‘Boris Johnson should call a general election now if he wants to win’, Metro, 27 June 2019.

Boris Johnson won the Tory leadership by promising party members anything and everything they wanted to hear. It’s also pretty obvious from the flurry of splash-the-cash policy announcements he’s already made that he’s going to try to pull off the same trick with the 99.9 per cent of the electorate who, while they didn’t have a say in him becoming prime minister, may well be asked to vote very soon on whether he should carry on in the job.

Whether that general election takes place before or after the UK has left the EU is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth thinking through.

The best-case scenario for Boris Johnson surely remains that he somehow persuades the 27 EU countries to make changes to the deal sufficient to squeeze it through the House of Commons. The latter – let alone the former – won’t be easy; but it may be possible.

As leader of the Leave campaign, Johnson is, after all, much better placed than ‘reluctant Remainer’ Theresa May to persuade his Brexiteer ultras that he’ll get them what they want when he sits down in Brussels to negotiate the famous ‘future relationship’. And there may still be enough ‘Labour Leavers’ to compensate for any ‘Spartans’ on his own back (and indeed front) bench who won’t take yes for an answer under any circumstances.

Once we’re out, Johnson can then carry on promising all things to all men and, in the spring, go to the country hoping that the wave of relief – and the sheer uselessness of his Labour opposite number – will see him swept back into Downing Street with a working (and maybe even a comfortable) majority.

If, however, it proves impossible to come to an agreement, and Westminster finds a way to block a no deal, then we’ll presumably see an election held sooner rather than later.  Although Corbyn and co. would still be a factor in Johnson’s favour, that contest one wouldn’t be so easy to win – but difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

For a start, an awful lot of people – not just hard-core Leavers – would buy the argument that Brussels was to blame for us leaving without a deal because of its sheer bloody-mindedness and intransigence. And if there’s one politician who is a sufficiently skilled populist to be able to frame an election as ‘the people vs. Parliament’ then it’s Boris Johnson.

An autumn election, however, would be much easier to win before rather than after the UK leaves the EU without a deal.  After all, the disruption and dislocation that many experts are convinced will ensue are hardly likely to endear the government to a country suffering as a result.

There are going to be so many ‘make your mind up moments’ in the coming weeks and months and one of the biggest for Conservative MPs is this: would the damage done to the party’s reputation by their leader failing to fulfil his promise to get the UK out of the EU by 31 October be worse than the damage inflicted on it by the economic chaos that might ensue following a no deal Brexit?

It was a beautiful day yesterday but as I look out of my window today, the skies are dark, the thunder is booming and the rain is falling.  Summer – even for the new sun king, Boris Johnson, won’t last forever. It never does.


Originally published at https://metro.co.uk/2019/07/27/boris-johnson-should-call-a-general-election-now-if-he-wants-to-win-10467443/

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‘What Boris Johnson and the Tory right have learned from Antonio Gramsci’, New Statesman, 26 July 2019.

I first began taking politics seriously in the mid-1980s. At that time, the Italian political prisoner and left-wing philosopher Antonio Gramsci was particularly fashionable – especially, I recall, in the pages of Marxism Today

Through the lens of Gramsci’s theories, former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques and the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall both recognised how Margaret Thatcher’s government had succeeded in winning and then consolidating political power by redefining what counted as “common sense” – in other words, what was seen as feasible, mainstream and “normal.” Their observations were animated by what Gramsci called “hegemony” – the idea that truly transformative political (and therefore economic) power is, at least in part, rooted in cultural authority.

But if the British left has always appreciated Gramsci, it’s politicians on the right who have actually been better at learning his lessons. Britain’s new Brexiteer-ultra cabinet has proved this once again.

Gramsci famously made a distinction between a “war of position” (a slow, incremental, insidious attempt to infiltrate political institutions and achieve cultural and intellectual authority) and a “war of manoeuvre” (a swift, full-frontal assault, capable of achieving a knock-out blow especially in the wake of successful positional campaign).

In so doing, the Italian philosopher provides us with a guide to what Britain’s Brexiteers have been up to all these years, and to what’s happening now.

For many years – a fair few of them spent in the wilderness after the 1975 referendum on European Economic Community membership produced a two-thirds majority for Remain – British  Eurosceptics built on the UK’s lack of European identity, engagement and understanding, and harnessed print-media owners’ hostility to EU regulation. Although their contribution to the nation’s “common sense” can be vastly exaggerated, Boris Johnson’s Brussels dispatches for the Daily Telegraph, filled with tales of bendy bananas, undersized condoms, and oversized bureaucracies, doubtless played a small part in the process.

Sceptics also began their long march through the institutions. Some joined the Referendum Party and then Ukip. But others stayed within (or eventually rejoined) the Conservative Party – an organisation in which it became increasingly difficult to become a parliamentary candidate if you were in any way sympathetic to the European project. As time went on, outright antipathy to Brussels became a precondition.

All this led to David Cameron caving into calls for a referendum and, with a little help from the Eurozone and migration crises – and of course from Dominic Cummings – to the vote being won, albeit narrowly, by the Leave side against progressive Remainers. Over the preceding decades, the latter had never truly sought to counter the right’s combination of insidiously drip-fed, and occasionally in-your-face, Euroscepticsm.

Since then, the Brexiteers have been preparing to move from their war of position to one of manoeuvre – a strategic transition that began with the European Research Group-organised guerrilla attacks against Theresa May, which made parliamentary approval of a deal impossible, and (with May’s foolish help) soon made no-deal seem like a serious and reasonable option. But it was May’s consequent resignation that enabled the Brexiteers’ war of manoeuvre to really begin in earnest.

Johnson’s victory this week constitutes the first battle won. His splash-the-cash policy platform – “more bobbies on the beat”, fixing the social care crisis, and almost everything else on the agenda of the Daily Mail and Telegraph readership – is the second. And his appointment of Brexiteer ultras to the cabinet, and members of Vote Leave’s campaign machine as government advisors, is the third.

Now the war is about to see the opening up of another battle front in continental Europe, as Johnson, spurred on by parliamentary supporters, takes on Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Leo Varadkar et al.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, one of Johnson’s many heroes (who probably, of course, had never heard of Gramsci, let alone read his writing): “this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end; it is merely the end of the beginning”.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/07/what-boris-johnson-and-tory-right-have-learned-antonio-gramsci


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‘The PM we shouldn’t write off’, Unherd, 19 July 2019.

The current Tory leadership contest is sheer agony – especially for those of us able to call to mind the calibre of some of those who have steered the party and the country in times gone by. There’s one man, in particular, whose influence on Britain and the wider word was – and continues to be – immense. And yet his name isn’t lauded like say, Churchill or de Gaulle. History seems rather to have written him off. But without him, our lives might have been very different. I’m thinking of Harold Macmillan.

Let’s begin with his more trivial achievements – well, relatively trivial. In 1956, Macmillan, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was looking for ways to dampen down inflation by cutting consumption. In that year’s budget, he introduced a government-backed savings vehicle which paid out no interest but instead offered investors the chance to win a tax-free prize every month. Sixty or so years later, over 20 million people in the UK own well in excess of £30 billion worth of Premium Bonds.

A fair few of those people will also live in a house originally built in the years following the war. Some of those buildings, of course, went up during the pioneering Labour government that led Britain between 1945 and 1951. But even more of them were constructed under the Conservative government that followed it – and which ran the country for 13 years until 1964.

That government’s first Minister of Housing – the man to whom many believed Churchill had given a poisoned chalice by asking him to achieve the seemingly impossible target of 300,000 properties a year – was (yes, you’ve guessed it) Harold Macmillan. Via some judicious deregulation, he not only helped the construction sector reach the target but helped it do so far earlier than expected.

Before that success, many of his colleagues had written Macmillan off, regarding him, indeed, as something of a political oddity and a personal failure (his impressive military record in WWI and diplomatic role in WWII notwithstanding).

Westminster’s worst kept secret was that his wife had been conducting an affair with his Conservative colleague, Bob Boothby, since the 1930s. And during that decade, Macmillan himself had earned a reputation as a disturbingly unconventional thinker on economic and social policy, writing volumes such as The State and Industry (1932)Reconstruction: A Plea for a National Unity (1933)The Next Five Years (1935), and, perhaps most famously, The Middle Way (1938). All of them championed the idea that governments should take greater responsibility for the economy as well as, more generally, the welfare of the population as a whole.

Meanwhile, Macmillan’s family business, in which he played an active role, was publishing John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory – probably the most influential book on economics of the 20th century. It is credited with helping to convince post-war policy makers that, via the management of demand by fiscal and monetary means, they could prevent a return to the unemployment which blighted Britain (and other countries) in the thirties.

It became increasingly clear after 1945, that the Conservative Party was going to have to reconcile itself to the public’s demand for a more activist state – one that would provide both economic growth and increased social security. And so Macmillan’s long-held beliefs looked rather more prescient. So, too, did his opposition to appeasement, which, along with that of Churchill, Eden and others, later helped to avert the charge that the entire Conservative Party had effectively given Hitler what he wanted.

As a result, and given his successful ministerial record under Churchill, it came as no surprise that, in April 1955, Eden having finally managed to winkle the grand old man out of Number 10, Macmillan was named Foreign Secretary. Later that year, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Macmillan’s elevation to the Premiership just over a year later in January 1957, however, did come as something of a shock to those not in the know. It had a great deal to do with an event that is often quoted nowadays (in the same breath as Brexit) as one of the most disastrous and humiliating episodes for a British government in recent memory – the 1956 Suez crisis.

It might be going too far to assert that, without Macmillan, Eden would never have gone with the idea that Israel should invade Egypt in order to provide a pretext for Britain and France to snatch back the Suez Canal. But Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the plan, and his misplaced confidence that US President Dwight Eisenhower (whom he had got to know well during the war) would tolerate the operation, certainly did nothing to dissuade his colleagues from going ahead with it.

It is undoubtedly true, though, that it was Macmillan’s rapid realisation that the otherwise relatively successful intervention would have to be called off, not least in order to prevent a diplomatic disaster turning into economic chaos, which convinced those same colleagues to stop it in its tracks.

It was also Macmillan who, unlike, his rival Rab Butler, was able to convince his furious fellow Conservative MPs that the government could recover from the affair – one of the main reasons the party turned to him rather than Butler when Eden resigned.

Supermac – as he came to be dubbed – turned out to be right. Not only did he manage to repair relations with the US, later striking up a friendship with the much younger Jack Kennedy, but at the 1959 election – one unusual for being fought in the autumn rather than the spring or summer – he increased the Conservative Party’s overall majority to over 100.

This he did by persuading voters (who he famously said “had never had it so good”) that it was the architect and guarantor of their burgeoning consumer affluence, establishing the template later used to similarly devastating electoral effect by Margaret Thatcher in the loadsamoney 1980s. But he also did it by refusing to countenance the public spending constraints demanded by his supposedly proto-Thatcherite Treasury team, whose resulting resignation in January 1958, Macmillan, with his characteristic ‘unflappability’, dismissed as “a little local difficulty”.

In hindsight, this may have been unwise – though not nearly as unwise as his fateful decision in 1960 to commission Dr Beeching to write his report which resulted in the closure of a third of Britain’s rail network, cutting off hundreds of towns and villages from one of the most environmentally-friendly (if costly) forms of transport.

But it was surely in defence and foreign affairs that Macmillan made his biggest and most lasting contribution. He played a role in Cold War efforts to ban the testing of nuclear weapons but also secured the Polaris weapons system for the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. He effectively admitted that Britain’s imperial game was up and then set a course firmly for decolonisation with his ‘Winds of change’ speech in February 1960.

And, of course, after trying to establish the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as a counter to the EEC, Macmillan swiftly came to the realisation that the UK had no alternative but to join the bigger bloc, initiating its first of three eventually successful accession applications to what is now the EU.

Whether that 40-plus years of membership is about to end – and end in tears – who knows? What we do know, however, is that without Harold Macmillan, Britain and the world might well have looked very different.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/07/the-pm-we-shouldnt-write-off/

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‘Tory leadership contest: What’s on the minds of party members?’, BBC, 5 July 2019.

To read this, click here.

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‘How the Tories became a Brexit death cult in thrall to Boris Johnson’, Independent, 27 June 2019.

Has the Conservative Party become a death cult? A few years ago that would not have been a question that it would have occurred to anyone even to ask. But after the publication of YouGov’s most recent polling of its grassroots members, it’s one that’s hard to ignore.

Some 61 per cent were willing to countenance significant economic damage to the British economy in order to leave the EU. And 63 per cent and 59 per cent of members were apparently content to see Scotland or Northern Ireland leaving the UK if that is what it took to get Brexit.

In some ways, even more shockingly, just over half of rank-and-file Tories (54 per cent) thought the destruction of their own party would be a price worth paying for Brexit, with only just over a third (36 per cent) feeling that, at that point, the game would no longer be worth the candle.

So what just happened? How on earth has the membership of an organization traditionally dedicated to the preservation of the Union – and, presumably, the preservation of itself – come to believe that nothing (well, almost nothing: a net 12 per cent thought Jeremy Corby becoming PM would be worse than not getting Brexit) trumped quitting the EU?

Obviously, this hasn’t come out of nowhere. It was in the early 1990s that the Conservative Party first began seriously experimenting with hard Euroscepticism (the idea that we’d have to leave the EU because reform would never deliver what we needed), and after that it began to need more and more of the stuff in order to feed what soon became an increasingly debilitating and expensive habit.

But to go from that to full-on junkie status – to so crave the hit you not only want but need to the point where you no longer really care whether you live or die – is quite something, and has only happened more recently.

That’s even more clearly the case if you recall the summer of 2015. Back then, alongside my colleagues Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, we surveyed Conservative Party members as part of an ESRC-funded research project (that will be published in September as a book called Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century).

At that moment in time, two-thirds of members told us that they’d wait to see what their then leader (and prime minister) David Cameron came back with from Brussels before making up their minds how to vote in the upcoming EU referendum.

Fast forward to now and two-thirds of Tory members say they want not only Brexit and not only a hard Brexit (where we leave the customs union and the single market) but a no deal Brexit.

There are, of course, myriad reasons that might account for such a change of heart.

One obvious explanation is that Cameron’s renegotiation turned out to be such a damp squib that it proved once and for all to an already pretty hostile party that soft Euroscepticism (the idea that we could get reform from within and opt out of what we didn’t like) wasn’t really going to cut it.

Another is the rise and fall of Ukip, which under Nigel Farage’s breathtakingly brilliant leadership, managed to permanently fuse Euroscepticism and anti-immigration sentiment and, in so doing, represent a serious threat to the Conservative Party’s hitherto unchallenged hegemony over the country’s right-wing voters. It was a threat that the Tories responded to by essentially co-opting the insurgency’s agenda.

That co-option, of course, went on – more or less officially – before, during and after the referendum campaign, accelerating under Theresa May, who literally told members that “no deal was better than a bad deal”.

That notion was then given rocket-boosters by their celebrity-politician favourites like Jacob Rees Mogg and, of course, Boris Johnson, as well as by their favourite newspapers: don’t forget that a third of rank-and-file Tories read the Telegraph and just under a fifth read the Mail. The triumph of the Brexit Party at the European Parliament elections – a triumph no doubt assisted in part not only by Conservative voters but Conservative members – has only served to up the ante even further.

And then, finally, there’s what some insist on calling “entryism” – the promotion of the idea that Brexiteers, and especially former Ukip members, should join the Conservative Party to influence its policies, its choice of candidates and its choice of leader.

Surveys can’t confirm whether this so-called Blukip phenomenon is as real as some of the self-styled victims of it, such as Anna Soubry, have alleged. But what they do seem to show is that well over a third of the current Conservative Party membership joined after the 2016 referendum, which some will take as at least circumstantial evidence and may explain why they care more about Brexit than their party’s long-term survival.

What they also show is that, while no deal wins the support of “only” 60 per cent of those members who had already joined the party by the 2015 election, that figure rises to 70 per cent for those who joined after the 2016 referendum, and to an astonishing 77 per cent of those who became Conservative Party members after the 2017 general election.

In short, attitudes on Europe have hardened among rank-and-file Tories; but part of that hardening is due to the fact that some of those with less strident views on the issue may have left the party only to be replaced by Brexiteer-ultras. That, of course, is democracy. But it’s also bloody good news for Boris Johnson – at least until he risks, as prime minister, having to disillusion and disappoint them.

Originally published at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-boris-johnson-tory-leadership-party-conservative-no-deal-ukip-nigel-farage-a8977716.html

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‘People are unpredictable at predicting what they will do’ (with Phil Cowley), Times, 27 June 2019.

How good are you at predicting what you’ll do in the future? Or even remembering what you’ve recently done – particularly when it comes to politics? Not always that good, if our research is anything to go by.

Prior to Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK, we surveyed Londoners on their attitudes to the visit. This was the latest in a series of polls, conducted by YouGov, which Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute has been running on the politics of London.

More than half of respondents (54 per cent) said they opposed the US president coming to the UK, compared with just 24 per cent who were supportive. We also asked people whether or not they were intending to go to any of the organised protests against his visit. Some 13 per cent said that they were likely to take part – of whom 4 per cent said “very likely” and 9 per cent said “fairly likely”.

If all of those saying their participation was likely had turned up, attendance at the anti-Trump protests would have involved close to a million Londoners (916,000), in addition to anyone who might have travelled in from outside the capital.

Nobody – apart from Mr Trump himself perhaps – is denying that those protests went ahead in June but almost a million Londoners? Hardly.

While crowd sizes are always difficult to estimate, even the organisers of the main London rally – who have an incentive to accentuate the positive – claimed a figure of about 75,000 people and some news organisations were sceptical it was this high. Yet even 75,000 is a lot less than 916,000.

What explains this gap? It is worth noting that the survey didn’t ask people if they were definitely going, only if they were “very” or “fairly” likely to do so, and we wouldn’t expect every single one of these people to turn up. Yet even if we discount entirely all of those who said they were “fairly” likely to attend, even the figure for those who claimed they were “very likely” to take part in the demo would have yielded a crowd of more than a quarter of a million London adults, plus any out of towners.

This is, then, yet further proof that people can be pretty hopeless at predicting their own behaviour – especially those who say they’re going to something rather than nothing. Some people may have been genuinely keen to go, only for something – work, childcare, whatever – to prevent them.

Some may have a very low bar for what “very” or “fairly” likely may mean. Some may be using the question more to signify that they did not approve of the trip rather than actually indicating they intended to go, whether they knew this or not.

So in a subsequent survey, this month and again with YouGov, we asked Londoners if they had been on the demo, asking them, in other words, not to predict what they might do, but what they actually had done. Only 2 per cent claimed they’d protested against Mr Trump. This compares with 94 per cent who said they did not go, along with 4 per cent who – for reasons we can only guess at – said they were “not sure”.

That 2 per cent would still, however, mean that 140,000 Londoners joined the protests – roughly double the number that did take part, even assuming that not a single participant came from outside of London. So even this figure is way too high.

Again, there are various possible reasons for this. All surveys have an element of sampling error (of about plus or minus 3 percentage points on any one figure), so it is possible that all of those who responded to the survey by saying they attended did in fact do so. Yet equally we do know that people lie about these sort of things. Some of us – whisper it softly – tell fibs that fit with our self-image as right-on and radical.

One study of voter recall found that people both claimed to have voted when they did not and vice versa, but the former was more likely and it was especially common among those who thought voting was important. As the study’s author, Paul Whiteley, noted: “People only mislead when it matters.”

One clue that this might be going on here can be found in those who said they were “not sure”. While there may be genuine reasons why you could be unsure whether you went on a demonstration (perhaps you go on so many demos you can no longer tell which is which?) the “not sure” figure was as high as 10 per cent among those aged 18-24, which was exactly the same age group who had said they were most likely to attend in the first place. Even anonymously, and as part of an online survey, some people just can’t bring themselves to admit they have fallen short.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/people-are-hopeless-at-predicting-what-they-ll-do-in-the-future-l2fg7lk6q

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‘Tory leadership: Who gets to choose the UK’s next prime minister?’, BBC, 23 June 2019.

To read this one, click here.

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