Archive for August, 2019


If O’Mara does quit as an MP on September 3rd the ensuing by-election will be a backcloth in the build up to October 31st

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

The timing might not help BJohnson

The Sheffield Hallam MP, Jared O’Mara, has made it clear that as soon as the Commons returns from its summer break he will step down thus triggering what could be an interesting by-election in Nick Clegg’s old seat.

Labour are already throwing everything at defending their great victory there at GE2017 while a full LD by-election operation is already in place. Assuming that the by-election is called almost immediately, then polling day could coincide with the crucial European Council meeting that starts on Thursday October 17th.

Given that the best you can get on the LDs re-taking the seat is 1/14 then a likely victory by the strongest pro-EU party would send a powerful message to Brussels at what could be a critical moment. This might not be helpful to Mr. Johnson assuming he is still PM then.

Given that Hallam voted strongly 66-34 in favour of Remain in June 2016 the LDs will, unlike Brecon, be making Brexit the central theme of their campaign. The LAB effort looks set to be about the Lib Dem role in the coalition.

Now all this, particularly on dates is speculative. But if O’Mara does as he says he will then it is hard to see the by election not taking place in mid or late October.

Mike Smithson


The coming Battle of Brighton could determine the fate of Brexit

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

If Labour sticks to its current fudge of a policy, No Deal is the likely outcome

Conferences don’t usually matter. These days, they’re mostly occasions when the party can try to sell itself and its policies to the media and the public – a glorified party political broadcast, if you like – while also acting as a bonding exercise for members of that party. It doesn’t always work out like that of course, but those are the primary aims.

For Labour and the Lib Dems, however, there is another purpose: to set policy. The Tories have – wisely, in my opinion – never gone in for allowing members to dictate to MPs what their policies should be: they’re the wrong people in the wrong place to be doing so. Usually, these policy positions don’t matter. Either they endorse what the leadership was going to do anyway, or the leadership can find a way round the inconveniences when there is disagreement, or the policy is a dead duck because the party isn’t in power, no-one’s paying attention and it can be rewritten or quietly dropped come the manifesto. This time however, one particular policy debate really will matter.

That assumes that we’ll get to conference season: there is the possibility that a general election called during the September session of parliament, either at Boris Johnson’s prompting or after a Vote of No Confidence, does away with the conferences. Personally, I doubt there’ll be such a poll, for plenty of reasons, from the risks involved for all sides, to the desire to kick the can where no appealing option presents itself now but might do so later. But while noting the possibility that they might be called off, let’s assume they’re not.

In that case, we can assume that there will be an almighty battle over Labour’s Brexit policy when they meet in Brighton.

By that point, the Lib Dems will have already had their conference, with Jo Swinson making her debut as party leader. Will she – or will Lib Dem activists – seek to go beyond their current policy and move towards an outright Revoke stance? It would certainly be consistent with ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ and be more justifiable in the context of either a new election or a forced choice between that and No Deal, both of which are entirely plausible scenarios for the next three months, never mind the next twelve.

If they do, that puts even more pressure on Labour but either way, the current policy fudge may well not be sustainable. You might argue that the policy isn’t a fudge; that since last year’s conference, Labour has redefined it to a point where it’s in favour of a second referendum at some point in the future after a Brexit renegotiation in pursuit of unicorns of its own, where it might support (or not) what it had agreed. Personally, I’m not sold on the clarity there.

However, what that policy does mean is that Labour remains – in theory at least – a Leave party. It also means that under a Labour government, the second referendum would almost certainly not be for at least another two years, to give time for the talks to succeed or be seen to irrevocably fail, and for the legislation to set up the referendum to pass.

Are Labour members happy to go into the coming election as a notionally Leave party – especially if the Lib Dems have defined themselves as unambiguously Remain? The answer, both from the evidence of last year’s conference and from the breaking ranks of even key leadership figures like John McDonnell (who’s said that he’d back Remain in a second referendum, whatever the other option/s), is ‘no’.

That fudge came about, however, for a reason – and not just because Corbyn and key allies and lieutenants of his see opportunities in Brexit to pursue more socialist and interventionist policies they believe aren’t possible within the EU. The Labour Leave vote was a real part of their coalition in 2017 – close to a third of their total came from Leavers – but that’s declined by at least half since then. Adopting an outright Remain stance probably means writing off any chance of winning those voters back. Cultural resistance might prevent many of them switching to the Tories but other options exist, most obviously Farage’s Brexit Party and simply abstaining.

Looking at the shorter term though, there’s another implication; probably an even more important one. It’s clear from the letters that have been flying about this month that there’s a lot of disagreement among the opposition as to what they strategy should be, never mind the tactics that should come out of that strategy. As long as that division exists, the government stands a very good chance of delivering Brexit – almost certainly a No Deal Brexit, for lack of alternatives – on October 31.

The simple fact is that the government cannot be stopped unless virtually all opposition MPs and some Tory rebels unite either consistently behind a plan, or on one or two one-off but extremely important votes, such as Votes of (No) Confidence. At present, there isn’t that unity – and one big reason that there’s not that unity of action is that there’s not a unity of purpose. How can there be when Labour is in principle a Leave party?

Certainly, there’s a near-consensus on the opposition benches (and a little beyond) to stop No Deal but that’s not something that may be possible in isolation. While there’s undoubtedly a majority in the Commons opposed to No Deal in principle, is there still a majority opposed to it if it comes with Corbyn as PM, or if it means Revoke, for example? That’s far less clear.

As long as Labour is committed to holding its own renegotiation to leave – even if the chances are that most members would then campaign to Remain – that may well of itself be enough to prevent the Commons forces opposed to the government coalescing around a viable strategy. In other words, the fate of Brexit may rest on the machinations of backroom deals in Labour’s compositing committees.

David Herdson


If BJohnson is planning an election the numbers continue to look good

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

And JSwinson’s response to the PM Corbyn suggestion doesn’t seem to have hurt the LDs

August is generally a month when we see fewer Westminster voting polls and it’s probably because of the possibility of an early election that this year we’ve seen as many surveys as we have.

Even leaving Kantar aside the Tories will feel relatively comfortable about where they are which is being helped by the ongoing poor numbers for Labour. The ambivalence of Corbyn’s party on Brexit and the antisemitism row have taken their toll and its hard to see the party recovering as much in an election campaign as it did at GE2017.

The strongly anti-Brexit LDs have seen their Commons numbers increase by three in recent months with the addition of Umunna who was elected as a LAB MP and Sarah Wollaston who switched from the Tories via TIG and ChangeUK to the party. On top of that was the Brecon by-election gain. They are hoping that the Sheffield Hallam MP will carry out his promise and step down as MP on September 3rd.

The Greens have been prospering well up from 1.6% at GE2017 to 8% in one poll. My guess is that they will pick up more than one MP at an early election if local agreements can be worked out with the LDs.

Farage’s Brexit party has seen a decline partly because it isn’t in the news at the moment and BJohnson has stolen some of their thunder.

Mike Smithson


Joe Walsh – my 130/1 longshot for the Republican nomination

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Could Trump face a challenge?

Generally speaking incumbent presidents tend not to have to face a serious primary challenge when they run for a second term. Certainly that’s been the assumption with Donald Trump and until now the possibility of other challengers has not appeared.

That is changing with a prominent former Republican congressman and now a right wing radio host, Joe Walsh, saying that he is seriously considering running against the President.

One of the unique features of the last two-and-a-half years has been how silent the Republican party has been over the antics of the occupant of the White House. There’s been very little criticism even of his extreme actions.

We are now just over a year off the next presidential election and the mood in the party might change. So the suggestion by Joe Walsh that he is considering throwing his hat into the ring needs to be taken seriously. From what I’ve seen of the interviews he did yesterday he comes over as a firy and lucid critic of Trump.

The trigger for him is his view of Trump came with how the president approached his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki 18 months ago. At the time I thought it was extraordinary how the Republican party establishment did not express any real concern about the apparent acquiescence of the president when dealing with the Russian leader. The optics were terrible.

If Walsh does decide to give it a go then his betting odds will tighten sharply. Effectively he hasn’t got long to decide because of the need to be in a position to file quite soon in order to get on the primary ballots in the early voting States.

I think that Trump would find Walsh a very difficult to deal with.

Walsh only appeared as a possible runner on Betfair yesterday and most of the money that has been wagered on him for the nomination at the moment has come from me.

Mike Smithson


Why they just don’t put up a hard border in Ireland

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

From Topping, who served there with the British Army during the Troubles

It was sobering listening to Simon Byrne, a bluff Northerner and current chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), this morning on the radio opining on the practicalities of policing a hard border should it be required. He feared a return to a paramilitary style of policing and how, with his 7,000 policemen, it would be impossible to fulfil such a remit.

At the height of Op Banner, the British military operation in Northern Ireland that ran from 1969 to 2007, there were around 40,000 forces throughout the Province consisting of 20,000 soldiers from the British army (plus personnel from other arms), 13,500 policemen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now the PSNI), and 7,500 soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). Tasks included supporting the police as they performed their duties as well as more specialist operations. This was at a time when the British army was 150,000 strong and, with the notable exception of the campaign to reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982, and until Gulf War I in 1991, there were no other ongoing military engagements.

The British army is now 80,000 strong, the PSNI numbers 7,000, and the UDR is no more. Something like 70% of the army has never been on operations (in a combat situation as opposed to practising for one).

Supposing there were the political will (a huge if: my suspicion is there wouldn’t be), Her Majesty’s Forces would be unable to replicate Op Banner as the numbers are simply not there. At roughly half the strength and with many other commitments, the same and necessary level of manning would not be possible.

If, as Simon Byrne fears, we are about to return to paramilitary style policing in Northern Ireland then there would also need to be some tactical re-education. The British army went into the Middle East loudly proclaiming the superiority of its fighting forces and tactics based upon its Northern Ireland experiences. This supposed superiority was quickly shown to be illusory as the mode of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan little resembled the intelligence-led operations and peculiarities of patrolling a divided domestic community, where a typical outing comprised two police constables walking down the street, seemingly without a care in the world save for checking on tax discs, with typically 12 soldiers on satellite patrol in support plus air cover plus other units available.

Following two decades of essentially war fighting in hot climes there would need to be a return to a bygone and one had hoped obsolete era for the British army with a further tactical change to be able to undertake a domestic counter insurgency campaign of the type that might emerge once more in the six counties. A campaign that would also of course be conducted under the glare and scrutiny of thousands of mobile phones and perhaps in an even more antagonistic environment than last time.

Put up a border, some people cry; that will bring the Republic back to the negotiating table, they say. But aside from the many administrative, legal, and political considerations of such a strategy, its advocates ignore, perhaps deliberately perhaps through ignorance, its many and severe practical challenges.



Red Letter Day. Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of being next Prime Minister

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

It used to be so easy. For the period after the 2017 general election when Theresa May was Prime Minister, all you had to do was take advantage of Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiasts and regularly lay him for next Prime Minister at the short prices that prevailed. Since she had made it plain that she was not going to fight the next election, so the circumstances in which he would be next Prime Minister were very limited indeed.  

He wasn’t the silliest favourite for that race (Jacob Rees-Mogg must take that honour), but he was a very marked lay at 6 or 7, a price at which he hovered for well over a year. The transfer of funds from naïve Corbynites to cynical political bettors was not exactly 21st century socialism, but it was near enough.

The next Prime Minister market has reopened. We’re only one month on but it’s an entirely different race. Boris Johnson shows no intention of passing on the baton to a new Conservative contender if he fails. We need to look at this question from first principles.

There are five circumstances to consider: Jeremy Corbyn might immediately take office following a vote of no confidence in September; there might be an immediate pre-Brexit general election; there might be an early post-Brexit general election; there might be an early election following a failure to Brexit on 31 October; and there might be a much later general election. Let’s look at each in turn.

Jeremy Corbyn himself has offered to lead a temporary government to extend the Article 50 notice period and hold a referendum. It is evident that as at today’s date that will not fly. Will MPs get less picky in September or October? It seems unlikely – all the reasons why Jo Swinson and Oliver Letwin will not contemplate Jeremy Corbyn as even temporary Prime Minister will continue to apply. I’d place a roughly 15% chance of a coalition of the unwilling taking office before 31 October 2019 to halt a no deal Brexit, and I give Jeremy Corbyn no more than a 20% chance of leading such a government.

What if there’s a vote of no confidence and no alternative government is called We’d have the excitement of seeing whether the Prime Minister dare try to name a date that would forestall any attempt to stop a no deal Brexit on 31 October 2019, and whether that would be challenged in the courts if he did.  Either way, the campaign would be dominated in large part by the looming shadow of Brexit. That is not good terrain for Jeremy Corbyn, since his message on Brexit reverberates with almost exactly no one. There’s probably only a 10% chance of such an election which is just as well for Jeremy Corbyn because I’d give him only about a 20% chance of getting enough seats in such an election to form a government.

Things perk up for Jeremy Corbyn considerably if the next election takes place with a campaign after 31 October. No one ever got an election victory as a thank you and the Conservatives remain very light on their forward-looking proposition. Rumour has it that Dominic Cummings is looking to fill that void, but as Sajid Javid’s fiasco over stamp duty shows, policies cannot be magicked up out of thin air. Labour already has eye-catching policies ready to roll (whether or not they are particularly coherent or realistic). 

If Brexit has happened, the campaign is likely to have regular stories about some form of Brexit-related disruption, which will automatically have the government on the defensive. The whole terrain of such a campaign would suit Labour well. Such an election will only take place if forced on the government by Parliament (I’d place a 30% chance on this, probably taking place early in 2020 if so) and I would give Jeremy Corbyn at least a 50% chance of getting enough seats to form a government.

If Brexit has not happened by 31 October, a different danger arises.  Boris Johnson would be a busted flush. Far from do or die, he would be done for.  The only question is whether a general election was triggered before the Conservatives replaced him. There’s a 30% chance of this permutation in my view, and I’d expect the Conservatives to win the race at least 50% of the time. 

If they don’t, I’d expect Jeremy Corbyn to lead the largest party roughly 80% of the time – the Conservatives would be in chaos, with the Brexit party and the Lib Dems both tearing strips off them all over the place. His biggest problem would be forming a coalition if he needed to, because the Lib Dems are clearly not going to work with him and they look set to be a much more formidable Parliamentary presence after such an election. So I reduce his chances to being next Prime Minister by this permutation by 25%.

That leaves the other possibility, that the government somehow navigates Scylla and Charybdis and steers a course on Brexit that enables it to go long.  You will already have worked out that I make this just a 15% chance. In these circumstances, the government would have every prospect of success. It would have a track record, it would have time to build a programme for the next five years and we have no reason to believe that Jeremy Corbyn would be any more popular than he is now. I’d expect Jeremy Corbyn to form the next government only a third of the time on such a permutation, and that’s probably being charitable.

Adding all these up, I come to the conclusion that Jeremy Corbyn has a roughly 1 in 3 chance of being next Prime Minister. Current Betfair odds imply that he has less than a 1 in 4 chance. That makes backing him a clearly marked bet. I’m on.

Alastair Meeks


HS2 might be hated by Tory activists but scrapping it could lead the party to being portrayed as being anti-north

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019


The biggest mistake that was made over HS2 was to call it just that. This is why it polls so poorly. It sounds like a vanity project which is exactly what it isn’t. The new line would free up chronic under-capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line including for all the local and commuter services. If this had been billed as “West Coast Mainline upgrade” it wouldn’t have attracted anything like the opposition.

So the decision to review it even though £7bn has already been spent has much wider implications than just being able to travel between London and Birmingham a few minutes  faster.

A worry that the Tories should have over this is the potential for it to become an issue in a general election where the party which is mostly southern based will need to pick up existing LAB seats in the midlands and the North.

For the Tories look set to lose most of the 12 Scottish gains that rescued TMay at GE2017 and are also highly vulnerable to the anti-Brexit LDs particularly in Remain areas.

This has been said many time but Scotland and the LD revival could cost the blue team dozens of seats that will have to be offset by gains from Labour if Johnson is to secure a majority. The big question is whether they are able to do that. This was supposed to have happened at GE2017 but what we saw was Labour make gains the Tory’s expense.

The challenge here is that many of the potential targets are in the Midlands and the North of England and anything that could portray the party as being, say, anti-North, might not be very smart.

BJohnson might try to make the election all about implementing the referendum result but that could be hard to sustain over five weeks of a campaign when the broadcasters are legally required to give more equal airtime to opposition parties. A narrative about the party being anti-north could easily gather momentum and decisions over where huge infrastructure spending goes could be made into a powerful campaign issue.

Yesterday’s announcement, with the benefit of hindsight, might not in a few months time look smart.

Mike Smithson



A man of principles. Boris Johnson and the EU

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

If consistency is the sign of a small mind, then Boris Johnson must have a brain the size of a planet. For he has slid from position to position on the EU like Bambi on ice.

In 2003, he opened a speech to the House of Commons, in which he advocated Turkish membership of the EU, thus: 

“It is hard to think of a measure that the Government could have brought to the House that I could support more unreservedly and with greater pleasure than this Bill to expand the European Union. To sum up my response, I would merely say, “And about time too.” 

He went on to confirm: “I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it.”

By 2012 he was already flirting with Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, he was at pains to reassure the public that his vision meant that: “We could construct a relationship with the EU that more closely resembled that of Norway or Switzerland – except that we would be inside the single market council, and able to shape legislation”. He confirmed in 2013 that he would vote to stay in the single market and that he was in favour of it.

In early 2016 he famously wrote two articles, one in favour of Leave and one in favour of Remain, before plumping for team Brexit.  

Vote Leave chose to prioritise immigration control over access to the single market in their ultimately-successful campaign, demonising the Turks that Boris Johnson himself had previously campaigned in Parliament to allow into the EU. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson still hankered after his earlier position, stating even in the wake of the referendum result that Britain could have access to the single market (something that was rapidly squelched from Brussels).

Negotiations with the EU did not go well. Still, in July 2017 he announced with his sunny optimism that “There is no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal”. He did not help with the negotiating process. In the same speech he said that the EU could “go whistle” if they expected Britain to pay a settlement on withdrawing from the EU.

Britain nevertheless agreed to make a payment to settle its obligations in September 2017 and in December 2017 he congratulated the Prime Minister’s successful negotiation of the first stage (which included an agreement to this payment, the foundations of the Northern Irish backstop and protections for EU citizens in Britain). As late as March 2018, he opined that “The PM’s Mansion House speech sets out a clear and convincing vision for our future partnership with the EU”. He wobbled back and forth for the first half of 2018, with his apotheosis being first to toast the Chequers proposal and then, three days later (after David Davis had resigned), to resign over it.

In September 2018, he described the Chequers plan as “substantially worse than the status quo”. He maintained that position when the final deal emerged in November 2018, describing it even before its release as “vassal state stuff”.  Despite that, Boris Johnson eventually voted for it in March 2019 at the third time of asking.

In March 2019 and April 2019, Britain twice confirmed to the EU (in return for obtaining an extension to the Article 50 notice period) that it would not seek to reopen negotiations over the withdrawal agreement.

Boris Johnson secured leadership of the Conservative party and with it the Premiership, campaigning on leaving the EU on 31 October 2019, deal or no deal. He now argues that this is required to respect the referendum result, despite having wafted away the idea of no deal as late as a year after the referendum result.

It is against that background that we must assess Boris Johnson’s current line on the EU. His workrate has declined. He wrote two articles in 2016 before deciding how to campaign in the referendum. This month, he wrote only half a letter to the EU setting out his revised position.

He sets out his objections but does not propose a solution. The backstop that formed part of the interim deal that he had once congratulated the Prime Minister on is now described as “anti-democratic”. He wants the problem to be looked at in the next phase. He recognises that “there would need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help”.

When you’re looking to rewrite an agreement – especially one that your side has specifically agreed twice that it will not seek to rewrite –it’s usually best to have a clear proposal that your weary negotiating partners can weigh. And when you’re looking to build confidence – especially when you have skidded all over the place on a subject – you need to have a simple and compelling proposition. Since his government also simultaneously appears to be undermining the protections offered to EU citizens in Britain that had previously been agreed by a government he formed part of, it is hard to take this latest development remotely seriously.  

Boris Johnson is many things but he is not stupid. He will not have high hopes that this initiative will result in changes to the withdrawal agreement. His hopes lie elsewhere. He has spent the best part of 20 years telling the British public on the subject of the EU whatever he thinks will best serve his interests.  Given his track record, you might well think that he is insulting the British public’s intelligence. Sadly, it seems only too likely that he has its accurate measure.

Alastair Meeks