Another One Bites The Dust

Another Tory PM falls victim to Brexicide. For Brexit devours all who actually try to ‘deliver’ it, to use the verb of choice for those who think that Brexit is a fully formed ‘thing’ that can be carried on a velvet cushion and presented to an awed and grateful electorate. But Brexit isn’t deliverable. It’s a contagion, a delirium, and it kills those who touch it.

Theresa May touched Brexit. Did she believe in it? Her Brexity detractors say no. May, they say, simply saw Brexit as a means to the premiership, and the ‘delivery’ exercise as a delicate process of damage limitation. This seems disingenuous as a description of why May laid her hands upon the Brexit Thing.

Of course, Brexit’s assassination of Cameron was May’s golden chance to be PM, especially after the fall of Boris Johnson in 2016. But the Brexit Thing itself then looked like a prize worth having. On a high turnout more than half of the electorate voted for Brexit. That included most of the Conservative base, plus UKIP, and a chunk of Labour. It was the Philosopher’s Stone of politics, turning base, messy coalitions, and narrow, tenuous wins into a vista of permanent Tory rule. May and her team grabbed it, held it close, and, strong and stable, they recited the magic incantation, ‘Brexit Means Brexit’.

It worked. May and her Brexit-Tories soared in the polls. So why, and so quickly, did they start to sputter, and splinter, and crash and burn?

The conventional view now is that the problem was Theresa May. That she is a poor communicator, a wooden campaigner, a charisma-free zone. Some say she has no guiding philosophy, no firm principles, and so was easily captured, whether by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, or by the Civil Service. Put someone else in charge, this view goes, and all will be different.

And it is true. She isn’t a good speaker. Nonetheless, the lack of oratorical gifts didn’t stop John Major pulling off an unlikely election victory in 1992. David Cameron could chillax on stage, and talk without notes or autocue, but few of us can remember a word he said. Ever since the time of Margaret Thatcher, herself a poor platform speaker, the Tory Party has finessed the weaknesses of its leaders and its programme by using the finest, fanciest political marketing tools available. That Lynton Crosby couldn’t halt the precipitate slide in the polls in 2017 was not primarily the fault of the candidate, but of the product. Brexit.

Brexit gains its potency from its unattainability. The current surge in support for the limited company posing as a political party – The Brexit Party (TM) – stems from it presenting as an insurgency against ‘elites’, ‘insiders’, ‘the metropolitan bubble’, even ‘the deep state’. Brexit, in this context, is more ‘code word’ for a deity that cannot be named, than a tangible policy. If Farage and company (Ltd) ever got near to having to ‘deliver’ Brexit, they’d probably fall apart – or more likely, divert attention to something else whilst quickly doing something that looks very like May’s orphaned ‘deal’.

Which leaves the question on this day when Theresa May resigned – would she have been any good as PM if she hadn’t been the Brexit PM?

We have her record at the Home Office to guide us here. The conventional wisdom is that the Home Office is the graveyard of political ambition. That May survived there for so long is evidence of her hard work and tenacity. She was brave, the first Tory Home Secretary to stand up to the Police Federation. She did things that weren’t designed purely to please the Tory grassroots, like questioning the use of ‘stop and search’. These things suggest that she might have been a very successful Tory PM in other circumstances, especially with a cheerleading press on her side. The Mail, remember, hailed her at first as “the new Iron Lady”.

But an alternative reading of May’s time as Home Secretary suggests someone hard-working and tenacious, yes, but also blinkered, unimaginative, and given to following orders. She took far more seriously than its author, David Cameron’s pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”. This produced the Hostile Environment with its staggering cruelty, in which people who’d lived, loved, worked and paid taxes in Britain all their adult lives lost jobs, homes, were imprisoned and deported, and in some cases were denied medical treatment, or lost their lives. And this monstrous policy didn’t even work in its own terms. Even the steadfastness against the demands of the police now looks more like a minister determined to meet the Chancellor’s demand to cut, cut and cut again. May is a person who does what she’s told, and seems to lack the imagination or empathy, or political instincts even to question it.

So would a May premiership, sans Brexit, have been about addressing those ‘burning injustices’ she once spoke about on the steps of Number 10?

Probably, but in her own terms. The only actual policies she set out were for a return of grammar schools, and the unpopular ‘Dementia Tax’ to part-fund social care. Her first Education Secretary refused to work on the former, and the newspapers shouted down the latter.

We aren’t losing a good prime minister on 9th June. We aren’t even losing someone who, in more auspicious circumstances might have been a successful PM.

The only positive thing that can be said for Theresa May is that she genuinely did try to follow the electorate’s narrowly won demand for Brexit, only to die, politically, in the process. That, and another simple truth.

Whoever comes next is likely to be worse.

The Election From Hell

Ever had a nightmare where you’re driving along, and suddenly there’s a juggernaut ahead in the wrong lane, heading straight for you? There’s nothing you can do. There’s nowhere to go. It’s going to be a head-on collision….

That’s the European Parliament elections of 2019 in Britain. Motorway pile-up, train wreck, flaming Boeing smashing into a mountainside. This is where we are with a week to go, paralysed with fear, or manically laughing, as we count down to the inevitable conflagration.

Last night I attended a hustings meeting in Birmingham. As I have now learned, these meetings, once a mainstay of democratic politics in Britain, are now a bit too plebby for some of our politicians. Those snowflakes, the Brexit Party, don’t ‘do’ debating with others. It’s a pity. Election hustings were my introduction to the everyday business of politics. Even before I was old enough to vote I went to them. They were often rowdy affairs, in which Cabinet ministers had to sit alongside whoever was after their job, from a keen young opposition PPC being bloodied in a hopeless seat, to Screaming Lord Such and the Monster Raving Loonies. The candidates politely answered daft questions, suffered heckling akin to a late night comedy club, and thus were made to know the certain truth that in the polling booth we are all equal. But that was then, and this is now.

The absence from the platform of the likely ‘victors’ next Thursday is troubling. For all their talk of “we had a vote”, “will of the people”, “17.4 million people voted for this,” the Brexit Party is in every way a two fingered salute to the face of democracy. They are contemptuous of the norms of democracy. Although registered with the Electoral Commission as a party, they are described by their own leadership as a ‘company’, they don’t have members, they don’t have a policy platform, and they’ll accept money from anyone, anywhere in the world, just as long as it comes in quantities too small to require the identity of the donor to be made public.

And they don’t debate with other candidates.

Without the Brexit Party in the room, there was a sense, at the hustings last night, of both candidates, and the audience, being rendered marginal. Whatever the candidates said, and whatever we asked, the real politics was going on elsewhere. The electorate doesn’t own elections any more. Algorithms rule. Instead of campaigning and open debate, atomised voters are being groomed before screens.

Everyone on the platform looked glum, and most of the audience were pretty grim faced too.

The Tory, Dan Dalton, spoke first, the Change UK guy, Amrik Kandola last, in the opening section where each candidate made their party pitch. Second to last was the Labour candidate, Julia Buckley, who had the manner of a dog in need of rescue by the RSPCA, variously aggressive, and whimpering in anticipation of a beating.

She was right to be fearful, as she, or at least, her party, was the reason many of us were there. What on earth could Labour say in order to persuade us to give them our votes?

My greatest fear in these elections is the boost that it will give to the Brexit “Party”, opening the door to ever more time for them in the TV studios, shooting their toxic messages into the political bloodstream in time for a general election in which they might have serious numbers in Parliament. Only by denying them the top spot in the results can their rise be impeded, and, only Labour had the potential to do that.

I was prepared to take nods, winks, and code. But Buckley didn’t give us that. She gave us the Corbyn-McCluskey line in toe-curling detail. It was excruciating to watch her contortions. She offered the utterly fallacious argument that Brexit-voters were the poorest, most marginal in our society, and that Labour had to give these downtrodden millions their voice. Labour had to ‘bring the country together, to speak for the 52% as well as the 48%’. I found myself sitting on my hands to avoid the temptation of hurling my shopping at her.

I repeat her lines, because, although familiar to the point of nausea, there is, among the nonsense, a truth that few of us at the moment want to face.

Brexit is binary. But a healthy democracy capable of making sensible decisions cannot long be divided in this way. Moreover, this unexpected EP election is showing us how easy it has become to reignite Brexit passions, with all the rancour, and worse, that goes along with it.

If we want another referendum, People’s Vote, confirmatory ballot, call it what you will, we will have to counter the considerable forces of the Brexit camp, and win enough converts. Simon Kuper, writing in the FT (20/4/19) on the subject “How Remain can win a second referendum,” began with this:

  • Say sorry. This time, Remainers mustn’t lecture Leavers…says Ian Leslie, a communications consultant…”Never in the history of the world has anyone said, ‘You’re completely wrong,’ and the other person replied, ‘You know what? I am wrong.'”…. Instead, Leslie says the Remain campaign should admit to having overlooked mass pain and resentment. It should tell Leave voters: “Your vote was basically right in 2016. You were right to kick the elite in the arse, to say the UK needs to change, that London ignores the rest.”….Only after finding common ground can retainers broach the issue of disagreement: Europe.

This is true. The core of the Leave vote consists of older people, especially men, who mainly live in the south and in rural and small town England and have homes without mortgages, and generous pensions. They are Tory activists and voters. We won’t easily win them over. But the portion of the Leave vote that ought to be open to persuasion are the minority of Labour Leavers who did believe the lies on the bus about the NHS.

But Julia Buckley, and too many of the people around the Labour leader, are saying the right things in the wrong order. The first task is to find a means of stopping Brexit, which most likely involves a new vote. That’s the point at which to link resistance to Brexit to addressing austerity and regional decline.

One candidate did say the right things in the right order, and that was Ellie Chowns, the Green candidate.

But all the candidates had turned up, and they sat together, poured water for their opponents, or repositioned microphones, as companionable democrats, even the UKIP man, Derek Bennett, whose politics seem to have sprung, inexplicably, from the effects of Nigel Lawson’s VAT hike. Phil Bennion, the Lib Dem and a former MEP, seemed more hesitant than I might have expected, as though still bruised by losing his seat in 2014. Change UK’s Amrik Kandola, was an impressive speaker, and his message of a need for change in British politics won him some fans with the group of people I eavesdropped on on the bus going home, even if they still hadn’t decided who to vote for.

The real restiveness was in the audience. There was a lot of barely repressed anger in the room. Probably because of the elephant that wan’t in the room – The Brexit Party.