There are alternatives. Theresa May is in deep trouble

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Beware the superficial when assessing Theresa May, Britain's Prime Minister. Most of the time she seems very weak, but somehow she survives as her position is much stronger than it looks. Conversely this is punctuated by moments of triumph, when she seems to sweep all before her. This always precedes a major reverse. Yesterday as she closed the Conservative conference with a confident speech she looked strong, though perhaps short of triumphant. In reality she has never looked more vulnerable.

Of course the central issue is Brexit. I have generally given this an optimistic gloss, being one of the few people to say that it is going reasonably well for Mrs May. But there is now serious reason to question her judgement. Her claim that there is no alternative is now in question.

Mrs May has taken up a very risky negotiating strategy. She is sticking to her proposal, usually referred to as "Chequers", though it looks as it the government has stopped using that word to refer to it. This is a very complex fudge by which Britain accepts EU Single Market product regulation for goods, but not for labour and environmental standards, nor for the movement of workers, and a customs arrangement whereby Britain can collect both its own and EU tariffs at its borders, allowing the easy movement of goods to the EU. The idea is to have an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and allow the intricate supply chains that have built up between the UK and EU countries to continue. But the problem is that EU leaders are really not happy with this. It looks too much like "have your cake and eat it", where Britain can undercut EU labour and environmental regulations and compete unfairly. Not to mention getting all the benefits of a customs union while freely negotiating alternative tariffs with non-European partners. Smarting from what they see as the growing nightmare of the pick 'n mix relationship they have with Switzerland, and worried about signals they might give both to other countries in the union and those just outside, they are anxious to guide the UK down one of the clear institutional models that they have already developed.

That leaves a very dangerous stand-off. If neither side gives way there could be a potentially disastrous "no deal" on 29 March 2019. Some Brexit supporters are quite relaxed about that idea. They assume that a number of side-deals can be done to mitigate the worst impacts, like grounded aircraft, halted medical supplies, non recognition of driving licences and so on. That is much too complacent. Though many of the scare stories spread by Remainers can be dealt with like this, the relationship is much too complex for such deals to go far enough, and it looks a bit like the hated Swiss model anyway. And there is no side deal possible that will prevent huge difficulties for goods crossing borders. The prospect of no-deal is so daunting that it might persuade parliament to go for a further referendum allowing Brexit to be reversed, something that has started to worry Conservatives, to judge how keen they are to rubbish the idea.

The EU is in fact offering two alternative ways forward for Britain after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020 (or perhaps later...). The first is full membership of the Single Market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). This has supporters in Britain. It might be bent to accommodate Labour's "tests" and so allow a parliamentary coalition that excludes most Conservative MPs. But it means that Britain will be a rule-taker from the EU, and continue to allow EU workers in freely. Most of those who voted for Brexit, and even some who didn't, would surely not support it. The second way forward is to do a free trade deal along the lines of the one done with Canada (referred to as "Canada" or "Canada plus"). This is the real threat to Mrs May, because Tory hardline Brexiteers support it. Much worse, so do many others, as it looks much better than no-deal, as at least there is nearly two years of transition and quite likely more. It is possible that there will be  cabinet rebellion - or even a revolt amongst Conservative MPs that turns Mrs May out of the leadership.

Mrs May's objection to Canada is that it creates a problem with Northern Ireland, as the EU currently insists that there would need to be a boundary of some sort between it and the rest of the UK. The rebels' calculation is the the EU will give ground on this, not least because a no-deal would have a very hard impact on the Irish Republic. They have even come up with various fudges and fig leaves that might make it viable.

So there is a clear and coherent alternative strategy for Brexit to Mrs May's. But her position is  made weaker by something else. Her remarkable longevity as leader since the fiasco of the 2017 General Election was not just because there was no alternative Brexit strategy,  but because there was no alternative leader. Or rather, that the main alternative looked to be Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary. He was on manoeuvres this week, giving a speech outside the main conference that apparently went down a storm. I have accused Labour's John McDonnell of advocating candyfloss policies, but Mr Johnson makes him look like a serious civil servant. Now two serious alternatives as leader have now emerged: the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, and the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is conspicuously more competent in that role than Mr Johnson ever was. Mr Johnson's position, meanwhile, is weakening. In a leadership election Tory members make the final choice between the last two candidates selected by MPs. Mr Johnson can't guarantee being in that top two (a bit like the similarly charismatic, but more competent, Michael Portillo when the system was used the first time). And even if he does make it, the members may well lose their nerve and vote for the alternative. Tory MPs may be prepared to risk starting the selection process.

Such a rebellion is still unlikely before March next year, though, since it is too close to Brexit day. Afterwards it could happen very quickly. They will need to get a move on. The next general election is very winnable for the Conservatives. Brexit will stay in the news for years after next March, but the political sting will be much less, especially if Mrs May can be scapegoated for the worst aspects. Remainers may be energised now, but they will run out of steam once the country has formally left. They are not at all clear on what they want after that - they have barely started to think about it. Labour are vulnerable. They have a leader who is regarded as nice, sincere but ineffective by most people, and as an evil villain by many others. They have some interesting policies but a lot of these haven't been thought through, and they will wilt under sustained attack. The group of advisers that surround their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remind me of the tight coterie that surrounded Mrs May before her disastrous election of June 2017: clever but inward looking.

But the Conservatives have weaknesses of their own. Their membership is low and ageing. The Brexit brand, which they have taken ownership of, is toxic to many. A new, younger leader will help with this. But they also need time to prepare for their campaign. The party owed its unexpected victory in 2015 to years of careful preparation; they did so badly in 2017 because they went into it with no preparation at all. So Tory MPs need to get Mrs May out of the way as soon as they can. And then there is all to play for.

As alternatives start to look more viable, Mrs May's days are surely numbered.

The dust starts to settle from Salzburg: the tension over Brexit mounts

After the spectacular breakdown between Britain and the remaining EU countries at the summit in Salzburg last week, what is the state of Brexit? The chatter in the media, mainstream or otherwise, is either hopelessly partisan, or hopelessly superficial (the BBC is taking mediocrity in political analysis to new heights). Before taking the plunge on this I wanted some of the dust to settle, and also to see what the more reliable commentators had to say.

For me, these commentators write for the Financial Times. Easily the best on Brexit is legal correspondent David Allen Green. His take on the summit is that the British Prime Minister Theresa May badly misjudged the mood on the EU side, leading to the breakdown. But he still expects the all-important exit deal to be done allowing the transitional deal to come into play on 30 March 2019, while the details of the longer term relationship are hammered out in time for the transitional period's end on 31 December 2020. For an alternative view I went to Wolfgang Munchau. I don't particularly like him as he is prone to getting a bit worked up, but at least he is free of that awful British superficiality of understanding when it comes to the EU. He suggests that it is the EU side that has misjudged things: they think that a no-deal situation would be so painful for Britain that it will buckle before it is too late - underestimating the political difficulties for Mrs May, even if that is what she really thinks. So he thinks that the no-deal situation on 29 March 2019 is all too likely.

Before trying to make sense of this, it is worth highlighting a couple of other things that are emerging from the wreckage. The first is the idea that Brexit can be halted and made to go away. So far talk of this has been confined to ardent Remainers on the margins of British politics. But for the first time at Salzburg some European leaders spoke publicly about the possibility. Idle talk, perhaps - it is nowhere near the official EU position. But perhaps it explains why some EU leaders are unsympathetic to Mrs May's compromise idea. Meanwhile British commentators are in two camps. One side says that there is growing momentum for a further referendum with reversing Brexit as an option. The other says that not only would this be a logistical nightmare, but there isn't the political will to do it where it matters: in the House of Commons. Labour's fudged conference motion to be debated today gives succour to both lines of argument.

Another thing worth mentioning is rising talk of the "Canada option" in British political circles. This refers to the comprehensive trade deal the EU has struck with Canada, which some think is a model that the UK should follow. The idea is not that this would be in place for 30 March 2019, but that it could be negotiated in time for 2021, when the transition period ends. This has the advantage of being completely consistent with the EU negotiating position, and being acceptable to the troublemakers in Britain's Conservative Party (and the hard Brexiteers in Labour too). It has one overwhelming snag, beyond requiring the dismantling of many manufacturing supply chains and the clogging of ports, which hard Brexiteers have never much worried about. It is inconsistent with the stated aim of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Which means, under the current EU offer, a sort of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Most Britons couldn't care less about this - but it is an existential issue for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on which Mrs May's government depends, as well as old-fashioned Conservatives, of which there may be a few left.

So it keeps coming back to Ireland. Here I think there are a couple of issues that don't get talked about enough. The first is that Brexit, especially a hard one, could lead to moves to unify Ireland. This possibility was left in the Good Friday Agreement, but only if most Northern Irish people agreed. Within the EU there was little prospect of that, even as the relative proportion of Catholics is rising (it is said that the UK's more generous welfare state is at the heart of this). But at least one poll showed that this changes in the event of Brexit. Idle speculation? Perhaps: the DUP don't seem to be overly worried about it. But serious political miscalculations happen. A messy Brexit might be resolved by Irish unity - do the DUP really want to risk this?

The other issue is the impact that a hard Brexit, and worse still a no-deal, would have on the Irish Republic: it could be catastrophic, as so much of its trade is either with Britain or through it. Mr Munchau admits that the impact of a no-deal would affect Britain more than its EU partners, but says that the latter's pain theshold is lower. So he advises the British government to hold firm. I'm not so sure about this as a generality (to judge from the way Russian sanctions have been applied, in spite how much they hurt some EU members), but Ireland is surely a weak link. And since Ireland is at the heart of the most awkward negotiating issue, this matters a lot, and gives strength to Mr Munchau's analysis.

And then into this brew we must add the state of British politics. If the EU does bend, and Mrs May is able to put something like her current proposals (referred to as "Chequers" after the place where it was forged with her cabinet) to parliament. Will she have a majority and what happens if she doesn't? The current suggestion is that there will be a sizeable Tory rebellion amongst Brexit hardliners, and Labour will vote it down, which makes Mrs May position look hopeless. But what then? Labour hopes for a General Election: but Mrs May is unlikely to concede it with her party in such disarray. She may then try to resolve the impasse with some form of referendum. If she is cunning, this will simply be between her deal and a no-deal, with no option to remain. Labour is badly split on the latter. Whether there is a Commons majority for an option to remain is questionable.

But the possibility may be enough to make hard Brexiteers, both Tory and Labour, think twice. The cleverer amongst them have already realised that Mrs May's compromise is a sensible staging post to where the want to go. Once the country gets past 29 March, the Remain coalition will start to wilt as there would be no easy way back in. And there is enough ambiguity in the SNP position for them to be persuaded to sit on their hands. A majority for the compromise position may yet be conjured up. If Mrs May was a more skilful politician I would say that with more confidence.

So my prediction is this: Mrs May will stand firm and the EU will start to bend, though it may take until December. Some kind of deal will be negotiated, which still leaves many issues about 2021 unresolved, but which will be enough to get to avoid the cliff edge on 29 March 2019. She will then succeed in getting this through parliament. Ultimately Britain will get a camouflaged Turkey-style deal, with a customs union of sorts in goods and no freedom of movement. So much the same as I was predicting before.

What could change it? If EU governments start to club together to offer the UK a way out of Brexit, that could just change the political dynamics in Britain. Or if a political miscalculation leads to a new General Election, and hence a two month stasis in the negotiating process, then that do raises the odds of a no-deal, whoever wins. So the tension mounts.

Brexit: is Mrs May winning the end game?

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There are less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. For many Britons this is a welcome step in the fight back against liberal elites. Others, like me, feel sick at the thought of it. In the middle of all this is the UK Conservative government led by Theresa May. How is she coping? Better than most people give her credit for.

Mrs May is not the ablest among our political leaders, who are not an especially able bunch. The so-called Windrush scandal shows this, when perfectly legal and established residents of this country were harassed and even deported because of gaps in their paperwork. This has her fingerprints all over it, from her time as Home Secretary. She failed to see that this was where her policy of a "hostile environment" for illegal immigrants would lead, in spite of being warned. Without an established system for proving identity, rejected as an intrusion of Anglo-Saxon traditions, proving that you are legally here, and thus whether or not the authorities should be hostile to you, was always going to be the problem.

So for something of the complexity of Brexit, Mrs May does not look well equipped. Her start showed the same sort of lack of imagination that led to the Windrush scandal. She set three clear parameters, "red lines", for Brexit. Control of immigration; no payments into the EU budget; no jurisdiction of the European court. That seemed quite common-sense, given that all three issues played a prominent part in the referendum campaign. But the whole system of seamless trading with the EU depends on arbitration by the European Court; the EU (as do many countries, in particular India) sees immigration and trade as being closely linked; and the lubrication to make complex deals work is money. Mrs May's red lines were leading to a very hard Brexit, whereby the UK's relationship with its main trading partners would be put on the same level as, for example, the United States.

For many supporters of Brexit, especially among the political and business elite, that was the whole point of it. For them the EU is a completely misconceived exercise, and by placing it at arms length it would give the country greater freedom to engage with the rest of the world. But there are at least two major problems. The first is just how disruptive such a change would be. There is not just the question of tariffs being imposed on goods that passed over the border, but regulatory compliance, country of origin rules, and value added tax would all have to be administered there, until some sort of alternative infrastructure, not subject to the European Court, was devised. Without it a massive snarl-up would develop at borders, with motorways clogged by waiting traffic, quickly leading to supply shortages, empty shop shelves and job lay-offs. Of course this would all resolve itself in time. But the disruption could go on for a long time and wreak damage that would take years to fix. And, a bit like the financial crash of 2008, it could be very hard to get back to where the country was before.

The second major problem is Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement that established relations between the province's two main communities depended on quite a bit of fudge based on the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU members. The most powerful symbol of this is an open border. The Irish government, and the Catholic community in the North, insist that this open border should continue after the break. How on Earth is that compatible with a hard Brexit? That this should be such a big issue drives Brexiteers mad: it looks completely disproportionate. But that Ireland should loom so large in British politics, and cause such inconvenient disruption, will surprise nobody familiar with the last five centuries of British history. After deeply flawed attempts by the British to control and colonise Ireland, the island has repeatedly come back to haunt British politics. If the Irish Brexit problem isn't solved properly there is a big risk of communal violence of some sort. Much as most Britons would like to abandon Northern Ireland, that just can't be done.

Mrs May takes both problems seriously. They are, of course, being used by Remainers to undermine confidence in the whole project. But that doesn't stop them being real. Her strategy has been to keep talking hard Brexit, while gradually softening her stance. That means some form of regulatory alignment and coordination of customs arrangements, adding up to some form of customs union, together with compromises on the European Court and the mutual rights of citizens. It is easy to despise this as "kicking the can down the road", but she is slowly outmanoeuvring both advocates of a hard Brexit, and closet Remainers who want to collapse the whole project.

The latter group, the Remainers, are now pretty much beaten. Though the idea of a further referendum (not a repeat one, you understand) is gaining hold among the public at large, together with doubts about Brexit itself, it is in Parliament that things matter. But the Remain side need enough Conservative rebels to stand their ground. They haven't. The government scored a decisive victory in recent votes which attempted to give parliament more of a say over the process. One problem is that most of these rebels need to stay in the closet, and not admit that they want to destroy Brexit. A second is that they do not wish to force a chaotic election which might let the Labour Party into power. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership will not press the government to the point of a further referendum, still less breaking off Brexit.

Mrs May's next problem will be to face down hardline Brexiteers who reject her compromises. There are at least fifty Conservative MPs who fall into this camp. But this group is being steadily outmanoeuvred. Passionate as they are, they have been unable to offer any practical solutions to the issues of transitional disruption of the economy, nor of Ireland. This group has always been backseat drivers, full of lots of clever theories about why things will be all OK, or somebody else's fault, and who think you negotiate complex intergovernmental deals in the same way that you negotiate a house purchase. There is no convincing rival plan. They seem to want to storm out of negotiations with the EU, daring them to let a "no-deal" happen, but without a viable alternative deal in mind. This lack of practicality means that they are becoming politically isolated. Dare Mrs May face them down?

What can the Conservative hardliners do? The have enough MPs to force a confidence vote in Mrs May, which would then trigger a leadership election. But surely Mrs May has the grudging support of enough MPs to win any such vote if it was called - which would then protect her from further challenges for 12 months. They could resign the Conservative whip, depriving the government of its majority. But if Labour then put forward a vote of no confidence in the government, would the rebels let Mrs May's government fall? That would either provoke a chaotic General Election, or some kind of transitional accommodation between Labour and the Conservatives to get through the last months of the Brexit negotiations. It is hard to see how either would be to the hardliners' advantage.

So, a bit like the closet Remainers, I think the attempted rebellion by the hardline Brexiteers will fizzle. That will leave Mrs May to strike the sort of fudged and muddled deal with the EU, arrived at in the last minute, which is what most international negotiation usually ends up with. There will surely be some nasty disruption as Britain's exit comes about, but not as bad as it might have been. Which would be quite a result for Theresa May.

Theresa May is channelling Nick Clegg

I read somewhere this week that the Conservative Party gathering in Manchester felt like a "Potemkin conference". It had all the forms of a party conference, with hordes of journalists and lobbyists, but few actual members. That reminded me of something: Liberal Democrat conferences during the coalition era of 2010 to 2015. So, after comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Margaret Thatcher, an ideological leader who had a shaky start before eventually becoming dominant, this time I will compare the Conservative leader and Prime Minster Theresa May to Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition.

Nick (I usually use first names for members of my own party) was little known to the public before he burst onto the scene in the 2010 General Election. His performance in the leader debate astounded people, and led to a brief moment of Cleggmania, in which the party stormed up the polls. A concerted press campaign, and a late rally by Gordon Brown's Labour Party, brought him down to earth somewhat. But the party did well enough to enter coalition with the Conservatives. That was a heady moment for the party; we had hardly dare hope that the party could enter government, and that some of our colleagues would be cabinet ministers. This looked to be another important step towards the party taking its place at the top table of British politics. But that was a serious misreading of the situation. Large numbers of supporters were outraged, support plummeted and membership drained away. And yet the party retained all the outward forms of success, including those Potemkin conferences. Insiders talked up the party's prospects with various arguments about historical precedent, real achievements and the need for a centre party. But nobody outside the party was fooled. Nick limped on as captain of a sinking ship; nobody wanted to replace him, and a change of leadership looked too risky. The party's collapse was confirmed in the 2015 General Election.

Theresa May too burst onto the scene suddenly, after the EU referendum did for her predecessor David Cameron, and one by one her rivals for the leadership were sabotaged. Her honeymoon lasted much longer than Nick's. But then came that fatal moment of hubris when she called an early election. At first it looked a brilliant move that would usher in an era of Tory domination of parliamentary politics, and her personal authority would be unchallenged. The speed with which she fell apart staggered everybody. Suddenly the Conservative Party looks vulnerable: on the wrong side of history and, to mix metaphors, lacking the will to fight its way of the cul-de-sac it finds itself in. The party is haemorrhaging members. It all reminds me of Nick Clegg's fall from grace in a few weeks in 2010. The Tories cling to power; they try to convince themselves that things aren't as bad as they look; but to outsiders they look doomed. Only Labour can save them. But they can carry on in this living-dead state for years, just like the Lib Dems in coalition. Or John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992.

But wait, are things really that bad for the Tories? Their poll standing has not collapsed, unlike the Lib Dems after 2010; Labour's lead is a narrow one - and not enough for that party to win a majority. Labour aren't following Tony Blair's strategy of pitching for the centre ground - instead they are trying to present a radical alternative. That gives the Tories more air to breathe. There is a potentially winning coalition of working class Brexit supporters, middle class conservatives, and private sector workers worried about Labour. That was Mrs May's strategy in the Spring, and it looked like a winning one then. But there are three huge problems for the Tories.

The first is Brexit. After the referendum the party had little choice but to take ownership of it. But there is no coherent plan for Brexit; if there had been such a plan it would have given the remainers something solid to attack, and surely they would have won. There is no political majority to be forged for any particular vision of life after exit. Meanwhile Brexit will take the blame for everything that goes wrong in the country for the next decade, regardless of whether that is true or not. British politics is stuck between two incoherent camps who can each prevent the other from ruling effectively. And disruptive change is inevitable. Since hanging on to the certainties of the status quo is usually any government's best defence, it is fatally undermined. And Labour's radicalism doesn't look so bad compared to the crazy talk of the more radical wing pro-Brexit Tories, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. This looks a hard situation for even the most capable government to handle.

The second problem for the Tories is demographics. Mrs May's potentially winning coalition is a shrinking one - it depends disproportionately on older, white voters. And on people who own their own homes. But the proportion of such people is shrinking relentlessly. Somehow the party needs to break out of this bind to appeal to younger voters, and those renting their homes. Mrs May seems to understand this, but has little idea how to do it without putting off the party's core support. A few gestures about building more houses will not be enough.

And thirdly there is the party itself. It has been shrinking for some time. There is a story circulating that its rank and file membership is now smaller than even the Lib Dems, who have seen a membership surge since 2015. No doubt fear of Labour will keep money flowing into the party - but a political campaign based on money rather than grassroots support is a fragile thing. Mr Cameron's success in 2015 took years of careful preparation; the absence of such preparation was painfully apparent in the Tory campaign this year. And yet the party now lacks the stability and consistency of leadership needed for such planning to work. Things are hardly better when looking at the party's elite: its parliamentary party. Mrs May is a gritty and determined leader, but lacks political skill, and her authority is shot. But her main rival, Boris Johnson, looks a more effective rebel than a leader. He showed no great skill or leadership in his role as Mayor for London, which is hardly the most demanding of jobs. In Lib Dem terms he is Tim Farron to Mrs May's Nick Clegg (though, I need to add, that Nick has far more political skill than Mrs May). For all Tim's talents he fell short of what was needed for the top job. And yet four years of the party being hollowed out under Mrs May's leadership is a pretty much a guarantee of disaster.

The Conservatives have no serious rivals on the political right. Ukip has collapsed. The Lib Dems ar interested in picking off the Conservatives' more liberal supporters, but not its core vote. The party can surely reinvent itself - just as the Lib Dems are doing. But you can't do that in government. Tory prospects for the next five years look dismal indeed.

 

 

 

Was Grenfell Tower Theresa May’s Black Tuesday?

Britain's Conservatives are in an extraordinarily deep mess. Their catastrophic their election failure was followed quickly by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which to many showed the bankruptcy of Tory policy. A union representative at recent meeting I attended confidently predicted that Labour would be in power in six months. That looks implausible, but the Tories could limp on like John Major's government after Black Tuesday in 1992, before it went down to the Tories' worst ever defeat in 1997.

It's a bit shocking to think back to last April, when Theresa May called the election. It looked like a stroke of genius. Labour had some of their worst ever poll ratings and looked hollowed out after their internal struggles. But it wasn't just that. It also looked clever to go to the electorate then, because the next few years were going to be rough going for the government. Brexit was looking very messy, and the short term economic outlook looked dire - especially if the government stuck to the fiscal conservatism that has been their hallmark. Now the party has lost its parliamentary majority, tarnished its brand, and rescued Labour from oblivion. And prospects for Brexit and the economy look just as difficult as before - worse.  I can only guess at the trauma Tory supporters must be feeling.

There has been some predictable lashing out. Tories cannot bear to give Labour's leadership credit for anything, so they blame their own side for the calamity. Mrs May is regarded as a dire leader; the campaign is written off as the most dismal in history. And yet they won 43% of the vote, the highest since 1987, and their poll ratings were remarkably stable through the campaign. Still, many of the decisions taken by the Conservatives during the campaign look ill-advised in hindsight. A lot of the problem was that the calling of the election was so sudden. There was no time to put together the type of campaign infrastructure that was in place 2015. They lacked good quality campaign intelligence, and failed to see how the battleground was moving. The political environment, after Brexit and Corbyn, is radically different from that of 2015, and yet the Tory campaign theme - "strong and stable" versus "coalition of chaos" - was much the same. This points to a deeper weakness: the party lacks a strong army of volunteers to fight a ground campaign. So it badly needs the advantages that money and a long lead time can buy - and they need to identify the right constituencies and voters to target. It's clear they were focusing their efforts on the wrong people time.

I have made a comparison before between Theresa May and John Major. Mr Major was a lacklustre leader, who experienced an initial honeymoon when he took over in 1990. He did not call a snap election, but pulled off a narrow but unexpected victory in 1992, after a dismal campaign. He had a bit of a second honeymoon, but it all came tumbling down on 16 September 1992, Black Tuesday, when Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, shattering Mr Major's economic strategy. It made no difference that he kept going for over 4 years more with a pretty decent economic record - he and his party's credibility was shot, and the country was only waiting for somebody to put them out of their misery.

Does the Grenfell Tower fire provide a similar, seminal moment, to follow the failed election itself? There are clear signs of government failure, and Mrs May's slow reaction showed a massive lack of political judgment by her and her advisers. The official neglect that led to a tragedy on this scale goes back much longer than when Conservative austerity started in 2010, but many of the things Conservatives have been saying about cutting public services and regulation resonate badly.

But, like John Major, I suspect the government will be quite successful at limping on. Only Labour currently wants another election, and they do not have enough parliamentary muscle to force one, nor sufficient political skill to engineer one. Also Mrs May herself looks quite secure for now; each of her potential replacements brings problems with them. Personally I think that the Chancellor Philip Hammond would do a much better job, but he would be distrusted as a more open Europhile. If there had been a strong field of potential leaders, Mrs May would not have walked into her job so easily. Just as nobody could replace Mr Major.

But the Conservatives are vulnerable. Brexit makes the short-term economic prospects look weak - undermining their reputation for economic competence. The lower pound is squeezing what people have to spend; business investment is blighted by uncertainty. A good moment for higher public investment in infrastructure and public services? But that would require the import of a lot of foreign skilled workers (and no doubt quite a few unskilled ones) just as Brexit makes life uncertain for the most readily available people. It may or may not be fair to put a faltering economy down to Brexit (it may have been coming anyway), but it is hard for the government to blame anything else, when the most plausible alternative is their own incompetence. And public services, such as education and health (to say nothing of social housing) are becoming stretched to the point of being politically toxic.

But for the Conservatives to be beaten, it takes somebody to deliver the blow. In 1997 that was Tony Blair, who built up the most ruthlessly effective political machine Britain has ever seen. Labour are confident that the spirit of hope and optimism spelt out in their manifesto will convince enough extra voters to give them a try this time. They have plenty of enthusiastic young supporters to give them an army of foot soldiers. But they are very unlike Mr Blair's Labour. Mr Blair moved Labour towards the Conservatives in policy terms, in a strategy that I have called "the same, only different", and picked up many Tory voters. For Mr Corbyn's  party, their motivation comes from a visceral hatred of the Conservatives and all they stand for. Their policy programme is full of contradictions, not least on Brexit, and would wilt under close scrutiny. This time they succeeded because nobody thought they could win. I can't believe they will be able to deliver a knock-out blow. Challenges built on populist anger can gain momentum (look at Donald Trump and Brexit), but they provoke opposition, and it is very hard for them to get enough votes to secure more than a narrow victory in a parliamentary election. And the electoral system does not favour Labour either.

The alternative is that a new political force is able to grow and deliver the blow, as Emmanuel Macron has in France, drawing support from both right and left. The Liberal Democrats hope to be that force, but at best they can only be part of it. This new force needs defections from both the big parties, and some people new to politics too. And there needs to be a leader. Is there anybody of the right stature around to lead it?  Maybe somebody will emerge, as Tony Blair did. I can't help thinking of David Miliband. Vince Cable, who looks likely to be the next Lib Dem leader, has a better chance than the current leader, Tim Farron, of drawing support across party lines.

But for that to happen, Labour will have to start falling apart. This is possible. The hard left looks is continuing its takeover of the party machinery. Mr Corbyn has made no gestures of reconciliation to his party's centrists. But it will take more than driving out a few tainted centrists to break Labour's momentum - something has to puncture the enthusiasm of Labour's activist base, who now have a taste for successful campaigning. Perhaps only power will puncture Mr Corbyn's bubble. Labour might be too weak to beat the Conservatives, even when they are vulnerable. But they may yet be too strong to allow anybody else to.

And that is the best hope for Conservatives. British politics is volatile. Their luck could yet turn.

 

Hubris wrecked Theresa May. Will it do for Jeremy Corbyn too?

Labour did not win Britain's General Election. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn's party did no better than Gordon Brown's in 2010. And yet Mr Corbyn has every right to be pleased with himself. His party burst through all expectations and is now within shouting distance of power. They did this with an innovative campaign that has changed the face of British politics. And yet their hold remains fragile.

I still have to pinch myself that Labour have done as well as they have. I really did not believe that they could take back the seat of Battersea, where I live,  from the Tories. Their campaign was weak, and their candidate locally unknown; they put in a fraction of the effort they did in 2015. As a resident the only party I heard from was, in fact, the Liberal Democrats (whose vote increased quite respectably) - as well as the independent candidate.

In my last post I attributed Labour success to three things: pushing back the Lib Dems and Greens; taking votes from Ukip; and drawing in new voters, especially younger ones. Subsequent evidence suggest I may have overdone the Ukip component - but that quite a few older, Tory voters stayed at home. The point is that Labour did everything except tackling the middle-England voters who voted Tory in 2015, and whom people like me said were the party's only route back to success. And that, ultimately, was why Labour still lost.

The most positive thing about Labour's campaign was the successful way they drew in younger voters who had previously not voted, right up to people in their 40s. This clearly had a powerful political effect, to the detriment of both the Conservatives (including in Battersea) and the Lib Dems (in seats like Nick Clegg's Sheffield seat). Politicians have too easily neglected this segment of the population, while lavishing benefits on older voters, who turn out in greater numbers. The hope is that once people have been drawn it to vote once, they will repeat the experience - especially since their intervention made a difference this time. This needs to be qualified in two ways. First: older voters are as powerful as ever. It was the Conservatives that tried to challenge this group, and that proved costly, even decisive. Labour pandered to both ends of the spectrum. The second is that Labour's most eye-catching policy to appeal to younger voters was the abolition of university tuition fees. It will be very hard for them to wriggle out of that policy in future. But it will have all sorts of adverse consequences, from diverting resources from poorer people (both services and benefits) to restricting the funding and independence of universities.

A second positive thing was that finally the stranglehold of the tabloid press seems to have been broken.  In 1992 The Sun newspaper took credit for an unexpected Conservative victory, following a campaign of vilification of Labour's then leader, Neil Kinnock - and few disagreed. Although newspaper readership is falling, it is striking how mainstream television news often takes a lead from the press. This is very evident from the often bizarre prioritisation of news stories on BBC Radio 4, for example. But many people now get their news from elsewhere, and are used to challenging the line put out by the "mainstream media". The press is responsible for a whole series of myths and lies about politics (the scale of foreign aid, the impact of immigrants, and so on), so this is positive. Unfortunately its diminishment is not in itself a blow for truth. For example I heard people suggesting the Mr Corbyn was much readier to mix with the public than Mrs May, and yet Mr Corbyn's audiences were almost as controlled. The left sustains its own fictional world.

Perhaps what surprised me most of all was the success of Labour's manifesto. I dismissed it as an incoherent set of policies designed to please a series of vocal interest groups. It was not a serious programme for government, and was not economically credible (even if you accept that the government can run a much bigger budget deficit that most people currently think). And yet many voters were happy to find something they liked in it, and put an optimistic gloss on the rest. To me the most remarkable endorsement came from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Mr Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and wrote the textbook I used when studying public economics. Having read the manifesto itself, I can see that I was being less than fair. I wasn't actually wrong in my comments, but I underrated its positive narrative. People were able to project their hopes onto it. They were able to seize on a few things they liked, and take the rest on trust. One striking feature was that it left very little money to reverse Tory benefits cuts, or even for them to keep pace with inflation. But nobody really believed that Mr Corbyn would let claimants down so thoroughly.

But it does seem that British voters don't like tough choices. The best way to win votes is to make undeliverable promises, such as the one made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU would be costless. By contrast Mrs May's more challenging manifesto was a failure; there were a lot of nasty things in it, but that isn't what really cost her the votes - it was her attempt to limit the state's largess to older voters, something that will have to be tackled eventually. This is a less positive development for British politics.

More positive, is that it looks as if televised leaders' debates are here to stay. By steering clear of such debates, Mrs May was only following standard professional advice that such debates are simply a risk to front-runners. But Mr Corbyn's last minute move to join the debate with all party leaders was a masterstroke, and one that I suspect lost the election for Mrs May - it badly damaged her already fading brand, which was the central focus of the Conservative campaign. Failure to attend such a debate suggests that a party leader is not up to the job. Now that two-party politics has returned (in the conventional wisdom, if not in fact), we might even get a two leader face-off in future as a permanent fixture. These debates may be theatrical nonsense, but they are a good way of securing public engagement in the electoral process and so a positive thing.

Now that Mrs May seems to be coming unstuck, after placing such a massive bet on her own personal brand, Labour are within striking distance of power. They have already taken a poll lead. But they should beware for three reasons.

First is that, as my last post pointed out, the world of two-party politics is no easier than the multi-party one. Labour now needs to get into the upper 40s of vote-share to win (the electoral system is tilted against them). That means appealing to voters who voted Conservative last time, something they have studiously avoided trying to do until now.

Second is that their manifesto will prove a problem as a template for government. It does too much for some interest groups (e.g. students) and not enough for others (benefit claimants). Labour successfully appealed to both sides of the Brexit argument at once. . it is based on an economic idea that growth is based purely on the quantity of investment, and independent of the ease of doing business. Resources are always limited, and choices always have to be made; Labour shows no preparedness for that eventuality.

And third, doubts about Mr Corbyn's leadership remain. He had a good campaign, doing things we already knew he does well - it is how he got to be Labour leader, after all. And yet his grasp of man-management and administration has been shown to be weak. These weaknesses are bound to re-emerge, as will power struggles within the Labour Party, which he has been unable to handle.

None of this will necessarily stop Mr Corbyn from winning another election, given the disarray of the Tories, and the lack of challenge from elsewhere. After all Francois Hollande won the French presidency in 2012 on a similar basis. But that led to the collapse of his party. Labour supporters should remember that not long ago Theresa May looked unassailable, but that hubris undid her. Now I see some of that some hubris coming from Mr Corbyn's side. They should beware.

The Conservatives and Labour are not finding life easy in the world of two-party politics

First, an apology. For the last two weeks I have been on holiday, and taking a break from blogging. So an incredible two weeks, featuring not just the election, but a terrorist attack in a place that I frequent, and the Grenfell Tower disaster, has passed without comment. Never mind the continued ascent of Emmanuel Macron in France and the scarcely believable goings on in America. I like my blog to be reflective rather than provide an instant reaction, but this has been taking it a bit far! I must start the catch-up by taking a first look at that British election.

The Conservative campaign was constructed, initially anyway, by their adviser Lynton Crosby, who achieved hero status after the unexpected success of his campaign in 2015. It was a plan based heavily on what has happened in previous elections, and, doubtless, informed about current voter feelings through focus groups and opinion polls. In the usual modern language, this was very "evidence-based". People expected it to do very well based on two bits of received wisdom. First was that most people have already made up their minds at the start of a campaign, so the Tory lead of over 20% in the opinion polls would not change that much. Second was that perceptions of party leaders heavily influence election outcomes: and Theresa May showed an apparently unassailable leader over Jeremy Corbyn. What could possibly go wrong? It looked a perfectly sound decision to me.

Both of those bits of wisdom, for all the evidence backing them up, proved wrong. And so Mr Crosby's reputation  has probably been trashed. The more reflective will point out that this is jumping to conclusions. The Tory campaign secured a huge Conservative vote - 42% on an increased turnout, a figure that barely moved as the campaign progressed. The problem was that they failed to contain Labour. And that was not all Mr Crosby's fault.

How did Labour do so well? They increased their share of the vote by about 15% as the campaign progressed to reach an astonishing 40%. This increase seems to have had three sources, of roughly equal importance. First was from Lib Dem and Green voters, who took a strong dislike to the Conservative campaign, and saw voting Labour as the best way of stopping them. Second was Ukip voters; Ukip collapsed by about 11% since 2015. The early evidence, from local elections in May in particular, was that this was overwhelmingly in favour of the Tories. That may have been the case initially, but as the campaign progressed, Labour seems to have picked up a sizable chunk of that vote too (perhaps 5% of the 11% in the end). And the third factor was that Labour brought out a sizeable number of new, younger voters. All three of these factors was unexpected at the start of the campaign - not least by me.

Labour were rewarded for breaking with conventional wisdom, and putting together a genuinely innovative campaign. They were helped by two Tory miscalculations. One was at the heart of Mr Crosby's strategy, which was to give Labour all the rope it needed to hang itself. They did not want to demean the Conservative brand, and Mrs May's personal one, by tangling too closely with Labour. In particular they stood back from the leadership debates. They wanted to contrast the "strong and stable" government with the "coalition of chaos" opposing them. This seemed to be working when Labour Home Affairs lead, Diane Abbott, showed a complete lack of grip on her portfolio early in the campaign. But Labour were able to shake themselves free of that and move the campaign onto the issues they wanted to talk about - which was anything except Brexit.

The second miscalculation was the Conservative manifesto; this one cannot be put down to Mr Crosby, but to Mrs May herself, and her close cabal of advisers. They made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda, as published faithfully by supportive newspapers like the Daily Mail. The manifesto was a challenging one, designed to let Mrs May exploit her expected majority to maximum effect, to put her stamp permanently on British society. Notoriously this included rowing back on automatic increases to the state pension (the "triple lock"), including homes in the wealth assessments for personal care costs (referred to by opponents as "dementia tax"), and means-testing winter fuel payment to the elderly. There were minor concessions on schools funding, but there were a series of other ideas, hateful to liberals, such as the return of academic selection for state schools, and undoing advances in electoral reform (that one particularly annoyed me). And behind this was talking up the prospects of Brexit, with the bizarre slogan that "no deal would be better than a bad deal". Remain voters are slowly coming round to Brexit, but rubbing their noses in the humiliation of it all is not sensible politics. I suspect that this manifesto was so tough because its authors felt that Tony Blair, the previous prime minister who was blessed with landslide victories, did not ask for enough, and that this hobbled his programme of public service reform. But the result was a small, but probably decisive, loss of support from older voters. This may have helped to push Ukip voters to Labour, for example; other potential Conservative voters may have stayed at home. And, of course, it helped rally opponents to back the one party that seemed capable of warding off the awful prospect of a big Conservative majority.

There is more I want to say about Labour's successful campaign, which has really changed things. But for now I want to reflect on the remarkable return of two-party politics. In 2010 Labour and the Conservatives managed 65% of the vote between them; the share was similar in 2015, as though the Lib Dem vote collapsed, Ukip, SNP and the Greens rose. But this time the two big parties took over 82% between them. Many politicians from the main parties, and many others too in the media and in the establishment generally, have lamented the rise of third parties, complicating the choices presented to people. And yet Labour and the Conservatives are finding that it makes life no easier. In 2015 Labour's big idea was to destroy the Lib Dems and win a majority with just 35% of the vote. But as they succeeded with the first part of this aim, other Lib Dem voters flocked to the Tories in horror. Something like that seems to have happened to Ukip voters this time. Pushing out the third parties just raises the bar to parliamentary success higher, making it yet harder to put together a winning coalition of voters.

Not so long ago the idea of two-party politics looked fragile. Both the Conservatives and Labour looked about to fall apart. Those tensions will surely re-emerge. But right now it does not look as if either the Lib Dems will revive soon, nor that a new political force will arise, as it has in France. That will probably take a national disaster. But it is easy enough to predict what that national disaster might be: Brexit. But that's another story.

Is Theresa May the new John Major?

Well if I was ever under the illusion that I had any special insights into Britain's general election campaign, it is now banished. Last week I described the improvement in Labour's poll ratings as a "dead cat bounce". It is clearly much more than that. As the election goes into its last lap, it is going to be a lot more interesting.

So what happened? The truth is that we don't quite know. After the pause caused by the Manchester outrage, we now have a series of new opinion polls, confirming an improvement in Labour's position. It has advanced to an average of 35% according to Wikipedia, a remarkable achievement when you consider they started the campaign at 25%. Where has this come from? The Conservative poll share has eased by a couple of points to about 44%, but it is still better than where they started, before they mugged Ukip. The position of both the Lib Dems and the Greens has fallen back, as has the SNP in Scotland, though Ukip has struck bottom now. The headline figures are easy enough to see, but what really lies behind the shifts is much harder to say, as is their impact on individual races for seats.

But confidence in the Conservative campaign has been shaken, and Labour is being given more credit. It is particularly striking that Manchester has not helped Theresa May, as most campaigners from both sides thought it would. Indeed the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seized the initiative on Friday by pointing to the alleged failure of British foreign policy to make the world safer, and how police cuts have made things worse. Both points are spurious. Jihadi terrorism has struck Germany and Belgium, countries with a notably more pacific foreign policy than Britain's. Britain's interventions are an excuse for the terrorists, and not the real reason - which is hatred for the godless western way of life and a liberal attitude to women. And the security services have been lavished with funds - it is friendly neighbourhood policing that has been hammered - and the effect of that on terrorism is unclear. Never mind; Mr Corbyn delivered his speech in a measured, sober fashion (prime ministerial, I am tempted to say), and both arguments resonated with the public, who are not inclined to trust the political establishment. The Tory response was unmemorable.

This points to an important weakness in the Tory campaign. It is completely and utterly centred on the person of Mrs May, who they then proceed to shield from public interaction. While Mr Corbyn was delivering his speech, Mrs May was hobnobbing with world leaders at a couple of world summits. In itself this sort of distraction is considered to be a positive by campaigners, a chance to look like a world leader in power, but she had nobody of stature left on the home front. And the media were not inclined to give her party an easy ride.

That has to do with a second weakness. Mrs May is not a collegiate leader. Her pronouncements emerge from a small cabal of trusted advisers, without the ground being prepared amongst her colleagues and their media contacts. So it doesn't take much for the grumbling to start, and this makes good copy. And the grumbling is in full flow. One columnist said that Mrs May had the charisma of an Indesit fridge-freezer. More than one has suggested that this is the most dismal Tory election campaign ever.

I wouldn't say that. To me that record is held by John Major, both in 1992 (which won unexpectedly) and 1997 (the worst Tory defeat in history). The 1992 election is the better comparison to now. Mr Major was an uncharismatic sort, and he tried to make a virtue of it. He was never able to stamp his authority on his party. I remember thinking in the early stages of the 1992 campaign that the Tories did not look as if they even wanted to win. They were saved by events. The first was a triumphalist rally in Sheffield by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, which was a disastrous misreading of the zeitgeist. And second was combative last minute switch in the Conservative campaign based on "Labour's tax bombshell", one of the most effective general election moves I can remember - which stops me rating the campaign as a whole the direst in Tory history (1997 takes that prize).

That gives two clues as to how the Conservatives can pull the campaign back to the massive landslide we expected at the start. First is the public not liking the prospect of Labour as a government rather than as a protest vote. Mr Kinnock was not considered Prime Ministerial. Second, is through a well-designed and aggressive drive by the Conservatives and their media allies against Labour weaknesses, perhaps on economics or perhaps on national security, in the remaining ten days.

We'll see. Things could go well for Labour if we see a repeat of the anti-establishment mood evident in the Brexit referendum last year, or in Donald Trump's victory in the US. "Strong and stable" could have been a campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton - but Mr Trump was able to project enough of an aura of competence to persuade enough people to give him a try - based on his supposed success as a businessman, and his success in getting to be the Republican nominee. Mr Corbyn is exceeding expectations in his campaigning skill, and he comes over as the more straightforward and honest politician compared to Mrs May. So you never know...

And what of my party, the Liberal Democrats? There is good an bad news. The good news is that knocking the shine off Mrs May helps in contests against the Conservatives. The bad news is that in the general polling the party has faded, and the gap between it and the Conservatives is as large as ever. The idea that the party is a more credible opposition than Labour has gained no traction. A good election for Jeremy Corbyn may be good for the Lib Dems strategically, but a failure to progress will pose some very challenging questions for the party.

Meanwhile I will be scouring the media for any evidence I can find as to how the election is developing. I have not got a clear picture yet. But if Theresa May fails to get a convincing majority, she will have nowhere to hide, and her authority would be damaged irreparably. And deservedly so.

Don’t underestimate Theresa May – but the Lib Dems will play a critical role in this election

Today Theresa May announced her intention to hold a General Election in Britain on 8 June. She is certain to get her way, notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Personally I'm not happy - this is an unwelcome distraction from other things I need to do - and my post on mental health has been swamped. Unable to concentrate on much else, I'm going to post again.

The first thing that strikes me is that British politics is littered with people that have underestimated our Prime Minister. This election was an almost total surprise. Rumours had circulated earlier in the year of a a General Election, but faded when it was clear it would not be on the first Thursday in May, which has now become the traditional date for elections in Britain. (A practice established by John Major in 1992, and only broken in 2001 because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But before that Margaret Thatcher preferred June elections, a parallel that will no doubt please Mrs May). This surprise shows how tight a ship she runs compared to her ill-fated Labour predecessor Gordon Brown, whose career had otherwise had some striking parallels. Mr Brown's reputation was destroyed because he let speculation about an early election get out of hand, and then lost his nerve.

The second striking thing is how unusual it is for us to have a snap election in the UK. Until now Prime Ministers have waited until the fourth or fifth year of parliament's term. The date has been widely known well in advance (though in the case of the four year terms favoured by Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher, not for certain), allowing for a lot of pre planning. We have to go back to 1974 for one like this one, unless you count 1979, when the Callaghan government was brought down by a vote of no confidence less than six months before its term had run. And even the 1974 parallels aren't that strong. This is uncharted territory. The parties will be fighting with much less pre-planning. The campaign could be much more chaotic than the carefully choreographed ones we have been used to.

Politically the election is dominated by the weakness of the Labour Party. Already demolished by the SNP in Scotland, it shows no signs of recovery there, and looks very vulnerable everywhere else. Its opinion poll ratings are very low - about half the Conservative vote. I have not seen any analysis of what this means in terms of the party's vulnerability in particular seats. It has a large number of very safe seats, so it might well hang on in lots of places, while doing catastrophically in Middle England.  The party has two huge problems. The first is that the political agenda is clearly on Brexit, where its message is weak - it will not be rewarded for reflecting the confusion that much of the voting public has on the topic. Much as it would like to move the debate on to austerity, where cuts are now looking quite alarming in places, this looks like a doomed enterprise. And that is because of their second major problem: a spectacularly inept leader in Jeremy Corbyn. By itself this ineptitude is not fatal - after all he has done well in Labour's internal elections - but the public don't see him as a prime minister in waiting. Time an again that has proved a fatal handicap at election time. Without that credibility Labour can't change the agenda.

So the Conservatives are looking confident. It seems that their key electoral message is that Britain needs a strong government right now, regardless off what that government actually plans to do. But the messaging will not have been exhaustively tested, so we don't know how this will actually play. It seems clear that they will be able to beat off any threat from Ukip, but they may find it harder to manage the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems are in a very interesting position. Most people considered them wiped out after the last general election in 2015, when they were punished for having been in coalition with the Conservatives. But the Brexit referendum result has energised the party. It has now reliably retrieved third place in the opinion polls (though still only half of even Labour's disastrous score), and its membership is booming. It has a clear position on Brexit. The Tory strategy in 2015 was mainly to destroy their coalition allies - on the principle that you should always go for the weakest opponent first. That meant they won many more seats from them than they did from Labour. But holding those seats could be tricky, since the messages that worked so well in 2015, which relied on a strong Labour threat, lack punch now -and the Tories are unlikely to have the same organisational strength, since this is a snap election.

So the Lib Dems could make a big comeback. Big enough to stop the Conservatives from getting a majority? Almost nobody would suggest that. The closer the party gets to achieving that aim, the more powerful the Conservative message about strong government will become. But after the last year we have started to expect the unexpected. The Tories will make little headway in Scotland (even though they now outpoll Labour there). They may find that taking many seats from Labour means going deep into their strongholds. Their high poll rating could simply mean piling up votes in seats they have already won.

So, much as I find this election personally unwelcome, it will be an interesting one to watch. My hunch is that the Conservatives will end the election in much the same place that they started it - but with fewer Labour seats and more Lib Dem ones on the opposition benches. But am I making the fatal sin of underestimating Theresa May?

Theresa May’s Brexit moves from tautology to oxymoron but makes the best of a bad job

An oxymoron replaces a tautology. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister is contemptuous of intellectuals that try to weave policies into a wider, coherent narrative. Instead she concentrates on a series of tasks, whose solutions may clash with one another. In her speech on Brexit last Tuesday Mrs May moved her defining slogan on from "Brexit means Brexit" to "Global Britain". This last expression captures the essential idea that Britain can remain open to the world while being closed to it.

Predictably enough, the media coverage has been beside the point, lapping up the bait left for them left by the spin-doctors, without bothering to question the speech's real meaning. Last week I said that the government's strategy would be a hard Brexit via a soft one, with a General Election in between. That, more or less, is what this speech delivered.

The media has focused mainly on Mrs May's stated destination after the exit process is complete. That was always going to be a very hard form of Brexit, given her insistance on two red lines: control over immigration of EU nationals, and escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is a perfectly fair interpretation of last year's vote. Some Brexit campaigners painted a picture of a "Norway option" of Britain staying in the Single Market while outside the political Union. But Remain campaigners, including me on many occasions, pointed out that this was nonsense. Mrs May is conceding to this obvious reality. A third red line is emerging: Britain wants to be free to negotiate separate trade deals with non-European countries, like the USA or China. So one of the main points interest of her speech was her hope that Britain could have a half-in/half-out relationship with the EU customs union. This looks very hard, but we can hardly fault it as an aspiration.

But, as I argued last week, the critical issue for Brexit is the transition, and Mrs May did have something to say about this. She talked of a "phased implementation" of Brexit: in other words, a transitional deal. She said very little about this, and nothing about how long the transitional period would be.  That is quite a big door she has left open.  This transition amounts to a soft Brexit for a limited period, and getting progressively harder over the years. This starts in 2019; there must be a General Election by May 2020, which will be quite early in the transition process. Politicians should be focusing on their stance in this election.

The strategy for Remainers who want to put off hard Brexit therefore becomes quite plain. The next parliament must prolong the transition process and renegotiate what comes afterwards. They will be caught in the same logical bind about membership of the Single Market, but they might be able to move the talk on to eventual re-entry.

But to reverse the tide of Brexit will require a shift in public opinion, with a large block of Leave supporters put off by the prospect of hard Brexit. At the moment, though, the acquiescence of Remain supporters looks more likely. This is helped by the behaviour of the UK economy since the vote. There is no sign of a serious economic impact, and forecasters are putting off their predictions of one. The chief economic effect of Brexit has been the lower pound, and this has been doing the job that advocates of floating currencies always maintained it would. Any loss of inward investment put off by Brexit has been made up for by other money tempted by the reduced price of British assets. It may be that property speculation is replacing business development and research, but in the short term what matters is the cash. And British consumers have seen no need to save more and spend less; consumer demand is robust. The balance of payments deficit may even be easing. My sense is that summer holidays in Cornwall are selling faster than usual. Britons may be worse off, but not enough for anybody to be seriously worried.

This is something of a Brexit honeymoon. When will it end? That will happen when, or if, the costs of exit become more concrete, with job losses and travel restrictions in particular. The government will, as it should, try to put these off. There will no doubt be a big focus on protecting the British motor and aerospace industries, which are particularly vulnerable. Skilful navigation of these pitfalls could head off any serious backlash - and if they do the Brexiteers will have won the economic argument, so far as most people are concerned. That may or may not happen, but for now the endless speculations of doom from the Remain camp aren't helping; it will the fate of real businesses and jobs that will win the argument either way.

But for the time being the focus will probably move away from business. The immediate focus of negotiations will be the terms of Britain's exit - the divorce settlement, and not the basis of the future relationship. Probably the most combustible part of this will be the status of Britons resident in other EU countries, and vice versa. So far such media attention has focused on people from EU countries living in Britain, who have become embedded in British society. Most Brexiteers feel that they should have full residency rights, but the ability of Britain's bumbling Home Office to design a bureaucratic process that can deliver this is very much in doubt.

Actually the more politically important case is British retirees who have moved to other EU countries (Spain is especially popular) and dependent on access to local health services. The government hopes that people who moved before a cut-off date (such as the referendum date) can preserve their current status. But the situation is not symmetrical, especially when you look at individual EU members. A deal should be easy with Poland, but what has Britain to offer Spain in return for continuing to look after a community that pays few Spanish taxes and demands increasing care costs? The prospect of thousands of British retirees coming home to use an NHS struggling to recruit foreign staff cannot be inviting.

It is with such matters that the British government will become absorbed over the next two years. It will be a hard slog, but Mrs May's plodding, practical, task-oriented, anti-intellectual approach may be just what is required. Expect many more tautologies and oxymorons.