GE 2017 #6: PM Gives the Lie to the Case for Brexit

The Prime Minister probably didn’t realise that her speech on the steps of Downing Street today – on the dissolution of parliament – undermined her colleagues’ arguments for Brexit during the referendum [see GE 2017 #5 below].  We were told that Brexit would lead to a happier, more independent, more prosperous Britain – period.  But Mrs May now asserts that that happy, independent and prosperous future is not guaranteed after all:  it is contingent upon Brexit negotiations being conducted by her and her “strong and stable” government.

So we had been told that Brexit = Wonderful Future.  Now Mrs May claims, quite differently, that only Brexit + Mrs May = Wonderful Future.


GE 2017 #5: Brexit Negotiations and the PM’s Inconsequential Posturing

The PM asks who will negotiate the better deal for Britain:  she or Jeremy Corbyn.  She takes pride , it would seem, in being described as “that b****y difficult woman”.  It is questionable whether portraying oneself as difficult and unreasonable is the best way to go into negotiations.  Putting the other party on their guard may not be the best way to sweet talk them into concessions.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Jeremy Corbyn could not negotiate his way out of a paper bag and that Mrs May is the firmest and most adroit negotiator on the planet.  Fine, but of course, that’s all completely irrelevant:  the EU are going to give us the trade deal we want in any event.  Whatever happens – even if the withdrawal negotiations get nowhere and we refuse to cough up any exit fee – the EU27 are going to give the UK a great free trade deal that will safeguard the British economy.  We know this because John Redwood, David Davis and Boris Johnson told us that the EU27 will give us what we want in any event.

During the referendum campaign, David Davis explained that “there is almost certainly going to be a deal, one that maintains a free market between the EU and the UK”.[1]  Boris Johnson told us that “[w]e will trade [with our fellow Europeans] as much as ever before, if not more”.[2]  John Redwood wrote that “We can look forward to the rest of the EU wanting trade arrangements that preserve their present access to the UK market as they sell us so much more than we sell them.”[3]

[1] Speech – 26 May 2016 see

[2] Speech – 9 May 2016 see

[3] Blog – 25 April 2017 see

GE 2017 #4: The Prime Minister “Gets Out and About to Meet Voters”

Conservative electioneering has descended into a rather sick joke.  Clearly the Tory election campaign is not about meeting people;  it’s about avoiding people.  Yesterday, Mrs May held an election event at a workplace in Leeds but only after the staff had gone home for the day.

Why does the television media play along with this?  Why do they allow themselves to be co-opted into the pretence that these are meaningful events?

It’s time for the television media to play hard ball.  They must insist on being allowed to show the audience at these spectacles.  If the only “audience” are the party faithful standing behind the party leader with their placards, then that must be made clear and we should be told so by the journalist covering “the story”.  Indeed, we should be told that there was no audience:  those standing behind the speaker are not the audience;  they are part of the performance.  If the journalists are the only audience, the event should be described as a press conference and should be treated as such.  If the speaker insists on giving a speech rather than answering questions, the journalists should stand against the walls and film the empty room.  If this happens again, the press should not turn up.

Electioneering (and by extension democracy) is becoming rapidly and radically debased.  Will the media be complicit in that debasement or, instead, encourage a better standard of public discourse?



GE 2017 #3: The Conservatives Continue to Be the Main Threat to the Union

Last time out, at the 2015 general election, one of the main Tory lines of attack – an attack which pollsters and commentators thought was highly effective – was to argue that a hung parliament would mean a chaotic coalition of Labour and SNP.  It was argued that this would spark a constitutional crisis as the SNP would have a say on wholly English matters such as health and education.  Sir John Major opined that the SNP could hold a Labour government to ransom on a vote-by-vote basis.  He warned that the SNP represented a real and present danger to our future.

I bet he feels like an ass now.  As many of us argued in 2015 – and as has become painfully apparent over the last 2 years – the real threat to the Union in 2015 was a Conservative win not a Labour one.  It is the Conservatives who held an EU referendum for essentially self-serving party interests.  It is the Conservative leadership that must take the overriding blame for losing that referendum.  It is Brexit that has given the SNP the basis to argue that circumstances have so materially changed since the 2014 independence referendum, a referendum which was supposed to settle matters for a generation, that a new referendum is necessary.  It is Mrs May’s preferred Hard Brexit that is yet more grist to the SNP mill.

Shamelessly, the Conservatives have returned to the coalition-of-chaos motif.  I guess as it worked well for them last time, it is too tempting to pass up this time.  But let’s be clear:  Brexit and particularly a Hard Brexit make Scottish secession more likely – and by extension a Tory government remains the greatest risk to the Union.

As a former leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, I trust Sir John sees the bitter irony.

GE 2017 #2: Time for a Negative Campaign

Those opposing Mrs May’s Conservatives must run a campaign that is unrelentingly and unremittingly negative.  I don’t mean that they should dissemble and misrepresent:  a campaign can be both negative and have integrity.

Jeremy Corbyn’s fantasy world aside, this election is all about Brexit.  Brexit and what kind of Brexit are the defining issues of our time.  Our economic prosperity, our relations with the rest of the world, our self-understanding and quite probably the very integrity of the UK all hinge upon the kind of Brexit that is negotiated with the EU.

Mrs May has expressly called this election to neuter opposition to her Brexit strategy (or to her lack of one).  Whatever vacuities may find their way into the Conservative manifesto – and, apparently, it’s a matter of “suggestions on a postcard, please” – Mrs May’s pitch is this:  trust me to manage and negotiate Brexit.

So be it.  But then it is a wholly legitimate response to point out, again and again and again, that Mrs May is not to be trusted.  She has proven herself not to be trustworthy.  She said that she would not hold an early election;  she has shamelessly broken that promise.  In public she offered lukewarm support to the Remain cause in the Brexit referendum;  in private she told Goldman Sachs bankers that the economic arguments for Remain were clear:  companies would leave Britain if Britain left the EU.

Her opponents should point out again and again that she does not deserve our trust because she won’t set out her Brexit negotiating position and we have no reason to think that she would stick to her guns anyway.  As the Conservative Matthew Parris states in today’s Times (Sat, 22 April 2017), “my fear is that she is not particularly attached to anything.”

And often enough, Theresa May is as steadfast as blancmange.  She was against a third runway at Heathrow, but then she wasn’t:  in autumn 2016 her apparent concerns had to give way so that she could demonstrate that post-Brexit Britain was still open for business.  When she became PM, she called in the planning application for Hinkley C, swayed no doubt by its mind-boggling expense and impracticality, only to kowtow to the Chinese when they made threatening noises about investment in a post-Brexit Britain.

Mrs May is just about the last person one would want to negotiate Brexit.

Mrs May wants this election to be a referendum on her leadership and trustworthiness; so let’s make it one.

Brexit: No Mandate for a Hard Brexit

This autumn, Mrs May told the House of Commons that she is siding with Britons who voted for Brexit.[1]

“Siding” with those who voted Leave was an interesting choice of word.   It seems Mrs May is not merely “respecting the outcome of the referendum” and ensuring that we leave EU, she is taking sides.  She presents herself as pursuing the interests of those who voted Leave, against presumably the interests of those of us who voted Remain.

And let’s be clear, “siding” with those who voted Leave is not the only viable position.  She doesn’t have to rub Remainers’ noses in it.  She might have reasonably concluded that the country was pretty much split down the middle and that some attempt at consensus and reconciliation was called for.  While determining to take the UK out of the EU she might have encouraged a form of Brexit that gave everybody something.  But no;  it appears that the agenda of the Hard Brexiteers and arch-Europhobes is to be imposed;  the views and interests of the 48% are to count for nothing.

Sadly, this displays a shallow understanding of democratic statecraft.  Democracy degenerates into a kind of sporting competition.  The winner gets the cup and exults over the defeat of their opponent.  This kind of crude majoritarianism does not lead to a contented society.  Look where Shi’ite majority rule in Iraq has led or where Muslim-Brotherhood-majority rule took Egypt.  Fortunately, in more established democracies, there are all sorts of reasons why the vanquished are not going to resort to violence.  But while the crude impositions of the majority are likely to be tolerated by the minority that may not lead to a happy, contented or healthy society.   I’m not sure if the prime minister reads any political philosophy but she might benefit from a perusal of the Madison, Hamilton and Jay’s Federalist Papers, the seminal defence of US constitutionalism which explores the dangers of majoritarian tyranny.

There is a further, arguably, more fundamental flaw in the prime minister’s thinking:  she cannot properly use the referendum vote as a justification for the kind of Hard Brexit she is apparently pursuing.

The British people have not voted for the kind of Brexit deal that the Tories seem to want to “negotiate” (or for the kind of Brexit we will get if the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement).  The referendum tells us that 52% of those who voted on 23 June approved of Britain leaving the EU while the remaining 48% disapproved of Britain leaving the EU.  It tells us nothing more than that.

The referendum allowed for no nuanced answers:  there was no opportunity to vote “yes-but”; no chance to express a “perhaps-if”, no chance to express a preference for one particular version of Brexit.  The pro-referendum, Pro-Leave, camp argues that the preferences of the British people should determine Britain’s future.  But the referendum result offers a fundamentally deficient account of the preferences of British voters.  The complexities of Brexit have brought the inadequacies of decision by referendum into full light.

In the course of the referendum campaign it was clear that opinions differed within the Leave camp and, for that matter, within the Remain camp.  On the Remain side some people were wholly committed to the European project;  others were reluctant Remainers, anxious to see a wholesale renegotiation of the terms of membership.  On the Leave side, there were supporters of a Hard Brexit and supporters of a Soft, free-trade, Brexit (which prior to the referendum was commonly referred to as a Flexcit).  The referendum did not allow voters’ specific preferences to be disclosed and tallied.  And, of course, we can never know for certain what the wider preferences of voters were on 23 June.  But it might be worth imagining what the result might have been had people been able to express themselves more fully.

For the sake of simplicity we may bracket the various options as at 23 June as 3 fairly exhaustive alternatives:  (A) stay in the EU; (B) leave the EU on Flexcit/Soft Brexit terms (i.e. probably remaining in the European Economic Area like Norway), (C) leave on Hard Brexit terms.  What might the result of the referendum have been if voters had been asked to give a fuller account of their preferences, if they had been offered the fuller choice of A, B & C and allowed to place these options in order of preference?  [It might be noted that many voters would not even have realised that there were different kinds of Brexit.  Many Leave campaigners argued that the rest of Europe would definitely allow free-trade post-Brexit because the rest of Europe had so much to lose.]

Can the actual result of the referendum tell us anything about how voters might conceivably have voted in an ABC/123-type vote?  What can the vote that did take place tell us about the wider preferences of voters?  It seems likely that the vast majority of the 48% of voters who voted to remain would have specified option A (staying) as their 1st choice.  It is conceivable that some people who voted to remain might have voted (i.e. voted 1st preference) to leave if they were clear that the option was to leave on Flexcit terms that protected the economy;  the lack of clarity about the basis upon which would Britain leave may have led them to vote Remain.

What about the 52% of leavers?  From the tenor of the campaign, we may reasonably suspect that a modest fraction would have given B as their first choice and the rest of the 52% would have voted for C.

What can we say about second choices?  It is reasonable to infer that almost all stayers would have voted B as their second choice.  There is greater uncertainty as to the second choice of leavers, the second choices of those who would have voted B or C.  It is definitely not safe to assume that the second choice of all those whose first choice was B, soft Brexit, would have been C.  It seems likely that a significant number of soft Brexiteers would, if push came to shove, have preferred remaining in the EU to leaving on hard, WTO-trading, terms.  And I think it is a reasonable surmise that hard Brexiteers with first preference C would have split between A and B as second choices.  Many hard Brexiteers speak disparagingly about the EEA, Norway-esque, option:  many would perceive it was having most of the demerits of being in the EU (including making sizeable financial contributions) without having any say in what the rules of the EU are.  Many Hard Brexiteers may well have perceived staying in the EU as a better option than leaving on “Norwegian” terms

So it is a plausible guess that if the British public had been trusted to offer a more detailed account of their preferences the result might have been something like this.

A (1st preference) 45%, guessing that 3% of voters would have switched from Remain to Leave given the greater definition of options B & C.  [I assume that these Remain voters would switch to B as their first choice.]  Of the 45% voting A as 1st preference, we might guess that they divide 38% ABC (i.e. 1st preference A; 2nd preference B) and 7% ACB.

That leaves 55% with 1st preference votes going to either B or C.  I will guess that 15% of voters prefer option B [that is 3% of voters (who actually voted Remain) and 12% of voters (those who voted Leave)].  Again, making vaguely informed guesses, that 15% might have voted 7% for BAC [the 3% who voted Remain + a third of those who voted Leave and preferred a Soft Brexit] and 8% BCA.

That leaves 40% who might have voted C as 1st preference of which we might guess that 35% (of all voters) would have more particularly voted CBA while 5% (of all voters) would have voted CAB.

There are considerable philosophical and mathematical difficulties involved in turning individual preferences into a corporate, collective, preference.  There are different ways of doing so and they do not necessarily produce a similar result.  But consider, if ballots were counted as per AV elections.

1st  preference votes:  A (45%); B (15%); C (40%).  As option B gets least votes, those votes are reassigned to the voters’ second choices.  The final count then is A (52%); C (48%):  a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU as against leaving on Hard Brexit terms.

Of course, I do not know or pretend to know what the actual preferences of the British people were on 23 June as between A, B and C.  They weren’t asked.  I do not know if that sub-set of the British people who actually voted on 23 June preferred a Hard Brexit over remaining in the EU.  But then neither does the prime minister.  She speaks falsely if she claims that she has a mandate for a Hard Brexit.

And, as those who voted Leave were not asked on what terms they wanted the UK to leave the EU or what precisely they wanted beyond a formal departure from the EU or indeed what they perceived their interests to be, we should note that “siding with those who voted Leave” can mean pretty much whatever the prime minister wants it to mean.

[1] PMQs – 12 October 2016