Saturday 30 March 2024

Representing who to whom?


According to some Tories, the best way of preventing Nigel Farage from getting elected to a seat in parliament for a five year term is to give him a seat in parliament for life, by sending him to the institution for sufferers of Post Imperial Stress Disorder. The logic is curious, but then logic has long ceased to be their strong point. Others think Farage should be made the official representative of the UK in Washington. And some of the most desperate actually want to do both.

It’s true, of course, that if Trump were to be re-elected in November, he would be quite keen on the idea of having Farage as the UK ambassador. Doubtless, Farage would be well-placed to suck up to him on behalf of the UK to form a close working relationship with him, but supporters of the plan seem to be rather overlooking the fact that the main job of the ambassador is to represent the UK in Washington, not the USA in London. Assuming that Labour win the UK general election sometime between now and November, it seems highly unlikely that Farage could successfully represent the views of a Labour government, even under a not-so-lite Tory like Starmer. And even less likely that he’d try. Further, since the objective is to deter Farage from standing in the UK election, he’d have to be appointed very soon. That in turn means that, in the meantime, he’d be dealing with the Biden administration. It really is hard to conceive of a better way to p*ss off Biden, and damage UK-US relations, than to appoint a cheerleader for his opponent, an ambassador whose idea of tact and diplomacy invariably involves the use of the biggest megaphone he can lay his hands on.

On the other hand, Sunak seems to have given up trying to avoid upsetting anyone other than the extremists in his own party. Appointing Farage is a suggestion that the Tory high command have apparently rejected, but that’s only what they’re saying this week. Given the extent to which consistency has become an unfamiliar and unwanted virtue in the Tory Party, who  knows what they’ll say next week if Reform’s poll ratings continue to climb? Given the increasing likelihood of some sort of reverse takeover of the Tories by Reform after the election, keeping on the right side of the probable next, or next-but-one, leader might even appeal to the PM, at least until he can escape the nightmare and take up a new and better-paid job in sunny California.

Offering someone a direct bribe not to stand in an election is, of course, illegal under electoral law, but mere legality is, like consistency, another discarded value for what used to be known as the party of Laura Norder. It’s not an insurmountable barrier anyway. All they need to do is to present membership of the Lords as a punishment rather than a reward – and that’s not exactly an unrealistic assessment. Ennobling Farage might even help to prod Labour into reversing its previous U-turn on abolition of the Lords: Farage might yet turn out to have some useful function after all. The thing that still makes it all highly unlikely, however, is that it would require Sunak to make a decision rather than prevaricate. So probably not going to happen unless the desperate supporters of this mad proposal depose him in May.

Friday 29 March 2024

That Venezuelan trip


A couple of weeks ago, it emerged that Boris Johnson had undertaken what was described as a ‘private’ trip to see the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. The extent to which this was genuinely an ‘unofficial’ trip seemed to me at the time to be doubtful, given the reports that the Foreign Office had ‘supported and briefed’ the disgraced former PM before the visit, even if it was really true that the Foreign Secretary knew nothing about it until Johnson was already en route to Caracas. It still seems unlikely to me that he would have been briefed and supported without the knowledge of Cameron, and it does seem as if the Foreign Office are less than forthcoming over what advice and support they did or did not give.

Doubts about the idea that Johnson would have paid for the trip himself were entirely well-founded, since it turns out that it was being paid for by the boss of a hedge fund. Classic Boris Johnson. Better yet, it turns out that he was actually being paid by the hedge fund to undertake the trip. Again, classic Boris Johnson. And that it was part of a job which he’s taken on without going through the normal vetting process for former ministers. Classic Boris Johnson squared.

It's easy to understand why the president of Venezuela, the hedgie, and Johnson would like to normalise relations between Venezuela and the West – in the first case because poor relationships are damaging to his country, in the second because poor relationships reduce the opportunities to make money, and in the third because he was being paid to attend the meeting, and he can’t resist the pull of being thought important. It remains a lot less clear why any of those involved thought that a meeting with a disgraced former PM, with no influence over anything, would help to achieve any of those aims except those of Johnson himself. If nobody had given Maduro the impression that Johnson still had some influence, why on earth would he have agreed to meet him?

The Labour Party seem to be concentrating their fire on Johnson’s apparent breach of the rules, but that’s just Johnson being Johnson. He’s never believed that any rules apply to him, so of course he breaks them. And given that he has form on precisely this particular rule, it’s reasonable to conclude that the breach was entirely conscious and deliberate. So what? Another breach of the rules is just business as usual for the man. The bigger question is about what the Foreign Office were up to. Did they really brief and support Johnson for the visit, and do so without informing the Foreign Secretary? Did they really believe that Johnson was a suitable person to carry out a potentially delicate diplomatic task? And put their resources to work in support of a hedge fund’s profit aspirations? Did they really lead Maduro to believe that Johnson was acting in at least a semi-official capacity in order to facilitate the meeting? It seems unlikely that the meeting would have taken place otherwise. Helping to organise and prepare for a meeting whose main aim is to further the accumulation of private profit for a hedge fund that happens to employ an ex-PM seems to me a much bigger scandal than Johnson merely breaking a few rules. Again.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Finding PISD sufferers an appropriate home


Parliament suffered an outburst of outrage yesterday as the dinosaurs who still don’t recognize that the UK no longer rules the waves fulminated against the audacity of the Chinese for daring to engage in illicit hacking activities. They’ve even dared to hack their way into the publicly available electoral registers. In the olden days, the response would have been to send a gunboat or two up the Yangtze river to teach the natives a lesson, but an aircraft carrier which struggles to get out of port without breaking down somehow doesn’t really cut it. Post Imperial Stress Disorder is, apparently, a thing. And it seems to be quite widespread, even amongst those who never knew Empire. It’s easy to understand how PISD sufferers might feel frustrated when the serious and dramatic UK response is a few meaningless sanctions against two named individuals and a small and obscure company.

The demands to be told exactly what the Chinese have been up to are reasonable, up to a point – but it raises a question about reciprocity. Does anyone seriously believe, for instance, that the UK’s security services are not hacking their way into Chinese computer systems with malicious intent? (If they’re not, that is probably an even bigger scandal.) Should the demand for openness and honesty be applied to the UK’s nefarious cyber activities as well? It’s a silly question, of course. We all know that the UK is special and unique, and therefore entitled to use whatever means are appropriate to protect its interests, including breaking international law whenever the fancy takes it. And not just in a ‘specific and limited way’ either.

The demand that others be held to a higher standard than ‘us’ is one of the main visible symptoms of PISD, but the disorder itself is incurable, sadly. The best we can do is try to isolate sufferers from the rest of society, and let them see out their days in comparative solitude. Somewhere they can rant to their hearts’ content and influence very little. That may, in fact, be the best justification anyone has ever come up with for the existence of the House of Lords. Seen as part of the selection process for membership of that institution, yesterday’s performance in parliament might even start to make sense.

Monday 25 March 2024

When 'winning' isn't the best outcome


The ideal issue for a campaign by opposition politicians is one which affects lots of people, lasts a long time, provides plenty of good photo opportunities, and has little chance of success. One of the worst possible outcomes is when a campaign actually succeeds, especially if it’s just months before an election: suddenly, they have to step up to the mark and say what they will actually do. And that is precisely where Starmer and the Labour Party now seem to find themselves in relation to the issue of women’s pensions.

For almost a decade, for the entirety of which the Tories have been in government at UK level, the WASPI women have fought a strong and determined campaign to get a just settlement for the incompetent way in which the government announced and implemented the changes to the pension age for women. Conveniently ignoring the role of the last Labour government itself in the process of changing the pension age, a whole host of Labour politicians, including Starmer himself, have made statement after statement supporting the campaign, and demanding those vague and indefinable things called justice, a fair deal, and restitution. Last week, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman issued a formal finding that there had been maladministration and recommended that compensation should be paid. They haven’t recommended as much compensation as was being asked for, but it is, nevertheless, a significant victory. From the point of view of the WASPI campaigners at least.

From the point of view of Starmer and the Labour Party it looks to have been something of a disaster. After all their fine words, the time has come to deliver, and it looks as though it will be a Labour government which has to do the delivering. To call their reaction feeble would be an understatement. That thing for which they have been calling for almost a decade now has the force of an official ombudsman’s report and they are about to find themselves in a position where they can actually do something instead of demanding that someone else does it. And they’ve completely bottled it.

It’s an outcome which seems to have taken them completely by surprise. They seem to have given no thought at all to how they would respond to a recommendation for compensation, nor how they would fund any such compensation, despite having demanded it time and time again. Instead of a response welcoming the report and promising to act, they’ve come up with mealy-mouthed variations on the government’s own mealy-mouthed response, talking about the need to consider it carefully before coming to a conclusion. The Tories’ response has been no better. It’s not that anyone would have expected that it would be, although it’s at least a little surprising that they haven’t immediately leapt onto an opportunity to please what is for them a key voter demographic. We seem to have reached a point where neither wants to move first for fear that the other will accuse them of another ‘unfunded’ spending commitment. In other words, both of them regard their arbitrary and silly fiscal rules, and the opportunity to accuse the other of breaking them, as being more important than the millions of women who have lost out as a result of government incompetence.

It certainly sends us a clear message – but that message is about whether they are really committed to justice and fair play, or are just playing silly games about money. ‘Winning’ the campaign turns out not to be what they wanted at all.

Saturday 23 March 2024

Is this what we deserve?


The Labour and Conservative parties have each had their own little financial scandals in recent weeks. The Tories have taken £10 million (or perhaps £15 million) from a man who makes casual racist remarks which he apparently thinks are merely ‘rude’, whilst Labour’s new leader in Wales took £200,000 from a man twice convicted of environmental offences. At first sight, there seems to be no comparison – it doesn’t require more than a very rudimentary command of basic maths to understand that £15 million is bigger – a lot bigger – than £200,000.

But that comparison is over-simplistic – we also need to think about the differing electorates involved here. Hester’s millions were intended to help Sunak appeal to the entire UK electorate. At 46.6 million, that equates to about 32p per target voter. The donations to Gething, however, were intended to help him win an internal Labour Party election. Whilst the party seems to have avoided publishing detailed numbers, some estimates put the total eligible to vote at around 100,000, meaning that the donation was worth about £2 per target voter. The egregi-ometer no longer points so unswervingly in the direction of Sunak and the Tories.

One could attempt to argue that there is some sort of moral difference between a man with previous convictions and one who is merely under police investigation, or even that casual and unthinking racism is in some way less serious than environmental crime; but they’re not arguments that I’d like to try making in their position (although that doesn’t mean that they won’t try). I’m more interested in the similarity of their responses. Both men have effectively said something along the lines of “I’ve followed all the rules on donations”. It’s not a statement that I’m in a position to dispute. It does, though, raise two big questions. The first is whether rules which allow this sort of behaviour when it comes to political financing are fit for purpose – and many will probably conclude that they are not. The even bigger question is whether we are prepared to accept that the only responsibility we place on politicians is to follow the letter of the law at all times. Should we really never expect them ever to take a step back and think about morality, and whether what they are doing complies with some sort of sense of right and wrong?

They are both acting and talking as though the fuss will soon blow over and this particular scandal will be laid to rest alongside all the others. The worst part of it is the horrible feeling that they might be right. Along with Thomas Jefferson.

Friday 22 March 2024

Wielding the hammer. Again.


For those who have been battered by the rise in the cost of living recently, the report that inflation is slowing down is good news of a sort. It’s usually better to get poorer slowly rather than quickly, even if that isn’t quite the way in which the government has presented it. Given the unshakeable belief of the Bank of England, and the government, that this fall in inflation is all down to interest rate increases, it means that we should be able to look forward to some interest rate cuts later this year. That will, of course, help the main target group which the government hopes can thus be bribed into supporting it, namely those with mortgages. It won’t necessarily help the poorest of all, but then they tend not to vote Tory anyway.

Economic theory tells us that high interest rates deter people from spending and therefore remove upward pressure on prices, rather ignoring the fact that they also further impoverish those who have little room for discretionary spending in the first place. The problem with the theory is the implicit assumption that inflation is always caused by too much money chasing too few goods and services, but that really wasn’t the cause of the most recent bout of inflation, which had rather more to do with the war in Ukraine and profiteering by energy companies who never let a good crisis go to waste. Still, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and the Bank of England has bashed away with great enthusiasm at that nail. It now seems to seriously believe that inflation with external causes which would have gone away eventually anyway has actually been vanquished by their demented hammer-wielding rather than by the passage of time.

And that brings us to the sting in the tail. Alongside the half-promise of interest rate relief at some unspecified later date came the warning that inflation might not have gone away yet because the hostile acts of the Houthis in Yemen against shipping in the Red Sea may yet cause a further bout of price rises, as goods either become scarcer, or the cost of shipping them increases. In terms of the threat of inflation, it’s a reasonable fear – but it doesn’t follow that the answer is to continue using that hammer. The mechanism by which high interest rates impact inflation caused by hostile acts at sea is, being charitable, less than entirely clear. It’s not as if the Houthi leadership is looking to buy houses in the UK, and will be deterred from launching rockets by continued high mortgage costs. High interest rates aren’t going to affect the scarcity of goods or the price of shipping them either, merely help to ration them on price. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who loses most from rationing by price.

Thursday 21 March 2024

Devolution is fine as long as Wales always copies England?


This week, we were the ‘lucky’ recipients of a 12 page newsletter from the soon-to-be-former Government Chief Whip, Simon Hart. Amongst other things, he tells us that he campaigns against the Labour-Plaid Welsh Government “who are adamant in their desire to downgrade and shut down the hospital”, without specifying to which hospital he is referring, although the leaflet is more explicit when it comes to his plan for Carmarthen, which claims that the Welsh Government “wants to close Glangwili Hospital”. It’s a sort-of-truth, although a more balanced account would point out that the intention is to replace it with a bigger, better, and brand new facility further west. The merits or otherwise of that proposal are fair game for political debate, of course, but presenting it simply as a ‘closure’ isn’t entirely honest.

We are also told that the 20mph default speed limit (or ‘blanket’ limit to use the inaccurate term so favoured by the Tories, including in this leaflet) isn’t working and that “half a million people have said so” by signing a petition. The pedant in me says that the petition may indeed demonstrate that the policy isn’t exactly the most popular ever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t working. Policies can be both unpopular and effective. Unless, of course, the only determinant of the ‘success’ of any policy is its popularity – but only a confirmed cynic would accuse a Tory politician of believing that.

More generally, both of those items reflect the fact that the most striking thing about this leaflet for a Westminster election is the extent to which it concentrates on devolved issues over which the MP (whoever he or she might be) will have little or no influence. I suppose, given the record of the UK Government, fighting the election on the record of a different government of which he has not been part makes a certain amount of sense. The attempt to portray the current government’s record on the economy as a success simply underlines the extent to which such a campaign would have to depend on ‘alternative facts’.

In the same vein, we come to the section on ‘free’ childcare, where he bemoans the fact that Wales is not precisely aping the English scheme, but is instead introducing an income threshold. The first problematic aspect of this is the claim that it will be ‘free’ in England whilst it is means-tested in Wales. In fact, the English government is underfunding the scheme to such an extent that nurseries are going to be charging parents top-up fees, because they are not going to be paid enough to cover their basic costs of staffing and premises (even if we assume that there will be enough places available, which is far from being certain). They’re not allowed to call them top-up fees of course, so they will be billed as things such as “consumables” (and, whilst it’s not wholly unreasonable to charge for things like food, there will be, we can be sure, an element of creativity to maximise the opportunity to make up for the government funding discrepancy; and for the poorest of working parents, it does less than it could to help people back into work). Most parents are likely to understand that a charge of around £2 per hour might mean that the childcare is cheaper, but it won’t fit most people’s definition of ‘free’. Claiming to have delivered the equivalent amount of cash to enable Wales to underfund childcare to the same extent might be ‘true’, but it doesn’t overcome the basic problem of underfunding.

But the hypocrisy in this is that the party which has previously argued that prescriptions should be means-tested so that hypothetical Welsh millionaires can’t get hypothetical free paracetamol is now arguing that those same hypothetical Welsh millionaires should be able to get hypothetical free childcare. I’d like to think that it was a Damascene conversion to the concept of universality in the delivery of public services, but I suspect that this – like much of the other criticism of what the Welsh Government does – is much, much simpler than that. They simply believe that the Welsh government should always use its powers in ways that deliver the same policies as England. Still, the good news is that the soon-to-be-former Chief Whip won’t have to worry about any of this for much longer.

Friday 15 March 2024

The exercise of forgiveness


As Michael Gove demonstrated yesterday, defining ‘extremism’ isn’t as easy as some might think. He, presumably, thinks he’s got it right, although the range of views and arguments deployed against him suggests otherwise. But there was also another aspect to what he said yesterday when challenged about extremism coming from the direction of his own party’s supporters. Sir Paul Marshall, the man behind the increasingly misnamed GB ‘News’ which gives a platform to the swivel-eyed entryist tendency in the Tory Party, has something of a record when it comes to making or supporting extreme statements about Islam, LBGQT+ issues and migration. Gove attempted to defend him by referring to his record of ‘educational philanthropy’. The underlying issue here is whether, and to what extent, ‘doing good’ in one field is enough to get a free pass to support and promote hate speech in another.

It's not the only recent example. The Leader of the House of Commons defended the Science Secretary over her rash and unwise decision to accuse an academic of Islamism, which led to a law suit for libel, by referring to an entirely unrelated matter as an indicator of her ‘character’, as though that could somehow excuse using public funds to ruin someone’s reputation and pay the associated legal costs. And then, of course, we had Gove himself calling for ‘Christian forgiveness’ for a man who donated £10 million (plus a currently unconfirmed extra £5 million) because he’d apologised. (The idea that ‘forgiveness’ is a ‘Christian’ trait and therefore implicitly not shared with those of a different persuasion is a pretty telling remark and might even be regarded an ‘extremist belief’ in itself.) They haven’t (not yet at least) gone as far as Trump who told his chief of staff that “Hitler did a lot of good things”, although he apparently didn’t spell out what they were. (Things like locking up or even executing political opponents, invading neighbouring countries which didn’t spend enough on defence, and taking what some might see as a ‘hard line’ on people that he didn’t really think were German would all fit the Trump playbook, but all that’s off the point here.)

Maybe it’s true that there are very few people who never did a good thing in their lives, and that we should consider the whole rather than just a part, but the question is one of balance. Which people should be shown forgiveness (whether Christian or not), and which should not? And for which sins? The very cynical might think that the de facto deciding factor is just how much help someone has given to the government or governing party in terms of cash donations or merely a platform to spout their ideas. The more common or garden cynic might see it as more generalised – those who promote the governing party’s ideas are allowed to get away with more than those who don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of observing to note that apologies by Tories seem to be assumed to carry more weight than apologies by members of other parties. Genuine atonement and contrition are – or should be – about more than a mumbled half-apology and a donation to Tory coffers. But there – I’m just showing the extent to which I’ve fallen for the extremist idea that people should, as a general rule, avoid hate speech in the first place rather than atone for it after the event.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Living dangerously


It was, apparently, Emo Philips, an American actor and comedian, who came up with the joke that, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.” But it is the English Conservative and Unionist Party which has decided to adopt a variation on this approach when it comes to dealing with racism and misogyny. Instead of trying to eliminate racist language by Tories, their response to the outrageous (and, to date, undenied) remarks attributed to their biggest donor has amounted to saying that a rich Tory donor can say whatever he likes as long as he apologises afterwards. And pays the party enough money. It all seems a bit reminiscent of medieval popes selling indulgences.

The linguistic acrobatics being performed by those who want to keep hold of the tainted £10 million are a wonder to behold. The miscreant himself claims that there was no racist or sexist intent in the words used as though the words ‘black’ and ‘women’ were meaningless and added nothing to what he said. Then there’s the claim that he can’t be racist because he does business in Jamaica. On that simplistic basis, neither were the slave owners; they were simply businessmen trying to turn a penny or two. The suggestion by number 10 that his words were wrong, but he’s given an apology for ‘being rude’ and we should all just move on sit oddly against a background where the government is determined to ‘crack down’ on anyone who breaks the Conservative consensus about what it is to be British. It invites us to consider that being racist is an entirely acceptable part of their definition of British values as long as an insincere apology is issued later by anyone whose words somehow leak into the public domain.

The reluctance to part with £10 million, especially after it’s already been spent, is, I suppose, understandable for a party obsessed with the financial value of everything, but principled it is not. Faced with the obvious car crash which was coming his way the moment the words leaked out, Sunak had two political options open to him. The first was immediate condemnation, accompanied by the return of the cash. Decisive, even if untypical, action would have wrong-footed the opposition, but the story (as a source of political damage to the Tories) would have gone away after a few days. Sunak seems incapable of instant reaction, so his default option was the second. That is to delay reacting as long as possible, and then try to brazen it out in the belief that the news media would move on. Consciously choosing the second option inevitably brings a third option into play, but it’s one that politicians only ever fall into by accident. Starting out by trying to brazen it out and then buckling under pressure is the worst of all in political terms: not only does it look weak, unprincipled, and indecisive, it also concedes that the original decision was wrong and the opponents were right all along. And it looks at least possible that pressure from his own side from people who have a genuine and entirely legitimate fear of being brought down along with him may yet push him that way. Living dangerously may be a lifestyle choice for some, but for Sunak it’s entirely accidental.

Monday 11 March 2024

Officially unofficial


The reports over the weekend that Boris Johnson has been engaging in some ‘unofficial’ diplomacy by meeting the president of Venezuela raise a number of questions. The first, but probably least important, is who paid for the private jet to take him there and back? His spokesperson said that the travel was privately funded and that neither government contributed to the cost. That might be true (although we know from other recent news that the UK government is not averse to funnelling funds through third parties to disguise the source). The one thing of which we can be certain is that Johnson didn’t pay himself. He is a man who has achieved the minor financial miracle of earning ludicrous sums of money for doing very little, getting other people to pay for everything he wants, and still being perpetually broke.

A more significant question is how the meeting came to be arranged. I don’t know whether Johnson and Maduro had ever met before, but they don’t exactly look like the sort of bosom buddies who would pick up the phone and agree to meet for a conversation which ‘sources close to the former PM’ (according to the Sunday Times) described as “one-way traffic”, with Johnson laying down the law to Maduro. So who initiated the meeting between a busy head of state and a disgraced former PM with no role in foreign policy who just happened to be on holiday a mere 1,000km away? Was it Johnson: “Nicolás, old chum. Boris here. I happen to be staying in the Dominican Republic just up the road from you, and I have a private jet at my disposal for the day. Why don’t I nip down to give you a little lecture about democracy and your role in the world?”. And if that sounds unlikely, consider the alternative: “Boris, mi amigo. A little pájaro tells me that you are staying just an hour and a half away from here by plane. Why don’t you blag a private jet from one of your rich friends for the day and nip down to give me a little lecture on democracia?”. I don’t buy either.

And then we’re told that Lord Cameron of Chipping Bollocks didn’t know anything about it until Johnson texted him en route: “Dave, old boy. Boris here. Just flying down to Caracas to give that Maduro chappie an earful about his responsibilities to democracy and the world. Thought that the Foreign Secretary might want to know about it. Toodle-pip!” None of it adds up – it’s far more likely that there was some discussion at a diplomatic level to set up the meeting, implying that both governments are keen for a restoration of some sort of normality in relations. If Maduro really thought that Johnson had absolutely no status with the UK government, why on earth would he ever have agreed to meet him? He can’t have been expecting a friendly fireside chat. In short, this ‘unofficial’ visit looks about as unofficial as a tax demand from HMRC. And if Cameron really didn’t know about it sooner, then someone in his department has been freelancing big time.

But, if it was an official 'unofficial' visit, that brings us to the biggest question of all. Who, in his or her right mind, thought that it would be a good idea to entrust a disgraced former PM, who is also a compulsive liar with a predisposition to saying the first thing that comes into his head, with acting as the conduit for sensitive discussions with a foreign government? The chances of him accurately relaying the UK government’s position to Maduro, and then accurately relaying Maduro’s response to the UK government are not exactly high. He's much more likely to deliver an insult or three in the belief that it’s just banter and good humour. And whether Cameron knew about the visit in advance or not, is it credible that the current PM would not have known that his predecessor but one was being deployed on an ‘unofficial’ diplomatic mission of a certain delicacy? Jobs for failed ex-PMs is becoming a Sunak speciality. Next up? Theresa May as head of an initiative to welcome new citizens? Liz Truss as next head of the Office for Budget Responsibility? If he’s given up on all hope of turning things around, Sunak can at least spend the next few months having a laugh.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Cutting out the middleman


The six week suspension handed to one of Plaid’s Senedd members has provoked a comparison with the position at Westminster – in similar circumstances, a Westminster MP would be facing a recall petition and a probable by-election, but there is no such sanction available in the case of this list MS. It’s a valid question, but the suggestion of instituting a similar provision for the Senedd seems to be based on the English constitutional fiction underpinning the Westminster process, which is that people vote for an individual, not for a party. In the case of list members, the vote is unquestionably for the party. And whilst introducing such a provision for members elected on a closed list is not impossible, it does rather look like twisting the system, when there is actually a very much simpler process available.

The recall process is comparatively novel in the UK’s system, and to date there have only been five instances of a petition being called. The first of those was in Northern Ireland, where none of the UK parties operate, and in a constituency which was not seen then as being particularly competitive – it was widely assumed that the DUP would win anyway. That petition failed to attract the necessary support of 10% of the electorate. In all other cases, the 10% was reached, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why. I doubt that there is a constituency anywhere, no matter how apparently popular the transgressing MP might be, where a determined opposition party or parties could not find 10% of the electorate wanting to get rid of their MP. We can probably, therefore, take it as read that once a petition is called, it is overwhelmingly likely to be successful.

To date, only in one instance has the transgressing member stood in the subsequent by-election (although in another case, the member managed to arrange for his party to select his girlfriend, a situation which led to a remarkable lack of external support for her candidacy). The one who did stand again was defeated in the by-election. Indeed, the idea that an MP who has either been convicted of a criminal offence or else suspended by his or her fellow MPs for a serious breach of parliamentary rules would be presented by his or her party as a suitable person for re-election is a strange one, a form of political madness. Certainly not something likely to be repeated any time soon.

So, regardless of the objective of the recall principles (that the electors should be given the opportunity to call for a by-election and that the individual should have the opportunity to stand again), the electors are always likely to say yes to a by-election, and the party is always likely to disown the previous member and select a new candidate. It is, therefore, in practice if not in principle, a process where a member in breach of the relevant rules ends up being expelled from the parliament and replaced by a new member who may or may not be from the same party. In which case, instead of trying to come up with a complex set of rules for list members to face by-elections, why not simply cut out the middleman, and declare that, on conviction (in the case of criminal acts) or suspension from the parliament for more than a specified period (in the case of a serious breach of the parliament’s rules or standards), the seat becomes vacant and the member is replaced through the normal process which would apply in the case of death or resignation? For a constituency member, that means an automatic by-election, avoiding the cost, time and effort of a petition, and for a list member, it means the appointment of the next eligible member on the relevant party’s list. It’s both simpler and more rapid than the current process, which seems to have been designed (with a remarkable lack of forethought) to maximise the chance of the transgressing member being returned to the club.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Insanity precedes destruction


Imagine the glee in Tory HQ yesterday when the Chancellor sat down. Not only had they produced a budget which depends heavily on entirely fictitious cuts to public spending in future years, they’ve also stolen Labour’s clothes on two tax increases which were designated by Labour to fund a whole load of policies. Given Labour’s ‘cast-iron’ commitment to a stupid and unnecessary fiscal rule, it means that an incoming Labour government will be obliged to identify the cuts which Hunt has declined to identify (in the certain knowledge that it won’t be him making them) and obliged by a compliant Tory media to explain how they will now fund the various things for which the cash has now been given away. I’m sure that the backroom staff will be celebrating the success of their cunning plan to make things as difficult as possible for the next government. How clever they must have thought themselves.

So clever, in fact, that they even issued the press with a helpful briefing list of all the things which Labour will not now be able to do. The thing is, though, that most of the items on that list appear likely to be generally popular. Telling people how clever the Tories have been by sabotaging funding for more NHS appointments, more NHS dentistry (a service which has reached crisis point), school breakfast clubs, home insulation and so on doesn’t immediately strike me as being the cleverest of moves. Preventing Labour from pursuing unpopular policies is one thing; preventing them from pursuing popular ones is quite another. And boasting about it looks like a form of political insanity. Still, as the saying goes, “those whom the gods would destroy…”.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Pétards have their uses


A pétard was, apparently, a small bomb, used mostly for breaching the gates and walls of fortifications. When improperly used, it could result in the user blowing him or herself up, or being ‘hoisted’ into the air. But the word originally derives from the Latin for fart, so being ‘hoist by your own petard’ really means being propelled in an unwanted direction by an expulsion of internal wind. The latter, more literal, definition seems, somehow, more appropriate for the situation in which the Tories have found themselves in the last week. Twice.

The first was the fire being directed by some Tories at the Office for Budget Responsibility at the way in which its interpretation of the numbers is restricting the ability of the Chancellor to ‘adjust’ the numbers in order to deliver a fantasy tax cut in today’s budget. Those with an attention span longer than that of a gnat will remember that establishing the OBR was a cunning plan by George Osborne to fix financial orthodoxy into law by having an ‘independent’ group of experts consider proposed budgetary changes and report on whether they complied with that orthodoxy. It was to act as a deterrent to any Chancellor who thought that he or she could simply fiddle the figures. It was intended, of course, to nobble the Labour Party if it should ever be re-elected – the financial orthodoxy was very definitely a Tory version of orthodoxy. It was never designed to constrain the actions of a Tory Chancellor, yet that is exactly what it is now doing. Truss found a way around this inconvenient obstacle by declaring that her mini-budget was not a budget (Sunak is not the first Tory to attempt to redefine facts) in order to avoid the requirement for an OBR assessment but, as things turned out, the absence of that assessment was an even bigger problem as those in the financial markets asked themselves just what Truss and Kwarteng were trying to hide.

The second is the backlash from the extremists in the Tory Party to the proposals by Sunak to try and outlaw extremism. They have realised something that Sunak obviously did not – that in outlawing extremism he may end up criminalising a fair chunk of his own party. Some might call it a form of poetic justice, others might see it as the law of unintended consequences. Either way, it highlights the extent to which the PM doesn’t understand the implications of his own words and actions – let alone how far his party has fallen through the looking glass. Back in the days of John Major, it might have looked like a deliberate ploy to rid himself of some of the bastards in the cabinet, but from Sunak it just looks like incompetence and an astounding lack of awareness.

So, that loud ripping noise you might hear from time to time is nothing to worry about. It’s simply the explosive release of intestinal gases from a Tory Party busily ‘hoisting’ itself into oblivion. Almost reassuring.

Monday 4 March 2024

Creating new business opportunities?


Entrepreneurialism is something which just about everybody is in favour of, but which is actually quite hard to define. In terms of new enterprises, some of the key elements include identifying a product or service which people want and finding a new way of fulfilling that want such that the product or service can be readily sourced and sold at a profit. And often, looking at the history of some of the most ‘successful’ entrepreneurs, it involves sailing close to the wind in legal terms or even slightly crossing the line. The more successful the business, the more likely it is that a blind eye will be turned, especially if exposing any transgressions might embarrass the relevant authorities.

If that’s a reasonable working definition, how do we respond to the news that the Home Office has been issuing thousands of care work visas to companies who provide no care and have no facilities to provide care anyway? Criminal conspiracy or daring (might one even use that term so beloved of the current government, ‘buccaneering’) entrepreneurialism? The companies appear to be properly incorporated, and the visas they obtain, once issued by the Home Office, entirely valid. And they have an obvious financial value when sold on to others. One thing that is entirely predictable is that, when any rules or regulations change, there will be those who will seek out any business opportunities which might be presented as a result. In this case, the government’s changes to visa rules have opened up an entire new industry – trade in legitimate, Home Office issued, visas.

It is by government decision that there are virtually no checks performed by Companies House on the incorporation of new companies. It might be a decision taken to avoid having to employ civil servants to perform checks, or it might be deliberate – the UK Government seems to be rather proud of how easy it is to set up a company in the UK. And it’s another government decision (again, probably taken to avoid employing civil servants to do the work) that the Home Office performs few checks on the legitimacy of applications for visas. And given the government’s announcement that the total number of civil servants will be arbitrarily reduced to the number who were employed prior to the pandemic, we can be certain that there will be plenty of other circumstances in which basic checks will not be performed.

Every such failure creates a loophole which someone, somewhere, will find and exploit in order to turn a profit. Whether we call that someone a dastardly criminal or a buccaneering entrepreneur is, ultimately, an open question: the difference between the two isn’t always as obvious as one might think or wish. Arbitrary reductions to the civil service will even make it easier for those working in the new market to avoid or evade tax. The failure to operate proper checks on the issue of visas might initially look like mere government incompetence. But when similar failures are repeated across a range of functions, it ends up looking more like deliberate policy. As we ‘know’, civil servants are a ‘burden’ who add no real value to anything, they just apply ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy’ which stand in the way of enterprising individuals. Blaming those individuals might be easy, but they shouldn't be the only target.

Saturday 2 March 2024

Sunak channeling Nelson?


The Prime Minister seems to be more than a little exercised about the result of the Rochdale by-election, but equally short on solutions, unless you count a bit of performative and ritual condemnation and yet more action against protests. Whilst it’s true that the by-election was hardly the finest hour for any of the traditional parties, and that most people would probably agree that ‘extremist’ is a reasonable description of Galloway, the simple fact is that, under the rules of the game, Galloway won the election. It’s called democracy and, since democracy is about debate between different viewpoints, it doesn’t always produce the results that some of us might want. Of course, in one sense Sunak is displaying traditional ‘British’ values; in this case those of Nelson as he ignores the extremist takeover of his own party. He seems blissfully unaware of the parable about motes and beams.

Would Galloway still have won under a system of proportional representation? It’s hard to be certain, but with 40% of the vote going to Galloway, the second and subsequent choices of eliminated candidates would have had to break very decisively against him for the result to change. That isn’t the end of it, though – had there been a system to allocate the votes of eliminated candidates between those remaining at each stage of the count, that might have attracted a higher turnout. ‘What if?’ is an interesting but largely academic pursuit. What we do know is that Tory and Labour alike prefer to retain the system because it enables them to win an absolute majority on a percentage of the vote lower than that achieved by Galloway (meaning, incidentally, that his constituency victory has rather more democratic legitimacy than the parliamentary majority won by either Labour or the Tories in five of the general elections in the last half century).

Most of the time, the UK’s electoral system works in a way which favours a two-party contest, with other parties being seen as ‘also-rans’. However, sometimes circumstances are such that the system can end up favouring an alternative, for example if the support for that alternative is heavily concentrated geographically. The rise of the SNP to dominance (a dominance which would have been far less sweeping under a properly proportional system) is one example. Galloway’s victory, in what are probably utterly unique circumstances in Rochdale, is another. In railing against the outcome, either Sunak is too dim to realise that he is really railing against the UK’s electoral system, or else he is trying to lay the groundwork for a further assault on that system to rig it even further in favour of his own party. His words were so empty of content that it’s really hard to tell.

One thing on which I can agree with Sunak is that we face a serious danger from extremism. It’s just that the extremism emanating from his own party worries me more than any other sort, because that extremism is actually in power and eating away, from the inside, at the traditional values which its proponents claim to espouse.

Friday 1 March 2024

Raising taxes to pay for tax cuts


There is, or should be, something rather surreal about the reports that Jeremy Hunt is considering raising taxes in order to, er, pay for tax cuts. Even more so when it becomes clear that the two tax increases he’s considering are part of Labour’s planned financial plan, and that he and his colleagues have roundly condemned them both, repeatedly. Some might see it as an example of redistribution in action – although taking money from one group of well-off people in order to give it to another group of relatively well-off people (who might as a result feel bribed into voting Tory) is not exactly what most of us mean by the term ‘redistribution’. For an added twist, it seems that one of the attractions of implementing these two Labour policies is that it would prevent Labour from implementing other Labour policies – which Labour were planning to use the money raised to implement. By raising the money himself in advance and then giving it away, Hunt’s cunning plan is to force Labour to say which other taxes they will raise to pay for policies which will thus be left unfunded, and thus expose Labour as a tax-raising party.

There is, of course, an implicit assumption in this that everyone will see tax cuts as being preferable to providing decent public services, an assumption which hasn’t exactly been validated by some recent polling. But then, Hunt probably doesn’t mix a great deal with those who are most dependent on those decent public services. Perhaps the most surreal part of all is that Hunt’s cunning plan has been aided and abetted – not to say directly facilitated – by the stupidity of the Labour Party in committing not to reverse any tax cuts announced by the Tories, even when all concerned know that those cuts are going to be predicated on using new money raised as well as assumptions about unspecified cuts to services at some future date which have been built into the government’s five year plan.

It is a monumental act of self-harm by Labour’s foot-shooting tendency which has managed to convince the leadership that the arbitrary fiscal rules which they themselves have invented have some magical status which makes them unbreakable. It’s an act of stupidity which won’t stop them winning the election (although we should be careful not to rule out the possibility that they will find some other way of making even more holes in their own feet in the coming months) but merely mean that they can’t do very much once they’ve been elected, other than try and implement Tory policies with a little more competence. It’s fair to say that competence in a governing party has been more than a little under-rated recently, and a dose of it might be welcome, but those hoping for real change as a result of a change of governing party are likely to be disappointed. Rapidly. The biggest danger is that they will simply open the door to the new English Nationalist Party (although they probably won’t call it that) which is likely to rise out of the ashes of a merger between the Tories and Reform after the election. We really do need to make a quick exit from the dysfunctional state which the UK is becoming.