Hard lessons for the Liberal Democrats

It is hard being a Lib Dem now in the wake of the recent General Election. The disappointment is oppressive. So many in the party were close to success, and yet it was snatched away and it is probably at least four years before the next opportunity will arise. I notice two sorts of displacement activity. First is to take a close interest in the election post-mortems of the Labour Party with a strong dose of schadenfreude. Second is to discuss (and criticise) the tactical mistakes of the Lib Dem campaign without addressing the party’s strategic predicament.

We have the time to go back to basics, and that is what we need to do. Indeed, understanding the strategic challenge is critical to understanding those tactical mistakes. After reflecting on this in the last few days, I am going to share my current thinking.

The first big strategic challenge is the electoral system. Labour and the Conservatives present the election as being a choice between two Prime Ministers. And they are right. The Lib Dems learnt that the hard way with five years of coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010. Much as people might try to present that as a partnership, or point to the important influence that the Lib Dems had on government policy, the Conservative prime minister was constitutionally and practically in the driving seat. It would have been even worse with a confidence and supply arrangement with a minority government, so that isn’t a satisfactory alternative. The British constitution allows even a minority government to do a lot, one reason why so many people were worried about a Corbyn minority government.

So if the election is primarily a choice about prime minister, the question inevitably arises for Lib Dems as to whose side they are on. It is usually a very hard question to answer, as to take sides alienates a large part of the party’s support, while not taking sides means denying voters a say in that critical question. It presented an insuperable obstacle for the party in this election, since both prime ministerial choices were highly alienating, and it mattered a lot to people how that was going to be resolved. At first the party tried to dodge the question by suggesting that they themselves would be the largest party after the election. But the party was over-stretched targeting 80 seats, never mind the 250 or so which was the practical minimum for that to be realistic. And yet the other answer, “neither”, was very unappealing as it suggested yet more parliamentary drift in the event of a hung parliament and perhaps a further election not long after.

And the electoral system is here to stay. The public is far from convinced that it lies at the root of the country’s political difficulties and needs changing. And they are not wrong about that. Proportional systems bring their own problems, of a sort that the public may not have much patience for, at UK level anyway (local and devolved government is another matter). It is just possible that Labour may take a more pluralistic approach to politics and put electoral reform into their manifesto. But it goes against their whole organisational raison-d’etre – it would be a promise they would fail to keep, like the Canadian Liberals. And the most sensible electoral reform, the Alternative Vote, has been ruled out by the 2011 referendum on it – though in the long run even this would probably not have helped the party by much.

Which brings me to a second strategic problem: a core vote is not enough. Successful parties under our electoral system are broad coalitions of political activists, seeking the votes of even broader coalitions of voters. The Conservatives embrace social conservatives and free-market liberals, and successfully attract working class voters in spite of being an overwhelmingly middle class enterprise. Within the Lib Dems much thought has been given to developing the party’s “core vote”: a subsection of the electorate that so identify with the party’s values that they will vote for the party whatever. It is argued that under previous leaders the party fudged its values in order to attract as wide a spectrum of voters as possible, which in turn meant they were impossible to hold onto when the going got rough. There is plenty of truth in this. The party does have clear values, which could be used as a base for a significant core vote. The party’s strong identification with the Remain cause in recent years was meant to demonstrate this. Membership of the EU, and questioning the referendum result, were policies rather than values, of course – but people with values show a strong commitment to key policies rather than blowing with the wind.

But the party overdid this. I have already written about the Revoke policy on the EU, which was designed to appeal to core voters, but which also had the effect of insulting almost everybody else. The party also promoted its commitment to transgender rights; this might be a good case study for what core liberalism means, but sceptics don’t just include the usual social conservatives. Meanwhile the party’s most important non-EU policy commitment, on child care, which managed to persuade the Resolution Foundation that the party cared more about child poverty than Labour did, managed to get buried, in spite of potential for broad appeal. The strategy should be to build a core vote outside election time, and broader coalitions during elections. And annoying large sections of the electorate should be avoided if possible – a mistake Labour also made. This should be perfectly feasible for liberals. They may be few people’s first choice but they are many people’s second choice: that is good for coalitions. Meanwhile the Lib Dem core vote looks increasingly like an upper middle class ghetto.

So what are the implications? To break the system the party has to do one of two things. It could align itself with one or other of the main parties and gradually subsume it by good organisation and presenting a more appealing vision to the public. Labour did this to the Liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, capitalising on Liberal divisions, while making a more appealing offer to working class voters. The other strategy is to knock one of the other parties into third place in a single, spectacular blow. This is was what Emanuel Macron did in France, going one better and achieving first place in one go. The party can maybe build a bridgehead of 50 seats or so as an interim while dodging the hung parliament bullet. Doing either of these things is more than hard: it depends both on mistakes made by the other parties, and luck.

Or, alternatively, the party can content itself with being a junior partner in a “progressive” coalition, by building up areas of geographical strength. This is harder than it was in the early 2000s, when the party had a base in large parts of South West England and Cornwall, which has now disappeared. It also reduces the party’s appeal to former Conservative voters.

And, of course, the party needs to work out how to broaden its appeal. It needs to appeal across the social spectrum, including to people who voted Leave in the referendum. These voters need not comprise part of a loyal core, but they should not find the idea of voting for the party toxic, as so many do now. The party’s new policy towards Europe is going to have to strike a careful balance – it needs to continue to attract the fanatics while not putting off people who want to move on. That probably means not talking about the issue too much, and developing other signature policies to divert attention. But what?

Of course it is not just a question of developing policies. it also needs to develop an emotional narrative. I suspect that harking back to a golden age when politics was more respectful and public servants more competent and less politicised, and the economy flourished as part of the EU. Largely bunkum perhaps, but so is the nostalgic appeal promoted by the other parties. The party has to get beyond dry intellectualism.

All this is hard, but there is another awkward point. What the party does depends on what Labour and the Conservatives do. If Labour turns over a new leaf, embracing liberal values as well has re-learning how to appeal to lower middle class and working class voters, then the Lib Dems will struggle. But if Labour divisions worsen, that is another matter.

Or, of course, we can give up. We can quietly go back to the Labour and Conservative parties hoping to change them from within, or just watch from the sidelines. And yet the party’s remarkable success in 2019, and being the only nationwide party to substantially increase its vote in December, point in a different direction. Both the other parties have become hostile to liberals. We have to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, it is probably more helpful to cast a close eye on the Conservative and Labour Parties to gain an idea of how the country’s politics could and should develop.

What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

A week on from Britain’s General Election and I’m still struggling to absorb its implications. The scale of the Conservative victory still hasn’t sunk in: in terms of the stages of grief I haven’t got beyond denial. So I don’t have much useful to say on them yet. Besides, the most important thing in British politics will be that party’s internal tensions as it tries to live up to the expectations it has set, and it is far too early to get a clear sight of these. So far as the next most important thing in British politics, the future of the Labour Party, I’m still in the anger phase of grief. This is partly a reflection of the way that party behaved towards mine (the Liberal Democrats), but also a sort of displacement activity to divert me from thinking about the implications for the Lib Dems. I need to calm down a bit before offering my thoughts on Labour.

What I want to do first is comment on the predicament of the Lib Dems. For them I am through denial and anger, and in desperate negotiation before depression inevitably strikes. Let me share some of that negotiation.

The Lib Dems have dropped out of comment on mainstream media, after some rather superficial analysis on Jo Swinson’s lack of popularity and the Revoke policy. This is right; Labour’s troubles are much more entertaining and important to the general public. Within the party comment is largely of two types: anger at practically every decision the leadership took since the party’s conference in September, and apologetics from those close to the establishment, rehashing the data that was behind those decisions. Both lines are highly unsatisfactory.

Firstly, what happened? This is my personal impression and doubtless can be disputed or improved on. In September the party was on the crest of a wave. It was riding (relatively) high in the opinion polls, and succeeded in drawing in defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives. It was the probably the most popular party amongst Remain supporters, and local polls showed it doing well in Remain areas. Winning forty seats was at the conservative end of projections: 100 or more looked possible. The newly elected leader, Jo Swinson, decided to go for broke to capitalise on this fleeting moment.

There were reasons to hope that the party could maintain its momentum. It was attracting some big donors, and the other parties had used up a large part of their national spending limits. The party would go into a quick election without its usual relative disadvantage in financial firepower, at least when it came to the national campaign (sustaining that across enough constituencies was more of a problem). In Jo the party had fresh-looking front person, who, along with the highly presentable converts from other parties, such as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umuna and Sarah Wollaston, could present the party as something new. There was a lot of evidence to show that voters were fed up with the other main parties.

One step the party chose to take was to adopt the infamous Revoke policy: that the party would simply cancel Brexit in the unlikely event that it won a majority. At the time this looked very popular amongst Remain voters, and it seemed to show up Labour in particular as ditherers on the biggest political topic of the day. A further step was establishing a highly ambitious set of (about) 80 target seats. These included seats like mine (Battersea) where the party polled a mere 7% in 2017. Local polling, membership recruitment and doorstep campaigning showed the party to be popular in these seats, and they would have been winnable if the campaign could somehow be restricted to a few days. The leadership has been criticised for its apparently delusional ambition. But if the party is going to break into the British political big time it has to be ambitious and make the most of its opportunities.

But the party badly underestimated Labour. At first Labour’s conference seemed to underline its muddle and confusion over Brexit, but in the end it committed to a further referendum. This was good enough to shore up the party’s position amongst Remain voters. There was a nonsense in Labour’s Brexit policy, which was the promised renegotiation of Brexit terms, but in the end this proved easier to explain than the Lib Dems’ view that it supported both revoking Brexit straightaway and a further referendum. Remain voters wanted a referendum and didn’t care about the renegotiation. Labour’s campaigning machine then swung into action. They moved behind a “Stop Boris” meme amongst Remain supporters, and promoted “tactical voting” hard. This used the 2017 election result as its base, in preference to more recent polling, which meant that “vote tactically” overwhelmingly meant “vote Labour”, with a few token gestures to Lib Dems. The attack hit home, as we found with even members persistently asking why our candidate wasn’t standing down and promoting Labour, as the tactical sites recommended. National polls showed Labour’s vote rising at the Lib Dem expense.

And with that the whole Lib Dem campaign started to unravel, though whether it did Labour any good is a question for another day. A vicious circle was set in motion. The loss in poll ratings punctured the party’s momentum. It may well have been led in seats not targeted by the Lib Dems, but those targets needed national momentum to succeed, and in the end the squeeze took hold in most of these too. Meanwhile Labour’s rise, and the clamour for a Labour-led government within a hung parliament, raised Tory voters’ fears about voting for the Lib Dems. It wasn’t just that the Labour leadership was toxic to these voters, but they were not fans of a hung parliament either. Many Remainers voted Tory.

This sagging performance in turn put the Lib Dem leadership on the defensive. In the Question Time session Jo was put under constant pressure (not helped by the fact that, unlike the other three party leaders, the BBC did not pick a block of her party’s supporters to put in the audience), and this set the trend. The Revoke policy was painted as undemocratic, raising the passions of Leave supporters and the reservations of Remain ones. And that wasn’t all: the party’s role in the coalition government of 2020 came under scrutiny. Jo’s leadership ratings sagged, and it became fashionable to criticise her: she was too stiff and bossy, it was said (though quite why people didn’t prefer that to a lying cad or a bumbling do-gooder with scary friends these critics did not attempt to explain). It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: it is much easier to pick holes in a leader if their party appears to be sinking, than one whose party is doing well. Still a more skilled or experienced performer than Jo, together with a little luck, might have been able to limit the rot. It is not clear that her leadership rival Ed Davey would have fared better. He wouldn’t have been as stiff, and would have been better at handling questions, but he would not have presented as clear a break from the past, and he has his own weak spots. The media were never going to give a Lib Dem leader much space, and they didn’t. The lowlight for me was the BBC Today programme spending so much of its interview of her in the last week questioning her on transgender rights. Pressuring her on Brexit and Revoke, and on the party’s record on coalition was fair game, but trans rights had very little to do with how people were going to vote, and only served to deny airtime to a party that was already not getting very much. Still, all parties bitterly complained about their media treatment, and politicians complaining about media coverage is, as somebody put it, like sailors complaining about rough seas.

The party was forced into an undignified retreat. Battersea was abruptly dropped as a target as a relentless Labour machine pushed the Lib Dems back into their box. In London Labour, who had a good campaign, quickly switched to seats the Lib Dems might take off the Conservatives (such as Wimbledon and the Cities) in order to ensure that the Tories were safe there and that the Lib Dems did not gain a bridgehead (or, at any rate that’s what people in those seats say).

What to say about this sorry story? For all the clever types pointing to poll evidence, I continue to maintain that the Revoke policy was a serious error. The party wasn’t trying to attract Leave voters but it didn’t have to insult them; it took the pressure off Labour’s Brexit policy rather than adding to it; it made the party look arrogant, which then bounced off onto thinking its leader was arrogant. The evidence for this is all anecdotal, admittedly, but the rising dissatisfaction levels the party and its leader attracted from the public need to be explained.

I think this points to a wider strategic problem. Like Labour the Lib Dems focused on gathering up core supporters: Remainers in its case. Some wore unpopularity amongst Leave supporters as a badge of honour. The data analysis supporting the party’s decisions seems to take this as a given. And yet hostility, even amongst people who were never going to vote for the party, was not ultimately helpful, especially from a party that likes to present itself as one that bridges differences. It was a retreat into a middle class ghetto. All seven of the seats the party won in England were in the top quartile of affluence. This contrasts starkly with both the other main parties, who showed an ability to harvest votes from right across the social spectrum.

But for all the tactical mistakes, what the election demonstrated above all is just how difficult it is for the party to break out of the stranglehold the country’s electoral system. I will reflect more on that, and the future of the party, next time.

The morning after

Now that Britain’s general election is over I can resume my blog. I was too close to the heart of what could have been an important Lib Dem campaign to risk saying something that could be misused out of context, as well as not having the time. That isn’t a decision I regret, but I’m relieved that I can now be allowed to stand back from things a bit. So here are my first thoughts on the campaign and its result.

The Conservatives now have their biggest election victory since 1987. This gives them a clear mandate to complete Brexit as soon as they can, but there is plenty of trouble ahead. The party’s success derives from two things. First it took the battle to Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands, North England and Wales and won seats there in unthinkable numbers. These areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and Labour’s support for a further referendum was the Tory battering ram. But I suspect they exploited a deeper disenchantment with Labour than Brexit, and demographic changes as old industries such as mining and manufacturing fade into memory. Second the Conservatives convinced most of their former supporters who voted Remain to stay with the party, in spite of its robust stance on Brexit and much else. Here they exploited a weariness with Brexit, and fear both of Labour and a hung parliament. Both of these successes were neatly encompassed by party’s slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Labour suffered its worst result since before the Second World War in seats won (1983 was worse for share of the vote). They had no answer to the Tory assault. The party mounted an effective ground operation, at least in London. Here they swept up a lot of Remain voters who had preferred the Lib Dems, skilfully exploiting the various tactical voting websites, and downplaying doubts about the party’s leader and manifesto (and doubtless helping to shore up the Tory vote as well). This ground game turned what might have been a catastrophe into a mere disaster. The far left are blaming the whole disaster on Brexit and on a vicious media campaign against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the party’s problems go much deeper. It went to the country with radical manifesto and a narrative that the country was yearning for fundamental change. This was enough to fire up an army of activists, and to secure its support in many traditional working class areas, such as the ethnically diverse council estates in London, which remained solidly behind the party. But it left most people at best unimpressed. Many Labour policies were popular, such as nationalising the railways, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It sounded too much like presents for everybody and somebody else pays. For me the party’s policies and leadership deserved to be much more unpopular than they were. Labour succeeded in crushing rival opposition parties outside Scotland, so its radicals doubtless think they will have more luck when the Conservatives get bogged down, as they inevitably will, without having to rethink their policy platform and narrative. But the real problem is that the party insists on trying to win by persuading a minority of people to support it, while rejecting everybody else as beyond the pale. They have no idea how to take the fight to the enemy heartlands in the way that Boris Johnson’s Tories have, and the party used under Tony Blair. Labour’s tribalism is leading it up a blind alley.

For the Lib Dems the result is just as disastrous, and poses equally tough questions. They started the campaign with high hopes of winning more than 40 seats, but steadily lost support as the campaign progressed, so that they ended up with just eleven, and the humiliation of Jo Swinson, the leader, losing her Scottish seat. In understanding this it is hard to disentangle the judgemental mistakes from the hindsight. Jo did not go down well with sceptical voters, and was repeatedly put on the defensive in radio and television interviews. But surely some of this is a reflection of the party’s broader weakness: their opponents and the media will always find something to put the party leader down with. In 2017 it was gay rights; this year if it hadn’t been the party’s Revoke policy on Brexit, it would have been “austerity” in the coalition years, or as emerged later in the campaign, transgender rights. Nobody was going to let the party explain its ideas on child poverty, for example, where the independent Resolution Foundation found its manifesto better than Labour’s. Still, I think the Revoke policy was an unforced error; it put a large number of people off, and was an easy way of soaking up valuable airtime.

But the Lib Dem problem goes much deeper. There is a paradox: the more the other parties go to extremes, the more the appeal of the party rises, and yet the harder it is to turn this into electoral success, as the fear factor takes over. People simply ask: “Whose side are you on?”. The party tried to say neither, and that their objective was to lead the next government, and not prop one of the other parties up. But that sounded impossibly hubristic, and the party had to drop it. And that simply fed the Labour tactical vote onslaught, and the Tory appeal to stop a hung parliament. The party increased its share of the vote, and the number of second places it holds. This could be a platform to take over from one of the the other parties in the distant future, but it is hard to see how the party can avoid the long, hard squeeze in the next election, which could now be five years away.

I have almost nothing to say on the election’s other winners, the Scottish Nationalist Party, as I am simply too far away from that country to say anything useful for now. However with Labour down to a single seat in Scotland again, it shows how that party’s London bias is leading to a weak message north of the border. I am disappointed that the Lib Dems did not do better, given its Scottish leader, though it least it picked up a seat to compensate for losing Jo’s, and the party fared better than the other UK-wide ones. Apparently the fact that Jo spent much of her time away from her seat in UK business didn’t help.

I will have much more to say on the lessons and impact of the election, after I have had more time to absorb what has happened and reflect. On the one hand I am disgusted that such an unprincipled leader as Boris Johnson has won so big, and I am disappointed that so many very able Lib Dem candidates lost out. On the other hand I am relieved that we aren’t relying on Mr Corbyn to navigate the country through a hung parliament. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends, this election to me was about a lot more than Brexit, and I am glad that Mr Corbyn and his hard-left clique have done so badly. I will explain why in future posts.

And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

The inflation condundrum: orthodox economics under challenge

Last week The Economist published a special report on the world economy by Henry  Curr, who took as his subject the strange behaviour of inflation statistics. This is a worthy topic, but, all too typically of that news magazine, he retreats from saying anything too radical. And yet radical thoughts are warranted.

This is because, when economic orthodoxy was reformed after the nightmare of the 1970s, inflation took a central role. The core tenet of this orthodoxy is that the main way of managing the booms and busts of a country’s overall economy is something referred to as “monetary policy”. I use quotation marks because the semantics of the idea have become a problem: what sounds like one thing ends up by being another. By and large it has come to mean, in the orthodoxy, the management of interest rates in the domestic currency. The idea is that by lowering interest rates (“loosening”), you increase levels of aggregate demand in the economy, and by raising them (“tightening”) you reduce it. This, it is suggested, is a much better way of managing the economy than through taxes and public spending (fiscal policy – at least this piece of the jargon is well-defined), whose effect on demand is more direct, but brings with it problems of political management. How do you tell when policy needs tightening or loosening? Well, inflation, of course. It becomes too high if policy is too loose, and too low if it is too tight. The ideal method of managing the economy is through an independent central bank with an inflation target.

Buttressing this belief is another one: that the primary driver
of inflation is public expectations. This was an important theoretical
development, largely driven the economist Milton Friedman, after the
“stagflation” of the 1970s destroyed the previous understanding that
inflation  depended on the tightness of
the labour market. Inflation expectations interact with monetary policy and the
combined result dictates how well the economy as a whole operates. If inflation
expectations are high, and monetary policy is tight, then you have high
inflation and high unemployment. In a well functioning economy the central bank
maintains inflation in a Goldilocks zone of about 2% while keeping economic
growth ticking over at some natural healthy rate driven by productivity and
changes to the size of the workforce, keeping unemployment low. The central
bank anchors public inflation expectations because the public know they will be
punished by high interest rates and unemployment if they start asking for big
pay rises. This is a caricature, but the point is that inflation is central to
the story.

Which means that when inflation starts to behave strangely,
the whole edifice is threatened. Or it would be if the power of orthodox
thinking did not exert such an iron grip on policy makers. Mr Curr points out
that inflation has indeed been behaving oddly, but fails to point out that this
undermines the evidence for orthodox economic beliefs, meaning that more
radical ideas need to entertained.

How is inflation behaving oddly? In the developed world, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, inflation is strangely dormant, and does not seem to respond to changes in interest rates or less orthodox monetary policy, and neither to fiscal policy, to the extent that it has been tried. He discusses some reasons why this might be. Globalisation might mean that inflation is dictated at the level of global economies rather than national ones; the link between wages and prices has been loosened; technological developments have so changed what we buy and how that measuring prices has become arbitrary. This analysis is fine as far as it goes. What it boils down to is that prices and wages are determined in a radically different way to the 1970s, which provided the evidence base on which the current orthodoxy is based. Then large trade unions and manufacturing businesses, such as car makers, loomed large over the whole process. Now both are much diminished, while a vast new labour reserve in China has entered the picture, exerting its influence in all sorts of direct and indirect ways. The giants of modern industry, Google, Apple and so on, employ very few people compared to the old days of Ford and General Motors, and most of their manufacturing, such as it is,  is done outside the countries where product is sold.

Common sense suggests that when the way economies function changes, you have to manage them in differently. Alas economists prefer the analogy that managing an economy is like driving a car: you don’t have to worry what is happening under the bonnet. What happens under the bonnet of a car has changed a lot since the 1970s, but you still drive it in much the same way. So it is with economic management, Mr Curr seems to say. Managing inflation expectations is still the central problem in his view. They are too low for monetary policy to work properly and need to be jogged up somehow. This probably involves more global coordination. He suggests that fiscal policy needs to play more of a role in economic management, and that central banks should target nominal GDP rather than inflation (an idea I first tread about over 40 years ago). But he dismisses the idea of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which gives fiscal policy a central role, as “wacky”. To my mind it is no wackier than the idea, popular among orthodox economists, that policy makers should raise the level of inflation so that negative real interest rates can become a tool of their beloved monetary policy.

But Mr Curr avoids talking about two questions that really
need to be addressed. The first is that if inflation is anchored to a low and
fixed level, then what other consequences are there of an overheated economy?
And hows do they matter? An obvious one is a current account deficit (i.e.
importing more stuff than you export), but when some countries, notably in the
north and centre of Europe, seem to adopt a surplus as a matter of public
policy, that might not be so dangerous. The UK has been running a huge current
account deficit for years will little obvious ill-effect. It is all very
ill-understood. What is clear to me is that the answer lies in the complexities
of the global financial system. That much was shown by the financial crash
following 2007, and yet economists are strangely reluctant to take this on. The
orthodox belief about the financial system is along the lines that “it all nets
out to zero” and so they don’t need to worry too much about it. The crash was a
malfunction of the car’s engine that needs a mechanic to fix, and doesn’t
change the way you drive the car.

And this leads to the second question, which is what is the proper role and scope of monetary policy? There are some disturbing questions about the orthodox interpretation, which focuses so heavily on the short-term interest rate charged by central banks to commercial banks. The era of monetary policy has seen an explosion of private sector debt, which is one of the things that destabilised the system in 2007. The first question is whether this really is more benign than the explosion of public sector debt feared by those economists in the 1980s. It has promoted greater inequality between rich and poor, and between generations (since one of the collateral effects has been an inflation of the price of land, largely held by the elder generation).

In fact I think that monetary policy should not focus on inflation, but on financial stability as a whole. This is happening in practice, but the institutional mandate is unclear, which make it much less effective. Secondly I suspect that the MMTers are right that fiscal policy are right that fiscal policy should play the central role in the regulation of aggregate demand. Where they are wrong is ascribing inflation as the primary warning signal for overheating, for the same reason as this is wrong for monetary policy. If it provides a signal at all, it will be too late. They also seem blasé about the political risks.

Perhaps  Mr Curr’s article represents an incremental advance towards such a change in thinking. But it is hard not to be disappointed that orthodox economists are so little interested in the evidence for their core beliefs and unwilling to subject them to more fundamental challenge.

The Brexit endgame: the two mostly likely outcomes for 31 October

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 31 October, but there is no agreed deal about how this is to happen. Nevertheless, the government insists that it will happen on that date come what may. We’ve been here before, when when Britain was due to leave on 29 March, only for it to collapse at the last minute. What will happen this time?

The first question is whether the UK can get a deal in time. Government supporters say that the EU will buckle at the last minute because the consequences of leaving without a deal would be so dire for them. The one thing that could spoil this, according to this narrative, is if the EU are convinced that the UK is so scared of a no-deal itself that it would ask for an extension. This the EU would accept because secretly they want Britain to stay in, and the constant game of deferral is the only way to keep this possibility in play, while the pro-EU forces gather strength in the UK.

According to this version, the Benn Act, which would force the government to ask for an extension if a deal is not forthcoming by 19th October, is a shot in the foot, which guarantees that the EU will call the government’s bluff. They hint that there is a way around it. What might this be? Perhaps they can persuade one of the EU awkward squad, like Hungary, to veto an extension. But the Hungarian government picks its fights with the EU carefully and it isn’t clear what the upside for them would be. But, then again, if there was no clear rationale for an extension, such as waiting for an election or a referendum, they might be pushing at an open door. Other EU countries are getting fed up with the charade and they might think that a no-deal will work to their advantage; the real hurt will be concentrated in only a few countries.

But could the EU offer Britain anything its government and parliament could accept? The conventional wisdom is that if the EU gave way on the Irish backstop, then a parliamentary majority could be found. The government also wants to point the political declaration part of the deal towards a Canada-style free trade deal, rather than the closer relationship that its predecessor under Theresa May had advocated. Officially the EU has no grounds to oppose this, but they may secretly worry that this would undermine the Single Market in the continuing EU, given the UK’s proximity compared to Canada. Still, that issue can be dealt with later. It is the backstop that is the crunch issue for now.

Here there is a gulf in the way the two sides look at this, or at any rate between how the UK and Irish governments do. On the British side, the EU referendum applies to Northern Ireland by virtue of its membership of the UK. They also take the view that being a member of a customs union is an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, and that special treatment for the province would undermine the integrity of the UK. So the Irish government has just got to lump it; they simply have to accept the Will of the People. The Irish view this differently. To them the North never assented to Brexit, and would almost certainly be happy with some sort of fudge that created a customs border in the Irish Sea. The British government is simply behaving like a colonial occupier in forcing this unwanted policy on an unwilling province, with only the support of hated colonial hardcore, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They are sick that Brexit has undermined the Northern Ireland peace settlement, as this was based largely on the ambiguity that arose from the membership of the EU of both nations. This narrative goes to the heart of Ireland’s idea of itself, and they might well be prepared to accept the pain of no-deal rather than buckle to the demands of what they see as British arrogance, aided and abetted by the most toxic politicians on the island. With such a gulf in political perceptions it is hard to see how a deal can be reached that will get through the British parliament, as the Irish government has an effective veto.

So, though doubtless the EU is more flexible than it lets on,
getting a deal that sticks looks too big an ask. The next question is whether
the result will be a further delay or a crash-out. The surest way of securing a
delay is for Boris Johnson’s administration to be turfed out and some form of
short-term government replace it, pending a general election. But there is a
big problem with this. While there is a clear parliamentary majority against a
no-deal, this is an awkward coalition between those that want Brexit to happen
with a deal, and those who don’t want Brexit to happen at all, subject to a
referendum. That makes it hard for such a temporary government to agree on
anything useful. It surely could not take forward a referendum before any
election. And there is a further problem, who would lead it? The Leader of the
Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has, justifiably or not, become a toxic figure in British
politics, and it is highly unlikely that he can command a parliamentary majority
even for a short-term government. This is regardless of how the growing number
of Liberal Democrat MPs view the matter, but it would be fatal for that party
to lend him their support. And yet so far Mr Corbyn insists that it is him or
nobody, based on a not dissimilar political calculation.

So if Mr Johnson cannot be ejected from office, might he ask for a delay, as required by the Benn Act, and go for an immediate general election? This is a real possibility. The conventional wisdom is that if he did so he would be fatally open to attack by The Brexit Party (TBP), who were so devastatingly effective as gathering Tory voters in the May European elections. But I suspect the government is slowly winning a battle of attrition with TBP, and that party could pose a greater threat to Labour, and help the Tories in Labour seats. The will be able to blame the “remoaners” – whom they will have purged from their own party.

And so this boils down to what might happen in a general
election, as this will lie behind all the political calculations. As things
stand things are looking up for the Conservatives. Labour is losing traction,
partly because of the awkwardness of its Brexit policy, and partly because Mr
Corbyn has such a low standing with the public. The Liberal Democrats are doing
well, and this could cost the Conservatives a lot of seats, and the SNP are set
to reverse the Conservative revival in Scotland, but the Tories could do well
enough elsewhere to make up for this.

But two questions hang over this analysis. How might a no-deal Brexit alter things? The conventional wisdom is that it would puncture TBP overnight, and that is probably right. But would the Lib Dems benefit from a Remainer backlash, or would they lose out, like TBP, because of the failure of their signature policy, to stop Brexit? On both counts this could work for Labour. The second question is whether Labour’s socialist policies and railing against “Austerity” will gain the party traction once the election gets underway, as it apparently did in 2017. Personally I don’t think it will, but that is not based on any clear evidence. The Labour leadership presumably take a very different view; but I suspect the Tory leadership think that the Labour manifesto will be another suicide note, like its 1983 manifesto, according to legend (and which accords with my memory of 1983). That led to a Tory super-majority.

That leaves two main possibilities. That the government succeeds in engineering a crash out on 31 October. How quickly this will be followed by an election is hard to say, just as what the short term impact of a crash out would be. The other is that the government gets another deferral and goes to the country straightaway. The result of that will either be a Tory majority or yet another hung parliament.

So the anticlimax of 29 March looks very unlikely. One way or another the country is heading for a momentous reckoning.

The government’s aggression has got it into trouble

Britain’s constitution endured a major earthquake today when the Supreme Court voided the prime minister Boris Johnson’s lengthy prorogation of parliament. This shocking result shows how the country’s polarisation is putting its institutions under strain by making a middle ground untenable.

There are many ironies (or paradoxes, perhaps) on display as the country wrestles with Brexit. One is how many Brexit sympathisers eulogise the country’s system of judge-made law, where people may not know they have broken the law until a judge has “discovered” it. How flexible and open to common sense, they say, compared the way “Continentals” (how I hate that way of lumping together such a variety of nationalities) use Napoleonic codes to define their legal systems. And yet they are not the ones cheering the intervention of Britain’s courts as they discover new legally enforceable principles when the traditional conventions that used to operate break down. After this ruling we now have a much stronger definition of parliamentary sovereignty against that of the Crown, represented by our Prime Minister.

It is an unexpectedly radical ruling, and it is quite surprising that all eleven judges assented to it, given the form of a few of them. But the government blocked off any middle ground, leaving their lordships with a choice between two extremes. Either the PM has total power to prorogue parliament for as long as he or she likes, without having to give any reason at all, or this prorogation was void – it never happened, as the court in fact ruled. The government offered no reason to the court for its action, other than “we can do what the hell we like”, beyond the need for a Queen’s Speech (which is perfectly reasonable in the circumstances). No reason was given why it should be five weeks rather than the normal one, or why the normal conference recess (under parliament’s control) should be part of it without parliamentary consent. Nothing was offered to the judges for them to conclude that they could intervene in principle, but not this time. And the same could be said for the remedies, with the government simply threatening to re-prorogue parliament. The government having closed all the escape routes in its ambition to have the most favourable ruling possible, it is not so surprising that the judges acted as they did.

The government’s approach here is part and parcel of its highly aggressive approach to its business, and especially that of Brexit. Whether it is inspired by the brutal ignorance and egotism of Donald Trump, whom Boris Johnson admires, or the aggressive chess game of his leading adviser Dominic Cummings, or both, is a matter I can throw no light on. First was the brutal treatment of dissenters within his own Conservative party, and then negotiating tactics with the EU reminiscent of a property deal, followed by the arbitrary prorogation. No space has been left for compromise or a middle ground.

Which doesn’t stop the Labour Party trying to occupy it, on Brexit if nothing else. I will comment in more depth on that party once its conference in Brighton is over. But it is showing the wisdom of the Liberal Democrats’ leader Jo Swinson in adopting a Revoke position in the unlikely event of being called to form a majority government. If your policy is to have a referendum, you have to present a Leave option, and take ownership of it if that is what the public chooses. Labour now finds itself suggesting that it will negotiate terms to leave the EU when it may well recommend their rejection. As former minister and union negotiator Alan Johnson points out, this is nonsense. I have a lot of sympathy for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s wish to find a compromise and start to heal the rifts, but he is a year too late for that. He should have stood behind the deal Theresa May negotiated and helped take the country out on 29 March. He will be unable to negotiate anything better. His chickens are coming home to roost.

And so the drama moves on to its next stage. How that will play out is anybody’s guess.

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!