‘Boris Johnson’s First Year’, UK in a Changing Europe, 22 July 2020

As a classicist, Boris Johnson hardly needs reminding that hubris can lead to nemesis. But hubris must have been hard to avoid. After all, his first six months as Britain’s eighteenth Conservative prime minister were, frankly, little short of miraculous.

To grasp the sheer scale of Johnson’s achievements between July 2019 and January 2020, just recall for a moment quite how bad things had become for the Tories under Theresa May.

Clearly, the snap election of 2017 was a shambles. But things didn’t turn truly catastrophic for the Conservatives until it became clear that May couldn’t persuade Parliament to pass her Withdrawal Agreement.

As a result, Brexit had to be postponed, at which point the party’s poll ratings fell off the proverbial cliff – with the word made flesh in elections to the European Parliament that saw the Conservative vote share dip below ten percent for effectively the first time ever.

By promising that he would do whatever it took to get the UK out of the EU, Johnson’s first impressive feat was to convince a whole bunch of Tory MPs and grassroots members who had grave doubts, not just about his character but also his competence, to vote for him as leader.

Johnson’s crushing victory in that contest saw the party’s poll ratings begin to climb steeply – an upward trend that his decision to play hardball with Parliament, however much it enraged his opponents and displeased the Supreme Court, did nothing to arrest and may even have accelerated.

Likewise his summary removal of the whip from MPs who insisted on blocking a no-deal Brexit – some of them high-profile parliamentarians who had served their party and in government with distinction – only served to strengthen his hand and his hold over his front and backbenches.

Moreover, Johnson then had the absolute chutzpah to secure a last-gasp Withdrawal Agreement with the EU that involved drawing a border down the Irish Sea – something that Theresa May had sworn no UK prime minister could ever agree to and which broke all her promises to the DUP into the bargain.

More than that, Johnson was able to get his own Brexiteer ultras not just to vote for it but to join him in trumpeting the whole thing as some sort of diplomatic masterstroke.

As if that weren’t enough, Johnson then managed to entrap the opposition parties, via a combination of rational self-interest (the SNP), inflated expectations (the Lib Dems), and appearances’ sake (Labour) into granting him an early general election fought on his terms, not theirs.

He then proceeded to win by a landslide, primarily by successfully framing the contest as the chance for an exhausted and frustrated nation to ‘Get Brexit Done’ so they could move on to the stuff that matters much more to most people, like schools, hospitals and law and order, on which he promised to spend up large – although not as large as a Labour Party he found it all-too-easy to portray as a profligate shambles led by a Marxist throwback who couldn’t even make his mind up on the main question of the day.

And he did all that, remember, with questions about his ‘colourful’ personal life, about Russian interference, about dim-witted and dodgy candidates, about his relationship with Donald Trump, and about his running away from media scrutiny, hanging over him throughout.

All that remained, after what must have been quite a Christmas, was to speed through the passage of the Withdrawal Bill in the New Year and (the sad absence of Big Ben bongs notwithstanding) to celebrate the UK’s great escape from the supposed shackles of Brussels. Oh, yes, and to replace a Chancellor who refused to do whatever he wanted with one who apparently would.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t all that remained. Because soon after that, everything – well, almost everything – began to go very badly wrong. The coronavirus struck, chaos reigned and has arguably reigned ever since.

Hampered first by his libertarian instincts and managerial inadequacies, and then by his physical incapacity, Johnson took the country too slowly into both lockdown and the test-trace-isolate strategy that might have offered a more rapid (and less economically damaging) route out of it, not least for families unable to send their kids back to school.

True, an initial rally-round-the-flag effect, combined with understandable human sympathy for a prime minister suffering from the self-same virus that was beginning to kill tens of thousands of their fellow citizens, staved off public criticism of the handling of the pandemic for a while.

So, too, did the swift response of a Chancellor who quickly proved himself more just a pretty face. Likewise – at least for the half of the country still positively bursting with Brexit pride – Johnson’s insistence that, come what may, we would be leaving the customs union and single market at the end of the year.

But doubts soon began to creep in, followed in fairly short order by outrage (amplified even by normally-supportive media outlets) both at the mess that the government seemed to be making of its response to the pandemic and to the fact that, when it came to lockdown itself, it looked awfully like there was one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us – always a potential Achilles heel for the Tory (if not necessarily for the Boris) brand.

Whether that injury will heal, allowing the Conservatives to win a fifth consecutive term in 2024 will depend in large part on the economy.

And then there’s the outcome of the post-mortem on the pandemic Johnson has now promised to hold, as well as the fact that the public already seem to have decided that Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, unlike his frankly hopeless predecessor, may actually be capable of running the country.

Nemesis, then? Well, not exactly – and not yet, anyway. Boris Johnson’s first year may have been very much a year of two halves – the first a triumph, the second something close to disastrous.

But, for all that, the government retains the support of clear plurality of British voters. And while it does so, Boris – his Teflon coating scratched but still essentially intact – seemingly sails on regardless.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/boris-johnsons-first-year/

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‘Boris Johnson could win a war on woke’, Unherd, 29 June 2020

Is Downing Street preparing a ‘war on woke’? If you believe the reports, then just such a strategy is being urged upon Boris Johnson by some of his senior advisors — among them one of the authors of the 2019 manifesto and Head of the Number Ten Policy Unit, Munira Mirza who is routinely portrayed as a polarising, Right-wing culture-warrior.

Such an approach would actually make sense — and not just because it’s all of a piece with the hegemonic war of manoeuvre recommended by Michael Gove’s newest best friend, Antonio Gramsci. According to research published today, it is underlying socio and cultural (as opposed to economic) values that keep the Conservative Party and its electoral coalition together and give it the best chance of connecting with the voters it will need to win again in 2024.

Political scientists often make use of two sets of questions to measure people’s economic and social values. They’re designed to tap into underlying, stable, long-term ideological attitudes rather than ephemeral, short-term policy preferences.

The first set covers economic values: the distribution of wealth and income, big business, fairness, etc. The second covers socio-cultural values and includes question on things like law and order, the purpose of education, respect for traditional values, and censorship.

Essentially, this is a recognition that politics can’t just be understood as a contest between Left and Right – between state and market. We also have to take into account whether people are socially liberal or social conservative.

Most of the time, those questions are only asked of voters – for instance by the gold standard British Election Study. But in this new study they were also asked of MPs and grassroots party members from both the Conservative and the Labour parties.

Their responses give us a sense, not just of how united or divided the parties are, but of how out of touch they are with voters – and not just voters in general but even those voters who supported them at last year’s general election.

Covid-19 is going to do some serious damage to the economy. And one only has to look back to events like Black Wednesday in 1992 and the financial crash of 2008 to see how easily that sort of setback can swiftly shred a party’s hard-won reputation for economic competence. If (some would even say when) that happens to the Tories in the months and years to come, then, the research suggests, they’re going to have to rely heavily on social and cultural conservativism to see them safely through the next election.

That’s because, when it comes to economic values, the Conservatives a) are less likely to see eye-to-eye with one another than their Labour counterparts and b) are further away, if not from the average voter, then from the voters that helped them win so comfortably in 2019. Indeed, those voters’ underlying values on the economy mean they have more in common with the Labour Party at all levels than they do with Conservative members, activists and MPs.

True, on social and cultural values, the Tories are not altogether united either.  But they are much closer to voters – especially the ones they really need to keep hold of if they are to repeat their 2019 win in four years’ time.

Let’s look, first, at economic values.  Figure 1 shows that on every question used to tap into those values apart from the first one on redistribution, the differences between what the Conservative Party’s MPs, grassroots members and voters are much bigger than they are between Labour’s people.

It also shows, incidentally, that, if Labour can overcome the economic competence deficit that has cost it so dear since 2010, and then get voters to realise just how differently Tory MPs think about the economy than they themselves do, then the Government could find itself in serious trouble.

Figure 2 hammers home that warning. On every economic values question, the average voter who made the journey from Labour in 2017 to Conservative in 2019 (represented by the black dot) is more Left-wing than the average member of the public, as well as noticeably to the Left of the average individual who voted Conservative in 2019.

Moreover, these 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers are far, far closer to Labour when it comes to underlying economic values than they are to the Conservatives. For instance, a full 81% of those switchers think that big business takes advantage of ordinary people – very much in line with 83% of Labour MPs and 92% of Labour members, but very much out of line with Tory members and Tory MPs, only 34% and 18% of whom, respectively, think the same way. And on whether “there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor” the 84% of Labour-to-Conservative switchers who agree are far closer to the 92% of Labour members and the 71% of Labour MPs who say the same than they are to the 22% of Tory members and 5% of Tory MPs who think so too.

Keir Starmer might have sacked Rebecca Long Bailey last week but he’s no neoliberal, and nor is his Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds.  They will be perfectly comfortable putting forward an economic recovery plan that reflects those switchers’ values. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak? Not so much. Any conversion to socialism brought on by the current emergency will, one suspects, be short-lived, leaving the party — on the economy at least — stranded way to the right of many of the voters they need to hold onto.

But when it comes to social and cultural values, it’s a whole different story – and a story with what could well be a happier ending for the Conservatives.

For one thing, as Figure 3 shows, generally speaking (the exception being the death penalty), the Conservative Party’s MPs, members and voters are more united than their Labour counterparts and, as a whole, tend to be a little closer to the average British voter.

For another, when we look at different groups of voters, as we do in Figure 4, we can see that — in what is essentially a mirror image of the picture on economic values — 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers (again represented by the black dot) are much, much closer to the Conservatives when it comes to underlying social/cultural values than they are to Labour. In fact, those switchers even sit to the right of Conservative members and Conservative MPs.

Ultimately, though, it is the yawning gap between the 2019 switchers and the Labour Party they abandoned that is most striking. Just 17% of Labour members and 9% of Labour MPs think that “young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values” — a view held by 88% of Labour-to-Conservative switchers. The idea that schools should teach children to obey authority is supported by 81% of those swing voters, against just 29% of members and 41% of Labour MPs. Stiffer sentences are supported by 85% of switchers — again way more than is the case for Labour members (25%) and Labour MPs (24%).

It is also striking, again from Figure 4, but this time looking solely at parliamentarians (who are, after all, the most visible representatives of their respective parties as far as voters are concerned), that Tory MPs are far closer not just to their voters but to all voters, than are Labour MPs. That’s because, much as it pains liberals to admit it and even if things may gradually be shifting their way through generational change, Brits remain a pretty authoritarian bunch.

Given all this, some kind of culture war, however damaging and polarising some fear it would be, is arguably a perfectly rational strategic choice for the Conservatives in the years to come. It would build on — but, just as crucially now that Brexit is nearly done, allow them to build out of — the Leave-Remain identities established, to their obvious recent advantage, since 2016.

Pushing back against supposed attempts by the liberal elite to make Brits ashamed of their history and downplaying structural and institutional racism are only the more obvious aspects of such a strategy. Clamping down on illegal immigration — especially now that Nigel Farage is back punching that particular bruise — will also loom large. Even apparently trivial interventions, such as Gavin Williamson’s call for schools to insist pupils face the front and pay attention to the teacher rather than each other play a part.

There are, however, just a couple of crucial caveats.

First, it takes two to tango: while there may be plenty of socially liberal Labour MPs who might easily be tempted to fall into a Tory trap on this score, for example by allowing it to look like they were lecturing Home Secretary, Priti Patel, on racism. Keir Starmer and most of his Shadow Cabinet, whatever their true feelings, seem far less likely to take the bait.

Second, but no less important, the figures above suggest that Conservative MPs are not only more socially liberal than Conservative grassroots members and Conservative voters but more liberal than most voters – and on some issues are even more liberal than Labour voters. To win a culture war, like any other war, a general not only needs all his troops behind him but they all have to be up for the fight.

So if Boris Johnson is genuinely serious about ‘levelling up’ — and indeed about ‘fucking business’ — then this new research strongly suggests that he risks a good deal of unhappiness on the benches behind him from those overwhelmingly Thatcherite backbenchers who joined the Conservative Party to promote, not mitigate the free market.

It also suggests that, on social and cultural values, those MPs have rather more in common with the old Boris, the live-and-let-live liberal mayor of London, than with the ersatz Trump some of his advisors seem to want him to become. The electoral logic, however, points strongly to him listening to those advisors rather than worrying too much about the misgivings of his parliamentary colleagues.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2020/06/how-out-of-touch-is-the-tory-party/

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What is Keir Starmer up to over a Brexit extension?, New Statesman, 8 June 2020

Nobody, outside the ranks of Britain’s Brexiteer ultras, thinks that ending our transition out of the European Union’s single market and customs union without having secured some kind of trade deal is a good idea. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that business – whether we’re talking about outfits like the CBI or individual firms such as Nissan – is beginning to panic about the possibility.

The obvious way for the government to calm these nerves, especially since so little progress seems to have been made so far in negotiations with Brussels, would be to agree an extension with the EU. But this presents it with two problems.

First, any extension has to be agreed by the end of this month. The idea that it can easily be done at a later date should talks over the summer fail to break the logjam is, as the Institute for Government clearly shows in its latest report, for the birds. It’s pretty much now or never.

Second, when the government passed the Withdrawal Act earlier this year, it decided – both to reassure Leavers and to persuade the EU it was prepared to play hardball – to make it difficult, if not impossible, to agree an extension without passing primary legislation.  Obliging it to perform a volte-face would therefore require an enormous amount of pressure.

And yet no such pressure is forthcoming – not at least from Her Majesty’s Opposition. The Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, may have written to the Prime Minister calling on him, in terms, to agree an extension. But the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has conspicuously not chosen to join him. 

In so doing, Starmer seems determined to stick with the strategy that first became apparent in early May, when, after he was asked by LBC’s Nick Ferrari whether he would ‘press pause’, he simply reminded listeners that ‘the government says it’s going to get [a deal] done by the end of the year. So let’s see how they get on.’ Ferrari tackled Starmer again on the issue during the first Call Keir show; but, as well as reiterating that ‘the Leave-Remain divide is over’, he resolutely refused to call for an extension to transition.

In some respects, Starmer’s seeming lack of urgency is surprising – shocking even. This, after all, is the man who thought Brexit was such a bad idea that, with the help of Labour’s overwhelmingly Europhile membership, he dragged a clearly reluctant Jeremy Corbyn sullenly towards a second referendum. And this is a politician who, while urging Remainers to accept that the UK has now left the EU, is fully aware of the severe damage and disruption that leaving it without a trade deal could do – especially on top of the economic destruction wrought by Covid-19.

Surely, then, Starmer should demanding Boris Johnson do everything in his power to minimise even the slightest risk of that happening – a demand that, logically anyway, should see him campaigning hard for an extension?

But Starmer is also a politician who, perhaps owing to his legal experience, thinks very carefully before he opens his mouth – someone who neither speaks nor holds his peace without good reason. And as soon as you start to think about it, there are plenty of good reasons for Starmer to keep schtum on the question of an extension.

Most obviously, what would calling for one gain? It’s not as if it’s likely to make it happen. For one thing, Johnson, Frost (and presumably Cummings) seem if anything to have doubled down lately on their promise not to ask for more time. For another, a government that’s already earned itself an embarrassing reputation for U-turning in response to pressure from the new leader of the opposition is even less likely to want to do so again – not on something this huge anyway.

Moreover, it’s not as if Starmer would, by calling for an extension, be putting himself at the head of a furious and fast-growing campaign for one on the part of the public or crucial pressure groups. True, there is a petition to extend out there. But, with fewer than 80,000 signatures, it hasn’t even reached the threshold for parliamentary debate and is a long, long way off the six million-plus garnered by last year’s petition to revoke article 50 and remain in the EU.

True, too, polling suggests a majority (albeit one made up mainly though not exclusively of Remain and non-Tory voters) for an extension in the face of Covid-19. But as always there’s a big difference between what people say they agree with when asked by a pollster and what they urgently, desperately want to happen.

It’s also noticeable that, while both individual firms and the organisations that represent businesses are very worried about leaving without a trade deal, they aren’t exactly clamouring for an extension either. Nor, it seems, are the trade unions – presumably because they don’t believe they’ll get one.

Assuming they’re right, and presuming their worst fears are realised and no trade deal can be done before December, the only advantage that would accrue to Starmer for having called for an extension now would be the right later on to say “I told you so” – never really the most persuasive argument in politics.

Meanwhile, Starmer would spend the next six months being labelled not just a Remoaner but someone who preferred to retain free movement rather than see the government bring in its much-trumpeted (and overwhelmingly popular) ‘Australian-style points based system.’

In the end, then, Starmer may well be wise to keep his counsel. There’s not much he can do to prevent the government pursuing the course it has set, and trying would only see him run into trouble. Sure, that course could end in tears – both for Britain and Boris Johnson. But, as a cynic might say, taking inspiration from a certain Monsieur Bonaparte, why on earth interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake?

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2020/06/what-keir-starmer-over-brexit-extension

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‘The virus is changing politics, but there are opportunities as well as risks’, Times, 13 May 2020.

It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows nobody any good. And the coronavirus crisis is no exception. It’s too early to tell how – or how much – it will change UK politics in the long term. But we can at least make some educated guesses about the short- to medium-term opportunities and threats it presents to the Conservative government and to its Labour opposition.

Both the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election proved that Boris Johnson is a phenomenally gifted campaigner. But doubts remained – even among his colleagues – about his capacity to handle the infinitely harder task of actually running the country.

Covid-19 provides him with the chance to put an end to those doubts once and for all – and to show a sceptical electorate that he’s not just someone they can’t help but like but someone they can trust as well.

More broadly, the crisis provides the chance for the Conservatives to convince people that the NHS really is safe in their hands – something they’ve had an awful lot of trouble doing since it was created by Labour nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

Then there is the opportunity that the crisis gives the Conservatives to hit the reset button on a relationship with the BBC that was rapidly becoming poisonous, as well as on plans to reform immigration which looked set to cause major disruption to the labour market – especially in low-paid but crucial sectors like social care.

And talking of social care, the coronavirus crisis presents the government with the perfect opportunity to grasp a nettle that it might otherwise have shied away from.

Truly profound changes in the UK often come about not as the result of cross-party initiatives but as a result of one or other of the two main parties making the running, leaving the other with nothing else to do but to play catch-up.

If they can do it, knitting together health and social care could pay as big an electoral dividend for the Conservatives as creating the NHS has always done for Labour.

Finally, the obvious need to repair the public finances after the crisis has passed presents the Conservative Party with another opportunity – the chance to shed its reputation as the party of austerity by raising (and just as importantly reforming) taxation instead of hitting the poorest hardest with yet more, largely counterproductive spending cuts.

None of this is to say, of course, that Covid-19 doesn’t present a serious threat to the party. For one thing, any post-mortem that takes place could end up revealing that its leader really was as reckless, as lazy and as uninterested in the detailed business of government as his critics feared.

And it could end up reminding voters big-time that, during a decade in power, the Conservatives spent far too little on the NHS.

There is also a clear and present danger that the party’s fixation with getting Brexit done could see the UK refuse to extend transition and, just as it’s struggling to get back on its feet again, effectively crash out of the single market and customs union without having secured some sort of deal with the EU.

Nor is there any guarantee that the Conservatives will eschew austerity as a means of balancing the books in the post-Covid-19 era, so blowing whatever opportunity they might have had to make a reality of their promise to level up Britain.

By the same token, they could easily fall back into banging on about immigration and BBC bias. Old habits, after all, die hard.

The same, of course, goes for Labour. Just as many in the party assumed, after the financial crash and then after nearly a decade of austerity, that the facts of life were socialist, the party could all too easily place too much faith in the idea that the public, having now seen what an active and high spending state can do, will want it to do more in perpetuity.

It is also entirely possible that any public enquiries into the UK’s handling of Covid-19 don’t end up doing the Conservatives as much damage as some suppose they will.

It remains entirely possible that voters, having decided for now that the government is making a reasonable fist of a very challenging situation, don’t change their mind, allowing Johnson and his colleagues a relatively easy ride back into office in 2024.

The coronavirus crisis also presents Labour with a more immediate threat, namely that very few voters are listening to what it has to say at precisely the time – just after a change of leader – that it might have been hoping to garner a little more of their attention.

That said, the crisis nevertheless presents Labour with some opportunities – and they go beyond distracting the electorate from what might otherwise have been a seriously damaging renewal of factional infighting following the leak of a deeply embarrassing internal report a couple of weeks ago.

Most obviously, assuming that report can indeed be made to go away, everything prior to Covid-19 will seem like a very distant memory.

That includes not just the Corbyn era but many of those faces associated with it. Meanwhile, their successors in the shadow cabinet will have more than enough time, given how little legislation is likely to be passing through parliament any time soon, to read themselves properly into their portfolios.

And while, as we have noted, there is a danger of Labour presuming too much about the state spending and intervention occasioned by the virus inevitably creating a more benign environment for a social democratic party, it still remains possible, at the very least.

Finally, there is the fact that the crisis could put more of a premium on competence than on charisma – which should suit Labour’s new leader.

Keir Starmer’s constructive, measured and forensic style might well make him a formidable opponent not just in the weeks and months but also in the years to come.

Given the double-digit swing he needs to win an overall majority, his colleagues will be hoping and praying that’s the case.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-virus-is-changing-politics-but-there-are-opportunities-as-well-as-risks-kg9trpxj8

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‘Does Boris Johnson have the Conservative Party’s permission to extend transition?’, with Hovid Minasyan, 30 April, UK in a Changing Europe.

A new survey from Deltapoll has confirmed what others have already pointed to – namely that a majority of the public, given the outbreak of Covid-19, are now in favour of extending the UK’s transition out of the EU’s single market and customs union.

True, there is a big difference on the issue between Remain and Leave voters, but even 39% of those who voted to quit the EU in 2016 and voted for the Conservatives in 2019 agree.

So although his chief Brexit negotiator continues to insist he won’t be doing so, Boris Johnson has the general public’s permission to extend transition. But does he have permission from a group to which he’s likely to pay just as much attention – Parliament and, in particular, his own MPs?

That’s a question that’s difficult to answer directly. But we can make an educated guess by looking in more depth at the parliamentary Conservative Party returned to the Commons in 2019.

The 2016 referendum saw almost every front- and back-bencher then sitting in Parliament, as well as many destined to join them, adopt a position on the issue. A substantial minority, particularly in the Conservative Party, plumped for Leave, but the majority went for Remain.

The public’s vote to leave the EU, therefore, meant that a lot of folk at Westminster had, in effect, picked the wrong team.

Some of them stuck to their guns – particularly if they represented opposition parties. Others – particularly if they were Conservative MPs – very quickly decided to get with the programme.

A new dataset, compiled at Yale University, allows us to see how things shook out.

The dataset looks at the stance that MPs elected in the 2019 election cycle took on Brexit in 2016, regardless of whether or not they were MPs during the referendum. It uses a combination of social media, MPs’ personal websites, newspaper interviews, and media reports.

Some MPs remain a mystery but not many: the dataset captured 354 of the 365 Conservative MPs elected in 2019, for instance.

So what of the trends? The most obvious is that, although Parliament became significantly more pro-Leave by 2019, this was entirely due to a massive shift within the parliamentary Conservative Party.

Almost all Conservative MPs who were pro-Remain in 2016 left Parliament in 2017 or 2019 or – in the case of nearly all of the 129 Conservative Remainers who were elected to the Commons in 2019 – had shifted to either vocally or tacitly supporting Brexit.

Some 98% of current Labour MPs qualify as Remainers, as the ten Labour MPs who had supported leaving in 2016 dwindled to just three: four chose not to stand and three lost their seats.

All MPs representing the smaller parties were Remainers in 2016, while all DUP MPs were Leavers. On the other hand, only 36% of current Conservative MPs were Remainers back in 2016 – a 21 percentage point drop on the figure for those elected in 2015 and a similarly big change even from those elected in 2017.As to what caused that drop, the numbers tell several stories.

Firstly, the Conservatives won 59 seats from other parties, most of which were previously represented by MPs who had supported Remain in 2016. Pro-leave Conservatives also won 43 seats from pro-Remain Conservatives.

In large part, however, this process of replacement wasn’t needed to effect the change that a party leadership now committed to Brexit at apparently any cost required.

That’s because, according to the Yale dataset, nearly all of those Conservative MPs (96% to be exact) who were elected in 2019 but who supported Remain in 2016 changed their tune and decided to toe the party line and support Brexit.

Why they decided to do so is open to debate. Maybe they came to believe that to do anything else in the light of the referendum result – albeit a result that went against them – would have been anti-democratic.

Maybe, having listened to the arguments that raged in the two-and-a-half years following the referendum, they finally found themselves persuaded that Brexit would be best for Britain.

Or maybe they simply and swiftly realised which way their bread was buttered. After all, success in politics requires a dash of idealism but an even bigger dollop of realism.

That realism, however, may also extend to sympathy for the idea that, in the face of the coronavirus crisis, the UK and the EU cannot hope to come to a satisfactory deal by the end of this year.

So let us assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the 129 Conservative MPs currently sitting in the Commons who, according to the Yale dataset, originally supported Remain would, irrespective of their post-referendum conversion to Brexit, nevertheless vote to extend transition.

Let’s also assume that the proportion of the 225 Conservative MPs who, according to the Yale dataset, voted Leave in 2016 but might now be prepared to support extending transition matches the 39% of their Conservative and Leave voting counterparts in the general public.

Add the resulting total of 88 MPs to the 129 and ‘extend’ beats ‘don’t extend’ by 217 to 137.

Good news for Johnson? Hardly: 137 potential rebels is a very worrying figure indeed, dwarfing the government’s effective working majority of 87.

That said, it might be an overestimate: using another recent attempt to calculate the Leave-Remain balance on the Conservative benches would put the figure nearer 120 than 140.

Moreover, if Johnson does ultimately opt to extend, and assuming he goes down the legislative route to do so, then he would whip his MPs hard to support him.

That, and the fact that some of the potential rebels will be part of the payroll vote, might reduce that worrying figure still further.

And ultimately, were the PM to change his mind about extending transition, he would also be able to rely on the support of opposition MPs who, as the Yale dataset confirms, are (or at least were) Remainers almost to a man and woman.

In short, Johnson will be able to get permission to extend from Parliament – and from the majority of his Conservative colleagues – as well as the public. The $64,000 question now is will he seek it?

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/does-boris-johnson-have-the-conservative-partys-permission-to-extend-transition/

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‘A Brexit extension would face serious opposition even during coronavirus’, Financial Times, 11 April 2020

More often than not, the burden of proof for a major shift in policy lies with those advocating change rather than with those resisting it. But what if the arguments in favour of that shift seem so self-evident to its advocates that they don’t bother to anticipate the arguments that will be mounted against them?

Forewarned, they say, is forearmed. So for those who believe that, in the light of Covid-19, the UK should ask for an extension to its transition out of the EU — pushing off the end of December deadline for a deal on the future relationship — what are the arguments Brexiters are likely to deploy against them?

Some sense of those arguments can be obtained by responses to an invitation I issued online last week for objectors to explain why transition shouldn’t be extended — a thought experiment that effectively reverses the burden of proof by transferring it from those advocating change to those resisting it.

My invitation elicited hundreds of responses.

Perhaps inevitably, some purported to detect what they saw as yet another example of Remainers’ inability to come to terms with the fact of Britain leaving the EU — a variant of a more widely-held suspicion that any extension of transition represents yet another attempt by those opposed to Brexit to try to block it.

The aim here is not to squash or even critique those suspicions.

That, after all, is for advocates of extension, who will need to take on objections rather than assuming that what they see as the logic of their position will ultimately prevail. That would be to risk repeating the mistake made by those backing Remain in the 2016 referendum.

On Thursday the government offered an official response to a petition to extend that appeared to give no ground: “We will be recovering economic and political independence at the end of the year, which the British people voted for,” said the statement from the Cabinet Office.

And while some high-profile Brexit supporters have begun to accept the idea, others have not.

One common argument against extending transition is that there is still plenty of time to conduct negotiations with the EU.

While face-to-face meetings are clearly impossible during the coronavirus pandemic, talks can, they claim, be conducted just as well by videoconferencing — especially since the civil servants participating in them, are not, they say, also involved in the battle against coronavirus.

There also appears to be a widespread belief among Brexiters that, rather than proving a distraction, the coronavirus crisis could even concentrate the minds of the two sides.

In any case, they claim, since any agreement with the EU is bound to be made at the last minute, what on earth is the point of putting off that last minute for a year or two?

Many are convinced, too, that the coronavirus crisis has left the EU distracted, divided and weakened, meaning that now is exactly the right time for the UK to secure a good deal.

There are plenty of Brexiters, of course, who don’t want a deal at all (and/or think the EU will grant one only on punitive terms), and believe that keeping to the current timetable will make their preferred departure on World Trade Organization terms all but inevitable.

They also argue that, since the UK economy will be on its knees in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it would be pointless to try to rebuild it within the single market and the customs union only to then have to rebuild it again once any extended transition comes to an end.

Better, they say, to rip the dressing off the wound, end any damaging uncertainty, and free the British economy from EU regulations (for example on state aid) and the burden of further payments to Brussels so that the country can start enjoying what they see as the full benefits of Brexit sooner rather than later.

Related to this is an argument that, since the entire British (and EU) economy will have ground to a halt by the end of the year anyway, any economic shocks and logistical disruption caused by an abrupt UK departure from transition will supposedly be less noticeable and less costly now than they might have been prior to the coronavirus crisis.

And then there is the pervasive belief that the current crisis has shown quite how dysfunctional, disorganised, and even downright malign the EU really is.

This not only confirms Brexiters’ belief that the UK was right to leave but leads them to worry that, unless transition ends in 2020, the British government will be liable to hand over additional funds to bail out the eurozone or member states particularly badly hit by Covid-19.

In any case, they stress, ending the transition at the end of 2020 was a Conservative manifesto promise and any breach would erode public trust in the government at a time when that trust is vital to see off Covid-19. Such a betrayal would also be tantamount to an admission that the UK is unable to go it alone.

Indeed, for some Brexiters, this crisis is a reminder that the UK needs to reduce or even end its reliance on other countries to provide it with food, manufactures and pharmaceuticals.

Polling now shows that two-thirds of the public support extending the transition period beyond the end of this year, although there is disagreement about how long, with 29 per cent favouring a year or less, and 38 per cent willing to wait as long as it takes. But be in no doubt, such a decision is not inevitable.

People like the new Labour party leader Keir Starmer, if they believe an extension may well prove necessary, need to come up with some effective arguments — and since the real deadline is at the end of June, the last moment when a change to the timetable can be legally agreed, they need to do so soon.


Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/97d9d574-78e9-11ea-bd25-7fd923850377 


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‘Covid-19 and the transition period’, UK in a Changing Europe, 19 March 2020.

Last year, some six million people signed a petition on Parliament’s website calling for the revocation of Article 50 and for the UK to remain in the European Union.

But right now, as the covid-19 crisis threatens to overwhelm the country’s capacity to cope on all sorts of levels and yet the government continues (at least officially) to rule out extending the transition period beyond the end of this year, fewer than twelve thousand (at the time of writing) have gone on to the same website to sign a petition calling on them to do just that.

By way of comparison, that’s less than number who’ve signed one calling on the government to ‘make pet theft crime a specific offence with custodial sentences.’

What – apart, of course, from the fact that we’re supposedly a nation of animal lovers – might account for that difference?

The answer’s not immediately obvious. After all – and a YouGov poll supports this – it seems intuitively reasonable to assume that the so-called Remoaners who wanted to stop Brexit last year would be particularly keen to avoid an unduly abrupt end to transition.

As former Chancellor Alistair Darling (someone who knows a thing or two about preventing a crisis turning into a catastrophe) put it, ‘it’s madness to contemplate shooting yourself in the foot on an entirely man-made political decision at a time when you don’t need to do that’. Who knows, even some Leavers may concede he has a point?

Thinking a little harder about why so few people, and particularly so few ardent Remainers, have signed the petition, a number of explanations spring to mind. Most obviously, when it comes to the two petitions we’re admittedly talking about a difference not of degree but of kind.

For Remainers, anyway, last year’s petition was existential – in or out, all or nothing. This year’s can do little more than postpone the inevitable. As such, it’s clearly less likely to ignite the passion of your average Europhile.

And then there’s the fact that last year’s petition ultimately made no difference. ‘If the government didn’t allow over six million signatures to change its mind’, some will ask, ‘then what’s the point’?

Sure, after any petition gathers over one hundred thousand signatures it is considered for a debate in parliament. But that debate happened, and made no difference.

The petition to delay transition reached ten thousand signatures on the night of 17/18 March, which means that, while it has a way to go to reach the threshold for debate, it does at least require a response from government – one that should (in normal times anyway) come within 21 days.

But as the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler has pointed out, there is nothing to stop said response saying anything more than ‘s.33 EU (WA) Act 2020 makes UK government agreement to a transition extension unlawful.’

Most people won’t have a clue about that of course. But they probably don’t have to in order to be sceptical as to whether a government response will achieve much in the way of concrete action.

Another possibility is that people reckon that said extension is going to happen anyway. It makes such obvious sense in the circumstances – and, if they’re fans of the always impeccably well-informed Peter Foster  – they may have read that some in the government are strongly hinting at just that.

Persuasive? Not totally – and not just because the entire population don’t read Peter’s tweets, even when they so obviously should do. After all, the same air of inevitability surrounded the government’s decision on 18 March to close schools.

Of course, few if any of those who signed that petition were likely to have worried that it might spark a counter-reaction – something that could perhaps be a concern among those who’d like to see the transition extended but fear that actively campaigning for it might mobilize Brexiteer opinion against it.

All a bit reminiscent of a victim of coercive control treading on egg-shells lest they set off their angry other-half, but similarly understandable perhaps.

The same consideration might be preventing high-profile, pro-European politicians supporting the postpone petition, as they did on the Article 50/Remain one last year, and therefore failing to provide an important cue for ordinary folk to go sign it.

And those same politicians might also be (equally understandably) worried that adding their voice to the cause might see them accused of politicising the covid-19 crisis – an accusation that no sensible person in public life wants to have to face right now.

But, in the end, perhaps, none of the above explanations trump the most obvious one – namely that none of us right now can really think of anything much else than the immediate threat posed by covid-19.

As a result, the end of transition (assuming we’re aware in the first place that Brexit’s not really ‘done’ without it ending) seems – quite wrongly of course – a very long way away indeed.

An earlier version of this post was published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/covid-19-and-the-transition-period/


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‘Level up: Boosting the regions might mean levelling down London’ (with Phil Cowley), CityAM, 12 March 2020.

Except for updates on the coronavirus, no ministerial appearance these days is complete without mention of the government’s professed intention to “level up”.

This seems to mean a desire to do something — usually something to do with infrastructure spending — for the so-called “left-behind” places that voted Leave in 2016, and especially those “red wall” seats that flipped to the Conservatives at last year’s General Election. As a concept, it might be wonderful. As a phrase, it can grate a little — especially after its near constant repetition.

And yet, we have to admit, albeit through gritted teeth, it is quite clever. It conveys the impression that things are great in most parts of the country, and that all that’s needed to ensure the milk and honey flows to each and every corner of the land is a bit of long-overdue TLC from a government that, unlike its predecessors, really “gets it”.

Voters, though, may be more sceptical. Most of us tend to be wary of the idea that you can get something for nothing. Indeed, after being told for years — especially by the Tories — to think of the government’s accounts in terms of household finances, it would hardly be surprising if people see spending in zero-sum terms.

If you’re not raising taxes, and you say that you don’t want to borrow too much more, then additional spending in one area presumably has to come at the expense of spending in another.

And that area may well be London, given that we’ve also been told for years how much better funded Britain’s biggest city is than other parts of the country, especially in terms of transport and other infrastructure, than other parts of the country. Any sustained effort to reduce regional inequalities may well cost the capital some of the alleged government largesse that it has been used to recently.

That, at least, is the fear of many of London’s council leaders and politicians — hence the recent cries of pain from London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 32 boroughs and the City of London, and the think tank Centre for London. Peter John, chair of London Councils, even warned that ambitions to level up the country could easily descend into what he called “a crude ‘level London down’ agenda”.

But what do Londoners think? At the Mile End Institute, part of Queen Mary University of London, we decided to test whether that assumption is shared by the city’s inhabitants — and whether they thought that London losing out as a result of levelling up was or wasn’t acceptable. Our survey ran just last week and involved a representative sample of 1,002 Londoners.

On the whole, the capital’s residents can see what is coming. They are fairly (some would say surprisingly) resigned to the fact that levelling up will indeed see London receive less government money than in the past.

A third of them (33 per cent) confess that they don’t know, but that leaves almost half (44 per cent) who believe London will lose out — twice as many as the 22 per cent who believe it won’t.

This belief is shared by almost all demographic groups — men, women, working-class, middle-class, white, black and minority ethnic, and those living within inner and outer London. There is some difference by age: younger Londoners are less sure that the city will lose out, older ones more sure. But even among the young, more think London will suffer than not.

And yet, people don’t seem overly concerned about this. When we asked whether it would be a problem if London lost out on government funding, a full 43 per cent said that it would be acceptable, compared to just 31 per cent who thought not.

Again, this view — call it altruism, call it simple resignation, call it what you will — is widely shared regardless of demographic differences, although older voters are less keen.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you think you might lose out on something and that you don’t mind too much if you do, and quite another to know how you will actually feel about it when it happens. As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

But for the moment, if the Johnson government feels that it needs to spend less on London in order to help poorer parts of the country, then it doesn’t look like it will face too much resistance.

Originally published at https://www.cityam.com/level-down-london/

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‘Poll reveals tensions in new Tory coalition’, Unherd, 11 March 2020.

One of the downsides of doing surveys is that — more often than not, and certainly more often than you’d like — they end up pointing to the bleedin’ obvious. You know: ‘Poll reveals people like free stuff, hate politicians’ – that sort of thing. File under No Shit Sherlock, right?

Well not entirely. There’s often value in providing evidence for something we all guess is probably true but couldn’t really prove is actually the case.

That’s what emerges from some new pre-budget polling conducted by Portland. They compared the views of five hundred senior business people with a thousand people who voted Tory in 2019, with the latter evenly divided between those living in constituencies where a majority of voters supported Leave or Remain back in 2016.

The results are a neat showcase of the political tensions within the new Tory coalition.

Across the majority of questions relating mainly to the economy, there wasn’t much of a difference between 2019 Tory voters whether they lived in places like Bolsover or Beaconsfield. But there were some pretty sizable contrasts between those voters and Business people — defined, by the way, as a director or senior manager working in a private sector organisation employing more than 250 people and with an income of above £70,000 per annum.

As Portland’s Nick Hargrave puts it: ‘While Business wants government to get out of the way — a majority of Conservative voters across the board want the Government to tax more, spend more and intervene more.’

No great surprise there, but interesting, nonetheless – not least because it rather confirms what many of us suspected.

We’re told anyway that the government ‘gets it’ — namely that it understands that one of the messages coming out of the 2016 referendum was that things have to change, especially for people in those parts of the country characterised as ‘left-behind’.

The poll suggests that business hasn’t yet woken up to this brave new world — one in which neoliberalism is apparently about to give way to an activist enabling state. Putting it bluntly, Boris may be about to ‘fuck business’ but business clearly isn’t looking forward to the experience.

Dig a little deeper, and some additional strains begin to appear not just between Business, on the one hand, and the Government’s voters, on the other, but between Beaconsfield and Bolsover, too.

On public spending and whether it’s too high, a plurality of business people (45 per cent) think it is; Conservative voters are rather less inclined to think so — and there’s an appreciable gap between the 37 per cent of those living in Remain constituencies and the 29 per cent of those living in the land of leave.

But it’s on immigration that the difference between Beaconsfield and Bolsover is most striking. Like business people (again), only around a quarter of Conservative voters in Remain constituencies (23 per cent) put immigration in their top three most important issues — compared to getting on for half (44 per cent) of Conservative voters living in Leave seats.

And when it comes to the question of whether the government should (as it claims) reduce low-skilled immigration, the gap is similarly yawning. As a whole, some three quarters of 2019 Tory voters want that to happen, with only a quarter opposed. But the proportion of those opposed to the idea rises to a third (33 per cent) of those living in Remain constituencies and drops to just well under a fifth (15 per cent) when we look at those in Leave Seats.

Those differences aren’t of course merely geographical, they are ideological and almost certainly intersect most strongly with further and higher education. But they matter — and may matter more if consequent labour shortages begin to make life awkward for some but not noticeably better for others.

Keeping hold of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ while preserving the Tories’ traditional grip on those parts of the country which are not only more comfortably off but also more comfortable with cultural change and diversity won’t be a piece of cake — or, indeed, one that Boris Johnson can necessarily have and eat it too.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/thepost/poll-reveals-tensions-ahead-in-tory-coalition/

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‘Wash your hands, Big Brother is watching you’, Times, 9 March 2020.

Prepare to be disgusted, seriously disgusted. But don’t worry, it’ll do you good, especially now that we’re all being urged to do our bit in the battle against coronavirus. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

OK, I’m not a real doctor. I haven’t got a medical qualification, only a PhD. And, OK, it’s in political rather than proper science.

I can, however, claim a degree of expertise in what I’m talking about — all of it gained from over half a century of painstaking observation of men’s toilet habits.

I tend not to waste too much time in the gents but this is the important bit – I never, ever leave without washing my hands.

It’s that last bit that makes me unusual, at least among men, according, that is, to a survey five years ago that suggested fewer than four out of ten men washed their hands after going to the toilet — a figure that rose to six out of ten for women.

These are not the only statistics available, it should be said. A Gallup survey of 64,000 respondents worldwide paints a slightly more optimistic picture, at least if you’re British.

Only 50 per cent of Dutch people surveyed said that they wash their hands compared with the super-clean Saudis at 94 per cent and 75 per cent of Britons (a figure, incidentally which puts us just about on a par with the Irish and the Americans).

Saying we do something, however, is not the same as actually doing it. What survey researchers refer to as “social desirability bias” — our tendency to give the responses we think we should be giving them rather than the ones that truly reflect our behaviour or opinions — makes it unlikely that three-quarters of us are actually doing what both personal and collective hygiene demands.

Indeed (and here’s where the half-century of participant observation comes in), I’d like to call (bull)shit on that figure here and now. I’ve seen what men do after they’ve zipped up or, even worse, done what my grandmother would have called “their business”. And it isn’t pretty. Many, maybe even most, blokes head straight for the door, after which, they’re presumably shaking your hand, giving you back your change, serving you food, etc.

Of course, actually getting out of said door in many cases involves pulling at some kind of handle. This is a nightmare for those of us who do observe the post-pee and/or pooh niceties, unless it’s wintertime and we’re carrying gloves or maybe wearing an overcoat with helpfully long sleeves.

It’s also the reason why, last week, a health information campaign featuring a dirty door handle was chosen after tests showed that 96 per cent of people remembered it, compared with 85 per cent recalling one that advised them simply to wash their hands. “Information works on a cognitive level. But disgust works on an emotional level,” a source (presumably not a source of infection) told The Times last week.

But are there more positive nudges that could be used in the battle to persuade us to do the right thing? Probably yes.

In an academic article, kindly provided me by a fellow Tweeter, the researchers not only confirm that a substantial minority of people (especially men) don’t wash their hands after using the loo but also take us through why it’s hard to get precise data on the topic, university ethics committees being unsurprisingly unenthusiastic about proposals that suggest setting up CCTV in the spaces in question.

More importantly, not least because more handwashing appears to reduce levels of respiratory illnesses by over a fifth, they explore some simple and cheap (in the best sense of the word) tricks and techniques to get us to wash our hands drawn from behavioural psychology and economics.

So what works? Believe it or not putting a decal of a pair of eyes on the mirror above the sinks has an effect: the fact that Big Brother (or sister) is watching you, and, what’s more, you know they’re watching, isn’t always a bad thing, perhaps.

If you’re not keen on surveillance, however, then try citrus as an alternative. Sprayed intermittently around the sink, it too appears to raise rates of handwashing.

And finally, lines of large, red, arrow-shaped stickers directing you, along the floor, from the stalls and the urinals to the sink, also encouraged people to do what’s good for them and what’s good for the rest of us, too.

You may laugh. Indeed, let’s hope you do. After all, you’re more likely to remember something funny than something purely factual conveyed with a wagging finger. But this is also serious stuff and with incidences of Covid-19 on the rise daily, we’re talking deadly serious.

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