Archive for September, 2019


Polling analysis: One in three CON GE2017 Remainers now say they’ll vote Lib Dem

Monday, September 30th, 2019

Team Cummings-Johnson working hard for Jo Swinson’s party

Thanks to Paula Surridge of the University of Bristol for first picking up this trend that an increasing and now sizeable chunk of CON Remainers from 2017 have now switched to the LDs.

This is based on Opinium polls which very helpfully provide cross tabs for what those sampled did at the last election broken down into their referendum choice.

The trend is such that former CON voters could be rivalling LAB-LD switchers as the biggest source of new support.

Mike Smithson


An interim government would need more than just a PM

Monday, September 30th, 2019

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of the opposition parties and ex-Tory refuseniks coming together to oust this government and install an interim government, tasked with a very limited role of negotiating an Article 50 extension, promptly followed by a GE. (A variant of this proposal would have the interim government stay in office long enough to call a second EU referendum, but that seems vanishingly unlikely).

Like many suggestions for resolving the impasse, this one immediately runs into difficulties. The first problem is who would be the interim Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it should be him, but hardly anyone outside Labour agrees. To have any chance of getting the necessary cross-party support, including the support of ex-Tories and those who left Labour precisely because of Corbyn, a far less divisive and extreme figure would be required. Ideally this should be someone with experience of government, and who has no political ambition for the future. Margaret Beckett has been tipped as one possibility, or perhaps Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman. Whether Jeremy Corbyn would support an ex-Tory PM, or ex-Tories support a Labour PM backed by Corbyn, is a problem which itself might scupper the idea.

Let’s assume, though, that that difficulty can be overcome and a potential PM agreed. In all the speculation about possible choices for PM, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that a government is more than a PM. It needs ministers as well. Admittedly, this short-lived interim government would not be developing policy, or introducing legislation, or making long-term decisions, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t need a skeleton ministerial team. Just as in the ‘purdah’ period after an election has been called, sometimes ministerial direction or the formal legal authorisation of ministers is indispensable. Although many minor ministerial posts and even some important Cabinet posts could be left vacant for the few weeks of the interim government’s existence, it would still need a Chancellor to sign off financial measures and to deal with any market or banking crises, as Alastair Darling had to in 2010. It would need a Home Secretary to be available to take action if there were a sudden terrorist atrocity or other emergency. It would need a Defence Secretary for similar reasons, and a Foreign Secretary to provide continuity in our relations with other countries. It would need a Lord Chancellor, and an Attorney General. In the current circumstances with Stormont suspended it would definitely need a Northern Ireland Secretary.

One can easily play Fantasy Cabinet Formation and put some names to these posts from those who supported the Benn Act. Phil Hammond or Ken Clarke could easily step up as temporary Chancellor, as could David Gauke, Yvette Cooper, or Vince Cable. The problem, though, is that the parties setting up this interim government would need to agree on dozens of such ministerial appointments, each one highly charged politically.

How likely is that, and how would the posts be divvied out? If Jeremy Corbyn were to agree on, say, Ken Clarke as PM, would he in return demand that John McDonnell becomes interim Chancellor? Or if the PM is a Labour figure, would Corbyn really be prepared to give his support to an ex-Tory Chancellor? Would the LibDems insist on Jo Swinson being in cabinet? Each appointment would become a complex multi-party negotiation amongst politicians who don’t trust each other.

This looks like one of those ideas – like Brexit itself – which looks more and more impractical the more you look at the details.

Richard Nabavi


Where the Cummings “People vs Parliament” plan might stumble: LAB voters significantly less concerned about Brexit

Monday, September 30th, 2019

How will this affect the campaign?

There seems to be little doubt that the Tories will take hits from the SNP and the Lib Dems in the coming General Election. On top of that there could be messy situations in seats where Tory MPs who have been sacked stand again under a different flag potentially splitting the blue vote.

If the Tories are to stay in the game and possibly win a majority then they need to take LAB seats something that proved particularly difficult at the last general election. TMay’s then party lost 28 seats to LAB but only gained six seats from them. It was the Scottish CON gains from the SNP that saved her bacon.

One of the challenges in what would be a Brexit dominated election is that LAB voters are less concerned about Brexit than those of other parties. This is shown in the above chart based on new Ashcroft polling data published at the weekend. Opinium’s poll for the Observer had broadly similar figures.

This is also in line with the large sample General Election day in June 2017. by Lord Ashcroft which sought to find out why people had voted as they did. A key question what was the main factor in determining people’s votes. This found 48% of CON ones named Brexit as the prime influencer whereas just 8% of Labour once said the same.

So just over 2 years ago CON voters were 6 times more likely to be concerned about Brexit than LAB ONES.

Labour might not be as vulnerable in its effort to retain seats in leave voting areas as might appear.

Mike Smithson



How strong is Trump’s Senate firewall?

Sunday, September 29th, 2019

A guest slot from Fishing

Almost three years ago, a few days after Trump was elected, I wrote a thread on this site saying that

  • the Democrats would be able to find an excuse to impeach Trump if they gained control of the House in 2018
  • for that reason, 2019 would be the peak year of danger for Trump in this respect
  • but I expected that the Senate would acquit, because of its likely Republican majority following the Midterms.

Given the events of the past week, and in particular the news that the Judiciary Committee will consider recommending Articles of Impeachment to the House, I thought it might be worth looking at the last point in more detail.  In particular, what would it need for that Senate firewall to crack? Is the implied probability of 16% too high or too low?

Reaction to the Ukranian phone call has been split largely, but not entirely, along party lines.  There was no direct, overt, quid pro quo between Trump and his interlocutor, but on the other hand a reasonable person could infer an implicit deal could have been agreed.  No evidence has yet come to light that Trump obstructed justice, but the classification of the record of the phone call seems fishy. So there is some smoke, but no fire. The remainder of this thread assumes that this will continue to be the case.

The precedent: The Senate must vote to convict (and then remove from office – the only possible penalty under the Constitution) a President by a two-thirds majority after a trial in which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides.  Three Presidents have faced impeachment:  Andrew Johnson (who was a Democrat, though he had been Lincoln’s Vice-President),  Richard Nixon,  and Bill Clinton

Each faced a Senate controlled by the opposing parties, though in the last two cases, votes from the President’s party were required.  Johnson and Bill Clinton managed to avoid removal from office, though there is little doubt that Nixon would have been removed, had he not resigned.

Composition of the Senate  Trump faces a friendly, though not entirely safe, Senate.  Republicans hold 53 seats. To get to the two-thirds supermajority needed to replace Trump with Vice-President Pence – 67 Senators – 20 Republicans must join the 47 Democrats if the latter are united.  The conventional wisdom is that there is little realistic prospect that he will be removed from office unless the investigation finds something truly extraordinary.  

How can we judge if this is right?  How likely is it that a significant number of the Republican Senators seeking reelection in 2020 will cross party lines and vote to convict Trump, without an absolutely ironclad case of a very serious crime?  In the United States, Senators are much less subject party discipline than MPs are over here. Conjecturing how they will vote is much more art than science. I should say there are three factors we can look at: whether the Senator is a “Never Trump”-er or an “Always Trump” -er or something in between; whether the Senator is up for reelection this year in which case public opinion may influence them more; and whether the Senator has commented on the allegations yet or not.

The class of 2014  If public opinion starts to tip, the strange, staggered electoral system whereby one-third of Senators face reelection every two years could start to favour impeaching Trump.  In 2018, Democrats held 25 of the seats up for reelection (including two Independents who caucused with them) and Republicans held eight. This meant that there was no realistic prospect of the Republicans losing their majority.  However, in 2020, it is the Republicans’ turn: 23 of their Senate seats are to be contested, compared to 12 Democrats. It is notable that, of the five Republicans who crossed party lines to vote to acquit Clinton of perjury in 1999, three (Chafee, Jeffords and Snowe) were facing reelection in 2000 (and one of the two others, Arlen Specter, subsequently defected to the Democrats).  They were more vulnerable to pressure from the public, who were mostly against removing the President from office. If all 23 of the Republican incumbents start to feel pressure from their voters or donors, Trump’s firewall will look a lot less secure.  

However, of the 23 up for reelection:


  • 15 are safe Republican seats, so incumbents are much less likely to feel pressure to impeach from 2020 voters.  Only Graham (South Carolina), Sasse (Nebraska), Daines (Montana) and maybe Cotton (Arkansas) have much of a record of voting against Trump, but all would have to worry about retaining the loyalty of their base and party in this and future elections if they voted the wrong way.  
  • of the remaining eight, two (Isaakson (Georgia) and Roberts (Kansas)) are retiring, so do not need to fear the voters at all.  Roberts is very pro-Trump, Isaakson slightly less so, but still mainstream Republican. Perdue (Georgia) and Ernst (Iowa), are Trump loyalists. McSally (Arizona) and Tillis (North Carolina) are broadly loyal to Trump and have perhaps become more so since facing conserative primary challengers.  Only Gardner (Colorado) and Collins (Maine) seem to me likely to back a serious impeachment challenge – indeed Collins has voted more against Trump’s positions than in their favour in this Congress!


So I think Democrats would be doing amazingly well if five Republican Senators from the 2014 class voted to convict Trump – indeed I would be surprised if more than a couple did so.

The classes of 2016 and 2018 What about the other Republicans in the Senate?  23 of the 30 can be considered Trump loyalists, at least if we judge by the votes they have cast.  It would need an earthquake for them to vote to convict him. Of the seven more independent GOP Senators, three – Murkowski (Alaska), Daines (Montana), Romney (Utah) – have expressed serious concern about the Ukranian phone call, while three (Paul (Kentucky), Hawley (Missouri) and Lee (Utah) have defended Trump.  One (Moran (Kansas)) has yet to comment.

At most three or four of the Republican Senators may switch sides.

Conclusion A Judiciary Committee investigation is an unpredictable tool, but Trump’s firewall should hold.  From what we know at the moment, I cannot see Democrats getting the 20 Republicans they need to convict and remove Trump from office.  Pressure from voters may cause those facing reelection this year to waver more than other Senators, but I doubt it will be enough. The current odds of 16% therefore look, if anything, too high.  President Pence will have to wait.




The booby trap. Prime Ministers under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

Sunday, September 29th, 2019

We are used to American presidents dominating their country’s politics.  “Commander in chief” can be understood in more than one way, given how the role has developed. It was not always thus. For most of the nineteenth century, American presidents were chiefly distinctive for their lack of distinction. In the sixty year period between Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, only Abraham Lincoln really stood out for his achievements. Taken as a group, they were strikingly anonymous.  

Taking the very broadest view, the USA did surprisingly well from this sustained mediocrity. Yes, it had a bloody civil war and yes, its treatment of its indigenous peoples in this period was atrocious, but it transformed into a major world power in that time. It seems that strong leaders are not prerequisites for a successful country. This does not seem to be a popular view at the moment.

The British commentariat has pretty much unanimously agreed that the nation is groaning for a new Parliament to enable us all to benefit from the smack of firm government but the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has left it unable to escape its shackles.

As with many consensus views, it’s absolute rot. There is nothing wrong with the system under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The problem is with the politicians who haven’t figured out how to work with it.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act has changed both more and less than seems to be understood. Let’s look first at the stuff it hasn’t changed. To get things done, a government needs to command a majority in the House of Commons. When one party has an overall majority, that’s straightforward enough. Then, the main constraint of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is to prevent early elections without the House of Commons’ blessing.

There isn’t a problem in a hung Parliament either when a majority is formed by a stable coalition. The government did just fine between 2010 and 2015.

For the last two years, however, we have had governments that have decided to dispense with seeking to form any stable majority and instead have sought to use their executive authority to get their way. In a system of Parliamentary sovereignty, this is not so much adventurous as reckless.  

Theresa May at least vaguely saw the problem. She cobbled together a supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP and, despite knowing that her party was divided and that she might have future differences with her new chums, hoped that would prove sufficient. It didn’t.

Boris Johnson didn’t even try. So far from conserving and building it, he has burned through his voting support. He has built a reliable majority against himself and in the process demonstrated his noisy impotence.

It turns out that if you want to get your way in the House of Commons, you need to have more votes than the other side. Who knew?

What the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has changed is how a Prime Minister who has lost his or her majority then leaves office. Defeats even on a central plank of policy do not evict the tenant of Number 10. A Prime Minister declaring that a matter is a vote of confidence does not do the trick – Boris Johnson tried that, but on losing declined to resign.

A Prime Minister leaves office alive only in one of three ways: he or she resigns; he or she loses a vote of no confidence and does not win a vote of confidence within 14 days; or a general election is called (whether by effluxion of time or in accordance with the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act).

This means that a Prime Minister who has lost his or her authority in the Commons rapidly loses their dignity too. They are trapped in office until their opponents decide to stop toying with them. Political opponents have a strong interest in destroying your reputation. Theresa May discovered, as Boris Johnson is discovering, that they are ready to take it.

How can would-be Prime Ministers in a hung Parliament avoid this fate? Here are a few simple tips.

  1. Construct a stable majority

This worked well for David Cameron between 2010 and 2015. It would work well again. Aim for full coalition rather than confidence and supply. That way the rascals have less scope to cause trouble.

Of course, that entails serious compromise up front. That’s the bit that most people find hard. Is that such a terrible thing in a Parliament where opinion is evenly balanced though?

  1. Don’t try to do too much

If your coalition spans a wide range of opinion or is fragile, keep your agenda focussed. Do less but do it.  

That is also a problem for politicians who want to launch eye-catching initiatives. That’s probably no bad thing either.

  1. Let someone else do the hard work

The most influential politician in a hung Parliament is very often pulling the strings rather than being the marionette. So often in life, you can either be the one who solves the problem or the one who is the problem. In my experience, being the problem is a lot more fun.

So if you’re influential and smart, always consider sticking someone else in the top job.  Let them wrestle with the challenges while you pose them. If they don’t oblige you, you can probably torture them until they accept your control. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” has a new meaning now.

Alastair Meeks


A confidence vote to get rid of PM Johnson could happen next week

Sunday, September 29th, 2019

The Betfair 69% on it taking place this year looks a decent bet

A leading SNP MP, Stewart Hosie, has told the BBC that there could be a confidence vote in Johnson as early as next week.

If this happens, given the current Commons numbers, Johnson would almost certainly lose and then, under the FTPA, there would a fortnight under which an alternative government could be formed and if not a general election would be triggered.

From what I can see the thinking is that getting the PM out now is seen critical to avoid a no deal Brexit on October 31st. A new government made up of all the opposition parties groupings including the Tories MPs axed by Johnson would then take over the reins of government to take the country past the October 31st Article 50 deadline.

The main problem is then who would become PM. While other parties might be happy with Corbyn Jo Swinson has been very clear that the LAB leader would not be acceptable and the LDs need to be on board. Alternatives such as Ken Clarke and Margaret Beckett have been suggested.

An interesting name that has been raised is the outgoing Speaker, John Bercow, who was originally elected as an MP for the Tory party.

My guess is that Corbyn might be prepared for another figure which is why my money is on Beckett.

A big issue overall is that although the referendum was for Leave the margin was so tight that a 1.9% Leave to Remain swing would have produced a different outcome. The Brexiteers got 51.9% of the vote but want 100% of the spoils. That could be their undoing.

You can get 69% on Betfair that there will be a second VONC in 2019 which looks like a good bet.

Meanwhile it is Tory conference time in Manchester.

Mike Smithson


LAB close the gap by 4 with Opinium

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

More to follow


Tommyknockers. The death of the old Conservative party

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

Stephen King has produced some dross. One of his worst is a book called Tommyknockers, the premise of which is that an alien spacecraft is found buried in the woods in Maine, and it then starts a creeping possession of the minds and bodies of the local townsfolk, until finally they mutate into the form of the aliens who flew in it. Stephen King himself has stated that he regards this as an awful book.

Nevertheless, it provides a good metaphor for what we have seen happen to the Conservative party in the last few years. Since the EU referendum was unearthed, it has undergone a slow transformation from a placidly liberal party of law and order and sound government into an angry and wild English nationalist mob.

Wednesday was the day when the Conservative party spat out the last of its liberal teeth. Fresh from its defeat in the Supreme Court, where the government had been found to have made an illegal attempt to suspend Parliamentary democracy, the party of law and order might have been expected to have been whipped and cowed.  

Not a bit of it. The government decided that the Supreme Court had got the law wrong and only its current inability to place itself above it meant that it would grudgingly comply with it. No apologies, no contrition for unconstitutionally suspending democracy. The Attorney General, so far from humiliated that his advice had been shredded, decided to boom out his opinion that this Parliament is dead.  

The Prime Minister refused to apologise and took the opportunity to rail over and over against what he termed the “Surrender Act”. In the face of outrage from opposition MPs, who queued up to ask him to moderate his language given the death threats they were receiving from those who adopted the Prime Minister’s words, he doubled down, describing as “humbug” a reference to Jo Cox and arguing that the best way to honour her was to get Brexit done.  

For a man who once professed a desire to unite the country, he’s doing a terrible job. His hero, Winston Churchill, once said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson was not prepared to go even that far to help woo the support of potentially biddable Labour MPs.

Most importantly, however, was the lack of queasiness on the Conservative benches. No Cabinet ministers resigned and no MPs have called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, despite his personal involvement in the greatest affront to democracy in living memory and its crushing rejection by the Supreme Court. Just a small handful of Conservative MPs who still hold the whip have expressed any qualms about Boris Johnson’s language, and none has done so in anything other than the weakest terms. The takeover of the Conservative party is pretty much complete.

(Amazingly, this takes place against the backdrop of a scandal that all by itself would have the potential to bring down a Prime Minister. When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson apparently steered funds and access to the start-up business of a young woman to whom he was very close at the time. Lord Sandwich supposedly said to John Wilkes: ‘You will either die of a pox or on the gallows’. Wilkes retorted: ‘That depends, my Lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles’. Boris Johnson seems to be attempting a unique double.)

Where next? There is no way back. The Conservatives have had a clean break divorce from prudence. In two short months, Boris Johnson has burned the party’s bridges. It will be a long time before we next see a Conservative leader who smoothly seeks to persuade the country that he or she will offer stable and strong government.

Instead, the Conservatives have cast their lot with populism. With Labour firmly campaigning as outsider insurgents as well, an opportunity is going begging for any party that wishes to campaign as the party of quiet competence and measured governance. The Lib Dems look very well-placed to pick that up, if they so choose.

The interesting question is whether they should actively seek this vote out.  There’s definitely a section of the public that votes for good government. However, the recent past has shown (and the Lib Dems’s own resurgence indicates) that having a tubthumping platform is a good vote-getter.

The Lib Dems, more than any other party, now stand at a crossroads. They have a big decision to make about their approach to the dissident Conservatives, who come from this spat-out strand of the Conservative party.  Do they seek to co-opt them or do they seek to leave them to be eclipsed? It would be a big message if, for example, David Gauke, Justine Greening or Dominic Grieve were to join them — but that message would be heard by left of centre voters as well as right of centre voters and may repel some voters as well as attract others.

It’s a big call and not an easy one. For what it’s worth, I think they should look to broaden their tent and actively reach out to those Conservatives who the current Conservative party not only rejects but regards as hate figures. In the coming years, having steadiness as a USP may be very valuable indeed.

Alastair Meeks