Archive for August, 2019


Boris Johnson Invites Himself to the Battle of Ipsus

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

After Alexander the Great died, his actual successors were a newborn baby and a half-brother who suffered learning difficulties. Unsurprisingly, his cadre of incredibly capable generals took real power and soon fell out, leading to the warring era of the Diadochi (Successors).

Excepting Perdiccas, who reigned as regent for the few years immediately after Alexander’s death, Antigonus Monopthalmus came closest to uniting the vast realm that the Macedonians had conquered. He was pre-eminent amongst the Diadochi, with as much power as all the rest combined.

And that success led to his death and the destruction of his empire.

Seeing they had to unite or face certain defeat, the other Diadochi (Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy) worked together against Antigonus, culminating in the Battle of Ipsus. It was lost by Antigonus, who was killed on the battlefield.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson may very well have invited himself to his own Battle of Ipsus.

His recent decision on proroguing Parliament means that time is incredibly short for his political opponents. And that will help them coalesce, because it’s now or never. Even some Leave types are less than happy with the timing and length of the prorogation, as it’s blatantly scheduled to reduce Parliamentary time for discussion about the EU matter.

[It’s worth pointing out that others may argue that constitutional dicking about has been conducted repeatedly by pro-EU MPs, not least with Grieve’s meaningful vote, which didn’t necessarily operate as its creator intended].

However, the PM has not been ruthless. Some time does remain. And he’s emboldened his opponents by implicitly conceding that he fears losing in Parliament (otherwise why take this action?). Morale is boosted amongst those seeking to avert no deal, and they know they must act quickly, reducing the chance (although it’s still possible) they’ll fail to agree between themselves what to do.

Unity is in very short supply in politics these days. But the PM’s ill-considered cunning plan might just be enough to get pro-EU MPs to stop faffing about and actually do something.

Historical note: Ipsus could have gone the other way. Antigonus was old (in his 80s) and not the man he had been. If the result had been a victory for him, he might well have taken almost all of Alexander’s territories.

Morris Dancer

Morris Dancer is a long standing contributor to PB


A general election could unlock a restoration at Stormont

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

Brexit isn’t the only issue stoking the tensions in Ulster

Northern Ireland rarely gets much coverage from the mainland British press. Riots generate a fraction of the coverage that a similar one in England or Scotland (never mind London) would get; the recent Harland and Wolff closure was only of interest because of a ship that sank 107 years ago; its sporting competitions are, like its politics, a different world. Here be dragons.

For once, however, Northern Ireland can’t be entirely ignored by the GB political press, due to both the chance result of the 2017 general election that propelled the DUP into such a position of power, and to the intractable Brexit Backstop issue that might well have caused a great deal of trouble even if it didn’t threaten an existential point of identity for the Conservatives’ allies in government.

For all that, both the Con-DUP alliance and the Backstop are still seen through Westminster lenses. Northern Ireland is (or its representatives are) only important to the media because of their ability to make or break ministries.

Except of course there’s far more to it than that. Two stories that should have received far more attention from our Brexit-obsessed media are the rise in violence from dissident republican terrorists in recent months, and the open near-threat of more to come; and the continuing shut-down of Stormont.

It’s perhaps telling that while the British media and political class has gone into meltdown over a proposed 5-week shutdown of Westminster, Stormont has been shut down since January 2017 – so long ago that the breakdown came before the government triggered Article 50 and when the Tories still had a majority.

However, these two stories are not unrelated. Much time and energy has gone into arguing over whether the Brexit deal undermines the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), or whether a No Deal Brexit would do so. Curiously little attention has been paid to the fact that the Agreement isn’t actually working very well at the moment.

When the centrepiece of that Agreement – the Assembly – hasn’t sat for a quarter of a decade, it’s unsurprising that some feel that the Peace Process itself has failed and are resorting to the methods that the Process was designed to get away from. That absence is made all the more acute by the happenstance of the 2017 election, which magnified the Unionist voice at precisely the moment when the nationalists were muted.

Taking a logical approach, it’s easy to say that the nationalists muted themselves: they chose to vote for an abstentionist party at a time when Stormont was already not sitting, Sinn Fein chooses not to take their seats (what a difference it would make if they did – or if the SDLP sent 7 MPs rather than Sinn Fein), and so on. But this is of little practical benefit.

In truth, any permanent resolution at Stormont must involve an end to the current rules which effectively give both Sinn Fein and the DUP a veto on devolved government. That veto can’t be particularly troublesome for the DUP who were originally opposed to the N Ireland Assembly and who it’s hard to believe don’t still harbour some ambivalence, especially when the alternative is direct rule from Westminster which gives them both the close union that they prefer (other than on social issues, where N Irish legislation is still stuck somewhere in the middle of the last century), and also rule by a government they have a disproportionate but indirect hand in. Whether they’d rediscover the joys of devolution were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister is another matter.

Or maybe not another matter. Both Brexit and the absence of devolution put the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under strain. That strain would be lessened were not the DUP occupying such a key role at Westminster, one which makes any attempt to revise the devolution settlement impossible (even if there were time and space for the government to devote to it) and which has placed the Backstop in such prominence – and if there is a general election within months then it’s likely that whatever the result, the DUP’s brief moment in the sunshine will indeed pass.

David Herdson


This is not a government with any real support for its approach and main policy

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Today sees some polling about Boris Johnson turning the United Kingdom in to a prorogue nation, it’s not particularly pleasant reading for the mandateless Prime Minister whose government has not won a single vote in Parliament.

55% of the public do not trust Boris Johnson to make the right decision on Brexit. Only 13% of the public believe the Prime Minister’s reasons for prorogation, 70% think prorogation was done to limit the opportunities to stop No Deal which the Defence Secretary admitted to yesterday, then Boris Johnson effectively did the same today.

Further polling backs other recent polls that show significantly more people are opposed to No Deal than support it.

I wonder if this is these polling results are an artefact of the partisan times we live in after the 2016 referendum coupled with Boris Johnson lacking a mandate from the country, after all Boris Johnson receiving 100,000 fewer votes in winning the Tory leadership this year than Owen Smith received when he lost to Jeremy Corbyn in 2016.

But yet despite all these supplementaries being sub optimal for Boris Johnson the Tories have an 11% lead with YouGov and the Prime Minister has a 53% lead over Corbyn in leader ratings and Ipsos MORI has a similar result.

As a strong believer that leader ratings are a much better predictor of general election results than voting intention I suspect Boris Johnson will win an autumn general election based on the leadership polling. Oh Jeremy Corbyn, why do you have to be so dire?

My other expectation is that like 1992 the Tories will get absolutely hammered in the following general election as sustained No Deal will be like the winter of discontent meets Black Wednesday and will keep the Tories out of power for a significant period.


PS – For an excellent in depth analysis of the Ipsos MORI polling see this twitter thread by Keiran Pedley by clicking here.


BJohnson – the politician who keeps getting overstated in the polls

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Do voters have second thoughts when faced with him on the ballot paper?

Back in 2001 the fledgling YouGov polling company first came to our attention with its survey of CON members ahead of the leadership ballot. There was never any doubt that IDS would beat the pro EU Ken Clarke but this new polling company uniquely then using the internet scored a spectacular success by getting the result within one percent.

Four years later it was DDavis versus Cameron in the final two and yet again YouGov’s membership poll was as accurate as with the IDS winning margin.

In the Labour leadership contest after the 2010 general election YouGov scored another spectacular success with its polling of members and trade unionists that suggested the younger Miliband brother was going to do it. The only doubt was whether DavidM would do spectacularly well amongst MPs which at the time had a third of the electoral College.

We all know how well YouGov was with Corbyn’s share in the Labour leadership elections of 2015 and 2016 again getting the winning margins almost right

You would have expected then, with this pedigree, that the sane accuracy who have been seen at this July’s Conservative contest when when YouGov had Johnson on 76%  a share that was 10% higher than he actually achieved when the votes were counted.

This followed a pattern we had seen before for the then London Mayor in 2012 when he was facing Ken Livingstone for a third time. All the polls at him winning by quite a Distance period as it turned out all six posters overstated his position and Livingston ran Johnson much closer than anybody had predicted.

All this supports the view that Johnson is someone who gets overstated by polling. Maybe it’s only when voters have ballot papers in front of them that doubts about his suitability emerge.

This is something to remember if there is an early General Election and how we should judge current CON poll leads.

Mike Smithson


Then what?

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

When I was younger, I casually enjoyed those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. For those of you that were not nerdy male teenagers in the 1980s, these were books with non-linear structures where you were presented with a series of choices with page numbers.  You made your choice and you turned to the relevant page. The story unfolded accordingly. Similar books, loosely based on Dungeons & Dragons, required you to roll a die to choose your fate. You might find yourself having to fight a jaguar or to satisfy numerous buxom seductresses, all of whom were unaccountably keen to bed a spotty teenager. Your chances of a happy ending would depend on your aleatory abilities.

Boris Johnson, a man who would no doubt fancy his chances of satisfying numerous buxom seductresses, has been rolling the dice recently. Having endured just over a day of Parliamentary scrutiny, he has evidently had enough of the ordeal and has arranged for Parliament to be prorogued for five weeks in September and October on the pretext that his government is going to regroup to draw up policies for the Queen’s Speech. This pretext did not even convince his own Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, who was filmed explaining that it was an attempt to deal with the government’s lack of control of Parliament.  

Many Leavers have erupted in ecstasy at this suspension of democracy, taking an Augustinian view of the matter (“God give me Parliamentary sovereignty, but not yet!”). A Cabinet stuffed full of ministers who had campaigned against the idea of prorogation in the recent Conservative party leadership election has yet to see a resignation. So much for their integrity.

But those, not just Remain supporters, who are bothered about constitutional niceties are appalled. Court cases are being brought in Edinburgh, Belfast and London to challenge this decision. There is the distinct possibility that at least one of these cases might be successful: the Royal prerogative is at least in theory subject to judicial review and Ben Wallace’s indiscretion is not going to be helpful in persuading judges of the purity of the government’s intentions.  It’s one thing to make bold if autocratic swoops. It’s another thing entirely to see those bold and autocratic swoops struck down as unlawful. That picture of Boris Johnson suspended haplessly in mid-air would be everywhere.

Let’s assume that the government throws a four or higher and the courts let this pass. The next obstacle lies in a Parliament that has been assaulted but not immobilised. By its actions, roughly 30 more Conservative MPs have moved decisively into the anti-no deal camp and stand ready to act immediately. It was already probable that the government had a majority racked up against it. It is now certain.

The government’s success now rests on its opponents being too disorganised to stop it. This is possible. Time is tight for the constitutionalists but despite the considerable derision poured on them by Leave commentators, they appear to have used the summer break effectively, identifying a preferred way forward of seeking to legislate their way out of no deal (rather than defenestrate the Prime Minister and set up a wobbly government of their own).

With a Speaker who is so incandescent about the government’s actions that he could double up as a spotlight at Wembley, they can expect abundant assistance from the chair. The House of Lords seems to be on side as well. From here, it looks like the government needs to throw a six if it is not going to be defeated by Parliament.

There are rumours of Boris Johnson pulling other stunts – the declaring of bank holidays to eat up Parliamentary time, refusing to leave Downing Street if there is a vote of no confidence even if a clear successor is established with the intention of forcing a general election and even refusing to send to the Queen for her approval a bill that had been passed by both Houses of Parliament.  These suggestions are verging on the laughable – the courts would not stand for such transparent abuses and such rumours show weakness rather than strength.

But let’s assume that somehow Boris Johnson throws all those sixes and gets Brexit over the line (almost certainly on a no-deal basis because how is he going to get a deal approved with Parliament so decisively against him?). Then what?

A Britain that had Brexited in such a way would be hopelessly and irremediably riven.  The decision would be seen by what in all probability would be a clear majority as illegitimate and unconstitutional. A policy that no one had voted for would have been imposed by an unelected Prime Minister leading a government that was opposed in Parliament by a clear majority, and only because the Prime Minister had abandoned all democratic norms.

In such circumstances, you could easily envisage widespread civil unrest, the more so because there might well be tangible disruption as a result of the Brexit process itself.  And you cannot easily envisage the country ever coming back together to forge a new consensus. Boris Johnson would be a hero to his elderly support base but a hate figure for future generations. Scotland and Northern Ireland would both be eyeing the exit door from the United Kingdom in very short order. What was left would inevitably rejoin the EU at some point, with many no doubt resentful but out of options.

For supposedly-clever men, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are being remarkably dumb. They’ve spent ages looking at the mechanics and no time at all looking at the aim of the game that they are trying to play. 28 August 2019 was the day that the dream of Brexit died.  

Alastair Meeks


The current most active UK betting market is on whether Article 50 will be revoked

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that there will be a Queen’s speech in mid October meaning that the number of parliamentary days available for debating Brexit has been drastically reduced has led to to a lot of betting. The current busiest market in terms of money traded is the Betfair one above on whether article 50 will be revoked. Currently that’s rated as a 25% chance but things are developing all the time and this could move up or down.

The biggest gamble of course, has been taken by Johnson himself and the level of of opposition and unease that is emerging within his own party might cause him some concern. How he manages that we shall see but an awful lot is at stake for him personally and country.

The key number to try to ascertain is how many Conservative MPs are ready to take action when the Commons does does meet next week that could conceivably impede the Johnson move and possibly even undermine his Brexit position.

No doubt this will totally dominate the headlines over the weekend. Meanwhile I’m off on my holidays

Mike Smithson


The Tangled Web that has evolved

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

We should not have been surprised. Johnson has never had much desire to be held accountable. Not as London Mayor. Nor as Foreign Secretary. Even when he misspoke (to put it at its most charitable) over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, his response was petulant and grudging. He went out of his way to avoid scrutiny at the start of his campaign to become Tory leader. This is not a politician who enjoys debate and argument, willing to test his ideas, face challenge. This is not someone who understands in his bones that an idea, a policy, an argument, is strengthened by being rigorously tested. This is not someone who understands that successful leadership can only be done through consent (at least in a free country), that persuasion is better than command, at least if you want your achievements to last.

The combination of ruthlessness in pursuing a goal and a lack of confidence in having that goal examined is dangerous in a system which is based, at least theoretically, on the idea that there should be limits on rulers, there should be proper scrutiny of what they want to do and that how the game is played is as important as what is done. If something is achieved through cheating – or perceived as such – then it loses a vital bit of legitimacy. Surely an ex-public school boy would understand this. Annoying that we don’t get one of the few advantages of having this privileged elite in charge. We are left only with their tendency to treat anything important as an occasion for humour and the sort of cruel wit at other people’s expense enjoyed by adolescent minds.

In seeking to ignore Parliament, Johnson is simply following in Mrs May’s path. It was she who refused to provide a running commentary on the negotiations, who tried to keep everything to herself, who involved as few people as possible, who did everything possible to avoid MPs having a say, until it was far too late,  until the point when – so exasperated where they at being ignored – their only response was to talk, moan, endlessly debate and seek to play their own games with the rules but never come to a decision or work out what they were for. Foolish, exasperating for voters and strategically inept. Yes, yes – all of this. But understandable that MPs wanted to get so much off their chest having been denied a voice for so long.

Might there be a lesson there for subsequent leaders? That, just possibly, if you involve colleagues from the start you might get a better decision and more chance of getting it implemented. Just a thought. Ah, but they don’t want to help you implement your decision. Or they don’t agree with what your decision is or they want to change it or they oppose it outright or they have different agendas to yours. Well, dearie me: welcome to the challenges of leadership, of government. Kitchens and heat come to mind. If May’s agreement was not acceptable, then try and get one that is. That does not mean telling the EU to take out the bits you don’t like. The UK is behaving like someone who goes to dinner with a companion; they both agree to share a vegetable soup, a pistou soup, which your companion is very keen on. Then when it is delivered, the UK picks out all the carrots, peas, lentils, onions, potatoes and beans, scoops out the pistou sauce then expects the other to eat it despite it being not what he wanted.  No – it means starting again, on a different basis and, crucially, taking the time needed to get it right this time. In government, as in much else in life, speed is not a virtue.

If enacting the result of the referendum is important, if ensuring there is a sensible withdrawal agreement and transitional period so that all parties can adjust to the change is important, if ensuring there is a good basis for agreeing a future relationship with the EU is important, if ensuring the necessary preparations for departure are made and the level of disruption minimised are important, if ensuring the new settlement has as much consensus as possible, even from those who did not want this change, is important, if trying to bring people back together after a divisive referendum is important – and they are, all of them – then it is worth taking the time to do this properly, to take as much time as needed.  

Brexit was not the choice of 48% of those who voted. But how Brexit is achieved and implemented will tell the world, that global world Leavers are so keen on, what sort of a country the UK wants to be. A bit of reflection on how the country is behaving and being perceived would not go amiss. Leaving the EU well matters; it really does. Leaving the EU speedily does not. And yet it is speed which is prized. How very adolescent.

And so rather than learn, talk, persuade, think about the long-term and try and find a way through that will have some chance of lasting, Johnson repeats May’s mistakes but rather more efficiently. That is the import of yesterday’s action. And in so doing he and his supporters lie or – at best – are disingenuous about what they are doing.

  • Prorogation is only for 4 days. No – its effect is to halve the time available to Parliament and possibly even more since Parliament could have chosen the length of the recess. This option is now denied to MPs.
  • Prorogation is just the same as the recess. Nothing was happening anyway. All a fuss about nothing. Again: wrong. All Parliamentary activity is shut down, including the work of select committees and the Lords.
  • The government is ensuring that there can be no PMQs, no emergency debates, no ministers called to the despatch box. At a time when it claims to be seeking a new deal with the EU and preparing for No Deal, it wants there to be no scrutiny at all of any of its actions or failures to act. None. It even threatens to take other evasive action if somehow some errant MPs were to try and do their job.
  • It claims that this is business as usual, as is always done before a new Queen’s Speech. This too is a lie. The length of prorogation is unprecedented and unnecessary if this was simply the normal short-term pause before a new Parliamentary session.
  • It claims that those opposed to or worried about a No Deal exit are opposed to any Brexit. Again, a lie: many of those expressing concern (Stewart, Burt, Gauke, Hammond etc) voted repeatedly for an exit on the basis of a deal, rather more often in fact than those criticising them and now in government.
  • It claims that this will show the EU that the government is serious about a No Deal; this will make it more likely that they will agree to a better deal.  Why?  The EU can see for itself the division in the country.  It is just as likely that a No Deal – particularly if it does not turn out well – will lose support and in that case the EU’s position would be strengthened.
  • It claims that No Deal will be “easily manageable”. Quite how this is consistent with the “It will terrify the EU” line is not explained.
  • It claims that it has a mandate to do this, ignoring both the context of the referendum and what it said at the time. The Foreign Secretary tells a series of untruths about what he said about No Deal during the campaign thus showing that he knows that the government does not have a mandate for what it is proposing to do. Why lie, after all, if you are confident of your ground?
  • A special mention must also go to those Cabinet Ministers: Hancock, Javid, Rudd, Gove – so clear a few weeks ago that democracy could not be delivered by shutting down Parliament – and so silent now.

And the latest rewriting of recent history: that MPs have spent three years pointlessly arguing about and desperately trying to stop Brexit. Yes – some do want to stop it and rather more want to stop No Deal. But all this has happened between November 2018 (nearly 2½ years after the referendum) and June this year. Rather than too much time, there has been too little time spent on really thinking properly about how to Brexit and what to do next.

So now we have a government scared of scrutiny, possibly hoping to provoke the opposition into overplaying its hand and a lot of agonised MPs worried about what is happening but lacking the ruthlessness to oppose effectively.  The fun never stops, does it?



The flaw in going into an election about “the will of the people” is that those thinking Brexit was wrong have a 6% lead

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

This rather narrows the target audience

This polling Tracker from YouGov has been asked at least twice a month since the 2016 referendum and the big trend is that there has been a shift from those thinking Brexit was right to those thinking that brexit was wrong.

This matters, I would suggest, if there is to be an election which is presented as being about the People vs the Politicians as is being suggested by many commentators this morning.

For the fact is that there has been a shift in opinion in views of Brexit and that it well over a year and a half since the YouGov tracker has found a lead for those thinking Brexit was right. Public opinion has not shifted very much but it has shifted and the steady leads for Brexit wrong should be a concern.

This is the trend table from YouGov which has not been updated with the latest poll. Until about GE2017 Brexit right was mostly in the lead.

The fact, of course, is that the UK remains totally split on the issue and Johnson could be going into dangerous territory by appealing to fewer than half of the voting population.

Mike Smithson