‘G7 summit: what to expect from Boris Johnson as Joe Biden visits the UK’, The Conversation, 7 June 2021

Joe Biden’s first trip to the UK as US President this week is bound to produce hundreds of hot takes on the state of the so-called special relationship, most looking for signs either of its continuing strength or its more or less imminent demise.

Runes will be read, words parsed, and body-language interpreted in the hope of answering two perennial questions: does this new administration in Washington value the UK as much as its predecessors valued it? And does it value the UK more than it values any other country?

Sad but true – and should you doubt it, just cast your mind back to late January and the evident (some would say pathetic) satisfaction occasioned in the pages of Britain’s Conservative-supporting press by the news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and not German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was the first leader outside North America to get a phone call from Joe.

But if those questions are perennial they will also be seen as all the more burning this time around.

For one thing, there’s Donald Trump. Although Boris Johnson eventually did his best not to appear too pally with him, the PM couldn’t help but be seen as something of an ally of the 45th President – even, perhaps a populist kindred spirit.

Then there’s Brexit and, in particular, concerns that the UK is playing fast and loose with arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Sticking to the agreed plan is regarded in the US as crucial to the maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement that guarantees peace on the island. The new president is proudly Irish-American and takes the US role as custodian of the peace deal very seriously.

Post-Brexit trade

But another Brexit-related anxiety will be bothering Johnson just as much. The prospect (or otherwise) of a free trade deal with Washington is always on his mind. After all, a key element of the Brexit promise was freeing British governments to strike free trade deals with other countries. And, surely, no country offers a bigger and better prize in this respect than the world’s richest state, the US?

Possibly, but before anyone gets too excited it is worth noting that the UK government’s most optimistic estimate is that such a deal would increase its own GDP by just 0.36%. That’s non-trivial, perhaps, but (like the apparently imminent FTA with Australia or the deal just reached with Norway, Iceland and mighty Lichtenstein) hardly a triumph unless, heaven forfend, Brexit is as much about symbols than substance.

It may of course be that the UK’s plan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) might mitigate any failure to negotiate a bilateral deal between London and Washington, especially if the latter were eventually to join it too. Unfortunately, however, “eventually” looks like a fairly long time away right now.

Resetting international relations

Still, if progress stalls on a US-UK FTA, the Johnson government can always take refuge in its defence and intelligence cooperation with the US. That’s especially true now that it is dealing with a president who is, to say the least, rather more sceptical about his Russian counterpart than his predecessor.

Biden also appears, however, to be prepared to continue Trump’s tough stance on China, albeit couched in much less inflammatory language. This is something that will suit a Conservative Party which has come a long way from the days when the far-from-sinosceptic David Cameron was taking China’s President Xi Jinping down the pub for a pint.

The meeting of minds on that issue may well explain how heavily the UK government’s recently published integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy was spun as ushering in an “Indo-Pacific tilt”.

Once again, however, if we look past the symbolism to the substance, it is obvious that the review, in addition to emphasising that “the US-UK partnership underpins our security and saves lives”, continues to see Britain’s main contribution to western defence as covering what it calls “the Euro-Atlantic area” and supporting Washington’s long-running campaign to get other NATO allies to up their military spending.

There are also less familiar points of communality that the UK will be keen to leverage. The most obvious among these is multinational tax reform and (even if activists worry that politicians tend to will the ends but not the means) the collective fight against climate change.

Whether any of this will be enough to persuade sceptical Democrats that Johnson is anything other than a “shapeshifting creep”, as one of them none-too-diplomatically put it just after they’d won the White House, is a moot point.

What we can say with rather more certainty, however, is that Johnson, who’s borrowed liberally from the film Love Actually before, will be even less inclined than any of his predecessors to do a Hugh Grant and tell the US president that “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot” is no longer going to do what it’s told by Washington.

Indeed, if anything, post Brexit, the tone will be more Notting Hill than Love Actually. Johnson is cast in the Julia Roberts role, begging America to remember that, as has long been the case when it comes to the special relationship, Britain’s “just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.

Oringinally published at https://theconversation.com/g7-summit-what-to-expect-from-boris-johnson-as-joe-biden-visits-the-uk-162278

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‘I know why social care isn’t being fixed’, Tortoise, 11 March 2021

It was the cheese that settled it. Until then I’d made all sorts of excuses. “They’re just getting old.” “They’ve never been the most organised of people.” “Everyone has the odd mood-swing.” “If only they actually wore the bloody hearing aid!” You know the kind of thing. But when you open the fridge and find fifteen unopened blocks of cheddar, as many of them green and mouldy as fresh and yellow, then you know there’s a problem.

And when you open the kitchen cupboards and find them fit to bursting with pack after pack of paper towels and precious little else, you wonder how on earth you hadn’t realised just how bad things had become.

In reality, the reason is pretty simple. Dementia, as Hemingway observed of bankruptcy, happens “gradually and then suddenly.” And it’s all the more difficult to notice in someone you love because, subconsciously, you can’t bear to think of it happening to them – and, if you’re brutally honest with yourself – to you. 

It’s harder still to acknowledge that your Mum really is losing it when it means that, even with carers coming in twice a day, she can no longer look after your Dad, whose multiple sclerosis has left him less and less able to look after himself.

So you try to avoid the inevitable. They’ll manage. Both you and the carers can pop round more often. You organise meals on wheels.

But it’s no good. Dad tells you Mum’s insisting they eat dinner only a couple of hours after they’ve eaten lunch. And anyway, she’s leaving the plastic lids on the plates when she puts them in the hot oven. She’s found wandering in the street by a stranger. She’s ringing you in the early hours of the morning to ask, of all things, how the dog’s doing. She’s not changing her clothes, not taking a shower. He falls out of his wheelchair and can’t get up. But, instead of phoning for an ambulance, she lies down beside him for a few hours before finally calling you. He goes into hospital – yet again. You go round to check on her and realise she’s slept in her clothes, that she’s running a fever, and worse – much worse. So you take her down to A&E where they ask her some standard questions, and she tells them she’s got lots more children than she’s ever really had, and that the year she was born is actually today’s date.

So now they’re both in hospital – the same hospital, in different wards – but discharge is soon looming. They clearly can’t go home, though. So you’ve got no choice. 

You find a nursing home. It comes highly recommended. Which is lucky because it’s literally the only place locally where they can actually stay together. You know it’s going to cost a bomb, of course, but it is what it is. The only thing that really matters is that they’re safe and secure and not separated, right?

Right. But also wrong, obviously. Social care – especially residential nursing care – is expensive. And when it’s for two people rather than one, it’s phenomenally expensive. Certainly more expensive than anyone who hasn’t ever had to think about paying for it probably imagines. True, the cost varies – partly according to the level of care, partly according to the quality of that care, and partly according to where you live. But – whatever – it doesn’t come cheap.

Before my Dad died last summer (not of Covid-19, although that impacted hugely, of course, on the manner of his passing) his care costs were getting on for £9,000 per month. For my Mum, who, just before Dad died, had to move to the secure, specialist dementia-care facility on the top floor, it now costs around £8,500 per month – although, I hereby confess that around a hundred quid of that (that is, just over 1 per cent of the total) goes on “luxuries” like getting her hair or her toenails done and getting the newspaper every day (even if she did inform me a couple of weeks back that it must be her own mum – who passed away over 25 years ago, mind – who sends those in).

In both cases, there was and is some contribution from the state, but it’s not huge. In Mum’s case, for instance, the NHS contributes just over £800 a month – slightly less than 10 per cent of the cost – which goes straight to the nursing home. The Department for Work and Pensions also provides just under £390 “attendance allowance” (a benefit for elderly and disabled people who need assistance). Overall, then, over 85 per cent of the cost has to be covered from her own pocket.

When the commission led by Andrew Dilnot reported in 2011, it recommended a cap be placed on the amount that anyone should have to pay for social care over their lifetime of somewhere between £25,000 and £50,000. When the Cameron government legislated, however, that cap was set at £72,000.

My Dad, then, would have reached that ceiling in under a year; my Mum in maybe a year-and-a-half. At which point, the welfare state should have swept in to pick up the tab. Except, of course, that it didn’t, and it hasn’t. The Cameron government’s legislation was never actually implemented, since, without a massive injection of funds from Whitehall, it would rapidly have bankrupted councils up and down the country.

Instead, most recipients of long-term social care in Britain rely not on cradle-to-grave but on “asset-based” welfare – using the wealth accumulated in their working lives to pay for what they need when they get old and sick. Shorn of that euphemism, this means – for most of us anyway – flogging the house that you always hoped you’d be passing on to your family.

On the upside, this system (if it can really be called a system) can at least make a claim to be progressive – a sort of pre-emptive inheritance tax, paid by the living. All your assets can be taken into consideration when calculating your contribution to your own social care, until they dwindle to £23,250 – the point at which English local authorities do begin to pay for care. 

On the downside, it’s essentially Russian roulette – with many of the biggest losers coming from the normally sharp-elbowed, middle-aged, middle classes who find that, depending upon their circumstances, their families are paying huge sums by equity release or other, often desperate, measures.

Yet in spite of that, there remains relatively little electoral pressure on the government to overcome its predictable concerns about post-pandemic public finances, as well as its equally understandable fear of being seen to be proposing another “dementia tax” (as Theresa May was during her disastrous 2017 general election campaign). Boris Johnson promised on his very first day in office to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all” but is not (for now) facing a public outcry to deliver the goods.

Why? The answer surely lies, at least in part, in what neuroscientists call “optimism bias”: the conviction, apparently hard-wired into humans, that encourages us to move onward and upward rather than simply despair in the face of our inevitable demise; the strong feeling that things will be better (for our family and friends anyway) than all the statistics suggest. £8,500 a month? You could get a much better deal. Disability and dementia? They won’t happen to you – I mean, what are the chances?

Fairly high, as it turns out. Sadly, so is the correlation between realism and pessimism. The prime minister, of all people, being obliged by the great British public to keep this particular promise? Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Originally published at https://www.tortoisemedia.com/2021/03/11/tim-bale-i-know-why-social-care-isnt-being-fixed/

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‘The Conservatives’, UK in a Changing Europe, Beyond Brexit Report, 19 January 2021.


The Conservative Party went into the 2016 referendum with more of its MPs supporting remaining in the EU than leaving. Once voters had spoken, however, the majority of Tories at Westminster were prepared to respect ‘the will of the people’. Any who refused, or simply showed too little enthusiasm, either walked out or were thrown out.

After Boris Johnson’s big win at the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives became a party largely for and of Leavers. Most of its voters had supported and continued to support Brexit. The same was true of grassroots Tories in constituency associations up and down the land.


Views on issues apart from Brexit, however, are rather more varied. There are some significant differences between the underlying values of Tory MPs, their rank-and-file members, and their voters. Those elected to Westminster are relatively socially liberal but also significantly more neo-liberal, economically speaking, particularly when compared to voters who switched to the Conservatives from Labour at the last election.

Even now, it is easy to see how these differences render any attempt to win the next contest by waging some sort of ‘culture war’ on Labour’s supposed political correctness on, say, ethnicity or gender potentially tricky. Those differences may also mean there is a limit to which, once the pandemic has passed, many Tory MPs will accept the tax and spending required if the Government is to come anywhere near honouring its promise to level up ‘left-behind’ parts of the country.


Yet, notwithstanding the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street, delivering to voters in the former ‘Red Wall’ seats will remain a crucial plank in the Conservative Party’s agenda. Research on voters in those seats, neatly encapsulated in Deborah Mattinson’s recent book, makes it clear that their expectations are, as she herself puts it, ‘sky-high’.

Many, maybe most, of those who helped switch seats from red to blue clearly believe that a combination of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s promise to lavish more attention and more cash on them will bring back the manufacturing industries of the past that made Britain the workshop of the world. That, they hope, will put money in people’s pockets that they will be able to spend in spanking new high streets.

More than that, as Mattinson shows, they want law and order brought to sometimes crime-ridden neighbourhoods, they want jobs and social housing going to ‘local people’ rather than to ethnic minorities they still insist on seeing as immigrants, and they want to make sure that benefits only go to those they regard as deserving, not to ‘scroungers.’ They also want to see a Britain supposedly freed from the shackles of the EU get the respect from the rest of the world they feel it deserves.

While many Tories will wholeheartedly share such sentiments and believe they bode well for their chances of re-election, their colleagues in government know that it’s going to be a big ask to satisfy them — or, more realistically, to be seen to have made a decent start on satisfying them — by 2024.

True, Covid-19 may ensure that the Johnson administration is given slightly more leeway by sympathetic voters than might otherwise have been the case. On the other hand, the enormous sums of money that have had to be spent on combatting it are already prompting demands for the state to tighten its belt again once the emergency is over. That is, unless Conservative MPs and the Treasury, both of whom are instinctively hostile to what they regard as undue profligacy and unsustainable borrowing, can be convinced otherwise. If not, it will be difficult to make a serious start on any
levelling up agenda worth the name, let alone allow the party to tackle massive underlying problems from which, again and again, it has shied away, most obviously social care. Any retrenchment, even if it were to stop short of a return to austerity, could also mean the economy (and employment) recovers less rapidly than it needs to.

Against this, a development that is easily portrayed as awkward for the party — the establishment of the Northern Research Group of concerned MPs from the region — may actually prove useful. Their desire to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire might offset calls for ‘sound finance’ at least when it comes to capital if not current spending.

The same might also be said of another development — the emergence of a Labour Party that, for the first time for a long time, seems to have chosen a leader seen as a credible candidate for the premiership.

Talk of which leads to a final thought. The shine has clearly come off the current leader of the Conservative Party, not least because his handling of the pandemic is widely regarded by the public as poor, even chaotic — and the same adjectives can be applied to some of his Cabinet. Re-establishing the party’s reputation for competence, as well as projecting a more consensual, less aggressively confrontational image, will be difficult. Indeed, it may well necessitate making big changes in personnel, up to and, who knows, including the prime minister himself.

How the party handles renewed demands for Scottish independence this year may well play a crucial part in such an effort. But so, too, will Brexit. If the Government can convincingly argue over the next few months that it really has managed to
‘get Brexit done’ without the tangible disruption that the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ predicted, then a reshuffle and a ‘reset’ might be enough, especially with the arrival of a vaccine.

Should, however, the UK’s departure from the Single Market and Customs Union turn out to be a much messier affair, prompting seemingly endless rows not just between London and Brussels, but between London and an ever-more assertive Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, then support for the Conservatives could not so much slip as bleed away — and fast.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Brexit-and-Beyond-report-compressed.pdf

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‘Is the Brexit war finally over?’, 27 December 2020

Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese army took some persuading before he would agree to hand over his sword, his rifle, and the dagger with which he intended to commit suicide should he ever be captured by the Americans.  It was March 1974.

In the wake of the UK/EU deal announced on Christmas Eve, it is all too easy to assume – especially now Nigel Farage (commander in chief of the People’s Army, no less) has declared the war over – that all those who fought for Brexit will likewise declare victory and return to whatever they were doing (presuming they can even remember what it was) before hostilities commenced.

But that is to forget quite how convinced, obsessed even, that those who laboured so long in the wilderness had to be in order to carry on a fight that for decades looked completely hopeless to their bemused friends, family and colleagues.

For the vast majority of Conservative MPs (most of whom, remember, have either always been or have become Brexiteers), sheer bloody relief, along with a natural inclination to toe the party line and support their leader, will prove a powerful painkiller.

It will inure them to those parts of the deal that have involved more compromise than ideally they would have liked – so much so, perhaps, that they will deny, even to themselves, that any such compromises have even taken place at all.

Fishing communities may cry foul and trade experts may make clear the extent of ongoing alignment, potential sanctions, and ongoing negotiations inherent in the 1,246 pages of dense legal text.

But all that, most Tory Brexiteers – even those who share former Brexit Secretary, David Davis’s concerns about the lack of proper scrutiny the rush to ratify involves – will argue, is to ‘fail to see the bigger picture.’

True, Peter Bone – every inch a Brexiteer ultra – is right to issue a warning that, like Budgets, the agreement might look good at first glance but could end up rapidly unravelling; but he forgets that it is vanishingly rare, even when that does happen, for his colleagues to vote against the ensuing Finance Bill.

It’s also important to note that the party in the media – the collection of leader writers and the columnists who write for Tory-supporting newspapers – seems to have made up its mind that Johnson has pulled off a miracle.

Moreover, ConHome’s snap survey suggests getting on for two-thirds of grassroots Tories approve – not to be sniffed at when fear of one’s constituency association has often decided which way Conservative MPs have jumped on the European issue.

For Bone and the Bill Cashes of this world – those Tory MPs who like to talk about setting up a ‘Star Chamber’ to examine the small print of the agreement – that small print really matters.

If they decide that it really won’t do, then they (possibly to the tune of ten to twenty colleagues) might well decline to support it in the Commons this week.  And they will, like Lieutenant Onoda, then continue the battle by other means for years to come.

Quite what those other means will be – whether, for example, the future relationship between the EU and the UK will on occasion necessitate primary legislation that can be sabotaged by a determined band of parliamentary guerrilla fighters – remains to be seen.

Experience, however, surely teaches us that those whose Euroscepticism has over the years sometimes shaded into Europhobia, even paranoia, are unlikely to give up easily.  As things stand right now, it is difficult to see them having more influence on the course of history than Onada and his fellow holdouts did after 1945; but many would have said the same about anti-EU Conservatives in 1975.

Meanwhile, what about the other side – those opposition MPs whose determination to keep the UK in the EU saw them campaign for Remain in the referendum and then do all they possibly could to prevent Theresa May and Boris Johnson carrying out what they insisted was ‘the will of the people’?  Will they simply ‘go gentle into that good night’?  Or will they instead ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’?

Labour MPs, it seems, are deciding not so much between going gently and raging but just how gentle the going should be: should they vote for ratification as their leader is asking them to so as to hasten Labour’s reconciliation with the Leave voters who deserted the party after 2016 or, knowing there is no danger of the government losing, abstain and risk being accused of arguably counterproductive virtue signalling?

In the end, though, one suspects most will just want the whole thing over with so the party can move on to attacking the government on what the public sees as its poor record on handling the Covid-19 crisis.

For the UK’s third and fourth parties, the SNP and the Lib Dems, however, such signalling makes perfect sense.

For the Nationalists, the end of transition marks the end of the process by which, as they see it, London has ripped Scotland out of the EU against its will – something they will be reminding voters of come spring’s Holyrood elections, which will be the platform from which (all being well) Nicola Sturgeon will launch in earnest her party’s campaign for a second Independence Referendum.

As for the Lib Dems, refusing to support ratification provides an invaluable opportunity not only to differentiate themselves from Labour but to send a message to Remain voters in the numerous Tory-Lib Dem marginals they need to target if they are to win seats at the next general election.

A spot of raging (metaphorically speaking, of course) should also provide them with at least a little airtime and a few column inches when both have been desperately hard to come by in recent months – something they could badly do with in crucial local elections taking place in a few months’ time.

All this, of course, assumes that Boris Johnson’s achievement will have an electoral half-life longer than most political events ever do – even those that seem especially momentous at the time.

In reality, however, voters have both very long and very short memories. Last week’s agreement – and the parties’ reactions to it – could imprint itself indelibly. But don’t bank on it. Given the pandemic and its economic consequences, a fairly thin Free Trade Agreement with the EU may be the last thing on people’s minds in four years’ time.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/is-the-brexit-war-finally-over/

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‘How bad is it for Boris?’, Unherd, 18 December 2020

There was little fanfare as the anniversary of the Tory Party’s 2019 landslide slipped by. There was some interesting commentary, but not much back-slapping among the faithful — what, after all, was there to celebrate? Who could possibly have predicted how much trouble a prime minister who’d won an 80 seat majority and a double-digit lead over the opposition could be in barely 12 months later?

Well, let’s not be so swift to condemn. A look back at where three of Boris Johnson’s Tory PM predecessors stood a year after they too had trounced Labour at a general election gives the lie to the idea that only Boris could have blown things so badly. Sure, he’s had a difficult year. But we somehow seem to have forgotten that they had too!

So Christmas tidings of comfort and joy all round, right? Well, not quite. For two of the three Tory leaders in question, remember, it would never be glad confident morning again. Still, the whole point of history is to learn from it. So what lessons are there for Boris from their successes and their failings? Let’s start with the one whose time in No 10 was about to come to a very abrupt and unexpected end.

David Cameron, May 2016

Pride, they say, comes before a fall. And in David Cameron’s case, that fall was pretty damn spectacular. It would be unfair to say that as he went about his business at the beginning of May 2016, he was serenely confident, let alone chillaxed, that Remain would triumph in June’s EU referendum. By that stage of the game, after all, no one in No 10 imagined they would be coasting to victory. But Cameron still had every hope of victory, mainly because the economic case he was majoring on so overwhelmingly favoured the Remain cause – just as it had in Scotland a couple of years earlier and at the general election a year before.

That it didn’t go his way could be blamed partly on the fact that he was fighting the referendum campaign with one hand tied behind his back, so determined was he not to indulge in ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks. He wanted room to put the party back together afterwards, even when sorely provoked by (guess who?) Boris Johnson.

Perhaps if Cameron had displayed the same killer instinct that had helped him see off Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown when dealing with the enemy within, then Prime Minister George Osborne would now be dealing with the Coronovirus crisis – and without having to worry about ‘getting Brexit done’ at the very same time.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) A track-record of winning referendums doesn’t mean you’ll win the next one, especially if your argument is economic and the other side’s is emotional. Denying the Scots another vote is going to be very difficult, so start thinking now about how to win hearts not just heads;

(2) when dealing with your internal opponents, attack is often the best form of defence, particularly if the alternative is appeasement. The lockdown sceptics and the Eurosceptics will never be satisfied – so stop trying, put on your proverbial big boy pants, and take them on instead; and

(3) in politics, there really, really is no such thing as a friend. Beware Rishi Sunak – and, as ever, Michael Gove

John Major, April 1993

The fact that John Major, who had taken over a divided and demoralised Tory party after a hard-fought leadership contest 18 months earlier, won the general election of April 1992 came as a genuine shock. The polls had pointed consistently to a Labour victory or, at the very least, a hung parliament.

In the event, the Conservatives thrashed Labour in terms of vote share by 42 to 34 percentage points, winning what is still the highest number of votes for any party at a UK general election: 14.1 million. In politics, however, every silver lining has a cloud. Britain’s first past the post electoral system, which so often helps the Tories, this time rescued Labour, leaving Major with an overall majority of 21 seats, down from 102.

If Major had ever hoped that such tight arithmetic might concentrate the minds of his mightily relieved colleagues, then a year into his second term, that illusion was well and truly shattered. The reason? Not sleaze – although David Mellor’s resignation in September 1992 proved a harbinger of what was to come on that front – but the UK’s costly forced exit from the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday that same month.

That external shock not only cratered the Conservatives in the opinion polls and provided proof (if proof were needed) to an as yet small but increasingly determined band of Tory MPs, that UK participation in European integration must not be allowed to go any further and, if possible, should even be wound back. As a result, ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which had originally been greeted as a triumph for Major’s diplomacy, had turned into a parliamentary and personal nightmare. It really only ended four years later when a new, convincingly centrist Labour leader finally put the Conservatives out of their misery, The rest, as they say, is history.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) Gratitude is the most perishable quantity in politics. The credit you get, both for pulling off a last-gasp diplomatic triumph and for pulling your party’s electoral chestnuts out of the fire doesn’t last very long. Winning big in 2019 and Brexit will mean nothing if you’ve not been able to prove the latter has indeed given you squillions to squirt on schools and hospitals, and shinier town centres, in those Red Wall seats;

(2) a parliamentary majority counts for little in the face of the formation of a party (or parties) within a party. ERG, CRG, NRG. These things are growing like topsy. Buying them off policy-wise is a bad idea. But frontbench roles for their most ambitious movers and shakers? They can work wonders; and

(3) a combination of events, dear boy, events and the election of a credible, moderate and clever opposition leader can rapidly erode your lead in the polls without the pendulum swinging back to you as the next election looms. Keir Starmer might not be a full-blown heir to Blair, but he really doesn’t need to be to win the next election. The threat he presents needs taking far more seriously than it has been so far.

Margaret Thatcher, May 1980

It is easy to forget, in the light of her second and third successive election victories in 1983 and 1987 that, a year after her first, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was by no means mistress of all she surveyed.

True, although her parliamentary majority was nothing compared to what it managed in those later contests, it was still – at 44 – far more comfortable than John Major’s. However, the economic outlook was, if anything, considerably worse than the one he faced after 1992. Unemployment was running at over 7% (nudging 2 million), British manufacturers were going bust all over the country, and inflation stood at (from today’s perspective a scarcely credible) 22%.

And while the Labour Party was too preoccupied with its own civil war to present much of a threat, a number of so-called ‘wets’ in the Cabinet were deeply (and none too privately) concerned about what they saw as Thatcher’s nonsensical determination to stick to the fiscal and monetary squeeze that she was messianically convinced would provide a long-term cure for Britain’s ills.

That said, the news wasn’t all bad. Progress was being made on a Housing Bill which would introduce one of Thatcherism’s flagship, and electorally popular, policies – Right to Buy. And in the meantime, the SAS’s daring raid on the Iranian Embassy proved an unalloyed triumph and one which announced to the world that Britain was back as a global player.

Lessons for Johnson:

(1) Even if some of your worried cabinet colleagues are urging you to u-turn on the big shift in economic policy you’ve been talking about for a year or more, keep calm and carry on. Levelling up is vital, both politically and economically; don’t let your fiscal hawks, especially your Chancellor, talk you out of it;

(2) focus, too, on pushing through policies that will help you retain all those working class voters you won over from Labour. You won in 2019, remember, not just because of Brexit but because you promised it would lower immigration, recruit more nurses and police, and build more houses; and, of course,

(3) keep banging that patriotic drum. Voters want the country talked up, not down, to feel it has a bright future not just a glorious past. This is your greatest strength. Never, ever stop playing to it.

In the end, of course, different things work for different people – and different prime ministers — at different times. While it may have been a near-visionary sense of mission that helped Thatcher survive her very difficult first year and go on to win two more general elections, it could well be the protean pragmatism that enabled Johnson to climb to the top of Disraeli’s greasy pole in the first place that helps him stay there after his own annus horribilis. This is especially true if it means (as I suspect it does, given his penchant both for history and for breathtaking opportunism) that he is more inclined than most to learn the lessons that the past has to teach.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2020/12/can-boris-get-his-mojo-back/

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‘Are lockdown-scepticism and Euroscepticism linked?’, UK in a Changing Europe, 10 November 2020 (with Alan Wager)

What do lockdown-scepticism and Euroscepticism have in common? At first glance, it’s unclear why there should be a link between views on how we should handle the public health emergency posed by Covid-19 and attitudes to Britain leaving the EU.

But take one look at British politics over the last few days and weeks and there seems to be more and more overlap between vocal opposition to lockdown, on the one hand, and diehard support for Brexit, on the other. And that’s especially true, of course, on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons.

Outside Parliament, at least when he’s not busy talking to the media about the US election, it’s Nigel Farage who, conveniently forgetting about his support for lockdown back in the spring, seems keenest to place himself, and his new venture, Reform UK, at the centre of that Venn diagram.

Clearly, he thinks there is a synergy between his brand as ‘Mr Brexit’ – as the current (and soon to be former) President of the United States calls him – and being the spokesperson for the small, but slowly growing, number of voters who are against the Government’s measures to combat Covid-19.

Inside Parliament, however, it’s Tory MPs who are making the running.

Now, it’s not the case that all Leavers are lockdown sceptics. But it’s pretty much the case that all lockdown sceptics are Leavers. Take a look at the Conservative rebellion last week on the new lockdown restrictions which will run until 2 December.

True, the 18 Conservatives listed as abstaining are a mix of six Scottish MP who declined to take part because the legislation only covered England, five Remainers (including the former Prime Minister, Theresa May) and seven Leavers.

But, of the 34 Tory MPs to vote against the Government, some 30 (or nine out of ten) were Leavers in 2016. Moreover, apart from Sir Graham Brady, every one of these Leave-voting MPs (along with one of the four Remainers in this anti-lockdown group, Huw Merriman) also supported a no deal Brexit when given an option in the indicative votes on Brexit options in 2019.

This is important, because it lends a degree of credence to the claim by Steve Baker (self-styled ‘hard-man of Brexit’, the organizational genius behind the ERG, and one of the two tellers for the lockdown sceptics) that upwards of 80 rebels can be expected in any vote on extending regulation still further.

Some of his colleagues go even further, putting the number at 100 – a prospect highlighted, albeit in humorous fashion, by a spoof graphic apparently being shared widely by Tory MPs.

We already have, then, two of the key ingredients that helped to shift the Conservative Party’s decades-long policy in favour of membership of the European project – a vocal minority of militant backbenchers, and extra-parliamentary pressure from Nigel Farage working to exploit and leverage that division.

And a third ingredient looks to be locking itself neatly into place, too – namely support for the cause from the Tory-friendly media, such as the Telegraph, the Mail and the Sun.

So why is this? After all, you could argue that lockdown-scepticism and Euroscepticism are not necessarily easy bedfellows. For instance, a key case made against lockdown is that – in Iain Duncan Smith’s words – Boris Johnson’s plan is ‘not a circuit breaker, it is a business breaker’.

Yet the overwhelmingly majority of these MPs voted for a no deal Brexit, thus supporting a measure most experts believe will come at a significant short and long-term economic cost.

The answer would seem to lie in the essential neo-liberalism of many Tory Brexiteers. While their concern for sovereignty, just like their concern (not necessarily one shared by their current leader) not to ‘Fuck business’, shouldn’t simply be dismissed, it often goes hand-in-hand with a desire to see Britannia unchained so it can pursue, if not Singapore-on-Thames, then at least a rather more Anglo-Saxon style of capitalism.

Our research on the values of Conservative MPs, for instance, found them to be a markedly libertarian lot: they are broadly against state interference in the economy and in civil society.

This libertarian streak, incidentally, also runs through the DNA of Farage’s new outfit, as Simon Usherwood pointed out on this blog recently. A marked unwillingness to trust conventional experts and the evidence they produce may also play a role.

But whatever the roots of their opposition to government-mandated restrictions designed to combat the pandemic, for lockdown sceptics there is one, arguably crucial ingredient in the Brexiter’s recipe for success that, so far at least, is still missing: public support.

True, the same broad trends apply in the country as in Parliament: when presented as (Brexit-backing) Boris Johnson’s lockdown rules, YouGov found Leavers (23%) are more likely than Remainers (16%) to object to them.

But what we do not see is the same demographic patterns as the old politics of Brexit: voters who are under 24 (20%) are equally as likely as those over 65 (22%) to say they think the lockdown goes too far. And overall of course, support for the measures is currently running at 72%.

For the moment, then, for all that so many familiar faces are both lockdown sceptics and Eurosceptics – and for all that there is some logic in the link between them – they seem to be a long way off persuading the rest of us to buy it. As the coronavirus crisis carries on, however, who knows whether things might not eventually shift in their favour?

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/are-lockdown-scepticism-and-euroscepticism-linked/

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‘Cummings, Covid and the British Establishment’, CUP’s fifteeneightyfour Blog, 3 June 2020

By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in the United Kingdom (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially.

Thus, in a Spectator column in 1955, did the journalist Henry Fairlie coin and define a term which has been in wide circulation ever since.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not really a term that the right in Britain has ever felt completely comfortable with – unless that is, it comes with a qualifying adjective that denotes an attack, not on the semi-permeable, semi-permanent Conservative coterie that, to borrow from the late, great Anthony Sampson, ‘runs Britain’, but on those professional groups/’producer interests’ who now and then have the nerve to stand up to it. Typical targets include ‘the medical’ and ‘the educational’ establishment.

In recent times – ten years of Tory (or at least Tory-led) government – the latter has had a pretty hard time of it, not least, during David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, at the hands of Michael Gove, ably assisted by one Dominic Cummings. Resistance to their plans to reform education, and in particular the secondary curriculum, they insisted, was all down to ‘the blob’ – a term which, according to the Guardian (blob-central, surely) they borrowed from William Bennett, US education secretary in the 1980s, who used it ‘to deride bureaucrats, unions, and education researchers.’

As it turned out, the pair were only just getting started. Two years after they left the DfE in 2014, they got their revenge on Cameron (who demoted Gove in the hope that it might help get striking teachers back onside and was seen by some to have taken a personal potshot at Cummings with a reference to a ‘career psychopath’) by masterminding the Vote Leave campaign that in the summer of 2016 secured not just Brexit but also the PM’s departure.

Their success had a great deal to do with their consummate skill in employing a panoply of populist tropes which allowed them to frame the electorate’s decision on the UK’s membership of the European Union in terms of ‘the people’ versus the liberal elite – the blob, if you like, writ large. This time, however, they worked not as a duo but as a threesome, with Boris Johnson, a similarly skilled (but in the public’s eyes anyway more likeable) populist politician taking centre-stage.

After an embarrassing falling-out during the subsequent contest to replace Cameron, during which Gove decided at the last minute to scupper Johnson’s chances and run himself, the three got the band back together as Theresa May’s premiership went from bad to worse. And, since Johnson took over from her in the summer of 2019 and won a ‘stonking majority’ just before Christmas, they have essentially formed the triumvirate at the top of government.

They have been helped, in no small part, to do that by what I like to think of (taking my inspiration from comparative political scientists who talk about ‘the party on the ground’, ‘the party in central office’, and ‘the party in public office’) as ‘the party in the media’ – the editors and columnists who spend most of their time cheering on and defending the Conservative Party, especially when it’s being led by friends of theirs, whether that friendship is merely political or properly personal, or both.

Which brings us neatly back to the Establishment – but also bang up to the present day, namely the controversy over Dominic Cummings and whether he broke the lockdown rules that he himself (along with Gove and Johnson) had a hand in setting, and then treated like idiots the millions of people who had bust a gut to stick to them by concocting what looks to many of them like a cock-and-bull story to argue that he had too.

One of the oddest aspects of the whole affair was the fact that the story emerged weeks after a column was published in what, along with the Telegraph (likewise owned by the multi-millionaire Barclay brothers) is effectively the nerve centre of the party in the media.

On 25 April 2020, The Spectator, located in London’s Old Queen Street, just around the corner from CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) in Matthew Parker Street carried a column by its commissioning editor, one Mary Wakefield, wife of Dominic Cummings. In it, she told the touching story of her family’s brush with the deadly coronavirus – save for one now-glaring omission: not even the slightest hint of their now infamous mercy-dash to the North East.

The fact that they stayed in a cottage on Mr Cummings’ father’s estate may be a delicious reminder that, for all his talent at tapping into the will of ‘the people’, Johnson’s Svengali/myrmidon/consiglieri (take your pick) has never really been able to claim, as a privately-educated Oxford graduate whose family owns a farm and whose wife is the daughter of a castle-dwelling Baronet, to be one of them. However, since it is, in effect, a given, it is not really his privileged status that is at issue.

What is at issue is how the Spectator, which not only employs Mr Cummings’ wife but which over the last year has displayed an unerring ability to channel his innermost thoughts and presumably therefore has more than a passing acquaintance with him, came to publish an account that now seems so obviously flawed in one absolutely crucial respect.

Could it be that the magazine which first popularised the term, and which still loves to present itself as a thorn in the side of received opinion, is – notwithstanding its decision to publish a critical blogpost by one of its freelancers when the story eventually blew up in its face – just another oh-so-predictable part of the Establishment after all?

Originally published at http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2020/06/cummings-covid-and-the-british-establishment/

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‘What can the Conservatives’ 2019 election win tell us about their current leadership?’, OUP Blog, 9 November 2020 (with Sam Power and Paul Webb)

It’s an old truism that a week is a long time in politics, which would probably make 11 months an absolute age during even the most halcyon times. So, reflecting on the lessons to be drawn from the victory of the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election does rather feel like a job for ancient historians rather than political scientists. But there remains much that we can learn from the recent past, and many elements of why we argue the Conservatives won back in December can explain much of their response to the COVID-19 crisis and the current grandstanding over Brexit.

A Brexit election?

In 2019, all of the major political parties had assumed Brexit would reshape the basis of party support. The problem for Labour and the Lib Dems (who had hoped to hoover up disenchanted Tory Remainers in any number of constituencies), was that the reshaping only really occurred in one direction. Whilst a not insignificant number of voters were more Remain than Conservative, or more Leave than Labour, the Conservatives gained the vast majority of those voters enticed by a prime minister promising to “Get Brexit Done.” By contrast, the Remain vote was inefficiently split between the Lib Dems, the Greens, the nationalist parties, and Labour.

Indeed, Tory insiders have suggested that the true turning point in the general election happened before campaigning began when Johnson concluded a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU-27. This agreement, to quote campaign chief Isaac Levido, “was a real game changer, [it] unified a number of fringes in our voter coalition that we needed to bring together.”

Which brings us to the present predicament that the Johnson government finds itself in over the internal market bill. The 2019 victory was built on the back of having an “oven ready” Brexit deal. Any kind of wrangling that shows this deal to be, at best, parboiled risks pulling apart the shaky coalition that delivered the Tories victory. This is before considering that the Brexit deal trumpeted during the election was only functionally different to a range of deals negotiated by Theresa May and her team due to the very fact that it effectively agreed to locate a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The red wall crumbles

The main drama of election night itself was the crumbling of Labour’s so-called “red wall,” the aftermath of which is still being discussed and analysed in minute detail. One reading of this is that Labour were undone by the simple fact that they presented a jumbled platform and were presided over by a historically unpopular leader. But that is only a part of the story.

That the election was about Corbyn and Brexit, there is little doubt—but it was also about underlying issues surrounding culture and national identity for which Brexit acted as a filter. And the Conservatives, in managing to pitch the election as a Brexit election—in a way that they had failed to in 2017—appealed to specific voters within this new electoral landscape. Many of whom resided in “red wall” seats and would be considered, classic “old” Labour voters. This, again, gives some indication as to why, over a not uneventful summer, we saw little of the Conservative leader. But, perhaps, why Johnson did pitch up (both figuratively and literally) with his opinion on whether Land of Hope and Glory should be sung at the Last Night of the Proms.

Must the Conservatives win?

These (seemingly) fundamental shifts in electoral geography, led some to see the election result itself as tantamount to Labour’s last rites. But politics can, and has, changed very quickly. Just as 2017 was the election in which everything went wrong for the Tories, 2019 might well have been the year everything went right. But it leaves them with a fragile coalition of support, from the Tory shires to the traditionally Labour North East. Many members of this coalition are voters for whom the Tories might end up being a one-time fling—“a temporary and transactional swing to the Conservatives, rather than a conversion to conservatism.”

Moreover, a common critique of Johnson is that he is a better campaigner than he is statesman. A “break glass in case of emergency” leader that has a broad, if superficial, appeal. When journalist Tom McTague asked Johnson why the 2019 campaign was so dull he responded, “I’m not the artist; I’m merely the subject—it is for you to apply the rich chiaroscuro to your canvas.” And it is this seeming lack of guiding vision that we argue was one of the great strengths of the campaign—it could mean all things to all people.

However, seeing oneself in this somewhat vague way is indicative of something deeper. Of a basic mindset that values common sense over compulsion and “guidance on social contact instead of legislation.” It is an ideology that makes one slow to lockdown a country, and causes one to bristle when asked if the police will be utilised to enforce restrictions.

A “rich chiaroscuro”, then, may be effective for a campaign—but less so in a genuine crisis. In 2019, the Conservatives were dealt a good hand and played it well. In 2020 they—along with the rest us—have been dealt one of the lousiest hands in recent memory. How they have played, and continue to play it will define the Johnson premiership and the fortunes of the Conservative Party for years to come. As we conclude in our chapter, “whether it can cope with the challenges presented by government remains, however, to be seen.”

Originally published at https://blog.oup.com/2020/11/what-can-the-conservatives-2019-election-win-tell-us-about-their-current-leadership/

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‘Northern Research Group: faction or tendency?’, UK in a Changing Europe, 28 October 2020

‘You’re joking. Not another one!’ – not just Brenda from Bristol in the spring of 2017, reacting to Theresa May calling a snap election, but also Tim Bale (whose dad was from Bristol) in the autumn of 2020 on hearing the news that some 55 Conservative parliamentarians had set up something called the Northern Research Group.

The NRG (note: not a sports drink) joins the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) and the Sinosceptic China Research Group (CRG) in bringing together likeminded Tory MPs with the aim of pulling the party’s leadership round to their way of thinking or at least making it keep its manifesto promises.

So does that mean it’s now finally time for political scientists to forget the longstanding idea that, while Labour is a party of factions, the Conservative Party is merely a party of tendencies.

It’s a long time now – 56 years to be exact – since the legendary Richard Rose first made the distinction between different types of intra-party grouping. But it made such intuitive sense for so long that we’d almost taken it for granted – until, that is, the Tories began to tear themselves apart over Europe from the mid-1990s onwards.

Cue, at that point, much talk of ‘a party within a party’. Yet one could, in fact, continue to argue, then at least, that, according to Rose’s schema, Conservative Eurosceptics – bastards or otherwise – did not yet constitute a fully-fledged faction.

To qualify as a faction, according to Rose, an intra-party group has to display four characteristics. First, it should be self-conscious.

Second, it must persist through time, so that it’s more than just an ad hoc combination of politicians in agreement on a particular issue at a particular moment.

Third, it should seek to further a broad range of policies, which again distinguishes it from a single-issue coalition.

Implicit in this account is the fourth, and in some ways most crucial, characteristic – the presence of a significant organizational infrastructure which ensures that faction members identify strongly with their faction, and act with a measure of discipline and cohesion over time, thereby ensuring they ‘transfer old enmities to new issues.’

A tendency, by contrast, is a significantly less organized and cohesive body than a faction – more ‘a stable set of attitudes’ than ‘a stable set of politicians’. A tendency, then, is based upon a more or less coherent ideological position but it does not display the discipline, consciousness, organization and behavioural cohesion of a true faction.

Looking at those definitions and then looking at each of the two main parties, it is easy to see why academics could (and indeed can) agree that Labour was the true home of faction, riven as it has been by the conflict between centrist social democrats and Bevanite socialists on the left in the fifties, between hard left and soft left in the eighties, between Blairites and Brownites at the turn of the century and, most recently, between Corbynites and the rest.

As for the Conservatives, yes, there were Thatcherites and there were Wets.

But the former soon came to colonise the party almost completely, while the latter, whether in the shape of the Tory Reform Group or under some other (usually more evanescent) label, could never really get itself together sufficiently to resist and ultimately to survive.

As for One Nation, like the concept itself it means everything and nothing and so has always been amusingly heterodox.

Meanwhile, more obviously right-wing groups like No Turning Back and the 92 Group were rather more permeable and rather less institutionalised than some journalists, keen to lend a rent-a-quote source a little more gravitas than he or she really deserved, made them seem.

Nevertheless those two groups were surely harbingers of what was to come. Indeed it was one of their ilk – the initially less high-profile ERG – that, nearly a quarter of century after it was first set up by Michael Spicer (no, not that one), arguably leapt the species barrier between tendency and faction.

Under the chairmanship of Steve Baker – not just a committed ideologue but also a gifted organiser – it was soon acting collectively in parliamentary votes and in communications with the media, and only intensified its efforts as the Brexit saga dragged on, ensuring the defeat of Theresa May’s three Meaningful Votes and, in so doing, her eventual downfall.

Of course, exactly how many members it has or the precise nature extent of its finances, we may never know: the group isn’t required to publish that information, although we have some idea of who belongs to it since its full-time researcher is paid for by numerous Tory MPs putting a slice of their annual office expenses towards his salary.

Whether MPs belonging to the recently established CRG and the even more recently established NRG will do the same, and whether they, too, will be able to credibly claim the ‘party within in party’ mantle or to have anything like the same influence as their big brother remains to be seen.

But even if they were to, would they really count as full-blown factions in the true sense of the term? Indeed, in the end, does even the ERG make the cut?

Clearly it thinks of itself as a tight-knit group. Equally clearly it has persisted over time and is pretty well organised even if, unlike Labour’s left-wing factions, it appears to lack an extra-parliamentary infrastructure.

Yet, ultimately, doesn’t the ERG, with its gimlet-eyed focus on Europe, continue to revolve round what is essentially a single issue – again unlike Labour’s left-wing factions, many of which can convincingly lay claim to a worldview encompassing a whole host of political issues and policies?

At the moment, the answer to that last crucial question would appear to be yes.

But, but, but…. A few prescient observers have already noted that there’s a fair degree of crossover between Brexiters and libertarians who are particularly exercised about what they see as the government’s excessively draconian Covid-19 restrictions.

If that crossover begins to take in Tory MPs as well – and there are signs that it might – then watch this space.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/northern-research-group-faction-or-tendency/

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‘Tory Party conference and the missing B-word’, UK in a Changing Europe, 9 October 2020 (with Alan Wager)

This year’s party conference season has lacked the usual magic ingredients. No warm white wine or cold coffee. No free gifts from the Government of Gibraltar or the Royal Mail or one of the other random corporate giants who’ve paid through the nose for a stall outside the main auditorium. No media vox-pops of party members wandering between those stalls to pocket those freebies. And no popping into fringe events on the off-chance of spotting a political celebrity and wolfing down yet another chicken goujon.

Yet if you are one of those who tried to replicate the real thing on your laptop (guilty as charged), there might have been a nagging feeling that something else was missing – something that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Yes, that’s right: the B-word.

Brexit has become so familiar as to be part of the party conference furniture in the last half decade. Anyone attending the Conservative Party’s annual bashes in recent years, will be familiar with with endless queues for fringe events giving besuited teenage boys and equally well-turned-out retirees a chance to cheer on assorted members of the ERG.

This year, however, Brexit barely seemed to feature – and not just on the fringes but, even more obviously, in the main conference hall itself. This accords with rumours that Tory MPs have been told not to use B-word anymore.

But what do the numbers say? And what might they tell us about, firstly, the government’s overall political strategy and, secondly, about one particular politician’s personal ambitions?

First, the overall figures.

Mentions of Brexit as a buzzword dipped in 2017, as Theresa May – after struggling on the campaign trail, and while struggling on stage – attempted to construct a plausible governing vision to fight a newly-bolstered Jeremy Corbyn in a hung Parliament.

But mentions peaked last year, as the Tory Party geared up to fight a ‘Brexit election.’ Boris Johnson used the B-word 16 times and made eight mentions of ‘the EU’, seven of ‘Europe’ and managed to include a couple of swipes at ‘Brussels’.

While not entirely banned – the Prime Minister did, after all, say the B-word four times this year – talk of Brexit and the EU from the conference floor has fallen by a staggering 89% in a year.

Just as significantly, perhaps, Rishi Sunak became the first occupant of one of the three big offices of state since the EU referendum not to mention Brexit, the European Union, Europe or Brussels in his (short) conference address.

This tells us the government has other priorities and issues – the coronavirus pandemic, of course, has dominated. It tells us something about the strength of its urge to pocket the win from Brexit and move on. But it might also be telling us something about the brand that the Chancellor wishes to promote.

Take Jeremy Hunt’s speech as Foreign Secretary in 2018. The writing was not yet on the wall for Theresa May, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing. And while it was not then clear that Johnson would win, he was near-certain to stand as ‘Mr Brexit’.

In response, Hunt took the opportunity to scatter his speech with talk of Brexit, with the key takeaway that we should ‘never mistake British politeness for British weakness’ – a clear attempt to address his own weakness ahead of an internal Tory party contest.

Compare that to Rishi Sunak. As a Leaver, he has no such concerns. Should the Brexit coalition that Boris Johnson built at last year’s general election collapse in on itself, triggering a premature end to his premiership, the Chancellor will be able to portray himself – to voters and members alike – as a truly post-Brexit Tory leader.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/tory-party-conference-and-the-missing-b-word/

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