To the brink we go.

When humanity next gets round to revising the fundamental laws of the universe, Theresa May will surely earn a special mention. Her deal breaks down in flames. Her party, riven both by Brexit and her unique approach to implementing it, collapses around her ears. Her voice, worn out with meaningless catchphrases and outright untruths, gives out on her. Parliament refuses to back her deal. Refuses again. And still she clings on to power.

At this point, even the Terminator’s famed powers of resilience have nothing on the Prime Minister’s seeming indestructibility. Long after the nuclear fires of the next war wipe the world clean of humanity, May will still be stood behind a lectern determinedly informing the cockroaches that Brexit means Brexit. However insurmountable the obstacles, however staunch the opposition, however blatantly, laughably unworkable her strategy becomes, she continues undaunted by past failure or present reality.

Today, with preparations for Operation Yellowhammer – the government’s undercooked no-deal strategy – slowly winding into place some nine days before the ultimate deadline, May stood in front of the nation to explain how the Brexit process has ended up so badly off track.

You might think given everything that has come to this point that she would show some humility. That she would accept that her strategy of triggering Article 50 without a plan in place was premature. That negotiating in secret so as not to ‘show her hand’ – keeping both opposition parties and Parliament excluded from the process – had been an unwise move. That the deal she reached – keyed to her preferences and those of her immediate confidantes – could not be passed, and that a more inclusive process might have made this obvious earlier. That her strategy of driving the country up to the cliff-edge in an attempt to force MPs to acquiesce to her deal was undemocratic, and a mistake. That, in short, she bears some personal responsibility for the mess we finds ourselves in.

You would be sorely mistaken. The Prime Minister looked into the cameras and told the country – a country where in the frenzy of the 2016 vote an MP was murdered by a man who gave his name as “death to traitors” and “freedom to Britain” – that any hold-ups in the Brexit process are down to obstructive MPs.

MPs who were “infighting”, playing “political games”, revelling in “arcane procedural rows”. Refusing a deal that “delivers on the result of the referendum”. Who perhaps “do not want to leave at all, causing potentially irreparable damage to public trust”. Who can’t decide what they want. MPs, reading between the lines, who are letting down the public who just want this “over and done with”, while Theresa May – who has tried her very best, and who unlike them is “on your side” – can only stand by helpless as they reject her brilliant deal.

And if MPs choose to extend Article 50, and cause European elections to be held – well. Theresa May, the person who is supposedly in charge of this process, cannot be held responsible for what follows. “How bitter and divisive”, she mused, “would that election campaign be at a time when the country desperately needs bringing back together?”. The shadow of Thomas Mair looms large behind those words. To use them in an attempt to bully parliament into doing her bidding is beyond shameful; strongman rhetoric from a weak leader.

It takes some nerve to give a speech like that while standing in the middle of the greatest British policy failing since the Suez crisis. It takes even more to do so amid a crisis which is largely of her own making. And a simple lack of tactical foresight, as well: May will need the same MPs she is excoriating today to back her deal tomorrow. Does she genuinely think that this was the way to win them over?

Her tactic, such as it is, appears to be to drive the country up to the very brink of the no-deal cliff and dare Parliament to blink. The problem is that her pitch – that the choice is between her deal and no-deal – is not entirely true. Parliament can still choose to revoke Article 50, although there may not be enough time or political will to do so. But the simple fact that the option could be perceived to be on the table may mean that Remain-minded MPs refuse to back down, while the hard-leavers in the ERG continue to hold their ground as their favoured outcome comes ever closer.

In other words, there is absolutely no guarantee that her strategy – which has so far failed in every particular – will come good at the last. The only thing that we can be remotely certain about is that if we do go over the cliff, Theresa May will take no responsibility whatsoever.

Header image courtesy of James Loesch, used under a creative commons license.

Venezuela and the Blairites

I haven’t been writing as much as I should recently, and I think that’s largely because there’s simply been too much to write about. Every time I get a piece halfway to the finish line, something else drags my attention away.

Traditionally, this problem has resolved itself when somebody writes something so monumentally wrongheaded that I really can’t drag my brain away from it, and I’m pleased to report that a certain deputy editor has kindly stepped in to fulfil this role.

Consider the following statements:

“Often forgotten that New Labour’s “Third Way” was an early influence on Venezuela. Parallels between overdependence on oil/City of London to fund social spending”.

[considering Venezuela’s “overdependence on oil”]: “One is reminded of Gordon Brown’s Faustian pact with the City of London”.

Let’s ignore, for now, the idea that Chavez was a Blairite who slowly found that his political hero’s ideology simply did not work. Let’s ignore the idea that it was simply a collapse in the oil price — rather than the deleterious effects of government policies — that landed Venezuela in its current state. Let’s even ignore the basic economics of the comparison. Instead, let’s look at the numbers: was the City as important to Blair as oil was to Chavez?

No. Not even close.

Tony Blair left office in 2007. At that point, the UK’s finance and insurance industry – every last bit of it, from local bank branches and building societies to the City and Canary Wharf – was worth about £118 billion, or 8.6% of GDP. The exchequer netted a total of around £68 billion from this, or 14% of total government revenues 1.

In Venezuela, oil accounts for up to 50% of GDP and 98% of export earnings. In a given year, about 60% of the Venezuelan government budget is financed from oil revenues.

To say that Blair’s “overdependence” on the City of London inspired Venezuela’s overdependence on oil is like saying you were inspired to blow your life savings on lottery tickets after your neighbour bought a scratchcard. It’s also just historically wrong: Venezuela has been hooked on oil since the 1920s.

The one comparison which might have been halfway reasonable would have been between Venezuela’s profligate use of oil revenues, and Britain’s use of the North Sea windfall in the 1980s — although that wouldn’t have made for a gratuitous pop at the Blairites.

Another problem with the comparison is that while oil runs out, finance is forever. For all the money that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are spending on cities in the desert and Farquaad-style overcompensation, they’re also stashing money in sovereign wealth funds and working on plans to diversify their economies; they know perfectly well that without the oil money it will all collapse back into sand.

In the meantime, that oil means there are rents to be extracted; politicians find it far more attractive to fight over petrodollars than to invest in the development of a country. Hugo Chavez’s daughter is allegedly worth $4.2bn; Tony Blair’s son runs a recruitment agency.

For all that finance fluctuates, markets are somewhat differentiated and contagion does not necessarily spill over borders; a crisis in Thailand does not necessarily mean a serious problem in the United Kingdom. If you simply rely on selling oil, then changes in supply or demand in other countries create large price swings. And if politicians are spending or expropriating every incoming penny, then it’s hard to build up reserves for the lean periods.

In short, what matters is less the make-up of your economy and more your political structures. There are plenty of oil-dependent economies out there, with greater or lesser levels of diversification, but we’re not discussing the inevitable collapse of Norway, or the terrible fate of the United Arab Emirates. We’re wondering how a country with the world’s largest oil reserves has managed to inflict upon itself a crisis worse than the Great Depression.

The answer probably isn’t Blairite policies. As Eaton notes, Chavez does cite our former PM as an influence in an interview he gave in September 2006 “When I was released from prison [in 1994] and began my political life, I naively took as a reference point Tony Blair’s proposal for a “third way” between capitalism and socialism”.

Chavez followed this up with “I no longer think a third way is possible. Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation”. Earlier in the year, he described Blair as “the main ally of Hitler” and “a pawn of imperialism”.

In practice, rather than implementing a moderate path Chavez followed his election by removing effective limits to his power and ramping up government interference in the economy. What flowed from that point was the predictable consequence of his policies and politics.

Header image courtesy of Michaelarcand, used under a creative commons license

The Unspoken Backstop

Theresa May, Sheriff of Nottingham

My favourite Alan Rickman performance is his turn as the snarling, flouncing, delightfully villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. It really has everything; the hair, the voice, the outfits, the wickedly delivered threats. Sadly, it’s the last of these that Theresa May has decided to emulate: “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”

While May can’t have the European Research Group rounded up and sent to the headsman – no matter how much she might wish it were so – her bid to sell her deal to her party is going so well that Conservative whips are already threatening to cancel Christmas if she doesn’t get her way.

Even Liam Fox is playing attack dog, telling MPs that they will have to face up to tough choices and back the PM. But with 100 MPs from her own party publicly speaking out against her deal and the Labour party set to oppose it, it’s difficult to see a path through the Commons for the deal.

Part of the problem is that MPs simply don’t believe May when she says it’s her deal or no deal. Labour’s Yvette Cooper publicly called the prime minister out on this, saying that she simply doesn’t believe May would go through with a no deal Brexit. MPs are fully aware that there are always other options, or at least they should be if they read this briefing email on a regular basis.

An even bigger part of the problem is that May’s deal simply isn’t very good. While May and her allies are attempting to sell the deal to the country, all they seem to be doing is highlighting its many flaws. The process is not entirely unlike a game of whack-a-mole. David Lidington, for instance, was dispatched to Scotland to argue that the deal wouldn’t undermine the union because the rest of the UK would voluntarily ‘remain aligned’ with Northern Ireland.

Mole squashed, but up pops the obvious next question. If we’re going to ‘remain aligned’ with the single market, how exactly are we taking back control?

As stage-managed media blitzes go, it’s a curious one which seems to spend most of its time explaining all the ways in which the deal is a shambolic humiliation for Britain. It’s no wonder then that May is insisting any televised debate be between herself and her fellow Brexiter Jeremy Corbyn. The difference between the two is, after all, mostly branding. Allowing Boris Johnson onto the stage to make the case for the charms of a no deal Brexit would be disastrous.

Allowing a campaigner for a People’s Vote into the mix would be even worse. After all, the only sales pitch she has is that there’s no way out; why give the lie to that, too?

Photo credit: I took this one. Well done me.

Rhetorical Contagion (Britain is not America)

British politicians, I suspect, feel a degree of envy towards their American counterparts. An MP who proceeds along the time-honoured route through Eton and Oxford to the Palace of Westminster will spend most of their lives surrounded by the same sort of people in the same sort of architecture, and eating the same sort of curious canteen food.

American politics is different. It is glamorous; senators and congressman wheel and deal across our TV screens. It is expensive; money pours into campaigns seemingly (and legally) without limit. It is high stakes and high powered. And best of all, the Americans very rarely have to field questions about the punctuality of the fortnightly bin collections in Upton Snodsbury, or take to the stage with a candidate wearing a bucket on his head.

It’s probably unsurprising then that some British politicians seem to make strenuous efforts to make their lives more American, at least as far as the trappings of power go. They hold televised debates and fix the dates of elections long in advance, bringing in the long campaign trail common to American politics. They hire American campaign gurus like David Axelrod and Jim Messina. Backbench MPs appoint chiefs of staff. And, of course, ministers like Boris Johnson make pointed comments about wanting their own government plane.

Longing for the glamour and accoutrements of American politics is fine so far as it goes. It might be crass and even slightly embarrassing to see our politicians cosplaying their cross-channel counterparts, but it isn’t actively harmful. The obsession with American political argument is.

For all our shared heritage and all the similarities, Britain and America are still very different countries. Our Prime Minister is not a President. There is a totally different set of powers accruing to the position. Our highest court – however American in name – is appointed and functions in a way utterly unlike it’s US counterpart. Our devolution of powers is unlike theirs. We do not have a written constitution, but instead a web of documents and norms and pieces of legislation that come together into a system that functions so long as you don’t look at it too closely.

We do not share the same fraught history around issues of race. We do not share their demographic make-up. We have a very different set of values on environmental issues. On social issues. On economic issues. We already have single-payer healthcare, government caps on tuition fees, subsidised loans for poor students, generous maternity and holiday allowances.

Many of the battles the Americans are fighting, in short, are on political terrain utterly alien to us. They take as read the various powers of the different American branches of government, the political and social history of the nation, the mood of the population towards the issue. They are, in other words, just the tip of an enormous iceberg, resting upon a vast mass of assumed knowledge and context and fact. And if you immerse yourselves in these arguments and then deploy them in Britain, you do so on foundations of thin air. The assumptions that underpin them are gone.

Political ideals may be universal, but contexts are definitely not. We would probably agree with Americans that it is a good idea to drive on the right side of the road. It’s just that by right, we mean left. The action which best achieves an ideal is dependent on where you stand – and so will the arguments you make.

This rhetorical contagion is where Britain’s cultural obsession with America becomes unhealthy. When British politicos spend their time thinking and reading and arguing about American policy, then it is all but inevitable that this begins to shape their thinking on British issues. American rhetoric is adopted and employed in an environment with which it is fundamentally at odds. And are all the poorer for it.

Header image courtesy of ehpien, used under a creative commons license.

Brexit’s contradictions trap May between border and sea

With four months remaining until the UK leaves the EU, Theresa May is caught between the devil and the deep grey Irish sea. The November meeting of EU heads of state, originally pencilled in as the date when Brexit negotiations would be signed off on, could now become an emergency response to a potential no-deal Brexit.

The major obstacle to closing a deal is the Irish border. Leave won the 2016 referendum by promising voters new trade deals around the world, the continued territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and a frictionless Irish border. As these promises cannot coexist with one another, May faces the unenviable task of choosing which to renege on.

If Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, then it must have customs procedures for trade with the EU. This means either checks at the border, or on goods crossing the Irish sea. And if Britain stays within these institutions, there is little point to leaving: the EU rulebook is retained, there will be no new trade deals, and a large chunk of the voting population will be left feeling betrayed and angry.

The main thrust of the Brexit negotiations has revolved around squaring this circle. The most recent proposal involved keeping Northern Ireland within the single market, and Britain in the customs union.

This still leaves major issues to be resolved. Quite apart from stifling cross-sea trade, it would involve accepting illegal migration into Britain. The government says there will be no special immigration treatment for EU nationals after Brexit. That means work visas. And that also means that the lack of ID checks on travel from Northern Ireland would become a glaring loophole in Britain’s new migration regime, with little chance of checking if EU nationals are overstaying their welcome.

The alternative would be to introduce passport checks on journeys from Belfast to Liverpool – political suicide for a government dependent on unionist votes, and a threat to the peace process.

This, ultimately, is the great flaw with every suggestion made to date. Whichever side loses out in the negotiation, the peace process is put at risk. While the EU is focused on the need to prevent border infrastructure becoming a target for republican bombs, hardline unionists are unlikely to be amused by a regulatory and travel regime that leaves Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the Republic than to the United Kingdom. If the government insists on a full separation from the EU, then there is an argument that a second referendum should be held: a border poll on reunification.

The assumption underlying the current settlement is that is equally possible to feel British or Irish within the six counties. If Brexit means introducing barriers within these islands that have not existed for decades, then this will no longer hold. In a vacuum, such a poll could reignite sectarian violence. But with Brexit throwing the region into turmoil, a border poll could have the effect of legitimising the new arrangements – or replacing them with ones more to the populations liking.  

If the Conservative and Unionist party decides it wants to live up to the second half of its name, then it does have two other options. It could scrap Brexit entirely, or it could keep Britain in the single market and customs union.  While the latter might be more palatable to May’s backbenchers, it would contain a delicious irony; at long last, London would be ruled from Dublin.

Header image courtesy of Greg Clarke, used under a creative commons license.

How bad politicians drive out the good

One of the best known laws of economics is that bad money drives out good. If a country debases its coinage, mixing the gold and silver in new coins with lower value metals, people will hold onto the older and more valuable coins and spend the new ones. The bad money flushes the ‘good’ money from circulation. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union with its weakest crop of parliamentarians for decades, it’s worth wondering whether a similar principle might apply in politics.

The application of this law to elections could be termed a cycle of mediocrity – or possibly a ‘Chris Grayling spiral’, and it goes something like this. Becoming an MP is objectively a bad career choice for top talents. The pay, while generous, is nowhere near what they might earn in business or finance. Opportunities to add on high-paying consultancies or newspaper columns, before or after serving in Parliament, accrue only to a lucky few.

Moreover, becoming an MP costs a small fortune in time and money. In 2014, you could expect to drop a neat £34,000 on your bid to win a seat. You have to take time off work, hit the doorsteps, print the leaflets, put down your deposit, keep up with the local politics, while maintaining your primary career in case you lose. The job security is variable at best, and tied to the fortunes of your wider party – including factors which have absolutely nothing to do with you.

And even if you have a strong motivation to serve the public good, there are better paying options available. You could be a director in a local council. You could work for an NGO. Work in the civil service. Become a lawyer and take on pro bono cases. All of these would give you that pleasant sense of making a difference, while leaving your wallet far heavier. And each of them would come with a second huge advantage: generally speaking, if you take up these careers then you will not – as an individual – have to deal with the British press.

For all that our newspapers pride themselves on their fearless reporting, quite a lot of what they do could be classed as ‘spirited attempts to destroy the personal lives of political opponents’. If you work in a bank, you are unlikely to see the sort of treatment meted out to Chuka Umunna, who saw his grandmother doorstepped when he considered running for Labour leader, or Carrie Symonds – whose fling with Boris Johnson saw her traduced on the front pages. Even better, you don’t have to deal with the toxic work culture: the archaic whip system, the bullying, and the backstabbing needed to climb the greasy pole.

And this is where the cycle begins. When Parliament pays poorly and is an unpleasant place to work, it implicitly selects for people with a strong intrinsic motive to undertake that work. In turn, this often means highly partisan views about how the world should be. People who probably don’t play nicely with people holding different views. And people who make the idea of choosing a different career far more enticing.

The end result is that Parliament is increasingly filled with Boris Johnsons and Chris Graylings; power hungry public schoolboys, and mediocrities with strong views. And the bad currency drives out the good.

The kicker is that just as debasement of currency can eventually trigger a financial crisis, the debasement of parliament can trigger a political crisis. Highly partisan mediocrities are the type of politician most likely to launch grand schemes to reinvent the country – and also the type least capable of seeing such a scheme through.

Remind you of anything?

Header image courtesy of patternghosts, used under a creative commons license.