Will Boris Johnson survive?

I do not usually use this blog to indulge in short-term political speculation. I have access to no special inside sources – I simply make use of the information pumped out by sections of the mainstream media, being mainly the BBC and the Financial Times, supplemented by newsletters from The Guardian, The Times and the New Statesman. But I can’t resist it in the case of Boris Johnson’s future tenure as UK Prime Minister. There are some wider themes.

By last Friday Mr Johnson had hit a new low, as yet more revelations about parties in Downing Street emerged. Significantly these came through the Daily Telegraph, a paper that has been very supportive of Mr Johnson, with the angle that disrespect was being shown to the Queen, as these events occurred on the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. Conservative MPs were reported to be going to their constituencies over the weekend to “take soundings”. This process is often referred to, but it don’t actually know what it means. Clearly comments coming through to MPs through email and social media are highly unrepresentative. But what can you do over a weekend? We are meant to conjure up pictures of MPs going out to high streets and knocking on doors to talk to ordinary voters. But if they do this, the coverage is likely to be small and equally unrepresentative. And it doesn’t sound the sort of thing Tory MPs do on cold days in January. Instead, presumably what happens is that the MPs have a chat to a few usual suspects: party officers and donors, in their Conservative Association – people that they need to keep onside in the shenanigans of local internal party politics. This morning a BBC correspondent was suggesting that the feedback was not as terrible as the emails last week. But it is hard to say how reliable this feedback is. Mr Johnson has not acted out of character after all, and he has a huge stock of capital to deplete.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson has been working on a recovery strategy. The first step is to buy time by asking people to wait for an investigation by civil servant Sue Gray to be completed. Then there has been spin that these are trivial events compared to the great affairs of state that Mr Johnson has supposedly got right, and that anyway he has made a fulsome apology. This apology was made last Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament. This in fact covered only one of the events, and hid behind the lame idea that he thought it was a “work event” that was within the rules at the time. Mr Johnson did look abject on that occasion, but few think that this had anything to do with being genuinely sorry. Alas this dissembling on the apology is typical of how politicians operate, and it is a foretaste of how Ms Gary’s report is going to be spun. It will be presented as answering a question that was actually outside its terms of reference – whether the events were illegal.

The next part of the strategy is to have a clear-out of the staff at 10 Downing Street, whose culture appears to be so out of tune with the public zeitgeist. This supports Mr Johnson’s narrative (to insiders) that he has been badly let down by his staff. This is well-trodden territory for incompetent leaders, and personnel changes almost never work.

But the most curious part of Mr Johnson’s survival initiative has been a series of policy ideas presented to Tory backbenchers as “red meat”. These include putting the Royal Navy in charge of stopping the flow of migrants in small boats coming across the Channel, and ending the BBC licence fee. These invite the question of why, if they are such good ideas, they hadn’t been progressed already. Worse, they look like an invitation to a political quagmire. In the case of migrants, it is hardly clear how this is actually going to solve the problem – instead it looks like more over-promising. Priti Patel, The Home Secretary, has already seen her reputation amongst Conservative activists nosedive for being unable to deliver on fierce rhetoric. And as for the BBC – this could very easily be presented as a vindictive attack an all its works, from Strictly Come Dancing to the Green Planet, from excessively doctrinaire Tories who resent the BBC’s political coverage. The public may have cooled a bit on the BBC, but it is still a much-loved institution amongst the middle of the road voters that the Conservatives need to hold onto.

So this strategy might be called an alligator strategy, after the famous James Bond scene where he escapes from a trap by using the backs of alligators as stepping stones to cross a pool. Tory MPs who are frightened of taking such a drastic step as unseating the PM must be given a possible path to safety. The point is to weather the crisis, not to create a winning strategy for the next two years. And since I think that these MPs are genuinely frightened of making awkward choices, and yearn for the feel-good days of Mr Johnson’s past, I think it could well work.

Which surely leaves Mr Johnson in a similar position to John Major in 1992, when his credibility collapsed with the ERM crisis. He limped on for over four years before succumbing to the worst electoral defeat in the party’s history. Mr Major is the exact opposite personality to Mr Johnson, but that will not stop them from suffering the same fate.

If Mr Johnson survives, it will be a vindication for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose strategy has always been to differentiate himself from the Conservatives mainly on competence. After two years when this approach seemed to be taking Labour backwards, it is at last paying dividends. It is unlikely to work if Mr Johnson is replaced by Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or, especially, Jeremy Hunt. But a wounded Mr Johnson is the perfect target.

Boris Johnson’s political achievements are astonishing. His fall will be as spectacular as his rise. My guess is that this will occur at the next General Election – but it could be much sooner if Conservative MPs have any sense.

The Tories must choose between lower taxes or the NHS

Discontent in the British Conservative party goes beyond frustration with the erratic leadership style of Boris Johnson, and his low poll ratings. Many feel that the government is failing to deliver on a distinctly Tory vision of how to run the country – one that is business-friendly with light regulation and low taxes. Shadow leadership contenders, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are both trying to capitalise on this discontent. But there is no way out, which is why Mr Johnson may yet limp on until the next election.

Item One in this discontent is the government’s covid strategy. Many Tories feel that it is too heavy-handed and too beholden to cautious experts. Leave the public to make up its on mind on precautions and take the consequences, they suggest. Their thinking is plainly muddled, and out of touch with most voters, but at least as the virus morphs into something a bit less deadly, so policy can move on in their direction.

Item Two is Brexit. In Tory eyes this was meant to be a great liberation from bureaucracy, which would allow “buccaneering” British business to achieve its full potential. And yes, one prominent Tory did use that word, referring to licensed pirates on the high seas back in the 17th and 18th centuries, at whose modern equivalent the Russians’ advantage is surely unassailable. In fact businesses have been mired in even more form-filling, associated with imports and exports to the European Union, which surrounds the country, and is thus its readiest partner for both. Some remember that it was much simpler back in the 1960s before Britain entered the Common Market – failing to understand how the world has moved on. Meanwhile rolling back regulations has been happening at a snails’ pace, as the regulations were more than a bureaucratic whim, and aimed to achieve a public good – which has to be achieved in an alternative way. Downing Street has resorted to pointing to crowns printed on beer glasses and the changed colour of passports as among the main achievements of Brexit. And that is before the insoluble problem of Ireland is brought into the picture, ever capable of exploding with dire consequences. In fact most Brexit voters, including the former Labour-voting ones that Mr Johnson so successfully courted in the 2019 election, never much cared for deregulation as a reason for Brexit. They wanted to see more restrictive immigration policies – which the Tories have indeed delivered. But that has brought more bureaucracy, and snarl-ups due to labour shortages. Tory MPs’ business friends are not particularly happy, even as Tory voters are now a lot less worried about the issue.

And Item Three is taxes. They are going up, both corporate taxes and national insurance, levied on people in work and their employers. This is nominally to pay for grasping the nettle on the emerging social care crisis, but in fact the money will disappear into the National Health Service, which has been completely disrupted by the covid crisis, and now has massive backlogs for routine care. The Tory discontents say that above all they should be a party of lower taxes (especially on businesses and the rich, sotto voce) – and that this is a betrayal. Mr Sunak hints that if it was left to him, he would be cutting taxes soon. Most people outside the Conservative Party wonder if he can possibly be serious. With little room for manoeuvre on the budget deficit and national debt (and if you don’t think such things are relevant, high inflation suggests fiscal excess) the only way this vision can be delivered is by cutting government spending.

At the heart of this is rising spending on the NHS. Since the party regained power (in coalition) in 2010, the government has attempted to cap NHS spending so that it just about kept pace with inflation. But as the baby boomers age, and skew the ratio of older people, demand has been rising at a higher rate. The financial pressure has caused system resilience to be reduced, and this is one of the causes of the now alarming backlogs. Tory hopes that NHS costs are containable are based on two fallacies and a misconception. Fallacy One is that demand can be met through making the service more efficient. Any user of the service can point to inefficiencies in this massive, bureaucratic behemoth of an organisation. But that comes with the necessary scale and complexity of what the healthcare sector is trying to do – international comparisons show that Britain’s health services are amongst the world’s most efficient. But these same comparisons also show that in many areas Britain’s health services less effective. We are, to quote The Times columnist Matthew Parris, “getting a second-rate service for the cost of third-rate one.” This is not what the public wants, and further cost restraint is liable to mean the service becoming third-rate all round.

Fallacy Two is that faster economic growth can allow spending to keep up with demand. Alas the headwinds against growth in a modern, developed economy are many, and I have written about these many times. That demographic problem that is stoking up demand is not least among them. Besides there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the wealthier people become the more demand there is for health services. Which leads me to the misconception: which is that excess demand for the NHS arises because it is free. That suggests that there should be ways of persuading the public to make do. But the problem is that the effective NHS monopoly on health care limits supply. Other systems are much better at mobilising private money – and where they do, demand is higher, not lower. A large and growing healthcare sector is one of the features of any modern, developed economy, however it is financed. Resisting it will breed discontent.

That points to an answer. If Britain could move healthcare to a public insurance model, such as the Netherlands or Australia have, the public would both get a guarantee that their basic needs will be met, and the mobilisation of private money to pay for a world-class service. I have been to Australia quite a bit over the years – and one thing I hear very little of is discontent with its health system. And Aussies know how to be discontented. But such a shift, as surely almost all Tories know, is an impossibility. For all its faults, the public has become attached to the system. And trying to mix more private money into it would be seen as a betrayal of its ethos. Doing this as a open public policy is clearly suicidal. But doing so by stealth, by restraining the public service while allowing the private sector to grow, is problematic too – although exactly this has happened to dentistry and optometry already. If wealthier people are paying big taxes for a service they don’t use, it will create discontent, and reducing their taxes will starve the public service, making it even worse. Neglect of the NHS under the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997 was one of the reasons that support for the party collapsed in the 1990s. And one of the reasons that Mr Johnson did so well in 2019 was by promising to invest a lot of public money in the NHS, amongst other public services.

But people can pay more tax. Taxation in Britain is not especially high by European standards. If the system is well-designed the harms can be limited. Tories will have to embrace this, unless they want to challenge the public shibboleth of the NHS. Instinctively many Conservative MPs understand this, and they may realise that Mr Johnson represents the best way of postponing this awkward choice, and they may well let him muddle on.

What Conservatives should be doing is developing a new vision for the 21st Century that embraces higher taxes and a well-funded NHS at the heart of a flourishing health economy, based on world-leading health research and development. This is perfectly credible, unlike world leadership in buccaneering.

When will we see peak China?

Don’t bet against China. This has been sage advice ever since that country’s careful embrace of capitalism after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Failure has been predicted several times, but its growth has been rapid, both in economic and political power. Similar advice pertains to the US economy, at least for better-off Americans, even as its politics disappoints. But nothing is forever, and there will come a point when China’s growth runs out of steam.

Right now there is unmistakable hubris in China’s political class, which frequently touts the superiority of its political system over that of the West – with its response to the covid pandemic being the latest piece of evidence. And yet as 2022 progresses, that will look less convincing. The point here is not that the pandemic started in China and that the initial outbreak was fumbled. That could have happened anywhere, though it is interesting to note that in China the problem arose with weakness and denial at a junior official level, whereas elsewhere the weakness is more likely to be further up the chain. China’s policy is to stamp out the disease before it can get going through very strict lockdowns, and sealing the border. It shows a very impressive degree of political control and resolution from the centre, which other large polities have failed to match. But what next? The first problem is that China’s own vaccines are less effective than those developed in the West, and are not up to the job of being a first line of defence – but the leadership regards the use of vaccines developed elsewhere as a sign of failure. The next problem is that the virus is evolving so that it is becoming more infectious, and thus harder to contain – though less deadly. This means that as the West moves beyond the need for lockdowns and learns to live with the virus, China is faced with an awkward choice. Does it try to keep up its zero-covid strategy, with all the costs that that this brings? Or does it let the virus run its course in China, softened by vaccines and a less dangerous strain? That might make it look as if China’s leadership had made some wrong choices earlier on – even if that is unfair, given that death rates in China are likely to stay very low. We have a demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of the different political systems. The open, chaotic system of democracy in the West, which includes some important countries in East Asia, is both better at technological development, and more adaptable and resilient when it comes to shaping public policy. Policy failure may be more likely in the West, but its consequences are not as serious – indeed it can be more readily used as a learning experience.

Behind this is the timeless conflict between centralised political control and localised decision-making. The genius of capitalism is that uses markets to facilitate efficient local choices, right down to the individual; markets have proved vastly more effective at processing information than any other system that humanity has devised. The attempts by socialist states to do without markets, and the free capital that is required to make them work properly, notably by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, proved a dismal failure. While these systems did have some notable achievements, they made little progress with the eradication of poverty. The Soviet Union’s attempt to reform and embrace some aspects of capitalist systems ended in complete collapse. China noted this failure and made sure that its own embrace of capitalism was more controlled. The Communist Party developed a hybrid system of central party control alongside highly competitive capitalist markets that has been astonishingly successful. It has been the world’s most striking political and economic success of the last fifty years, and has done more to move the world out of poverty than any other single thing. With economic success has come a stronger political standing, backed by military power, which the country has been increasingly ready to assert.

Now, as a good liberal I need to make an important point here. China’s rise has been good for the human race. A country of over a billion people deserves a high status in the world’s political system. American conservatives are inclined to see China’s rise as a political failure – but that is quite the wrong way to look at it. This is not just because it has benefited so many Chinese people, who can now adopt middle-class lifestyles – but China’s rise has contributed to a much more efficient world economy, whose benefits have been well beyond its borders, and not least in the USA and other countries in the West.

But there is a problem, both for China and the rest of the world. China’s hybrid system of authoritarian capitalism is not sustainable in the long run. China is far from the only country that has followed this path. In the first half of the 20th Century there were Germany and Japan. In both of these rapid economic success led to political tensions that in turn led to militarism and vastly destructive war. In the second half of the century several East Asian countries have followed the authoritarian capitalist path, which too has led to political tension. There seems to be a choice between allowing democracy to take hold, or moving deeper into totalitarianism. South Korea and Taiwan have decisively taken the democratic path. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are struggling with this choice, though not yet on the totalitarian road. Vietnam has so far successfully avoided the crunch, but it is bound to come there. Singapore resists full democracy, while avoiding outright totalitarianism, and is further down the development path than others – but it is just a city-state.

Under its current leader, Xi Jinping, China has opted for decisively for totalitarianism, and is taking Hong Kong with it. What do I mean by totalitarianism? It is a political system where a highly centralised elite, usually with a clear single leader, attempts to control all aspects of life. This includes non-political values and the editing, and rewriting, of history. The concept of objective truth is discarded so that pretty much any statement is valued purely on its political implications. The reach of public policy often takes in the private foibles of the senior leader – in China the government wants to stamp out effeminacy among men, for example. The Chinese Communist elite has decided that any admission that the Party is, or ever has been, mistaken is a political challenge that must be crushed. Hence its difficulties in confronting covid. A change of policy might in fact be a sensible response to new facts about the virus – but, especially given the hubris displayed so far, it also makes it look as if the earlier policy was a mistake. The argument that when the facts change so does the policy is not a comfortable one for authoritarians: when the facts change, so might your legitimacy.

We come to a basic problem with authoritarian systems. They rely heavily on an elite of no more than a few hundred people, personally known to each other. Beyond this it is impossible to trust people completely. And the further they follow the totalitarian path, the greater this reliance becomes. There is simply a limit to the amount of information that such a small elite can process. The public health authorities in Wuhan, where the covid outbreak started, were not able to take clear, independent decisions, but felt that their duty was to suppress information about anything that looked bad. China has worked hard to make its elite work efficiently, including by leveraging it with technology. The country is placing heavy hopes on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Singapore’s ruling elite is doing much the same thing with some success – but it is one thing to manage a city state, and another a country of one billion people. For China’s ruling elite the problems are mounting. Here are a few of them.

The first problem is demographics. Thanks both to Mao’s one-child policy, and to the normal dynamics of economic development, the ratio of working-age people to older people is in the process of rapid decline. The overall population of the country is starting to fall. For all the country’s economic advances, a Western-style system of welfare has not been developed. This will require a radical reshaping of the Chinese economy with high economic productivity increasingly focused on domestic needs – and, surely, a greater dependence on imports.

Then there is financial management. China’s system of finance is many-layered and complex. The Western socialist idea of a centralised system of state finance with a large national debt has not been followed – doubtless because the economy too large and complex for that to work. Vast amounts of money have been invested, notably in property development, financed by a complex system of finance, involving public and private agencies. Restrictions on banks have led to complex work-arounds. There is a huge dependency on high property values, which reaches well into local government finance, where funds depend more on property development gains than taxes. The whole system bears a strong resemblance to the financial system in the West before the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Western commentators are quite sanguine about this, assuming that the vast political power available to China’s central government will allow them to manage any fall-out better than Western governments did. Only up to a point.

Even in the area of global politics China faces a problem. Much as they crow at the retreat of the West in such places as Afghanistan, they have little ability to fill the vacuum. The West’s retreat is followed by collapse, vacuum and, in many places, war, and not by a beneficent China restoring order. China has nothing to match the West’s proclamation of liberal values and a rules-based order. It simply denigrates them, while boasting about its own political system, which is pretty much impossible for any other country to replicate, except Vietnam, perhaps. It is notably un-ideological in its international dealings. That is very attractive to regimes who tire of being lectured by Westerners – but it has a dark side. China has no compunction about bullying if it does not like what any country is doing – Canada, Australia, South Korea and, currently, Lithuania are all victims. Suddenly a rules-based order and a bit of lecturing start to look more attractive. China’s weak international position was especially conspicuous at the recent COP-26 climate conference. The country showed almost no leadership, in spite of the fact that most countries are becoming much more concerned about climate change. Those countries get a more constructive response from the West. And China is the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions, so it should have something important so say.

These problems are clear. Another important issue is more ambiguous. Will the increasing control of the Communist elite mean the loss technical innovation? At the moment the Party is bearing down on privately-controlled businesses, which have been the source of much of this. But totalitarian regimes can be good at innovation, especially in highly focused areas, such as military technology. China has set some major priority areas, which will doubtless receive generous funding. All the same, innovation and creativity flourish more in a less directed environment. Much of China’s investment is sure to disappoint. AI, in particular, is a much much trickier thing than those with directive minds allow. Driverless cars have been around the corner for many years now, for example.

So, as China confronts these problems, what is likely to happen? The biggest fear is that, like Germany and Japan a century ago, it channels its frustration into military aggression, and starts off a war that it cannot stop. There are some signs of this, but the world is a very different place. The world trading system, which has China at its heart, is liable to weaken as China tries to become more self-sufficient, both for political reasons, and to manage its changing domestic priorities. How this plays out in the wider world is hard to judge. It could be a boon for other developing world countries, who may take China’s place as exporters. It could hurt the American economy, which has benefited so much China’s boom – but then again, betting against such a dynamic and adaptable system is not wise.

My guess is that China will be enveloped by a slow-moving financial crisis. Communist power will succeed in slowing it down, but that will prolong rather than solve it. This will impact investment, development and growth across the country, and undermine the Party’s prestige. Eventually Mr Xi will be replaced, perhaps as his next term ends in five years’ time, and this would be cue for another change in direction. The world will become a very different place.

Boris Johnson’s Covid gamble

Understanding the latest wave of infections of Covid-19 in Britain is very hard. Data collection has been messed up by the holiday season, and anyway this wave, driven by the Omicron variant, is presenting in a different way to earlier ones, meaning the statistics don’t quite mean the same thing as before. Politically the most interesting thing, though, is the “don’t panic” attitude of the government’s policy in England, compared to what has been happening in Scotland and Wales. It is a gamble.

This gamblers based on a number of ideas. First is that the Omicron variant causes less serious harm than earlier ones, and that this is reinforced by more widespread vaccination, including third jabs, or “boosters”. The thought seems to be that scary infection rates won’t cause hospitals and other health services to be overwhelmed, and that the wave will burn out quickly and subside rapidly, reducing its impact on daily life. However this assessment seems to be as much driven by politics within the Conservative Party, as a sober assessment of what is known about the virus. For reasons that aren’t very clear to me, the Brexit awkward squad has decided that scepticism of the conventional, cautious approach to fighting the virus is the next Big Idea. Many business lobbies seem to have joined in, especially those in the hospitality and travel, after a frustrating two years, with recovery repeatedly postponed. The evidence and logic backing up these sceptics is weak at best – it is mainly a question of clutching at straws and finding out flaws in the logic of the advocates of caution. Funnily enough, though this scepticism is very prominent, even dominant, in the ruling party, it does not seem to be widely shared by the public, who usually find the government scientists more convincing. It is significant that the Scottish and Welsh governments (respectively led by the SNP and Labour) are taking a more cautious line.

So far it is very hard to tell who is right. Hospital admissions of people with Covid are going up, but not as fast as infections. Moreover it is not clear how many of these admissions are of people seriously ill with Covid, as opposed to being ill with something else, and also happening to be infected. A bigger source of stress seems to be staff being infected and having to stay away from work in isolation. Are things better in Scotland and Wales than in England? The statistics are very patchy; they do seem to be doing better, but that may be because Omicron hit them later (especially Wales). But if the government has got it wrong in England, it is too late to do anything about it. We could be in for two or three weeks of stories of overloaded hospitals and ambulances waiting outside unable to discharge their patients – and extra deaths, from Covid or not, as a result.

I find the sceptics generally unconvincing, and yet they aren’t wholly wrong. Stopping the virus is an impossibility – we have to have an end-game which involves us living with the virus, as we do with the common cold and flu. Vaccination is clearly part of that; other public health precautions may also have to become a permanent feature of life. We might need to adopt East Asian attitudes to the wearing of face masks. Ventilation standards need attention. Something else probably has a role too: waiting for the virus to evolve so that it comes less virulent, even as it becomes more infectious. Omicron seems to be a major step in that direction – which is why the government’s gamble may yet pay off.

And if it does, that will be a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, which will bolster his position within his party, if not the country at large. Another possibility is that things go badly, but turn out to be no better in Scotland and Wales, in spite of their extra precautions. That would prove the contention made by lobbyists that hospitality venues present minimal risk, and that restrictions are simply rounding up the usual suspects for appearances sake.

But most likely is that the evidence will be muddled, without proving either side right until many months later, when the debate has moved on. Such is life in the era of Covid. Happy New Year!

Putin’s Russia: Napoleon syndrome

It is easy to be completely consumed by the drama of British politics and covid strategy right now. But big things are happening in the wider world, as the West retreats and other countries try to capitalise. I have seen some quite alarmist comment on China and Russia in particular. I will look at China another day – but this time was a cold, hard look at Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.

I came to political consciousness in the 1970s Cold War. At first I was swept up by the anti-Soviet alarmism stoked up by conservative politicians and commentators. In due course I came to see through it: the threat was real but heavily exaggerated. Soviet strengths were talked up, and Western ones were discounted. I was left with the feeling that this stemmed in part from a secret admiration by the conservatives for the Soviet system, with its clear command and control, and its prioritisation of the military. I see this same pattern being repeated with respect to Russia now – as well as China.

No discussion of Russia can get very far without consideration of its undisputed leader of the last two decades: Mr Putin. The historical figure he most reminds me of is Napoleon. He sees other states either as adversaries or satellites. Of course he has to accept that some of the world’s powers, notably China, cannot be treated as either, but there is something very transactional about his relationships with these middle-ground states. One adversarial relationship predominates: with Mr Putin it is the United States, whereas with Napoleon it was Britain (or England as most people called the country then). A second resemblance with Napoleon is Mr Putin’s genius for searching out the weak spots of his adversaries and probing them hard. He repeatedly pulls off masterstrokes – such as his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Syria, which make Western leaders look leaden-footed. A third resemblance is that he clearly loves military power, and wants to find ways of using it to advance his prestige. And from what does he draw prestige? He clearly craves international recognition, including the expansion of Russian territory, and an increase in the number of satellites. There are echoes of Napoleon there. And Mr Putin is absolutely ruthless.

All of this means that Russia represents a huge threat, especially to the free countries of Europe. Mr Putin clearly wants Russia to take back its old frontiers in Europe, especially by retaking Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the Baltic states. He probably feels the same about the Caucasus and the ex-Soviet Asian republics, but that seems to be secondary in his defining conflict with the West. Mr Putin is clearly trying to think of ways that he can further these objectives, and he wants to use his growing military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, to achieve this – though in practice this is very hard to do. That adds up to a massive headache. The parallel with Napoleon does point to some important things about how this headache has to be managed.

The first is that there can be no lasting diplomatic accommodation with Mr Putin’s Russia. He has come to define himself on this adversarial relationship and he will never be satisfied. Britain and Russia found this with Napoleon – not even practical control of virtually all continental western and central Europe could satisfy him. He could never be trusted to keep to a bargain. The European powers came to see that Napoleon was the problem, and not France. Western leaders personalise the Russian problem on Mr Putin, and that is exactly the right approach to take. He is as close to evil as we can see in the current world, but the country he leads is a wonderful one, with which we should be having flourishing, peaceful relations based on mutual respect.

The second lesson from Napoleon is that you don’t beat him at his own game. The Russian Tsar Alexander tried to out-Napoleon Napoleon and the result was catastrophe at Austerlitz. In the end Napoleon was beaten by patient leaders, like the Russian general Kutusov and Austrian Schwarzenberg, whose military strategy might be described as anti-Napoleon. They, and the political leaders of Europe they served, caught Napoleon in a spider’s web from which he found it impossible to escape. In the process they built a European political system that lasted for a century. A system, in other words, that did not require charismatic leaders at its heart. The point is to beat the evil genius by using institutional methods that will last, and exploiting strengths in an asymmetric way.

Mr Putin is not Napoleon; Russia is not post-Revolutionary France. Mr Putin has lasted much longer but achieved nothing like the same pinnacle of prestige. Mr Putin has undoubted strengths, but major weaknesses too. His methods may work well for the efficiency of his intelligence and military services, but they are creating a country where nobody wants to live, compared to its European neighbours. The economy is held back by rampant corruption. Citizens may have access to the basics of modern civilised life (and much more so than in Soviet days), but as soon as they want to challenge corruption or injustice, they feel threatened and helpless. When Mr Putin initially took power, it was conceivable that most people in Belarus and Ukraine would have liked to join up with his country in a prosperous democracy, as these countries were in an even worse state. But Russia’s attack on the Donbas in 2014 (the seizure of Crimea is more ambiguous because the casualties were not heavy) has made up Ukrainian minds, even Russian-speakers who had been more sympathetic to Russia. The protests in Belarus over a rigged election show that winning hearts and minds there is going no better. In the Baltic states and Poland the choice between the West and Russia is also very clear. Other countries, like Hungary flirt with Russia, but only because they feel it is at a safe distance. It is this weakness that is the West’s main strength in dealing with Mr Putin. Time is not on his side; the more people know him, the less they like him.

So what to make of Mr Putin’s latest machinations? There is a build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Russian leaders are making not so subtle threats about using them. They are making demands that might at first look to be just an acceptance of Russia’s status and power, but which Western leaders know full well to be a Napoleonic trap. Some demands look not so unreasonable – such as keeping Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO (NATO would be mad to invite in countries with frozen border disputes and run by corrupt elites), but others seem to be designed to be unacceptable (such as reducing defence commitments to Poland).

Does Mr Putin really mean to invade Ukraine if the West doesn’t cave in? He could be provoked into it, which is why the response needs to be quite circumspect. But it is hard to see what he would gain, beyond some shoot-term looting. Western military analysts seem to accept Russian boasts that their forces would achieve a quick victory, using their superior air power, amongst other assets. But it would not be a pushover. Ukraine is much readier than it was in 2014 and has strengthened its armed forces; it has its people behind it. Furthermore the Ukrainians have been talking to, and buying weapons from, Turkey, amongst other countries, which has developed technology which has seen a lot of success against Russian-backed forces in Syria, Azerbaijan and Libya. Heavy casualties in a war against fellow slavs simply because they enjoy a freer life (that is, are more Westernised) will not make Mr Putin more popular at home. And all he would achieve is the acquisition of a large territory of resentful people that will be very hard to control. His country does not have resources to lavish on the conquest to try and win round herts and minds. In his early years, Napoleon could tell people he conquered that he was bringing down oppressive aristocratic regimes – until constant conscription for his warmaking caused them to see through this; the Russians have no such narrative.

Cool heads need to prevail amongst Western leaders. Care needs to be taken not to provoke Mr Putin excessively, but his demands cannot be met. Economic and other sanctions will not be much of a deterrent – so I wouldn’t place much store on these, except for the subtext that the West’s response to an attack on Ukraine would not be military. The West also needs to make a show of improving the defences of NATO members bordering Russia, to demonstrate its own red lines.

One card that Mr Putin does hold is the dependence of much of Europe on Russian natural gas – especially acute in the winter. But the dependence is two-way. As Russia’s general economy is weak, it depends heavily on its gas exports for the foreign currency it needs. Again the answer is patience. Strategically dependence on this resource needs to be reduced – which of course fits with climate goals. In the meantime Russia commands little public sympathy in European democracies, and a degree of hardship will be accepted if Russia cuts off or limits supplies.

In the end Mr Putin’s regime will collapse in the same way that the Soviet one did, because it cannot deliver the sort of lifestyle that its people want. Its elites will become increasingly cynical and in the end even they will lose faith. In the West we simply need to show the Russian people that a better way of life is possible. And above all we must stick to our principles and behave by the book, according to the rules of international law. That is an integral part of our better way.

Paradoxically, Napoleon’s reputation was enhanced by his relatively early departure from power, and his period of exile when he focus on massaging history. France did not have to endure the long period of decline that inevitably follows from an autocrat holding power for too long, however able. Mr Putin’s achievements are meanwhile fading into distant past, and overshadowed by the failings of his regime. We will have to wait patiently while he slowly loses his grip. For Russia’s sake we must hope that the wait is not too long.

A vindication for Ed Davey and Keir Starmer

The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is astonishing. It is the second stunning victory for the party in a year – Chesham & Amersham could be explained away by it being a Remainer seat and affected by NIMBY issues on house building and railways. No such excuses are on offer here, and the swing was even larger. In fact the last time there was such a large by-election swing between the parties (Christchurch in 1993) it was a prelude to the Tory meltdown in 1997. The Lib Dems have reestablished themselves as the protest party of choice in the Tory heartlands.

The first thing to say about this is that it is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey. He has come in for much criticism, from inside and outside the party, since being elected last year. He wasn’t being radical enough, it was said, and in particular he should have spent more energy banging on about the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises. But that would have limited the party’s appeal to a rather well-off and well-educated elite, and probably failed even there with the party lacking wider credibility. He has been proved correct that the public mainly wants to move on. Instead he has revived the party’s focus on local issues, used to highlight the message that Westminster is out of touch. Importantly they were able to convince many Labour voters (the party was a comfortable second in 2019) that they had a better chance of winning in this seat – but the victory was founded mainly on scooping up doubting Conservative voters, and persuading others to stay at home..

Labour failed to do quite so well in the by-election two weeks previously in Bexley, in the London suburbs, in spite of the Lib Dems keeping their heads down there. We can’t read too much into the contrast, since evidently what proved fatal for the Conservatives in Shropshire were their evasions over Christmas parties in December 2020 in Downing Street and elsewhere – and that blew up largely after Bexley.

In fact the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, should feel vindicated too. He too has avoided stoking up told-you-so on Brexit; he has also avoided saying anything radical at all, notwithstanding his promises to Labour members before they selected him. Instead he has chosen to major on competence and “leadership”. In his early months he always stood in front of a backdrop with the word “leadership” in it. This was a failure at first. Criticism of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, seemed to be a Westminster village thing that didn’t “cut through” to the general public, in the village’s terminology. Not long ago I was urging Sir Keir to be be more radical by advocating reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system, allying himself with the Lib Dems and Greens, and capitalising on disillusion with the political system. That has proved unnecessary – it would always have been a risky strategy, but playing it safe can be paradoxically risky too in politics. But now the government’s credibility is shot in the nation at large, and voters are not as frightened of him as they were of his predecessor. That Lib Dem by-election victory in 1993 (in fact there were two that year, like this) heralded a Labour victory after all. Labour is now leading in the national opinion polls.

For the Conservatives this defeat points to two big problems. The first is Mr Johnson’s leadership, the subject of my previous blog. As I said then, I get very tired of the suggestion that Tories tolerate the incompetence because he is an election-winner. What on earth is the point of winning then? The public can and did suspend its judgement on Mr Johnson, but that happy period seems to be over. Many Tories hope that with a stronger team of advisers, his record can be turned around. Mr Johnson is certainly resilient. But is he able to manage his advisers? Personally I doubt it. The party would be better off changing leaders, and fast.

The second problem for the Conservatives is their discipline over covid policy. Covid policy scepticism is rife on the backbenches, and it shows. The most visible sign was the lack of mask-wearing in parliament, before the Omicron crisis put the wind up them. But there has been constant carping, leading both to a big backbench rebellion on the “Plan B” measures this week, and to confused messages from government ministers. Should or shouldn’t people reduce social contact in the run up to Christmas? Many on the right have disappeared down the rabbit-hole of extreme scepticism – stoked up in their social media bubbles, and egged on by increasingly vocal owners of hospitality and other affected businesses. This occasionally breaks the surface – such as with the complaint that the NHS has become the “National Covid Service” by excessively prioritising the disease, and as a result it is neglecting other conditions. I guess they want the covid patients to be left in the car park. While the sceptics make some pertinent criticism of policy – such as how we prioritise saving life over quality of life – their overall position descends quickly into incoherence. More to the point politically, it is an extreme position and incompatible with winning middle-ground voters. Covid is a deadly disease, if not for most people, then a significant minority, often including people we know. People are worried about it, and want to take precautions, and want to know that the NHS will be there for them if they or their loved ones fall seriously ill. They can’t see how that happens if they follow the wishes of the sceptics. As the FT’s Robert Shrimsley points out, Tory sceptics aren’t interested in learning to live with the virus, they just want things to go back to the way they were.

Now I am sure that most Conservative MPs are quite sensible on covid policy, but their sceptical colleagues are making the whole party look like nutters, and are clearly having an effect on government policy. They need to be stamped out just as the rump of Remainers were when Mr Johnson first took the leadership in 2019. But first that means Mr Johnson has to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with covid that takes on some of the points sceptics make – on finding a way to live with the virus, and on quality of life. Which brings this second problem back to the first.

For as long as the Conservatives fail to deal with their leadership and discipline issues, the strategies of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer look to be sound. Moreover their apparent pact to stay out of each other’s way in Tory seats, but not try any formal arrangement, also seems to be vindicated – and is another echo of that 1997 landslide. That still leaves two questions for them, and especially the Labour leader. What happens if the Conservatives change leader? And what do they do if they actually win power at the next election?

Eschewing radicalism will help persuade soft Tory voters to vote Labour or Lib Dem – but there must be a point to it all.

Tory MPs must ditch Boris Johnson

By common consent last week was terrible for the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He failed to bluff his way through the story of a party a year ago in Downing Street, in apparent breach of covid regulations. More juicy details are leaked out whenever the story might be dying down. A video of a mock press conference held a few days after the party told us all we needed to know about this event: it happened; it was wrong; and they knew it. Meanwhile the Conservative Party was fined by the Electoral Commission or failing to disclose donations properly on the refurbishment of his flat – and it turns out that some of his statements on this affair have been less than complete. Then he has been forced to introduce “Plan B” of covid restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant – much to the consternation of many Tory MPs and lobbyists, who accuse him of doing this prematurely to divert attention from his other troubles. It says something about the trouble he is in that the birth this of his daughter failed to gain much attention at all.

It is possible to have some sympathy for Mr Johnson. The party in Downing Street was a long time ago, and doubtless many other similar events took place across the country, unpunished, even as many ordinary members of the public cancelled their plans, and were separated from their loved ones. I find the suggestion that the police should waste resources by investigating it a bit outrageous. There is clearly a malicious hand behind the way information is being leaked, and not least that video. The time for a fuss was a year ago; this is just political manoeuvres. Similarly on the flat, the bottom line is that the public were not asked to pay for it, and the fact that some external party donors might have been involved is, I’m afraid, just how many politicians run their lives. The Electoral Commission’s rules are often confusing, and they have the tendency of all regulators to pursue the minor infractions of the well-intentioned, rather than the serious stuff that is so much harder to pin down – a version of the proverb “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, ending up as “Penny wise, pound foolish”. And as for the new covid regulations, these look sensible and well-timed. As usual sceptics fail to understand the dynamics of exponential phenomena, as well as the reasons why it is important to keep the flow of cases to our hospitals manageable. Days make a difference; this was a welcome departure from reacting far too late, which has been the government’s usual habit. That is being too kind, of course: the first two stories illustrates mr Johnson’s fondness of flouting rules designed for everybody else; the third invites he question of by he did not act more promptly in previous critical moments in the never-ending covid drama.

But there is a much deeper problem. We have been spun the story that Mr Johnson is a man of radical strategic vision, who does not get bogged down the detail – his supporters like to compare him to Winston Churchill in World War 2. But Mr Churchill had many years of experience in and around government by then, and knew the value of competent people. Mr Johnson has little governmental experience, and treats competent people as a threat. This week’s Economist bemoans the fact that all the radical promise of his takeover of government in 2019 has dissipated. But there is absolutely nothing surprising about any of this. It was always clear that Mr Johnson was a ducker and diver, with little of the grasp required of effective leaders. He was chosen by MPs and party members out of frustration with his predecessor, Theresa May, and then by the public, largely because his opponents lacked credibility. His majority is as much rejection of Corbynism as an endorsement of a new Conservative vision of levelling up, deregulation and the sweeping aside of complacent liberals.

As The Economist points out, Mr Johnson’s progress on the big issues is no better than his handling of the trivia. Covid has been a huge distraction, but the government gets stuck as soon as it hits anything difficult – such as liberalising planning policy, managing Brexit, investing in infrastructure, or many other things. The government’s handling of the pandemic is mixed at best. Mr Johnson often seems to be aiming for a middle way between lockdown advocates and sceptics that is the worst of both worlds. Ironically his recent handling of the Omicron variant has been very sound – it is an astute combination of short-term measures to buy time, and the promotion of a longer term solution through booster jabs; the public has clearly responded. And yet he cannot break free from the suggestion that he is using the issue to distract attention; the manner of his broadcast on Sunday night has few other convincing explanations.

The onus is now on Conservative MPs. They got themselves and us into this mess, and they need to get us out. Under Britain’s constitutional arrangements only they can remove the Prime Minister, outside an election, if he does not go of his own accord. They simply have submit no-confidence letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. And yet they seem reluctant. Some justify this on the grounds that he is an “election-winner”. But what is the use of somebody who wins elections but cannot govern? That is an unbelievably bleak view of the purpose of politics. Besides, the favourable circumstances of the last election will be hard to recreate. One problem is the lack of a challenger to wield the knife, as Margaret Thatcher did for Ted Heath in 1974 (as Matthew Parris points out). At least two cabinet ministers are on manoeuvres (Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, excoriated by Mr Parris). Clearly of greater stature is Jeremy Hunt, who lost out to Mr Johnson in the last leadership election. Surely one of these can break cover?

Maybe they are waiting for Thursday’s by election in North Shropshire. But Britain needs somebody, somewhere to make a stand, and soon.

No easy answers to Britain’s migrant mess

A political crisis is playing out on the coast of England not far from my Sussex home. Almost daily, flimsy boats carrying migrants attempt to cross the Channel to reach the Kent and Sussex coast; they are often picked up by Border Force or RNLI boats. The numbers are growing rapidly, with not even the autumnal weather putting them off. And these crossings have turned to human tragedy, with 27 migrants dying off the French coast last week when their boat capsized.

The political crisis arises because Conservative Party supporters feel that this situation is intolerable; they had voted for Brexit to keep migrants out, but they seem to be flooding in, with the government apparently helpless. Many of these supporters would rather the travellers drown pour encourager les autres; Conservative politicians, realising that such views are unacceptable in the mainstream, instead rail against the people smugglers profiting from the traffic, and the allegedly unhelpful French. Left and liberal politicians meanwhile suggest that safer alternatives be provided for the migrants, but mainly enjoy the schadenfreude of pointing out that Brexit has made this particular problem harder to deal with. Workable solutions are not offered.

To a large extent the government’s problem is one of success. It has implemented harsh policies to keep out those migrants it deems to be undesirable, meaning most refugees and anybody who is not highly educated, preferably at a British university. They have taken full advantage of Brexit to do this, and the overall flow has been reduced substantially. The country takes in many fewer refugees than comparable other European countries. Earlier efforts to cooperate with the French, predating Brexit, have stemmed the flow of migrants smuggled on lorries. The refugees and their people-smuggling agents have few alternatives to the use of boats. Unfortunately the trade is so lucrative that it has expanded – and it has proved very hard to police. Unlike Poland and Belarus, Britain can’t simply put up a fence patrolled by soldiers to keep them out.

Why are they coming? After all they are passing through countries, not least France, that many Britons feel are desirable places to live. But like in Britain, these refugees, many of who are Muslim, evoke a lot of public hostility, so their governments aren’t exactly welcoming. Many of the migrants want to join family or former neighbours already settled in Britain. There is also a suggestion that Britain has a rather lax attitude to things like identity papers that makes it easier for illegal migrants to get on. Most of the migrants seem to be genuine refugees from the world’s growing number of troublespots – Afghanistan in particular. A suggestion by some that they are mostly “economic migrants” from countries that are simply poor no longer seems to be true, though I don’t entirely trust my sources on this. At the bottom of this, Britain is indeed a highly desirable place to live, and one where migrants with the sort of get up and go needed to make the hazardous journey can do well. Racism and Islamophobia are rife, but I don’t think they are worse than anywhere else in Europe – and indeed attitudes are probably more liberal than in most.

What is to be done? Shrugging and letting it carry on is unattractive. The country could probably absorb the arrivals easily enough, but the trade is lucrative and expanding. Many more will doubtless die – and also the continued acceptance of the migrants makes the state look ineffective. Most of the migrants seem to be scooped up by the authorities (unlike the lorry-smuggling trade) and then have to be processed, rather than simply disappear into their communities, placing a strain on the civic authorities. Pushing the boats back (as apparently the Greeks do to boats from Turkey) looks unworkable. The Channel is too broad and its waters too unsafe, especially in the craft that the migrants use. The traffickers have no incentive to give them more seaworthy boats. Beyond that the authorities’ main idea is to remove them from British shores as fast as they can. This, it is argued, will “break the business model” of the smugglers by reducing the chances of a successful journey. This could be to offshore processing centres – Australia has used such a policy with some success – and then back to their home countries. The legal obstacles to such a policy are in the process of being dismantled by new legislation. But where to process? It is not an attractive prospect for the host nation, and British dependencies are too small and too far away (the Falklands has been suggested). And how to send people back to a war zone?

Or the migrants could simply be sent back to France (or Belgium, also used by the smugglers). That requires their agreement, though, and they have no incentive to cooperate. After Brexit the country has many fewer pathways to achieving a solution along these lines. Some form of quid pro quo would be needed, and that would mean accepting a greater number of refugees one way or another. Meanwhile the idea of beefing up the border patrols on the continental side of the water and arresting the traffickers seems to have little chance of doing much to stop such a lucrative trade.

Another idea from conservative types is to make life harder for refugees and illegal immigrants in the UK. This was tried out a number of years ago with a policy called “hostile environment”. Alas such policies in the hands of bureaucrats and enforcement agencies usually end up by punishing the wrong people – those that came in long ago, when paperwork was laxer, and who are now fully integrated. Such people are easier to find. That was the “Windrush Scandal” that proved to be politically very damaging. Besides the idea of Brexit was to celebrate Britain’s tradition of freedom and lack of bureaucratic interference in daily life – and not t turn us just another Euro-state regulated by busybodies.

So what do liberals suggest? Increase the flow of refugees through safe, legal routes. The idea seems to be that doing so would reduce the incentive for migrants to take such a risky route and pay the smugglers. But, of course, it cannot reduce the overall flow of migrants. Indeed it would surely increase it – reducing the cost of migration would increase the flow. There would also be an incentive for other countries to send their awkward refugees on to the UK. Another liberal idea is to try and head of the trouble that is causing people to flee with more aid. But the failure of Western military interventions, and the concomitant rise of countries starting or provoking wars makes this a pretty hopeless task.

So what to do? There is no good answer, but the best way forward surely requires multiple approaches. It starts with more generous policies for accepting refugees through safe, legal routes. It is ridiculous that the country has not done more to accept more Afghans, for example, as there was clear political cover for this in response to Taliban victory. This would give Britain a stronger bargaining position when trying to hammer out solutions with our European neighbours to get tougher on the smugglers and reduce the number of successful crossings.

And that is probably as good as it gets. The people trade is like the one in illegal drugs – too hard to stop, but one that multiple channels can alleviate.

Focus on Fake

This morning I received this from a loyal subscriber, promoting a programme of seminars that which really does sound quite interesting (link in the text below):

Dear Matthew,
Firstly, thanks for being one of my key “liberal” places of good quality information. It is great to receive your emails that gently remind me to look at the new material.
As Chair of the Defence & Security Circle of the National Liberal Club, my all consuming volunteer thing, I am asking you a huge favour: we have been given at last minute a NATO project to deliver starting 1 December on fake news, disinformation and hostile players.
It is free, balanced and offers podcasts, videocasts and hybrid events.
I need to get the info out to asd many people who are liberal, moderate, policy thinking and concerned about values – to get in person attendees this Wednesday and to garner zoom online participants. It is a cracking program: 3 x 1 hour sessions you can dip into and events in EDinburgh and Manchester later on 6 and 13 December respectively.
Our website with the registration links is Focus on Fake (nlcdefence.org.uk)
I feel crap asking at this late stage – but I’m channeling my inner Aussie can do attitude.
If you feel at all able to do so – your network would be a suitable and most respected addition to politicians, media influencers, students from KCL and everyday people.
Happy to discuss or answer questions. I’m also charged with creating podcasts with bloggers and vloggers … might I entice you to give us 15 minutes in a chat?

If Labour want to capitalise on Tory sleaze they need a political alliance

As many Conservatives feared, the government’s fiasco over the Owen Paterson affair is giving traction to accusations of “Tory sleaze”. You can argue whether Mr Paterson’s conduct actually merits this description, but a fair appreciation of the facts matters little in this kind of rough and tumble – a rough and tumble that Conservatives are only too happy to indulge in when it is to their advantage. And in any case there have been other examples of dubious behaviour. The Conservative opinion poll lead is evaporating. This must give Labour some badly needed hope. But capitalising on this issue will be tricky.

Labour does come at this with some advantages. They are much less sleazy than the Conservatives, having been out of national power for eleven years. Their MPs tend not to have well-paid consultancies. The government won’t let them award peerages to donors, removing the temptation to do so, and so on. Better still, their leader, Sir Keir Starmer, looks the model of personal integrity, even if he is a bit pompous with it. But for all that, Labour has been slow to see much poll benefit. The Conservative poll share is falling, but Labour’s does not seem to be rising, or not by much. The most conspicuous beneficiary in the most recent poll are the Greens. The Greens have very little prospect under the current electoral system, so in any general election their vote will get squeezed away. A lot of that squeeze is likely to go back to the Conservatives, such is the fear so many people have of voting Labour.

What is the problem? The party’s reputation can be tainted by two lines of attack. The first is that they will be no better in if they win power – “they’re all the same” – capitalising on the public’s general cynicism over politicians. Labour’s record when it was last in power wasn’t particularly clean by British standards. They needed big money donors, some of whom ended up with peerages, or, apparently, other favours; many of their MPs indulged in dubious expense claims. Former leader Tony Blair seemed a bit too relaxed about such things – though his successor Gordon Brown had a stronger reputation. The other line of attack is that the party is being taken over by the far left; their politicians are not beholden to big money, but they might have a tendency to think that the ends justify the means, and play fast and loose with the rules in other ways. And, of course, hard left parties are open to other lines of attack that might drive under decided voters away.

Labour has another problem. They are not articulating clear policies that would make British politics cleaner, beyond vague promises of tightening up the existing regime. They have suggested that MPs should not be allowed to take on paid consultancies. But they won’t suggest that second jobs will not be allowed – as at least one of their number is an emergency doctor, and they like to make the claims to sainthood that such a role allows – and doubtless there are other examples of “real world” jobs that enhance an MP’s job. Besides, all this is just tweaking at the edges, and would hardly make it harder for powerful business interests to get undue influence.

What is needed is something much more eye-catching. An obvious policy is the abolition of the House of Lords, perhaps with its replacement by an elected second chamber. The Lords are already over-large and over-used for patronage; the government is in the process of making things much worse by creating even more peers, of which large party donors will undoubtedly feature heavily; that could give the idea public traction. A second idea is to reform the electoral system for the House of Commons. Nothing is more annoying than Conservative claims that it is up to constituents to judge the behaviour of their MPs, when most voters quite rationally think that party label is more important – and most MPs hold safe seats anyway. Behaviour has to be pretty extreme for an MP to lose his seat, and usually the opposition has to be pretty canny too. Actually electoral reform would not necessarily deliver a better system; proportional systems can produce their own safe seats (though not the Single Transferable Vote, which requires multiple-member constituencies). But it’s a real change that would make established politicians uncomfortable – and it can prove a focus for a public wish to make a real change to politics. The is exactly what happened in New Zealand in 1993.

But Labour has a credibility problem when proposing such policies, which go to the root of why people distrust it. When the party has had the opportunity, they have done little to progress either Lords reform or electoral reform. The New Labour government from 1997 to 2010 made some important reforms to both, but none that changed the system radically, to tackle patronage appointments or safe seats, for example. When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015 proposed much more significant reforms (in some cases not far from Labour’s 2010 manifesto), Labour undermined them because they did not want the governing parties (and especially the Lib Dems) to get any of the kudos; party advantage came first. Besides, the Leninists on the party’s left probably quite like the opportunities conferred by the current system to create an elective dictatorship. Big constitutional changes are tricky to push through, so the public would be right to question Labour’s determination to make changes when things got a bit rough.

What would give Labour a much better chance of showing that it really wants to change things is to form a cross-party alliance. This would need to include the Liberal Democrats, who have their own credibility issues after the coalition, but who are locally strong in places, and the Greens, who have the momentum. Bringing Scottish and Welsh nationalists into the picture would add even more credibility, but would be much harder. This would have the added benefit of making things easier after the election if neither the Conservatives nor Labour won a majority – which looks more probable than Labour winning a majority on its own.

Alas Sir Keir shows no sign at all that he has either the courage or the imagination to take such a path. The result of that is that the business of British politics will carry on much as normal for many years to come.