Why the bar that the Tories will have to surmount at the next election has just got higher

October 23rd, 2019

All the talk is of elections. This time we might actually see one. In a narrative that has strong echoes of 2017, the talk is all of the Conservatives holding large leads in the polls, remaking their coalition and sweeping all gloriously before them with a victory that will transform the electoral map.

Well, perhaps. It was Marx who first suggested that when history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy and the second is farce. Whether or not you see Theresa May as a tragic figure, Boris Johnson would not be out of place on a theatre stage up the road from Downing Street in Whitehall where the protagonist’s trousers are falling from his waist at a moment’s notice. And his current buoyant polling position may well flatter to deceive. It seems to be largely built on dislike of Jeremy Corbyn rather than on any great enthusiasm for the Prime Minister or his project.  

Beneath the voting intention figures, the polling holds warnings for the Conservatives. The Prime Minister is not a popular figure. His government is by broad consensus perceived to be handling the Brexit negotiations badly (75% of respondents in the latest YouGov). In the latest YouGov, just 18% of the general population thought that his deal was good (30% think it is bad). These are not the figures of a party or a leader who can be sure of the public’s backing. It could easily all go very wrong very quickly.

And the Conservatives have, largely unnoticed, made the task of forming the next government considerably harder for themselves in the last week. If they were to win an overall majority, they would have nothing to worry about. This remains an odds-against shot on Betfair, however.

What if they fall short? Then they have rather a big problem. Who might they form a coalition with? Never mind that, who might they seek confidence and supply from? When Theresa May mislaid her majority in 2017, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens were all non-starters as potential allies. There was only one party in Parliament that she could even start talking with: the DUP.

After the last week, one has become none. Boris Johnson can never, never, never, never expect any help ever again from the DUP. Come to that, nor can any of his successors for the foreseeable future. The DUP have memories that make elephants look absent-minded. They are not known for their sweet and forgiving nature. If ever an enemy was implacable, the DUP is that enemy.

Of course, the next Parliament might not look like this Parliament. It might have a cohort of MPs from the Brexit party, who the Conservatives might hope would make more congenial coalition partners. Current polling gives no reason to suggest that the Brexit party in a 2019 election would do any better than UKIP did in 2015. If they do, it will be because Nigel Farage has managed to make himself relevant to the Brexit debate. This is unlikely to be to the advantage of the Conservatives, who have in recent weeks pushed him to the margins. The votes he would scoop up would mostly be from them.

That doesn’t mean that all of the Conservatives’ opponents would unite under a single leader, especially if the Labour leader is Jeremy Corbyn. It does, however, mean, that without a vote being cast the bar for them remaining in government has risen from something like 305 MPs to something like 315 MPs.

They can still do it, of course.  The Conservatives have at least got their story straight. They are aided by the divisions among their opponents. It has, however, got just that bit harder.

Alastair Meeks


On the betting markets punters now make it a 3.7% chance that Brexit will happen by the end of the month

October 23rd, 2019

Betdata.io chart of Betfair market

Last Thursday it nearly touched 50%

There’s been a huge amount of activity on the £5m Betfair “Brexit by the end of October” market where just six days ago, after the deal was revealed, the chances of the UK leaving by October 31st were rated at 49%. More than £3m has been gambled with this one bookmaker in those few days.

The Commons was always going to be a massive hurdle for Johnson given his precarious position in terms of MP numbers – a situation very much of his own making following the withdrawal of the whip from 21 MPs only last month.

The widespread Tory assumption about getting support LAB MPs in seats which voted leave proved to be largely wishful thinking. The evidence from GE2017, when LAB made more gains from CON in Leave seats than Remain ones, is that the EU is far less of a factor for red team voters than blue team ones.

The fact that some LAB MPs did support Johnson last night did not go unnoticed. The LD leader, Jo Swinson, has sent out a message to members saying:

“..It’s with a heavy heart and immense disappointment that I say Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has only passed because of Corbyn’s Labour party.

Many Labour MPs voted for this deal, and Corbyn’s weakness on Brexit has passed this deal.

We are now on the path to Brexit – all because Jeremy Corbyn is not a Remainer and his Labour MPs have bailed out Boris Johnson.”

This looks set to be a response to those LAB activists still robotically shouting “tuition fees” when taking on the LDs.

Mike Smithson


The People Will Speak

October 23rd, 2019

There are, broadly, two groups supporting Brexit. First: people who feel that globalisation has gone too far, the cards stacked for far too long in favour of the rich, the well-connected, the mobile, the “citizens of the world”. They want more attention paid to those valuing home, the local, the familiar, the traditional, the markers of belonging: a flag, anthem, a shared history, a sense of “us” and “our story”. Conservative – in the sense of not wanting too much disruptive change too fast – but not necessarily Tory. They distrust an economic view which sees people as “human resources” to be exploited, moved around and made redundant when no longer needed, one which makes it harder to get a permanent reliable job, buy a home, create a secure future. They want governments to focus on their needs first, rather than those of international investors or foreigners. They want control over those who are let into the country, control often meaning a reduction in immigration, especially for some from far away countries They want control over how they are governed and by whom, more than they feel they have.

Second: those who see the EU as a an old-fashioned, lumbering, statist, top-down organisation with federalist ambitions, too willing to erase national boundaries, too wedded to a “one size fits all” quasi-social democratic agenda, insufficiently keen on free markets, over-fond of heavy-handed burdensome regulation, with a superficial attachment to democracy, a tin ear for Britain’s interests and concerns, an organisation resistant to reforms, which will gradually absorb Britain’s distinctiveness into a gigantic Euro super-state. This group too wants to take back control but for very different purposes than the first group. Trade deals and “smart” (less?) regulation are their hearts’ desires.

There is some crossover between the two. More importantly, there are many voting Remain who share some of these views and criticisms. Perhaps some post-referendum bitterness might have been avoided if both sides had realised they had more views in common than the binary nature of a referendum allowed, that the argument was what sort of Brexit would deal with Leavers’ concerns, would make the price paid for Brexit worth it.

We were closer to getting Brexit over the line. Possibly. Until the government stopped any further scrutiny. If opinion polls are right, the Tories expect an electoral reward. But the time during which they will get the credit will be much shorter than they expect. Fury with those seeking to delay or stop Brexit will only take them so far. Pretty soon voters will expect Brexit’s benefits.

What sort of Brexit?

You’d expect to know this by now. No? So will it be well canvassed during Parliamentary debates on the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill? It’s 115 pages long with 320 pages of additional documents; it amends the 2018 Withdrawal Act, itself complex, the 1972 European Communities Act and other legislation; it has innumerable cross-references and interactions with other laws and cases; it creates new bodies whose membership and powers remain to be determined but whose influence will be critical to many voters – for instance, the Independent Monitoring Authority, keeping an eye on the Home Office to ensure no ill-treatment of 3 million EU citizens, their British spouses and children; it determines what rights the devolved Welsh and Scottish governments will have – and much much more. And that’s before we get onto what happens at the end of the transition period.

But JFDI in 3 days seemed to be the government’s policy. Until Parliament asked for more time. Now – who knows. There will be no further scrutiny while the Bill is “paused”.

It would be fine if those MPs rushing to vote for this would have been happy to say in future to voters when something came to light which they really didn’t like: “Well, you wanted to Get Brexit Done so I did. You didn’t expect me to read and check on this stuff so I didn’t. You can’t now complain about it.” And be confident that the voters will still vote for them. What are the chances of that, do you think?

Which Leavers?

This is where the irreconcilable interests in the Leave coalition have the potential to cause the Tories no end of trouble. If you want a Britain open to the world, no longer bound by EU trade rules, what will that mean for the “stay at home” brigade? Will domestic industries be protected from competition? Is an open Britain also a high tariff Britain? If not, why would any country need an FTA? Or will politicians be more concerned with consumers wanting lower prices? There are, after all, rather a lot of the latter. The larger a majority a government has, the easier it is to ignore the bleatings of those few MPs representing farming or fishing areas. Tossing some money at policemen and hospitals, even if targeted at those areas which have borne the brunt of Tory austerity, has a whiff of Marie Antoinette insouciance about it. Will it be enough to get – and keep – those voters? Or will they feel patronised by the brass neck of those taking money away then expecting gratitude for giving a little back? Areas which were the biggest recipients of EU funds had some of the biggest Leave votes. A warning for the Tories there.

And what of immigration? Will it be reduced as some Leavers want? Or will the replacement of Romanians by Rwandans – under the fabled new points system – be enough? Will those enraged by FoM for Turks or Syrians with German nationality be happy when India demands more freedom for Indians to move here in return for more trade?

The Tory party has been able in the past to satisfy a wide range of groups. Thatcher sold council houses to the aspiring working class and cut taxes for those made rich by the City. That coalition (inherited by Blair’s New Labour) lasted until the damage caused by the City’s excesses led to austerity borne by everyone else. For all the admiration of Thatcher by today’s Tories they overlook that her governments and party encompassed a much wider range of views, that many of her most successful policies were implemented by those who were not born again Thatcherites. There is not much evidence of a similar generosity of understanding in today’s Tory party. Reaching out is done on sufferance. How will the Tories keep a coalition together when it comes to making hard choices between groups of Leave voters?

Take Back Control

Easy enough to criticise how the EU reaches its decisions, how it is prone to capture by those best at lobbying, how QMV can result in rules being imposed contrary to a country’s wishes, how hard it is to change or remove bad laws, how it removes accountability from national politicians. All well said. But what will replace this? The minute Britain starts trade talks with any country, most especially the EU but the US as well, it will find its ability to make and change laws in many areas even more constrained.

But not by membership rules. By hard bargaining behind closed doors, where the stronger party will prevail, where British negotiators will have to trade off different British interests. How much accountability will there be to local politicians during this process? How much transparency? How much attention will be paid to those without the resources and contacts to lobby? Once a treaty is agreed what chance of changing those agreements? What chance of change once it is passed into law, even if Parliament later votes for this?

The reality is that Britain will be taking back control from an imperfect system as a member of an organisation and giving it up for the rigidity and permanence of treaty obligations, with the added bonus of being subject to foreign courts, some of them with little interest in transparency (ISDS tribunals anyone?)

Brexit has, so far, had all the best slogans: from “Brexit Means Brexit” to “Get Brexit Done”. Even the “Clean Brexit” so beloved of the Andrea Jenkyns’ of this world sounds like a Marie Kondo Brexit: neat, tidy and without all the complications Remainers insist on raising.

But the next step: working out what Brexit means in reality – who benefits, who loses, who pays – is much more important and not amenable to simple sloganising. If this scrutiny doesn’t happen in Parliament, the Tories had better hope that, when it does, the reality matches up to their promises. And that voters have not turned into ungrateful bastards by then.



MPs back the deal but block the timetable

October 22nd, 2019


Some in the Shadow Cabinet want an early election but Corbyn, surely, will want to wait

October 22nd, 2019

Chart of Betfair market from betdata.io

According to this Guardian Tweet there was discussion at the Shadow cabinet this morning over the timing of the general election with one or two pressing for an early contest.

As has been observed many times we are in a unique situation over this. Sure Johnson wants one as soon as possible because his government is in a minority and he’ll struggle to get anything through. Unfortunately for him the timing is no longer in the gift of the incumbent PM.

A big moment in the past few weeks was when Johnson moved a for an election under the terms of the FPTA and Corbyn didn’t respond.  The assumption uptil that point was that opposition leaders would always take the chance of an election if offered.  This led to a media frenzy calling him chicken but that was to no avail. Corbyn will move the necessary VONC at a time that he wants it not Johnson.

For the PM to call an election he needs the backing of two thirds of all MPs. For Corbyn he just requires a simple majority.

I think it pretty clear that the betting markets are right about this year on which the odds have moved out. But what about next year?

In many ways it is good for Labour to watch Johnson struggle losing Commons vote after Commons vote .

My guess is that Labour would want the election to be less about Brexit and more about the issues that most benefit them – the NHS, public service and so on.  A good time to call it might be in February after a winter when the NHS has been struggling to cope.

Clearly the LAB leadership will be watching the polls and the party needs to recover somewhat before making a move.

Mike Smithson


The loss of DUP support means Johnson needs to make 10 more gains from LAB to stay at Number 10

October 22nd, 2019

The most significant, though, hardly surprising development during Saturday’s special Brexit debate was that the DUP with its ten MPs has totally switched to opposing the government. It is hard to see how that can be changed certainly by the current PM.

This was not a mistake that TMay would have made.

The sense of betrayal coming from hardline unionist communities in Northern Ireland heightens the fact that Johnson’s readiness to ignore and ditch the key element of unionism about its status being exactly the same as the rest of the UK is going to take a long time to heal.

You can now see Arlene’s party being ready to countenance all sorts of possible ways of using her Westminster strength which would have been unthinkable before Johnson reached his agreement in Dublin with the Irish PM

One thing that struck me were the expressions of surprise from Brexit supporting politicians and the media about the DUP being ready to compromise the effort to leave the EU. Their lack of understanding of Irish politics over two centuries was extraordinary.

In general election terms the “loss” of the DUP’s 10 MPs has to be added to the likely Tory losses to the SNP as well as to the LDs in strong remain areas. Finding at least 40-50 current LAB-held seats to take is going to be challenging.

A big problem in all of this is that Tory voters rate Brexit as a much more important issue to them than LAB or DUP ones.

Mike Smithson


Johnson’s problem is that his actions since becoming PM have led to him being totally mistrusted and disbelieved

October 21st, 2019

Why getting the timetable motion through is going to be a struggle

Above is Hillary Benn on a key issue of which MPs have only been aware tonight. Inevitably given the Cumming shenanigans since September there is a total lack of trust – something that would not have happened in TMay’s day.

Every single line and measure is going to be scrutinised to ensure that the PM is not pulling a fast one. September’s prorogation move that had to be stopped by the Supreme Court to all the other apparently smart moves briefed by Cumming have just create an atmosphere of total distrust.

The fight tomorrow is on a timetable motion as Johnson tries to meet his self-imposed deadline and avoid proper scrutiny.

Mike Smithson


Views on Brexit, the deal and the negotiations – latest YouGov polling

October 21st, 2019

Like parliament voters remain very divided

Mike Smithson