Extermination Postponed

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Theresa May’s visit to Washington has unintentionally exposed the President’s fatal defect…

On the Guardian’s website, a piece optimistically labelled “analysis” asks whether Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Article 50 has put an end to the unity of the Labour Party. Yes indeed: those of us distracted over recent weeks by Brexit, Trump, the Supreme Court, chocolate leather trousers and the mysterious plague that appears to be killing off celebrities, may have failed to notice – taken for granted even – the legendary unity of the Labour Party. It goes to show that you must cosset these things because if you take your eye off them for a moment some twerp with a beard can come along with a policy and before you know it has all collapsed into a miasma of in-fighting, Tweet-slapping, bricks through windows and by-election post mortems.

Signs that the togetherness of Labour, forged in the era of Blair and Brown and so assiduously tended to in the days of Miliband and Corbyn, may be falling apart came during the week with the resignation of two members of the shadow cabinet.   The names of these departing silhouettes have become forgotten before they were even known, and there is no point looking them up since shadow cabinet resignations these days are more common than bodily bacteria. Mr Corbyn is now probably the only member of his shadow cabinet who has not yet resigned from it and such an eventuality can hardly be discounted as fantastical. It is well within the Labour leader’s praxis to rebel against his own policies and head for the backbenches in a thin cloud of Marxist dialectic and crumbs of feta cheese. So far as the policy in question is concerned, however –support for the Government’s Bill to detonate Article 50 – there will be no such rebellion. It is Westminster’s worst-kept secret that Mr Corbyn swings to Leave.

That Mr Corbyn is prevented by circumstance from coming out for Brexit is one of the many misfortunes to befall that hapless man. He is prevented by the fact that the constituency he represents is not merely metaphorically Islington, but actually Islington, and therefore the fulcrum of cosmopolitan resistance to the populist surge. He is hampered by heading a party that never really got the hang of recruiting coal miners or steel workers to its Parliamentary cohort, so that its Westminster ranks are harvested instead from fields of awareness counsellors, university lecturers and civil rights lawyers and are thus Remain almost to a person. Above all, Mr Corbyn is hampered by having the leadership skills of a cabbage. As she returns home from glad-handing Presidents Erdogan and Trump, the biggest worry that Theresa May can have about securing the comfort of Labour support for her Brexit Bill must be that Jeremy Corbyn is in favour of it. As the week progressed, the sound of Labour hooves thundering in the opposite direction became palpable.

It is a great shame that the prime ministerial itinerary couldn’t have accommodated Vladimir Putin as well, thus making the tour a clean sweep of all the liberals’ presidential bogeymen. Then again, the lack of retail opportunities would have prevented it. Mrs May sold military jets to Erdoghan and the Queen to Trump, in the latter case treating the US President much as one might any other wealthy American of retirement age: hook him on the idea of heritage, Royal bling and a few gee whiz look at this honey snaps of Buckingham Palace. What could she have offered Mr Putin? The Russian president’s territorial appetite is substantial but even he presumably would draw the line at Wales.

In the event Mr Trump was well-behaved during the encounter. He allowed the prime minister to inspect the restored bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office and was not noticeably caught out inspecting her bust in return. That Winnie has been returned to the ship’s bridge of Western hegemony has seen accomplished the major aim of British foreign policy in the last eight years.

Mr Trump and Mrs May were thus freed to talk turkey, or rather talk trade. Their talking done, they arrived at the subsequent press conference rather touchingly hand in hand. Could it be that the President had not, after all, heeded Nigel Farage’s advice not to molest the Prime Minister when he saw her? Apparently not, for it seems that the most powerful man in the world has a medical condition meaning that he is flummoxed by ramps. This was undoubtedly the best news of the week, signaling that Donald Trump’s power to eviscerate the world is as fatally constrained as that of the Daleks.


This Brexit Will Run and Run

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 Mrs May’s Parliamentary manoeuvres show that we know who wears the leather trousers….

In the heart of London’s exciting Brexit theatreland, two shows went on an extended run, serving up work for the show-going public that was, in the idiom of modern drama, neither short nor gladdening nor comprehensible. Of the Supreme Court’s production Enemies of the People, one reviewer, Isabel Hardman of the Spectator said that it was “like an academic Oxford law seminar”. It seems unlikely that Ms Hardman, an English Literature graduate from Exeter University, has ever attended an academic Oxford law seminar, but you knew what she meant. Theatre criticism is full of critics comparing productions to other productions they haven’t seen or, perhaps more likely, fell asleep half way through.

The Supreme Court is an upstart little company that has set up shop on the other side of Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster Varieties. It was struck from the bosom of that vaudeville seven years ago by the noted impresario Tony Blair. Its origins lie in the days when performing troupes had evocative and slightly sexy names such as Lord Strange’s Men or the Admiral’s Company or the Law Lords. For many years it plied its trade within the Palace itself, much as the Cottesloe nestles within the National Theatre. It would put on obscure productions that nobody much wanted to see, paid for from the public purse, and quite often attacking the government of the day. No one seemed to mind, and even the Daily Mail would barely notice. Suddenly, however, the Supreme Court has found itself with a commercial proposition on its hands, and it has fallen down.

Wall-to-wall coverage of the Government’s appeal against the lower court’s ruling (which is also called the High Court) that it should be Parliament rather than the Prime Minister who pulls the trigger on Article 50, proved somewhat disappointing.  Alan Ayckbourn it ain’t. An endless succession of rather boring men made an endless succession of rather boring points. One longed for something in the style of Samuel Beckett to elevate this sludge with an injection of vivacity and charm.

Surely it is to escape this kind of prosaic legalism that we are trying to get out of the European Union in the first place. The people want a return to the simple days when disputes were settled by one Anglo-Saxon chopping off another’s arm with an axe. Unwigged, their grey heads dipping and nodding above their grey suits, the court looked like any other bunch of standard issue Eurojustices, holed up in The Hague or Luxembourg, or somewhere else equally unspeakable.  Not only were the Supremes bare-headed, they did not wear their gold dressing gowns in which they had been collectively photographed – the print appearing in all good judge-baiting newspapers. Clearly this garb is for ceremonial purposes only, or for when one of the justices wishes to avoid detection while standing in Donald Trump’s lift.

The court rose in the same sort of unremarkable manner that it had sat down in the first place, and we shall not hear what it thinks until the new year. The Telegraph claimed to have discerned that the verdict against the Government will split 7-4, closer than is otherwise anticipated, though the story seemed so flakily sourced as to constitute almost fake news. It would be an odd indictment of four of what we are told are the country’s cleverest people is that is the way it goes, since we had been assured earlier in the week by counsel for the Welsh government that the UK government’s case was so inept that a child of six could see past it. A child of five one presumes would therefore be completely flummoxed (one learns to split these sort of hairs after watching a week of this stuff). If nothing else therefore, we should learn something important from all this about the mental age of our top judges.

Back on the other side of the Square, the court’s proceedings seemed to have been rendered more or less irrelevant through the Government putting down its own amendment to a Labour motion, inviting the Commons to invite Mrs May to go ahead and pull the trigger when she wants to – that is by the end of March next year.  The Prime Minister is held to have been rather smart in manoeuvring her enemies – that is the Conservative Parliamentary party – to sign up to this, though Ken Clarke remained solidly unmanoeuverable, like a walrus.  The Commons assented to the Prime Minister’s  proposition with a handsome majority, causing the Daily Mail the following day to announce the vote as “The Day MPs Spoke for Britain”. From next year onwards therefore, we should get a two day holiday around now, to commemorate two momentous events on the trot: the day MPs spoke for Britain, closely followed by the day the Daily Mail wrote something nice about MPs.

All of this seemed of only limited significance compared to the row that blew up over the Prime Minister’s leather trousers. The first thing that needs to be said is that this is not the sort of thing that would have happened in Anthony Eden’s day. It is not until perhaps Edward Heath that we started to have prime ministers whom it might be possible to imagine wearing leather trousers.

The trousers came up, as it were, because the PM wore them while conducting a newspaper interview. While Mrs May may be shy of making policy statements, fashion statements tumble from her like the water careering over High Force.  A soft feminist who likes occasionally to portray herself as hard, she goes all mushy in her principles when it comes to getting people to talk and write about what she wears. It distracts them from talking or writing about what she thinks.

That the leather apparel have been talked about was confirmed by Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary. “They have been discussed”, Mrs Morgan said, offering a solemn insight into the goings on of the latest meeting of the Theresa May Denigration Society. Mrs Morgan and her co-denigrationists apparently consider it unlikely that anyone with expensive tastes in clothes can have any insight into or empathy with the lives of the Just About Managing classes to whom we must these days all defer. Her lower half encased in expensive brown leather, Mrs May’s entire political credo is thus rendered vacuous and hypocritical, or, as unkind critics might put it, rendered rather Nicky Morgan.

One might have expected this kind of facile class warfare to have emanated not from a fellow Conservative, but from, say, Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader has not been heard from however in a couple of weeks. Presumably he is still in official mourning for Fidel Castro. Besides he cannot be said to possess the rank envy that afflicts Mrs Morgan, a Just About Managing erstwhile corporate lawyer. “I never spent £1000 on anything except my wedding dress”, she wailed. Clearly we must club together somehow to buy NiMo a pair of expensive trousers. Whether this should be done through charitable endeavour or through an extension of the welfare state shows where we must re-pitch the ideological divide.

The welfare state may, in any case, have other priorities since Mrs May revealed in the same interview that she does not have a professional stylist. She must, it seems, rely on her husband Philip for fashion advice. Getting your husband to choose your handbag presumably constitutes the epitome of Just About Managing. Tell that, however, to the truly impoverished – the single mothers on sink estates where absent fathers are also absent husbands and therefore not on hand to pop down to Accessorize to help them choose their earrings. How out of touch can you get?

Loudly Let the Liberal Trumpet Bray

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The Liberal Democrats captured Richmond Park, while the Scottish Nationalists failed to do the same with Tony Blair…. 

On the grey, slushy, banks of the Thames, a small measure of the established political order was restored. The Liberal Democrats won a by-election.

Older readers will remember when this sort of thing used to happen every other week. It was as recurrent a part of the indelible pattern of British politics as the Queen’s Speech or Speaker Bercow making an ass of himself. It is true that every time it occurred the Liberal Democrats would claim that the indelible pattern had been rubbed out, but we knew they were only kidding. From Orpington onwards, on a geographic march that took us to Croydon and Eastbourne, Newbury, Brent and Romsey, the appearance of a hitherto obscure local government officer or primary school teacher with a smile as bright as their yellow rosette would tell us that everything was going to plan. They and their smiles would be gone by the next election. The Liberal Democrat advent always turned out like predictions of a bird flu epidemic – solemnly anticipated, but never quite as devastating as it was supposed to be.

Whether the worldwide rout of liberalism stops now, with the election of Sarah Olney, an accountant from Kingston, as the MP for Richmond Park remains, of course, to be seen. Ms Olney, with a proclivity to run away in the middle of radio interviews, and bewilder herself over what she has written on social media, may seem like a fragile receptacle for the hopes of millions of the planet’s progressives, but for the moment she looks like all they have available. Besides, she succeeded where Hillary Clinton failed. It was a laudable achievement,  especially in circumstances where her opponent Zac Goldsmith, for all that he tries very hard, never quite achieves a level of asininity that is Donald Trump’s second nature.

Many people welcomed the downfall of Mr Goldsmith and his ego, and it would be churlish to deny them the pleasure. Loyal to his brother’s sense of self-esteem, a younger member of the clan, Ben, bemoaned the “Brexit tantrum” that had substituted an “inspired MP” with an “utterly dreary” replacement. Earlier Ben had called Ms Olney “unimaginably drab”, leading one to wonder just how many of these formulations he had tucked up his Twitter sleeve (“unbelievably discombobulated?”, “uncannily distrait?”, “ungallantly derided?”). Nor were these intended as absolute insults: in each case he added the rider that his target was these things “even by Liberal Democrat standards”. One senses immediately what young Goldsmith means. The party’s leader, Tim Farron, casts a long shadow. Yet the stereotype should not be pressed too far. The liberal tradition has managed to accommodate Gladstone, Churchill and Lloyd George as well as giving us a salacious legacy of drunks, roués and child molesters.

It may be difficult to see Sarah Olney fitting in to this piquant mix, though in an attempt to give her colour, the Evening Standard has pointed up her love of Gilbert and Sullivan. She has portrayed Iolanthe in an amateur production and so will be aware of that work’s message about the indispensability of the House of Lords. This is perhaps what makes her a Liberal Democrat: having worked loudly and piously to abolish unelected members of Parliament, her party now sees them as a vital and, quite literally, noble antidote to its lack of the elected variety. Gilbert and Sullivan specialised in the portrayal of essentially comic figures cast in roles of authority for which they are ill-suited. The party’s newest MP should therefore get on well with Mr Farron.

The Liberal Democrat revival was delayed a few weeks by its failure quite to materialise upstream along the Thames in Witney, in the by-election caused by the vamooshing of David Cameron. The victor of that contest, a Tory barrister called Courts, made his maiden speech earlier in the week, choosing to do so in a St Andrew’s Day debate sponsored by the Scottish Nationalists. The subject was the perennial one of the evils of Tony Blair. One wishes that Gilbert and Sullivan had still been alive to capture Mr Blair, a task well beyond the International Criminal Court or, on this occasion, Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond did good Bannockburn with the handful of Labour backbenchers still willing to battle for their former leader; but as an exercise in futility it could be taught in business school. “Sofa government had driven us to war”, he said. Better then to prosecute the sofa. If Parliament really wants to get him, it should pass a law making it illegal to be Tony Blair. Not only would this be popular in the country, it would create a charge which even he would be unable to wriggle away from.

Mr Courts of Witney stepped in to this ensemble of Scottish disapproval to speak with impeccable lyricism about his constituency. It is a place where red kites soar over Bladon and the Windrush, Glyme and Evenlode gurgle expensively past the gardens of bankers, barristers and television personalities. Its MP took us on a tour of its towns and villages, alighting, like Edward Thomas in Addlestrop, upon Chipping Norton, yet forbearing, with admirable originality, to mention its set. Forbearing to mention Winston Churchill however, who is buried in Bladon churchyard, apparently a stone’s throw from where Mr Courts himself lives, was beyond him. Churchill once got engaged in a Parliamentary tussle of his own with a Labour backbencher called Albert Stubbs, who was also Mr Courts’ great-grandfather. He listened to his intervention, called Stubbs “ignorant” and went on with his speech. Great orator that he was, Churchill lacked the Goldsmithian flair to add “even by the standards of the Labour Party” as he did.

Do not presume that Mr Courts’ was a lonely shaft of English optimism to penetrate an otherwise cheerless Scottish afternoon. He was more than matched in chirpiness by Gavin Newlands, the SNP member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, whose adjournment debate addressed the unlikely topic of Paisley’s cultural contribution to the world. If the world has yet to recognise this contribution, the Union might at least be about to do so, by possibly making it the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. The irony of a Scottish Nationalist seeking this UK accolade for his constituency, and especially for five years hence, by which time Scotland must surely be aspiring to independence, was not lost on Matthew Hancock, the minister replying to the debate.

It would be wrong though to chide Mr Newlands for this liturgical anachronism. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and Paisley pattern tie, he unveiled an impressively long list of cultural figures born in or associated with the town. This may be readily compared with the somewhat shorter list of cultural figures anyone has heard of outside Renfrewshire, but if the “musical superstar” Paolo Nutini (a fine old Paisley name, one imagines) isn’t on your A-list, it is your loss and not Mr Newlands’. By the time he was down to detailing the weather forecasters Paisley had given to the world, the point was well made. Sarah Olney, when the time comes, will do well to make Richmond Park live as vividly in the chamber as Mr Newlands managed for Paisley or Mr Courts for Witney. That is assuming that, when she rises for her maiden speech, she doesn’t sit down again half way through it and hand over to her press officer.

Drain the Swamp

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Castro died in Cuba, while Philip Hammond, somewhat to his critics’ surprise, avoided the same fate in the House of Commons….

The death of the greatest man that George Galloway ever met was greeted with merriment in Miami but lamentation on the streets of Havana and Islington. Cuban flags flew at half-mast – in Havana too probably – and Buena Vista bars the length and breadth of Upper Street fell silent. Mr Galloway is more by way of a peripatetic revolutionary, but wherever his followers are, no doubt they were weeping too, and perhaps crawling around on the floor dressed as cats, in the time-honoured manner of their tribe.

Leading his north London congregation in celebration of a life well-lived and a beard full-grown, Jeremy Corbyn observed that Fidel Castro had created a world-class health and education system. This seemed a little disloyal towards the NHS which, the left likes to hold, is in a world-class of its own. Yet people who measure these things say that Cuban health outcomes are respectable, and life expectancy is good. After all, old Fidel himself lived longer than all but three of America’s 38 deceased presidents, albeit that two of those were Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, which might stick somewhat in the leftist craw. However you look at it, it is clear that when she decided to keep Jeremy Hunt on as her Health Secretary, Theresa May made the wrong choice. But it is too late now.

Castro’s death capped a good week for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. Not only did he manage to deliver an Autumn Statement that was both mildly interesting and relatively positive, but another of his ambitions is more clearly in sight. We know that Mr Hammond wanted nothing more than to be in charge of the Treasury,  but now the Cuban’s demise has taken away the most serious obstacle between him and the title of the world’s most boring public speaker. The late dictator achieved record-levels of tedium by going on and on. His addresses could sometimes last longer than a test match. The Chancellor is more of a limited overs performer, but can attain a comparable soporific effect. He is thus, when it comes to the International Ennui Index, much the more productive performer.

This will please him no end. Mr Hammond has a passion for productivity and although his Statement never had anything as racey as a centrepiece, the new National Productivity Fund that he unveiled perhaps came closest. This will be supplied with £23 billion, which may seem a lot of taxpayers’ money to pay for Mr Hammond’s hobby, but to think that is to misunderstand just how deep Britain’s productivity crisis is. The Germans, the Chancellor explained, can make in four days what it takes the British five. This is not quite true. The Germans can make a lot of Mercedes or precision tools in four days; the British cannot make these things at all.

The Autumn Statement, which Mr Hammond proudly announced would be his last, was nonetheless rich in the modern tradition. There was the compulsory jibe at the expense of George Osborne and, as is also conventional, Labour MP’s ignored John McDonnell when he rose to respond, preferring instead to fiddle with their mobile phones. There was also the regulation joke about Boris Johnson. The Foreign Secretary is said to be growing weary at all the joshing he is receiving in public from his senior colleagues – although Boris saying that he is fed up with jokes is a little like the Pope declaring that he has had enough of nuns.

Less observed was that Mr Hammond’s passage on productivity also contained a dig aimed at Theresa May whom, we hear, he heartily dislikes. She, after all, has appointed three Cabinet ministers to get us out of the European Union. This is the sort of over-manning not seen since the 1970s and, moreover, they will probably achieve less for our side than one German woman will for hers. Angela Merkel though doesn’t have the handicap of having to spend half her time wrestling Mark Carney to the ground and trying to get a gag in his mouth. The Governor of the Bank of England once again cheerfully stepped outside his remit to declare that we should have two extra years beyond the two given us by triggering Article 50 to extricate ourselves from the single market. This is Brexit so soft you could roll it out with an Andrex puppy, and not in tune with the spirit of the times.

Received wisdom was that, when Mr Carney graciously agreed to stick around for an extra year or so in his role, we should consider ourselves fortunate. How comforting that this sophisticated, knowing, foreigner still wanted to have anything to do with us.  Our embrace of Mr Carney’s generosity seemed to owe less to his economic record (mixed) than to the overwhelming fancy of the age that in this pyretic world the only person you can trust is a Canadian. At least this is not just our problem. It is good to realise that in Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, Mrs Merkel at least has some competition to be declared the leader of the free and self-righteous world.

Mr Carney himself may feel that he was only responding to the lead shown by Mrs May when she addressed the CBI at the start of the week. She said then that she did not want our leaving the European Union to mean that the economy fell off a cliff. Brexit still means Brexit it seems, but at least it has now acquired this new and satisfying dimension. There could be a “transitional deal”, the Prime Minister hinted in answer to a question after her speech, although Downing Street later downplayed the comment. This is an interesting development in itself: Mrs May’s people are usually sent out to dismantle the policy commitments made on the hoof by one or more of the three Brexiteers; this is the first time that its well-honed unpicking skills have had to be deployed against the Prime Minister herself.

Still, it was nice of Mrs May to try to be sensitive towards business. The months since the referendum have not been kind to the sort of people who attend CBI conferences. Once the heroes of Britain’s capitalist economy, the people who put the private into privatisation, who took the glittering prizes from enterprise, they find themselves suddenly characterised as the constituent parts of a swamp which, according to the modish dictum,  needs to be drained. The masters of the universe are now the putrid emblems of globalisation which we bid retreat. Mrs May, not above giving her audience rude messages, as the Police Federation once found out, could have said all this, but she chose to trim. Besides, she may have felt that, having scattered David Cameron’s Cabinet to the four corners of the earth, she has already done her bit for draining the swamp.

The Honorary Consul

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British politicians were trapped in the carapace of their own humbug toward Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, leaving Nigel Farage to make his move…. 

Since we have arrived at the end of the week and Donald Trump hasn’t yet blown up the world, it may be time to start looking out for articles proclaiming that, once again, the experts have got it wrong. Then again, it is still early days, and, strictly speaking, The Donald isn’t yet the President. We have to wait until after his inauguration in January – a ceremony at which, incidentally, the face of President Obama sitting on the podium is going to be a joy to behold – before they let him near the button. By then, we are assured by the incurably naieve, he will have surrounded himself with enough “good people” who can tell him when and when not he can push it and, hopefully, to hit him on the back of the head if he doesn’t listen.

In Britain, the political class divided sharply in reaction to Mr Trump’s victory, between those who were, in the words of Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary, horrified and terrified and Nigel Farage. Theresa May, who has a habit of keeping her political views like her shoes, concealed in a cupboard until the most expedient ones can be displayed for maximum effect, congratulated the President-elect while studiously avoiding the question of whether she considered him to be fit to hold the office. Mr Trump shouldn’t necessarily consider this a slight. It is evident that Mrs May doubts whether her own foreign secretary is fit to hold the office, but that didn’t stop her appointing him in the first place.

Some commentators contrasted Mrs May’s approach to Trump unfavourably with that of Angela Merkel, who gave the President-elect a little Germanic lecture in values. The world’s other notable female leader – one refers, of course, to Nicola Sturgeon – more or less told Mr Trump that if he comes anywhere near her she will punch him in the mouth. The President-elect, who is unable to tell Scotland from a golf course (it is a not unuseful interpretation),  would seem unlikely to want to risk it.

But it was Mr Farage who caught the attention. There he was, glowing like plutonium in the television studios on that Wednesday dawn, as the final results from Michigan limped in, and the weary and dejected Maitlises and Pestons limped off. There he was, soaring across the Atlantic as Britain’s self appointed envoy to the new court. The Honorary Consul had taken flight.

Before long Mr Trump and Mr Farage were pictured side by side, standing inside what looked to be Tutankhamun’s tomb, but was presumably part of the Trump Tower. At the same time stories started to surface – there is no evidence to suggest that the source of these stories was anyone other than their subject and beneficiary – that Mr Farage would be the go-between between the Trump administration and Mrs May’s government. Since Mr Trump does not have an administration (harsh critics might aver that Mrs May doesn’t really have a government), it may be an unfair ask for anyone to form a relationship with it. This didn’t matter because the media were by now growing weary of publicising celebrity Tweets threatening suicide and promising emigration, and needed a new angle. Liam Fox, the Daily Telegraph reported, would consult Mr Farage before beginning one of his own ersatz trade negotiations, but Downing Street was quick to tell him to forget it. Like the other Brexiteers, Dr Fox is kept on an exceedingly short leash, terminating in the sort of collar familiar to one of Michael Heseltine’s dogs. Mrs May only has to twist it for Dr Fox to go limp.

Fiddling with the lead, Mrs May hung around for the best part of a day, waiting for The Donald to call. That she was ninth (or eleventh according to some reports) on his list of world leaders was accorded immense geopolitical significance and we were advised by smug commentators that Britain had clearly fallen down the world pecking-order behind Ireland, Egypt and South Korea. By the same token, however, we were ahead of Germany, France or even Russia, although presumably Mr Trump has no need to call his mate Vlad since the pair had been Snapchatting each other since CNN called Pennsylvania for the GOP. Trump and May talked about the special relationship, about Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and about Brexit. The prime minister may have advised the President-elect that in his huge proposed programme of infrastructure spending it would be a good idea to build himself a beautiful telephone exchange.

Otherwise, politics in Britain hung frozen across the week, as politicians took time to absorb the news and reach the most peaceful accommodation they could with the violence of their own cant. The Liberal Democrats took the opportunity to break cover and pledge that they would not back the triggering of Article 50 unless there were a specific pledge to hold a second referendum. Eighty MPs are aligned with this position – a coalition-in-denial of Lib Dems, the SNP and Labour rebels. Officially Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have said that they will not stand in the way of triggering the Article, although loyalty to Mr Corbyn’s point of view is not currently Labour’s predominant characteristic. The Labour leader is nevertheless feeling surprisingly chipper. He has spotted in the Trump victory the essence of a populist revolt against the establishment that he believes will be replicated in Britain and carry him to power. What he may not have noticed is that populist Donald has one thing that populist Jeremy lacks, which is popularity.

Bury Boris in Harmondsworth

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The go-ahead was given for a third runway at Heathrow. But this wasn’t the week’s only infrastructure news….

In a significant blow for Britain’s infrastructure requirements, terrible rumours started to circulate in the week that Theresa May has decreed that the “grid” should be abandoned. The grid – a computerised chart used to choreograph government announcements – has absolutely no relevance to anyone except a couple of dozen or so political correspondents. If a government announcement goes down, we do not phone up the grid company demanding to know when Amber Rudd will be restored. The battle over infrastructure, however, is conducted by hugely influential lobbies that operate behind the scenes and are backed by the resources of giant corporations. This is a description fitting Westminster journalists exactly, and so we were bound to hear about it.

Unfortunately, there are signs that Mrs May may be impervious to their entreaties. The Prime Minister has acquired a reputation for not much liking big business, and it seems as if she doesn’t care for big journalists either. She will take a lunch or dinner off us, they complain, but not give anything away. She declines to turn up dutifully on a Monday morning to make some vacuous and ephemeral speech, of no lasting significance, but good for a page one lead on a slow news day. The Prime Minister, we are discovering, is a private person. She will not tell Parliament what she is up to, and she will not tell the hacks either. There is every possibility that we will wake up one morning to find that we have adopted the gold standard and declared war on Austria. This will not have been noted on the grid.

It was therefore remarkable in a way that we discovered on Tuesday that the Government has given the go-ahead to building a third runway at Heathrow – the week’s second most important infrastructure news. This is not, in fact, quite true. What has got the go-ahead is 10 years of legal wrangling, planning inquiries, judicial reviews, sit-down protests and Boris Johnson bulldozer photo opportunities until, on some distant foggy morning in the 2020s, a man might finally turn up with a shovel and split the virgin turf. Since the Coalition Government shelved the Heathrow plan six years ago, China has built 70 airports. At this rate there could be one airport for every 10 Chinese before any jets touch down on a new length of west London tarmac.

China, or for that matter France, do these things that much more ruthlessly. In their jurisdictions, Boris wouldn’t be so much lying down in front of the bulldozers and lying underneath the concrete. The villagers of Harmondsworth – the community most directly affected by the third runway – would be made an offer they cannot refuse.  In a time when we are pondering the nature of our democracy, and the fraught relationship between Parliament and the people, our way is all really rather quaint and British.

There will be a by-election in under-the-flightpath constituency of Richmond Park. The constituency’s quasi-Tory MP Zac Goldsmith resigned his seat in protest, prompting a self-declared “Heathrow referendum” contest that will be primarily fought with a Liberal Democrat who is equally opposed to the runway decision. For the Liberals, the by-election is a referendum all right, but on Brexit. Sir Vince Cable, who still intends to stand next time for his party in the neighbouring constituency of Twickenham, is stirring menacingly. The contrary Mr Goldsmith, he points out in that chilling car park attendant manner of his, was a Brexiteer, in a constituency where the only other people to vote leave were an elderly couple who misread the ballot paper.

The Tories won’t be fielding a candidate in Richmond Park – or at least Mrs May hasn’t told us that they will. This decision at least has the advantage of avoiding the potential farce of a referendum fought out between three main candidates all of whom are on the same side of the argument (one assumes that the Tories wouldn’t have run on a “Bulldoze the Buggers” ticket; they are not that dense). This is not fertile territory for either Labour or UKIP. The only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Richmond Park is when he comes in low over it on his way back from Cuba or Syria, or some other part of the world where his politics and personality are more warmly appreciated.

Lest we forget, UKIP remain in the perpetual state of trying to elect a new leader. The front-runner is said to be Paul Nuttall, a historian from Liverpool, standing as the “unity candidate” for which, one might imagine, there is only a limited constituency among the Kippers. Worse, Mr Nuttall is said not really to want the job. This is an ominous sign in a party whose last leader didn’t want the job either. To be fair to her, however, Diane James tried it out for 18 days before deciding to exercise the sale or return clause in her election contract.

This may leave the path open for Raheem Kassan,  who used to be Nigel Farage’s special adviser. Mr Farage famously hates special advisers, though that is unlikely to have fazed Mr Kassan since plenty of other people hate him too. He is undoubtedly the liberals’ prime bogeyman – some achievement for someone from UKIP – but has the great advantage of having the Party’s money behind him. This comes from Arron Banks. It is Mr Banks’ destiny to be the only one left in the country after the others have all hopped it  to Frankfurt over Brexit.

Mr Kassan is a stalwart of the so-called “alt right”, an on-line phenomenon and bound to fail as is any political movement that cannot distinguish itself from a command to boot up your Windows PC.  He does though have an imaginative policy platform, which includes the idea that we should tape Nicola Sturgeon’s legs together to prevent her from reproducing. Whether this is merely an aspiration, or is backed by a firm action plan, is no doubt an issue than can be tested at the hustings.

Into the Nest of Doves

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Theresa May went to Brussels to see for herself the calm and rational world that Britain will be leaving behind when we Brexit….

In England on Friday, Theresa May racked up that most de rigeur of political milestones – her 100th day in office. Day 99 had been spent in Brussels where the Prime Minister had arrived amid assurances from Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, that she would be “quite safe” at her first European leaders’ summit. If it had been Donald Trump vouching for her safety, Mrs May would have known not to have gone to Belgium without a detachment of the SAS and some pepper spray in her handbag. Yet, without really knowing very much about him at all, one senses that Donald Tusk is a gentleman, from the old-school Polish aristocratic tradition.  If he says he will protect our leader from Matteo Renzi making inappropriate suggestions about sanctions on Russia, Viktor Orban backing her into a corner to talk about Hungarian casual labour on East Anglian fruit farms or even Angela Merkel trying to give her a Chinese burn, we should take him at his word. Certainly, Mrs May returned for her centenary celebrations unmolested, although equally, it must be said, unacclaimed. Her little after dinner speech on Brexit – delivered, as it happens in the first wee small hours of day 100 – was met, by all accounts, with total silence.

The Daily Mail’s Brussels correspondent thought that that was a good thing. At least she hadn’t provoked a riot. The Mail must remain relentlessly jaunty about whole Brexit business. If the foreigners had started to throw bread rolls, it could have called for war to be declared. If they said nothing, it must be because the silence was stunned by the force of the Prime Minister’s inexhaustible common sense. Another theory is that the other European prime ministers and presidents were under strict instructions from Mr Tusk to say nowt, for it is axiomatic across European chancelleries that there should be no negotiation before notification, that is the triggering of Article 50. Another theory is that they were all asleep. They had drunk and eaten well. Pan-fried scallops, reported the Independent, followed by crown of lamb. As to the pudding, Mrs May was the iced vanilla parfait that went with the roast fig, which is precisely what her colleagues didn’t give for her speech.

What the Prime Minister would have discovered, if she did not know it already, is that that group of politicians whom we are obliged to call our European friends and neighbours are not nearly as obsessed by Brexit as we are ourselves. No negotiation without notification is as much a coping strategy as a petulant one. It has the effect of putting the whole horrid thing to one side while they work out what to do about Russia, migrants, Calais, the euro, Italian banks, Deutsche Bank and, a relatively new entrant onto the slopes of the European impotence mountain, Walloonian intransigence.

The Walloons, for the sort of narrow-minded, self-interested reasons that European integration is supposed to have eradicated, are blocking an EU trade deal with Canada. This caused the Canadian trade minister to retreat back to Ottawa in a hurt and flustered fashion. “It seems evident”, she said, “that the EU is now not capable of having an international deal, even with a country which has values as European as Canada, even with a country as kind, as patient”. Taking on Putin’s megalomania is one thing, but if Europe is going to set itself up in opposition to the sheer global force of Canadian kindness, then diplomats need to be on their mettle. Still, credit to these French-speaking Belgians: seldom can a part of the world so meagre and underestimated have done more to puncture a pomposity as awesome as the smugness of Canada – a level of self-satisfaction that has grown ever more insufferable since they elected Trudeau.

Our own homegrown smug-detectors were on high alert after the Witney by-election; but although the Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote at the expense of the Conservatives, their failure to capture the seat meant that smug levels were kept within acceptable bounds. It would still be possible to walk about in West Oxfordshire without gas masks after all, even at the expense of sending yet another Tory barrister to the House of Commons. The vote was variously interpreted as a personal repudiation of David Cameron, the departing MP, or as a consolidation of the forces of Remain. In the referendum, Witney had voted to stay, thus establishing itself as a small rural island of pro-EU sympathies in a turbulent sea of Leave.

In that respect, it has a lot in common with the Treasury. Whitehall itself has fallen to the barbarians. Its high-ceilinged salons and marble corridors are now the desmesne of Foxes, Davises and Johnsons, prowling around and looking for something to do. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, sits surrounded by these creatures, phalanxed by an inner wall of like-minded, pro-Remain mandarins. These were the men who once fashioned the bullets about the economic costs of Brexit that George Osborne so ineptly fired. (Mr Osborne was, himself, of course subsequently fired, though in his case eptly.)

This is not good for Mr Hammond’s reputation. He has been set upon by his fellow Tories for being insufficiently messianic in his desire to leave the European Union. One backbencher – believed to be the Vulcanic John Redwood – described him as a risk-averse accountant, which is not necessarily the cruellest thing you can say about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is not even the most influential Philip in the government, says another source – a reference to Philip May, the Prime Minister’s husband.

Philip II was still with us by the end of the week – something of a relief since earlier on “friends” had been reported as saying that he might be about to do something silly. But what does a risk-averse accountant do that is silly? Let the batteries run down on his calculator?  The Treasury and the Foreign Office, the two most important departments of  State, are thus occupied by men of strikingly different characters: Mr Hammond may be about to do something silly;  Boris Johnson never is, on the grounds that he is doing something silly already.


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