Week in Review: Nothing these people say makes the least bit of sense

On a quite fundamental level, the core propositions of the political parties have ceased to make any sense. The Tories are campaigning on the basis that they'll get Brexit done, which they will not. Labour are campaigning on the basis of being a social justice party, which they are not. And the Lib Dem are campaigning on the basis of stopping Jeremy Corbyn coming to power, which they cannot.

Boris Johnson is perhaps the first prime minister to campaign on the basis of a plan which directly refutes his message. His slogan is Get Brexit Done. It's clearly been weaponised and deployed like a gatling gun. But his deal quite emphatically does not get Brexit done. Quite the opposite, it sets up the basis of continued tribal warfare in parliament and the country.

The deal he did with the EU provides a transition until December 2020, with a July 2020 deadline for agreeing an extension to it. That's a nightmare of course, because it separates out the reality of the no-deal cliff-edge from the latest point at which the British government needs to make a decision on it. This morning, Johnson offered an "absolutely guarantee" he wouldn't extend transition.

That's probably nonsense. In all likelihood, he'll refuse to do it in July, when it'll be easy, and will then somehow have to desperately find a way to extend in December, when it isn't.

There's little to no chance of this thing being done in the 12 month period laid out. First, the British government needs to find out what it wants. What's the priority - a deal with the EU or one with the US?

They not mutually exclusive exactly, but you do need to make key decisions in one direction or the other on issues like level-playing field provisions, geographical indications, standards and, most importantly, agricultural rules. Once the government makes that decision, it needs to make sure it can get parliament behind it and not suffer the pincer movement Theresa May went through - ERG loonies on the right and opposition parties on the left ganging up to kill it.

Then you'd need to negotiate it. The closer you stay, the less there is to negotiate, but the more Johnson would risk among the ERG. The further away, with decent market access, the more there will be to work out. Then parliament will need to pass it and so, in all likelihood, will all the other parliaments in the EU, including some regional parliaments. And then it'll need to be implemented, which is likely to involve all sorts of systems and infrastructure. 

So basically, it isn't going to happen, not for years. Brexit won't be done. We'll be in the same hellscape of tribalism - of culture war in a technocratic straitjacket - that we've been in for the last three years. With a new set of artificial timetable cycles and all the repeated national humiliation that entails.

Labour's commitment, on the other hand, is to social justice. It has pledged to put that notion at the "heart of everything a Labour government will do". But this must be a new definition of social justice given that it appears to show no interest in or aversion to anti-semitism.

There's a reason this issue refuses to go away. The party is incapable of dealing with it. And the reason it is incapable of dealing with it is that there really seems to be something ugly and broken within its leadership structure.

Yesterday, a diverse group of public figures wrote a letter saying they refused to vote Labour because of its association with anti-semitism. The signatories included the author John Le Carree, the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, the historians Antony Beevor, Tom Holland and Dan Snow, and Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of the anti-Islamophobia group Tell Mama.

"The coming election is momentous for every voter, but for British Jews it contains a particular anguish: the prospect of a prime minister steeped in association with anti-semitism," it read.

The content is damning. But actually it was the response to it which was most troubling. A Labour spokesperson said: "It's extraordinary that several of those who have signed this letter have themselves been accused of antisemitism, Islamophobia and misogyny. It's less surprising that a number are Conservatives and Lib Dems."

And that's it. That's the problem right there. No introspection. No sense of even the slightest flicker of self-awareness, or concern, or moral judgement. No basic decency. Just deep-seated tribalism, the kind of mentality that presumes that all criticism is, by definition, the product of a conspiracy among political enemies.

It's the sneering that gets you in the end. The fact that that is the instinctive response. It reveals something profoundly ugly, on a psychological level, in Corbyn's leadership team. It is, in a way, a true reply to that letter, because it reveals precisely the mentality which created the circumstances in which it was necessary.

For that reason, it's not hard to justify Jo Swinson's aversion to Corbyn. Throughout this campaign, she has spent at least as much time attacking Labour as she has the Tories.

Quite probably, she really does believe him to be beyond the pale. But there is also a strategic element. Swinson's route to electoral gains lies in picking up Tory-Lib Dem marginals. There's not much Labour vote to squeeze. She needs Tory Remainers, who are appalled by Brexit and Corbyn, but might take fright and head back to the Conservatives if a Labour government seems a real possibility.

But where does this commitment ultimately leave her? If Johnson wins a majority, fine - although that means the Brexit she has dedicated herself to fighting will happen. If it's a minority Labour government - the chances of a majority one remain highly unlikely - things get more complicated.

Swinson has ruled out any cooperation with Labour after the election. In her ideal scenario, Labour would be large enough to form a minority government which could govern with just SNP support. But if that's not enough, if they need more numbers, the spotlight will be on her.

Whichever way you shake it, no matter how distant they make it, the Liberal Democrats will agree to support certain Labour bills. And on that basis Corbyn will be able to make the case that he can form a government. 

Swinson will claim that all she's doing is supporting bills the party happens to back. But the reality would be different. In truth, she would be facilitating a Corbyn government. And voters who listened to her repeated assurances she would do no such thing will not be impressed.

It would, as it happens, be the right thing for the Lib Dems to do in those circumstances. It would secure a second referendum for starters. And failing to do so - getting embroiled in a shoddy battle instead of showing responsibility - would surely just result in another election and a Tory majority. But Swinson will have a hard time explaining herself, because the things she is saying now will be directly contradicted by the things she would have to do then.

But then that's par for the course in this election. There are always lies and misrepresentations in politics. But we do now seem to be perfecting the form.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: The moral horror of the Labour anti-semitism issue

You have to stare impossible moral problems in the face. It's tempting to ignore them, to pretend they aren't there. But you mustn't - you've got to take the full weight of them.

When the election campaign started, the long-running issue of anti-semitism in Labour took a backseat. The focus was on Brexit and which party would be able to stitch together a majority. It prompted awkward conversations between those who treat Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn with roughly comparable levels of disdain. Many Remainers are still struggling to formulate a coherent moral position.

There's a good reason for that. It is a painful, difficult issue. It isn't solvable. There is no right answer to it.

The argument against voting Labour under any circumstances was put forcefully by the Jewish Chronicle yesterday, in a front page editorial aimed at non-Jews. "If this man is chosen as our next prime minister, the message will be stark: that our dismay that he could ever be elevated to a prominent role in British politics, and our fears of where that will lead, are irrelevant," it read. "We will have to conclude that those fears and dismay count for nothing."

Voting for Labour, under this argument, devalues concerns about anti-semitism in various ways. It ignores the concerns the Jewish community has raised about Corbyn. It threatens to create a situation in which Jewish people feel unwelcome or even unsafe. And it demotes the fight against anti-semitism from a fundamental moral principle to one of several factors which must be taken into account.

The other side of the argument is two-fold. It is partly about how you treat a corrupted organisation and partly about the consequences of treating the election solely in terms of the anti-semitism issue.

The organisational issue is tough. Labour clearly has a problem. But it has not completely eradicated its better nature. There are many proudly anti-racist figures in the Labour party - at the grassroots, parliamentary and front-bench levels. They are fighting the good fight. The Labour party has existed as a vital force in British politics for 119 years. It cannot just be given up after a few years of Corbyn leadership. As Neil Kinnock told Labour MPs in 2016: "Dammit, this is our party. I've been in it for 60 years, I'm not leaving it to anybody."

It is false and simplistic to suggest that every vote for Labour is a vote for anti-semitism. It can be a vote for the people within the party trying to change it and prevent this poison from spreading further. It is therefore up to voters to look at their local Labour candidate, examine their record, and decide whether they can support them.

The argument on consequences is also powerful. We are talking about the official opposition. To give up on voting for Labour at all carries heavy political and constitutional implications.

On Brexit, it means that we give up on any opposition to Johnson's hardline plan, which will dictate the status and wellbeing of this country for a generation to come. There is no route to stopping it outside of Labour. The Liberal Democrats are not going to win a majority. Unless there is a Labour government - ideally in a minority position relying on the support of the Lib Dems, SNP and others - this thing cannot be altered. It hands Johnson a carte blanche to do whatever he wants. It is a complete surrender.

But in reality the implication is deeper even than that. If the opposition party is so corrupted that it cannot be supported, the constitutional function of British democracy collapses. There is, quite literally, no opposition to the government. None is possible. And that goes much further than Brexit. It touches every issue and the entire basis upon which our political system operates.

And yet these concerns themselves have a consequence. Let's say you only vote for your Labour MP if you feel they will fight the good fight within Labour. That MP - decent or not - is another step towards Corbyn entering No.10. You cannot divorce a more nuanced view of Labour from the implications which follow from it. You are part of that.

There is no right answer to this. My personal judgement is for the second argument - that Labour can be fixed, that those within the party fighting to fix it must be supported, that the consequences of allowing the main opposition party to die are too serious to be imagined. But the other position is not just valid - it is convincing. And more than that: It is devastating. It makes any option open to us right now a ghastly one.

We should not be in this position. But we are. And now each person must make their moral choice. No-one should be judged on the basis of it, whichever side they land.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: Tributes to the departed

It'll all kick off next week. Six weeks of hellish, frenzied, lowest-common denominator campaigning, leading up to December 12th. But before that starts, there's a brief moment to acknowledge the people moving on.

An exodus of MPs is leaving parliament before the election. Some of them had had enough of the abuse, threats and hatred. Some of them are moderates who've been left behind by the drift towards the extremes. Some have just come to the natural end of their careers.

Some did remarkable things, which defined what happened with Brexit. Others failed to live up to the moment. But either way, it's like a list of the more impressive characters in parliament: Guto Bebb, Justine Greening, Nicholas Soames, David Lidington, Amber Rudd, Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, Owen Smith.

Some in particular stand out even in that crowd. Chief among them was the Speaker, John Bercow. The history books will be generous to him. He understood the two central facets of the British constitution: flexibility and moral centre. It's not formally codified in a single document, which allows it to bend and mould itself to circumstance. But it is rooted down in a central premise, which is that parliament is sovereign. This is what guides the flexibility.

Brexit led to an unparalleled attack on parliament. The executive, under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, saw an opportunity to sidestep parliament and the courts and ground its legitimacy on the referendum mandate instead. It needed a strong, independent Speaker, who understood that he should respect convention but not be trapped by it, to counter that assault. We should thank our lucky stars that we had one. If we did not, the damage to the British constitutional structure would have been much more severe than it was.

Ken Clarke is standing down after 49 years as an MP, 18 of which were spent as a minister. There was much to disagree with in his politics. But he represented a kind of Toryism which is now becoming extinct. It is not just that he believed in the European project and Britain's role in it. That was a minority Tory view since Maastricht, at least. It's that he insisted on thinking for himself and would go on to hold that position regardless of what it meant for his career.

When someone behaves that way, you can see it in their whole manner, the way they hold themselves, the gravitas of their speech, their presence. He was the last big beast of British politics, a personality so far in excess of the people around him that he seemed to form his own centre of political gravity. In recent years, he seemed like some left-over bit of history still somehow agitating on the backbenches.

It's telling that Rory Stewart is leaving with him. He is the kind of man who you could imagine inhabiting something like Clarke's status if he'd had a career that long. He was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes on strategy and sometimes on principle. But there was that same sense to him - of thinking for himself, of representing a form of Toryism that was more thoughtful, more moderate, and less tribal. Certainly these qualities will not be welcome in the Tory party anymore. And the fact he has chosen to run for London mayor, where he is least useful, suggests they might not be felt anywhere.

Over at the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable is also leaving. He's made his mistakes, some of them very severe. His decision to raise tuition fees in government after the party campaigned to abolish them in opposition wasn't just a disaster for the party. It was a disaster for public trust in politicians and their views on the desirability of coalitions.

But there was that same sense in Cable as there was for the others on this list - of being able to think pragmatically instead of ideologically, practically instead of tribally. He was pro-business, on the free-market wing of liberalism. He harnessed that understanding to bring a cogent understanding of the economy. He was one of the few MPs who understood what had happened during the financial crash.

And yet each conference season of the coalition, he went out on stage and outlined the need for regulation and the duty of government to restrain the private sector. These ideas are near a consensus now. But he was stating them when they were anything but.

When he became Lib Dem leader, after Tim Farron stepped down, he quietly repaired the party and got it back into the shape it is in now, where most expect it to make serious gains at the general election. He undid the damage which he was himself partly responsible for. There was a diligence to him of which we see very little in politics at the moment.

And then there is Heidi Allen. She started as a Tory, went to Change UK, then joined the Liberal Democrats. She was exactly the sort of person you'd like to see as an MP: Human, humane, thoughtful, funny, public-minded and sensible. The fact she could not bear to stay an MP tells us something profoundly damning and intolerable about our politics. Others of her quality and character will look at that decision and conclude similarly that politics is not for them.

We should have been writing about Allen's departure in the same terms as Clarke, 30 years from now. Instead we are writing about it today, before she had a chance to achieve any of it. And that alone is the most depressing thing about this list.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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