Archive for May, 2020

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A nice way to spend your Sunday afternoon, watching This House

Sunday, May 31st, 2020

Like Mike Smithson I love the play This House, I saw This House at the theatre back in 2012 and when it was repeated in the cinemas in 2013, so I utterly delighted a wider audience will be able to see this.

I was born in the late 70s but I’ve always been fascinated by these crucial votes in Parliament, particularly the 1979 vote of no confidence, something which is a pivot moment in the history of this country.

It’s fascinating to see alternative history if things had happened differently. The SNP MPs who helped usher in a Thatcher premiership and eighteen years of Conservative government, is that a long game the SNP were playing that might see Scottish independence realised within the next decade

Frank Maguire, the Irish Nationalist MP, who abstained in person, some say because Roy Mason’s tenure at the Northern Ireland office that gave the IRA such a good hiding, which saw deaths plummet, did Maguire really want the approach of Thatcher to the IRA?

Then there’s the honourable decisions taken about an agreement between Walter Harrison and Bernard Weatherill that would have seen Callaghan win the vote of no confidence. If that had happened then who knows, Thatcher may have failed to win an Autumn 1979 election, which would have seen her ousted and saw a non Thatcherite replace her.

So if you’ve got just over two and a half hours spare, watch this, you won’t regret it, the show will be removed from YouTube on Thursday, so it won’t be up for much longer.

TSE



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We need to talk about Donald Trump’s Twitter account

Sunday, May 31st, 2020

Donald Trump and his Twitter account seems to be the embodiment of David Cameron’s maxim about Twitter, but this week Trump seems to have really caught the attention of Twitter with some pretty interesting actions regarding his tweets.

So onto the betting angle of this story.

Ladbrokes have a market up on Trump’s Twitter account to be deactivated or suspended before the end of June 2020 at 10/1. Usually a profitable route is not to get involved in betting markets on where the bookie doesn’t offer both sides of the bet and I’m not breaking that rule in this instance.

The timeframe of this bet is too narrow for me, I can see Trump tweeting something that sees him suspended in the run up to the election, and possibly after the election, regardless of the result.

I cannot see Trump deleting his Twitter account, something he mentioned he might do the other day, it is a great medium for him to communicate with his supporters even if he wants to make himself a martyr and possibly complain about social media being socialist media.

I cannot see Twitter deleting probably their most controversial user, I suspect from a pure business viewpoint for Twitter Trump tweeting on a regular basis is good for business, especially one struggling in a pandemic economy.

So I really wish Ladbrokes would offer the other side of this bet.

TSE



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Counting the cost of keeping Cummings – tonight’s Opinium poll

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

Mike Smithson



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The betting chances of Minnesota Senator Klobuchar getting the VP nomination plummet following the riots sweeping the US

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

From a 25% chance to a 4% one in a few days

The huge story in the US at the moment are the riots in many leading cities which have been set off by the killing of George Floyd by a policeman. Floyd, an African-American, died in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, when a White Minneapolis police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This was all videoed.

Minnesota is of course where Klobuchar is from and her actions while a legal office after a similar incident 15 years ago have been widely highlighted and don’t show her in a good light.

It is looking now as though Biden would find it difficult to choose a white person for the VP slot and one who is progressing in the betting. Kamala Harris is still a strong favourite. But there’s been a big move to Val Demings. She is is a retired law enforcement officer who has served as the US Representative for a Florida congressional district, since 2017. Previously she had been Chief of the Orlando Police Department, the first woman to hold the position. 

In the current context she seems well placed to get the nomination which is decided by the presumptive presidential nominee. 77 year old Joe Biden. She’s currently 6/1 which appears to offer value.

Mike Smithson



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Lockdown is over. What next?

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

Complex and odd rules plus the Cummings effect mean the public will decide for themselves what to do about Covid-19

Winston Churchill did not go out of his way to sell sunny optimism. During the 1930s, much to the irritation of his own party, he led the campaign to rearm the country in the face of a Nazi threat he considered – and said – was much greater and more imminent than the government would allow. On becoming prime minister, he then levelled with parliament about the sacrifices that would be needed over years, famously having “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. And then in 1946, having delivered on that promise, he educated a world weary of war and death that the struggles were not over; that the democratic West’s erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, was the new enemy and needed confronting. These were not messages calculated to win favour. They were, however, necessary.

Boris Johnson, whatever his fantasies, is not Winston Churchill. He did, at the point of lockdown, admit that many people would die of Covid-19 before their time but since then, he’s reverted to his natural upbeat tones. This is an enormous error, all the more so because of the dubious circumstances in which the lockdown is ending.

It may be coincidence but the timing of the announcements of the reopening of schools and shops, and the relaxing of social distancing measures in England – as we now know, without the backing of SAGE; a marked departure from “being led by the science” – might easily be seen as an attempt to bury the bad Cummings news. If so, that would be reprehensible prioritising; if not, the government really should have made better efforts to answer ‘why now?’.

Whether the majority of the public notice that is doubtful. After all, the first two announcements didn’t shift the media narrative from Cummings anyway. The public has, however, noticed the Cummings story and is not impressed. That’s reflected both in specific polling on Cummings’ actions themselves, and in the voting intention figures. This time last week, the Tories were sitting on 12-15% poll leads; that is now down by more than half, to 5-6% (although the fact that it is still a lead is an indication of the trust problem with the public that Labour has).

The problem, however, is far from purely political. If the government’s anti-Covid-19 strategy is to work, it needs the public to follow it willingly because there is not the means to enforce it otherwise. And the public will only follow it if it believes in it and in the government’s handling of the crisis. I have severe doubts on that score.

For one thing, the rules themselves make little sense. You can meet up with six people from different households as long as you do so outside – unless you have to walk through the house to get to the garden, which is ok; and you can go inside to the toilet as long as you clean it afterwards; and so on. No-one is going to bother with that level of detail, especially when senior members of the government (which includes advisors), are clearly not fussed about the rules anyway and the PM isn’t bothered about criticizing such broad self-interpretation.

Besides, if schools are re-opening for the youngest primary school children, who are clearly incapable of social distancing, and shouldn’t be asked to try, then that merely adds to the impression that the rules are all over the place and that people are best making up their own minds as to what’s best. Given lockdown fatigue, we can therefore expect quite widespread social interaction among groups who don’t think themselves high-risk.

If that does happen – indeed, if the lockdown simply continues to unwind officially – we must inevitably see a new rise in Covid-19 cases. The virus remains very much in circulation. There were over 16,000 newly detected cases in the UK this last week alone but the ONS data indicates that the real figure could well be well over treble that.

Without a highly effective track-and-trace, there is no way to prevent a new rise in cases – and if little more than a quarter are being identified then there can be no effective track-and-trace, even if the technology underlying the track-and-trace worked, which is highly doubtful.

The question here is whether the government is ready for that and whether the public is ready for it. If the strategy isn’t being driven by the health science then (political tactics aside), the best assumption is that it’s being driven by economics.

That is not, of itself, unreasonable. The lockdowns in the US have led to 40m people signing on for jobless insurance. That’s the equivalent of around 8m in Britain, with a population one-fifth the size – and 8m is roughly the number of people on the government’s furlough scheme. The data ties together so neatly that we can reasonably take it as indicative of where we’d be without that scheme. But the costs of government support are crippling for more than a few months. The government borrowed £20bn more in the month of April 2020 alone than through the whole of 2019. Similarly, who knows how many zombie firms there’ll be out there if they’re unable to earn an income?

This brings us to a fine balance. On the one hand, if the restrictions are lifted quickly, there will be many more cases sooner and more people will die than would otherwise have done from the virus, while more may die from the NHS still having to be Covid-19 centric (it may have the additional capacity in hardware now but the staff who’d be needed to treat the coronavirus cases could be doing something else; it will be all-but-impossible to all the other services to run ‘as normal’).

On the other hand, a prolonged lockdown could harm the national finances to such an extent that the NHS wouldn’t be funded to the same level, while the mental impact on many people who’d otherwise be less affected would be more severe. And in any case, the virus is still out there in the world. Even if it could be restricted to small outbreaks domestically, could we really be sure that we wouldn’t import new serious outbreaks?

But here we return to the opening point. None of this is being talked about by the government. There is no discussion of the challenges ahead, of opening up, of staying locked down (or of having to lock down again – if that’s even possible), or of what the final destination is. By contrast, Churchill was clear on that point too, in the same 1940 speech: the final destination was “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory no matter how long and hard to road may be”.

Johnson has made neither the overall aim clear, nor the route by which it will be reached, nor the costs to be paid in getting there. That is more than seriously poor expectations management: it is a dereliction of the Prime Minister’s duty to lead. Indeed, it’s not even clear if there is any such grand strategy.

The aim must, in reality, be national herd immunity. The question is ‘how?’. Two routes are plausible. The first is to keep infections as low as possible, consistent with a functioning country, and wait for a vaccine. The other is to manage the herd immunity naturally; to let those sectors of the population most resilient to it go about their business and manage cases among them in an expanded NHS, while shielding the vulnerable. By accident or covert design, it appears that the latter is the road down which the UK is going.

Except that without that plan being put to the people (if there is sufficient design to dignify it as such), and without the people having trust in the government’s handling of Covid-19, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will shield and who will mix, with the result that many more vulnerable will die – as far too many in care homes already have.

Dominic Cummings is supposed to be a fan of Sun Tzu. He will therefore be familiar with his aphorism that “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. It seems to me that having sacrificed its Covid-19 strategy and any right to trustworthiness in order to protect Cummings, all the government has left now are tactics.

David Herdson

p.s. Last week I predicted that Dominic Cummings would end up being sacked. While that’s still possible, the odds are now firmly in his favour for the time being. My apologies for that error. I didn’t foresee that for once in his life, Boris Johnson would prove so loyal, at such a heavy price.



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Two thirds of those polled back the key English lockdown easing measure due on Monday

Friday, May 29th, 2020

But Scotland is seen as handling the pandemic better than England

Mike Smithson



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Boris looks as though he’s survived the Cummings lockdown road trip – but at what price?

Friday, May 29th, 2020

Can the PM get back to where he was?

The above is one of the videos now on YouTube with the words of the Proclaimers 500 Miles song adapted for Mr Cummings and his drive to Durham during the lockdown. This events of the past week have dominated the headlines and become a big talking point.

The question is what will be the long term political impact? All the polling as we have seen has been very negative with even many of those who voted for Boris in December being negative. It is not helped, of course, by the reaction of Cummings himself.

But what about Johnson? Will we be looking back at the events of May 2020 after the next general election and concluding that this was when the rot set in or is it going to be just a distant memory.

Times writer Phillip Collins has a good analysis this morning and argues that the PM “has sacrificed too much for Cummings”. He writes:

“It is hard to see how the verdict on its handling of the pandemic can be anything but harsh. Excess deaths in Britain appear to be one of the highest in the world and at no point has the government communicated a sense of being in control. Ministers have demeaned themselves with robotic tweets. It has been excruciating to see them grovel in support of Mr Cummings and there is not one among them who commands much respect. …. the government needs to husband the poll lead it enjoyed in the election and during Labour’s lotus years. Instead, Mr Johnson has wasted all his advantage on Mr Cummings. Politics is not always fair and it is not always pretty. Even if I thought Mr Cummings was entirely blameless, the decision to sack him would be easy. A collapse in the government’s ratings, of the sort that happened this week, is an event in the next general election. .. He is now a net liability, even if you defend what he did last month.

We’ll see tomorrow night what Cummings has done to the government’s and PM’s reputation with the regular approval ratings in this week’s Opinium poll. Last week’s survey was carried out almost entirely before this broke.

Mike Smithson



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Tonight’s National Theatre at Home re-run of the The House is a must watch for all political nerds

Thursday, May 28th, 2020

Tonight on YouTube starting at 7pm there’s a rerun of what to me is best play about politics in years – James Graham’s “This House” chronicling the period 1974 until Mrs. Thatcher’s victory in 1979.

It is set in the whips offices of both Labour and Tories from the February 1974 election being called through to 1979. We watch first the period when Labour tried operate without a majority and then as it tries to govern with a majority of 3 after the October 1974 election.

Death, defections and by-elections soon whittle that down to zero and we see some of the apparently crazy measures taken to keep the ship afloat when Labour didn’t have the numbers. The need to bring even critically ill MPs into the Palace of Westminster for major votes is a major part of the drama.

The Callaghan government, of course, fell on March 28th 1979 when it failed to win a confidence motion by the smallest of margins – just one vote.

It’s wonderfully funny but also very contemporary illustrating the huge difficulty party managers have in working with “the odds and sods” – the other parties who might help.

When I saw it on the stage in 2014 I came away very struck that Cameron was completely right in 2010 to enter into a coalition with all the limitations that placed on the party. A minority government might not even have survived the first Queen’s speech vote.

The play also brings back personal memories. For the whole of the 1970s I was an editor with BBC national news spending long periods working at Westminster. The play gets the feel for the period just right.

Enjoy.

Mike Smithson