Thursday 31 October 2019

Election in the bleak mid winter.

As argued in the previous post, my strong preference is (now was) for this parliament to continue scrutinising Johnson's Brexit Bill, hoping  for an amendment to put it to a referendum, and then, after the referendum, and whatever the result, have the General election. 

Alas, that is not to be.

I regard the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) as the one great Liberal Democrat constitutional gain of the 2010 Coalition (the other two, for electoral reform and House of Lords reform, were both scuppered by combinations of Tory deceit and Labour pusillanimity).

The purpose of the FTPA was to make our politics fairer by taking  away from the incumbent prime minister  the right to call a General Election just when he/she felt the governing  party had the best chance of winning.  It is a sad irony that we Liberal Democrats, instigators of this splendid act, should be the first to drive a coach and horses through it.

The argument is that the Liberal Democrat and SNP leaders had concluded that there was no longer any possibility of obtaining a majority for a People's Vote amendment from the existing MPs.  Well, they are more in touch with their parliamentary colleagues than I am, so they may well be right.  but I can't help thinking they were somewhat premature.  All that was needed was for the Labour leadership to change its mind, which, now that the election has been called, they have done.  

Admittedly, they want a People's Vote on a Withdrawal deal that they have negotiated rather the Johnson deal they may have amended, but it is a move in the right, if somewhat hypothetical, direction.

Mr Johnson was keen to label the existing Commons as a "zombie" parliament,"  simply on the grounds that it could not be relied upon to do what he wanted.  That, of course, is the function of parliament - to scrutinise the government's proposals, and, where they are felt to be lacking, propose improvements.  

The British constitution was working well.

To make a comparison with Johnson's much admired America, the US president can't just sack Congress because it doesn't jump to his wishes: he (not yet a she) has to wait for the Constitution to take its course.  And, with Donald Trump in the presidency, thank goodness.

However, we are where we are and must make the best of it. 

Happily our Liberal Democrat message is clear: we will do all we can to "Stop Brexit."  It could be best to stop there, and maybe that is what our campaigns team will decide. Or we may be forced to complicate matters by giving "further and better particulars": that in the(unlikely but not impossible) event that we win an over-all majority we shall simply Revoke Article 50, and if we need to work with others less determined we shall support a People's Vote which contains the option to Remain.

Al least this twin policy will be easier to explain than Labour's.

A winter campaign puts both Labour and we Liberal Democrats at a disadvantage, since our strengths are in "boots on the ground" prepared to canvass.  But with darkness falling around tea-time effective canvassing time is seriously reduced.  The Tories by contrast, have few members but bags of money for targetted mailshots and the even more invidious super-targetted digital messages.  Fortunately one of the social media on which these "dark arts" can be practised has decided to outlaw them, but so far (the larger?) Facebook hasn't.

It will not be an easy campaign for anyone except the SNP, who seem destined to sweep the board again in Scotland. 

In England Labour are hoping for the sort of boost they achieved under Mr Corbyn  in 2017, but part of that was due to Mrs May's ineptitude.  Johnson may be a philanderer, serial liar and opportunist, and totally unsuited for the office of Prime Minister, but he is (or was) an effective campaigner.  He won the London Mayoralty not once but twice, and London is a Labour-leaning city.  Here's hoping he will not be so effective on the larger scale.

Friday 25 October 2019

Brexit: here's what to do next

1.  ignore Prime Minister Johnson's call for a General Election on the 12th December.  To satisfy the Parliament Act he needs the support of two thirds of MPs to get it, and he controls less than half of them.  The opposition parties needn't even vote against, but just abstain.

This will be awkward for Labour, as Mr Corbyn has stated that he will agree to a general election as soon as "no deal is off the table," which it now appears to be.  However, the last three Tory prime ministers haven't worried too much about breaking their words, so he can join the gang.  There is  no need direct his MPs to act  as "turkeys voting for Christmas."  At lease some of them are well aware of this.

For we Liberal Democrats and the SNP this involves self-sacrifice since both parties are likely to do well in an early election.  However the priority is to get Brexit fixed, so that is what we we should do.

2.  Parliament can now spend as much of the time as is necessary to  sorting out  the Brexit Withdrawal Bill which Mr Johnson is so proud of having got through its first reading. All the clauses can be thoroughly scrutinised, which is what parliament exists for, amendments can be moved (to include employment rights, better access to the single market, membership  of the customs union, the Northern Ireland stitch-up, a special status for Scotland  and anything else MPs are worried about.  Above all, for the bill, as finally amended (or not) to be put to a confirmatory vote by the public, against the option of the status quo.)

Some amendments will be carried, some lost, maybe even the requirement for a confirmatory vote, but at least MPs will have tried.

3.  In parallel with all this parliamentary activity,  party teams and civil servants should be working out the details for the confirmatory vote, so that, should the amendment for that be successful, all will be in place for it to be held before the 31st January.

If the amendment falls, then they will have at least leaned from  the experience and  that won't be anywhere near as costly as the millions (or was it billions) spent on preparing for a no-deal Brexit, which hasn't happened and, if the law is obeyed, won't.

4.  The Withdrawal Bill should be in its final form by Christmas.  We shall know exactly on what terms we shall leave, and can spend January debating  whether to accept them or prefer the deal we already have.

5.  After that, knowing where we are, we can have a General Election to decide where we're going, and who is best to lead us there.


Thursday 24 October 2019

United Nations Day

Today 24th October, is United Nations day, though you wouldn't know it from the British media.  I have as yet seen no reference to it in my daily newspaper, nor heard any mention of it  on the BBC  news bulletins.  If you'd like further and better particulars they can be found here and here.

I believe it's now Labour Party policy that we should have more public holidays, so, if and when this policy is implemented I suggest that one of them should be UN Day and, not only that, but it should  be the actual date and not just the nearest Monday, which is the unfortunate British custom for public holidays.

It has been a long standing suggestion from some Tories any extra holiday (or a replacement for May Day, which some of them would  like to see abolished) should be Trafalgar Day (21st October, commemorating the British naval victory over the French and Spanish fleets in 1805) or some such event in our "glorious island history."

Such backward-looking thinking is typical of our Right Wing, and of the thinking of many of the Brexit supporters, which I've seen described as "a desire to recreate an imaginary past."

Admittedly UN Day commemorates a past event, the coming into operation of the Charter in1945, in the hope of establishing a world rules-based order and avoiding the horrors of the wars of the earlier part of the century.  It has not, of course been even moderately  successful so far, and its current structure reflects the perceived geopolitical power structure of the 1940s rather than those of today. 

Nevertheless the Charter remains "our shared moral anchor," as Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary -General puts it.  (I wonder how many people in Britain recognise his name?)

Once the Brexit morass is sorted out we need to "Lift up [our] eyes unto the hills" and refocus our concerns onto creating a world  without wars and poverty, but in which everyone can enjoy their lives in peace, sustainable plenty, and liberty.  (And also discover a way of stopping Microsoft, or whoever is responsible printing everything in italics when you don't want it to).

Monday 21 October 2019

Brexit - where now?

In my training as a Reader (lay preacher) in the Church of England more than thirty  years ago I was taught that  "the Kingdom of heaven is now, but not yet."

There's a similar ambiguity about last Saturday's vote on Brexit in the House of Commons.  The government's withdrawal deal was not exactly defeated, so it's still with us now, but may only be implemented if and when all the necessary legislation is in place to ensure that a "no deal" Brexit cannot be engineered by the back door - something which the Johnson-Cummings team are thought to be quite capable of engineering.

Like Mr Johnson I should have preferred a decisive vote: Johnson for acceptance of the deal, me for chucking it out. 

The government is anxious to have a repeat vote this afternoon, which their supportive press is  trying to bounce us into thinking they could win. Both the press and the government seem unaware of the irony of their desire  for a second vote in parliament only two days after the last one, along with their adamant refusal to allow a repeat vote on the Referendum itself, which is now three years out of date.

Minster after minister appears in the media mouthing three flawed arguments.

1.  "The people" just want us to get this done - to just get on with it.

 That's actually a good argument for Revoking Article 50 here and now, by far and away the neatest way of getting it "done" and clearing the way for tackling our real problems. 

For those who are still anxious to create a deal for leaving that does the minimum of damage, surely finding a solution to the most crucial problem we've faced in the last 40 years requires  serious and in-depth consideration.  Just "getting it done" is a lazy and facile argument.

2.  They argue that we must "put an end to uncertainty." 

Any deal to leave the EU will be no means end the uncertainly - merely open the gateway for the commencement of further negotiations which will take years.

There is no doubt that uncertainly is doing considerable damage to the UK economy (a much more serious matter than the public allegedly getting bored with the issue).    Phillip Inman pointed out in his Observer column last week (13/10/19) that since the Referendum business investment in new plant, machinery and technology in the UK grew by barely 0.1% per year, compared with 7.4% in 2014 and 6.5% in 2105. 

It is such investment that creates jobs and improves productivity.  Leaving the EU on the 31st October , or any other date, will not change this situation overnight.

3.  We must "Carry out the instruction of the British People."

 But the "British People" however defined, gave no such "instruction." 

The "people" of Scotland,voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, as did the "people" of Northern Ireland.  Of the whole United Kingdom only 37% of those entitled to vote  opted for leave and it is now recognised that the referendum was seriously flawed in both its construction and conduct.  

A lawyer, David Allen Green, writing in the November issue of Prospect, claims that :"Had that Referendum  been legally binding, as opposed to merely advisory, there is little doubt the result  would by  now have been set aside."

Of course, it takes time to argue the above.  "The people's will" is quicker and punchier.  But serious decisions should be made on serious consideration of the facts, not simplistic and highly questionable  slogans.

I have no more idea than anyone else how events will develop in these last ten days of October.  My own preference is that  the Brexit issue should be settled, preferable by revoking Article 50 but if not, by a People's Vote, before we have a General Election, and I urge the Remain-inclined parties and politicians to work toward this sequence.

Friday 18 October 2019

Brexit; the blame game moves on.

As argued in previous posts Prime Minister Johnson appears to be gaming the Brexit situation and its constitutional implications in order to enhance his chances of wining an election and remaining prime minister.  Many of us believed that he wasn't really interested in negotiating a new deal  with the EU, and, to our surprise, he has succeeded.

But then, so did Mrs May.

And the "new deal" bears a strong resemblance to the one she achieved though  some of the changes appear to make things worse. 

For example there is to be  an effective border in the Irish Sea to cut off Northern Ireland - something that the Brexiteers declared a "constitutional outrage" when this idea was floated in the earlier negotiations.  And the "guarantee," such as it was, of continued protection at at least the EU level for UK  employment conditions and the environment seems to have disappeared.

However, these not inconsiderable "details" aren't mentioned in the headlines, so Johnson can be seen as a "winner.".

I strongly suspect that this deal will suffer the same fate as Mrs May's - that it will be defeated in the Commons tomorrow.  I certainly hope so.

However, even if this happens, Johnson can still declare himself a winner.    He  has succeeded with the potentially intransigent Europeans.  Now this mighty  UK Crusader is held back  by an intransigent parliament.  Role on the General Election.

It cannot be said too often or too loudly that his deal, or Mrs May's, or one that  Labour might be able to negotiate, is nowhere near as good as the deal we already have if we stay in the EU.

if the present MPs do not have the guts to Revoke Article 50 here and now, which they are perfectly entitled to do, then I hope they can devise some method of holding a People's Vote exclusively on Brexit before an election takes place.

Friday 11 October 2019

"Just Johnson?" - a QC's warning

Lawers have been trying in a Scottish court to get some sort of "order" to force Mr Johnson to comply with the Benn Act "come what may."  The court as so far refused, on the grounds that Johnson has already agreed to comply with the act so a further order is unnecessary - they have to believe him.

In his appeal against this decisions Aidan O'Neil QC told the judges:

"One shouldn't be taken in by the kind of shtick that the prime minister is simply an overgrown schoolboy  playing at being prime minister, as if he was Just William  leading his cabinet  band of outlaws.
This is serious stuff.
This is calculated
This is deliberately focus-grouped , 
workshopped and
war gamed
to appeal to their base."

(My emphasis)

I admire Mr O'Neil's insight.

We cannot know for certain, of course, but all the evidence points to the probability that Johnson and his advisor Dominic Cummings are playing games in Johnson's interest rather than the nation's.

As argued in an earlier post, Johnson has created a win-win situation for himself. 

If he gets a deal, however inferior to the present arrangement, he will be hailed as a hero.

If he fails, he can blame  the intransigent Europeans for refusing to play his game.

We must strongly suspect that Johnson is gaming our future to the advantage of himself and his supporters rather than negotiating for the benefit of the nation. 

Sunday 6 October 2019

Tory tunnel vison

The Tories have a long history of calming to be the "party of law and order,"  so much so that journalists in the 60s invented their standard bearer as "Lora Norda."  At their Conference this year the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, revived the claim and warned criminals to "watch out, we are coming for you." 

Given that:
  • their prorogation of parliament  was declared illegal by the Supreme court;
  • the entire government is apparently seeking ways to circumvent the Benn Act which make leaving the EU with no deal illegal;
  • the prime minister is under investigation  for improper use of public funds for whilst Mayor of London;
  • the Leave campaign, on which they set such store, was found guilty of financial irregularities in the referendum.
warning criminals to "watch out" is perhaps an unwise thereat for a Conservative to make to make at the moment.  

Or maybe M/s Patel just thinks that what's sauce for society's misfit ganders  doesn't apply to its  rich and powerful geese.

Another case of tunnel vision was exposed on Radio 4's "Any Questions!" on Friday.  When asked the very pertinent question "Has the government suddenly found a whole Magic Money orchard" given the amounts they are currently promising to spend on police, education, hospitals, infrastructure,  and more, Tory Minister Robert Buckland had the sauce to explain that  the because interest rates were at an all time low this made now a good time for public expenditure.   

Interest rates have, of course, been at an "all time low" for the past decade, throughout the long drawn out period of austerity which has caused so much misery to so many of the less well off, and, through the starvation of funds to Local Government, done so much damage to the public realm.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Brexit Profiteers?

A front-page headline in yesterday's Guardian (1st October) highlighted ministers defending Mr Johnson on "groping allegations."   Whilst not wishing to downplay the importance of this incident (these incidents?) I should prefer greater prominence to be given to the allegations that supporters of the prime minister and Brexit are hoping to make considerable, indeed very considerable , financial profits if we do indeed leave the EU with no deal on 31st October.  The report of these  (actually a denial) appeared only on Page 9.

The possibilities of profiting from Brexit by "shorting"* (see below but please don't try it at home ) are detailed in Gavin Esler's book, Brexit without the Bullshit (page 89).  Esler explains that one fund manager, Crispin Odey, donated almost £9 000 to the Leave campaign, then "shorted" sterling and maybe other UK assets, and made a financial "killing"  when the pound fell in value as a result of Leave winning the Referendum. 

Since then, according to Esler, Odey is reported to have "shorted" Talk-talk to the value of £7.5m, Intu (£40m), Lookers (£2.5m) and some retail stores, including Debenhams (£17m).

In the event of a no-deal Brexit the pound is likely to depreciate yet again  and Codey and his associates will experience  another "morning with gold in its mouth."

Odey, of course, denies any such intention.  However, the possibility is sufficiently serious to have caused no less than Phillip Hammond, former Chancellor, and Lord (Nick) Macpherson, former permanent secretary to the Treasury, to "question the political connections  of some of the hedge funds with  a financial interest in no deal."

Lord Macpherson has warned: "They are shorting the pound and the country, with the British people the main loser."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the machinery of government has been high-jacked with the help of a group of the super-rich who aim to make themselves immeasurably richer and the rest of us somewhat poorer through an action of national self-harm.

*  How to "short."

It's risky and you need a lot of many to start with (or iron nerves)

1.  Identify a currency or  asset you think will fall in value.
2.  Borrow shedloads of the currency or asset.
3  Sell them quickly at the current price.
4.  When the currency or asset falls in value buy them back at the lower price.
5.  Return the currency or assets borrowed to their original owners
6.  Pocket the difference.