The next Home Secretary betting

July 14th, 2019

Within a fortnight we should have a new Home Secretary.

When Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister it is widely expected that his Chancellor will be Sajid Javid which creates a vacancy at the Home Office. So who will succeed Javid?

I’m also working on assumption that Jeremy Hunt will remain Foreign Secretary under Boris Johnson, he views any other cabinet job, other than Chancellor of the Exchequer as a demotion so he’d retire to the backbenches.

Boris Johnson will not want more members of the Gaukeward squad on the backbenches to join the likes of Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, David Lidington, Greg Clark, and of course, primus inter pares, Theresa May who I suspect are implacably intent on delivering on Vote Leave’s campaign pledge of not leaving without a deal. When you have a notional majority of three thanks to the DUP Prime Minister Johnson cannot annoy anyone further.

I’m tempted by the 20/1 on Tracy Crouch. I think Boris Johnson would like to fight back against the nasty party meme and who better than the woman who resigned over the government’s initial vacillation on reducing the stake for fixed odds betting terminals.  It would send a great message for those who would like the Tory party to focus on non Brexit related topics.

As sports minister, and in other roles, she’s always been a good media performer which would help the government sell its policies to the country. As someone who read law she’d be eminently qualified to take on the challenging role of Home Secretary. It would also reassure the Boris sceptic wing of the party that he had appointed a self confessed ‘compassionate, One-Nation Conservative’ to such a senior role. Having eventually backed Boris Johnson in the leadership contest should her get a decent role in government.

I’m fond of this market after tipping Sajid Javid at 33/1 to succeed Amber Rudd just hours before he became Home Secretary but this I’m not quite as confident so will be betting at lower stakes than I did in April 2018. It is entirely possible Javid remains Home Secretary but I do expect Boris Johnson to make comprehensive changes to the cabinet upon his election, this will not be like the relatively minor changes when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher.



Sounding the alarm. Britain’s democracy is under direct threat

July 14th, 2019

In two weeks’ time, Britain will have a Prime Minister whose commitment to democracy is contingent. Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to rule out proroguing Parliament in order to secure a no deal Brexit by 31 October 2019.

Let us call proroguing Parliament by its proper name: suspending democracy. The United Kingdom operates with an executive that is supervised by the legislature. If the executive suspends the legislature (which is what proroguing is), it is suspending the democratic control of itself.

The government would not be able to pass legislation – but governments do a lot of things other than legislate. The Government does not need Parliament to be sitting to pass some delegated legislation. It can exercise its administrative and prerogative powers. It would be doing so without oversight from the MPs elected to perform that role. It prevents MPs from directing the government to change course or from bringing it down.

For that reason, proroguing Parliament is normally only done for a short period. Parliament has not been prorogued for longer than three weeks for 40 years. Parliament’s oversight is not impaired. It has been a largely ceremonial process for transitioning between Parliamentary sessions for at least 150 years.

The most notable political use of this effect was in 1948, when the government used its power to prorogue Parliament not to suspend Parliament’s oversight of it but to fast-forward through Parliamentary sessions in order to override the House of Lords’ veto power under the Parliament Act 1911. Far from frustrating the democratic process, the government of the time was looking to augment the elected House’s power through the use of prorogation.

So what is being mooted by the hardcore Leavers – the use of prorogation to frustrate democratic supervision – is unprecedented in Britain’s modern democratic history. They moot it in order to impose an irrevocable decision (no deal Brexit) on a House of Commons that shows every sign of wanting to prevent that.

Leavers claim to want to prorogue in order to implement the democratic vote to leave the EU. There are a few problems with that claim. First, there is no magic about the date of 31 October 2019. If Leavers have been unable to come up with a plan that persuades a majority of the House of Commons by that date, it is not for them to impose their will.

Secondly, the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to leave the EU without a deal. Vote Leave, as noted above, campaigned on the basis that “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”.

And thirdly, democracy did not stop on 23 June 2016. The current MPs were elected a year later. They have their own mandate to represent their constituents. The government and Leave supporters have no right to trample on Britain’s representative democracy.

So it boils down to this: hardline Leavers are willing to take a hammer to Britain’s democratic protections to secure a policy that they want. This is no longer about Remain or Leave, but about whether you have any respect for the democratic process that operates in Britain.

Unfortunately, polls show that the great majority of Conservative party members do not. 67% were recorded in a recent YouGov poll as believing that it would be acceptable to prorogue Parliament in order to prevent Parliament voting against no deal.  The anti-democratic impulse has reached the mainstream.

Now it might very well be in practice that the Prime Minister could not prorogue Parliament in this way even if he wanted to. The decision is for the monarch, not the Prime Minister, and she would be entitled to, and in such a controversial case presumably would, take counsel from other members of the Privy Council first. Few Privy Council members are likely to be supportive of a Prime Minister’s wish to game the system in this way. A decision to prorogue would certainly be judicially reviewed (Sir John Major announced this week that he would do so). The courts might well intervene. So as a plan, it is not even particularly likely to succeed.

But even if Parliamentary democracy could be suspended in this way, proroguing would not just be a crime, it would be an error. Imagine that no deal Brexit was achieved against the will of Parliament by breaking democratic norms. Britain would be a pariah state. The government would almost certainly be immediately toppled and a general election would ensue with government ministers (fresh in their roles, remember, so unfamiliar with their remits) having to alternate between campaigning and dealing with the inevitable snarl-ups that would have come from such a disorderly exit. 

Polling consistently shows that the public already on balance thinks that Brexit was a mistake and if Britain has been forced into the most extreme version of it by anti-democratic means, the Conservatives would be lucky if they were merely electorally eviscerated. It might also prove to be the swiftest route to Britain rejoining the EU.

It would also represent the most awful precedent. Governments of all stripes could then use it as a cue to take time out whenever Parliament was proving too exacting. Why go to the trouble of passing laws if you can achieve most of what you want by executive fiat most of the time? Jeremy Corbyn also does not have a great affinity with his fellow MPs. Do Conservatives really want to establish a precedent for him to be allowed to act without Parliamentary scrutiny or control should it all get too tough for him?

Alastair Meeks

PS – Interesting fact, if the Queen dies then if Parliament has been prorogued it must immediately be reconvened.  


The idea that Johnson is an electoral asset is not supported by his record

July 13th, 2019

Winning the Mayoralty when the Tories were 20%+ ahead was no big deal

Much of the case for Johnson is based on the fact that he won the London Mayoralty for the Tories in 2008. The capital is seen as strong Labour territory therefore, the argument goes, he’s the man to lead the party when there’s the threat of Labour advancing.

The only problem with that 2008 Mayoral result is that for the Tories generally it was the party’s best overall local election performance since 1983 the year Mrs Thatcher won her landslide victory in the general election.

Th BBC’s projected national vote share for the 2008 locals had the Tories on 40% with Labour a whopping 18% behind on 22%. A YouGov poll in the week of that election had CON on 49% with Brown’s LAB on 23% – the second biggest Tory led over LAB in three decades. It is against that backcloth that Johnson won the mayoralty. The tide had turned against LAB. So winning in Labour London then was nothing like as significant as his supporters claim. The Tories were doing very well

Sure he retained the Mayoralty in 2012 when things were less bright for the Tories but he had all the advantages of the incumbent. He was also facing Ken Livingstone again who by then was a more diminished figure.

At the last general election Boris saw a CON to LAB swing in his Uxbridge constituency that was larger not just than the national average but what happened in London. If Johnson has some special election appeal then it did not show at the last general election.

What’s not appreciated is that the biggest threat to the Tories at the next election might not be the Brexit party, which has never won Westminster seat but a rejuvenated LD party working closely with the Greens. That there is just one anti-Brexit candidate in the upcoming Brecon by-election could be the basis of a model for what might be applied elsewhere.

Mike Smithson


Boris vacillated on Darroch because he’s weak, not because of Trump

July 13th, 2019

His verbal grandiosity is a mask for a lack of self-confidence

Boris Johnson has always had a facility for a briefly memorable turn of phrase. Whether referring to table tennis as, archaically, ‘whiff-whaff’ or describing Brexit talks extending into further rounds beyond October 31 as the ‘hamster wheel of doom’, Johnson’s words have the capacity to amuse and distract. For a politician, that’s a useful skill up to a point.

The problem is that the phrases, like Johnson himself, tend towards daftness and absurdity. They are memorable at the time because while they might pithily sum something up, they also reduce its seriousness. How can a No Deal Brexit really be all that bad if it’s like a hamster? That lack of seriousness is also why the words are ephemeral: the genuinely great quotes of history are anchored to, and enhance, real endeavour – whether that already achieved or that being exhorted.

Johnson has of course played the clown for decades and rarely has it done him harm. Certainly, there’ve been failures – sackings, failed marriages and so on (if he becomes PM, he’ll have been divorced as many times as all previous 54 prime ministers combined once his present marriage is dissolved) – but always he’s bounced back. It’s hard to fall too far if no-one takes you too seriously to begin with, including yourself.

However, here’s an unanswered question: why doesn’t Boris appear to take himself very seriously? Is it all a tactic to slide to the top, under the radar or is there more to it than that? After all, he’s an intellectually capable man. He could have, had he wanted to, pursued a much more conventional route to the top. Granted, it wouldn’t have been as colourful but nor might it have suffered the pratfalls.

The simple answer though is that it would have been too much hard work. Theresa May’s predecessor had something of a reputation of an essay-crisis prime minister but it’s nothing compared to the reputation for disorganisation and lack of respect for expectations and norms of behaviour that her likely successor has amassed over the years; one which goes back to his school days. Far easier to not bother and then claim exemption with a smile, a bon mot and puppy eyes.

Those behaviours might be the result of laziness but they could well be – and I think are – the consequence of something else too. I don’t think that Boris trusts himself (and indeed, why should he?). I don’t think that he has confidence in his judgement and that’s why he tends not to make judgements – or at least, when he does, he does so on whims and without any great forethought.

All of which suggests a different answer to the question as to why he didn’t back up Sir Kim Darroch, after the latter suffered a tirade of abuse from Donald Trump (unlike Jeremy Hunt, who was clear and robust on the matter).

The conspiracy theorists have it that Boris is in Trump’s pocket and failed to back Darroch because he was doing the president’s bidding, presumably in the hope of some trade deal. This misreads the situation, to my mind. If Johnson had wanted to appeal to Trump’s vanity on the issue, he would have called directly for Darroch to be replaced; he didn’t. It would have been easy enough to make the case: ultimately Darroch himself did so. But Boris vacillated and avoided addressing the issue at all. Rather than take a stand on either side, he failed to take a decision or offer a lead. This rather implies that the problem with Johnson here is not that he’s in Trump’s pocket but simply that he’s weak: incapable of assessing the situation, forming a policy and clearly stating it. Make of that what you will as regards any attempt by him to negotiate with the EU.

Quite how Johnson’s inadequacy for the premiership will play out in practice is another matter. For all the talk of proroguing parliament in order to facilitate No Deal, I don’t think he has the spine needed to carry through such a radical action (which, in any case, I expect that parliament would frustrate via a Vote of No Confidence were it to be tried). Perhaps his natural laziness might prove a blessing in disguise, if surrounded by a talented cabinet who could be left to get on with their jobs – a sizable ‘if’. That at least would be a welcome improvement from the hyper-control of the May ministry.

More likely though is that on the crucial issue of the day, the government’s policy will be marked by drift, high-level verbiage without detail, unsubstantiated optimism and an inability to reconcile conflicting promises made without having understood the consequences at the time. Which is to say, it will ultimately be marked – like him – by failure.

David Herdson


Two new polls this afternoon with very different shares for LAB and the Greens

July 12th, 2019

If LAB had been doing better at recent elections then you might say that Survation has got this right. But Corbyn’s party had a miserable set of locals in May followed up by dreadful Euro elections three weeks later when they slipped down to just 13.6% and could not even maintain position as top party in London. They did, of course, hold Peterborough in June but with a share down 17% on GE2017.

At the Euro election YouGov got the Greens almost dead on and were within a point for the LDs and LAB. Survation had LAB on 23% compared with the UK actual of 13.6%. The firm put LDs on 12% compared with a UK actual 19.6%.

Survation was, of course, the most accurate pollster at GE2017 but, as we’ve seen, being top at one is not always a good guide to the future.

Mike Smithson


The threat to Obamacare, not Trump’s Tweets and tantrums, could be what costs him WH2020

July 12th, 2019


As we saw at the Midterms eroding what’s become an entitlement is politically dangerous

I think that it is very easy for those of us who are engrossed with politics, that’s just about all those who follow PB, to pay too much attention to the personalities and not to the substance of what’s involved.

Last November the Democrats did remarkably well in the midterm elections and now have a rock-solid majority in the House. Unfortunately the Senate seats they were up that year, and only 1/3 are elected every two years, weren’t good territory for them and they failed to take the Upper House.

But the big picture is that Trumps opponents control Congress and increasingly they are making life difficult for the incumbent president.

One of the big reasons for the party’s success last November was the perceived threat to what public healthcare there exists in the US from the president who appears to be ideologically opposed to the state have anything to do with the provision of such a service. It is not helped by the fact that the system that exists is commonly named after his predecessor, Obamacare.

As chronicled by Paul Krugman in the New York Times today there is another legal Stuart taking place and this could have the impact of impeding or actually eroding what’s provided already. He writes:

” If you’re an American who suffers from a pre-existing condition, or doesn’t have a job that comes with health benefits, you should know that if Trump is re-elected, he will, one way or another, take away your health insurance.”

The big problem is that once the state begins to provide something then it is incredibly difficult to take it away. No UK government has dared to touch pensioners’bus passes and other benefits for the oldies and look at the row that’s now taking the place over the possibility that those over the age of 75 might have to pay for their TV licences.

As the RCP polling trend chart above the Trump era has seen a big turnaround in public opinion on health provision. The current legal moves documented in the Krugman article above could, if successful, end Trump’s second term hopes.

Mike Smithson


And now the Tory Brecon bar chart to try to beat off the Brexit party

July 12th, 2019

From a Tory campaign AD Brecon & Radnorshire by-election

Boris’s first electoral test – getting more by-election votes than Farage

It might be a too big an ask to expect the Tories to retain the Brecon and Radnorshire seat where the by-election takes place on August 1st but the party would dearly love to win more votes than Farage’s Brexit Party.

The circumstances, the fact that their candidate is the former MP who was deprived of his seat following the successful recall petition after his criminal conviction for expenses fraud is not a good starting point.

On top of that the many sheep farmers in this huge constituency who rely on exports to Europe are not enamored by the prospect of a no deal Brexit which would mean that their products would have a 40% tariff placed on them. Their livelihoods and those in the constituency who rely on the sheep trade are at stake.

The main opposition and 1/5 odds-on favourites to retake the seat lost at GE2015, the Liberal Democrats, are the only remain party in the race following agreements with the Greens and PC applied not to field candidates.

Such tight odds have not made the by-election overall winner an attractive betting market though there is now a another option from Ladbrokes which looks extremely interesting. Which of the Conservatives and the Brexit Party party will win most votes?

Currently the bookie makes it 1/2 for the Tory and 6/4 for Farage’s party. Given how well the latter did in Peterborough a few weeks ago coming with in a few hundred votes of beating Labour then the 6/4 looks attractive.

The one thing that could change that, of course, is that by August 1st there will be a new Conservative leader, most likely Boris Johnson, and my guess is that the expectation that he will give a boost to the Tories is priced into those odds.

Failing to beat the Tory vote total here would severely blunt the momentum that Farage has built up for his party since the successes in the May euro elections.

The Tory battle to recover the ground taken by Farage is the first electoral battle for the new leader.

Mike Smithson


What it takes to be a good leader

July 11th, 2019

At one of his RoryforLeader rallies, Rory Stewart paid a heartfelt tribute to David Gauke and the three things he learnt about leadership from him. (1) Gauke communicated his values to his team, which they respected him for; (2) he genuinely listened to them and their arguments; and (3) finally, he had courage and was willing to make tough choices.

It is rare to see politicians pay genuine tribute to each other, at least while they are still practising.  Rarer still for politicians to pay tribute to those who work for them while it still matters (as Gauke did last week), let alone to the many public servants, from the most junior to the most senior, in the many different public sector entities providing services to us.

It is these individuals who try to make government work, who enact the policies proclaimed with great fanfare, who do all the (often) unloved, unseen but essential behind-the-scenes work which ensures that politicians can strut on the public stage for the plaudits they feel they deserve. In an age which seems to value charisma, image and personality, it is easy to forget that government is above all a collective endeavour.  Those at the top can achieve nothing without the hard work of the unsung.  It’s a lesson many at the top of companies would do well to learn too.

It is for this reason that those in positions of leadership – or aspiring to them – know (or ought to) that the one thing they need from those they lead is their trust and that to earn that they need to take responsibility.  That is what being a leader, whether it is of a team of 6 or a company employing hundreds or a government, means: “The buck stops here.”  

It is something which politicians of a certain vintage seemed to understand instinctively.  One striking example was Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary 1979-1982, subsequently Nato Secretary-General and the last politician to have served in Churchill’s post-war Cabinet.

Much of the commentary on him when he died focused on his resignation following the Falklands invasion.  Though absolved of personal blame by the Franks Report, he explained his decision to resign thus: “It did not seem to me a time for self-justification and certainly not to cling to office.  I think the country is more important than oneself.”  In his autobiography he wrote: “The nation feels that there has been a disgrace. Someone must have been to blame. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge. That was me.”  

Those 7 sentences admirably summarise what it means to be in charge and to take responsibility when something goes wrong on your watch.

It was not the first time Carrington had offered his resignation.  As a very junior minister at the time of the Crichel Down affair in 1954 (a landmark case on the rights of individuals vs the interests of the state and the standards to be expected of Ministers) he had offered to resign but had been refused.  It was the senior Minister in charge who resigned following findings of severe maladministration in his department, the first such Ministerial resignation since 1917.  The civil servants got it wrong; but it was the politicians who took responsibility.

Most surprisingly of all, despite being awarded the Military Cross in 1945, Carrington never mentioned it in his autobiography, stating that he only got it because of the good men he had under him and that it was “all such a rough raffle. Pot luck – nothing to do with me.”  Well, hardly.

Still, that is what marks out leaders: recognising that being senior means taking responsibility even when you are not to blame and having the humility to know that your own achievements rest on the hard work of others (and a fair amount of luck) at least as much as on your own efforts.

And how might trust be earned?  Well, by being trustworthy, by being a person of moral courage, by having a character which inspires confidence, by those working for you, whether directly or indirectly, knowing in their bones that you will have your team’s back.  As General Sir Patrick Howard-Dobson puts it in the Leadership Guide for Sandhurst cadets:

 “Some day you may have to lead men into battle and ask them to do their duty, and you will do it through Love.  You must always put them first……… If you do this you’ll find that you never have to worry about yourself, because as you look after them, so they will look after you.  As they come to know that you love and care for them, so they will love you, and through love for you and for one another they will be the best soldiers the world has seen.”    Easier to describe than do, of course.

Still, it is striking how often in recent years the default reaction of people in positions of responsibility, particularly in politics, is to find someone else to blame. Public servants are expendable or there to be attacked if some greater cause requires it: winning battles with journalists (Dr David Kelly), attacking an unloved agreement (Oliver Robbins), not wishing to hear hard truths (Ivan Rogers), judges ruling that Parliament must be involved before Article 50 is triggered (pushing Brexit through).    This has become more marked as politicians have found it harder to reach decisions on difficult and divisive issues.  As Gauke put it: “Those grappling with complex problems are not viewed as public servants but as engaged in a conspiracy to seek to frustrate the will of the public. They are ‘enemies of the people’.”  

Rather than accept that it is for politicians to find a way through, however hard that may be, the finger is pointed at others, often those who cannot answer back or who have a greater sense of public duty.  Words such as “traitors” and “enemies” and “true believers” are used and poison the national conversation.  So it is not so very surprising that someone might think that the destruction of the career of an experienced, hard-working and distinguished Ambassador is acceptable collateral damage in the greater cause of whatever the leaker and those behind him or her wanted to achieve.  Nor is it very surprising to find politicians mealy-mouthed about supporting those who are doing their job.  

Johnson’s equivocation about Sir Kim Darroch was as contemptible as – and followed in the same dishonourable tradition of – Liz Truss’s failure, despite being Lord Chancellor and having a legal duty to do so, to defend the Court of Appeal  (until far too late and far too feebly) when judges were attacked for making a ruling on Article 50 which some politicians and commentators found inconvenient.  Boris allowed or wanted people to believe that, to him, his friendship with Trump was more important than defending British public servants

What lessons might be learnt?

First, if Boris becomes PM, those who work for him know that they cannot expect him to have their backs if it does not suit him, that he is a politician who does what he wants, not what he ought.  He will have to work hard to earn their trust and loyalty and starts with a considerable deficit.  It may not be just fractious MPs he needs to worry about most but civil servants who know how he has treated one of their own.

Second, there are those who seem to think that the politicisation of certain parts of the civil service is necessary, that rather than have civil servants serving the government, whatever its political flavour, certain roles should be filled by those who explicitly support the government’s political aims, not as professionals doing their jobs but as political partisans.  This necessarily downgrades the importance of independent advice and speaking truth to power.  Those who push this agenda seem not to care whether this will serve the country well.

Third, one policy (Brexit, enacted in one particular way) is seen as so important that virtually anything is acceptable to achieve it, including proroguing Parliament.  That this might undermine the very institutions and conventions which any democratic and stable society requires to function, especially if in the hands of political opponents, seems irrelevant.  No-one seems to ask themselves the question: “Would I want my opponent to have this power?  If no, I should not have it either.”

And finally the EU knows that, for all Boris’s talk about wanting the EU to see the whites of his eyes on a No Deal exit, he is a politician who caves in to bullies.    In seeking to enhance his personal relationship with a US President, Boris has made Britain, if led by him, appear weak.  Other countries too will have noted this, China and the US above all.  Rather than ape Churchill, Boris would do better to reflect on Carrington’s words: “the country is more important than oneself.”