Archive for the 'Theresa May' Category

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Theresa May – the wrong woman for her time?

Monday, January 21st, 2019



So this is how constitutional settlements are brokered: not at a measured pace with Olympian detachment and the wisdom of Solomon but at high speed in a blind funk with a deal cobbled together in shadowy alcoves. It’s not pretty.

It’s also something that the Prime Minister must hate. Successful governing politicians who have to answer to the electorate often try to avoid making hard choices. Angela Merkel has been so effective at this that her name has been verbed in German. Theresa May has adopted the same approach throughout her premiership, seeking to make her own views unknowable, letting the views of others percolate through until the decision makes itself.

She started by setting out her parameters for Brexit, first in outline form in the summer of 2016 and then in more detail in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. After that point she has simply let matters unfold before her, allowing the EU, the ERG, the DUP and anyone else who so chose to put their views forward, and then just waited. When the deal emerged from the primordial gloop of opinions, she no doubt expected it to slouch onto the statute books with a horrid inevitability.

This came to a shuddering halt last week when her deal was rejected by a majority of 230. The deal now looks very evitable: indeed, it looks hard to resuscitate. Theresa May’s entire approach has been refuted by events. She needs to rethink and fast. To fail to do so would be to make a decision by default or see the decision taken out of her hands completely by Parliament.

Unfortunately, fast thinking is not one of Theresa May’s fortes. It is her temperament to consider evidence thoroughly and slowly in order to come up with the optimal policy. Having determined that she has already come up with the optimal policy, her response is not to rethink but to decide how she can repackage it. In her mind, it seems, nothing has changed.

Something, however, has changed. Her command of Parliament has been demonstrated to be illusory and her authority has scattered across the floor of the House of Commons like pearls from a broken necklace. She should be scrambling to gather what she can back together again.

There is a hard deadline of 29 March 2019 and unless something is done, Britain is going to leave the EU without a deal. Theresa May has given no indication that she regards that as a desirable or acceptable outcome, yet it is emerging as her policy by default.

Sometimes it is better to be wrong quickly than right slowly. With a hard deadline, a House of Commons that has fractured into six or more groupings and the nerves of loyal MPs fraying, the political imperative is to provide a strong lead in a direction that has some chance of attracting new support.

Her most successful predecessors understood the importance of initiative. When David Cameron was defeated in Parliament in a vote over military action in Syria, he immediately stood up to announce that he recognised the vote and would not proceed with the idea (even though Labour had not ruled out supporting a more restricted version of military intervention). A defeat that might otherwise have been career-ending was brushed off as essentially unimportant. Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher would similarly have looked to take the bull by the horns.

Theresa May has instead simply languished in Downing Street consumed by inertia, continuing with her strategy of making her policy the only one capable of adoption. But it is not. It is now just one policy among many that could be adopted and one, moreover, that has been decisively rejected.

She seems to be relying on the possibility that her opponents will remain divided. Perhaps they will. That does not, however, seem particularly likely, especially since one thing that her opponents in the House of Commons can all agree on is that they should collectively have more say. It therefore seems more and more likely that Parliament will snatch the reins of Brexit for itself.

If that happens, the government will become curiously almost irrelevant. Conservative party discipline has been stretched beyond the limit ever since the EU referendum was first announced and despite a supposed restoration of collective Cabinet responsibility in July 2018, it has been honoured in the breach rather than the observance. It is hard to see how it can be reimposed this side of a resolution of the Article 50 departure process.

By that stage, the fissures in the Conservative party may have widened beyond the point of repair. That’s a downside of their leader not making difficult decisions. The indecision might end up consuming them all.

Alastair Meeks




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A Customs Union deal needs to be on the table if No Deal is to be avoided

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

The only way to get Brexit Deal votes is to go softer

It’s lonely at the top. It’s probably lonelier if you cut yourself off and isolate yourself from your colleagues, even if they are after their own interests and your own job. This last week has proven just how politically lonely Theresa May is, yet still she carries on. There’s something admirable in that and perhaps it’s no small part of the explanation for the rise in rise in the level of sympathy the public feel for the PM, as noted in the previous thread, and also in her rising ‘Best PM’ lead (the two times YouGov have asked that this year, the leads – 18 and 16 per cent, respectively – have been the biggest since the 2017 election).

However, despite having tried to keep her Brexit strategy very close to home, the disastrous defeat of her Brexit plan means that if she’s to avoid a No Deal outcome, she can’t just carry on as if nothing has changed. Nominally, she’s recognized that by arranging meetings with opposition MPs and party leaders (though not Corbyn, who’s launched his own No Platform protest against the PM), but in practice, unless she’s willing to change any of the fundamentals, it’s hard to see what benefit that can bring her.

Had she been a more people-person sort of leader, she’d have been cultivating these links since the election, when it became obvious that they’d be useful (or at the very least, she’d have authorized senior members of the government to do so). Unfortunately, that’s not her style or character. Nor, as Ken Clarke noted, is transactional politics or flexibility.

That said, when circumstances have demanded it, she has made concessions or changed course – and circumstances most certainly do demand that now. For all that the scale of the defeat of her plan was record-breaking, it wasn’t the most important aspect of the result. What the numbers revealed was that there aren’t the numbers in the Commons for a harder Brexit.

Of all the MPs who voted against, it’s only within the Conservative ranks that those who want a cleaner break with the EU are to be found. To that might be added the DUP, for whom the NI-GB relationship is more important that the UK-EU one and who might support a No Deal outcome (but would only support a No Deal outcome as a harder Brexit from where we are, because any other deal would require a stronger N Ireland backstop; they might just as easily go for a softer Brexit if that reduces the need for any Irish Sea divisions). Beyond that, the Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and others are uniformly for some form of closer relationship.

If the PM is serious about getting a deal then, she’s going to have to offer something substantial. This immediately creates two problems. Firstly, the reaction among a large number of her own MPs is going to range from anger to rage to apoplexy. Having suffered more than a hundred of them voting against her, to then move the deal further away is not exactly conciliatory. On the other hand, they’ve hardly earned the right to be given a veto, having tried and failed to remove her and having voted down the best chance of an orderly withdrawal. With May now safe for a year from a leadership challenge triggered by a minority of Con MPs, she doesn’t need to act as the captive of the ERG.

The other problem is that the EU said they wouldn’t renegotiate. However, when they said that, they effectively meant that there wouldn’t be any more concessions from Brussels. If May were instead to go back and say “we’d like in on the Customs Union”, I suspect the door would be open. The EU doesn’t want No Deal either and the UK within the Customs Union permanently would solve some (but not all) of the N Ireland questions. Having conceded the principle of the issue for the transition period, it’s a small step to make the arrangement permanent.

Labour has of course demanded more than just Customs Union. They also want permanent alignment on a rule-taking basis on employment and environmental regulations too. These would, I think, be a step too far for Tory MPs. It’s one thing to give up trade rights which have proven illusory so far, it’s another to see large parts of what could easily otherwise be domestic legislation be dictated from Brussels. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was precisely this point that kicked off the whole Eurosceptic movement within the Tories, in Delors’ Social Europe and Thatcher’s response to it in the Bruges Speech.

However, might Labour prove more flexible there than is being assumed? Probably not but it’s not impossible. There’s a reason that Corbyn has always been sceptical towards Europe, which is his suspicion that it’s a Capitalist Club. He may be right. There’s no guarantee that the flow of social legislation from Brussels will continue to be progressive. Might the rise of the New Right eclipse the consensus of the Centre Left on the continent and revise the Brussels policy? It’s certainly possible. Would Corbyn, as a potential PM, then be bound by treaty to repeal employment rights in order to keep the mirror with the EU and not impose artificial barriers? It’s not a happy prospect. Better to leave them off the table altogether? Perhaps.

Besides, how viable would it be to continue to refuse to engage with the government if they made a serious offer? The risk to Corbyn is twofold: firstly, that May got her deal through by splitting Labour as badly as her own party, and secondly, that if she didn’t get it through, Labour’s intransigence makes it complicit in the No Deal failure (which its own supporters will be much more upset about).

On the other hand, offering Customs Union membership would provoke further resignations from the government, including the cabinet. May could lose her third Brexit Secretary in barely six months, plus the likes of Chris Grayling (so it’s not all downside). The cries of ‘betrayal’ would be inevitable, and would be reinforced by the Article 50 extension that would have to be requested if a revised deal could be agreed.

The question – the gamble – is could the stars align sufficiently to find a majority that could back such a plan in the Commons, that could enable to the EU to sign up to it, and that could not prompt an outright mutiny among Tory MPs? The answer is that I don’t know. On balance, my guess would be not, though not by much. But given where the numbers are, it’s the only solution that seems capable of preventing No Deal.

David Herdson



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Some comfort for TMay from YouGov – 56% of those polled have felt sympathy for her

Friday, January 18th, 2019

It’s not going to make getting Brexit through any easier

Even amongst LAB voters there’s a relatively high percentage holding this view – 43% against 52% who haven’t. There’s quite a gender divide with 60% of the women polled saying they had felt sympathy and 32% saying they hadn’t. Amongst men the split was 52-43%.

Unfortunately what the general public thinks isn’t too helpful though it might explain why her “Best PM” ratings are holding up.

Meanwhile on Betfair’s new “Deal or No Deal” market it is a 14% chance that the UK will leave the EU by March 30th without a deal.

Mike Smithson




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Loose change. The MPs who Theresa May needs to get on board

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

In a sense, it’s all very simple. Theresa May has negotiated her deal, now all she needs to do is persuade the House of Commons to back it. A huge majority of MPs reject the idea of leaving without a deal. The 2016 referendum mandated MPs to ensure that Britain leaves the EU. Nothing in practice can be negotiated before 29 March 2019. So it should be plain-sailing, shouldn’t it?

Theresa May’s deal has everything going for it except for one thing: backers. It was unceremoniously pulled in December when it was apparent that it was going to suffer a landslide defeat. The last month has been spent seeking to give it the kiss of life. Quite a few commentators think it is going to pass eventually but that begs the question where the votes for it are going to come from. So where are they going to come from?

Here are Theresa May’s groupings.

Confirmed supporters

The deal was not entirely friendless first time around. Theresa May could count on the support of all those frontbenchers who decided that they could reconcile it with their consciences. That gets her to 108 straight away. Another 70 Conservative MPs have publicly stated that they would vote for the deal. Stephen Lloyd left the Lib Dems to carry out his general election promise to support the deal. So that’s 179. She can reasonably expect this group to stay in line.

Unconfirmed Conservatives

Theresa May will also be hopeful that those who have been quiet so far will fall into line. There are 32 Conservative MPs who have kept their powder dry. This, however, is by no means a done deal. This group includes some who have made some pretty negative noises about it, including Sir Graham Brady.

But let’s assume that these are ultimately going to be supportive – it’s hard to see how she gets the deal over the line without the support of substantially all of these. That gets her to 211 MPs.

Unconfirmed others

There are a few MPs outside the Conservative party who are not taking a whip and who have not made their position clear. Of these, the Prime Minister will expect to scoop up Lady Sylvia Hermon and Frank Field. Kelvin Hopkins might be winnable and John Woodcock is in a category of one. Let’s credit all of these to the Prime Minister: she’s going to need them. That makes 215.

From here, the going gets harder.

Conservative unreconciled Remainers

These attract a lot of hostility from others in their party, but in truth they are a side issue. Just eight Conservative MPs have said that they would oppose the deal and seek a people’s vote.

Conservative hardline Leavers

That’s a large part of Theresa May’s problem right there. There are nearly 100 Conservative MPs who are publicly opposed to the deal as not being Brexity enough. They have done so in strident terms. Some, including Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, have described it as being worse than remaining in the EU. This makes it very difficult for them to backtrack on their opposition because what rationale could they give?

Quite a few of these MPs are entirely comfortable with the idea of no-deal Brexit and have said so. They will need to be given a compelling reason for backtracking on their opposition. Right now they believe that they can secure no-deal Brexit simply by opposing. Theresa May is going to have to change their minds.

As Sam Coates of the Times has noted, it’s very hard to see the number opposed ever dropping below 35, being the number who had publicly declared they had no confidence in Theresa May plus those who had resigned to oppose the deal. Personally, I’d double that number based on the public statements made. A lot of unwise words would have to be eaten. If the deal is still not going to pass, what’s the point of humiliating yourself?

Even if Theresa May manages to shepherd all of the Conservative MPs behind her, which right now looks like a complete fantasy, she still needs to get support, or at the least abstentions, from elsewhere. What are her options?

The DUP

These 10 MPs make even less promising targets than Conservative Leavers. While they would prefer to leave the EU, the deal drives a wedge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that they find more unacceptable. Not only is no deal better than this deal for them, remaining in the EU would be better too.

Labour loyalists

The official opposition is officially opposed to the deal. Labour have a five stage policy of opposition on Brexit, not one of which involves giving Theresa May’s deal any succour at all. Could Labour nevertheless be persuaded to support the deal, or at least to abstain, rather than see Britain leave without a deal? Jeremy Corbyn would seem to lack any motivation for such a course of action for as long as he could blame the resulting mess on the Conservatives. Theresa May will hope that some of his supporters break ranks.

Labour pro-Europeans and Lib Dems

Both of these groups are opposed to the deal on the basis that a referendum would be preferable to exiting on this deal. However, they might well prefer that Britain leaves in an orderly way to seeing it leave chaotically.

There are just 11 Lib Dem MPs, now that Stephen Lloyd has resigned the whip. It is unclear how many Labour MPs there are who would prioritise an orderly Brexit over following the party line.

While Labour members are opposed to no-deal, they are also opposed to the deal itself – they want a fresh referendum so that Britain can remain in the EU. So while I can imagine quite a lot of Labour MPs defying their leadership in the right circumstances to secure a fresh referendum, few are likely to feel impelled to support Theresa May’s deal or even abstain. Her challenge is to work out if and if so how this number can be maximised.

Labour Leavers

There aren’t actually that many of these, maybe eight or so now. They have no reason not to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s line.

The SNP

The SNP are opposed to Brexit and want a fresh referendum. They are also opposed to no-deal Brexit. The SNP, however, are almost pathologically opposed to the idea of ever being labelled tartan Tories, so it is hard to imagine them ever backing the deal. In all likelihood, the best that Theresa May can hope for is a mass abstention. Even that looks fairly unlikely.

I would expect Plaid Cymru and the Greens to take the same line as the SNP ultimately. So this is a bloc of 40 MPs.

Conclusion

It all looks grim for Theresa May’s deal. She essentially has three possible ways of getting it through – uniting a Leave bloc behind it, uniting a Remain bloc behind it or getting enough dissident Leavers on board and the acquiescence of enough Remainers to scramble home. Right now she is losing heavily among both Leavers and Remainers. Leaver MPs in particular have backed themselves into a corner and a lot of them are going to need more than a cosmetic change to the deal to be able to change their minds with dignity.  

So Theresa May’s best, though poor, chance of salvaging her deal looks to be by getting the acquiescence of substantial numbers of Remainers outsider her party. However, all her efforts seem to be being put into what looks like the futile task of placating Leavers. She clearly needs to produce a rabbit from a hat. But right now she seems to be looking in the wrong hat.

Alastair Meeks




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Matters of confidence. What to expect if the government loses a vote of no confidence

Sunday, December 30th, 2018


Care to make it interesting? As if politics wasn’t already volatile enough, the government faces the persistent threat of a vote of no confidence. Jeremy Corbyn made a complete ass of himself and several of his most senior colleagues before the Christmas break with an on-off-on-again-off-again vote of no confidence, but he will have other opportunities.

The current government is a minority government, kept in power through the offices of the DUP. Right now, however, the DUP are not happy. They loathe the proposed deal and are making ominous noises. So far those fall short of agreeing to support a vote of no confidence but that might change. Some of the Conservative hardline Brexiters might not be unhappy at that prospect either.  

Equally, some of the more fervent Europhile Conservative MPs might consider their options if Britain looks definitively to be heading for no deal. The government is undeniably vulnerable.

What happens if the government loses such a vote? A clock starts ticking. Either another government succeeds in getting a vote of confidence past the House of Commons in 14 days or there will be a general election.

Yes that’s all well and good, but who gets to choose? The single most important thing to realise is that Theresa May does not necessarily need to step down immediately. Precedent isn’t much help – there have been just three votes of no confidence in the last 100 years and only one since the Second World War.

In the past, votes of no confidence have led to swift changes of government or dissolutions of Parliament. However, even then, the government did not need to step down immediately. In 1979, Parliament was not dissolved for another week, Now the matter is set out by statute, so Theresa May can argue that she can stay in situ and let everyone explore the alternatives in the time available.

With that in mind, Theresa May could seek to hold office in the very short term to allow effective exploration of the options. (She might even try herself. As leader of the party with the most seats and the incumbent, she would have the authority to do this. Ted Heath and Gordon Brown both exercised their right as incumbent to seek to form a government for some time despite being only the second party in Parliament. Theresa May’s claim to continue to seek to do so would be comparable to either of theirs.)

If she did, she would not be the only one trying.  If this kicked off in January, there could be at least six camps. As well as Theresa May, there would be Conservative loyalists seeking to establish whether the majority could be reconstructed simply by replacing her. There would be hardline Leavers looking to establish a no-deal government. Jeremy Corbyn would be looking to form a Labour minority government. There would be unreconciled Remainers looking to relitigate the 2016 referendum. And there would be some MPs who would simply want the general election straight away. Perhaps there would be other camps.

These groups would overlap and different MPs would have different second and third preferences. Institutionally the two main party leaders would have strong advantages because they are entitled to call on the loyalty of their nominal Parliamentary supporters. In practice both would struggle more than usual. Theresa May has already had a visible demonstration of the lack of confidence of over a third of her MPs. Jeremy Corbyn could only wish for such levels of loyalty.

Let’s return to the single most important thing. Theresa May does not need to step down. If no other candidate in her judgement looks likely to command a majority she could in theory try to see the clock tick down and proceed to a general election. Theresa May has always used time as a weapon. She might do so again.

In practice my assessment of Theresa May, a woman who appears to feel her duty keenly, is that if she could not form a government she would not stand in the way of a candidate who stood a fair chance. It would be her responsibility as Prime Minister to advise the Queen on who she should call for next. I expect she would do so according to her best assessment of the lay of the land. As an instinctive conservative, she would want to help the monarchy as best she could.

Theresa May could not be expected to hurry to that point though: she never has believed in hurrying. It would not help Jeremy Corbyn if the time established that he was not going to able to command a majority: as she is a Conservative as well as a conservative, this would be a welcome effect for her.

Conversely, extra time might help the unreconciled Remainers whose support spans four or more parties in identifying a potential candidate to lead them and a prospectus to sell to possible supporters. The experience of the 2016 Labour leadership challenge is that on the Labour side at least those MPs are poorly organised when time is of the essence. They chose a weak candidate by a shambolic process who was comfortably defeated – perhaps they have planned better this time around but candidly I doubt it.   

This is perhaps their biggest obstacle – if they are to persuade foot soldiers of the two main parties to work with them, they are going to need to offer someone who they will feel good about getting behind even on a limited prospectus. The problem is easier to identify than the solution.

The party hierarchies would have time to issue such threats as they thought would be effective. We would soon find out what was left of party discipline. With the stakes so high, my guess is that both parties would find their structures under severe strain.

A lot of briefing and disinformation would be done through the media during this period. For that reason, we should consider now what different groupings really want or would settle for. For example, what would the DUP like best? My guess is that they would be very happy to have another general election to see the clock tick down on a no-deal Brexit and will vote accordingly – some of the hardline Leave Conservative MPs might well try to do the same thing.  

What about the SNP?  They have a hard call to make – do they seek to support Jeremy Corbyn as the rope supports the hanged man, do they support a fresh referendum establishing the principle that generations can be very short indeed, or, like the DUP, do they also seek a general election with all the chaos that would produce? On balance I think they will look for a fresh referendum, but I might easily be wrong about that.

And what of the quiet pragmatic MPs in both main parties? Would they countenance an outcome that led to no deal Brexit? They would have a huge decision: would they throw in their lot with their party hierarchies and risk no-deal or would they seek a different outcome at the risk of their careers and their party loyalties?

Don’t forget the single most important thing, Theresa May’s role. She is not a chess piece, she has agency. If she is unable to form a government on her own terms, her own second or third preference might ultimately prove crucial. Might she ultimately offer herself as a temporary Prime Minister to effect a second referendum? It might solve several problems at once, while creating many more. What, ultimately, is her best alternative to a negotiated agreement in these circumstances?

It would be, I confess, utterly fascinating. The temptation to put pennies on the railway lines, just to see what would happen, must be enormous for deeply unhappy MPs. The risk of a train wreck would be huge. Buckle up.

Alastair Meeks




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For your Christmas day entertainment Saturday Night Live on Theresa and Brexit

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018



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My Christmas eve bet that TMay will still be PM at the end of next year

Monday, December 24th, 2018

Moggsy’s failed confidence move gives her 12 months immunity

On the day of this month’s confidence vote amongst Tory MPs on Theresa May the PM declared that it was her intention not to lead the party into the next general election. If we stick with the Fixed Term Parliament Act timetable that means any time before the spring of 2022.

That might have helped her in fending off Moggsy’s ill-judged move which also provided her with the additional bonus that under current Tory rules she is now immune from facing another confidence move until December next year.

    I have seen nothing that suggests that she is thinking of departing during 2019 even if the Brexit deal goes through and the UK leaves the EU as planned on March 29th. She appears to want to stay and she’s helped by there being no obvious successor.

What that exercise taught us is that it is very difficult removing a PM who is determined to hang on.

Yesterday the Sunday Times was reporting suggestions that she would like to continue until maybe a year or so before the next general election when she would step aside. The hope is to create opportunities in her cabinet for some new blood and potential successors.

All this makes the 68% Betfair betting exchange price on her going in 2019 as something of a bargain for a lay bet (wagering that it won’t happen). We have seen that amazing fortitude and resilience battling on when everything seems against her. I find it hard to envisage her going quietly after Brexit as many within the Conservative Party appeared to be hoping for.

There’s another factor which my guess is impacting on her thinking – she doesn’t want former Foreign Secretary, Mr Johnson, to succeed her. The longer she say stays, you can see her reasoning, the worse his prospects become.

I’m on with Betfair wagering that she’ll still be there at the end of 2019 laying next year as her exit date at 1.48.

Mike Smithson




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Which will happen first? TMay to step down as PM or the UK to leave the EU?

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

I rather like this betting market which asks which of the two events will happen first – Theresa May ceasing to be Prime Minister or the UK actually leaving the EU.

With uncertainties over both events this is quite a good match.

My guess as we get closer to the March 29th article 50 deadline that this will see a fair bit of activity and no doubt the leave EU price will move to the favourite slot if the Theresa May deal does in fact pass and the reverse if it doesn’t.

Punters on this option would also be a winner if the deal didn’t get through the commons but we carried on till March 29th and there was no deal.

On Theresa May’s job prospects there’s little doubt that they have been enhanced in the last few days after last week’s VONC amongst CON MPs and more confident performances in the Commons both at PMQs yesterday and on Monday reporting pack on the latest round of discussions in Brussels.

  • Chart showing Betfair exchange prices from Betdata.io
  • Mike Smithson