Archive for the 'BREXIT' Category


It is beginning to look that a no-deal Brexit could be off the agenda

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

While the media has been almost totally focused on the pandemic the time is running down on the transition period for the UK’s exit from the EU at the end of the year. This might change following the latest reports emanating from Brussels and Downing Street that suggests a deal is looking a bit more likely.

A big issue is fishing where until now Brussels has EU demanded that Britain must respect the right of fleets from EU countries to access UK waters on the same basis as exists at the moment. If, as now seem possible , this is not going to be a deal breaker then it clears the decks for possible progress on the trade deal aspects.

Johnson is under enormous pressure because the pandemic and the lockdown look set to impact on the UK economy more strongly than in most of the EU countries. The risk of a no deal Brexit is greater than it appeared at the start of the year before coronavirus completely changes the political agenda. According to the Times:

Brussels is preparing to back down over a Brexit fishing deal and acknowledge for the first time that European fleets do not have an automatic right to fish in British waters. In a concession to help to unlock negotiations, Michel Barnier is understood to accept that the UK will have to be treated as an independent coastal state and have annual negotiations with the bloc over fishing quotas from next year.

After a video conference yesterday the PM said the EU and the UK were “not that far apart” on the future relationship. What was needed was “a bit of oomph” in the negotiations which he suggested could be concluded by the end of July.

The Tories won their big majority six months with the slogan “Get Brexit Done” which makes it much less likely that a further transition period extension is possible.

Mike Smithson


Submission or No Deal: where do the Brexit talks end up this year?

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

It’s hard to see how there can be a bespoke agreement by December

If it was going to happen, it would have done so months ago. Confirmation yesterday that Britain would not exercise its right to request an extension to the Brexit transition period was one of the more predictable events of 2020. Despite the ravages wreaked on the UK economy by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown it necessitated, the danger of a No-FTA exit creating yet more barriers to trade and growth was always one the government was going to accept.

Partly that’s a function of the calendar. When Britain requested the Article 50 extensions in 2019, it did so with only days or at most weeks to spare. The issue was clearly critical and the danger of No Deal all too real. That’s not the case now, especially when most people are distracted by the pandemic. (Not that it would matter even if people were paying attention: Johnson’s 80-seat majority and the purge of the Europhiles has seen to that). The requirement that a request be made at least six months in advance was of itself almost enough to ensure it wouldn’t happen.

The one exception might have been the outbreak of the pandemic. That really did hit the ability to negotiate, as well as dominating the focus of No 10. The changed circumstances were a legitimate unforeseeable reason to pause things for a year. However, once March and April came and went with the plan remaining as before, it was clear that December 2020 was indeed the deadline.

There’s a real risk though that observers – and perhaps the government – might be misled by what happened last year. Those talks could be rushed at the last minute to a conclusion. True, Britain ended up accepting a lot of what the EU wanted but the deal could still be signed and sealed within weeks at the end of the year. Trade talks do not work that way.

Whether by accident or design, Britain is probably now in a position where it will have to accept almost the entire EU negotiating position or refuse a deal. Even if the EU was flexible enough to accommodate Britain’s demands – which is unlikely given their statements so far – the timeframe to have something new translated through two dozen languages of legalese and ratified (remember, we’re now outside the A50 process).

That almost certainly means there won’t be a deal. The EU’s demands on ‘level playing field’ conditions, plus totemic issues like fisheries should make it impossible for the UK to sign up. In truth, that would probably be the case whether or not there’s an extension. Still, the Commission is surely likely to stick even more rigidly to its mandate if it thinks that the economic pressure is even more on the UK side – which a 25% year-on-year drop in monthly GDP suggests it will be.

Will that matter? Oddly, the carnage that Covid-19 is doing could well mean that politically, the effects of Brexit finally happening in a meaningful way are much smaller than the pandemic and, as such, hard to discern. In the short term then, the public may well have bigger things to be concerned about and, once again, the ex-Remain camp will be accused of scaremongering.

That won’t be the end of the story of course. Britain probably won’t have the infrastructure ready for January 2021, either in respect of Ireland or the continent, there will still, ideally, need to be a trade agreement concluded and starting from a lower baseline might enable that more limited deal, and there’s also the question of Britain’s trade deals with other countries (which was one of the reasons for leaving in the first place).

But it will be the end of the long Brexit process. Worth it?

David Herdson


Who loves Dom?

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Cummings has burnt too many bridges to survive committing the cardinal British political sin: hypocricy

25 January 2016 is not a date that has gone down in history. Despite that, the events of that day were critical to Britain voting to leave the EU, with all that’s meant since. That morning, Dominic Cummings was summoned to a meeting that was intended to remove him from running the Vote Leave campaign.

The meeting did not turn out as its board intended. Cummings responded by asserting that key senior Vote Leave staff as well as a good deal of the rest of the office, would walk were he sacked; assertions that a few quick phone calls validated. In the face of losing pretty much their whole staff less than five months before the referendum day, they backed down. The rest is well known: the data mining, the social media campaigns, the £350m/week, the signing up of Gove to Leave, and the Boris Johnson – without Cummings at its head, there’s every chance that Leave would have lost (probably not by much but lost all the same).

The crucial point here though is that Cummings needed leverage to see off the coup, in the form of support from his Vote Leave colleagues; support he was confident he would get. It was all very well him being rude to the MPs who were notionally his bosses because ultimately, they didn’t have the power to remove him and once the point had been proven, he could ignore them at will.

This is a lesson he appears to have forgotten. Since ascending the heights of Boris Johnson’s key advisor, he’s retained his legendary rudeness and contempt for norms but without any obvious sign of building up the sort of Praetorian Guard that saved him at Vote Leave. He has a patron, of course – and a very powerful one at that, in the form of the Prime Minister. That, however, may not be enough for at least three reasons.

Firstly, a political patron has to balance the value of retaining their valued adviser against the damage that keeping him does. Johnson’s own political position is strong for now and he won’t be brought down even if he retains Cummings. Doing so, however, would spend valuable political capital with both the public and with MPs; capital the PM might not want to spend.

Secondly, neither the PM nor Cummings seem on top of their game at the moment – perhaps for health reasons. Cummings may well have come up with the “Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives” slogan: it certainly has his feel about it. There would be a deep irony if so. But that apart, the government hasn’t been co-ordinated recently, messages have been mixed, policies have had to be U-turned (the NHS immigrant charges, for example – an obvious bad policy to anyone with any political nous), and the media game is slipping badly. Any Odyssean Project seems still-born. So if he’s not doing much useful, is the pain worth it?

But most of all, Cummings is guilty of that greatest of British sins: hypocrisy. When people are prevented from attending the funerals of loved ones, from meeting critically ill family members, from all sorts of normal interactions in the interests of preserving the nation’s health, he – who quite possibly wrote the slogan that sums up the government’s strategy in eight words – not only didn’t stay home but didn’t stay home when he had Covid-19 symptoms. That kind of hypocrisy is not forgiven by the public.

Nor will forgiveness easily be extended to a protective patron who grants his friends special favours when livelihoods (and indeed lives) are being lost on a great scale. Such matters are not always critical but nor are they necessarily forgotten and they will continue to weigh in the balance.

The only way people usually survive such scandals is if they are effectively unsackable, as Cummings was in January 2016. He no longer has that ultra-loyal bodyguard – and even if he did, he’s in a different position now and is less important to Number 10 than he was to Vote Leave. I don’t see how he survives this. And I don’t see why he should.

David Herdson


Splendid self-isolation. The lack of realism infecting British foreign policy

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Play it again Sam. The piano is battered but the tune is very familiar. This time it is China that is the focus of the hostility. It’s too big, too powerful, too inscrutable and too responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. The John Bull tendency has decided that there must be consequences. There must be boycotts. China must be made an international pariah. The Huawei 5G contract assuredly must be ripped up. There must be a reckoning.

You must remember this refrain. Those furious with China now were in many cases furious with the very concept of the EU. Britain has made a collective decision to make trading with the EU, the world’s second biggest economy, harder. Now voices are pressing to pull up the drawbridge with the world’s third biggest economy.

Actually, Britain is going for the hattrick. It has made desultory attempts to negotiate a new trade deal with the USA, the world’s biggest economy.  Those seem to be foundering on a combination of resisting private healthcare access to the NHS and a horror caused by chlorinated chicken.  No trade deal looks likely to emerge any time soon.

Britain has sanctions in place against Russia and Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Brazil are also on the naughty step for many. How extravagant we are, throwing away potential trading partners like that. Someday they may be scarce.

Many Brexiteers argued that leaving the EU would enable Britain to enter into new trading arrangements with other countries more easily. Whatever the theory, this does not seem to be Britain’s proposed course in practice.

There are many problems with the hard right vision of Britain becoming Singapore-on-Thames. One of the biggest is that no one is prepared to get their hands dirty when specific choices need to be made. It’s all very well making the case in the abstract for being a buccaneering trading nation, but no one is making the case in the concrete for improving trade with individual countries that one way or another fail hygiene tests for many people.  

As a general rule, those on both the left and the right who talk most of internationalism are those who are most prone to attaching preconditions for their amity. The self-image of many Britons is that they are running Rick’s Bar, amorally working with everyone. The reality is closer to a monastery.

Britain should look afresh at how comparable countries deal with the imperfect behaviour of potential trading partners. For if they can stand it, so can we.

Every country wrestles with where to set the balance between open trading and not condoning state delinquency.  Every country draws the line in the place best suited to it. Britain seems to be talking itself into a particularly purist stance, driven by a toxic combination of anti-corporate animus and good old-fashioned chauvinism.  

It doesn’t help that many in Britain seem to overstate considerably the amount of heft it has. Britain’s economy is a sixth or a seventh the size of that of each of the EU, the USA and China. That’s considerable. It is not, however, going to be anything more than a competing consideration. It’s not that others despise Britain. If they gave it any thought they probably would.

Britain’s direction of travel forms part of a wider global trend. Britain is not the only country going through a bout of blaming China. Plenty of politicians in both the EU and the USA see that as a fruitful approach just now. Negotiations between EU and the USA for any kind of trade deal have ground to a standstill and they have instead ratcheted up an escalating tit-for-tat round of targeted tariffs, a feud that has not been halted by anything so trivial as a pandemic.

The trend worldwide is away from globalisation to regionalisation, to closed blocs and promoting national champions. Covid-19 looks set to cement this trend. You must remember this did not work particularly well in Britain when it was tried in the 1960s and 1970s. This leads inexorably to the Austin Allegro. (It didn’t work well elsewhere either – few mourn the Trabant.)  

As time goes by, horizons are shrinking around the world. This has happened before. The world economy was very open before the First World War. It took 100 years for the world economy to become as open again.  Perhaps it will be another 100 years before we get back to the levels of globalisation we saw till recently.

What next for Britain then? If the buccaneers have been keel-hauled by reality, something else is going to be put in its place. With Britain having left the EU and no one being able or willing to make the case in detail for working together constructively with other countries, Britain is drifting into the reactionary insularity that Nigel Farage has been advocating his entire career, steadily getting relatively poorer and less relevant year by year.  This is what the Conservatives have now signed up to deliver in government.

While Covid-19 continues to dominate all our thoughts, no one will particularly notice.  But one day, we’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of our lives.

Alastair Meeks


Reflections from Cyclefree: Here We Go (Again)

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

There were not many dogs, hardy or otherwise, out this morning on the North West coast, understandably so in view of the overcast weather. Still, on a clear day from the top of Black Combe , a couple of miles away, it is possible to see Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Beyond lies Ireland and the great big wide world beyond. All those opportunities! 

Just behind the spot where this photo was taken is Silecroft station, one of the few stations where you have to hail the two-carriage train to make it stop. The train travels from Barrow-in Furness up the coast to Carlisle via Sellafield, Whitehaven and Maryport, a town originally settled by the Romans and later turned from fishing village into a coal port.  

All three constituencies along this coast are now represented by Tory MPs, the first – Copeland – having fallen in February 2017, a precursor of Boris’s later breaches in the Red Wall. The clues were there in the EU referendum result where between 60 – 62% of those voting voted to Leave. In 4 years there have been 3 General Elections, 1 referendum, 1 EU Parliamentary election and, in Copeland, 1 by-election.  One part of GK Chesterton’s “people of England” has certainly spoken.

Have they felt forgotten? The referendum vote might suggest so, though South Lakeland, a mere 40 miles east voted to remain. The area has not been all that forgotten though. A sign on the beach edge proudly announces the arrival of Superfast Britain, funded in part by the European Regional Development Fund 2007-13, the EU flag logo next to this announcement having been carefully scratched in an attempt to obliterate it. 

Will voters here continue to feel forgotten by those now in charge? It will take more than having a Cabinet meeting outside London to impress or effect real long-lasting change, even after the Brexit desired by a majority.

One of the happy side-effects of being laid up with illness is having time to read, including Dominic Sandbrook’s “Who Dares Wins” about the early years following an equally disruptive break with a long-standing political and economic consensus. There are echoes with now:-

  • A PM winning unexpected voters and sneered at for being populist by those unable or unwilling to understand how voters could possibly bring themselves to vote for such a person.
  • Labour in the grip of in-fighting, leadership elections and the Left seeking to get control. Two of the minor players then became party leader and founder of Momentum, a reminder that when a party’s leadership cannot say what it is for there will be plenty willing and able to fill that vacuum. Oh and Ken Livingstone was, even then, embarrassing his party with offensive comments and ignorant historical analysis.
  • A Liberal leader having their grandiose ambitions squished by voters.
  • A fruitless attempt at creating a centrist party or, perhaps more accurately, a “party for the people who know what’s good for the people”. TIG might have saved itself a lot of grief had it realised that a promise of a return to a semi-mythical non-ideological consensus is rarely the change people want when they are fed up with what they have.
  • A nostalgic nationalism exemplified by the reaction to the Falklands War, seen by some as a welcome fight back against a sense of failure and of Britain as a nation in retreat. The need to see Britain as somehow oppressed, fighting for independence (its own or others) and regaining its pride and self-confidence through some dramatic act seems to have a long history.

There are perhaps two lessons from that time for now. Mrs Thatcher, faced with an unexpected and difficult war and the challenges it posed, rose to the occasion – and turned into a real leader – one who understood her limitations, listened to her expert advisors and backed those who did the work behind her triumphs. When she forgot those lessons to believe her own myths, the path to her downfall was set. Will today’s leaders rise to the occasion they say Brexit offers?

And the second? “A change has come about in Britain,” written – shortly after the Falklands war ended – by one politician driven mad by his obsession with sovereignty. “We are ourselves again.”  It is a sentiment which might be said by any one of the many pro-Brexit politicians now in charge.

But who is this “we”? Are “we” even one people anymore? And what kind of a people will “we” now be? We shall see.



The SNP’s Brexit conundrum

Wednesday, January 29th, 2020

Drink, says the Porter in the ‘Scottish Play’, is an equivocator with lechery: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance…. it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him”.  So it may prove with Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Nicola Sturgeon loses no opportunity to remind Scots that Brexit is taking them out of the EU ‘against their will’, citing this as justification for holding another independence referendum so soon after the last one.

It’s a good political argument, as far as the provocation of desire is concerned; Brexit does indeed seem to be acting as a lever prising Scottish self-identity further away from the Union.  For now, Boris Johnson has ruled out authorising another independence referendum, but that does not look sustainable for very long; no doubt it will be another of his promises which he can’t keep

You can expect Brexit to continue to figure very strongly in the SNP’s case both for another referendum, and for a Yes vote when they eventually hold one. Yet the objective effect of Brexit will be to make Scottish independence much more difficult than was envisaged when Scots voted in the 2014 referendum.  The Scottish government at the time claimed that Scotland could ‘remain in the EU’ and that therefore there would be very little disruption to trade not only with the Continent, but much more importantly with the rest of the UK. 

Of course there was a lot of hand-waving here: it was never clear how the transition from being part of the UK to becoming a member state of the EU was going to happen, and the then EU President Jose Barroso emphasised how difficult it would be, requiring a full accession process and the formal consent of all member states. This is disputed by some experts, but, whatever the exact legal position, the SNP’s broad point was surely correct: it was inconceivable that Scotland would be excluded from the EU for very long, and in practice some transitional mechanism would have been agreed to avoid disruption to trade and the economy.

EU membership is not only central to the emotional and identity-based case for Scottish independence, in 2014 it was central to the economic case.  There would have been no need for a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK; closely-integrated trading relationships across the border, accounting for 60% of Scottish external trade (the EU accounts for just 18%), would have continued undisturbed.

Not any more.  Although the Scottish border thankfully doesn’t have the violent history of the Irish border, in other respects the same problems of creating an external EU border within the British Isles, as would happen if Scotland left the UK and then joined the EU, would apply.  Brexit makes Scottish independence more difficult, and more economically damaging, with the damage being more severe the more the UK detaches from the Single Market.  The SNP’s siding with Corbyn and the ERG to torpedo Theresa May’s softish Brexit, which would have produced a much more frictionless border than Boris Johnson is aiming at, looks short-sighted. 

Further, the political argument that Scotland would be ‘remaining’ in the EU can no longer be deployed.  There will be no status quo of Scotland being part of the EU, with the UK’s opt-outs, to build from.  That in turn makes accession to the EU more problematic: adopting the Euro, and perhaps even joining Schengen, would be harder to resist.

To make things worse, the North Sea oilfields, once seen as the primary economic opportunity of independence, now look much less attractive, with the oil price much lower and climate change concerns mounting.  The SNP’s economic case, already thin in 2014, has been severely damaged by all these ‘changes in circumstances’. Enough to scare Scottish voters off independence in a second referendum?  Maybe not; we should know by now that identity politics often trumps economics, and perhaps Brexit will, as many believe, lead to Scotland breaking up the Union, in an act of self-harm ironically similar to Brexit.  But it doesn’t look a slam dunk: desire may have been boosted by Brexit, but performance would be even more difficult than looked to be the case in 2014.  Project Fear v2 will have plenty of material to work with.

Richard Nabavi


Brexit’s Hotel California

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

This time next year, we’ll be in a very familiar place

They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Originally was said of the Bourbon monarchy after its restoration, it’s equally true of the EU Commission today which seems intent on repeating all its own mistakes for lack of comprehension that they are, in fact, mistakes.

Perhaps this might be because one of the easiest ways to turn a blind eye to existential threats is to convince yourself that the reasons for those threats existing is nothing to do with yourself and everything to do with the obsessions and prejudices of the other side – which by definition can’t be engaged with because they’re not the product of rationality. The best you can do is strengthen your defences and wait for the crisis to pass, at whatever cost.

This attitude isn’t, of course, unique to the EU. England, from the government through to individual citizens, could benefit by asking itselves why support for independence in Scotland, for example, remains so high – and by trying to answer the question as honestly as possible. It’s not just about oil (which may well be a worthless asset into the future anyway). But that’s another discussion for another day.

As far as Brussels has been concerned, the critique and solutions that Cameron put forward in his Bloomberg Speech were so heretical that they needed to be opposed, even at the risk of Britain being forced out of the club (granted that this risk was misappraised in advance and grossly underappreciated).

Consequently, Cameron’s negotiations – which his campaign promises of 2015 obliged him to undertake – became a question of British special pleading, which was at least something that Brussels had the conceptual capacity to process but one which would, inevitably, grant the minimal possible. And for want of a decent deal, that ‘minimal’ meant that Britain’s membership was lost.

It’s not necessary to repeat the whole history of the last three and a half years to see the same repeated pattern of grudging engagement, maximal demands, misjudgements about what would be acceptable, a UK political crisis as a consequence of unrealised expectations or broken pledges, a rupture and a failed agreement.

We should deal here with the cynical explanation that Brussels actively wanted Britain to leave; that it didn’t regard it as ‘properly European’, that its membership got in the way of The Project and that Brexit itself would bind the rest more closely together. Such a view is, to my mind, a mishmash of ex post facto reasoning on how Brexit has played out, a confusion of interpreting the comments of a few zealots as being representative of the whole, and – typical of conspiracy theories – the attributing of an excessive control of events to the dark forces of the enemy.

It’s far too early to say whether the political benefits to the EU of Brexit outweigh the economic, security and other costs and while cynics would say ‘ah, but the important thing is not what has happened but what they expected in advance would happen’, the far more likely explanation to that objection is that they consistently didn’t think that Britain would leave and that therefore they didn’t need to do more.

But this time there won’t be a failed agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, only introduced this week, has already passed its Second Reading and the government can confidently expect it to become law by the end of January. Any belief or expectation that Britain would eventually, somehow, remain are now over.

That’s not to say there won’t be a battle in January over the detail. The government has ruthlessly stripped the Bill of the concessions it previously made to the pre-election hung parliament and opposition MPs will no doubt bewail futilely that development. The Lords, however, where the Tories don’t have a majority, could well succeed in reinserting some or all of the dropped clauses. If so, chances are that this will be a final echo of life before 12 December. The government will argue that it has no need to parrot what foreign countries agree among themselves, that Westminster is perfectly capable of delivering on workers’ and environmental rights itself, and that in any case, Taking Back Control means such decisions (or indecision) should be Britain’s to make and for those who do so to be accountable for it.

The one area where a Lords amendment might succeed is in parliamentary oversight and involvement. Number Ten has an unusual and unhealthy aversion to parliament (and counterproductive given that any Tory leader is only ever 48 hours from being dumped by his or her own MPs), but concessions on a temporary process don’t affect any fundamental interests and arguing for the exclusion of MPs sends poor signals. Best to throw the dog a bone while you’re enjoying a banquet.

However, while Brexit might be legally ‘done’ on 31 January next year, it won’t just go away, much as many might like it to. The UK and EU will then have eleven months to conclude a trade agreement. Trade experts generally believe this impossible and if conventional processes are to be adhered to, they’re almost certainly right. But politics can provide solutions where the circumstances demand it and the ingenuity is there; Brexit is a unique circumstance and wider precedent is not necessarily a good guide.

Or that would be the case were it not for everything about Brexit so far, and indeed about what we already know about the incipient trade talks. Charles Michel tweeted again yesterday that “a Level Playing Field remains a must for any future relationship”, which is almost certainly code for an EU demand that it set and enforce, and the UK be obliged to implement, standards on pretty much anything from product regulations to social policies. Whether the EU’s concept of the Level Playing Field extends to financial services is a more open question and a genuine card in the UK’s hand, albeit in a game it doesn’t want to play.

But either way, once again the EU is playing hard-ball to a degree that suggests they either don’t understand what’s going on in British politics, or they do but that they don’t care because they’re so wedded to Ever Closer Union that it must bind even a state that leaves the club – which truly would be a Hotel California Brexit.

Is there any logic behind the EU’s stance? Yes, on a tactical level, there is. If we ignore the strategic calamity of turning one of your biggest members and financial contributors into a best an ambivalent outsider, the EU’s negotiating tactics have been highly effective. Time and again, the British government has agreed to what it said it wouldn’t, either because the UK side felt compelled by the circumstances or because of a change in personnel. True, time and again, the British parliament or people have rejected those deals but the negotiators’ job was only to launch the deals; where they came down was someone else’s department.

As regards the next round, the EU can look at Johnson and see someone who has sold out his former partners in the DUP and agreed without much fuss to one of the EU models on display. They can also looks at someone without a strong personal ideology and whose Euroscepticism is so thin that he didn’t even decide to campaign for Leave until February 2016. Johnson might have always regarded the EU as an outlandish absurdity but he also has something of a soft spot for outlandish absurdities, perhaps not without self-interest. In short, they can see what they want to see: someone who will bend to pressure.

What such an analysis would miss is that Johnson is under pressure from both sides. Having sold his political soul to Leave in return for the keys (but not the title deeds) to Number Ten, he is under an obligation to deliver for them. In normal circumstances, relying on Johnson’s sense of obligation might be a little naïve but in this one it’s backed up by the hard fact that the Tory majority is nothing like sufficiently large enough to make the ERG irrelevant, not least because most of those new MPs that constitute his majority were elected from strongly Leave seats on a specific mandate to Get Brexit Done.

What that means in practice is that the December 2020 deadline is real and that the UK government won’t be able to sign and deliver a deal that ties Britain to ongoing comprehensive regulation from an outside source that it has no formal input into. The chances of a No Deal in a year’s time are therefore quite high: I’d make them narrow odds-on. The chances of nothing being agreed – and therefore No Deal being on the table, with all the risk and uncertainty that brings – before the backend of next year are all-but certain.

Welcome to the new year: just like the old one.

David Herdson


Labour’s last chance?

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

You can only play with fire for so long before being burned

Labour is rather fortunate. Rather than looking on at a mere disaster, its members and supporters could have been witness to the electorate having smote the ruin of a once-great party unto the dust.

Despite Boris Johnson having led the Tories to their highest vote share since 1979 – and their sixth successive increase in share, the last three in government – there was surely the potential to have polled even more strongly had the Tory leader had the confidence and ability to face media and public scrutiny. Margaret Thatcher would not have ducked an Andrew Neil interview, never mind hidden in a fridge. Perhaps for Boris, those manoeuvres were the right tactical choices but sceptical voters can’t have been impressed.

But the Tories can only ever be rivals to the Labour Party; existential threats must come from the left-of-centre. Outside of Scotland and Wales, that means primarily the Lib Dems. Over the course of the election campaign, the Lib Dems lost more than a third of their support, mostly to Labour. The last five polls before the vote for the early election all put the Lib Dems in the 18-20% range and Labour between 21-26%. Had that campaign-period swing not taken place then not only would Labour’s losses would have been far, far worse but the Lib Dems would themselves have made solid gains – and that swing was not guaranteed.

In the event, Labour ran a sufficiently dynamic campaign, while avoiding public infighting, to be able to claim the mantle of being best-placed to oppose the Tories and Brexit. They also ended up being the more moderate Remain option, despite the logical difficulties of their policy and Corbyn’s own position. The Lib Dems would have been better, in retrospect, to have maintained their Second Referendum policy, putting – and backing – Remain against Johnson’s deal. But without a stronger, more heavyweight leader, the Lib Dems would probably have suffered whatever their policies.

What the election did show was just how weak the bonds between voters and their party now are, outside a few ultra-safe areas, and how rapidly they’ve dissolved. This problem isn’t unique to Labour of course – the Tories’ EP election result shows a similar breakdown on the right – but it was they who suffered the worse this time. And the Tory Party in 2019 once again showed its willingness and ability to dump a failing leader; Labour demonstrated their inclination to protect theirs.

Where does this leave Labour going into the next parliament? Well, on the one hand, it has a field of opportunity. Johnson’s ratings took a hit during the campaign but he was given the votes both to complete a task and to keep Corbyn out. Both tasks are likely to be complete within a year at most. Unless Labour elects a similarly extreme and incapable leader (which given the membership and current Labour front bench has to be a possibility), he will not find votes so easy to come by in 2024 – if indeed he is still Tory leader by then.

Indeed, the Tories, having undermined their own voting coalition of generations in order to build a new one round the transient issue of Brexit will find their own base decidedly wobbly unless they can firm up Brexit into a wider values-based alliance.

However, oppositions will only be given so long to challenge a government, especially one that hits trouble. The 2017-19 parliament showed the strains within Labour but memories of the 2017 election must have stayed some hands that now wish they’d acted. If Labour does elect a new leader in the old one’s image, they will be playing with fire.

David Herdson