Friday 19 May 2017

Theresa May: a new kind of Tory?

I have a little election quiz for you. See if you can work out which of the three main political parties made each of the following statements:

'Government can and should be a force for good ... and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.'

'We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.'

'Paying your fair share of tax is the price of living in a civilised democracy.'

'We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.'

'Immigration to Britain is still too high. It is our objective to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, by which we mean annual net migration in the tens of thousands.'

OK, the last one was easy. But the other ones? Here's a clue. Each statement comes from the same party manifesto -- and it's the one in which the words 'strong and stable' appear no fewer than thirteen times.

That sound you hear is Margaret Thatcher spinning in her grave -- because Theresa May is using the cover of Brexit to rip up Thatcherism and recast her party as the Friend of the Workers. She has cast herself as The Queen of State Intervention and The Believer in Society. She is a cross between Boudicca and Elizabeth I. The Mother of the Nation.

Did you vote UKIP in 2015 and Leave in the referendum? Brexit means Brexit: Theresa's your woman.

Do you care about inequality and obscene fat cat salaries? Guess what, so does Theresa.

Did you vote Remain, but now just want to get the whole Brexit business over with so that we can get on with our lives? Yup, Theresa does too.

Oh, and if you think it's only reasonable that older people in need of expensive social care should be required to pay for some of it out of the absurdly inflated value of their family homes, so does Theresa. (The home I bought 35 years ago is now valued at 25 times as much as I paid for it. Why shouldn't some of that wholly undeserved wealth go towards paying for my care in my dotage?)

All things to all voters? Why not? Mrs May is a canny enough politician to seize the golden opportunity that she has been offered: if she wins the kind of majority that is being predicted for her on 8 June, the manifesto will entitle her to claim that 'the people have spoken' (where have we heard that before?) and endorsed her vision of the future.

How many Tory MPs and activists share that vision is an interesting question. And whether the impending Brexit storms will leave her with any breathing room in which to make that vision a reality is an equally interesting question.

I shouldn't think Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage would find that they have much in common were they to sit down for a ruminative chat, but on one thing they would agree: We wuz robbed. Mrs May has taken the Miliband vision of caring capitalism and the Farage vision of a Brexited, low immigration UK and made them both her own. Just as Tony Blair did two decades ago, she has planted her flag defiantly in the centre ground (which happens to be where most voters see themselves) and dares anyone to challenge her right of occupation.

What a shame that she and Emmanuel Macron of France will soon be spitting at each other (figuratively) across the Brexit negotiating table. They have a lot in common, both having cast themselves as big tent centrists, Macron by forming a brand new party, and May by reinventing the one she leads.

What was the main May message in Halifax on Thursday as she launched her manifesto? 'Come with me as I lead Britain.' Me, me, me ...

Sebastian Payne put it well in the Financial Times: 'This is a Conservative party document in name, but it is very much a product of the prime minister and her team. There is a notable focus on principles and ideas, arguing that there is such a thing as society, government can do good and collectivism and individualism need to work side by side.'

I admit that it is usually a mistake to read too much into manifestos. I still bear the scars from when I made a series of radio programmes ahead of the 1992 general election, in which we attempted to submit each of the main parties' manifestos to forensic and expert examination. One by one, they fell apart in our hands, their grandiose prose crumbling into meaningless guff.

Voters vote for many different reasons, but the detailed proposals set out in election manifestos are rarely a decisive factor in the decision they make. Trust in party leaders, on the other hand, is a major factor, which is why Tory election propaganda features the words 'Theresa May' wherever you look. It is also why the letter I got from my local Labour party candidate this week didn't include the words 'Jeremy Corbyn' once.

Not once.

Friday 12 May 2017

The utter incompetence of the Trump White House

I want you to read the following words very, very carefully. They were spoken on Thursday by the White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders.

'We want this [the FBI's investigation into possible Russian interference in last year's presidential campaign] to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.'

Do I need to translate? The White House hopes that by firing the director of the FBI, James Comey, President Trump will have managed to shut down an investigation that threatens the very survival of his administration. Not since Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 has a president acted so blatantly to protect himself against possible impeachment.

(A few hours after Ms Sanders's statement, the president flatly contradicted her, and said that far from bringing the Russia investigation to a conclusion, his decision to fire Comey might actually lengthen it. Hmm ...)

Compare Ms Sanders's admirably frank admission with the utterly incredible version originally offered by the White House. On Tuesday, when the firing of the FBI director was announced to universal astonishment, the White House said President Trump had acted on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, that following Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email saga, 'the FBI is unlikely to regain public and Congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.'

Given that Comey's 'mistakes' are generally believed to have had a significant influence on Mr Trump's election victory, this always seemed to stretch credulity to breaking point. And now, thanks to Ms Sanders, we know it was total tosh.

We also have it direct from the horse's mouth. In an interview with NBC News, Mr Trump said: 'I was going to fire Comey -- my decision. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation ... In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia, is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'

Russia. Not Clinton. Odd. Or perhaps not odd at all. And, in the eyes of some, perilously close to being an admission of obstruction of justice. As Mr Trump himself might say: Terrible.

There was more. '[Comey's] a showboat, he's a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.'

But that's not true either, says the man who has taken over as the FBI's acting director. Andrew McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee that Comey enjoyed 'broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.' And he added: 'The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees, enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey.'

This isn't a common or garden case of mixed messages. This is clear, incontrovertible evidence of an administration that is making it up hour by hour. It is evidence of an administration that is so culpably incompetent that it lets an official Russian photographer into the White House to snap merrily away as Mr Trump glad hands the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, having first banned all American media from recording the encounter.

So not only did the Russians get their pictures all over the American media, they also revealed -- oops, sorry about that -- that the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, who happens to be the man at the centre of all the Russia-Trump campaign allegations, was also present. Somehow, the White House had forgotten to mention that he would be there too.

Now, apparently, White House officials are complaining that the Russians 'tricked' them and never mentioned that they intended to publish their photographs. It just fills one with confidence about the sophistication and professionalism of the White House operation, doesn't it?

And then there's the president himself. A man who gives interviews virtually on a daily basis and whose utterances are so incomprehensible that media outlets have taken to publishing them verbatim for us to enjoy in all their glory. This, for example, is Mr Trump telling TIME magazine what it's like being president.

'I find the job very natural for me. I find -- it’s a very big job obviously, there’s no job big like this. No job is important like this. But I think some of the -- I just think it’s something that works for me, it feels very natural to me. And all I said, the job, it is, it’s a difficult job but it’s a job that I find to be -- I love doing it. I love helping people. Mike [Pence] is doing a fantastic job. He fits it so well. I mean we have a great team, he and I guess, they say we’re somewhat opposite and that works to be a very good combination.'

And this is what he said about his foreign policy achievements: 'You know what’s interesting, I’m getting very good marks in foreign policy. People would not think of me in that light. I’m just saying, and you read the same things I read. I’m getting As and A+s on foreign policy. And nobody thought about it.'

This is borderline gibberish. Correction: delete the word 'borderline'. It is pure, unadulterated gibberish. This is the president of the United States who can construct neither an intelligible sentence nor a coherent thought.

Watergate? Impeachment? Fat chance. Richard Nixon was done for by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Donald Trump bathes in the shameful acquiescence of Congressional Republicans, none of whom -- for now -- are prepared to play the role of the truth-telling child in The Emperor's New Clothes: 'But he hasn't got anything on.'

Mr Trump's unfitness for high office, clothed or unclothed, is plain for everyone to see. Is there no senior Republican, not one, who is prepared to state the obvious and start whatever process is required to remove him from the White House?

I cannot believe that there is not a single honourable Republican in Congress who knows what has to be done and has the political courage to do it. Or am I being hopelessly naïve?

Friday 5 May 2017

The Brexit disaster: so much more than politics

Only the most sadistic of dinner party arrangers would ever choose to seat Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May at the same table -- so we shouldn't be too surprised that their Downing Street soirée last week was less than successful.

Theresa May: 'Let's do everything we can to make Brexit a success.'

Jean-Claude Juncker: 'There is no way it can be a success.'

And there, in one icy exchange, you have the heart of the problem. Mrs May has convinced herself that the UK can look forward to a glorious, prosperous future once it has left the EU -- if she gets the deal she wants. That's what she calls 'a success'.

Mr Juncker thinks the opposite: that Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. After all, what would be the point of the EU if member states could do better outside it than as members? To believe that such a thing is even possible would be to make a nonsense of the entire project.

On the morning after the Brexit referendum last June, I wrote: 'For the next several years, British politics will be dominated by endless negotiations, rows and crises over how to recalibrate our relationship with our neighbours.' It has started: the leak of the May-Juncker contretemps and Mrs May's Downing Street counter-blast were just the first in what will be a long, ugly parade of name-calling, spinning and leaking.

Why? Because name-calling, spinning and leaking feeds back into the negotiating process by putting pressure on the negotiators. If Brussels spins that the UK is being wholly unreasonable and that a so-called train crash Brexit is looking increasingly likely, that will have inevitable repercussions in Westminster.

Similarly, if the UK spins that because of Brussels intransigence, it is seriously examining the 'Singapore option' -- rock-bottom corporate taxes to attract investment away from the EU -- that will create pressure from, among others, German business leaders.

Remember what Philip Hammond said last January: 'I personally hope we will be able to remain in the mainstream of European economic and social thinking. But if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.' No one was left in any doubt as to what that 'something different' might be.

For Mrs May, the immediate priority is to stack up as large a majority as she can on 8 June. 'I've got my mandate, and I'll use it however I see fit.' Her opponents, both those in her own party and those on the opposition benches, will be expected to do little more than sit on the sidelines and complain impotently.

Her Downing Street counter-blast on Wednesday was aimed squarely at British voters, not at Brussels. Look how tough she is, look how she can give as good as she gets. Can you imagine Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron being this tough? And who needs UKIP now? (On that front at least, the early results from Thursday's local elections seem to have clearly vindicated her Boudicca act.)

The tragedy is that the gulf between Brussels and London is, as it has always been, as much cultural as political. Mrs May's and Mr Juncker's generation simply see the world differently -- the under 30s, who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made in their name, tend to be far more understanding of each other's cultures and societies.

For the Brexiteers, walking away from the EU is a rational decision based on what they perceive to be in the UK's best interests. For many in the EU27, it's far more than that -- it's an irrational and incomprehensible repudiation of their very identity as Europeans.

That's why the negotiations will be so ill-tempered. You can't negotiate over identity. And that's why, for the next two years, the UK and the EU27 are going to say some very nasty things about each other.

How will it end? Let's hope for the best and plan for the worst. Just in case.