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.


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.

The Immense Weight of Her Disdain

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As the European football championships begin, the next stage of Project Fear is revealed…

Hordes of hooligans ran through the streets trading kicks and punches. Rocks, chairs, tables and tear gas were thrown. At one point the battle was reportedly joined by a squad of armed and organised fascists, upon whose machismo one imagines Vladimir Putin smiling with pride. At the end of it all, at least one man was said to be fighting for his life.

But enough of the ongoing EU referendum debate. In Marseilles, English football fans squared off against their Russian counterparts, mindful perhaps that these European championships might be their last opportunity for sinking a knife into the flank of the Bear. It is true that sanctions on Russia have not prevented it from participating in the European community of football, but Mr Putin’s crime of invading Crimea was a relatively minor one compared to Britain tearing up its European Union membership card. If we vote to leave, we’ll be lucky if Brussels doesn’t move to have us struck off the World Cup roster, let alone the European championships, leaving us to hope that enough life on Mars is discovered in time to organise the next international friendly.

Now if all this sounds like the next page of David Cameron’s script, the only wonder from the week in which the football tournament began is why he hasn’t deployed it already. This sketch has a theory that it is being kept in reserve until England have won a couple of games, thereby heightening the sense of loss that footie exile would represent, once we have tasted the delight of slaughtering Slovakia. If so, it would be only the latest in a series of political misjudgements on Downing Street’s part. England are not going to win a couple of games. Come Friday and with the vote less than a week away, we’ll be picking the gristle off the bones of a 0-0 draw and wondering whether the break-up of the Union precipitated by Brexit wouldn’t be worth it if it meant never again having to face the Welsh.

By that time, Leave could be a consistent ten points ahead in the polls, a position that they have already attained in at least one of them, a possibly rogue effort published in the Independent. Most samples of public opinion though have Leave edging ahead causing (it was reported) panic in Downing Street (how can they tell?) and the mobilisation of the Archbishop of Canterbury to steady the ship. Whenever a public figure declares for Remain, it is widely supposed that he is acting on the instructions of Number 10, but this seems unlikely in this case. The momentum may currently be with Leave, but things have surely not yet got so bad that the PM is forced to put his trust in God rather than George Osborne and Eddie Izzard.

Mr Izzard, a Labour-supporting comedian (no implication should be read into this phraseology that to support Labour you have to be a comedian; this is simply what Mr Izzard claims to be), is presumably being used in the campaign to rally the Labour vote to the Remain cause. He turned up on the BBC’s Question Time in a pink beret, pink lipstick and purple nail-varnish, in other words the traditional garb of the Labour working man. Elsewhere, he was heard musing on the difficulties of getting people to vote on 23 June who would be otherwise engaged at the Glastonbury music festival, for it is well-known that this is where steel-workers, train drivers and auxiliary nurses like to spend their summer.

The operation to get Labour supporters to engage in what has otherwise been regarded as the latest manifestation of the eternal loathing that exists between members of the Conservative Party had one immediate effect. Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour MP and humbug, came out for Leave. At least now Mr Skinner can enjoy hanging out at Glastonbury without the fear that Eddie Izzard is going to tap him on the shoulder and hand him a ballot paper. His defection, however, will not alter the delicate equilibrium of opinion, for it was balanced by a Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, moving from Leave to Remain.

A Devon GP, Dr Wollaston has long given the impression that she has conferred upon the Conservative Party a signal honour by agreeing to be one of its Parliamentary representatives. The immense weight of her disdain has now fallen instead on the claim painted on the outside of the Leave battlebus that Brexit would release £350 million a week to spend on the NHS. This, she has decided, is cobblers, although since it has always been cobblers it is not entirely clear why it has taken her until now to decide it. Once again, as with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the President of the United States and the Governor of the Bank of England, it is widely assumed that Dr Wollaston did not make her move until instructed to do so by the Prime Minister, possibly via a microchip that had been inserted into her skull by the whips. It can safely be held that if David Cameron really did possess the power to move pieces around the chessboard of the calibre of Barack Obama and Sarah Wollaston, he would not be in quite the political mess that he now finds himself.

The Queen Comes Out (or not)

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Disappointingly the Queen did not use her speech to declare for Leave….

In the week when Benedict Cumberbatch came out for Britain remaining in the European Union, attention naturally shifted to whether other national treasures, icons and emblems of British values would follow suit. Luckily, the Queen was also booked to do a public gig. Would Her Majesty, piqued perhaps by Mr Cumberbatch’s recent portrayal of her ancestor Richard III, his naked villainy clothed in such holy writ of the EU as its Airborne Noise Issued by Household Appliances Directive, also take the chance to declare for go or stay? The matters at stake are, after all, rather close at hand for the current holder of the hollow crown. It must be hard not to take the issue of sovereignty somewhat personally when you are the sovereign.

Her Majesty being, under the terms of our constitutional monarchy, not only the fons et origo of the Government’s prerogative, but also its mouthpiece, one assumes that she is more or less bound to support remain. This may impose a strain, for example if her consort is of a mood to rant at her about how badly Angela Merkel has treated his native land, but the Queen must do as her Prime Minister bids. This is one of many things that sets her apart from the Parliamentary Conservative Party, some others being dignity, loyalty and an instinct for survival.

David Cameron has, of course, granted dispensation to any of his ministers who wish to campaign against his own position on the referendum, but it is not apparent that this privilege extends to the monarch. This is a shame. One senses that the Queen would be something of a star for the Leave cause. She would be especially good on the subject of foreigners coming over here and taking our jobs: able to cite precedent in the case of the throne going all the way back to the Glorious Revolution, if not 1066. To which Remain would retort that the Queen is a shining example of immigrants giving more in to the country’s coffers than they take away.

The Queen’s Speech – her 63rd – instead contained nothing of controversy and almost nothing of interest. One could tell that it was going to be a slow speech day when we had only got to point seven and Her Majesty was already obliged to refer to the Northern Powerhouse. Sounding like a discount electrical retailer with stores in Bolton, Wigan and Huddersfield, the Northern Powerhouse is, in fact, a creation of the Chancellor, George Osborne, designed to fit comfortably onto press releases and give a platform to his political opponents. Like Mr Osborne itself, its allure is rather more theoretical than actual.

One such opponent, Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, announced that he would be seeking office as the mayor of Manchester, one of the livings available in the NP diocese. It is not yet clear that the mayor of Manchester will be a power in the land – indeed the NP concept is so weakly sculpted that he may not even be a power in Manchester – but Mr Burnham seemed to think that it would be a suitable repository for talents previously deemed surplus to the requirements of the Labour Party.  The people of Manchester, he implied, would flock to his banner because they had heard of him. It was not necessarily the strongest election pitch, but strong election pitches have never been Mr Burnham’s forte,

The delicate tribalism of the north being what it is, Mr Burnham was immediately confronted with questions as to whether a scouser such as he could realistically hope for office 35 miles up the Ship Canal. His answer to this was Wayne Rooney, a footballer who once played for Everton but now does so for Manchester United. He may wish to reflect on the fact that if your best answer to any question is Wayne Rooney, it may be time to lay down your Twitter account and seek a position on the local parish council.

So insipid was the Queen’s Speech that even Jeremy Corbyn – who would denounce a bus timetable if you told him it had been written by a Tory – found relatively little to object to in it. Instead he concentrated on whether the Queen would actually ever be required to sign any of the 21 bills she had just announced. This was not entirely a bogus question. Though the notional possessor of a Parliamentary majority, Mr Cameron finds that the number of Conservative MPs giving him numerical advantage over all the other parties is easily outweighed by the number who would cheerfully drown him in a butt of malmsy. By about four to one at the latest count.

So great is the contempt in which the Tory right hold their leader that they will even take the side of the National Health Service, that great, infuriating, socialist bête noire, against him. Thus a gang of right-wing terriers threatened an amendment to scupper the entire legislative package unless measures were taken to protect the NHS from TTIP. Few are the Parliamentarians who know what TTIP stands for, and even fewer who know what it is; yet it is widely assumed to contain mechanisms that would enable Americans to privatise the NHS. If anybody is going to privatise the NHS it will be the terriers of the Tory right themselves. They do not need the yanks to do it for them, especially through an agreement mid-wived by the European Union. It would be like the Second World War all over again.

Talking of which, references to Hitler and to Brexit-induced global conflagration were down this week, suggesting that the referendum debate may now have reached the maturity we might expect of 11 year olds. The Prime Minister did manage to slip in that he thought that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, would be a Brexit man, though more presumably of the stripe than the semi-sanitised Vote Leave. In Pakistan, a US-drone strike took out Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the leader of the Taliban. Sadly  this was not before anyone had got round to asking how he would have voted if he’d had a chance on June 23rd.

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