Archive for January, 2019

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Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

Parliament Gets A Grip: Of Itself Or The Government? Or Both?

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

Yesterday was a game changer. And because it was unexpected it was very British. It was also a major victory for May. But it is not a beginning of the end moment. More an end of the beginning, to paraphrase Churchill. In a series of votes on amendments in which many had expected a string of government defeats, the government won all but just the one, a critical one, which gave victory to the majority in the House against a crash Brexit, thus removing the national suicide threat from the negotiating platform. Even more important parliament voted on what it was actually for. That is the game changer. The fact it is for something which cannot be delivered is, in the context of restoring coherent governance to our country, not important. And here is the thing. If parliament can maintain discipline and work more or less within its proper bounds of government and opposition, instead of a brawl of multiple factions, the impossible might become deliverable.

As we all know the Irish backstop is the pill the nationalist Tories and their DUP friends(!) cannot swallow. But they have in effect swallowed everything else in May’s deal. Therefore there is potentially a majority for it. What the voting figures showed yesterday was that there were about twenty Tory MPs willing to vote against the government and slightly fewer Labour MPs willing to vote with it, which could very well enable May to win her final vote. For its part the EU has declared there will be no reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement, especially the Irish Backstop.

But if there is a crash out because the EU will not play, then there will be a hard border between the two parts Ireland and moreover the whole logistics of the Republic’s trade with the EU will be disrupted, as most of it passes through the UK. Add to that the high volume of its exports going into the UK tariff free will be subject to duties, making them a good deal less competitive. So what the EU refuses to give in over, it will actually get. It might not be a full custard pie moment, but it is not far short.

However both the DUP and hard Brexiteers know that if that hard border does return, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. This would trigger an eventually irresistible demand for a reunification vote for Ireland. That could finally lead to the loss to the UK of Ulster. This blog would not be sorry, but it would certainly fatally damage both the DUP and the Tory right wing. So both sides know they will have to give a little to gain a fudge which leaves the essence of the Withdrawal Agreement intact but offers enough to get it through the Commons.

And there is a new dynamic. Up till now the EU has held firm across all 27 States, in its parliament and governing council. The Commission reports to a united political force. In contrast London has stunned the world with its collapse of coherent governance and its chaotic splits, factions and rows. Nobody could fathom what it wanted because it did not know itself.

But at the critical hour it looks as if London might stop trying to copy the worst of Athens or Rome and become itself once again. United and clear cut in its agenda. And perhaps in the face of that, the unity of the EU will crack. That is what May and her allies hope for. It is also how Britain has historically won its wars. By losing the opening battles but winning the last. This eccentricity is how it remains, while no longer a world power, nevertheless in spite of everything, a power in the world.

Now Parliament Must Step Up

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

The government has failed to deliver a plan which parliament will accept. Given May’s spider’s web of red lines, second guessed as the priorities of Leave voters who were lied to during the referendum campaign, the deal she offered was fair and workable. But a fractious parliament, within which discipline has largely broken down, threw it out. This was in part because May’s plan was designed to appease crackpot nationalists in her own party whose fantasies are undeliverable.

This was never going to work. Instead she should have built an alliance across the Commons, where there is a combined majority of Leavers and Remainers willing to compromise and back a deal which falls short of their ideals, but delivers and orderly Brexit from which the country can construct a new future, not the No Deal wrecking ball of the nutters.

Now parliament has to step up to the plate and offer options which will work and which the EU will back. It will do this by putting down amendments to May’s deal. One of these demands, the scrapping of the Irish Backstop and replacing it with ‘New Arrangements’ is ridiculous, because the EU, time and again, has said all possible arrangements were discussed during the negotiations with the UK, which ended in May’s Deal and there will be no changes. This is the amendment the government has chosen to back. If it passes it will get nowhere because it just waffle, not a plan. If it fails it is another defeat for the government.

What is a plan, is an amendment to delay Brexit, if the government cannot come forward with an EU acceptable deal that the Commons will back by the end of February. If that passes it will at least stop a crash. If it fails and nothing else meaningful goings through, beyond futile grandstanding, parliament will have failed the people whose best interests it was elected to defend. That will have consequences. Big ones. Especially for the Tories.

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Friday, January 25th, 2019

Did the Whistle Blow?

Friday, January 25th, 2019

There is a very English flavour to a political crisis in which, against modern convention, the Queen feels it her duty to say something. But rather than a formal summons to Buckingham Palace, a tea and cake celebration at the local Women’s Institute with a carefully crafted and well coded message delivered to the ladies but aimed at Westminster and the country at large, grabbed the headlines and found its mark.We wait to see whether due attention will be paid by her ministers and their opposition shadows, who are hers too.

Parliament at large is not quite so hers, history tells us that, and it is here that there are signs of tectonic plates moving. A majority is beginning to emerge to defer Article 50 to allow more time to negotiate a deal acceptable to both parliament and the EU. That has caused a crisis of realism among the hard Brexiteers, who now fear such a move could eventually lead to the cancelling of Brexit altogether. Poll after poll shows the country is now against the whole project. So they are making noises about fig leaves being found to cover their inadequacies in return for backing May’s deal. A half Brexit, they tell themselves, is better than no Brexit at all. Sooner or later somebody had to blink.

So May could pull it off against all the odds. On the other hand parliament might wrest control and go for an even softer Brexit, or even, and this is very much the elephant in the room, go for another referendum. For all that the spotlight is on Corbyn.

It is not over yet. Even though that whistle blew.

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Thursday, January 24th, 2019

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We Need a Political Head of State: Or Scrap the Fixed Term Parliament Fiasco.

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

I am returning to a theme which has been a long held view, about the modern ultra neutral and detached role of the Monarch in the political life of the State. Whilst dominant in the ceremonial spectaculars and traditional rituals, the Queen is now by consent debarred from taking any but a supportive role in the Kingdom’s political life.

When we had a simple adversarial system with two dominant parties, with parliamentary power somewhat restricted by Executive control, i.e the government, including the ability of the prime minister to ask for parliament to be dissolved and an election called, the conventions worked well. Indeed during the Queen’s reign she has allowed her grip to loosen to enhance the level of democracy.

However if we go back to the crisis of 1930/31 we find George V playing a proactive role in organising cross party discussions which led to the setting up of the National government. The reason for that was the rise of the Labour party, but not to majority level, and the existence of both the Liberals and the Conservatives. In other words a three, not two party split. So somebody neutral had to herd the politicians to do their job.

This is common across the world where parliamentary republics have a non executive president as head of state. Indeed in the Commonwealth, the old dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand continue to recognize the Queen as head of state. Her representatives, the governors general, can and do lead such discussions when called for, as well as formally swear in prime ministers and occasionally dismiss them.

In the UK we now have a parliament which contains not only the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, but also nationalist parties from each of the countries of the UK, plus the Lib Dems and the Greens. Various adjustments have been made at the margin to our entrenched conventions, which have reduced the power of the executive and enhanced the power of parliament. This is not a bad thing in principle as the House of Commons is directly elected by universal franchise and the government is not.

However when the government has no majority and cannot get its legislation through the parliament as now, whilst able to cobble together a majority to win a confidence vote to keep itself in office, things are no longer working. Add to that, which ought to be bad enough, a parliament split in all directions and across party lines by the issue of the day, so that it can unite sufficient for a majority only on what it is against but not what it is for. The moment has surely come for someone to blow a whistle.

But the UK is in the absurd position that nobody is now empowered by the constitution to do that, or not in a timely fashion, if the Supreme Court has crossed your mind. So within the framework of democracy we must now either empower the monarch to exercise limited enabling actions to ensure the maintenance of effective government, or appoint some other officer to do that. In other words a political head of state, perhaps elected by the Commons and confirmed by the Lords and, like the PM, appointed by the Queen, with powers similar to her Governors General.

The alternative is to scrap the Fixed Term Parliament Act, another Cameron stupidity which seemed a good idea at the time, and return to the PM having the power to ask for a dissolution to trigger a general election, plus restoring the rule of the government automatically falling if it is defeated on flagship legislation in the Commons. That would restore the authority of the prime minister over the cabinet, as well as the power of parliament over the government. Although by defuse means they are still there in theory, in practice, as we can see now, they are neither of them fit for purpose.


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Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

Hess Enigma: A Novel

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Not A Government: May in Chaos

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

As expected May said nothing yesterday, except to abolish the disgraceful charge to EU citizens who apply for Settled Status. Otherwise it was more of the same. Her red lines are still there. Her fantasies about Irish Backstops are still there. Her blind stubbornness in trying to unite the two halves of her busted party is still there. What is gone is her Executive power to organise Brexit and direct events.

So it is now up to parliament. And this is the moment when parliament must measure up. So far it has managed to find a majority for the things it opposes. Now it has to take a quantum leap in the murky gloom of the definitions of sovereignty in our unwritten constitution and show what it has a majority for. Then it has to direct the government to carry out its wishes. Chop chop.

Meanwhile May rushes about consulting, phoning and cajoling. Nobody is listening, because in truth they know that all she can do is await orders. And a good many are very much hoping those orders will be for her to march.

Brexit: Quick thoughts at the Start of a Critical Day

Monday, January 21st, 2019

May achieves the Gold Standard of an obstinate person who makes an industry out of trying to force people to do things her way. She has now hit the buffers. Opposition parties in the Commons have given her short shrift.

The EU likewise. Now she is alleged to be trying to set up a separate treaty with Ireland. If true it is ridiculous and neither Ireland nor the EU will accept it. A political declaration to underline the temporary nature of the backstop yes. But that will never get past the hard core nationalist wing of the Tory party. Another way would be to stay in the Customs Union, but that is one of her silly red lines. However in the end that might be the solution the Commons goes for. If that happens either she will have to go with it or go altogether.