Jo Swinson channels Emmanuel Macron

The Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth was a heady affair. With a new leader, and new members flooding in, including six MPs from other parties, conference goers sensed they were on the verge of something thrilling. Jo Swinson, that new leader, got a standing ovation when she suggested that she was candidate for prime minister. What to make of it all?

The Times cartoonist showed the party bird emblem morphing into a flying pig. Scepticism is warranted, of course. I was particularly struck by this article from Financial Times political correspondent Robert Shrimsley, and in particular this comment:

If this moment does indeed offer a historic opportunity for the Lib Dems, they do not seem ready to grasp it. The strategy seems entirely short-termist, worrying about the rest once they’ve got a few more seats. Little suggests the birth of a credible new Macroniste third force.

It is easy to see now Mr Shrimsley came to this view. Brexit dominated the conference, and in particular the party’s promise to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to quit if it won a majority in a general election. Many commentators dismissed this as a gimmicky promise made because the party assumes it will never be in a position to implement it. A parallel was drawn with the party’s policy against university tuition fees in its 2010 manifesto, which it reversed in coalition, with disastrous consequences to the party’s standing. Indeed many members worry that this is the wrong way to overturn a referendum result; I myself voted to remove this from the relevant policy motion on Brexit, though it did not stop me from voting for the motion after this vote failed. When Ed Davey gave his Shadow Chancellor’s speech, he said a lot about stopping Brexit, but nothing about managing the country’s finances. He also spent time developing the Remainer trope that people voted for Brexit as a protest from left-behind places, and that public policy should therefore address their needs. The conclusion may be sound, but the premise is weak. The bulk of the Leave vote was from people who did not like Britain being part of the EU because they dislike the shared sovereignty it implies and because they are sceptical of the benefits of greater openness. And even the protest voters still want the result to be honoured as a mark of simple respect.

So a party that reduces everything to an argument over Brexit, and whose core Brexit policy is a promise that nobody thinks it will have to keep. I share some of these misgivings, but I disagree with Mr Shrimsley. There are three reasons: the leader, the members and the big idea.

First the leader. Jo should not be underestimated. She has brought a determination and focus to the role that many may not appreciate. She did not become Britain’s youngest MP in 2005 by accident, but through hard work, leadership and determination. Besides, busy working mothers don’t have time for shilly-shallying (if I can be permitted a sexist comment…). People who get in her way are pushed aside. Local parties are learning this as they select their candidates for the next general election – and the leadership manages the process to an unprecedented extent. She is not a Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader almost by accident. But she isn’t a Boris Johnson either; she is equally ambitious, but lacks his biddability of political beliefs. She has clear ideas about where she wants to take the country. In her closing speech, after the disposing of Brexit, she developed some of those ideas: tackling climate change, a focus on wellbeing rather than GDP (an area where I have helped her develop party policy), prioritising mental health, and tackling youth crime. She has thought through the Revoke policy and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt. It may upset political commentators but the party will not break out of its third party hell by conforming to the wishes and expectations of the chatterers. It has to play hard and that is what its leader is doing.

A further striking thing about the party is its membership. Overwhelmingly it has joined since the catastrophic general election of 2015, and especially since the referendum of 2016. These new members are replacing the old hands and shaping a fresher political party; many of its parliamentary candidates are now from this generation. Amongst the new members are, of course, three sitting MPs elected as Labour, and three elected as Conservative. Five of these six were prominent in Bournemouth. I saw three of them up close (the three ex-Labour ones, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith). All were very impressive, and a cut about the defectors that the party has seen before. They were met with a wall of love. Chuka in particular sounded fully integrated as he urged members to get out on to the doorsteps. He and Luciana were clearly ambitious politicians in mid-career, with no thought of retiring quietly. What all the new members shared was the sense that they have found a new home where they felt comfortable. This influx does feel like the beginnings of a Macroniste movement, especially in the way that it is drawing strength from left and right.

But what is the big idea that is bringing all these people together? Opposing Brexit obviously, but why? A commitment to being open, fair and tolerant. Surely all parties say they are that? But both Labour and the Conservatives have gone in a different direction. In members’ eyes the Brexit campaign was led by narrow and intolerant politicians who wanted to roll the clock back, for a variety of dark motives, and the Lib Dems present the antidote. This might strike outsiders as being stretch. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan was still much in evidence – a very short step from “Bollocks” to 17.4 million people who voted to leave. And the sixth MP who was not at the conference (or who kept a low profile), Philip Lee, would have had a much more difficult time, due to the interpretation that some of the things he has said and done were homophobic. Some prominent activists resigned when he was accepted into the party; others were in no mood to even give him a hearing. [See further discussion in comments below on this issue – I was probably not being quite fair on Philip – and the angry activists were probably a small minority] Lib Dems might claim to be open and tolerant, but they only manage it up to a point. But with both main parties riven by deselection issues, and treating bullying as politics as usual, the Lib Dems are clearly cutting through to a lot of people as representing a new style of politics. Interestingly, this is what Mr Corbyn tried to do when he took on the Labour leadership, but he has clearly failed. The Lib Dems might fail too, but for now the floor is theirs.

And so there are parallels between what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do and the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s political movement in France: a mix of firm leadership, centrist policies and a fresh style of politics. Sceptics should stay sceptical – but they should also keep an open mind. The party is about a lot more then Brexit.

Is the Lib Dem investment in coalition government paying off?

Signed up as a Lib Dem supporter and donated. I cast my vote at age 18 for Ted Heath and every general since I have been a Conservative, often canvassing. I am done

Thus an email I saw this morning. Also this morning Justine Greening, long-time Conservative MP for my neighbouring constituency of Putney, resigned the Conservative whip. I have been predicting for a long time that Britain’s political system is breaking up. It has happened much more slowly than I had expected. But it is happening.

The change is being brought about by two groups of iconoclasts, fed up with the established ways of British politics. Right now it is those that have taken over the Conservative Party that are making the running. They are led by Boris Johnson, Britain’s un-mandated prime minister, but many spy an evil genius behind him: Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings came to public attention as special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove in the coalition government of 2010. He fast developed a reputation as a nasty piece of work, despising most other members of the human race. The signature policy of these years was turning English state schools into independently-run academies. The initial idea for these schools being run by local parents and community groups in a bubbling up of local initiative was swiftly crushed, to be replaced by politically well-connected academy chains, whose most distinctive policy was high levels of executive pay. The policy ended up by achieving little more than the looting of public funds. Mr Cummings then moved on to run the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum, where his particular genius shone through. While it is commonplace to blame the referendum result on a lacklustre Remain campaign, it is not so easy to see exactly what it could have done against the trap that Mr Cummings set for it.

We now have a complete change of culture in the Conservatives. There are some parallels with the previous regime of Theresa May before she was laid low by the 2017 General election, with Nicholas Timothy taking the evil genius role of Mr Cummings. But Mrs May’s regime was introverted and comfortable in the civil-service dominated world of Whitehall, even though it despised parliamentary accountability. It was not radical at heart. The new government is much more a movement of a like-minded elite, and it wants to turn the complacent British government upside down. And it is approaching the political challenges like a wargame where the taking of risks is celebrated. They are happy to play fast and loose with Britain’s constitutional conventions; but more importantly they want to turn their party into something more single-minded and ideological, from the pragmatic broad church it used to be. Liberals are not welcome. Mass sacking of Conservative MPs are in prospect.

The other group of iconoclasts have taken over the Labour Party, with the accession to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. There are striking similarities with the new Tory regime. One of the more bizarre features of the current debate is the way this Labour group have suddenly decided that constitutional propriety and parliamentary sovereignty are sacred principles. They are seeking to hijack the outrage at the government’s latest manoeuvres with the slogan “stop the coup”. We should not take this change of heart any more seriously than the silly slogan.

Both groups’ main asset is each other. The Conservatives hope to bring back reluctant liberals and pragmatists with a fear of letting in Jeremy Corbyn. Some polls suggest that their fear of Mr Corbyn trumps even their loathing of Brexit. Labour activists hope for a repeat of the 2017 election, where they succeeded in polarising the debate as being a choice between themselves and the Tories, marginalising the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, and the Greens. They hope to harvest anger at “austerity” and how society is unfairly “rigged”, and combine it with a vague pro-Remain stance which is enough to haul in Remainers on the basis of its contrast with Tory extremism.

Such calculations dominate the threats of a general election on 14th October, before the Brexit Day of 31 October. This election will require the consent of both main parties. But polling suggests that both would start the campaign in a weak position. The Conservatives are polling in the low to mid 30s; Labour in the low to mid 20s. Who is taking the remaining 40% of the vote, and can they be squeezed?

In Scotland, the position of both parties looks hopeless. Mr Johnson’s accession has left Scotland’s Tories in total disarray, and its leader has resigned. The gains the party made there in 2017 look likely to be reversed. Labour too have failed to gain traction. The main beneficiary is the SNP, who look likely to regain their dominance. There may be consolation prizes for the Lib Dems too, who have chosen a Scottish MP, Jo Swinson, as their leader.

In England and Wales the running is mainly being made by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party, and by the Lib Dems, with the Greens showing strongly too. Conservatives and Labour have more reason to hope here. The Greens are challenging very few parliamentary seats, and their ground-level campaigning is weak. They usually get squeezed in general elections, and this looks likely again, with the Labour message designed to appeal to their voters. Mr Johnson is hoping that his line on Brexit will have shot TBP’s fox. That party is campaigning all-out for No-Deal, which is popular in quite large sections of the country. It is well-organised, but probably weak at constituency level. Labour’s mild Remain stance, backing a further referendum, may offer it an opportunity to block Labour’s recovery, but Tory Brexiteers are surely likely to rally back to the flag.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. This party’s activists (of whom I am one) like to see themselves as radicals who want to shake up the system. But now they find themselves cast as the party of pragmatism, tolerance, common sense and respect for constitutional convention, though that comes alongside a strong pro-Remain position. The party has a much stronger grassroots campaigning campaigning capability than the Greens or TBP. It comes close to matching that of the ageing Conservatives (though these may be energised by Mr Johnson), but is still way behind Labour’s. The Conservatives, on the other hand, look much better funded.

Can the Lib Dems capture the zeitgeist and hold their own alongside the two “main” parties? It is an opportunity, but not more than that. The years of coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 nearly killed the party, but it now starts to look like an asset. Its leader has more government experience than Labour’s (and has been a minister for longer than even Mr Johnson, though not at cabinet level), and it shows the party to be pragmatic and politically moderate, even if that’s a description that many activists would shun. Perhaps now they will get the last laugh on the erstwhile coalition colleagues. And if their poll share (now a bit below 20%) holds up, it will be harder for Labour to get traction too.

In fact Labour are unlikely to go for a pre-Brexit election, though Mr Corbyn seems to want one. It complicates their message too much. But who knows where on earth the steady corrosion of British party politcs will take us?

Understanding Britain’s prorogation row

Slowly Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, is revealing his plan. He has asked the Queen to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament for an unprecedented four and a half weeks, from early September to mid October. This leaves parliament just three weeks before the Brexit deadline of 31 October (next week before the suspension, and two weeks after it), making it very hard for it to do anything to thwart his plans, given how much other business it must transact.

The Queen has consented to this, which puts Mr Johnson in a very strong position, as there is no easy way to stop him. So now either the EU cracks on the question of the Irish backstop, and the government rushes a revised deal through parliament at the end of October, or we drop out without a deal. One element of Mr Johnson’s plan remains mysterious. When and under what circumstances will he move for an election, which seems more than likely given how precarious the parliamentary position?

Leaving that aside, the most depressing thing about the episode, apart from the dire state of the country’s constitution, is how partisan and ill-informed all the commentary is. What people say about the constitutional propriety depends wholly on their views about Brexit. Leavers say that it is wholly proper, Remainers say it is an abuse of power. There is outrage on one side and insouciance on the other, but little attention to the facts. Let’s try to take a step back.

Firstly the government’s defence is that with a new prime minister it is essential to proceed with a Queen’s Speech setting out a legislative programme. It is customary to precede this with a few days prorogation. This has simply been combined with the normal three week recess for party conferences, and rounded up a bit. The first part of this makes sense. A Queen’s Speech is badly needed to give Mr Johnson’s administration legitimacy, as so far it is completely untested by any kind of democratic process. One of his predecessor’s unhappy constitutional innovations was doing away with the annual Queen’s Speech, and prolonging the parliamentary session indefinitely. A Queen’s Speech is long overdue. It is hard to challenge the timing either: waiting for the party conferences but before Brexit Day. Things surely won’t be any easier after this date after all. The problem with the government’s case is consolidating the conference recess with the customary short prorogation before the Speech. A recess is something decided by parliament itself, and the Autumn conference recess has frequently been suspended to deal with urgent business. That was sure to happen this time. One of the conferences (the first) includes only the 14 Lib Dem MPs after all. A prorogation, however, is imposed by the Sovereign and needs no parliamentary approval. Furthermore some important parliamentary business continues during a recess, such as committee work and the answering of questions. This will all go under a prorogation. This is a clear abuse the government’s prerogative powers and there is no need for critics’ outrage to be manufactured. The “nothing to see here” defence offered by the prime minister and his supporters marks a new low of lying and deceit in British politics.

A further suggestion is that the Queen should not have given consent. That is a much harder case to make. The constitutional principle that she always does as her prime minister advises is the only secure way that the Queen can stay above politics. The political accountability of the prorogation is the prime minister’s alone. This makes the case for an elected president in the manner of most republics. Alas that idea remains deeply unpopular.

So is excluding Parliament from interfering with Brexit for over four weeks a denial of democracy? Brexiteers appeal to the supremacy of the referendum result over parliamentary sovereignty. This is a brand new constitutional principle, without any legal force, but one that has broad popular and political consent. Even most Remainers say that the 2016 referendum can only be undone by another referendum. In the way that Britain’s unwritten constitution evolves, this looks secure. The problem is deciding what the British public actually asked parliament to do. Parliament is surely entitled to decide for itself, especially since it was elected after the referendum and so has a more up to date mandate. Precedent from other European countries that have rejected EU membership (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) suggests that this may include membership of the Single Market and more. The campaigners for a Leave vote were deliberately open about what the vote actually meant until the vote took place. The suggestion by many Brexiteers that the referendum mandate can only mean a hard Brexit is clear nonsense.

But the Brexiteers do have a point. Parliament has failed to decide what it actually wants, in spite of some quite innovative attempts to get them to give an indication. They rejected the deal offered by the EU three times, and not even narrowly. They have rejected holding a further referendum to help it make up its mind. A narrow majority was found for the government deal minus the backstop, and that is exactly what Mr Johnson is asking for. But, Remainers counter, they have also rejected no-deal. But rejecting no-deal without agreeing on an alternative simply looks like trying to frustrate the referendum. Parliament did vote to serve Article 50 notice on the EU, with a leaving date of 29 March. No-deal is simply what happens if you fail to agree on a deal.

Personally I feel that MPs have three legitimate choices. First is to accept Mr Johnson’s plan of drop the backstop or else. Second is to delay Brexit again so that a further referendum can be held. Third is to back the existing deal with the backstop and leave on 31 October. The Labour leadership’s idea of buying time to renegotiate the deal and then putting it to public is a nonsense. It is way too late for that. They had their chance in the 2017 general election and they lost.

To my mind the whole sorry impasse is mainly Labour’s fault. Theresa May’s Conservative government followed a clear plan and it had democratic legitimacy. But she could not get enough parliamentary support. Her successor is carrying this forward in a way that is surely consistent with what his party said it would do when elected. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” was a favourite saying of Mrs May even if she clearly didn’t mean it. Jeremy Corbyn was right to make the case for a deal with deeper integration to the EU, as that is what Labour argued for in its manifesto. But as time went by it has become clear this his ideas are not fully fleshed out, and that he wasn’t going to get an early general election. At this point he needed to either throw his weight behind Mrs May’s deal, which when all is said and done was not far from Labour’s manifesto, and which could doubtless be modified by a future Labour government, or else he should have thrown his weight behind a new referendum. This was an invidious choice. The former would have enabled Mrs May to complete Brexit, but it would have shocked many of his core supporters. The latter would also have divided the party, and could well have failed to get a parliamentary majority. An invidious choice but surely the sort of honest, straight-talking politics Mr Corbyn said he stood for when he became Labour leader. Instead the party has simply acted to create deadlock.

All of this gives justification enough for the government’s drive for Brexit on 31 October, deal or not. But it offers no excuse for its prorogation stunt. And yet much of the outrage is a displacement activity from the awkward fact that the government’s parliamentary opponents are as far from offering a coherent alternative as ever. What a mess!

The Lib Dems face the fight of their lives

It’s been a good few months to be a Lib Dem. In May success in local elections was followed by triumph in the European Parliament elections, when it beat both Labour and the Conservatives. The party’s support in the polls has surged. Other successes followed, including attracting two high-quality defectors from other parties in parliament and a by election win. And yet this success is fragile. A lot hangs on the next few months.

The party’s current poll share of about 20% is not normally mould-breaking territory. But both Labour and the Conservatives are polling relatively poorly and it is the gap that counts. Two things have created this situation. The first is the rise of Nigel Farage’s new vehicle: The Brexit Party, which has drawn votes from both big parties as well as helping to define the Lib Dems as their polar opposite, with the party’s unequivocal opposition to Brexit. The second is the abandonment of what might be called the “liberal centre” of politics by both parties. Labour were the first to do this under Jeremy Corbyn. The party has attacked “austerity”, meaning cuts to public spending, and promoted anti-capitalist policies, such as extensive nationalisation. Under Boris Johnson the Conservatives have abandoned the liberal centre too. Not only are they going full out for a hard Brexit, dismissing the dangers of No-Deal, but they are spraying spending promises everywhere and tearing up constitutional conventions. They are also banging the populist drum on immigration and crime and punishment. They look more like followers of Donald Trump than sensible conservatives.

So this leaves the Lib Dems with two political gaps that they can fill: being unequivocally anti-Brexit, and taking the liberal centre. Their first task has been to crush rival claims to this ground. This is what they succeeded in doing in May, as the nascent Independent Group collapsed. The Greens remain uncrushed, and are still important rivals in some places, but they are uninterested in the liberal centre. The next thing the party did was to select a new leader, Jo Swinson. She gives the party a fresh face, and looks more like the voters the party needs to attract. But the challenge now facing Jo is daunting. I think there are three main things she needs to do: navigating the Brexit end-game; establishing a post-Brexit profile; and consolidating the liberal centre. If the party fails in these tasks, the two party narrative of British politics will be re-established and the party will be squeezed out.

Firstly, and most immediately, is the Brexit end-game. The party’s clear resistance to Brexit has been its most important defining feature. It owes it to its supporters to fight as hard as it can to fend Brexit off. But this is looking decidedly tricky. Just how tricky was illustrated last week, when Labour launched its plan for a “caretaker” government under Mr Corbyn to postpone Brexit and the fight a general election. This wrong-footed Jo, who called it out as a cynical ploy too quickly, rather than being non-committal and voicing doubts (a position she has tried to adopt since). This allowed Labour followers to suggest that the party’s top priority was political advantage, not stopping Brexit by any means possible. Fortunately the damage not severe, as potential Tory rebels, essential to the exercise, took up the running. Indeed the move has ricocheted back onto Mr Corbyn, who is having to explain why he is a better choice to lead an interim government than a more neutral figure. It has also allowed Jo to garner extra publicity: many may not have noticed the party had a new leader. But this episode is an indication of the treacherous ground ahead.

The enterprise of stopping Brexit, or even the lesser goal of stopping a no-deal, is almost certainly doomed, however. Mr Johnson’s government views it as an existential crisis for their party, and is willing to play fast and loose with the conventions on which the country’s political processes depends. Mr Corbyn, as I discussed in my previous post, wants the same outcome, albeit without any of his fingerprints. So what happens to the Lib Dems after Brexit? Once out most people, in Britain and the EU, will surely want to move on. Getting back into the Union will be a generational project.

But after Brexit Europe will not drop off the political agenda, and especially after a no-deal. Smooth relations with the EU will be essential for many aspects of British life, including the economy, Northern Ireland and freedom to work and travel in EU countries. Such issues will dominate the British political agenda, forcing both sides back to negotiating a deal of some sort. The Lib Dems will have to move quickly from their “Stop Brexit” position to something new, that keeps the party in touch with the key issues, and which keeps the pressure up on the Conservatives and Labour to define their positions more clearly, and so expose their own divisions. Jo will have to do this on the hoof, as there will be no time to use the the party conference to forge it. The obvious choice would be to advocate a Norway plus plus position. This means being part of the Single Market, including freedom of movement, and a customs union. Fisheries would be excluded but some kind of deal will be needed on agriculture. Rural voters are not so important to the Lib Dems these days, but the party needs to keep up pressure on the Conservatives in rural areas. The idea should be to reopen EU markets for British agricultural produce, and to fend off imports from America and elsewhere. And if people say that all this would mean being a rule-taker, the party can simply say that Britain should rejoin as a full member in due course.

This is necessary, but not sufficient. Labour may end up by saying something similar. Many ex-Tory voters will be sceptical. Which is why occupying the liberal centre will be so important. What is it? Liberal for a start. That means embracing diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance. It also means courting younger voters, which in turn means embracing environmentalism, up to and including radical action to stop and even reverse climate change. All that is easy for Lib Dems, but does not particularly help define them against Labour or the Greens, or even more enlightened Tories, of whom there are more than many suppose.

So the “centre” element of the liberal centre is important. And that means a middle of the road economic policy. That in turn means taking fewer risks with public spending and borrowing, and being moderate with tax increases. That means being careful with spending promises for public services. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about whether this is in fact sensible public policy: many argue that this is in fact a good time to take risks with public spending, and that the burden of tax needs to be radically shifted. But that discussion misses the point. British voters have over the generations drawn the conclusion that governments need to be careful with finances, and they have reason to suspect that Labour will not be. Under Boris Johnson they may even be losing trust with the Tories. Somebody needs to make the case for a more cautious approach, and it makes sense for this to be the Lib Dems.

Moderate economics will not sit so easily with many Lib Dem activists, however. They are rightly wary of the party being branded as being centrist and so defined by what the other parties are up to. Many are wounded by Labour’s persistent demonisation of “austerity”, in which the Lib Dems are said to be complicit under the coalition years with the Conservatives. But while the anti-austerity rhetoric evinces passion in many people, I don’t think it is a popular in the country at large as many Labour people suppose. The Lib Dems built up a degree of credibility on economics with moderate Conservative voters during the coalition – and this group will be critical.

What is clear is that Lib Dems cannot rest on their laurels. The accession of Mr Johnson has given a lift to the Conservatives, and this threatens to restore the two-party dynamic that is the natural state of British politics. The Brexit Party is in retreat. The 2017 general election pattern, where the two main parties moved to over 40% each, can happen again. But the public has deep doubts about both parties, and both leaderships are adopting very risky political strategies. This could be the Lib Dem moment. The party has the fight of its life ahead of it.

So just what are Labour up to?

Britain is entering a period of high political drama. All the political parties are geared up for a few months where they could have a decisive influence on events. Except, apparently, one. Labour’s policy on Brexit, the issue of the day, appears confused. They have added to to the general confusion after one of its most senior leaders, John McDonnell suggested they might not get in the way of a referendum on Scottish independence. Meanwhile the party appears riven by internal issues, not least the longstanding row over antisemitism. Just what is going on?

To outsiders the obvious answer is that the party is suffering from weak leadership that is unable to make hard choices. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a life in politics playing the gadfly, and has very little background in the heavy-lifting stuff. But he is surrounded by clever advisers, who live and breathe political strategy. Something more purposeful is surely going on.

The first thing to understand about Labour is that the hard left, people that I have also referred to as Leninists, took control when Mr Corbyn took the leadership in 2015. These are patient people with long-term goals. They have been dreaming for a generation and more of taking control of the party, and after that the country: they are not going to loosen their grip if they can help it. They have consolidated control over the party machinery, and Mr Corbyn is one of their own. But their hold is not totally secure, especially with so many MPs not in their camp. If Mr Corbyn was to step down as leader, they have no strong candidate to replace him. Their best bet is Mr McDonnell, who is clearly smarter and more strategic than Mr Corbyn, but is another older white male, without Mr Corbyn’s particular charisma. Somebody else could do to him what Mr Corbyn did to the front-runners in 2015. The other candidate often spoken of is Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she gets very little media space and most people (me included) don’t really understand who she is. I suspect that she is another of those popular insiders who get talked up by their colleagues but haven’t quite got what it takes for the big stage. So Mr Corbyn has to hang on in there, even though he seems well past his sell-by date. Meanwhile the internal runctions are simply part of the price the leadership pays for consolidating its hold. They think much of it is pumped up by enemies of the party in unsympathetic media channels; they aren’t entirely wrong there, though that is normal everyday politics.

The second thing to understand is what the leadership’s general political strategy appears to have been over Brexit. The inner group, in accordance with Leninist ways, is closed and secretive, so it is actually quite hard to know for sure what their game is. But they seem to be deeply scared of taking sides, and alienating either working class Brexit-supporting voters in their northern heartlands, or the Brexit-hating younger middle-class activists who do most of the work. They are mostly Brexit supporters themselves, fearing that EU regulations might limit their options in government. They hope that Brexit happens, and allow the political debate to move on, with the process being messy and the Conservatives getting the blame. They can then attack the tarnished Tories in an election, where they can move the agenda on to “for the many, not the few” (a horrid phrase designed to say less than it seems, appropriated by former leader Tony Blair to replace the much more specific old Clause 4 of the party constitution in the 1990s).

This strategy suffered a major blow when Brexit did not happen as expected on 29 March this year, prolonging the inevitable strain. When it came to the European Parliament elections that resulted, the party had nothing of value to say and performed very badly. These elections gave credibility to two alternative parties, who beat them: The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens also did well, surely at Labour’s expense. Labour’s voters are getting used to considering alternatives for their vote. This makes things harder.

But the strategy appears to be undead. Brexit looks likely to happen on 31 October. This will probably be chaotic and this could tarnish the Tories, as planned, while taking the wind from the sails of TBP. The Lib Dems will become irrelevant with their main anti-Brexit message pointless, and Green voters can made to realise that their cause is hopeless in the current electoral system. So keep going.

The most important question the party now has to face is what happens if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in September. This will be too late to stop a no-deal Brexit unless an alternative government can be formed with Labour at its core. What would the party do to facilitate this? The most credible strategy would be to form some short-term multi-party “government of national unity” (a misnomer if ever there was one), by ganging up with the SNP, Lib Dems and Tory rebels. This needs a less partisan and more competent prime minister than Mr Corbyn to have its best chance – some elder statesman, not necessarily even Labour. The Labour leadership appear to have ruled this out. They would have two reasons for doing so. Firstly they would be taking sides and alienating their Brexit supporters; the gambit might even stop Brexit from happening. Second it does not help Labour appear as a credible government in waiting if they accept that their leader isn’t up to leading it.

So the idea appears to be to present Labour as an alternative, minority, government, with Mr Corbyn as prime minister, and dare the other parties and Tory rebels to provide enough votes and abstentions to get it started. If it succeeds it would be an excellent platform from which to launch a general election, with the party’s credibility boosted by the trappings of power. The problem, of course, is that the party would have to take ownership of Brexit. That firstly means getting the EU to delay, which should be feasible. The party says that it wants to revive the previous government’s deal with the EU, tweak it to their liking (for example by making the objective of a customs union explicit) and put it to the people in a referendum. This is very fraught. In practice they would be likely to negotiate a delay and launch a general election. The problem with that is they want the election after Brexit, not before.

In fact what I suspect the leadership really wants to do is somehow to allow Brexit to happen with the Conservatives in charge, and then move for the kill. “Somehow” because they must do this while appearing not to facilitate it.

That all looks very fraught, but it is making the best of a difficult hand. The potential reward for the leadership is massive. They could end up in power after an election, with a lot of their troublesome MPs cleared out, and with the political sting largely drawn from Brexit. The chances of this don’t look that high, but for those Leninists who have been willing it all their political lives, it must look like the best shot they will ever get.

To observers who do not equate national with party interest, and especially those who want to put Brexit to another referendum, this is a dismal prospect. The Labour leadership could act decisively to resolve the crisis through such a referendum. That it won’t isn’t because it is weak, it is because it doesn’t want to.

A very British coup

I have returned from a ten day holiday, mainly in Austria and Hungary to find my country with a very different government in charge. There has been no election. The new government has even not been tested by our democratic representatives in parliament, and will not be for at least another month. Such is the British constitution, an odd mixture of the democratic and monarchic.

I struggle to accept that Boris Johnson is now our prime minister. This man has always been something of an outsider to the British political establishment, and somehow not a serious politician. His main claim to fame was an eight year period as Mayor of London, an office that sounds more impressive than it actually is. Apart from that he spent a year as Foreign Secretary, where he has had at best mixed reviews. He comes into his current job after a further year of making mischief from outside government. But he convinced most of his fellow Conservative MPs that he was the man for the moment, and this was emphatically endorsed by the party’s membership, who barely amount about 160,000. This does not even work by the principle that a majority of a majority is a majority – as Conservatives MPs are not a majority in parliament, and still less so in the country as a whole.

Mr Johnson then swiftly completed his coup by replacing government ministers wholesale. There was no attempt here to achieve balance across the parliamentary party. Instead there seemed to be two tests: personal loyalty to Mr Johnson during the leadership contest, and a readiness to accept a no-deal Brexit. More shocking than this is the guiding philosophy of the new government, set not just by ministerial appointments, but those of senior advisers. It has a revolutionary air: one that is eager to crush all opposition to achieve what it has decided is the will of the people. This is quite unlike any government I can remember. There are flashes of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but even these felt they had to make some attempt to get support from across their parties, even though it was clear that they preferred not to.

For now this gives the new government a freshness and energy, as is often the way when the tiresome ways of negotiation and compromise are suspended. The focus is on achieving Brexit by 31 October without the Irish backstop which was agreed by its predecessor with the European Union.

The political objective of this is in plain sight. Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party poses a mortal threat to the Conservatives, as was demonstrated by the European Parliament elections. Behind this lies the frustration of much of the country with the failure to implement Brexit. So far Mr Johnson’s strategy is working. TBP is sagging in the polls. And although the Conservatives lost the Brecon and Radnorshire by election largely because of TBP, the trend is clear.

But this all looks more like a campaign that a credible government programme. Mr Johnson has laid out an uncompromising negotiating position for the EU; his ministers are making daily promises to spend money on this or that problem; there are also promises of tax cuts. There is no attempt to reconcile all this with reality. But the new government has to deal with two very big problems, even before it needs to work out how it is to run the government finances.

First is that it has a technical majority of only one after the Brecon by election, while having many disaffected MPs in their own ranks, who have little to lose by creating trouble. It is hard to see that a majority can be found to support a no-deal Brexit, unless a large number Labour MPs from Brexit supporting areas start to panic.

The second major problem is the reality of negotiating lasting international treaties. The government’s supporters claim that such negotiations are similar to those for buying or selling property, or for supermarkets buying produce from food suppliers. The US president has the same sort of idea. But their objective is not a one-off transaction, but a long-term relationship. This requires trust, which is hard if you keep threatening to tear up any deal that you unilaterally decide you don’t like. It is also hard to compromise when part of your act is to whip up your own political base with uncompromising rhetoric. Donald Trump is finding it impossible to complete pretty much any international negotiation so far, with the exception of relations with Mexico and Canada, where the power imbalance is massively in his favour. The government hopes that the threat of no-deal chaos, especially in Ireland, produces just such a power imbalance in Britain’s favour. But the politics look terrible and time is short. Also many Europeans think that no-deal represents a colossal act of self-harm by Britain, and might be tempted by the response of “Go ahead: make my day”. Some think that a chaotic British exit will be a lesson to other countries tempted to threaten their own exit.

So what on earth is the government’s strategy? There is a twin answer to the first problem. First is that by ducking and weaving the government may be able to achieve a no-deal without having to get the approval of parliament. This is tricky, but they have made it clear that they have no scruples about whether such an approach is democratically legitimate (since they are simply enforcing the will of the people, of course), and their best brains are on the case. The second answer is to fight and win a general election. That looks a tall order, but British politics is volatile and they may get their chance.

And the second problem? They appear not to care, or they may even believe their own propaganda, which is either that the EU (and the Irish government in particular) will give way and create some sort of transitional period towards a hard Brexit, or that a no-deal Brexit will only cause problems in the short-term. It would doubtless be chaotic, but politically the key is not to catch the blame, they seem to think. This looks much to sanguine to me, but I don’t live in their world.

Will they get away with it? Mr Johnson has one thing going for him: the abysmal state of the Labour Party. They may be too weak to stop him, but too strong to stop anybody else from doing so. That party’s predicament deserves a blog post of its own. Their leadership looks incapable of exploiting the chaotic situation to its advantage. If the Tories can crush TBP (perhaps neutralising them with an electoral pact, though that looks very hard to pull off), and then reassure Brexit-supporting Labour supporters with its apparent abandonment of austerity, then it is all to play for.

Has Donald Trump made a serious mistake?

I was astonished a week ago when the US President, Donald Trump, launched a Twitter attack on Democrat Congresswomen, telling them to “go back to where they came from”. My first reaction was that he had lost the plot. Since then he has doubled down on this attack, incorporating it into a central theme of his campaigning. I have read and heard quite a number of comments on this from neutral and unsympathetic commentators. They all say that this is a clever strategy by the President, and makes life for the Democrats more difficult. This view is so widely held that I am compelled to challenge it. Mr Trump has blundered and is compounding his mistake.

Why is this comment so shocking? Rather too much hot air is being expended on whether or not it is racist or merely xenophobic. This type of comment is a favourite line of attack by racists, and can be taken to shocking extremes, as we see with the Burmese attack on the Rohingyas – an ethnic group that has lived in the country for many generations, but whom ethnic Burmese regard as being “from” Bengal. But you don’t have to be ethnically separate in order for people to think that you aren’t really “from here” and that your home is somewhere else, even if it isn’t. Mr Trump’s supporters don’t regard themselves as being racist, since they don’t think that it is ethnicity that they are attacking. But it really doesn’t make much difference what name you call it: it touches a very raw nerve on the part of anybody of immigrant stock. It says that however hard you try, you are not accepted as belonging. It says that the accuser is making no effort at all to be inclusive. It is particularly shocking in a country that is founded on immigration. No serious British politician would say such a thing intentionally (although I would not put it past The Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage, now that Mr Trump has blazed the trail).

Why do so many commentators think Mr Trump is being clever? First they say that it fires up his core supporters. That is clearly true. They are the type of people who think that it is a perfectly fair thing to say about somebody from a first or second generation immigrant background whom they disagree with, and they adore the way Mr Trump flouts the rules of political correctness. But Mr Trump needs more than his core support to win. In 2016 he persuaded many others that he stood for a fresh start against an under-performing political establishment. Stoking up fear and loathing does not get through to these voters.

The second thing that the commentators are saying is that the four congresswomen at the heart of Mr Trump’s assault are to the left of the Democrats and that by drawing attention to them he will put centrist voters off the party. But Mr Trump is drawing more attention to their ethnicity than he is to their political views with his “go home” attacks. He is attacking their views too, of course: I heard on the radio part of Mr Trump’s recent campaign rally implying that one of them was an Al-Qaeda supporter, inciting chants of “send her home”. Perhaps there is a parallel with his “lock her up” attacks on his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, but this served to reinforce his claim that there was something dodgy about her, rather than distract from it. Once again, it’s a great way to fire up the base, but it is far from obvious that the attack will be effective beyond that.

Meanwhile, consider the damage that he is doing to his own and his party’s standing. His attack could not be better targeted to anger or worry voters of Latino or Asian background, and their friends. The picture may be a bit more complicated with black voters, but the racist undercurrent won’t be lost on them either. Mr Trump is crafting his appeal to white, less educated and older voters, demographic groups that are all in decline (if you take the age criterion as being defined by a particular birth date, which seems applicable in this case). He is doing so at the cost of winding up everybody else. This is a strategically disastrous course for his Republican party, recalling the attack by that party on Latinos in the 1990s in California, which has proved catastrophic for them. The Presidential and Congressional elections of 2020 are more about tactics that strategy – but it is hard to see how the Republicans can do well without at least apathy amongst better-educated, younger or non-white voters. Stirring them up will make that harder.

A final line of defence for Mr Trump is that the attack is a “dead cat” – a tactic to distract attention from something that is more profoundly damaging. But there is no imminent election: it is hard to see what he is trying to distract people from and why it should be now.

Of course Mr Trump is not to be underestimated. In 2016 he showed a real mastery of the art of creating doubts about his opponents. He can point to enough success in his term to say that he has proved sceptics wrong: in many cases the disastrous nature of his policies will only be evident after 2020. His robust attitude to America’s trading partners, especially China, draws praise; the economy seems to be doing well enough to boost wages; he has made conservative appointments to the judiciary, which appeals to a sizeable chunk of the electorate. But the xenophobia takes voters who might be impressed by all this to a different place. He has not made his reelection impossible, but he has surely made it harder.

Some commentators suggest that his best chance of success is if the Democrats select a candidate from the left of the party. But after this episode one wonders whether amongst Mr Trump’s many remarkable achievements will be making a candidate from the left electable.

The Conservative and Labour parties are in trouble

After the general election of 2010, and the Liberal Democrats entering a coalition with the Conservatives, I remember the cognitive dissonance that overwhelmed the party. It was the centre of sustained media attention, for the first time in its history, and with all the trappings of being a significant political force, with MPs and cabinet ministers. But its support amongst the public had died. Many insiders talked themselves into thinking that voters would return in time for the next election, using swathes of statistical evidence from past elections. But the party was as good as finished and was nearly wiped out in the 2015 election. Something of the same dissonance is now being experienced by the Conservative and Labour parties. Opinion polls put each of them at only about 20% of the vote, alongside the new Brexit Party (TBP) and the Liberal Democrats returning from the dead. The duopoly which is so much party of both parties’ raison d’être is facing its most serious challenge ever.

This collapse in support of the two parties that have anchored Britain’s political system for getting on for 100 years follows a global trend, especially here in Europe. It has happened in France and Italy, and is in the process of happening in Germany and Spain, not to mention several other countries. But it is a shock to the British political establishment. The duopoly had its best election in 40 years in 2017, when they Ukip followed the Lib Dems into collapse and they collectively took more than 80% of the vote. They even managed a significant recovery in Scotland, where both had been crushed by the SNP. You could almost hear the sigh of relief, not just from those parties’ luminaries, but amongst the tribe of civil servants, think tankers and journalists who yearned for the old familiar ways of the two-party system. Britain seemed more like the United States or Australia than its “Continental” neighbours.

But in America the political parties are democratic, with processes of open primaries to select candidates, allowing new ideas and people to take hold in alignment with wider popular attitudes. Instead of being replaced, the Republicans and Democrats are being transformed away from the traditional conservative and labour based models to being modern reactionary-nationalist and liberal-green parties – like the parties that are doing well in Europe. The Labour Party flirted with a more democratic and open party structure in 2015, which resulted in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it has quickly reverted to the closed, cadre-based organisation as the hard left sought to consolidate its hold on the party machinery. The Tories abandoned their brief flirtation with open primaries long before. Party activists, and to a lesser extent paid-up memberships guard their privileges assiduously. That is the European way. The Lib Dems similarly rejected the injection of democracy earlier this year, amid much scoffing by activists.

The immediate problem for both parties is easy enough to see: Brexit. This issue divides parties formed on traditional lines, but unites nationalist and liberal forces on opposite sides, with greens joining the latter. Whether the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU really should divide liberals, greens and nationalists like this is an interesting question. There are some good liberal and green arguments for being outside the EU. But both loathe the reactionary nationalists with their illiberal and anti-environmentalist beliefs, and this doubtless suppresses any reservations; the conversion of the Greens to EU membership is much more recent than many realise.

For the Tories the problem has been that they have quite reasonably sought a version of Brexit that achieves its main objectives with the minimum of disruption. But this has ignited the anger of the rising tide of nationalists in their ranks, who see this as a sell-out, and have thwarted its attempts to get legislation through. TBP then arose from the ashes of Ukip as a much more disciplined and coherent organisation, having learnt much from Donald Trump’s techniques, and a major threat from the nationalist right. This has tapped the zeitgeist of the party’s bedrock support better than its own party leaders. The European elections showed that TBP posed an existential threat to the Tories, and so both candidates for the party’s leadership are trying to take their party into TBP’s ground, especially with support for a no-deal Brexit. That angers their liberal supporters who are deserting the party for the Lib Dems. By dealing with one threat they are opening up another. This is likely to get worse if the party either delivers a no-deal Brexit, or, indeed, if it fails to deliver Brexit at all.

Conservatives clearly hope to win their liberal supporters back by frightening them with the prospect of Labour coming to power. The problem with that is that Labour support also is in free fall and the party no long poses such a credible threat. A key ingredient of the success of the duopoly is stoking up fear of the other party. But as Times columnist David Aaronovich recently wrote of prospective Tory leader Boris Johnson:

If anything “vote Boris to stop Corbyn” has less resonance than, say, “vote Lib Dem to stop both of them”.

David Aaronovich, The Times 3 July 2019

Labour have reached their sorry state because the leadership is understandably worried by the popularity of Brexit amongst their traditional white working class supporters, especially in many northern towns. They do not see Brexit as the defining issue of the times, but rather they say it is “austerity”, or the struggle of the less well-off against a system rigged against them. They hope to paint a messy Brexit as Tory incompetence and rally a backlash drawing in both supporters and opponents of Brexit. For a long time this looked like a clever strategy, but now it looks like a fatal weakness. As Britain approaches an autumn of political crisis, the party is without a coherent political message on the most important issue of the day. If the party had followed through on its democratic revolution of 2015, it would be leading the struggle to fight Brexit, and suffocating the Lib Dems and Greens in a journey towards being a modern liberal-green movement. To follow through on their strategy they needed the government to get its Brexit deal through parliament so that they could try to change the subject – but when it came to it they were too scared of a backlash from their anti-Brexit supporters.

Doubtless activists in both parties, like Lib Dems during the coalition, think that the ship will right itself by the time the next election comes. Labour supporters remember the surge in their party’s support in 2017. Tories think that Boris Johnson will puncture Nigel Farage’s TBP and generate a surge of support with his charismatic personality. A poll back in June suggested that just this might happen, albeit with a low poll share for the party.

But it is hard to see how events can unfold that will make these wishes come true. If the next election happens before this Autumn’s scheduled Brexit date, the Tories will be undermined by their support for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour will be undermined by their ambiguity on reversing Brexit. If the election happens afterwards, either after a no-deal or a failed Brexit, both parties risk being swept aside in the public backlash. And if a Brexit deal of some sort manages to be concluded, the process is likely to fatally fracture both parties – as a large number of Labour MPs will be required to get it over the line. The situation is becoming so unstable, however, that it is not impossible for one of the parties to still triumph – but this would require a quality of leadership that neither Boris Johnson (certain to be the Tory leader) nor Jeremy Corbyn possess. Strange times indeed.

Ed or Jo? The Lib Dem leadership race

While the race to become leader of the Conservative Party dominates the news, another leadership contest is running in parallel: that of the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are polling about 20% currently, but there are good reasons why the Lib Dem contest is not receiving anything like the same level of coverage. The new Tory leader is guaranteed to become Prime Minister, even if only for a few days; for the new Lib Dem leader to be Prime Minister it will take an unprecedented political upset at a general election that may not take place until 2022. But it isn’t just that: the Lib Dem contest is as dull as ditchwater. But it is important.

That is for two reasons. Firstly the government does not have a majority, and a number Conservative MPs are being driven to rebellion. A chaotic phase of parliamentary proceedings is about to start, and the Lib Dems 12 MPs could be decisive. And secondly the Lib Dems are on the up, and could do well in the next general election, which may well produce a hung parliament in which the party plays a decisive role.

The contenders are Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. There is little to choose between them on what they are saying to party members. Both want to make the party the natural home for liberal-minded voters; both want to raise the profile of environmental policy; and both want to rebalance the economy in favour of the left-behind. Jo is supposed to be more sympathetic to working with other parties to achieve liberal aims, but what difference this actually makes in the real hard world of politics is very hard to tell from what they have said. That leaves us with judgements on personal qualities.

Unlike previous Lib Dem leadership contests I have worked directly with both candidates. I know Ed the better. I first saw him in action in the mid-1980s when, alongside Chris Huhne, he led a seminar for the SDP on economic policy. He stood out as one of a small number of people in the party that were economically literate, amid the lawyers, teachers and social workers. He then moved into my constituency, Putney, when I was a party officer (alternating Chair and Treasurer). I remember arranging to meet him for a drink at the party’s Harrogate conference in 1992, but having to cancel because it was Black Wednesday, and he was advising the then leader Paddy Ashdown on economic matters. We both stood as paper candidates in Southfields ward in 1994 (when I was agent); I actually outpolled him in spite of the slight alphabetic disadvantage, as the surname “Green” seemed to confer a slight advantage, perhaps from people supporting the Green party. Not long afterwards I was called on the give a Chair’s reference as part of his approval process for becoming a parliamentary candidate. He was shortly adopted by Kingston and Surbiton, which he won by 56 votes in 1997, in spite of it not being one of the party’s primary targets (though I did deliver a few leaflets for him). Much later, after he lost his seat in 2015 I worked with him on the London Assembly campaign for 2016, where he was lead fundraiser (his wife Emily was second on the party list for assembly seats) and I was London Treasurer.

What stands out from all this is that I have found that his views very closely matched mine. He joined the SDP, but with the merger embraced the new party’s Liberal traditions. Nowadays I consider myself more Liberal than Social Democrat. He is interested in economics, and is a passionate pro-European. He loves politics and politicking, embracing doorstep politics as well as international deal-making. But he is also open and transparent: what you see is what you get. His biggest political achievement was a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition, when he successfully pushed forward the country’s drive into renewable energy. There is plenty of controversy about his record here, and some hard Greens regard him as a disastrous sell-out. In particular he was prepared to embrace nuclear energy at a high cost. This hasn’t attracted any comment that I have seen in the leadership contest, though. To me it shows his pragmatic side, and how he prioritised getting results over taking the moral high ground.

I know Jo much less well. Though we have met a number of times, I don’t get any more than a “I know that face from somewhere” look from her. I first met her shortly after she was first elected in 2005 as Britain’s youngest MP, and she (along with another newly-elected Scottish MP Danny Alexander) was a guest speaker at a Burns Night dinner, and I sat opposite her. She was part of the policy working group in 2011-2012 on wellbeing, on which I served. I also applied for a job as her parliamentary researcher not long afterwards, and was interviewed by her. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t hold that against her: my memory is that I did a lacklustre job of selling myself. I find her more reserved than Ed, and more likely to lapse into formulaic answers to questions (something which shows in some of her interviews). But she has a strong record in grassroots campaigning (like Ed, but unlike too many Lib Dem leaders), and is a believer in wellbeing economics, as I am (Ed is less clear on this). She was a junior minister in the Coalition, when her main achievement was in developing parental leave. While she is unsurprisingly keen on developing women’s rights, she has the imagination to see this from the male perspective, and has been careful to promote male rights too (in parental leave, in particular). Ed, incidentally, was an early “New Man” and has been a model in promoting and encouraging diversity in his local party.

Jo has three things going for her. First she is female. For all the party’s embrace of feminism, its record in taking women through to senior positions is weak. It would also be good to leave Labour as the only major political party (or even minor one, come to that) not to have had a female leader, not counting the brand-new The Brexit Party. Second is her relative youth: she is 39 to Ed’s 53. She symbolises a fresh start for the party, and its embrace of younger voters. Thirdly she is Scottish, representing a Scottish seat. English politicians are in perpetual danger of underestimating the Scottish dimension to British politics, and its importance is growing. Also in the last two elections Labour and Conservatives have targeted the Lib Dem leader’s seat, causing resources to be diverted and other seats to be lost. This tactic will be much harder if the party leader has a Scottish seat.

For all that I will be voting for Ed. I feel he is kindred spirit somehow, and I like his grasp of detail, where Jo tends to drop into generalities. But there really isn’t much in it.

Is Britain heading for a no-deal exit?

The biggest complaint about politics from people who run businesses is not Brexit itself, where opinions are divided depending on the depth of relationship with other EU countries, but on the uncertainty. We don’t know exactly what shape Brexit will take and when. One businessman explained to me, last February, that it was impossible to prepare for the impending departure date of 29 March because he didn’t know what he was preparing for. That date has come and gone and the uncertainty has just got worse.

The new crunch date is 31 October, and attention has moved on to the contest for the Conservative leadership, as this will almost certainly determine who will be our next Prime Minister. Both contenders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, maintain that achieving Brexit on this date is their main aim. What is less clear is how much of a rupture either man would be prepared to risk to achieve this goal.

Mr Johnson is the strong favourite but his campaign is not going smoothly. Mr Johnson has never presented himself as being a slick operator, so this is not particularly damaging of it itself. But his strategy to date has been to say as little as possible, to allow a wide spectrum of Conservatives to project their wishes into the vacant space. To hard Brexiteers he has promised to take Britain out on 31 October come what may. Those who would rather delay than suffer a full rupture detect some flexibility. Attacks on Mr Johnson both on his private life and his Brexit stance have forced him increase the level of press exposure in order to help recover the initiative. That has forced him to reveal more of his thinking, but this has not helped us very much.

What he has shown is a breathtaking optimism. He says both that a new deal is perfectly feasible in the time, and that a no-deal does not mean all that much rupture in fact. This sheer candy floss, sweet-tasting but disappearing on contact with anything solid. For his main audience, the Tory membership, this is fine. They are fed up with the consistent pessimism they hear from critics of Brexit, and appreciate the ray of sunshine that Mr Johnson provides. But what does it actually mean?

Commentary on the various Brexit strategies coming form the Conservative leadership candidates is relentlessly negative. I largely share this scepticism, but I don’t feel there is much point in repeating it. Critics of Brexit tend to programme out more optimistic scenarios. But if we are to understand more clearly what might happen we should not dismiss the optimistic gloss so easily.

The first possibility is that a Withdrawal Agreement will be agreed by 31 October, and that it will get through parliament. The first problem is that both leadership contenders say that it needs to be changed from its current form, but that the EU side has said that it is unchangeable. The second problem is that there is very little time to agree and implement something different. But the EU fears the full rupture too, so something might be done that saves face on all sides. This might pass parliament because Brexit supporters realise that trying for the no-deal alternative leads to further delay, which plays into the hands of the Remainers. The deal cannot be much different from what came before, but there may be more Conservative solidarity, and Labour discipline might start to crack. This seems to be Mr Hunt’s game-plan. It could work. But the odds are against it. It has been tried before, by Theresa May, and the EU called the British bluff successfully. They will be tempted to do so again giving the British prime minister very little to play with.

The second possibility is what might be called a no-deal no-rupture Brexit on 31 October. This seems to be Mr Johnson’s big idea. At first sight it is nonsense. Any kind of no-rupture, with a transition period where little practical changes, requires a deal of some sort. But what of a small-deal small-rupture Brexit? This would involve the transition period as specified in the original Withdrawal Agreement, the target of a Canada-style free trade agreement, with WTO arrangements as a fall back. The other details. such as Ireland and the money, will be worked out later. What’s in it for the EU? There would be no rupture, or at any rate a delayed one, which would remove a big headache, especially in Ireland. The UK would no longer pollute EU institutions such as the European Council and the European Parliament. They would get at least some of the money envisaged in the original Withdrawal Agreement.

Would the EU buy it? Of course it is a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement by other means, with the Irish backstop removed from it. And there is not much time to negotiate it. That’s a big problem. The more of the original agreement is grandfathered into the new arrangement to save time, the more of a humiliating climbdown it would look for both the EU and the Irish government. There needs to be a large dollop of something from the British government to compensate. At the moment I really can’t see what this would be. Mr Hunt’s plan looks a much better bet.

But the question remains how far Mrs May’s successor is prepared to risk a full no-deal rupture. This still seems to scare a lot of people. The threat of large agricultural tariffs on exports to the EU, including over the border in Ireland, is a big deal for people that Tories care about. And there remains the chance that parliament could sabotage it by bringing the government down.

That leaves a wide spectrum of possibilities, from remaining in the EU after all, with or without a further referendum, all the way towards a full no-deal rupture. And each of these possibilities has a significant probability. Meanwhile the opinion polls show four political parties each with about 20% of the vote, something that would make the outcome of any election highly unpredictable. There is no relief in sight for Britain’s businesses.