Tag: Parliament

The Conservatives’ radically changed electorate may mean some awkward policy choices

The much-changed shape of the new Tory electorate means that PM Boris Johnson, if he wants to retain enough of its votes to secure a second term, will have to pursue some policies which are anathema to his party’s metropolitan ‘liberal’-‘progressive’ wing 

Just after his victory in the Tory leadership contest last July, I suggested eight key tests by which we might judge whether Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would delight or disappoint us. Then, just before the 12 December general election, I tentatively assessed his performance against each test, and overall.

However, the largely unexpected scale of the Tory election victory – net gain of 48 seats, largest overall majority (80) since 1987, and breach of Labour’s Red Wall in the Midlands, Wales and the North – has changed the rules of this particular game. The size of the Tories’ overall majority, coupled with the markedly changed character of the Tory electorate, means that Boris’ approach to both party management and policy in the new Parliament will have to become somewhat different.

The past three-and-half-years showed starkly the problems in trying to enact the democratic mandate for Brexit with first a small, and then subsequently no, overall majority, especially with a Parliamentary party whose MPs were mainly anti-Brexit, and Opposition parties’ MPs almost exclusively so. A large majority, however, isn’t necessarily a panacea: it merely creates a different set of potential problems.

Irrespective of the size of the majority, the payroll vote remains at around 110-120; if Dominic Cummings’ plans to reduce the number of Whitehall departments by scrapping some and amalgamating others come to fruition, it may even reduce to around 100. That means approximately 265 Tory MPs, including the 109 newly-elected ones, who are destined to be mere backbenchers for the foreseeable future, with limited prospects of advancement to even junior ministerial rank.

As time goes on, the numbers of ambitious but promotion-denied, or resentful, or sidelined, or disaffected, MPs will tend to grow, increasing the potential for trouble-making. With a large majority, rebelling or abstaining to try and ensure a harder Brexit becomes politically cost-free, since it carries no risk of bringing the government down. Or, going in the other direction, Boris could pursue an ultra-soft Brexit with impunity, knowing that the votes of the clean-break Brexit ERG-‘Spartans’ were no longer crucial.

Unlike most general elections, last month’s was arguably seismic, on a par with those of 1945 and 1979 for the way in which it represented a shifting of the political tectonic plates, rather than just a normal swing of the pendulum of volatile public opinion. Millions of working class people who previously had always voted Labour, either from a combination of family and community habit stretching back generations or from tribal loyalty, abandoned the party and voted instead for a wealthy, privileged, Old Etonian Tory toff.

How Britain voted 2019 social grade-01

The awareness that one of the most momentous electoral upheavals in many decades was taking place crystallised in the early hours of Friday 13 December, as former bastions of Labour voting in the Red Wall were demolished, and swathes of the map of England’s Midlands and North turned from red to blue. This was not so much an election as an earthquake, just as The Daily Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs predicted in advance on BBC Question Time.  

The data tells the story. Former rock-solid Labour mining-area seats like Bishop Auckland, Redcar, or Blyth Valley went Tory for the first time in many decades, in some cases in almost a century, often with double-digit swings. It’s now possible to cross Northern England, on a more or less direct route, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, without ever setting foot in a Labour-held constituency. 24 Labour-heartland seats voted Tory for the first time ever

Fall of the Red Wall GE 2019

Labour lost votes in no fewer than 616 seats: the biggest swings came in those where the the Leave vote in the 2016 EU Referendum exceeded 60 per cent – an intriguing symmetry with the fact that 60 per cent of all seats held by Labour in 2016 voted for Brexit. Labour’s performance was actually worse than in 1983 under Michael Foot: then, it at least retained seats and thus a presence in Scotland, whereas now it is as good as wiped out north of the Border. Overall, it was Labour’s worst performance since 1935.

The commentaries are no less persuasive. Working-class voters abandoned Labour, wrote former Tory adviser Nick Timothy in The Daily Telegraph, primarily because they recoiled from what it has become: a party almost exclusively of first, the relatively-affluent woke metropolitan ‘liberal’-left in university towns, and second, of the welfare-state dependent poor in inner cities.

The Party’s leftists’ scorn for working-class attachment to patriotism and democracy, damning it as ‘far-right’ and ‘racist’, got its just deserts, observed Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. Doorstep canvassers and opinion-pollsters alike were near-unanimous in citing Labour’s betrayal of Brexit and its eccentric Corbynista nonsense as voters’ quoted reasons for deserting Labour in droves, noted Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator.

This was not just a recent development. For a deeper insight into how Labour got it so wrong, and came – gradually but deliberately – to drive away its traditional working-class base, and the consequent electoral and political implications, I’d recommend two conversations: first, this illuminating one-hour discussion between political scientist Professor Matthew Goodwin and the editors of Triggernometry. . . .

. . . and second, this fascinating dialogue between Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman. The Labour Party’s and the working-class’ mutual abandonment and disconnection was both predictable, and long predicted. 2019 was, after all, the fourth consecutive election in which the size of the Tory working-class vote increased since 2010. Growing anti-EU feeling was not the sole cause of it, but Brexit was the catalyst for the dam finally bursting electorally.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though. The Tory vote suffered considerable attrition across Remain-voting areas. They lost votes in no fewer than 254 seats, and actually lost their seats in Putney (to Labour) and Richmond Park (to the LibDems).

Furthermore, although Corbyn was emphatically rejected by the voters, that isn’t necessarily also true of some aspects of Corbynism. As one of the more thoughtful and less, euphoric analyses reminded us, some of Corbynite-Labour’s policies, like rail and water-supply nationalisation, or enhancement of workers’ rights, are still popular. And, against the background of a Tory party which has for years shied away from making the classical-liberal case for consumer-capitalism and free markets, Corbyn’s ostensibly bizarre claim that Labour had partially ‘won the argument’ can’t just be dismissed out of hand.

Labour policies popularity YouGov 09-Nov-2019

If I seem to have covered this at length, it’s to try and emphasise the extent of the quite dramatic and psephologically significant change which 12 December 2019 produced in the Tory electorate. As commentators observed, this election really did represent a major political re-alignment. It’s partly as if there’s been almost the political equivalent of a reverse takeover, with anti-Brexit Tory votes in the richer southern territory of Remainia leaking away to either the LibDems or (presumably) the Greens, but being replaced by working-class pro-Brexit votes in the poorer Midlands and North. 

How Britain voted 2019 2017 vote sankey v2-01

In summary, the Tories’ new electorate for the 2020-2024/5 Parliament is older, less-affluent, more blue-collar, more northern, less university-‘educated’ (?indoctrinated?), more economically statist and collectivist, but also more socially and culturally small-C conservative, than at any time in living memory.

Crucially, it’s also much more pro-Brexit than was its previous iteration during either of the 2015-2017 or 2017-2019 Parliaments, the Conservative vote appearing to benefit from 2016 Leavers’ votes to a greater extent than Labour benefited from 2016 Remainers’ votes.

How Britain voted 2019 vs EUref sankey-01

But retention by the Tories of the votes of its new electorate can’t be taken as a given. Their recently-acquired voters’ future support is not guaranteed, but conditional on Boris’ government delivering what he pledged in order to get them to cast their votes for the Tories, many after breaking the habit of a lifetime. To be fair, Boris did himself acknowledge this in his victory speech, when he thanked first-time Tory voters for lending him their votes, vowed never to take them for granted, and admitted that they would have to be re-earned.

This is where tensions may arise. Assuming that Boris not only wants, but actually needs, to retain that new voter base through Brexit up to the next election and beyond, some of what he will have to do to achieve that goal may well jar with the fundamentally metropolitan, cosmopolitan, ‘Liberal’-Conservative instincts of both himself and his party’s more historic supporters – especially those acquired in its Cameroon ‘modernisation’ phase, some of whose promoters are still prominent in the Party’s hierarchy.

On Brexit, immigration, fiscal policy, multiculturalism, gender/identity-politics, and the Green agenda, to name but a few, it’s possible to see where the two discrete electorates making up the current Tory Big Tent could diverge, and where Boris could be forced to make some awkward and electorally-risky choices. The direction and success of Britain in the 2020s will depend on how successfully he is able to navigate this tightrope.           

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What Boris Johnson owes Nigel Farage

Rather than with a devalued and discredited knighthood or peerage, the best way for Boris Johnson to repay his indebtedness to Nigel Farage for enabling both his premiership and his election victory would be to implement the Tory manifesto’s promises of reforming and re-democratising our politics.

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 18 December 2019

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”  (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII)

You might think that an overall majority of 80, a number at or even beyond the most optimistic predictions before last Thursday night’s exit poll, and the largest overall majority in Parliament for the Conservative Party since 1987, would have been satisfaction enough.

Apparently not, though, for those elements of the Conservative Party who, after briefly celebrating, reverted to berating Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party for either standing at all, or allegedly depriving them of victory in several other seats retained by Labour, by standing its own candidates there.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate that I still believe, as I did and argued in mid-November when this dispute came to a head, that both parties were at fault, driven on one side by egotism overriding tactical nous, and driven on the other by a cynical party-advantage aim of desiring a Tory majority in Parliament, even one partly comprising reluctant or soft Brexiteers, rather than a Brexit majority.

I thought Farage’s initial intention to contest up to 600 seats totally unrealistic, and his subsequent decision to stand aside in all 317 Tory seats – even those held by May-loyalist unreconciled Continuity-Remainers, like Greg Clark in Tunbridge Wells – misguided, because it effectively disenfranchised Tory Leave-voters there.

But I also condemned Farage’s decision to stand against Remain-voting but Brexit-supporting Labour MPs – I genuinely regret that Caroline Flint won’t be in the Commons to help a sensible Labour Party rid itself of the cancer of Corbynism – and I criticised the Tories’ refusal to withdraw their candidates from the long-time Labour seats where the psephology suggested they had the least chance of unseating Labour.

Well, as we now know and should admit, some of those psephological assumptions were wrong. And yes, an even lower seat total for Labour than its 203, its smallest since 1935, would have been most welcome: the greater the scale of the shellacking visited upon Labour by the voters, the greater the chances of Corbyn and his hard-Left cult being consigned to the extremist wilderness where they belong.

But what appears to be the widespread conclusion, that in most if not all cases where a winning Labour vote was less than the combined Tory and Brexit Party vote, it was the latter’s candidacy which was solely to blame, looks unduly simplistic, not to say more than a little self-serving.

That widespread conclusion itself appears based on an assumption that every Brexit Party vote, absent a Brexit Party candidate, would have gone to the Tories. Really? Is it not at least possible that, in several instances, voters prepared to break, for the first time, a generations-long family, workplace and community tradition of voting Labour might have been prepared to plump for the Brexit Party, but voting Tory would have been a step too far?

That’s certainly a feasible interpretation of the result in Barnsley Central, where the Brexit Party candidate came 2nd, getting fully 40 per cent more votes than did her Conservative Party opponent, only 42 per cent of whose votes going to the Brexit Party instead would have deposed the sitting Labour MP.

In neighbouring Barnsley East, where the Brexit Party candidate also came 2nd, a mere 31 per cent of the Tory vote going to the Brexit Party instead would have captured the seat and defenestrated yet another Labour MP.  Arguably, in those two Barnsley constituencies, it’s the Tories who should have stood aside. 

In Sunderland Central, the respective changes in vote share probably tell a more nuanced story than the actual result. It looks very like Labour’s 13.4 per cent drop in vote share mostly went to the Brexit Party, whose vote share went up by 11.6 per cent, compared to the Tories’ uplift of a mere 2.0 per cent.

Elsewhere, local factors may have prevailed. Consider the two constituencies serving Newport, South Wales, of which I do have some personal knowledge, despite it being a long way away from my South Coast lair. It’s a microcosm, but potentially very illustrative.

Newport East and West results comp

In both Newport East and Newport West, the combined Tory and Brexit Party vote exceeded the winning Labour vote.  Going along with the desired narrative, it would be tempting, even easy, to draw the obvious conclusion: that the Brexit Party stopped the Tories capturing both seats. But it might also be wrong, because there are important local factors at play.

In Newport West, the Tory candidate Matthew Evans was the very popular former Mayor of Newport, while the Labour MP was new and thus relatively unknown, the seat having for years been the personal fiefdom of that irascible old Labour dinosaur Paul Flynn, who died as recently as February this year. In Newport East, however, the Labour incumbent since 2005, Jessica Morden, is apparently regarded there as being good constituency MP.

Had there been a local tactical alliance, the Brexit Party could have stood down in Newport West to give Evans a clear run, while the Tories could have stood down in Newport East to let the Brexit Party, which obtained a higher vote-share there than it did in Newport West, to have a crack at unseating Morden.  The likely result would have been two pro-Brexit MPs in the new House of Commons, one Tory and one Brexit Party, and two more seats added to the scale of Labour’s defeat. Instead, Newport still has two Labour MPs. 

The Conservative Woman‘s Editor Kathy Gyngell was entirely correct to argue, as she did on Monday 16th December, that Johnson owes Farage more gratitude for the latter’s tactical mis-steps than the curmudgeonly recrimination proffered so far. On the other side of the political aisle, even The Guardian agreed that Johnson owes a debt to Farage for his own triumph

Only within sections of the Conservative Party does this appear to go unrecognised. It could be merely the arrogance and sense of entitlement to which elements of the party appear prone: but on the other hand, it could be yet another manifestation of the Tory Party’s default “party before country” survival instinct, which makes it so simultaneously hostile to, yet fearful of, potential competitors.         

So let’s have no knighthood or peerage for Farage in faux-recompense, please: there’s something else which would be a far more deserving, and widely-beneficial, expression of appreciation.

In the latter part of my plea on the morning of Election Day, I wrote that the Brexit vote was more than just a demand to leave the European Union: that voting for that specific policy was also a proxy for a strident demand for a different way of doing politics, vesting more power in the people at the expense of a managerial, technocratic elite.

The “Protect our Democracy” section (pp 47-48) of the Tory manifesto does pledge a start on this, with the absolute minimum, but there’s more to do. For Boris to parallel Brexit with a comprehensive re-democratisation of British politics would be a discharge of his indebtedness to Farage far beyond any mere gong, bauble or ermine-trimmed gown.

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Hold your nose and vote Tory today. But not necessarily ever again.

It’s no more than the least worst option among poor alternatives but, solely to procure some – any – kind of Brexit at all, one must hold one’s nose and vote Tory today, even if never again.

Note: Longer version of the article also published at The Conservative Woman earlier today, Thursday 12 December 2019

What a thoroughly depressing, unedifying decision awaits us in this general election today. A choice between, on the one hand, a Tory Party which is likely – but no more than likely and certainly not guaranteed – to ‘get Brexit done’ as if it was merely a one-off event, a box to be ticked and then set aside: and on the other, a ramshackle Left-Green Remainer coalition under which it would definitely never be allowed to happen in any meaningful way, if at all.

Despite the pages of promises unrelated to Brexit in the various party manifestos, this is overwhelmingly a Brexit-dominated election. It’s taking place because of the need to break the deadlock imposed by a Remainer-majority Rotten Parliament that for 3½ years strove not to implement the very instruction which it asked the electorate to give it. It refused to approve both any deal, and no-deal. But it also usurped the power of the executive of the elected government to approve either.

So it’s with the withdrawal agreement now in prospect and its likely ensuing future trade agreement that consideration of how to cast our vote must start.

Despite the claims advanced in its favour, the extent to which Boris Johnson’s revised withdrawal agreement differs materially from Theresa May’s in areas like the Northern Ireland backstop, the scope and duration of the continuing post-Brexit jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and Britain’s ability to strike new trade deals with non-EU countries, remains a matter of debate.

It’s also reasonable to ask how, when May was faced with near-absolute negotiating intransigence from Brussels for over 18 months, Johnson was able to secure within mere weeks a revised withdrawal agreement which is apparently so changed from the original that it becomes not just acceptable, but praiseworthy. I suspect that may be because the EU always had a fallback position ready, but which it never had to deploy because May’s team were such inept and conciliatory negotiators, but it’s a factor which we should bear in mind.

For me, the most persuasive assessment is that which acknowledges that Johnson’s revised agreement is very far from ideal, but that it is nonetheless a significant improvement on its predecessor and is probably just about good enough to make it supportable: a position that would become stronger if a big enough House of Commons majority enables Johnson to stick to his pledge that there will be no transition period beyond the end of 2020, and that preparations would continue for a No-Deal exit on WTO terms on that date should it be necessary.

But there often seems not to be a big expanse of blue water between the May ‘damage-limitation exercise’ and the Johnson ‘something to get done’ approaches to Brexit. As the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner notes, doubts remain about Britain’s future relationship with Europe, and the possibility of a Johnson conjuring-trick that would leave many Brexiteers disappointed, can’t be ruled out.

So we aren’t home and dry yet, and anyone who believes that anything other than an outline of a comprehensive free trade agreement can be achieved by then is clutching at straws. Moreover, Brexit will be an ongoing process, not an isolated event: full divergence from 46 years of convergence will take years, not months. We won’t begin even to glimpse the final shape of Brexit until well into the second half of 2020.

We’re therefore being asked to take an awful lot on trust, with no guarantee that we won’t end up with some kind of BRINO-plus with extended transition. But, being realistic, of the Brexit policy alternatives that are likely to be in a position to prevail once the election results are in, this is sadly the least worst option.

Which brings us to that question of the big enough Commons majority alluded to above. In particular, Johnson’s curt dismissal of a tactical alliance with The Brexit Party to try and secure a solid pro-Brexit majority in Parliament by targeting Leave-voting seats, currently represented by Labour-Remainer MPs, which the Tories could never hope to gain but which a non-Tory pro-Brexit alternative just might.

I’ve written previously about the mistakes made and lack of nuance, driven by posturing and egotism, on both sides: and the argument that dividing the pro-Brexit vote between two parties risks splitting it and letting in a Corbyn-led government or coalition that will either cancel Brexit outright or dilute it to sham-status is perfectly valid. The boost in Tory polling numbers and corresponding collapse in Brexit Party support cannot be denied, although which is cause and which is effect might be a moot point.

But there’s also something else. Following the failure of that tactical alliance to get off the ground, the Tories’ purpose, it appeared, became not just to win those seats through their own efforts, improbable though that remains in some cases, but to destroy The Brexit Party or at least seriously damage its credibility in the process.

It was discernible how, during the middle weeks of the campaign, the Tories and the Tory-supporting media appeared to turn considerable firepower on to The Brexit Party for threatening to ‘steal’ its voters from one end of the Tory Tent, while much less seemed to be turned on to the LibDems for trying to ‘steal’ its voters from the other end of it. The Daily Telegraph even published a soft-focus hagiographic puff-piece on Swinson that would not have been out of place in the pages of Hello! magazine.

The allegations of senior Brexit Party figures and candidates being offered inducements to stand down may have faded from public memory, but that does not mean they didn’t happen. Some of those claims sounded more credible than others, but Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe’s account to Julia Hartley-Brewer of the inducements offered to her sounds genuine.

We’ve been here before. Similar tactics were used against UKIP in the run-up to the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament: assiduous ‘offence’-archaeology to unearth candidates’ embarrassing past comments on social media: dire predictions of splitting the (then) pro-referendum vote: and noisy, suspiciously well-timed re-defections accompanied by apologetic recantations, by ex-Tory candidates. Wanting to leave the EU was the policy of ‘closet racists, fruitcakes and loonies’.

Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox recently wrote eloquently about the levels of vitriol thrown at Brexit Party Leavers by Tory Leavers, and the arrogant yet patronising sense of entitlement and resentment evinced by many Tory Brexiteers towards the perceived upstart challenger to their assumed sole ownership of the Brexit issue.

Urging voters not to vote for another party you perceive as a threat to you is an acceptable part of the democratic process. Demanding that other party withdraw from an election because you perceive it as a threat to you, however, is profoundly un-democratic. The overriding impression of the last six weeks is that the Tories, despite their pre-election blandishments, would prefer a small pro-Tory metro-‘liberal’ majority in Parliament to a larger pro-Brexit but not exclusively Tory one, with the former even at the expense of the latter, and the Brexit Party killed off. So what’s really going on?

At this point, we need to take a quick diversion back into recent Conservative Party history. The Tory high command were always reluctant Brexiteers. In his superb book All Out War, journalist Tim Shipman tells how George Osborne thought the idea of even holding a referendum on EU membership ‘mad’: ‘we should stop talking about it’ was his advice to David Cameron.

It’s widely suspected that the reason Cameron was driven to promise a referendum in his January 2013 Bloomberg speech was not the principled democratic one of giving the electorate the chance to have its first vote in 38 years on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU, but the narrow, partisan, party-management one of countering the domestic political threat then posed by UKIP and securing Tory Party electoral advantage.

It’s also widely assumed that the solemn promise to hold a referendum was included in the Conservatives’ 2015 general election manifesto for the same reason, and in cynically confident expectation that the outcome would be another Tory-LibDem coalition in which the promise could be discarded and the LibDems blamed.

As we all now know, the Tories unexpectedly won a majority, and the rest is history. But Cameron is still blamed by many Europhile Tories for allowing the referendum to happen at all. As Charles Moore recounts in the 3rd volume of his Thatcher biography, Heseltine’s and Howe’s attitude was always one of the EU question being too complicated a one to be left to stupid voters.

The 2016 Brexit vote was a multi-level, multi-purpose, demand. It was not solely a vote for one specific policy, namely, to leave the European Union, but something far more profound, deep-rooted and far-reaching besides: a revolt by the long marginalised and ignored against the deracination and effectively de-democratisation of politics by a centrist-consensualist, elitist, technocratic managerialism stretching back for 30 years or more: a demand for a reversion to an earlier, different, more participative way of doing politics.

Both Right and Left appreciate this. The vote and the insistence it be enacted is about cultural insecurity as much if not more than it is about economic security writes Gerald Warner at Reaction. Even that impeccably Man of the Left, Simon Jenkins recognises in The Guardian that this Brexit-dominant election is mainly about identity, not money.

To respect that deeper, wider demand by 17.4 million requires a proper Brexit to be the launch-pad, the catalyst, for an ongoing process of comprehensive democratic and economic repair and renewal, not merely a ‘get it done and move on’ tick in a box. And this is where the reservations about voting Tory today really start to intensify.

I’ve already written on both the doubts surrounding the kind of Conservatism and direction of travel Johnson would espouse and follow, and more recently on his comparatively underwhelming performance in his first five months as Brexit Prime Minister. Those doubts have not been assuaged by the criticisms of the somewhat defensive, safety-first, anodyne Tory manifesto as treating Tory voters with disdain.

So the gut-feeling this election morning is that the Tory drive to ‘get Brexit done’ by treating it as purely one-off, short-term transactional, rather than long-term transformational, is part of a cynical wider operation of which this election and Brexit are certainly part, but not the whole. The orchestrated rejection and disparaging of those who ought to be its natural allies on this, and the presence on Tory candidate lists of paleo-Cameroon, soft-Brexiteer party-insiders certainly points that way.

As I’ve hinted before, I suspect the Johnson/Cummings/Number Ten strategy is to do something which can plausibly be labelled as Brexit, so they can claim to have ‘got it done’ as if it was just a box to be ticked: then, having done that, get back to business-as-usual with our cartelised political system largely unchanged, ignoring the implied deeper demand of the Brexit vote and silencing the Brexit Party’s ‘Change Politics for Good’ advocacy of democratic reform, thus suiting the Westminster technocratic-government elite down to the ground.

Just under a month ago, polling guru Michael Ashcroft elicited this pithy reply when suggesting that, despite the disappointment of no Tory – Brexit Party tactical alliance, Leave voters should nevertheless hold their noses and vote Tory. I suspect the comment by “Patriotic Ally” summarises the thoughts of many.

Hopefully at some point in the future it will be possible for some of us to vote for the ‘Conservative’ Party without having to hold our noses. But, with their Brexit Party neutralisation operation having, according to YouGov’s final poll, largely succeeded, and their vision of Brexit sadly being the only one in serious prospect, then to have any chance of seeing any Brexit at all, that is what we must do today. But not necessarily again.

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What price another Tory-LibDem co-habitation?

Highly unlikely, yes (and truly horrible), but not impossible: recent polling trends do indicate a theoretically possible route 

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Monday 09 December 2019

At first glance the idea seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

After all, LibDem leader Jo Swinson has built her party’s entire campaign around one thing: stopping Brexit, in a contempt for democracy so blatant that its shamelessness is matched only by its self-righteousness, and myopically oblivious to herself being the main reason for the LibDems’ popularity actually declining since the start of the campaign. The more voters have seen of her, the less they like both her and her party.

But the LibDems are no stranger to opportunistic, hypocritical U-turns. Even solely on the anti-Brexit side of the political divide, they’ve been inconsistent in their anti-democratic perfidy.

Only a month ago, on 5 November, Swinson categorically ruled out propping up a Corbyn-led government in the event of a hung Parliament, condemning his failure to tackle Labour’s innate antisemitism as a ‘total dereliction of duty’, labelling him ‘a threat to national security’, and declaring him ‘not fit for the job of prime minister’.

On 4 December, though, Swinson hinted at backing Labour in a hung Parliament in order to force a second Brexit vote, provided Corbyn was removed as leader. Not that much of a U-turn , you might first think, but think again. For Swinson to demand this as a condition of the LibDems’ support is as disingenuous as it is unrealistic.

Does she really believe that the Labour Party, having defied all expectations and polling estimates by getting enough seats to make forming a minority government feasible, would then oblige her by dumping the leader under whom it had achieved that?

Does she think a continuing hard-Left Labour Party still tightly controlled by Momentum would morph overnight into a non-antisemitic left-‘liberal’ social-democratic party, and suddenly become not ideologically-sympathetic to Britain’s enemies, merely by decapitating one head of its many-headed Hydra?

Does the ‘feminist’ Swinson regard the obvious immediate alternative, the same John McDonnell who evidently still favours lynching female Tory politicians, as ‘fit for the job of prime minister’?

Being prepared, after her unequivocal rejection of the idea only a month before, to accept all that baggage in order to get a second Brexit vote, counts, I would suggest, as a significant U-turn.

So, against the backdrop of credibility-stretching policy-reversals not exactly being a terribly unusual feature of the LibDems’ politics, it was intriguing to read in The Guardian of 6 December an opinion piece suggesting they could be about to do another tyre-squealing U-turn, and actually support a minority Tory government with some kind of DUP-style confidence-and-supply arrangement, in return for that second EU vote they are so desperate to bring about.

Discount the partisan content you would expect anyway from a lefty Guardianista hackette, but one can’t help wondering if there might be a kernel of truth here. The reasoning is slightly convoluted, but please bear with me. The key could lie, firstly, in one of the latest Ipsos-MORI polling reports and secondly, in the most recent reported voter perceptions of party leaders and changes in party support over the course of the last 6 months and the campaign itself.

The more that the Tories seem to be on course for a majority, the more the apparent likelihood of PM Corbyn recedes; therefore, the more freedom that gives Remainer-Tories or reluctant-Tories in the South who approve of neither EU exit nor Boris Johnson as party leader to vent their anger and alienation at the prospect of both by deciding not to vote Tory and transferring their vote elsewhere.

However, the hash that Swinson has made of the LibDem leadership and their election campaign, leading to a Remainer-Labour polling bounce, means that Remainers and anti-Tories of all stripes who saw the LibDems as the best means of halting or cancelling Brexit may now write them off as the preferred anti-Brexit option, hold their noses and register their anti-Brexit vote in the Labour box instead.

Now Corbyn is of course highly unpopular: but many of his policies, like nationalisation, taxing ‘the rich’, or even expropriating the wealthy’s assets, aren’t unpopular, however misguided in concept and disastrous in practice they are.

Labour policies popularity YouGov 09-Nov-2019

Additionally, McDonnell is astute enough, and ruthless enough, to ditch Corbyn as leader if the latter’s personal unpopularity was the only thing standing in the way of trying Socialism.  McDonnell was, after all, part of the hard-Left Ken Livingstone cabal which in 1981 overthrew the moderate Leader of the former Greater London Council in a putsch, immediately after the latter had been elected, and installed Livingstone in his place.

So is this the paradox with which we could perversely end up?

That the greater the Tories’ reported polling lead, the greater the collateral risk that anti-Tory votes could migrate away from LibDems to Labour, thereby reducing the Tories to the status of largest party but lacking a majority, and simultaneously getting Labour close enough on seats to form a minority administration if it had LibDem and/or SNP support?

That, in which case, there could be a Dutch auction between the Tories and Labour for that LibDem rump support, despite the latter’s below-expectations election performance or even diminished numbers?

Swinson has dismissed the idea of ever again going into a coalition with the Conservatives, but specifically not a more informal confidence-and-supply arrangement. How safe would it be to assume that the Tories would never in any circumstances even contemplate it?

Even with the retirement from Parliament, or in effect expulsion from the Party, of many of the principal Tory-Remainers of the 2017-2019 Parliament, it seems likely that after Thursday 12 December’s election the ranks of Tory MPs will still contain a significant number of Brexit-sceptics, however much careerist inclinations and the prospect of retaining MPs’ perks of office may be currently muting them.

Many ‘liberal’-‘progressive’ ‘One-Nation’ Europhile Tory MPs were considerably less than pleased when the 2010-2015 Coalition ended, having found they had much more in common with their LibDem colleagues than they had with, not only the more neo-Thatcherite wing of their own parliamentary party, but also the vast majority of its rank and file membership. Quite a few of them are still around.

One can easily imagine a still significantly-Remainer Tory party then driving the cobbling together of an informal alliance with the LibDems and agreeing some BRINO-plus fudge to be put to a second referendum, but presented with fake regret as the only way to stave off a Labour/SNP government.

The chance, via conceding another referendum, to stop the Brexit which up to half of them probably don’t really want, and to load all the blame for it on to the LibDems? I suspect many would insist on seizing it, with the Party leadership torn between the likely consequences of betraying their voters and their own desire for office. With Tories, it’s always party before country.

Yes, of course this nightmarish prospect is only a remote possibility, even outlandish. Hopefully. But we live in strange times. Who in 2014 would have predicted that in 2015 the Labour Party would elect Corbyn as leader and that in 2017 he would come within a few thousand votes in a handful of constituencies of actually becoming Prime Minister?

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Boris’ Interim Report: Must Try Harder

PM Boris Johnson’s performance against the eight benchmarks set him on appointment has been mediocre at best  

Note: Longer version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 04 December 2019

At the end of last July, just after Boris Johnson had been elected leader of the Conservative Party and appointed Prime Minister, I tried to speculate on the general direction of travel which his government would follow, not only on Brexit, but on other key policy issues.

Would he follow the robustly anti-leftist, pro civil liberties, free-trade, free-market, tax-cutting rhetoric of his leadership campaign? Or would he actually turn out to be more in the ‘Wet’ One-Nation tradition of ‘liberal’-‘progressive’ Conservatism? To serve as a benchmark, I suggested eight key tests by which we might judge whether he would delight or disappoint us.

Now, some might say it remains too early to judge: that the 5 months he has been in office have been overwhelmingly occupied by Brexit to the exclusion of virtually everything else, and that only after a period of government when it was no longer the dominant, almost only, issue would it be possible to make a more accurate assessment.

Well, maybe. But on the other hand, we do now have the two documents which will define the Johnson premiership in its entirety: firstly, his revised Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration and secondly, the Conservative Party’s election manifesto. So with these plus the experience of the past five months as a reference, how has he measured up against each those eight tests?

Will he ensure, come what may, including if necessary by proroguing Parliament to prevent its 70 per cent-plus Remainer majority stopping Brexit, take us out of the EU on 31 October, on a WTO No-Deal if Brussels maintains its intransigence, and with Britain as thoroughly prepared for it as possible?

This article isn’t the place for a detailed dissection of the pros and cons of Johnson’s revised Brexit deal. For me, the most persuasive summary of it is the one which acknowledges that, while it is far from ideal, it nonetheless is a distinct improvement on its predecessor and so probably just about good enough to make it supportable. But although the answer to the test question is clearly “No, because we have still not left the EU“, a reasonable case can be made that this was not for want of trying. 

On the legislative side, right up until the moment it was dissolved in early November, Johnson was faced with a majority-Remainer House of Commons, including members of his own party, which was not only determined to thwart it and to leave no avenue of Parliamentary procedure unexploited – however arcane and devious, and however potentially constitutionally illegitimate – in pursuance of that aim, but was also resolved to deny the electorate a chance to vote it out and elect a fresh Commons.

On the judicial side, he was faced with a blatantly politicised and judicially-activist legal Establishment which, by ruling the Prorogation of Parliament unlawful was prepared in effect to re-write the Constitution by arrogating to itself the power to amend it by inserting its own opinion into the political process.

Will he take, or authorise Dominic Cummings to take, an axe to the higher reaches of the Whitehall civil service machine which has proved so unwilling to accept our decision to leave the EU, and so hostile to implementing it?

There seems to be little evidence of it. Despite the misgivings surrounding Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill’s role, as May’ national security adviser, in the sacking of Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary and informed speculation during the Tory leadership campaign that he would not long survive a Johnson premiership, he remains in place.

Although the Svengali figure of Olly Robbins who was May’s chief Brexit negotiator has left Whitehall, and the Brexit negotiating team was slimmed down, Johnson’s current Europe adviser is something of a former Brussels insider. While it’s obviously very useful to have someone familiar with the backrooms of Brussels, against that must always be the fear that he may have been institutionally captured.

Will he abrogate Britain’s accession to the UN Migration Compact, cynically signed by May largely under the radar in December 2018?

As far as I can see, he has not even mentioned it. In fact, the indicators appear to be pointing towards a significant dilution of his leadership campaign promises on reducing the scale and raising the quality of inward migration, despite the manifesto pledges about an Australian-style points system. Indeed, he has arguably retreated further.

In the Daily Telegraph of 14th November, the Editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson floated the idea of a Government amnesty for illegal immigrants. Given the close links between the magazine and Number Ten, I suspect it’s unlikely that the latter was wholly unaware of the proposal before publication. It could have been designed to test the waters of public opinion, or perhaps even to engineer an adverse reaction, so as to justify a harder policy line with which to chase ex-Labour voters in the Midlands and North.

The two main problems with such an amnesty are that, firstly, it rewards illegality – what signal does it send to the law-abiding migrants who have taken the trouble to establish themselves here legally? – and that, secondly, it acts as an incentive to anyone currently contemplating migration into Britain, illegal or otherwise, to do it before more robust controls are implemented.

In addition, and as Migration Watch’s Alp Mehmet explained at The Conservative Woman on 27th November, in a commentary of all four main parties’ manifestos, it is perhaps the Conservative Party’s, deferring to the financial strength of big-business on the one hand and the powerful Woke pro-immigration lobby on the other, which especially represents a betrayal of its Leader’s previous promises.

Will he instruct the new (Remain-voting) Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to unwind all the surrender to the EU of control over policy, rules and structures which govern the future of our Armed Forces?

Here the picture, albeit still mixed, is slightly better, although May’s deal was so egregious in this area that it never constituted a particularly high bar to clear.

As Briefings for Brexit’s and Veterans for Britain’s Professor Gwyn Prins’ comprehensive analysis shows, closer integration with the nascent EU Defence Union, even under Johnson’s modified proposals, still carries significant risks for future co-operation and intelligence-sharing with our non-EU Five Eyes Alliance partners, and although we do have an opt-out mechanism, this is exercisable only on a case-by-case basis.

Professor Prins makes a persuasive argument, however, that the overall geo-strategic objection to UK participation in the accelerating EU Defence and Security integration remains: that the project’s fundamental raison d’être is ultra-federalist and anti-Anglosphere in concept and purpose, being designed to detach the EU from the NATO and wider Atlantic Alliance. Remember, France’s Macron has declared NATO “brain-dead”, and implied that the EU sees the USA as among its own likely future enemies.

Will he abandon the futile drive for expensive Green renewable energy, concentrate on developing alternative energy sources that promise reliability of supply at lower cost, and formally abandon the Government’s ill-informed, scientifically-illiterate and economically-damaging commitment to net zero emissions by 2050?

In a word: No. Once again he has gone almost in the opposite direction. In arguably one of the most abjectly cowardly reversals of a decade-long policy seen in many years, Johnson has resolved to ban fracking, ostensibly in deference to what is a cynical misrepresentation and exaggeration of the “earthquake” risk, but actually because the Tories lack the political courage to oppose the well-funded Green eco-propaganda campaign against cheap, reliable energy.

As if this was not bad enough, the Tories have signed up to the same net-zero emissions target as all the Green virtue-signalling main parties, just at a slightly slower rate, with a dearth of consideration of the long-term opportunity cost of spending upwards of £1 trillion on attempting to retard, by a few months, whatever would almost certainly happen regardless.

Will he commit to rolling back substantial parts of Theresa May’s politically-correct, divisive left-‘liberal’ SJW agenda, like mandatory gender pay gap reporting, ethnicity pay disparity audits, and gender-change via box-ticking self-declaration? 

Johnson has been conspicuously silent on this since his accession to Number Ten, and the 64-page Tory Manifesto – long on worthy aspirations and anodyne platitudes but short on specific policy pledges which could be remotely controversial – which has been variously criticised as “defensive” and “safety-first” contains no references to these issues whatsoever. Given that this was the focus of a substantial part of the condemnation heaped on his predecessor, we have to assume that silence in this case equals acquiescence.

Will he guarantee to address the pressing issue of voter and electoral fraud, in particular the vulnerability of the lax postal-vote system to rampant abuse, and Leftist objections to making ID at the polling booth mandatory?   

Johnson pledged via the most recent Queen’s Speech to introduce mandatory voter ID to help combat electoral fraud – to a predictable chorus of specious objections from the politicians of parties which currently appear to benefit most from it, and their media cum quango-state backers – and this has been included in the Tory Manifesto, along with as yet unspecified measures aimed at “stopping postal vote harvesting”. This is at least a start, although much more needs to be done.

Will he address urgent constitutional reform, in particular the position of the unelected, anti-democratic House of Lords, the corrupt and cronyism-ridden Honours system, and funding from tax the current political activities of former Prime Ministers who, despite being rejected by voters, still want to remain active in public life? 

Not much, if anything, has actually been done in this area, though in fairness, little would have been possible with a gridlocked majority-Remainer, anti-Tory Parliament. The Tory Manifesto is more promising: it does at least pledge to repeal the disastrous Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA). But both the role of the House of Lords and the relationship between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are to be referred to a new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, which looks suspiciously like kicking the issue into the long grass.

It would have been much better to have adopted Lawyers for Britain’s Martin Howe QC’s proposal for a Restoration of the Constitution Bill to replace the current judicially-activist Supreme Court and repeal the egregious Benn Surrender Act usurping for Parliament the proper executive role of government, as well as repealing the FTPA.

On reforming the Honours System and curbing funding for the ongoing political activities of former prime Ministers, there has been neither mention nor action. 

Overall, then, Johnson’s is an underwhelming performance so far, notwithstanding the hype surrounding his “great new deal” and the constant “get Brexit done” soundbite. Those of us of a conservative – but not necessarily Conservative – disposition are, I think, entitled to start asking some serious questions about precisely where the Johnson-led Tories are going, not only on Brexit but on much else besides.

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Performing the Poll-Dance

Why opinion surveys and voter outcomes are often polls apart 

Note: This article was originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 21 November 2019

The British electorate is becoming ever more wary of trusting political opinion polls. Ever since-

  1. the 2015 general electionwhen all polls predicted a hung Parliament but the voters delivered a clear Conservative majority;
  1. the 2016 EU Referendum, when most polls confidently predicted a Remain victory; and
  1. the 2017 general election, when few polls predicted the hung Parliament which resulted but differed merely on the size of the majority Theresa May was expected to gain,

a growing number of voters have treated the polling industry’s prognostications at best with an increasingly large pinch of salt, and at worst with an outright cynicism that many are biased, being intended to influence public opinion rather than merely to measure it.

And not without reason. As political academic and psephologist Matthew Goodwin of Kent University says, Brits are cautious about the current Brexit election, given that memories of 2017 are still comparatively fresh.

In a recent article for CapX, Number Cruncher Politics’ Matt Singh gave an informative technical explanation of why opinion polls tell such different stories, especially at election time. There’s a surprising amount of difference between both the methodologies which polling firms employ, and the statistical models which they use to interpret them; surprising in the sense that, in a competitive industry, sampling methodology hasn’t converged towards that which has been found to deliver the most accurate predictions.

But there’s also a human factor. As Singh says, when attempting to compare views and voting patterns across different periods, many people are actually quite bad at remembering how they voted on a previous occasion. Not all pollsters try to adjust for poor recall, and those which do tend to ‘weight’ respondents’ recall of their previous votes in different ways.

To that I’d be inclined to add the additional potential for error which comes from the likelihood of respondents not answering truthfully, for whatever reason. I’d also suspect that, with the far more fickle, politically-volatile, and less traditionally tribal electorate that seems to be the inevitable consequence of Britain’s developing political re-alignment, more people have genuinely not yet made up their minds about which way they would vote in three weeks’ time.

YouGov’s Anthony Wells, meanwhile, also offers an interesting perspective at UK Polling Report on the how the different methodologies used by the different polling companies affect their results. Significant variations occur in the choices given to respondents; some prompt only for the main parties, not even giving an ‘Other’ choice for minor parties, some prompt only for the parties most likely to stand in a specific constituency, and some even allow second preferences.

Moreover, what Wells terms ‘house effects’ mean that, currently, ICM, ComRes and Survation tend to show lower Conservative leads, while Deltapoll, YouGov and Opinium tend to show higher ones. What I found particularly interesting is that it’s consistently the pollsters who publish their polls timed to hit the Sunday press which report the highest leads for the Tories, while those timed for the midweek press show smaller ones.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s perhaps worth considering two of the latest polls published to see what can be gleaned from what they say. Or maybe from what they don’t say.

First, the Ipsos MORI poll on Britons’ top concerns in the run-up to the election, published on Monday 18 November, and in particular the following:

Twenty-one per cent of the public mention the environment and pollution as a major issue for Britain – the highest recorded score since July 1990.”

Ipsos Mori concens

So 79 per cent of the population don’t. The wisdom of crowds in evidence, perhaps. But it was the breakdown by socio-economic grouping of that 21 per cent, mentioned lower down in the press release, which looked significant to me.

Ipsos MORI concerns 2

It’s very noticeable how concern for ‘the environment and pollution’ – now conveniently conflated by both the Left and the Green movements to encompass both genuine, anti-pollution environmental stewardship and political ‘climate-change’ activism – as a ‘major concern’ is disproportionately concentrated among ABs socio-economically, and in the south of the country geographically.

Whether the Tories’ willingness to embrace Green-ery and so-called ‘de-carbonisation’, via higher enviro-taxes and making energy more expensive, in order to try and retain their potential LibDem defectors in Outer London, the South-East and the South-West, is going to play well among the the less-affluent working-class votes they are chasing in the Midlands and North, and whom the impact of higher Green taxes and dearer energy will disproportionately fall, is a moot point.

Next, the update from Kantar, published on the afternoon of Tuesday 19 November, in follow-up to their previous polling report published on Wednesday 13th November, and summarised in their latest press release:

Kantar Capture composite

The effect of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage surrendering to Conservative pressure – or alternatively, depending on your viewpoint, recognising electoral reality – by standing down Brexit Party candidates in all 317 currently Conservative seats, is clearly shown. But how come 43 per cent of respondents think that no party will get an overall majority, when, in the same sample and survey, the Conservatives have a polling lead of 18 per cent over Labour?  Is that because of the possibility of inbuilt priors – the ‘house effects’ – corrupting in the statistical sense the methodology, as described earlier in the articles by Matt Singh and Anthony Wells? Who knows?

Possibly the most astutely prescient polling comment this past week, however, has come from polling guru Sir John Curtice; he observes that, with both the Conservative and Labour parties led by politicians disliked by most voters, this election is actually turning out to be an unpopularity contest. Presumably, our next Prime Minister will be the party leader who is least unpopular with voters.

For years we’ve mocked politicians who, in response to media challenge about adverse poll ratings, have robotically intoned the mantra “The only poll that matters is the one on [insert election date]”. Perhaps we should have given them a little more credit?

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The Declaration Deadline Day Dilemma

With Farage’s withdrawal of the Brexit Party from all 317 Tory seats, what should Brexiteers in a Leave-voting constituency in which a Tory-Remainer MP is squatting do to avoid in effect being disenfranchised?

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 14 November 2019

Imagine being a committed Brexiteer in the parliamentary constituency of Tunbridge Wells today. At 4.00. pm yesterday afternoon, the deadline for the nominations of General Election candidates was passed, so the options of where to cast your vote are now set in stone.

Obviously, a vote for any of the pro-EU, leftist parties, whether formally part of the so-called Remainer-Alliance or not, would be out of the question.

But the ‘Conservative’ Party candidate re-standing for election in your constituency is arch-Remainer and former Business Secretary Greg Clark. Along with former Chancellor Philip Hammond and former Justice Secretary David Gauke, Clark was one of the most prominent members of Theresa May’s Cabinet arguing against, if not actually working to undermine, any EU exit deal other than, in effect, a Brexit-In-Name Only.

Clark Hammond Gauke Noakes

Moreover, in 2018, Clark was reportedly Theresa May’s backstairs fixer of pro-EU crony-corporatist Big-Business’ endorsement of, and participation in, that period’s iteration of Project Fear, designed to scaremonger voters with dire warnings about the dangers for jobs and exports of a No-Deal Brexit.

More recently, of course, he was one of the 21 Tory Remainer-Rebel MPs suspended and deprived of the Party Whip in the House of Commons for voting to allow the anti-Brexit opposition to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda, pass the so-called Benn Act making a No-Deal Brexit illegal, and force the PM to seek an extension to the Brexit negotiating period. His inclusion in the MPs allowed back in to the fold in advance of the election rightly caused eyebrows to be raised.

The 21 Tory whip-deprived Tory rebels

Not an appealing prospect, is it? Yet for a strongly pro-Brexit voter in Tunbridge Wells, that’s the consequence of the concession made to the Conservatives by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in agreeing to stand down its candidates in all 317 Tory-held seats

The Brexit Party’s seat-contesting policy since this election was called has been muddled to say the least, oscillating between near-invisibility and overkill. MEP John Longworth’s suggestion of fighting a mere 20 seats was incredibly unambitious for a party purporting to be a major factor in bringing Brexit about, as well as having the disadvantage of almost guaranteeing that the party would get little if any media and Press coverage, and certainly no presence in any TV debates.

At the other end of the scale Farage’s initially declared aim of contesting up to 600 seats – but not one for himself – erred in the opposite direction. It would have diluted resources instead of concentrating them to greatest effect, and in many cases it would have been a wasted effort. What would have been the point of contesting an inner-London seat that is both solidly-Labour and solidly-Remain? What conceivable benefit could there have been in fighting against a staunch Tory Brexiteer who has consistently voted against May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ BRINO, thus running the risk of splitting a genuinely-Leave constituency-level majority?

But Farage’s decision to withdraw from all 317 Tory-held seats is potentially misguided. For a start, the excuse he gave – that PM Boris Johnson has committed to pursuing a Canada Plus-style trade deal and to leaving the EU by the end of 2020 with no extension of Transition – looks suspiciously thin and contrived. In practice this means by the end of June 2020, because if it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to negotiate a trade deal in such a short time, the UK’s one-off option to extend the Transition period would have to be made on 1 July 2020.

As valid as the need is to avert the horrendous prospect of a Corbyn Labour or Corbyn-led Remainer Alliance government, and as much as the risk of jeopardising Brexit happening at all is real, Farage would have been perfectly justified in declining to withdraw in seats held by ardent Tory Continuity-Remainers (or possibly even, but mainly as a bargaining chip, reluctant soft-Brexiteers). Despite several of the most prominent Usual Suspects in these two categories standing down, there’s no guarantee that several of their successors won’t be similarly inclined, given the background of some of them, as has already been remarked.

It’s notable that, as Kathy Gyngell, Editor of The Conservative Woman, wrote yesterday, the reaction of the Tories has been, not gratitude and an offer of reciprocation in Leave-voting seats with large Labour majorities which, given their conventional electoral brand-toxicity, the Tories, even with a promise to enact Brexit, could probably never ever hope to gain, but instead to bank the concession and demand that the Brexit party stand aside in even more seats.

When Farage, quite reasonably in my view, provisionally refused, the Tories changed tack, offering an ‘eleventh-hour’ electoral pact whereby they would undertake only minimal token-campaigning in 40 Labour-held seats on the Brexit Party’s target list.

But in view of this proposal’s inherent drawbacks – Tory candidates being on the ballot at all would undoubtedly draw some votes to them and away from the Brexit Party, while agreeing and subsequently abiding by mutually-accepted criteria for ‘minimal’ campaigning looks fraught with uncertainly and fertile ground for dispute – as well as the Tories’ hitherto contemptuous dismissal of previous overtures, it’s difficult to criticise Farage for being sceptical.

On the calculations of the informative Leave Alliance blog, there are about 43 vulnerable seats which the Tories hold on slim majorities, but also, crucially, about 50 almost all Labour-held and Leave-voting seats which look ripe targets for the Brexit Party, it having come first there in the 2019 Euro-elections.

Caroline fff Labour BXP targets fullThe key statistic here, to my mind, is that in Column 9 – the percentage vote-swing needed for the Tories to capture the seat from Labour. In no case is it under 10%, and in some cases it’s over 20%.

Do the Conservatives really think they’re in with a good chance of persuading sufficient Labour voters – even pro-Brexit ones who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and have since been frustrated with both their Labour-Remainer MPs’ and the Labour Party itself’s policy vacillation and obfuscation on Brexit – to change the voting habits of a lifetime, hold their noses, and vote Tory in big enough numbers to achieve the magnitude of swing required to turn the seat from red to blue?              

I’m doubtful. In my view, therefore, in no circumstances should the Brexit Party agree to stand aside in these. In fact, it’s already announced a very strong candidate for its top Labour-Remainer target seat of Kingston-upon-Hull East, which voted Leave by 73:27 in 2016 and where the Tories trailed Labour by nearly 30% in vote-share in 2017, in former The Apprentice winner and broadcaster Michelle Dewberry.

I’d even be inclined to provisionally add the next 20-30 Labour seats on that target list, but no more. Farage however, appears to have committed the Brexit Party to standing in all Labour-held seats, even including those of the few Labour-Leaver MPs. What is the point of opposing someone like Caroline Flint, who has risked and received such opprobrium from Labour-Remainer MPs for insisting that the democratic verdict of the electorate to leave the EU must be respected and implemented?

I can also see little reason at this stage why ardent Tory-Remainer MPs should enjoy an immunity from other, genuine-Leaver, competition in this election. We risk forgetting too easily how many of them were by no means reluctant to repudiate the manifestos they stood on to get elected in 2017, and, even if not openly opposing a meaningful Brexit by rebelling, nonetheless managed to dilute and soften it by signifying their potential opposition.

It wouldn’t have been unreasonable, therefore, for the Brexit Party to have opposed, say, between 20 and 30 Tory-Remainer MPs squatting in the most heavily Leave-voting seats. That would have added up to something like 90-110 seats in total for the Brexit Party to target, However, the concession having been made, it would be an act of bad faith to withdraw it. But no further concession should be extended.     

Powerful arguments are already being made against the effective disenfranchisement of thousands of Leave voters which the Brexit Party’s standing down in all 317 Tory-held constituents represents. In addition, it puts Leave-voters in the invidious position of having to balance two unpalatable alternatives to decide which is the lesser of two evilsThat being the case, it’s hard to see why anyone could object to Brexit Party PPCs now deprived of a candidature shouldn’t instead stand as Independent Brexiteers.   

Couple the still unresolved horse-trading over who should or should not contest which seats with growing disquiet about some of the new candidates being selected in Tory vacancies, and an hitherto mere unwelcome suspicion starts to harden: that, despite their pre-election blandishments, the Tories’ principal objective in this election is to procure a metro-’liberal’ Tory majority, rather than a pro-Brexit majority, in Parliament, and the former even at the expense of the latter.

Where is this leading? Well, time will tell, but I’m personally becoming more and more convinced that the Tory Party hierarchy’s strategic priorities are:

  1.  ram through something which can plausibly be labelled Brexit, so they can claim to have ‘got it done’, as if it was just a box to be ticked and then forgotten; and
  1. once having done that, get back to business-as-usual in terms of the political system substantially unchanged, which suits the entrenched Westminster elite down to the ground.

That, it strikes me, is not the outcome most critics of the last Parliament wanted in calling for its dissolution. If correct, it seems likely that people may opt instead for their own ‘withdrawal’ option, manifested by the attitude of, as The Conservative Woman‘s Editor Kathy Gyngell put it yesterday, “A plague on both their houses.”

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Conservative Party Candidates: Local Consensus or Centralised Conspiracy?

A discernible pattern of preference being given to parachuted-in favoured Party-insiders, in the selection of Conservative candidates for the General Election, is emerging

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Saturday 9th November 2019 

The selection of “Conservative” Party General Election candidates by local associations is now in its final phase before the 14th November Declaration Day deadline. However, some intriguing claims are emerging, especially from constituencies where the sitting member is standing down, about Party HQ attempting to micro-manage the selection process in favour of its own preferred choices, even to the extent of excluding a local candidate whom the local CA would choose.

First, to a currently Tory seat in the South-East whose MP is standing down. I was told last week, by a friend who happens to be a stalwart of the local Conservative Constituency Association that ructions were very likely to occur at the CA meeting scheduled to be held shortly to discuss the new candidate.

She alleged growing disquiet at what she described as Central Office trying to impose, over the head of an eminently suitable local councillor, a favourite of the Candidates’ Board on their central list with no constituency connection whatsoever. As she put it to me, if objecting causes fireworks, then so be it, but she’s damned if he’s going to rubber-stamp the selection of some chinless-wonder staffer who’s coming straight from being a Central Office gofer after getting a 2nd-class PPE, and who’s seeing the constituency solely as the first step on his or her political career-path.

Second, let’s move to Mid-Sussex, where archetypal patrician Tory grandee Nicholas Soames, one of the 21 anti-Brexit rebels deprived of the Conservative Whip for in effect voting to stop Brexit happening on 31st October, is bequeathing a current majority of over 19,000. In the frame for this are a current Government SpAd with pro-Brexit credentials but who, reportedly, nevertheless supported May’s BRINO (non)-“Withdrawal” Agreement: an educationalist  whose both current and recent political activity, as well as residence, is centred on London: and the current Tory MP for Eastleigh, Mims Davies.

Is there really no suitable local candidate? In the case of the first two, any connection with the constituency is perhaps rather more claimed than it is immediately obvious. Davies, however, does appear to have some genuine connections with the county, having been a Conservative town councillor and as a district councillor on Mid-Sussex District Council from 2011 to 2015 before becoming an MP.

Yet despite this, it’s Davies who turns out to be the most intriguing case. Despite sitting on a 14,000 majority in her Eastleigh seat that voted 54:46 in favour of Leave, she’s definitely trying to up sticks and move to Mid-Sussex. Her somewhat disingenuous previous statement that she “would not be a candidate” in her current constituency originally gave the impression she was quitting Parliament altogether, so the revelation that she is instead seeking a safer seat has given rise to speculation that fear of losing to the LibDems is her real motivation.

UPDATE: Davies was selected to contest the seat for the Conservatives.

Third, let’s journey westwards, to Devizes, which, although voting Leave by 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent, was, at least until the dissolution of Parliament at 00:01 am on Wednesday 6th November, the domain of the wildly over-promoted and eco-gullible Claire Perry, with a majority over 21,000. There, elements of the local association are objecting in no uncertain terms about the possible selection of Danny Kruger, Eton-educated former speechwriter to David Cameron and current Political Secretary to PM Boris Johnson, to the extent of circulating annotated (mostly unfavourably) copies of his CV to all members. 

Kruger is clearly perceived by his detractors as one of the favoured metropolitan-‘liberal’- Cameroon glitterati, and it’s arguably difficult in the current climate to imagine a more damning assessment than “definitely on the Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, side of the party”. But that’s their verdict.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Devizes Constituency Conservative Party has resigned, allegedly in protest  about the undue influence the Party’s Head Office has had on the choice of candidate for the safe seat. The original shortlist of six has apparently been arbitrarily reduced to three, none of whose connections with the constituency appear especially strong, or particularly convincing.

Perhaps many local Tories in Devizes are just not prepared to have what, rightly or wrongly, they see as a Cameroon carpetbagger imposed on them by Central Office willy-nilly. Is there really not a good, genuinely-Conservative local councillor who would make a good constituency MP? After years of being “represented” by Claire Perry, one can understand Devizes’ local Tories being wary.

UPDATE: Kruger was selected to fight the seat.

Fourth, let’s travel north, to the East Midlands and Bassetlaw, the seat vacated by staunch anti-Corbynite Labour Brexiteer John Mann when resigning as a MP on 29th October. In the 2016 EU Referendum, Bassetlaw voted 68:32 for Leave, a margin of over 2:1. With Mann’s majority of only 4,852, and Labour having all but formally declared itself to be a Remain/Second Referendum party, it’s obvious that mere 2,500 voters switching from Labour to Conservative would turn it blue.

Bassetlaw 2017 GE result

Yet from Bassetlaw comes the allegation that the 2017 Tory candidate, apparently a former local councillor and previous Tory CA chair, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016 and significantly reduced Mann’s majority in 2017, thus turning it from a safe Labour seat into a marginal – but was, it’s claimed, critical of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit – has twice been rejected as its 2019 candidate by Tory Central Office, despite being originally admitted to the candidates’ list. The expectation is that an external candidate, presumably acceptable to Tory HQ, will be parachuted in.

This is doubly troubling when the Labour candidate selection process in Bassetlaw is itself in near-total disarray, following a Momentum/NEC decision to overrule the local party and de-select its choice of candidate in a manner more reminiscent of a kangaroo court than adherence to due process. Objections have predictably followed, and the Labour selection process now appears mired in complete confusion.

Presented with an open goal in Bassetlaw, therefore, Tory Central Office appears to be kicking the ball off the pitch.

Fifth, back to the South-East, and to Sevenoaks in Kent, which until the dissolution of Parliament was the seat of former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, with a 21,917 majority. Included in the Party HQ approved shortlist for it was a self-employed local councillor: the former Number Ten 10 adviser to David Cameron, Laura Trott (not our quadruple-gold Olympic cyclist, sadly, but her namesake): and the former MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, a staunch Brexiteer who latterly was David Davis’ Chief of Staff at DExEU.

UPDATE: Trott was selected to contest the seat.

Sixth, again in Kent, and to Orpington – Jo Johnson’s old seat – which over the weekend chose Gareth Bacon, current Tory leader in the London Assembly, to contest the general election for the Conservatives from a shortlist of three. My mole at the selection meeting tells me that, to his intense dismay, and despite Bacon’s local government experience in the area, Bacon nevertheless “turned up with his fan club in attendance”, and that it was obvious as soon as he entered the room that he would win.

Which prompts the thought: if Bacon chaired the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority for the final two years of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, i.e., from 2014 to 2016, was he not involved, at quasi-political level at least, in formulating the Fire Service’s what we now know to be highly contentious advice to residents of high-rise residential blocks like Grenfell Tower to stay put in the event of a fire, and not try to get out of the building? Has anyone made that connection yet?

Does anyone see a pattern here? Now it may or may not be coincidence, but there has recently been an abrupt change at the top of the Party hierarchy, with the resignation from both the Candidates’ Committee and the Party Board of a senior MP over “rising tensions in the Candidates’ Committee about the controversial approach to selections which CCHQ is pursuing”, amid mounting fury over the Candidates’ List, with local associations increasingly pushing back against central control.

Awareness, and anger, even among Tory candidates seeking re-election as MPs, is growing.  The allegations of “doing a chicken run” have duly followed the selection of Mims Davies for Mid-Sussex, and complaints are reportedly being aired on MP’s Whatsapp groups of “lots of special advisers on shortlists, and many more poor, but connected, candidates“.           

One would have thought the “Conservative” Party would have learned from the débacle of the Cameroons’ now notorious A-List, which eventually was quietly killed off. Evidently not.

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Treat this Vichy Parliament with the contempt it deserves

Much huffing and puffing in indignation yesterday from Sarah Wollaston, the “Liberal” “Democrat” (well, this week, anyway – she does change parties so often) MP for Totnes, at PM Boris Johnson’s pulling out of today’s scheduled meeting with the House of Commons Liaison Committee, comprising the Chairs of all the principal Select Committees.    

Wollaston’s response unwittingly highlighted the questions hanging over the democratic legitimacy – or, increasingly, not merely the lack of it, but even contempt for it – of this Rotten Parliament, which has long exceeded either its usefulness or its ability to represent the electorate. She is a perfect vehicle to illustrate it.

Always more of a false-flag, closet Lib-Dem inside the “Conservative” Party than a true Conservative, she nevertheless became its candidate for the Totnes constituency via an Open Primary which the Tories managed to botch spectacularly, firstly by not sufficiently checking the politics of the actual applicants, and secondly by allowing anyone to vote in it, regardless of their political affiliation.

She initially declared for Leave in the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum, only to defect noisily to Remain in mid-campaign, in what many suspected was a put-up job aimed at discrediting the Leave campaign by her ‘defection’. More recently, she has opposed a second referendum, before U-turning and demanding one. In the last 8 months, she has changed parties in Parliament twice, first defecting from the Tories to the ill-fated and serially multi-titled The Independent Group, and subsequently to the LibDems.

Yet despite having twice in effect repudiated the manifesto which she endorsed and was content to stand on to get elected in 2017, she resolutely refuses to resign and trigger a by-election so as to give the voters of Totnes the opportunity to decide if they still want to be represented by her in the House of Commons. And she has the gall to criticise the PM for an unwillingness to “face scrutiny“. The hypocrisy is off the scale.

Wollaston epitomises a Parliament that is treating the electorate, and even democracy itself, with contempt. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was entirely justified in reciprocating in kind.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Including the 21 Tory Continuity-Remainer rebels who have either resigned the Conservative Whip or justifiably had it withdrawn from them, there are now approximately 50 current MPs who have defected from the parties under whose banner they were elected in 2017. Like Wollaston, not one of them has had either the integrity or courage to return to their constituents and seek a fresh mandate for their changed affiliation – or, in most cases, for their 180-degree swivel from the platform on which they sought and gained office.    

It is time to start treating them with equal contempt. Not only the PM, but all ministers, should refuse to appear before the Commons Liaison Committee while Wollaston remains its Chair. They should refuse to appear before any Select Committee chaired by one of those 50-odd MPs, and refuse to answer any question asked by any one of them at any Select Committee hearing.    

This should be carried through to the House of Commons itself. Following the example which should immediately be set by the PM at Prime Minister’s Questions, Ministers should refuse to answer any question, even about their own Departments, coming from one of those 50-odd MPs. And their lack of democratic legitimacy, absent because of their refusal to obtain a fresh mandate from their constituents, should be cited as the reason, every single time.

This rolling disapproval should manifest itself in one other significant way, too. The PM, and all ministers (with other MPs whose democratic legitimacy, regardless of their party, is not in question encouraged to join in as well), should with immediate effect refuse to refer to any of those 50-odd MPs by the title “Honourable Member”. They are in no way “honourable”, and to continue referring to them as such merely compounds the contempt with which they are already treating their own electorates. Would a newly-elected Speaker really want to start his or her period of office by standing up for them?

This abject, quisling, Vichy-Parliament refuses to approve a Brexit Deal but also refuses to approve No-Deal. It claims to be acting on behalf of the electorate but refuses to submit itself to the verdict of the electorate by conceding a general election. And then there’s this:

It is treating both the electorate, and even democracy itself, with utter contempt. High time it received the same treatment.

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Parliament’s Day of Reckoning

As the one of most important days for UK politics and House of Commons history in years, possibly in decades, dawns, with Boris Johnson attempting to secure MPs’ approval for his Brexit deal, how does the parliamentary landscape look?

It’s worth bearing in mind, at the outset, just why we are in this mess. It’s because, essentially, we are saddled with a Remainer Parliament resolved to frustrate the expressed will of the electorate that delivered the largest ever popular democratic mandate for one specific policy in this country’s political history.

EU Ref by votes, regions, parties, constituencies, & MPs

Even on the basic party arithmetic, with no other factors taken into account, Johnson’s prospects for success in the Commons look very tight. The Government currently has an operational “majority” of minus 44, so in order to win, it broadly needs, not only to keep all of those in the Aye lobby, but also attract some others to it. The votes “in play” fall roughly into four key groups.

The DUP have officially rejected Boris’ deal “as it stands”, on the grounds that its revised Protocol covering customs, the NI-RoI border, and Transition arrangements does not fully assuage their objections to Theresa May’s original (non)-“Withdrawal” Agreement. However, it’s emerged in the past 24 hours that this may not be unanimous, and that some of the DUP’s 10 MPs may be prepared to concede pragmatically that this is as good as it’s likely to get, and thus support the Government. The support of former Northern Ireland First Minister Lord Trimble looks to be a major boost.

Then there are the 21 Tory-Remainer rebels from whom the Whip was withdrawn. Rumours abound that an increasing number of these may relent and vote for the Johnson deal, on the basis that it is at least a deal, whereas their objection was to leaving with no deal. But this group also contains a cabal of pro-Remain MPs, some of whose professed determination merely to prevent no-deal is a transparently thin veneer to cover their determination to prevent any Brexit at all, democracy notwithstanding. Some of them are either standing down as MPs or are likely to be de-selected, and so have nothing to lose.

Next come the roughly 80-90 MPs of the European Research Group and its so-called “Spartans” sub-set. Many of this group voted for Johnson in the Tory leadership election, after voting against May’s deal twice but voting for it on its third attempt. As Johnson’s deal, for all its flaws, is at least demonstrably better than May’s, their support, bar possibly one or two hold-outs, looks more or less assured, although, intriguingly, two ministers from this group were reportedly on “resignation watch” yesterday.

Finally come the prospective rebels from the Labour benches, a growing number of whom are already on record as saying they would support Brexit as long as there was a deal, and who may well decide the issue, one way or another. 19 of them wrote to the EU asking it to agree a deal so that they could vote for it. At the time of writing, Labour was threatening to impose a three-line whip, but many of them are likely to be standing down or de-selected in a Momentum/Corbynite purge anyway, and will quite possibly disregard it.

As a general observation, for many Remainer MPs, this is crunch time. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of Johnson’s deal, those Continuity-Remainer MPs from across all parties who have hitherto been insisting that they “respect democracy” and oppose only a no-deal Brexit are finally going to have to stand up and be counted on what their position really is. Not before time,  and for some, it could well be blood on the carpet.

One tweet by the Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson perhaps sums this up. 

The arithmetic is complicated enough. Factor in the possibility of a wrecking amendment, and how it might play out, and we are into the realms of crystal ball gazing.

As this tweet from The Institute for Government’s Maddy Thimont Jack shows, MPs had already started proposing amendments to the relevant motion yesterday morning, the key one being (and little doubt exists that it would be selected by the pro-Remain partisan Bercow as Speaker) that proposed by serial anti-Brexit meddler and arch-Remainer Tory MP Oliver Letwin and signed by all the usual suspects:

The effect appears to be to force withholding of Parliamentary approval for the deal until the legislation to implement it has been passed. The immediate question which occurs is this: how can Parliament pass legislation implementing a deal which Parliament itself has not approved? Has Letwin, not for the first time, been too-clever-by-half?

Its ostensible purpose is to prevent Johnson’s deal being passed but the legislation to implement it being derailed, resulting in a no-deal Brexit on 31st October by default. However, there seems little room for doubt, given their past Parliamentary shenanigans, that the real aim of the cross-party anti-Brexit plotters clustered around Dominic Grieve is to trigger the Benn Surrender Act, and force Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50 until 31st January, thus giving the Remainer Alliance in Parliament time to force through legislation for a second referendum. The Letwin amendment is, in effect, a spoiler.

There are other possible options for die-hard Continuity-Remainer MPs to take, with outcomes ranging from another bid for a risibly mis-named Government of National Unity to an Article 50 extension even without triggering the Benn Surrender Act.

Contrast this reluctance and foot-dragging on the part of irreconcilably Continuity-Remain MPs with the attitude of the UK electorate, which now appears, and by a substantial majority, to want Brexit implemented on the basis of Johnson’s deal. The remoteness of this Rotten Parliament from the people it is supposed to represent grows more marked by the day. 

It must be said that, even if Johnson’s deal is approved today, and the implementing legislation follows in short order thereafter, the timing is still tight. The deal, as approved, still requires the approval of the EU Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament. Given their glacial pace, that has to be doubtful. The future of Brexit remains uncertain.

One thing however is certain. Today will show, once again, the sheer extent of the demos-phobia embedded deep in the psyche of the majority of MPs that the Brexit vote and its aftermath has exposed. Hopefully it will be the last gasp of the creatures before the swamp is drained.

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