Tory Armageddon or Tory Anti-Climax?

Will today’s House of Commons debate votes on the House of Lords’ wrecking-amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill prove to be Tory Armageddon or anti-climax?

This article was first published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 12 June 2018. 

Theresa May’s default instinct is procrastination. Her entire conduct of the Brexit negotiations has been characterised by deferral and delay, rather than decision. Today, however, comes the confrontation she can duck no longer. The House of Lords wrecking amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill come back to the House of Commons.

We can, however, totally dismiss the arguments of Unreconciled Remainers like Chukka Umunna and Gina Miller that for the Government to require all 15 Lords’ amendments to be debated and voted on in just 12 hours or so over the next 2 days is somehow an affront to democracy.

It takes either a breathtaking degree of chutzpah, or a staggering lack of self-awareness, for Umunna and Miller to (presumably) believe that their own blatant attempt to overturn the democratic decision of 17.4 million voters and stop Brexit somehow isn’t a far greater affront to democracy, but leave that to one side.

In 1999, the Blair Government, of which Umunna was, and Miller I suspect would have been, an enthusiastic supporter, made the Commons consider no fewer than 820 Lords’ amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill in just 5 hours.  The Remainers’ faux-outrage over 15 amendments in 12 hours or so over 2 days is risible, as well as being nauseatingly hypocritical.

Before her misguided decision to call last year’s election, May probably had the numbers, including the DUP and Labour Leavers committed to respecting the democratic outcome of the EU Referendum rather than Corbynite game-playing, to defeat the amendments and send the Bill back unamended.

Now, however, with May’s majority vanished, the picture looks very different, even with the votes of the DUP and those principled Labour Leavers. The rebellion by unrepentantly pro-EU, anti-Brexit Tory backbenchers – notwithstanding that, under a year ago, every single one of them stood for Parliament on a Party manifesto pledging to implement Brexit and leave both the Customs Union and Single Market – is now well into double figures.

It was boosted by Justine Greening’s refusal to accept a (justified) demotion in May’s Cabinet reshuffle, and by the (also justified) resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, because both have promptly joined the Soubry and Morgan claque in what is known as Remoaner Corner. Just in the past few days, former Environment Minister Caroline Spelman has thrown in her lot with them.

So attention has now reportedly turned to differentiating the 15 Lords’ amendments into Green, Amber and Red categories, in order of acceptabilty. Fine in theory, but most of the Red Amendments on which the Government might actually be inclined to dig in its heels, like continuing Customs Union and/or Single Market membership, or continued ECJ judicial supremacy, are precisely those on which the pro-EU Left in Parliament and the Tory anti-Brexit rebels intend to inflict a defeat on the Government, because they amount to their aim of a soft-as-mush Brexit-In-Name-Only.

As if that wasn’t enough, as a prelude the past few days have been dominated by David Davis’ (latest) implied threat to resign over the Northern Ireland backstop. At the time of writing, opinion is divided, depending on whom one chooses to believe, on whether Davis has once again backed down on a fudge, or May has capitulated by agreeing to time-limit the backstop, however nebulously.

It’s only a few days ago that comment and analysis was predicated on the forthcoming EU Summit on 28-29 June making the Parliamentary and Cabinet arithmetic difficult afterwards. Intriguingly, and as a reflection of how fast-changing this whole situation is, it’s now at least arguable that this judgment needs to be reversed.

Firstly, if May really has conceded a time-limited Northern Ireland backstop, (and even if she doesn’t resile from her concession in the face of unrelenting pressure from the viscerally pro-Remain mandarins of the FCO and Cabinet Office), it’s almost certain that Barnier and his Brussels colleagues will reject it out of hand at that EU Summit. Their aim is to exploit the UK/EU border in Ireland to stop Brexit.

Secondly, if she goes to that Summit on the back of several Parliamentary defeats brought about essentially by her own disloyal backbenchers, her position will be severely weakened. It’s the Parliamentary arithmetic that will make the EU Summit difficult, not the other way round.

Paradoxically, May’s, and Brexit’s, lifeline could be to refer back to that unnecessary 2017 General Election. It did at least have one advantage, of making the vast majority of her Remain-voting MPs face their constituents and promise to implement the Referendum result. She should have no qualms about reminding the rebels of that, and then make every Amendment vote a Vote of Confidence, in effect threatening them with another election.

But if she won’t, then she must go. For some time the political blogosphere hasn’t been reticent in calling for May to be ousted, not even necessarily to save Brexit, but because of her manifest inadequacies both as a Prime Minister and Party Leader – I myself called for her to go at TCW on 29 January this year –  but now the heavyweight commentators are even joining in, economist and Conservative Andrew Lilico’s devastating indictment of her at Reaction last week being but one example.

But her potential Brexiteer ousters, it appears, lack the courage to back their words with deeds. Like so many of their predecessors, it will be their fate to be remembered, not as Tory statesmen who upheld democracy, but Party hacks who, when it came to the crunch, put party before country. Anti-Climax seems far more likely than Armageddon to be today’s outcome.

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Tory High Command Is Un-Commanding

Theresa May, the leader who can’t lead, must go.

Note: this article was first published at The Conservative Woman on Monday 29 January 2018

“Tory High Command” is a journalistic cliché not much seen or heard these days. With good reason. Scarcely has there been a period in the allegedly-‘Conservative’ Party’s recent political history when command of any kind has been so conspicuously lacking. It’s gone either AWOL, or missing in action.

Where, and even who, is it? It ought to have been axiomatic that the Party’s former Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, absent to the point of near-invisibility during its disastrous 2017 election campaign, should have resigned in the early hours of Friday 9th June.

But he did not. Nor, apparently, was he asked to: presumably because Theresa May herself, near-fatally weakened by losing her overall majority in an unnecessary election, having fronted a campaign based on the personality of a Leader with no discernible personality, lacked the authority to demand it.

Instead, McLoughlin was allowed to remain in place for another 7 months, until May’s recent, botched, reshuffle. New Chairman Brandon Lewis has in effect been handed a poisoned chalice. The delay has not only diminished the political significance of the Chairman, but also exacerbated the structural and organisational issues he must grapple with before even starting to plan an electoral fightback. No “High Command” there.

Additionally, because May allowed blatantly-manoeuvring former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson to ‘recommend’ himself to replace Michael Fallon at Defence, she has a new Commons Whips’ team. They have to try to enforce the wishes of a Leader bereft of authority from frittering away their overall majority, among a parliamentary cohort including at least 15 resolved to frustrate the Government’s flagship policy. Not much ‘High Command’ there either.

Cabinet and senior MP discipline appears to have broken down almost completely, into open semi-revolt. Just in the last few days alone: – 

One inescapable factor is common to all of these. It is Theresa May’s own near-total lack of ideology, intellectual curiosity, governing-philosophy, vision, direction, commitment, strategy, competence, charisma, and, most of all, leadership ability.

The Hammond self-indulgence, contradicting what at least passes for Cabinet policy, is now her political litmus test. If May takes no further action beyond a timidly-mild rebuke to Hammond for going off-piste at Davos to signal appeasement to  the corporatist oligarchy, that will speak volumes, both for her own lack of Brexit-commitment and for her now terminally-expiring political authority and credibility.

To those of us who had deep misgivings about her on her unelected coronation in 2016, this comes as no surprise. In reality, Theresa May has been found out.

A surprise Cameron pick for Home Secretary in 2010, she flattered to deceive  at the Home Office, where a mediocre Secretary of State can hide behind the confidentiality that surrounds much of its remit. Other than refusing the extradition to the USA of computer hacker Gary McKinnon and finally procuring the deportation of Abu Qatada, her record there was largely one of failure, especially to reduce the level of immigration.

She’s remembered mostly for an instinctive authoritarianism – recall her proposed illiberal Snoopers’ Charter and Extremism Disruption Orders? – and for combining that with a default EU-philia which saw her opt back in to the equally-illiberal European Arrest Warrant, after UK membership of it had expired.

We now know that her fabled taciturn and non-committal demeanour, spun by her aides and supporters as ‘Theresa consults and weighs up both sides of an argument carefully before making up her mind”, was just that – spin. Too many voices for it to be coincidence have now come forward to say that the reason she sits and says nothing is because she has nothing to say – that it takes a while, but eventually they come to realise there just isn’t very much going on in there.

It’s now obvious this was more or less obscured, by her chiefs of staff during her first year in office as Prime Minister until they were forced out after the 2017 election débacle, and more recently by Damian Green in his de facto role of her deputy until his own forced resignation.

It was said of the hapless John Major that as Prime Minister he resembled a squishy cushion, in that he invariably bore, politically, the imprint of the last person who sat on him. The same conclusion on May is unavoidable. She is temperamentally incapable of leadership, essentially a careerist, preternaturally-cautious, indecisive, managerialist. Her government is pathologically timorous and desperate, trapped like a rabbit frozen in the twin headlights of a Brexit it’s anxious to dilute, and Corbyn.

This is no longer merely a question of putting Brexit at risk, much as though diehard-Remainer Tory MPs might welcome it as a consequence of their not moving against May. Continued leadership stagnation will usher in a Corbyn-led government, and the loss of their own seats with it.

May is simply not up to being Prime Minister. It’s an intriguing paradox that someone with such authoritarian instincts should be such an ineffective leader. But command ultimately requires leadership. Where there is no leadership, there is no command. Along with Hammond at least, she must go, soon, whatever the short-term risks.

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The De-Legitimisation of Democracy and the Demos

The reaction of the pro-EU Remain campaign to Leave’s victory in the 2016 EU Referendum has been an attempt to de-legitimise the Demos and even Democracy itself

Note: this is the long (and updated) version of an article first published at The Conservative Woman on Monday 08 January 2018

The EU Referendum was a seminal event in our political history for many reasons. One of them, however, was unique in modern times. In reaction to their defeat, the losing side’s leaders unleashed their inner contempt, not just for the result, but for the mass electorate, and arguably even for democracy itself.

The several distinct strands discernible in the Ultra-Remainers’ interpretation of the Referendum result were, and are, all intended to justify either ignoring, diluting, or overturning, it. That the flaws in them are so self-evident and so easily debunked, however, highlights their desperation.

‘The Leave vote was driven by racism and xenophobia, to stop all immigration’.

This first, knee-jerk, reaction has endured, an enthusiastic adherent being the habitually self-unaware Owen Jones, who in effect repeated it approvingly in a blog criticising the Remain-Elite’s demonisation of Leave voters (yes, really!). But, apart from the logical fallacy that wanting to stop all immigration (a minority view even among Hard-Leavers) is not prima facie evidence of either racism or xenophobia, how the accusation explains the large number of BME and Eastern European origin Leave voters is unclear.

The definitive rebuttal, though, emerged from Lord Ashcroft’s polling which found the majority of Leave voters voted on ‘Sovereignty and Democracy – the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. Even the second choice – ‘for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’ – is about control, not prohibition: the usual Remainer accusation of “to stop all immigration” is therefore exposed as just anti-Leaver prejudice.

‘Leave voters were predominantly un-educated, ‘low-information’ people, who didn’t know what they were voting for’

Even discounting its inherent repugnance – when did a vote’s democratic validity under universal adult franchise suddenly become conditional on educational or knowledge qualifications defined post-facto by the losing side? – this meme’s central tenet, that mere possession of any old university degree makes your opinions and vote valid, but those of your not similarly-endowed fellow-voters invalid, is risibly false. Just to give one example, 55% of graduates, apparently, believe that both poverty and income inequality are increasing, when in fact the exact opposite is true.

‘The Leave vote caused a spike in hate crime’

This imprecation was made possible at all only by the balefully-imprecise definition of ‘hate-crime’, an ‘offence’ requiring neither complaint, victim, evidence nor corroboration to be accepted and recorded. Rightly described by Brendan O’Neill as ‘the most cynical, politically motivated crime panic in memory’, and ‘the invention of a crime epidemic to the cynical, political end of defaming Brexit as hateful and dangerous’, it has now largely subsided, leaving its levellers looking especially malevolent, or foolish, or both.

‘The Leave vote was secured by Russian influence and bots on Twitter’

With this allegation, Remainer desperation descended into fantasy. It was rapidly demolished, not least by academic Matthew Goodwin’s comprehensive dismissal of the so-called ‘evidence’ for it. In summary, approximately 86 per cent of the allegedly Brexit-“influential” tweets, which themselves represented only 15 per cent the total analysed, were actually sent after the polls had closed, and fewer than 1 per cent of voters polled cited Twitter as their preferred information source.

‘They didn’t vote to be poorer, or to leave the Single market and Customs Union’

Actually, they did. The repeated insistence by Cameron and Osborne alone that a Leave vote involved quitting both the EU’s principal economic institutions meant that no-one could be unaware of those consequences of their Leave vote. The prominence given it, plus the findings of the Ashcroft poll, suggests Leave voters recognised there were economic risks in leaving, yet were still prepared to risk a temporary financial downside for themselves to ensure their children’s future in an independent,`self-governing democracy.

Varied as all the above reactions are, they do have one common factor which appears both unprecedented in recent history, and very disturbing. Albeit in different ways, they all seek, not merely to condemn or oppose the Leave vote, but specifically to de-legitimise it, as justification for ignoring, negating or overturning it. As historian Robert Tombs puts it: ‘Never in modern times has there been such an overt and even contemptuous attempt to deny the legitimacy of a popular vote.’

Previous unexpected election outcomes produced shock, as in 1992, or noisy street demonstrations by the losers, as in 2015: but I cannot recall a previous vote in modern UK political history after which the losers have embarked on a blatant campaign to invalidate the votes of the winners, and to such an extent as to challenge even the legitimacy of democracy itself.

Why? Well, those of what we can accurately label the Ultra-Remainer mindset, even carried over into regular general elections, have not been on the losing side in any election for approximately 25 years. After 1992, they got, in succession, Blair, Brown and Cameron: in effect a continuum of Blairite government reflecting their politics, right up until its abrupt repudiation by 17.4 million voters on 23rd June 2016.

For them, losing is a new experience, one which they don’t like, and can’t handle. And the underlying reason is that, as they’ve now shown and continue to show, they actually hold a low opinion of the masses, and, by extension, of mass democracy, especially when it delivers an outcome unwelcome to them.

It’s clear that, for so many, the overriding attraction of EU membership is because it enables as much politics as possible to be made immune from the need for popular consent – to be put beyond the reach of the capricious domestic democratic process and the electorate whose views they not only by-and-large do not share, but for whom they actively feel contempt.

In a way, we should thank them. Their Referendum-denying, insult-hurling, anti-Brexit demonisation and attempted de-legitimisation of 17.4 million people’s votes has revealed starkly the sheer extent to which this country’s elites tolerate mass democracy only for as long as it produces the results they want. When it doesn’t, they’re viscerally eager either to disparage it or suspend it.

And they are still disproportionately both influential and vocal, in politics, government, the media, academia, and big-business. As we go into 2018, Brexit is still not certain, despite being the largest vote for any single policy in British political history. It’s starting to feel as if democracy itself is dangling by a very tenuous thread.

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