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.


The Road Well-Travelled

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Forget Jeremy Corbyn. Marxism is on the march in May……

“The two things I hate most,”declared Theresa May in her closing speech to the Tories this week in Birmingham, “are the socialist left and the libertarian right”. A largely dozy and contented audience, gazing reverently at the second powerful woman to command them in their membership lifetimes, may not have noticed that, by embracing the Hegelian Dialectic, Mrs May was signaling that they had been landed with a Marxist as their leader.

“A change is going to come,” she went on. Uh oh. This change was inevitable – this was text book stuff. Inevitable, because of the “revolution” that had taken place when Britain voted for Brexit back in June. It is true that Mrs May qualified this revolution with the adjective “quiet” – the Tory faithful are, after all, the sort of people who only like to see the established order overthrown within the limits of neighbourhood noise restrictions, and where any blood running in the streets is treated with sand to avoid pensioners slipping over – but her insurgent political philosophy could not have been more emphatic. The Prime Minister is said to lean heavily on the policy advice of Nick Timothy, the more heavily bearded of her two chiefs of staff. Some people have commented on the likeness of Mr Timothy to the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, the High Tory Victorian statesman and three times prime minister. There is, however, another 19th century political thinker whom he even more closely resembles.

That Mrs May should establish herself as the conference darling was never in doubt. For one thing, it is a sinecure traditionally reserved for blonds: Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, Boris Johnson have all had their turn and only Boris remains to be dragged reluctantly from the carousel. Yet she is also the commentators’ darling – a rich seam of speculation, creation and contriving, not to mention a diversion from the constant task of writing about Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffles. For all the supposedly liberating powers of social media, politicians only truly exist in the public consciousness through the parodies created for us by political journalists; and with the unknown Mrs May, they have hit upon a little winner.

Even so, they struggle. The Prime Minister is tricky to define: the Remainer who wouldn’t campaign for Remain; the Leaver whose leavishness refuses to penetrate beyond a robotic slogan. Mostly they turn to Hegel themselves. Mrs May is the antithesis of David Cameron and George Osborne: her every nuance and syllable the disavowal of their legacy. Yet, how exactly is Mayism the repudiation of Cameroonism? The conference slogan in Birmingham this week was “A Country that Works for Everyone”, hardly that different from Mr Osborne’s “We’re All in it Together”. Maybe it is a matter of audience: if it was the Cameroon mission to make Conservatism palatable to Notting Hill dinner parties, Mrs May seeks to proselytise among the just managing of the Balshall Heath takeaway kebab queue.

It is easy to catch the habit. One noticed, for example, the stripped down simplicity of the Birmingham backdrop – a plain blue background (from which, incidentally, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, struggled to materialise when it came to his turn to speak) in which the words “A Country that Works for Everyone” were picked out in small black caps. Gone was the Tory tree – the re-branded party logo over which Mr Cameron made such a hoo-hah when he brought it in. This was as much a policy as a marketing statement. The tree represented Mr Cameron’s one-time fetish for environmentalism. It is out the back now, where the twin chiefs of staff are setting fire to it, and relishing the CO2 emissions.

Political opponents have diagnosed a lurch to the right (“lurch” is the verb de rigeur in these circumstances: parties never move or glide across the political spectrum; they always lurch). Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon were both quick to condemn the Conservative focus on immigration – a focus most evident not in Mrs May’s speech but in that of Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, who wants companies to keep a little list of foreigners on their books, though to what end wasn’t entirely clear. (The agony columns of the Financial Times quickly filled up with angst at this proposal.) Far less noticed was the lurch to the left. “Government can and should be a force for good”, the PM said, “the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot”. It wasn’t just Cameroonism that was copping-it, but Thatcherism as well. “There is more to life than individualism and self-interest”, she declared. There is such a thing as society. For Mrs May, The Road to Serfdom is a road well-travelled.

In all this, Labour was portrayed as “the nasty party”, a rare glimpse of the Prime Minister in self-deprecating mood, for, of course, it was she who had once described the Tories thus, way back in the days when she was still reading Das Kapital rather than enacting it. Labour though was relatively un-nasty this week, with only the one minor purge, that of the Party’s long-standing chief whip, Rosie Winterton, who had crossed Mr Corbyn on the matter of electing members of the shadow cabinet. Nastiness was rife in the Brussels Parliament though, where the appropriately-named UKIP MEP Mike Hookem may or may not have taken a swing at the Party’s putative next leader, Steven Woolfe. The latter ended up first on the floor and then in hospital.

Mr Woolfe has an unusual campaigning technique when it comes to UKIP leadership elections. Last time he forgot to put in his nomination papers, and when the process is re-run three weeks later – the previous leader having lasted 18 days – he approaches the matter first by wondering out loud about defecting to the Conservatives, and then supposedly getting punched in the head over it. That is the allegation anyway. In the Alice in Wonderland world of UKIP politics, nothing really makes sense or is at it seems. The only certainty is that Nigel Farage either is the leader or is about to be the leader once again. He currently occupies that role in an “interim” capacity – visiting Mr Woolfe in hospital while he lies there working out which contestant on The X-Factor he is going to kidnap and hold to ransom as the next manoeuvre of his leadership challenge.