Friday 20 December 2019

A new year, and a new era: Hold on to your hats

By his Queen’s Speech shall we know him. (And incidentally, didn’t Her Maj look magnificently grumpy, shorn of all her customary finery, as she monotoned her way through the guff for the second time in as many months.)

Or perhaps not, given the triumphantly re-elected prime minister’s well-documented penchant for saying things that aren’t true. And a Queen’s Speech is, after all, no more than a long list of promises, begging to be broken.

But at least now, we have been granted a glimpse of an answer to the question that’s been asked by all self-respecting commentators since this last time last week: what kind of PM does Boris Johnson intend to be?

Answer, in a nutshell: a re-elected one. That’s the thing about ambition – once you’ve achieved it, you immediately need to find another one. So, the man who’s been obsessed for decades with reaching the highest political pinnacle (‘world king’, in the words of his sister Rachel), having achieved it, wants to hang on to it. Wouldn’t it be super if he could emulate – or, why not, even surpass -- Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s achievement and win three consecutive general elections?

Never forget, this is the man who famously said that his policy on cake is ‘pro having it and pro eating it.’ And let’s be honest: it is a policy that has served him well. He has lied and cheated his way to the top, having fun all the while. That was him having the cake, so now let’s watch him eat it.

Can he be both tough and tender? Can he bend the EU to his will as he negotiates a post-withdrawal trade deal? Can he pump billions into the NHS and infrastructure projects, prioritising the needs of the left-behind post-industrial north, while indulging his metropolitan instincts? Can he, in other words, do what the Labour party can apparently no longer do: retain the support both of fed-up, older, white, working class males and of younger urban professionals?

Rachel Sylvester in The Times has done some useful number-crunching that suggests his tried-and-tested cake policy may not be quite enough to do the trick. Fewer than one-fifth of under-25s backed the Tories last week, compared with two-thirds of the over-65s. Fewer than a third of voters with a university degree voted Tory. And whereas Tony Blair swept into Downing Street in 1997 with a net favourability rating of +51, Boris Johnson is currently rated at -11.

Mr Johnson’s first task – the first post-election wave of his magic wand – will be to persuade us that come 31 January, he will have fulfilled his pledge: he will have ‘got Brexit done.’ In reality, of course, he will have done no such thing. Yes, the UK will no longer legally be a member of the EU, but under the terms of the agreed transition arrangements (what Theresa May liked to call the ‘implementation period’), you won’t notice much difference, other than that no UK representatives will any longer attend EU meetings.

And then, oh joy, oh rapture, we’ll spend the whole of next year hurtling towards another cliff edge and the constant prospect of another ‘no deal’ exit. Because – true to his pro cake and pro eating it approach – the prime minister seems to think that the EU will happily sign up to a no-tariffs, no-quotas free trade deal while simultaneously agreeing that the UK will also be allowed to diverge from whatever EU standards and regulations it wishes.

Er, I think not. So it may not entirely surprise you to learn that this is not only my last blogpost before Christmas, but also the last in this blog's present form, as I have reluctantly decided that after nearly fifteen years of posting every Friday, it is time to call a halt.

I started writing regular weekly newsletters in July 2005, the day after the London Tube and bus terrorist attacks, and just a couple of months after Tony Blair had won his third successive election victory. Since then, there have been four more general elections and three referendums (surely you haven’t forgotten the alternative vote referendum in 2011?).

I shall continue to post on this blog when I feel I have something I want to say. (You can make sure you don't miss anything by filling in your email address in the subscribe box.) But it won’t be every week, as I have realised that with the passing of the years, there is an ever-increasing risk that I shall eventually end up saying the same thing to the same people over and over again.

I also have a couple of exciting new projects coming up, which I’ll let you know about in due course, so I very much hope we can stay in touch.

Meanwhile, have a very good Christmas and my very best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Friday 13 December 2019

The morning after

Let’s start with the good news, because frankly, there’s not much of it.

The Greens increased their vote share by more than any other party in yesterday’s election, and they won 200,000 more votes than the Brexit party. (They still have only one MP, but hey, this is the UK electoral system. What do you expect?)
Apart from that, the political landscape looks pretty grim this morning if you’re an anti-Brexit progressive with a distaste for lying charlatans.
In the words of an eve-of-poll op-ed in the New York Times by the British columnist Jenni Russell: ‘The old assumptions – that truth matters, that lies shame the liar, that in a democracy the press and the public must have a right to interrogate those who seek the top jobs – have all been swept aside by the Tories’ conviction that in an inattentive, dissatisfied, cacophonous world, victory will go to the most compelling entertainer, the most plausible and shameless deceiver, the leader who can drill home a repetitive and seductive incantation. Facts and details will be irrelevant so long as voters feel a politician is on their side.’
So welcome to the UK of the 2020s. The map has been redrawn; King Boris is master of all he surveys. There’s no point in denying the reality: he, and his overweening ambition, lack of principle, tousled hair and Trump-lite populism, have triumphed. He is the most successful Conservative politician since Margaret Thatcher, and for the same reason: he has persuaded working class voters that the Tories will represent them better than the Labour party.
The Labour coalition – urban university graduates with liberal social values, united with traditional blue-collar workers in the industrial and post-industrial Midlands, north-west and north-east – has well and truly fractured. A party led by Jeremy Corbyn (London), Diane Abbott (London), Emily Thornberry (London), and Keir Starmer (London) – only John McDonnell and Tom Watson sounded different – is not a party that can win support north of Watford.
Scotland is now in the grip of the SNP more tightly than ever – I expect Scottish independence to be the next big constitutional crisis as soon as Brexit fever subsides. In the pantheon of 2019 election winners, Nicola Sturgeon deserves her place beside Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
Farage? The man whose party won a desultory two per cent of the vote? Yes, because he has won what he has spent most of his adult life fighting for: the UK will leave the European Union. This time there really are no ifs, no buts. It is going to happen.
If you’re still hunting desperately for silver linings, you may like to consider the possibility that a Johnson-led government with an unassailable majority in the House of Commons – able happily to ignore the now irrelevant DUP and the now equally irrelevant Jacob Rees-Mogg – could, if it wished, sign up to a much softer Brexit than was politically attainable until yesterday. Is his sell-out on northern Ireland a portent of things to come? Watch this space …
Which brings us back to the Labour party. It has now lost four consecutive general elections – the last Labour leader to win one was Tony Blair in 2005. Mr Corbyn’s signal achievement is to have bequeathed his party even fewer seats than Michael Foot managed in 1983. He has been a disaster for Labour, and his supporters’ attempts to argue otherwise are contemptible. Whatever his personal qualities may be – and I have never been persuaded that he is as ‘nice’ as he is often made out to be – his leadership qualities were conspicuous only by their absence. When I remarked online last night, soon after the exit poll was published and the scale of the impending Labour defeat became clear, that I hoped at least some of his followers would be thinking of the people sleeping on the streets, the NHS workers struggling to keep going, and the families depending on food banks to feed their children, I was immediately told it was a ‘hateful’ thing to say.

No. What is hateful – and what fills me with anger – is that Labour betrayed the people who need it most. It embraced a style of student politics which alienates far more people than it attracts. It bathed in the easy satisfaction of talking only to its own supporters, and it paved the way for the triumph of the most unprincipled prime minister in living memory.

When Boris Johnson addressed the nation this morning, bathed in glory, he did so in front of the slogan ‘The People’s Government.’ So here’s a reminder: according to a study published last year, 97% of Conservative party members are white, 71% are male, and 44% are 65 or older.

Friday 6 December 2019

There’s just one election issue that really matters

At last I understand. With less than a week to go till election day, suddenly everything has come into focus. This really is, as so many commentators have already said, a one-issue election.

And the issue is: Does Jeremy Corbyn watch the Queen on TV on Christmas Day? (Spoiler alert: er, no, he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know when it’s broadcast.)

What could matter more for the future of our country? What question could possibly be more important than whether the man mocked as Magic Grandpa is such a devoted Royalist that he will sit his family down at 3pm on 25 December to watch Her Maj deliver her sixty-sixth Christmas homily?

(Factbox: just over six million people watched her last year, down from seven and a half million in 2017. When George V delivered the first Royal Christmas message in 1932, by contrast, 20 million people tuned in. Perhaps Mr Corbyn is in better company than he thinks.)

It seems he is terrified of appearing out of sympathy with the people he presumably thinks of as traditional Labour voters, gathered round the TV, preparing to desert his party and vote for the pro-Brexit Tories for the first time in their lives.

As a result, when he was asked by Julie Etchingham on ITV last night about his Christmas Day viewing habits, he lied. He dodged and ducked – and he looked every bit as shifty as Boris Johnson does every time he is asked how many children he has. (Watch the clip here if you haven’t seen it yet.)

So in an election in which he hopes to defeat a prime minister with an unrivalled reputation for lying and opportunism, he blows a huge gaping hole in what is left of his own reputation as a man who sticks to his principles (although you could argue that he was already well on the way with his dogged refusal to come clean on whether or not he wants the UK to leave the EU).

I am now finding it almost impossible to take my own advice. I wrote last week of the dangers of succumbing to despair, yet now I am closer to the brink than ever. A NATO summit, which could have offered an opportunity to take stock of the real dangers we face (Russia? China? Cyber warfare?), turned in to a tawdry soap opera episode in which the lead character, a deranged TV celebrity, was mocked behind his back by his fellow cast members and scolded to his face by the French president for being flippant about Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Meanwhile, virtually ignored, representatives from more than 200 countries are meeting in Madrid in yet another attempt to agree on ways to alleviate the worst effects of the climate emergency. Nothing like as important as Mr Corbyn’s Christmas viewing habits, admittedly, unless you are tempted to take seriously a warning from the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, which issued its latest annual climate report this week.

His verdict? ‘Things are getting worse.’ As the New York Times reported: ‘More devastating fires in California. Persistent drought in the [US] southwest. Record flooding in Europe and Africa. A heat wave, of all things in Greenland. Climate change and its effects are accelerating, with climate-related disasters piling up, season after season.’

The current prediction is that unless governments take urgent action, by the end of the century – in other words, within the lifetime of children now being born – average global temperatures will have risen to levels that climate scientists say will have catastrophic and irreversible consequences. And according to a research paper published in the specialist journal Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists’ climate models have already proved remarkably accurate.

Before the European parliament elections last May, I explained why I had decided to cast my vote for the Green party. I wrote: ‘I want to maximise the unambiguously anti-Brexit vote, which is why voting Labour is not an option, and I want to support a party that has convinced me that it understands the seriousness of the climate crisis that confronts us.’

Next Thursday, because I live in a constituency where the admirably anti-Brexit Labour candidate is sitting on a super-safe majority of more than 30,000, with the Lib Dems having come second in 2017, I shall be voting Green again.

It is the only action I can take to stave off the overwhelming feeling of despair. And I’m sorry, but no, I won’t be watching the Queen on Christmas Day. Just like Mr Corbyn and about 40 million other voters.