A New Mandate

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Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected as leader of the Corbyn Party. A nation rejoices….

Proving that he is the least conventional of politicians, Jeremy Corbyn defied convention by winning an election that, according to polls and pundits alike, he was predicted to win. Sixty-two percent of the voting membership of the Corbyn Party assented to the proposition that Jeremy Corbyn should stay at its leader – a slight uptick on the proportion that put him there in the first place. This, of course, was presented as a great triumph or, as Mr Corbyn himself chose to call it “a new mandate”. Nevertheless, for the second year running the question remained as to why around four in ten of the members of the Jeremy Corbyn fan club don’t want him to be their leader. Mr Corbyn’s failure to return North Korean levels of democratic support can presumably be put down to his legendary scatter-brainedness. Though often likened to Stalin, the Labour leader would make a very bad totalitarian dictator indeed. At the execution of his political enemies, he would be the one who forgot to turn up with any bullets. He would be all Pol and no Pot.

No sooner had Mr Corbyn’s victory over Owen Smith been announced than it was heralded by Owen Jones as the launch-pad for “an inspiring, coherent, credible vision”. Luckily these political Owens travel around is easily-labelled packages – the one a Labour MP destined for a return to the obscurity of the backbenches, the other an idealistic Guardian columnist who looks rather younger than Aled Jones did when he first sang Walking in the Air. Perhaps they should team up and make television programmes together. Even if the subject matter were confined exclusively to what Owen J calls Labour’s “mutual mistrust and looming internecine warfare”, they would never want for material.

Quite how Labour is to make the passage from looming internecine warfare to an inspiring, coherent and credible vision is, it might be objected, the missing link in young J’s eulogy to his hero’s victory. This, however, is the sort of detail that Team Corbyn has showed itself so adept at mastering during the first uncontroversial year of his leadership. The Messiah himself made a promising start. “We shall wipe the slate clean”, he promised. In a backroom somewhere, a whole team of Corbynistas were busy, not only wiping slates clean, but sharpening them up ready to be thrown through the constituency office windows of MPs who are opposed to the great Pol.

These MPs flocking back to Mr Corbyn’s side to admire his new mandate were conspicuous by their absence. Owen S was obliged by convention to stand on the stage next to the man who had just trounced him when the result was declared, looking united; when the television cameras cut to Tom Watson, however, the Party’s turbulent deputy leader, he looked about as happy as someone would realising he had forgotten to give S the knife. There is little love lost between Mr Corbyn and his deputy, with the former regarding the latter as disloyal, discourteous and wrong. These, as it happens, were exactly the words used to describe Mr Watson by Tony Blair’s Downing Street 10 years ago after he had tried to engineer the then Prime Minister’s overthrow. A fierce dislike and embedded mistrust of Tom Watson is the most promising basis for a concordat between Corbynites and Blairites that the Labour Party is ever likely to discover.

Somehow from this unyielding material, the Labour leader will be obliged to create yet another shadow cabinet. Mr Corbyn forms shadow cabinets roughly as often as the rest of us brush our teeth, though he has been known to be several days in the doing of it, which is longer than even the most assiduous dentist recommends. An intense argument is raging within Labour – one of several thousand such – about whether members of the shadow cabinet should be elected and, if so, by whom. Demonstrating that they have a low regard for their notional leader’s perspicacity and intellect, the MPs have suggested that the electing should be done by them, trusting that the great Pol might not notice the flaw in this stratagem from his perspective. Mr Corbyn meanwhile clings to the democratic ideals of his predecessor – this is about all of Ed Miliband’s legacy that he does cling to – believing that the tiresome and impractical business of electing a shadow cabinet should remain done away with altogether. Either that or the loyal members of the Corbyn fan club should do it. According to John McDonnell, a rare example of the fan club who is also an MP, there will be a million such by this time next year. Labour is Europe’s largest political party chirrups Owen J in his Guardian panegyric. As if Europe didn’t have enough problems.

There is talk that the party will organise an “away day” where they will chew over such issues as electing the shadow cabinet, policy, direction and the vexed issue of whether they should stop sending internet abuse to each other. (On this last issue, a compromise position has emerged, whereby death threats can only be sent on Snapchat so that they vanish after 10 seconds.) Presumably Europe’s largest political party will require a fairly large venue. The moderates have suggested the Birmingham NEC, the Corbynistas Venezuela. Size of venue is not ostensibly a problem for Labour’s would-be allies on the “progressive centre-left”, the dear old Liberal Democrats whose party conference preceded Labour’s in dear old progressive Brighton. Political journalists flocked to the south coast in almost double figures, hunting out telephone boxes in the search for jokes about the number of the party’s MPs.

Conference delegates meanwhile arrived in Brighton to the shocking news that almost half the public, according to an opinion poll, dislike the Party’s leader Tim Farron. The shock in Brighton was of rather a different kind to the shock beyond it: within Lib Dem circles simply no one could believe that it is possible to dislike Tim Farron. Outside it is impossible to believe that you can find an opinion poll survey of enough people who have heard of him. Still the Lib Dems like to live in a little world of their own:  a world in which Vince Cable is always right, Paddy Ashdown is modest and self-effacing, Charlie Kennedy never touched a drop in his life and, of course, the Liberal Democrats remain in permanent, benevolent and enlightened control. Such a world is the one inhabited by the grassroots speaker in the Party’s debate on Britain’s future relationship with the EU who declared that she could not understand the result of the referendum on the grounds that she never met anyone who voted to leave. If only the rest of us could organise it never to meet a smug, deluded and – to use Nick Clegg’s characterisation of his own party – herbivorous, Liberal Democrat, the world would be a much happier place.






Fatal Distraction

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David Cameron bows out…one step ahead of the Boundary Commission

The Boundary Commission produced proposals that would reduce the number of Parliamentary constituencies (and therefore the number of MPs) from 650 to 600 and simultaneously make it more difficult for Labour to win the next general election. This only goes to show that politics is a profoundly wasteful occupation. Labour possesses abundant resources of its own capable of making it difficult for it to win the next general election. The effort requires no public subsidy provided through the offices of the Boundary Commission.

Supporters of the Labour Party were quick to denounce the proposals as unfair, as if the Boundary Commission might be other than a collection of civil servants with a demographic bent and rather a right-wing front organisation funded by big oil, big pharma and anything else big for whom Conservative hegemony is perceived to be the fons et origo of political life. An examination of the arguments advanced in support of this proposition revealed remarkable conformity with the arguments advanced in favour of grammar schools. Both were based on prejudice rather than evidence. The case against making it harder for Labour to win the general election is that it ought to be easier for Labour to win the general election. The case for removing the barriers to grammar schools is that there ought to be more grammar schools. Both grammar schools and the Labour Party are, in this analysis, therefore assumed to be axiomatically for the public good, like a functioning sewage system or the National Theatre. Only dark forces with sinister motives, such as the educational establishment or the Boundary Commission, are held to be against these virtuous outcomes.

The news that the Boundary Commission changes will abolish the Islington North constituency of Jeremy Corbyn fell some way short of the hopes of the moderates in the Labour Party. They want the changes to abolish Jeremy Corbyn. This though is to place an unsustainable burden on purely bureaucratic shoulders. No matter which way these modern-day Sykes Picots redraw the lines across North London, the place is such a vast, falafel-scented savanna of metropolitan conscience-monkeys that a combination of them will always be found to vote in Mr Corbyn with a 20,000 majority. A new constituency, say, of Canonbury and Sevenoaks might do the trick, but though the bureaucrats showed that they have the cojones to reach across the Tamar, uniting Devon and Cornwall in a new civic monstrosity, this seems like a flick of the pen too far. Besides there could be no guarantee that Mr Corbyn would stay put: he’d hop across the border, deselect whichever rival stood in his way, and fight to represent the more electorally propitious Camden and Carshalton West.

For a brief 30 minutes of the week, none of this seemed to matter as Mr Corbyn turned in a performance at Prime Minister’s questions that had commentators declaring to a robot that he had bested Theresa May. This sketch has long held the view that the most important political question of any political week – who “won” PMQs – is pre-determined, possibly involving a ceremony where a man wearing white cotton gloves invites a couple of political pundits to draw appropriately labeled balls from a black velvet bag. The events that subsequently occur on Wednesday lunchtime are then written up by these pundits and their compadres to fit this pre-arranged script.

This week it was Mr Corbyn’s turn to win. The Prime Minister’s jokes were therefore destined to fall flat and her demeanour to be denounced as wooden. Meanwhile, whatever rococo performance Mr Corbyn turned in would perforce be recorded as so superlative that it would make Cicero spit with envy. The Labour leader was at least vaguely co-operative. It is true that he hasn’t entirely kicked his reliance on amateur interrogators, but at least all his questions were on the same thing – grammar schools – and strung together in a manner that approximated to a sustained assault on the policy. Roughly half-way through this ritual, it dawned on Mrs May, and, more importantly, on those sitting behind her, that her grammar school policy was incapable of bearing even an unsustained assault. The Prime Minister’s enemies – that is the Cameroonian modernisers – took heart.

It was all too late, of course, to save David Cameron, who had announced the day before that he would be quitting his Witney constituency straight away. This was presumably before Mrs May’s calculating henchmen in the map department could twin it up with Walsall and turn it in to a tricky marginal. Three months go, Mr Cameron was Prime Minister: now he doesn’t even have the confidence left to go on helping the people of West Oxfordshire with their planning disputes and asylum applications. The EU referendum has undone him more quickly than the wrapping paper on a box of chocolates at a Weight Watchers graduation party.

Luckily, however, George Osborne has made it clear that he will continue to stride forward with the modernisers’ banner, standing up for something he calls the “voice of the liberal mainstream” and putting his continuing energies into championing the Northern Powerhouse, the well-known Wigan-based chain of electrical retailers.  Mr Cameron  said that he does not want to become a “distraction”, thoughtfully announcing this on the day that his one-time deputy Nick Clegg was launching his memoirs, and thus distracting the four or five people who might otherwise have bought a copy.  Mr Osborne is evidently going to carry on distracting to the best of his ability:  who knows, he may yet one day succeed in unhorsing Mrs May and become a fatal distraction. As it happens, the most diverting thing on show all week was Boris Johnson’s crutch, The Foreign Secretary seemed determined to prove that the Boundary Commissoners are not the only ones with cojones by spreading his legs in the first official photograph of the Cabinet.  In the manner of Winston Churchill, who once greeted President Roosevelt in the nude, Mr Johnson wishes to show the country’s partners that British diplomacy has nothing to hide.

Grammar Schools Mean Grammar Schools

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Parliament began its new term with a statement from David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Mr Davis appeared relatively unemcumbered by the fact that he has the most clumsy, and possibly the most ambiguous, job title in Theresa May’s government. If you read it too quickly you can come away with the impression that his job is to excite the European Union. The European Union is full of people like Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. Exciting them is beyond what we should be prepared to ask of any minister of the Crown.

Marking his return to the Government front bench after 20 years, Mr Davis began brightly by saying that he felt the House would find it useful if he set out how the Government’s Brexit strategy was going. On this at least there was complete agreement: the House was clearly in a mood to hear something useful pertaining to the most significant political, economic and administrative upheaval to face the country for several generations. By the end of his statement, however, few members on either side seemed satisfied by the usefulness of what they had heard. Only Andrew Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary and Altercator-in-Chief with the police force – bucked this trend. Mr Mitchell radiated unsullied pleasure merely at the fact that Mr Davis had materialised before him four benches down at the despatch box. The Secsit Brexit could have stood on his head and recited The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Mr Mitchell would still have told him that he was wonderful.

Mr Davis may not yet have accumulated much of a policy, but he has at least accumulated a respectable number of bureaucrats to work out what his policy is going to be. He explained that he now had 300 people – 180 in London and 120 in Brussels – helping him to excite Mr Juncker. Sitting beside him, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary – whose “beaming countenance” had earlier been praised by Speaker Bercow – seemed not to mind that most of these had presumably been stolen from his own legions. Like the rest of the House, he was trying to keep pace with the profound philosophical insights that Mr Davis was starting to unload. “Brexit means leaving the European Union”, he explained, adding for good measure a little later on that exiting the EU was simultaneously straightforward and complex. Many people have said exactly the same about the Foreign Secretary.

Emboldened by the fact that the House was still, rather surprisingly, taking him seriously, Mr Davis chose to strike out for more daring ground. It was “improbable”, he ventured, that the UK would remain a member of the Single Market. A condition of remaining in the Single Market is to allow the free movement of people into the country, and since, if there is one thing we know about Government policy, it is that it is going to stop free movement of people into the country, the Secsit Brexit would appear to have had irrefutable logic on his side. This might be so, but it didn’t necessarily mean that he would have Number 10 there as well. The following day a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister explained that her Exiting the EU Secretary had been offering an opinion that wasn’t necessarily Government policy. Mrs May has a reputation for extreme caution: she doesn’t want her ministers declaring that the moon isn’t made of green cheese until she has looked into the matter and come up with her settled view.

Mr Davis wasn’t the only member of the Cabinet struggling to stay onside as the PM moved forward with the ball. Mrs May’s signal achievement of the week was to announce a new policy on grammar schools, one which simultaneously delighted the Tory right and further disheartened the flailing forces of Cameroonian modernism. That the new policy was opposed by Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, was not in doubt. The more interesting question was whether it was supported by the current education secretary, Justine Greening.

Certainly Ms Greening seemed to be having some difficulty with mastering the lexicon of loyalty as she briefed MPs on the topic in response to an emergency question. Kremlinologists were quick to notice that she was somewhat less stout in her advocacy of the policy than had been the PM herself in a speech 24 hours earlier to the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. Dark suspicions started to swirl that Ms Greening might be a closet moderniser herself. At least she can console herself with the thought that she managed the unite the Labour Party in opposition to what she was saying. Anyone with the capacity to unite the Labour Party over anything is a person with formidable political skills.

Such skills are not, of course, possessed by Jeremy Corbyn, although this seems unlikely to prevent him being confirmed as leader of the Labour Party in a couple of weeks’ time. Like all newly-elected political leaders, he can look forward to a honeymoon, although in his case it is unlikely to last much more than 36 hours, and being Mr Corbyn he will no doubt spend it in Venezuela, or perhaps North Korea. Then the whole ghastly Labour leadership battle will begin over again. Owen Smith, his soon to be vanquished challenger, meanwhile suggested that he might like to take Britain into the euro and the Schengen Agreement, thus displaying the most perfect tin ear for what Labour voters actually want. The temptation for Theresa May to call an early general election – something that the more knowing commentators are saying she may have to do because of grammar schools – must be growing by the day.