain, on foreign affairs wherever possible and, when the more delusional demands from London have subsided, a pragmatic trading relationship.

In any negotiation, particularly one that is designed to produce a longterm relationship, it’s always a good idea to leave something on the table. A measure of generosity is likely to pay for itself in the goodwill generated. Goodwill is in short supply at present in the Article 50 negotiations. Imaginative negotiators on both sides of the table would do well to consider how they can improve stocks of that for what is going to be an indispensable relationship for both of them for the foreseeable future.

Alastair Meeks


Vince Cable slams TMay over bogus student immigration figures which “came on her watch”

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Coalition battles revived

Vince Cable, the LD leader who as Coalition Business Secretary had responsibility for universities, has attacked TMay, following the news that student immigration figures are nothing like on the scale that the government had previously thought.

As reported in the media earlier new figures have been published based on exit checks from UK ports, that show that 97% cent of foreign students, 4.6k left the UK after finishing their studies.

This compares with the 100k estimate that was previously used. Cable doesn’t mince his words:-

“This debacle happened on Theresa May’s watch at the Home Office. I spent five years in coalition battling her department’s bogus figures on this issue but she responded by erecting a wall of visa restrictions on an entirely false basis.

Cabinet Brexiteers fought a referendum campaign on a flawed prospectus, scapegoating foreign students who weren’t even here, and demonising EU citizens who are now leaving the country voluntarily.

No wonder the government has announced a review into the impact of foreign students because its economically disastrous policy was based on figures that were out by 96%…”

The universities have argued strongly over the years that overseas student bring economic benefits, have a big impact on the fee revenue at many institutions and that it was wrong to include them in official immigration figures.

Given the importance of controlling immigration in TMay’s interpretation of what the Brexit referendum meant this is a big political issue. The Scottish Tory leader whose 12 gains north of the border on June 8th saved the situation for TMay, has argued strongly against TMay on the issue.

Mike Smithson