Theresa May: Learn or Go

The ‘football manager’ culture that has emerged in British politics is bad for all of us. Emily Thornberry called for Theresa May’s resignation almost immediately after the publication of Thursday night’s exit poll, Jeremy Corbyn did the same not long afterwards and many Conservatives are reported to support a leadership challenge. But a message taught to people of all ages – learn from your mistakes – seems to have been largely ignored.

One of the biggest criticism of Theresa May’s leadership style is her over-dependence on her co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and her decision to ignore her cabinet when making decisions. The most significant moment in the general election campaign was the u-turn on the cap on social care payments. Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary and a cabinet minister whom Mrs May trusts more than most, was not consulted on this despite the fact that he was the person expected to implement the policy. Had she consulted more widely on this and a number of other issues, she could have been celebrating an historic victory.

Her introverted leadership style denied the Conservatives the advantage they could have had at the start of the campaign. The cabinet was reportedly only informed of her decision to call the election minutes before it was made public. By not informing them or campaign chiefs such as Sir Lynton Crosby earlier, the Conservatives were unable to create a coherent campaign strategy (something which was done so successfully in 2015), nor were they able to test policies with focus groups. Had this been done, the campaign would have had more depth and contained far more positive policy arguments, and not simply relied on soundbites. Soundbites are important as part of a successful campaign, but to complement it, and not be the basis of it as was the case on this occasion.

The first step towards recovery has already been taken, with the resignation of her two closest advisers. If she can now learn from the mistake she has made over the last few months and adopt a more consultative style of government she could yet be a successful prime minister. Learning to trust her colleagues will both help to retain the support of her colleagues and help to avoid gaffes such as the National Insurance u-turn in March and the social care funding u-turn in May. However there is a danger that she has become extremely isolated within the government and may be unable to repair the damage she has already done in alienating many of her colleagues. If the latter is the case then she could be in for an extremely uncomfortable few months.

Perhaps what makes her continuation more difficult is the personalisation of the Conservatives’ general election campaign. The messages of “strong and stable leadership” and the call to elect “Theresa May and her team” made it inevitable that she would be tied to the result more than the party as a whole, regardless of the result. These are now dichotomous with the present perception of Mrs May, and unless she can restore, or at the least recover, her reputation as a strong leader then her days will be numbered. However if she does take this opportunity to learn then her future may not be as unbearable as it currently seems.

Tagged with: ,

The Conservative Manifesto: Brave or Courageous?

Politicians have for years grappled with the dilemma of choosing between good politics but bad policy and good policy but bad politics. The Conservative manifesto contains a mixture of both.

Their immigration policies certainly come into the category of good politics but bad policy as they try to absorb the collapsed UKIP vote. Theresa May knows that reducing immigration to the tens of thousands is bad for the country – were this not the case then immigration from outside the EU would have been significantly lower while she was Home Secretary. The other immigration pledge she made was to increase the charge on businesses for hiring foreign workers. The purpose of this policy is, presumably, to reduce unemployment by giving firms an incentive to employ British workers. Therefore this could be a good idea in times of high unemployment, however the announcement came in the week that unemployment hit a 42 year low and so the effect of this policy will be to restrict business growth.

For a long time policy towards older people has been very much good politics but bad policy. Turnout increases with age, meaning pensioners have largely been immune from the cuts which other demographics have faced as parties target the grey vote. The triple-lock on pensions is an absurd policy, with the arbitrary 2.5% minimum increase bearing no relation to anything and is nothing short of a bribe to older voters. Given that in 2015 the government promised to keep the triple-lock until 2020, it would be unfair to withdraw it immediately as it will interfere with pensioners’ financial planning. By reverting to a double-lock, pensioners will never lose out in real terms, while funds can be diverted to more worthwhile causes.

Including the values of people’s houses in determining how much they must contribute towards their social care is reasonable if they are receiving care in their own homes as the current system effectively penalises those who go into care homes. It is also not right that it can be possible to hand a house worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to your children while expecting somebody else to pay for your care.

The move to means-test some universal benefits, namely the Winter Fuel Allowance and Free School Meals, is another sensible policy. There are far more urgent priorities than giving wealthy pensioners £300 per year and wealthy parents free food for their children.

David Cameron’s triple tax lock was the ultimate short term policy mistake. Circumstances in five years’ time, after Britain has left the European Union, will be significantly different to how they are now. Therefore it is not possible to make good budgetary decisions now for then, which is exactly what the triple tax lock would do. Opponents will brand this as plans to raise taxes which is simply not the case – they are merely not ruling it out.

With the exception of the immigration policies, this manifesto largely prioritises good policy over good politics. Theresa May will be hoping that, in the words of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, this is a brave manifesto, meaning it will cost her votes, rather than a courageous one, meaning it will cost her the election.

Tagged with: , ,

Since Brexit, EU Has Strengthened the Leave Campaign’s Case

On 23rd June, after much deliberation which only ended the night before, I voted to leave the European Union. That night and in the early hours of the following morning, as the votes were counted and the result became clear, the gravity of the decision which I, and the country, had made began to dawn on me. I feared that I had made a grave error, but in the nine months since then I have become increasingly certain that the decision I made was the correct one.

On its website, the EU says that “countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so less likely to avoid conflict”. The two core values, so it seems, are peace and trade. These are noble aims; if only they were of primary importance to the EU. Sadly, peace and trade are secondary to the success of the political project to create a federal “United States of Europe”.

Were the EU genuinely to promote free trade, there would be no question of tariff-free trade between the UK and the EU – something which would be mutually beneficial to all citizens. The benefits of free trade are well publicised; the reason there is doubt that this will continue is because of the intransigence of Brussels. Exporters across the remaining 27 countries will suffer from tariffs, while consumers will face higher prices from goods imported from the UK. EU leaders are prepared to inflict this upon the people whom they are supposed to be serving for the sake of preserving their project. We need to be governed by people with our best interests at heart, and that cannot happen inside the European Union.

On the issue of peace, while it would be hyperbolic to suggest that war between the UK and Spain is likely, the European Council’s draft negotiating guidelines have done little to ease tensions between the two countries. The clause, which has taken the UK government by surprise, states that “no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom”. This provocative declaration has made the issue of Gibraltarian sovereignty a topic for negotiation, and gives Spain the opportunity to demand sovereignty before allowing any deals between the UK and EU. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has said that Britain will go “all the way” to defend Gibraltar, suggesting that military forces could be deployed if necessary. While it is highly unlikely that tensions will escalate this far, former Conservative leader Lord Howard observed that it is not unprecedented for a female Prime Minister to go to war against a Spanish speaking country to defend an overseas territory.

The European Council has not directly incited violence in these guidelines, but in ceding to the Spanish government and including this clause, tensions have been heightened which threatens the EU’s aim of peace in Europe. The motivation behind the clause seems to be to make Brexit as miserable as possible for the UK, and so to deter other countries from following suit. Once again the EU has put its own self-interest ahead of the greater good.

The EU is not disappointed that the UK will not be a member, rather it is disappointed that a member would dare to leave, questioning the strength of the union. The upcoming negotiations should not be between two opposing sides; rather they should be between sides with common goals. But because those in the Brussels bubble would rather see their pet project succeed than peace and free trade with the world’s fifth largest economy. We are far better off outside this highly protectionist and inward looking organisation.

UK Must Not Concede Security in Brexit Negotiations

Theresa May has been criticised by many for her approach to the Brexit negotiations, in particular for using various things as ‘bargaining chips’. Most recently, this has been related to comments about security in her letter to Donald Tusk which triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the letter she wrote, “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” suggesting that the UK would limit its contributions to European security without a favourable trade deal. Critics have claimed that she is playing politics with our security, however this is completely unjustified.

In a negotiation, each side will have something to offer the other, and it is through this that an agreement is reached. In this case, the UK has an extremely strong and sophisticated anti-terror network, and so the UK can offer to share its intelligence. In return, the EU then offers the UK something over which it has control, such as low-tariff or tariff-free access to the Single Market. The result of various concessions, trades and compromises on each side is an agreement which is beneficial to both parties.

However those who are saying that the Prime Minister should not use Britain’s security services as part of the negotiations are willing the UK to fail. It is absurd to suggest that the UK should hand the EU (which is already in the stronger position by virtue of its size) complete dominance by conceding all its strengths before negotiations begin.

Similarly, the government has been criticised for not guaranteeing unilaterally the residency rights of EU citizens living in the UK. It is European Union leaders and not Theresa May who have rejected a deal on this issue before the main negotiations begin. Were the UK to have acted unilaterally then the EU would, with all probability, have then guaranteed the residency rights of UK citizens living in the rest of the EU in exchange for another concession from Britain. This means that the outcome on residency rights would be the same, but the UK would have to concede something else.

The term ‘bargaining chip’ has negative connotations, but the reality is that the EU will use everything in its power to reach an agreement in its interests. So the UK government must do so too, using all factors over which it has control, including security, in order to reach the best possible deal for its citizens.

Tagged with: , ,

Budget 2017: Right Policies, Wrong Explanation

Jeremy Corbyn has complained about the media, but today they have been his best friend. After Philip Hammond delivered his first Budget, it was the Leader of the Opposition’s turn to respond. However hr missed the one open goal offered to him by the Chancellor – the rise in Class 4 National Insurance Contributions, contrary to the Conservatives’ 2015 Election manifesto. Mr Corbyn is lucky, therefore, that the media were on hand to do his job of scrutinising the government. Were it not for the media picking up on this point, the only challenge Mr Hammond would have faced is Corbyn’s usual moan of a lack of funding for education, social care and the NHS in a Budget which gave more funding to education, social care and the NHS.

The Conservatives, who had prepared their excuses in advance, have dealt with this badly. They are denying that it is breaking their manifesto commitment, citing the legislation passed which prevented Class 1 National Insurance rises. They should instead have put their hands up, admitted they have broken their manifesto promise. This would not only allow them to move on quickly from the issue, but also improve their credibility among the electorate. This is because they will be seen to be honest by accepting this criticism, rather than denying something that is glaringly obvious (to all but Jeremy Corbyn) and thus being seen as sly and deceiving. The policy itself would be fairly easy to defend as Labour voted for the legislation which explicitly protected Class 1 National Insurance rates but not Class 4.

The Chancellor should take heart that the main criticism of his Budget is the fact that the he has broken a manifesto commitment, and there is no real criticism of the policies themselves. Even Labour are not criticising what is a sensible policy – to have parity of National Insurance rates for the employed and the self-employed. Therefore Mr Hammond should be content with his day’s work and the confidence he had to throw in a few jokes was justified.

Tagged with: , ,

Media Hostility Will Benefit Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have long-complained about hostility from the mainstream media towards his leadership. However this week, he could find that it works to his benefit. In normal circumstances at this stage of the election cycle, opposition parties defending seats at by-elections would be expected to hold them without trouble. However the Labour leader’s unpopularity and poor poll ratings have meant that, until recently, he was expected to lose both seats up for election this week – Stoke-on-Trent to UKIP and Copeland to the Conservatives.

However a series of controversies in the last week surrounding Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s leader and candidate in Stoke, have brought Labour back into contention, and most bookmakers now have them as favourites to win the seat. The legitimacy of Mr Nuttall’s candidacy has been questioned, after it was alleged that he had not moved into the house which he recently acquired in Stoke and registered as his home for the purposes of the election. He has also been forced to apologise after claims on his website, which has since been taken down for maintenance, that he lost close friends in the Hillsborough disaster were found to be untrue.

Before these incidents surfaced, Labour was very much second-favourite, after choosing a candidate who has previously described Brexit has a “pile of shit” to stand for the party in the seat which voted 70-30 to leave the European Union. It is this, combined with Mr Corbyn’s perceived weak leadership, which has led to suggestions that UKIP might win the seat.

Meanwhile in Copeland the battle has been far more focussed on issues, with the Conservatives citing Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear power, a major employer in the area, as the focus of their campaign. Labour, on the other hand, is attacking the planned changes to NHS services in the area. The victor is likely to be the party which can convince voters that their issue is more important, and at the moment, bookmakers think that this will be the Conservatives. If they do win, it will be the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982.

Politicians and political parties are judged on how they perform compared to expectations, so the fact that the media have built up Labour to lose these seats means that holding either will been seen as a huge victory, despite the fact that at most other times the government making gains and coming close to winning an opposition seat at a by-election will be seen as a success for them. And even if Labour does lose both seats, what for any other leader of the opposition would be seen as a disaster will only be only a mild disappointment.

That is not to say that Corbyn will be out of the woods if Labour do hold Stoke on Thursday. If they do, it will be with a substantially reduced majority to the benefit of UKIP, and anybody hoping that Labour will win a majority in 2020 will be concerned that the result in Stoke will be symptomatic of opinion across the Labour heartlands, particularly in the north east, where UKIP finished second in a number of constituencies.

Nevertheless, expectations have meant that anything short of a Conservative victory in Copeland will be seen as a disappointment for them, and Labour has the media to thank this.

Tagged with: , , , ,

Labour Leadership Election Will Solve Nothing

The Labour leadership challenge initiated by Angela Eagle and pursued by Owen Smith was supposed to end the turmoil currently facing the party and bring unity. Unfortunately for them, however, none of the problems will be solved.

Smith’s campaign centres around the fact he is very similar to Jeremy Corbyn ideologically (insisting frequently that he is a socialist and not a Blairite), and it is Corbyn’s leadership skills which has caused the challenge. However his failure to perform as an effective leader is a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.

Corbyn’s left wing ideology is the root of Labour’s woes. They lost the General Election last year for being too left wing, and Labour MPs, particularly those in marginal seats, know that if they want any chance of retaining their seat (notwithstanding the more immediate threat of deselection) they must disassociate themselves from their leader.

It is for this reason that Corbyn has been unable to whip votes on issues that are most important to him, including the war in Syria and Trident renewal, and it is also why he has been unable to fill his shadow cabinet. There are six people with more than one job, including the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, which show how highly Mr Corbyn regards those roles.

Sadly for Labour, however, the state of affairs would be very similar in the unlikely event that Mr Smith is successful. As a consequence of the uncompromising ideology of the Labour membership, he has had to pitch himself as being just as ‘radical’ as the man he is trying to displace. During a discussion about policies in a debate on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, Smith said “it’s not a question about wether we can afford it.” Given that Ed Miliband lost the 2015 General Election in no small part because he was regarded as fiscally irresponsible, Smith’s blasé attitude towards public spending is unlikely to win over many new voters.

True, Smith is likely to be a better leader meaning that he is more likely to command the support of his shadow cabinet and the wider PLP, which will add credence to Labour’s electoral prospects. However the best this can do for Labour is retain existing voters – it certainly will not compensate for the fact that the electorate has repeatedly rejected socialism for the last 40 years.

Tagged with: , ,

Theresa May Must Hold an Early Election

History is a powerful teacher, Theresa May must pay attention. As a result of Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from from the Conservative leadership contest on Monday afternoon, May will become the next prime minister having been elected only by Conservative MPs.

This is a slightly greater mandate than Gordon Brown had when he became the leader of the Labour Party (and thus prime minister) automatically due to the absence of any competition. This led to a torrid two and a half years for Mr Brown who turned down the opportunity to hold a general election when he was ahead in the polls. Four years is a long time to govern without a mandate, and it will inevitably lead to a lack of authority at a crucial time, meaning that a general election should be held early.

Concerns about the uncertainty that a general election will create can be alleviated by limiting the timetable, perhaps calling it three weeks before the referendum date. There is no better time for the Conservatives to have a general election, with Labour in disarray, UKIP leaderless and Ruth Davidson leading a Tory revival in Scotland.

Tagged with: , , , , ,

How to Vote in the EU Referendum

With just seven days until the EU Referendum, for many the choice is too overwhelming. Exaggerated claims, questionable forecasts and personal attacks have been the order of the day in this campaign, and as a result people do not know what to believe or how to vote.

The answer is simple. Voters must ask themselves whether they prioritise sovereignty or a strong economy. There is a consensus among economists that a Brexit will have negative consequences (although the extent of this is highly contentious); in the short run due to the loss of confidence in financial markets and in the long run as a result of the reduction of foreign direct investment, which is needed to fund the UK’s balance of payments deficit.

Conversely, leaving the EU will allow the UK to regain sovereignty, or, as Vote Leave has put it so persistently, “take back control”. The European Union is a fundamentally flawed political organisation – the most powerful institution, the European Commission, is an unelected body which is unprecedented in modern Western democracy. The European Parliament’s ‘Strasbourg Circus’ is highly inefficient and wasteful, and it is fair to say that there is a legislative bias in favour of Germany and France.

Immigration is a largely null point. Despite being the most important issue for many voters, the reality is that not much will change. With unemployment at the natural rate, the economy is desperately in need of a greater supply of labour to ease the building inflationary pressure. Owners of businesses across the UK requiring low-skilled labour have been speaking out about how a Brexit will mean that they will struggle to find staff for their businesses. This means that even if the UK leaves the EU, an overwhelming majority of immigrants will be allowed in the UK regardless, because the economy quite simply needs them, and thus the number of migrants will not change significantly.

Therefore the choice for voters is simple: choose the economy or choose sovereignty.

Tagged with: ,

Why the SNP has become the dominant party of Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon
The rise to dominance of the Scottish National Party is unprecedented. In the 2015 General Election it increased its Westminster presence from six to fifty-six MPs, while in this month’s Holyrood election it won its third successive term of office, albeit losing its majority. Opinion polls suggest that support for Scottish independence is no higher than it was at the referendum – so why has the SNP been so successful?
For most of its history the party has found itself in the ‘others’ category, and its relatively recent rise to prominence has come in line with the devolution which began in 1999 with the formation of the Scottish Parliament. It had to wait eight years before becoming the largest party, and even then it won just 36% of seats. It was not until the year that the rest of the UK was celebrating the Royal Wedding that the party wishing to break up Her Majesty’s union became a major force in British politics. It won its first majority on the promise of an independence referendum which was the precursor to a three year campaign of free publicity. Despite defeat, the SNP has grown to be the third largest party in the House of Commons, and the largest united party.
 This is for three main reasons: first, it is a way for people to express their frustration at the establishment without making fundamental, irreversible change. Just as with the EU, many people’s hearts tell them to leave but heads tell them to stay. By voting for the SNP they can show their resentment without actually initiating any constitutional change or threatening the economy. Second, the first-past- the-post electoral system used for general elections exaggerated support in Nicola Sturgeon’s first electoral test. Despite winning 50% of the Scottish vote, it won 95% of the seats. This suggests that its support is near-unanimous, and the bandwagon effect has ensued whereby it benefits from the media attention it gained from previous electoral success, which in turn boosts its support at future elections. Third is the weakness of the opposition. There was never a question that any other party would win the election, in fact the Conservatives admitted defeat before they started with their
campaign slogan ‘For a strong opposition’ and the only genuine contest being the race for second.
The future for the party is mixed. Yes, they continue to thrive as the dominant party north of the border and all devolved powers will be controlled by Ms Sturgeon, but the loss of the Holyrood majority may be a sign that their support has peaked. Furthermore, for as long as she postpones the inevitable second independence referendum, her position will be lacking some credibility. Unfortunately for her, a second vote on the matter will not happen any time soon. She knows that she cannot afford to hold it unless she is assured victory as a second defeat will end the issue for, at the least, several decades, and polls are not favourable to her. Therefore for the party to continue to prosper the First Minister will be praying for something she publicly opposes so vehemently – Brexit.