Brexit: vapid and inane

Wednesday 20 November 2019  

So, the first of the great non-debates is over. The first half was dedicated (sort of) to Brexit and told us nothing we didn't know already. But, under the frenetic moderation of Julie Etchingham, the format merely allowed Corbyn and Johnson to state their positions. There was nothing in depth that would allow us to get to the bottom of the issues.

Following the break, we moved on to the NHS – yawnsville. Once again we heard much that we've heard before, but learnt nothing new. Punctuated by intrusive clapping, the formulaic nature of the engineered confrontation simply failed to deliver.

A fascinating fifty minutes of debate, said Etchingham, before allowing the leaders to sum up. I must have missed something. I certainly didn't recognise The Sun headline which talked of a "bruising TV debate". All I saw in this was an hour of my life lost, never to be regained.

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph seems to agree. "This debate between Johnson and Corbyn never got going – because Julie Etchingham wouldn't let it", his headline reads.

The most memorable answers were for the most inane question, he writes. Right at the end, a young man in the audience asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn what present they would give each other for Christmas. Corbyn said he would give the prime minister a copy of A Christmas Carol by Dickens: "So you can see how nasty Scrooge was". Johnson said that he would give Mr Corbyn "a good read" too: "a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal".

"If that seems vapid and inane", Deacon added, "it was at least in keeping with the rest of the broadcast – because, although it was meant to be the first big debate of this election campaign, it didn’t really feel like a debate at all. It simply never got going".

And for once, the Telegraph and the Guardian were of a single mind. John Crace dismissed the whole debate with the headline: "Bluster from smirking Johnson; fudge from freshly trimmed Corbyn", telling us: "Tory and Labour leaders manage an insincere handshake in an S&M dungeon – but little else".

"All pretence that the debate was a serious contribution to the election campaign had been abandoned when the lights went up on a set that looked like a cross between a 1970s afternoon gameshow and an S&M dungeon", he added.

I suppose it was inevitable that this should have been the case. Even without Etchingham's leaden moderation, both leaders had far too much to lose so neither was going to take any risks. And then the policy set by ITV of embracing a wide range of issues meant the debate was never going to run deep. Crace actually had it, writing: "the whole purpose of the format is to be as uninformative as possible, with both party leaders sticking to set lines".

What the media make of it generally depends on their political stance. Predictably, the Telegraph took a pro-Johnson stance, reporting that Corbyn had been "jeered over Labour's Brexit confusion".

The Mail took a similar line, proclaiming: "Boris Johnson wins leaders' debate... just: Voters back PM by 51% to 49% after Brexit-shy Jeremy Corbyn was jeered for refusing to say NINE times in bruising ITV face-off if he backs Leave or Remain".

Here, we see the same obsession that gripped Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Westminster bubble preoccupation with what Corbyn actually believes. The Independent, on the other hand, had Johnson "challenged" over selling off the NHS, with the Guardian offering similar fare, telling us that: "Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash in ITV election debate over 'NHS for sale' claim".

The Mirror got more personal, reporting that the audience had burst out laughing when Johnson, in response to Etchingham's questioning, claimed that "truth matters" in politics. "The Tory leader who's been sacked twice for lying didn't quite get this one past the audience or ITV host Julie Etchingham", the paper added.

Nevertheless, that was probably the high point, with the nearest thing to a gaffe coming from Johnson when he responded to a question on the royal family, declaring that it was "beyond reproach". Corbyn went for the more cautious, "needs improvement".

Predictably, for such a lacklustre affair, the YouGov snap poll puts the result close to a draw: 51 percent to Johnson and 49 percent to Corbyn. In opinion poll terms, the statistical error does allow for a draw. But even if Johnson did narrowly squeak ahead, it was a margin that can hardly give him any comfort. Oddly, the Financial Times headlined, "Johnson survives hazardous duel with Corbyn".

As to the detail of the YouGov poll, 58 percent of viewers came away feeling frustrated. But some 40 percent thought that Johnson came across as more trustworthy, putting Corbyn in the lead with 45 percent.

When it came to being "in touch with ordinary people", Corbyn was streets ahead with 59 percent, leaving Johnson on 25 percent. Johnson made up ground, though, on who came across as more prime ministerial. He made 54 percent as opposed to Corbyn who only scored 29 percent. And that could be the impression that matters.

Speaking for YouGov, Chris Curtis, the organisation's political research manager, remarked that their poll showed that the public was "divided on who won the debate". As with the media split, respondents took a partisan view. Most Labour voters thought Jeremy Corbyn had won while Conservative voters thought Boris Johnson was the winner. Very few people changed their minds.

However, said Curtis, "given the Conservatives went into this debate in the lead, they will hope the lack of a knockout blow means they can maintain this until voting day".

Certainly, the polls would tend to support that hope, although with the most recent YouGov Westminster voting intention, only just. It has the Tories losing three points since 15 November, dropping to 42 percent. With Labour gaining two points, creeping up to 30 percent, the gap closes to 12 percent.

By complete contrast, KantarTNS – carrying out its polling over 14-18 November - has the Tories grabbing eight points to rise to 45 percent, with Labour level-pegging on 27 percent. That gives the Tories a virtually unassailable 18-point lead.

In both polls, the Lib-Dem vote share is virtually static, at 15-16 percent, but KantarTNS has Farage's limited company plummeting seven points to end up with a miserable two percent, with YouGov recording a static four percent. Either way, it seems that the party is over for Farage.

Following a break for "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", ITV actually gave Farage and the others an hour of airtime with a series of one-to-one interviews. But it looks as if ITV got it right (with the support of the High Court), focusing on the two main players. Despite the earlier indications that we were looking at a multi-party contest, this is shaping up to be an old-fashioned Lab-Con slugging match.

Mind you, the Guardian is pushing the boat out with Suzanne Moore writing under the headline, "Why vote? You’re just clinging to a wrecked system". Her sub-heading reads: "The looming general election offers fake binary choices – Corbyn or Johnson, leave or remain. Taking part is to bolster brokenness".

"Voting", she says, "now feels like clinging to the wreckage of a system we should dismantle. All the issues that really matter require cooperation, not silly, point-scoring conflict. That’s what this election feels like: a proxy war in which we are unwilling conscripts with little actual choice".

There was something of that in yesterday's "great debate". Not a few pundits remarked that there was definitely an anti-politics mood abroad. That is one to watch in this election. Given also poor weather and the dark nights, we could be looking at reduced turnout casting an unpredictable shadow over the whole election.

Richard North 20/11/2019 link

Brexit: late to the table

Tuesday 19 November 2019  

In 2005, Peter Oborne was political correspondent for The Spectator - at a time when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was editor of the magazine. Nearly ten years later, Oborne was to write admiringly in the Telegraph about how, back in 2005, he and "Boris" had "saved the day" in preventing Mark Reckless being elected to parliament.

This is the same Peter Oborne who, also in 2005, wrote a book on the rise of political lying. Predictably – although there are multiple references to journalists - there is no mention of his boss, other than in a fulsome note in the acknowledgements for allowing him to go on a sabbatical "as well as providing instruction about Greek philosophy".

Dredge through Oborne's columns in the Telegraph, when he was chief political correspondent, and you will not find any criticisms of Johnson, although tacit approval is not uncommon.

For sure, Oborne was compromised in writing for a newspaper which had Johnson as its favourite son, but it is nevertheless perhaps a little late for Oborne to pop up in the Guardian with a piece criticising Johnson. One must, though, admire his Chutzpah in writing under the headline, "It's not just Boris Johnson’s lying. It's that the media let him get away with it".

Oddly enough, I posted a piece along similar lines in March 2016, headed "corruption at the heart of the media". In it, I wrote:
Thus, for those then who think this post is another one on Boris "Serial Liar" Johnson, it isn't. It is about the corruption at the heart of the media, a media which embraces a serial liar as one of their own. Despite his catalogue of lies, it promotes him as a fit and proper person to represent the "leave" campaign in this desperately important referendum.
This was just at the time when Matthew Parris wrote in The Times that the, "Tories have got to end their affair with Boris".

In a commentary on the piece, I noted that, in July 2007, Polly Toynbee was writing in the Guardian of Boris Johnson. Then, nearly nine years ago, she called him, "the jester, toff, serial liar and sociopath".

Despite him being even then a prominent person, I wrote, Toynbee could do so without any fear of legal action. And nor had there been any. Yet, in any other circumstance, deliberately to call a public figure a "serial liar and sociopath" would invite terrible retribution through the courts, ending up in costs and damages which could bankrupt all but the richest.

In his then current piece, written three months before the EU referendum. Parris went further, noting of the man generally, that there's a pattern to his life. "It isn't the lust for office, or for applause, or for susceptible women, that mark out this pattern in red warning ink", he wrote. "It's the casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal; and, beneath the betrayal, the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained".

In response, I observed that, to talk of a man's "casual dishonesty", his "cruelty", and his "betrayal" was, in the cautious media of the day, "quite extraordinary". That Parris could address it to a man who hoped (or so we were then told) to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party and then the post of prime minister – and who was currently pitched to become "Mr Brexit", the face of the "leave" campaign in the EU referendum – was almost beyond belief.

But in short order, Johnson was torn apart by another of his former bosses, Dominic Lawson, writing in the Mail, although the critique was rather spoiled by the headline: "I was betrayed by Boris too. And like everyone else, I can't help forgiving him".

Nevertheless, there was more than enough material in the article to ruin the career of any normal politician. But, as we've come to realise, Johnson is not in any respect a "normal" politician, coated as he is with a variant of Teflon, previously unknown to science.

This was a man who even in the run-up to the referendum, managed to perpetrate an egregious falsehood about the proportion of our laws emanating from the EU, claiming that sixty percent of UK laws were "born in Brussels".

About that time also, Johnson was addressing the Treasury Select Committee, claiming that "It would not be hard to do a free trade deal with the EU 'very rapidly indeed'".

This was also back in March 2016, when Johnson told the Committee that there need not be any uncertainty. Concern over the problems of leaving, he said, was analogous to scaremongering over the Y2K bug. The sheer negativity about trading deals, he claimed, is because we've "become infantilised".

Asked whether he wanted to access to the Single Market, Johnson stated that the Single Market was a term that was "widely misunderstood". We should "get out from under that system" where all laws were justiciable by the ECJ. My view, he said was that we should have free trade with European partners based very largely on existing arrangements. This was: "A free trade arrangement that continued to give access to UK goods and services to the European continent" – without, of course, freedom of movement.

However, Johnson was forced to admit that there is no precedent for the EU striking a free trade deal in less than two years. Pressed on this, he was unable to name any country that had struck a trade deal with the EU in less than two years. Yet, according to Mr Johnson, this was "one of the defects of the EU", then attacking MP Rachel Reeves for "absolute scaremongering" and talking "total nonsense".

Even then, as I remarked, this blustering approach was his standard approach to anyone who challenged him, a stand he maintained despite Pierre Pettigrew, a former Canadian trade minister – stated in The Times that a Canadian-style deal could not be achieved in a two-year timescale. He was talking in terms of a decade to settle our international trading arrangements.

After the referendum, in July 2016, I was writing on how, even in 1994 when Johnson was Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph, his fellow journalists knew of his "lying and conniving" and treated him with circumspection. Yet at that point, this "lying and conniving" person was made foreign secretary.

This was also the time, incidentally, that we had Andrew Pierce of the Mail writing of the newly appointed David Davis as chief UK negotiator, that he was "clever, tough, and a veteran Eurosceptic with knowledge of his brief … more than a match for the Brussels bureaucrats".

But now, almost as if it was a revelation, we have Oborne writing of the "systemic dishonesty within Johnson's campaigning machine", with "unscrupulous Tory briefers working behind the scenes".

"As someone who has voted Conservative pretty well all my life", writes Oborne, "this upsets me". He continues: "As the philosopher Sissela Bok has explained, political lying is a form of theft. It means that voters make democratic judgments on the basis of falsehoods. Their rights are stripped away".

That is as maybe. But more than a decade ago, Oborne knew exactly what Johnson was about yet, during his employment on The Spectator and then the Telegraph, he kept his own counsel. 

"In theory", Oborne says, "Johnson should not be able to get away with this scale of lying and deceit. In a properly functioning democracy, liars should be exposed and held to account". "But", he adds, "that isn’t happening. As with Donald Trump, for Johnson there seems to be no political price to pay for deceit and falsehood. The mainstream media … prefers to go along with his lies rather than expose them".

Oborne then concludes that the British media is not holding him [Johnson] to account for his repeated falsehoods. "It's time", he says, "we journalists did our job, and started to regain our self-respect". Better late than never, one might say. But, my goodness, it certainly is late.

Richard North 19/11/2019 link

Brexit: we're on our own

Monday 18 November 2019  

I may have mentioned before how awful Andrew Marr is, but in yesterday's performance he excelled himself.

Interviewing foreign secretary Dominic Raab, he finally arrived at a point where one of the most important issues of the current Brexit debate happened to come up. "Could we leave without a deal?", Marr asks, to which Raab responds: "I think it's – no, it's not what we’re going to do".

An enterprising journalist, one might have thought, would have followed this up, asking how a new Johnson government intended to negotiate a deal in the eleven months ending on the last day of December 2020.

But this is Andrew Marr we're dealing with: "No? Okay, alright that's clear", he says. And just so that there is no misunderstanding, Raab adds: "I don't think it's remotely likely". And to that, the grand inquisitor simply remarks: "We'll move on to another subject then…".

Oddly enough, this isn't the first time Marr has addressed the issue of a trade deal, as one might expect. Back in February 2016, Marr interviewed David Cameron, when he asked about the possibility of the UK negotiating a Canada-style deal. Said Cameron, in this pre-referendum period:
Well, it hasn't been finished. It's been going for seven years … If we leave, seven years potentially of uncertainty. And at the end of that process you still can't be certain that our businesses will have full access to the market, so it could cost jobs, it could mean businesses, overseas businesses not investing in Britain. It would be a step into the dark, a real risk and uncertainty, and that's just the last thing we need in our country right now.
As he had failed to do so many times before, Marr didn't follow through, but the point had been made. And, in January 2017, there was an opportunity to revisit this issue, when Mrs May was a guest on the Marr show. It was then that the "no deal" rhetoric had been introduced by May but, when she was probed on whether she would walk away from a bad deal, she said:
…I have every expectation that we will be able to achieve a very good trade deal with the European Union. I think that, not just because it’s going to be good for the UK, but also it’s going to be good for the European Union too. So I want a trade deal with the EU which ensures that our companies have the best possible access to and opportunity to operate within the European single market in goods and services.
Needless to say, Marr didn't follow through on that either. As I remarked at the time - when we all thought that the deal would be negotiated within the two-year period – he could have asked how the prime minister intended to negotiate the deal in the time, when her predecessor had described it as a "leap in the dark".

Not unsurprisingly, I headed my blogpost at the time: "the uselessness of Marr" and, in these times of uncertainty and change, I suppose we could take comfort in Marr's consistency. Nothing has changed.

But, to prove that he never misses an opportunity to miss a point, yesterday Marr also interviewed Jeremy Corbyn. and it was then that he asked the leader of the opposition what the "leave option" that he had in mind entailed. Said Corbyn:
A leave option would mean a trade relationship with Europe and it would mean protection of rights. And obviously that includes that protection of the Good Friday Agreement. That will be put alongside remain in a referendum within six [months] – and my whole strategy has been to try and bring people together on both sides of the argument, 'cause actually there's a great deal that unites them about the inequalities and injustices in this country.
Corbyn is thus saying that, within six months of his elevation to prime minister, he would not only have renegotiated a new withdrawal agreement, but also a "trade relationship", notwithstanding that the latter can't happen until we've actually left the EU.

This remarkable claim though just begged to be clarified by a series of probing questions. On what grounds, for instance, did Corbyn believe he could negotiate a new trade relationship within six months, and how was this going to be done alongside talks on a revised withdrawal agreement.

It possibly won't come as a surprise that Marr didn't ask such questions, or anything like them. These details were of no interest at all to him. All he wanted to know from Corbyn was: "what your own personal view is about leaving the EU or not". Said Marr: "It's the biggest single question facing a lot of people in this country and they have a right to know the answer".

Now I may be out on my own, but if I even cared whether Corbyn personally wanted to leave the EU, it would most certainly not qualify as the "biggest single question" that I faced on Brexit. and I suspect I am not on my own. This is entirely the preoccupation of the Westminster/media bubble.

What effectively we saw yesterday, therefore, was evidence that there are currently two general election campaigns. One is being played out on the grand canvas of the national media – largely for the entertainment of politicians and journalists – and the other one in the country at large.

In terms of that second campaign, we got a small insight into what is going on from Deborah Mattinson, a founding partner of BritainThinks, a research and strategy consultancy.

She has been conducting a series of focus groups, where people were asked to describe Britain at the start of the campaign. The words chosen were "divided", "confused", "angry" and "broken", from which she concludes that "the electorate is weary". She continues:
Faith in politics and politicians – never high – is now at an all-time low. Just six percent say that politicians understand "people like me", Boris Johnson has poorer ratings as PM than any of his recent predecessors at a similar stage in their premiership, and Jeremy Corbyn has the worst opposition leader ratings since polling began. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) now believe that our politics is "no longer fit for purpose".
When Mattinson asked a focus group of undecided voters last week, "What have you picked up about the election so far?", she found they had plenty to say about policies, parties and politicians. But their confident chatter died away fast. Eye contact was avoided. No one could think of anything that related to the campaign.

Says Mattinson, a recent poll found a similar lack of engagement. Four thousand voters were asked what "incidents, events, stories etc" they had noticed. The winning score, at 42 percent, was for "none". In second place came the five percent mentioning Jacob Rees-Mogg's Grenfell remarks. Just two percent mentioned Brexit and one percent "NHS funding".

While the consultants and pundits may need focus groups to inform them of public sentiment, most people outside the bubble take the temperature of their own communities every day of the week. And so far, outside the foetid embrace of the media and the hothouse of Twitter, this election has largely been a non-event. Most people, I find, do not even discuss it and, if the subject is raised, it is usually to offer some wry or ironic comment.

It is my view, though, that if the media – as exemplified by the Marr show – could step outside its bubble, to confront politicians with relevant questions, and demand real answers, the attitude to politics could be transformed. But so rare is it that that an interviewer or journalist puts a politician on the spot that, when they do, it is the talk of the town.

News addict that I am, I find myself switching off the television news, utterly frustrated by the superficial, venal content, and the prancing of celebrity journalists who think they are bigger than the stories they report, such as "look at me" Laura, political editor for the BBC.

But as long as the media reach down to us, in their patronising way, treating us all as morons – missing the point in every conceivable way – the dribble they produce will drive people away from a subject that is of vital importance to them. But then, when it comes to defining what journalism is for, the Guardian doesn't even place the need to "inform and explain" in any of its headings. When it comes to that, we're on our own.

Richard North 18/11/2019 link

Brexit: for whom the bell polls

Sunday 17 November 2019  

Considering for how long we've been told that the polls are notoriously unreliable, there are an awful lot of them about this weekend – and all but one pointing in the direction of a Tory victory.

Particularly chipper is the Sunday Telegraph which is parading the headline: "General election poll: Conservatives at highest level since 2017, survey shows".

This is a SavantaComRes poll and it puts the Tories on 41 percent (up one percent), with Labour taking 33 percent, albeit up three points. For the record, the Lib-Dems take 14 percent (down two), the Greens two (down one) while Farage's limited company reaches a new low with a paltry five percent, losing two points since 12 November.

But if the ST really wanted to crow, it should have gone for the Opinium poll, published yesterday. While SavantaComRes gives the Johnson a mere eight-point lead, he gets 16-points from Opinium, with the Tories standing at 44 percent, up three compared with last week, as against Labour on 28 percent, down one point.

Interestingly, this poll also has the Lib-Dems dropping one point, standing at 14 percent, with Farage's party level-pegging on six percent.

Even better would be The Sunday Times, which relies on YouGov for its polling. This puts the Tories on 45 percent (up three) and Labour static on 28 percent, the same as it was on 12 November. That gives the Tories a healthy 17-point lead.

On this poll too, the Lib-Dems haven't moved, showing 15 percent, and neither has Farage's limited company. For the moment, it has bottomed out at four percent. It just has to lose one more point to reach a milestone in its decline. That's when it will have dropped to ten percent of its European Election showing.

Returning to the Sunday Telegraph poll, which gives the Tories an eight percent lead, that paper's headline makes an interesting contrast with the Independent, which uses BMG poll data to back a headline declaring: "Labour cuts Conservatives’ poll lead to eight points".

This survey has the Tories on 37 percent, against 29 percent for Labour, allowing the paper to assert that Jeremy Corbyn's party has gained ground. It tells us that a series of big policy announcements helped Mr Corbyn’s party to dominate the agenda, while the Tories were forced onto the defensive over new figures revealing that A&E waiting times are the worst in almost a decade.

Nevertheless, Johnson appears to have the advantage in uniting "leave" voters behind him after Farage's vote has fallen away. Some 61 percent of leavers now say they will back the Tories, significantly up from the 48 percent showing last month. And this could increase: BMG has not yet accounted for Farage's party standing in less than half the seats.

Even now though, the Tories are doing better than Labour, Corbyn is also picking up more "remainers", currently collecting 40 percent of that vote. However, 28 percent go to the Lib-Dems, indicating that Corbyn has been unable to unite the anti-Brexit movement. For all that, there is some progress, as last month's figures were, respectively, 37 and 32 percent.

But, if that is the Independent "take", the Mail on Sunday puts itself firmly in the Tory camp, having Johnson "surge" ahead of Jeremy Corbyn. It also suggests that the Tories are tightening their grip on working-class voters, with 45 percent supporting them, against the 30 percent who would vote for Labour, as politics realigns on "leave" and remain" lines.

Here, we are dealing with a Deltapoll survey. This gives the Conservatives a 15-point lead, up from 12 points last week, giving them 45 percent of the vote, as against 30 percent for Labour. Deltapoll also claims to have picked up a slump in Lib-Dem support – down five to 11 percent.

As to the fate of Farage's limited company, the paper suggests that the "revolt" of the candidates – many of whom pulled out of contests rather than risk splitting the Tory vote in key marginals – has left the party marooned on six percent. Interestingly, the poll suggests most voters think Farage's political career is nearing its end: a total of 45 percent say his most successful days are behind him, and just 11 percent think they lie ahead of him.

Not so, Johnson, it would appear. Although the MoS is wary about making predictions, given the complexity of the planned voting patterns, it says that a uniform national swing in line with its poll figures could give Johnson a majority of 108. Stepping back from the bigger picture, though, the Observer has chosen to concentrate on three London marginals held by the Conservatives: Kensington, Finchley and Golders Green, and Wimbledon.

The paper claims that local polling in these constituencies shows a surge to the Lib- Dems. All three voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum. In all three, it says, the Lib-Dems have been boosted by their stance on Brexit – but mainly at Labour's expense. Finchley and Golders Green has seen the biggest shift, with a 25 percent swing from Labour to the Lib-Dems – although the candidate still trails the Tories by 14 points.

Tory leads in the other two seats are far narrower: three points in Kensington and just two points in Wimbledon, largely as a result of Johnson's Brexit policy having gone down badly with many pro-EU Tories. Around half of the party's Remain voters have deserted it, most having gone to the Lib-Dems.

Mirroring the national picture, the Conservatives are currently leading in these strongly "remain seats" because the opposition is divided between Labour and the Lib-Dems. If Labour was out of the picture, most of the Labour votes would transfer to the Lib-Dems. But if the Lib-Dem candidate quit, the Tory majority would probably increase.

This sort of polling, also carried out by Deltapoll, certainly provides an illustration of the complexity of voting patterns, and opens the way for some shock results when the votes are counted. But, for all the reservations about opinion polls, they do seem to be stabilising relatively early and – with one exception in the weekend's batch, are presenting a relatively consistent picture.

What seems to be turning sentiment is the simplicity and clarity of the Tory message: "get Brexit done". Although this hides a subtle lie – as there is no chance that Brexit will be "done" for many years - it is far more attractive a message than the fudge and confusion that is coming from Labour on Brexit.

Arguably, the Lib-Dems are delivering simplicity and clarity in equal measure, but voters also appear to remain conscious of the purpose of a general election – to choose a government. Despite the many loathsome attributes of Johnson, no one in their right mind could imagine "shrieking Jo" as a prime minister.

The one great unknown, though, is turnout – variations of which probably have a far greater effect than many pundits realise. And whatever else this election isn't, it most certainly is – as Nick Cohen describes, a tawdry affair.

There will be many voters who are prepared to rebel against a political class which treats them with such contempt, presenting second-rate place-men (and women) as candidates, anticipating that we will turn out to vote for one or other of them.

More likely though, if the polls are to be believed, enough people will hold their noses to ward off the stench coming from Westminster and deliver a result. But politicians should not delude themselves that this election is a vote of confidence in them. Voting for the "least worst" is not a choice any of us would prefer.

Richard North 17/11/2019 link

Brexit: the wheels of the bus

Saturday 16 November 2019  

Given the long-term consequences of the last time Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson toured the nation in a bus, you might think that he would be a little more cautious about repeating the exercise. This is especially the case when he's gone for a German marque – a Mercedes-Benz Tourismo, which is diesel-powered to boot.

But then, as others are beginning to remark, this is a man who doesn't do empathy – or tell the truth. Nor does he do credible slogans. "Get Brexit Done" is the line of choice.

In high dudgeon, the Independent has Tom Peck, its political sketch writer, note that the genius of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 was to have one simple bus with one simple lie written down the side of it. "So, it's fair to say", he avers, "Boris Johnson’s reinvention of the strategy is not without its risks".

The problem he faces, says Peck, is that there are just too many lies now to fit down the side of one measly forty-by-fifteen-foot bus. So the new strategy, as unveiled at a televised but otherwise secret event in Manchester from which print journalists were banned, "was for Boris Johnson to stand where the lies traditionally go".

Fortunately for Johnson, Corbyn's madcap scheme for nationalising broadband provision – which BT chief Philip Jansen suggests will cost £100 billion - has proved to be a successful distraction. So effective has it been that the prime minister in office's repeated commitment to ending the transition period in December 2020 has largely gone unnoticed.

Despite Farage's best attempts to prevent a Tory victory, the Mirror reckons he's been "humiliated". And with his limited company fielding 274 candidates in the election (short of the 300 boasted), both the polls and canvassers are signalling that the tide has turned in favour of the Conservatives – even if there is a general lack of enthusiasm for all parties.

A Panelbase poll, for instance, puts the Tories ahead on 43 percent (up three), with Labour trailing behind on a static 30 percent. The Lib-Dems are also showing no change, on 15 percent, but – in common with other polls – Farage's limited company is showing a decline in support, down three percent to a mere five.

Interestingly, despite the rhetoric on the "climate emergency", the Greens are making no headway. Their vote share is stuck obstinately in the low single figures, showing two percent in the Panelbase poll, down one point from a week ago. And I don't believe that Johnson's airy promises of a "green energy revolution" are dragging votes away from the Greens. Their agenda simply isn't registering with the general public.

On the basis of current sentiment, therefore, one might have thought that the greater media attention would be given to what most likely will be, rather than something which has no chance of happening.

Even then, it's a pity that Labour have plucked broadband out of thin air, so to speak. Their plans for returning the water industry to public ownership are relatively sensible and, of all the policies that the opposition has produced, this is one I could support.

The Thatcher privatisation should never have happened – the system was not built with central government money and it was not theirs to sell. Now, we have water bureaucrats on million-pound "compensation" packages and the obscenity of local water enterprises part-owned by foreign states (such as Singapore's 20 percent stake in Yorkshire Water), while nearly all continue to under-perform on key operational parameters, while they milk positive cash-flow to buy up other enterprises.

Furthermore, Labour are not entirely off the wall with their nationalisation promises. A YouGov poll records 56 percent in favour of railway renationalisation, with only 22 percent opposed. Water gets 50 percent support, with 25 percent opposed, and even nationalising gas and electricity companies gets 45 percent, with 29 percent against.

These issues, under different political management, could be significant vote-winners but they are not high on the publicity agenda. Instead, we get eye-catching announcements from all directions, with big spending promises which quite obviously could not be delivered even in the good times, and even less so if a botched Brexit pushes the economy into recession.

Yet, a botched Brexit is precisely what Johnson is promising us. He is offering an "absolute guarantee" of no extension to the transition period, as long as he gets "nine more seats" to give him a working majority. And it is that, rather than Corbyn's broadband fantasy, which should be the lead item on the news.

Of course, it is quite possible to aver that this is only the utterance of a congenital liar, who will change his mind as soon as he is elected to office. My concern, though, is that Johnson actually believes his own propaganda. And since he must opt for an extension by the end of June, yet the negotiations could run on to December, by the time he realises he's in trouble, it could be too late to do anything.

Nevertheless, after Johnson's last-minute effort with his bastardised version of the withdrawal agreement, we have got used to the idea that rules and procedures go by the board when it suits the parties to dispense with them. It is thus always open for EU to come up with a last-minute fix which will keep the negotiations alive, and reduce the impact of what would otherwise be a "no-deal" departure.

That expectation is enough to dampen down concern in some quarters, but we are still in a situation where neither the media nor the opposition parties have properly (or at all) explored the impact of us leaving the EU with the withdrawal agreement in place but without an agreement on a future relationship.

In many ways, this is the worst of all possible worlds. At least the earlier no-deal scenario has the rather dubious merit of us walking away without paying the so-called "divorce" fee. Here, we pay the money and get nothing in return, while having Northern Ireland still caught by the "wet border" provisions.

What is also being glossed over is the fact that even agreement on a "Canada-plus" deal would represent a less attractive trading arrangement than we currently enjoy, so even on the best possible terms that Johnson is setting out to achieve, the UK will take an economic hit.

But if we do leave the EU without a future relationship agreement in place, the effects will be even more disadvantageous - and very far from "project fear". Adverse effects arising from the lack of an agreement are real, and would have an immediate effect on our economy. And, as we are seeing, even the uncertainty is casting a long shadow.

However, as long as the media are so easily distracted, and show their usual aversion to addressing Brexit detail, then the politicians can toss any wild schemes into the pot and divert attention from the more important issues.

The only good news for the moment is that, after the weeks of turmoil in the People's Vote campaign, its chairman, Roland Rudd, has resigned as head of the group and from Open Britain. As the rancour continues, it is comforting to know that internecine bickering is not confined to the Eurosceptic groupings.

This internal disarray is an inevitable feature of politics, a phenomenon which has torn Ukip apart and continues to cause strife in the "leave" community, such that it is. This turns the election into a battle of the dysfunctional, which is where we came in. No wonder the politicians want to fight on any grounds but Brexit.

Richard North 16/11/2019 link

Brexit: decline and fall

Friday 15 November 2019  

On top of saving the NHS, Labour is now going to provide free Wi-Fi to every home, funded by a new tax on Big Tech companies including Facebook, Google and Amazon. This would include nationalising the BT infrastructure provider, Openreach, the total cost running to £30 billion trillion, or some other fantasy sum.

So Corbyn stokes up another distraction, another wild (and expensive) scheme which saves him the trouble of having to deal with the reality of Brexit. One wonders what he will do for an encore.

As for Johnson, in between taking the flak for A&E waiting times, he has been seeking out his intellectual equals, attending an infant school in Taunton. There, he furnished evidence that a classical education does not run to learning the words of the nursery rhyme, "The wheels on the bus". Maybe he would have had better luck if he had tried it in Greek or Latin, although "rotae bus supra revolvi et revolvi" might not have quite the right cadence.

Meanwhile, the long-running Farage soap opera seems to be reaching a new climax, verging on the surreal as The Great Leader threatens to turn the police on the Tories, accusing them of bribery and corruption, and probably worse if he can make it stick.

This comes after the Tories have done what they do best – shafting anyone who gets in their way, in pursuit of political advantage. Thus, after Farage had climbed down with his unilateral declaration of surrender, wiping 317 candidates off his ready board, the Tories came back for more.

Threatening to give Brexit Party candidates unmentionable things like "jobs and titles", or so we are told, poor Richard Tice has been overwhelmed with dismay.

The Brexit Party chairman has been complaining all day long that the Tories should resort to such dirty tricks, all in the interests of stopping rival candidates siphoning off votes in that vulgar thing called an election. It is so much better if they can be headed off at the pass. Nonetheless, Tice is "proud and grateful that our candidates have resisted these distasteful overtures and stood firm".

Poor old Nige, at times, has seemed almost crestfallen as his mask slips. He rails at the "extraordinary" levels of "abuse and intimidation" suffered by his troops, comparing it with the crisis in Venezuela.

There, of course, over recent months thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets over food shortages and claims of corruption, while hundreds have been injured, so one can immediately see how very similar the situations are.

But then, this is a man who went to Hull in East Yorkshire (or Humberside, as the bureaucrats had insisted on calling it), and mistook it for South Yorkshire. Possibly, it was difficult to see through the nose-bleeds, with him being this far north.

To his great surprise, though, Farage seems to have discovered that Boris Johnson's party only cares about getting a Conservative majority in parliament, and not about securing a pro-Leave majority. Now there's a thing.

For once, though, John Crace isn't ahead of the field in charting the decline and fall of The Great Leader. Although the Guardian columnist avers that, "Campaign genius Nigel Farage has totally self-partnered himself", the Telegraph is also on the case.

With somewhat less wit, this paper headlines: "Nigel Farage's election campaign flounders as he claims Tories want to buy him off", reporting that "it appeared the wheels had well and truly come off the prominent leaver’s election campaign". One is not quite sure whether these are the wheels of the bus, but there is one certainty here – "Boris and Nige" are not singing from the same hymn sheet.

Significantly, the paper cites John Curtice, who has been briefing journalists in Westminster, where he posed the following question: "What's the evidence that Nigel Farage can win a seat anywhere in Labour territory? Please tell me - I do not know where it exists".

The polling guru accused Farage of "talking nonsense" about his electoral strategy, warning that standing candidates in Labour-held marginals will hurt the Conservatives more than Labour. Curtice thus "appeared to confirm fears that the man who has spent the last 25 years campaigning for Brexit still risked it being reversed".

The paper then concludes that, with his own poll numbers now in single digits - and the day ending with the resignation of two more Brexit Party candidates – Farage's campaign appears "to be sinking faster than his chances of being hailed the next Lord of Thanet".

This is something The Times focuses on, reporting that Farage was facing "a rebellion within his party" as parliamentary candidates, including one of his MEPs, defied him and pulled out of the general election.

The MEP was Rupert Lowe, representing the West Midlands, and had been due to contest Dudley North, one of the most marginal seats in England. He said that he was "putting country before party" as he withdrew at the last minute with an attack on Farage's electoral strategy.

The Times tells us that, as Lowe announced that he had quit, a minute before nominations closed, he said that standing could have let in Labour by the back door. His late decision meant that the Brexit Party did not have time to scramble another candidate for the seat.

But if that is a somewhat downbeat report, Crace in the Guardian is merciless. "The dream is dying", he writes, observing that:
Things fall apart. The Brexit party's poll ratings are in freefall. The Bad Boys of Brexit have fallen out with each other. Arron Banks has gone cold on Nigel Farage. The money is drying up. And so are the crowds. Six months ago, Nigel could fill medium-sized arenas. Now the function room of the Hull Ionians rugby club in a small town outside Hull is way too big for him. Only 15 rows of chairs had been set out and two of them had to be removed shortly before the start. Not even a 1970s glitter ball hanging limply from the ceiling could help bring in the crowds.
What goes around comes around (like bus wheels). In 1999, when Farage was touring the southeast, drumming up support for his election as an MEP, he had difficulty pulling in the crowds. At one venue, he found himself with an audience of a single pensioner and the caretaker of the hall he had rented.

From the hubris of his candidate launch only days ago, Crace writes that "Nigel has cared about this stuff for 25 years and now he can feel it turning to dust in his hands". Worst of all, "he doesn't even know what to think or what to do right now. He thought he had managed to game the system only to discover that the system had his number all along. All he can do is plod on regardless, drifting ever closer to nothingness".

Like as not, we haven't heard the last of Farage, but his political career in the UK is effectively over. And nor can one have any sympathy for the man. His is a story of lost opportunity, a man who doomed Brexit to chaos by his failure to embrace a realistic exit plan.

He's had a good run on other people's money but, when called upon to deliver, his lack of strategic acumen has left him floundering and irrelevant.

Richard North 15/11/2019 link

Brexit: just add water

Thursday 14 November 2019  

According to the Telegraph, the Tories did after all offer Farage an electoral pact, in exchange for him targeting just 40 key seats.

The deal was that the Tories would put up "paper candidates" in the Labour-held constituencies, carrying out only minimal campaigning in order to give Farage's party a relatively free hand. This, however, was not good enough for Farage. He wanted the Tories to drop their candidates altogether, otherwise they might still attract votes.

As a result, says The Telegraph, talks broke down late on Tuesday but, as the deadline for nominations approaches at 4pm today, Farage is still under intense pressure to stand down more of his own candidates.

Clearly, the pressure is all on Farage as another poll, this one from ComRes, shows the Brexit Party losing vote share, currently at seven percent having dropped two points since 11-12 November. Moreover, analysis of these results has the Telegraph reporting that this puts the Tories on course for a 110-seat majority.

Apparently, working-class voters are flocking to the Conservatives, redrawing the electoral map, based on divisions between leave and remain. Thus, the expectation is that the Conservatives will win 380 seats, Labour 194, Lib Dems 19, Scottish National Party 36, Brexit Party 0, Plaid Cymru 2 and Green Party 1.

With this trend undoubtedly known to Tory strategists, it is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson is in no mood to make concessions to Farage. With the scent of victory in his nostrils, even at this early stage in the campaign, the Brexit Party is looking increasingly irrelevant.

All Johnson has to do – as he did in his speech in Coventry yesterday – is repeat in his bumbling best, that only the Tories will deliver Brexit. As a rather unfortunate aside, to a largely indifferent group of factory workers, he described his efforts as a "Pot Noodle deal" – all you had to do was "add water".

The Guardian's John Crace was quick to pick up the insensitivity of that remark, but I too heard it broadcast on BBC TV's six o'clock news and observed that it would go down really well in Yorkshire, where the prime minister in office had just been, hearing complaints of his tardy response.

One would expect a Guardian writer to be critical of Johnson, and I can hardly claim any lack of bias here, but I think that any objective observer of Johnson's public speaking performances would admit that his speeches are largely an incoherent shambles and his delivery is dire. He may have some kind of magnetic charm on a one-to-one basis, but as a public performer he simply doesn't cut it.

The great fortune of the man is that he is up against Jeremy Corbyn, a politician with slightly less charisma than a plank of wood, and a delivery style that is not altogether dissimilar.

Yesterday, Corbyn was trying to pretend that Brexit didn't exist, focusing entirely on the NHS, offering a message that amounted to: whatever the Tories promise to spend, I will spend more.

Most of us, I rather feel, are already tired of these bidding wars. Apart from their unreal nature, people within the NHS are saying that the immediate problems are not money, per se, but a growing staffing crisis, with thousands of posts left unfilled. And that, whether Corbyn likes it or not, can to some extent be attributed to Brexit. Yet, the opposition leader seems set to exacerbate these problems with his promise of a four-day working week.

That said, as a frequent user of the NHS, while one would readily concede that the organisation has its problems, the bits with which I am in contact seem to be working remarkably well, and can be commended for their speed and efficiency, with minimal waiting time.

What I particularly dislike is Labour's rhetoric about privatising the NHS. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I had a life-saving heart operation – carried out in a private hospital under contract to the local health trust.

The operation didn't cost me a penny, which seems to me to conform entirely with the NHS ethos of "free at the point of delivery", and I cannot understand why there should be any objection to contracting out services to private suppliers.

Currently, I'm going though a series of diagnostic tests and these too have been contracted out to the private sector, once again with minimal waiting time and maximum efficiency – and the parking is free. I would sooner Corbyn stopped wasting his time on this wild goose chase and expended his energies on Brexit. 

Here, it is not as if he is without material to work on. We have, for instance, ex-minister David Gauke warning that a Tory majority will lead to a "disastrous" no-deal Brexit.

The former justice secretary has picked up on Johnson's intention to complete the next round of EU negotiations by the end of 2020, without calling for an extension of the transition period. He thus believes – not without good cause – that: "The Conservative Party is wanting to take the country in a dangerous direction". Far from getting Brexit done, he says, "we are going to enter into a negotiating period that isn't going to deliver a free trade agreement in time".

While Gauke wants us to "lend" our votes to the Lib-Dems, Michael Gove has rushed to defend Johnson's position, asserting that it is "feasible" a deal will be done by December 2020.

"No country is closer to the EU at the moment in terms of its economic relationship than the United Kingdom", he says, "and Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister has said he believes it is entirely feasible that we can conclude all the negotiations that we need to conclude in 2020".

Never mind that both Barnier and Juncker have said that a comprehensive, Canada-style deal cannot be done in the time. A little bit of cherry-picking is the perfect antidote to any Tory problem.

Here again, though, we have had an argument we have heard before. Because we already have a high degree of integration, it goes, it should be easy to craft an agreement where most of the principles have already been established.

Needless to say, this completely misses the point. As it stands, we have a high degree of economic integration, the reward for which is that UK goods and services have a degree of access to EU markets which are not afforded to third countries.

The task which will be facing UK negotiators then becomes one of unprecedented complexity. For the first time in history, we have a nation trying to unravel one of the most sophisticated internal markets yet devised, while trying to maintain as high a level of access as possible.

At the same time, the negotiators will be trying to minimise the need to conform with the wide range of flanking policies which invariably accompany the EU's comprehensive trade deals.

By any measure, this is going to involve slow, delicate negotiations. The idea that the process can be completed in eleven months is absurd, yet here we have senior Tory politicians effectively arguing that black is white.

If it wasn't for the fact that Corbyn's own policy on Brexit was so incoherent, he could have a field day, deconstructing Johnson's mess. But so compromised is the Labour leader that his best strategy is to stay clear of Brexit and – as we saw yesterday – to focus on other issues.

The only thing is, every time politicians raise subjects in this election which aren't about Brexit, one is tempted to ask what they are hiding about their Brexit policy – what is it that they don't want us to focus on? If this is supposed to be the Brexit election, then the very least our politicians can do is keep to the point and talk about Brexit.

Richard North 14/11/2019 link

Brexit: a moment of truth

Wednesday 13 November 2019  

While Johnson defends himself against criticism for his slow reaction to the floods, while his opponents seek to make capital out of his discomfort, Farage is probably wondering what hit him.

After unceremoniously dumping 317 of his candidates, he is now facing something of a backlash as yet another group have learnt a lesson that others before them have learnt: they are expendable when they conflict with The Great Leader's ambitions.

The Guardian cites Darren Selkus, now former candidate for Epping Forest. He says Farage had "betrayed my incredible volunteers and thousands of constituents who will have no one to vote for". In a statement on his local party website, Selkus said that as soon as Farage made the announcement at a rally on Monday in Hartlepool, he and other ex-candidates were immediately locked out of their Brexit party emails and supporter databases.

More reaction comes from Robert Wheal, who had been due to stand in Arundel and South Downs. He believes Farage's argument about protecting Brexit was "absolute codswallop", complaining that, "Brexit party supporters have worked their socks off for that party and he's dropped them like a stone at 12 o'clock yesterday".

Claire Mowbray, who was to have taken on Theresa May in Maidenhead, tweeted: "I can't tell you how disappointed I am", adding: "I will be closing this Twitter account".

While bruised egos come to terms with their own redundancy, there are more immediate concerns. For instance, it appears that Arron Banks is still not the bestest of friends with his protégé Nige.

At least Banks is on the ball, after urging Farage to stand his troops down in Labour marginal seats. "Brexit is under threat", he says. "We need to see further moves to stand down candidates in marginal seats they can't win and go for the 40 or so Labour seats where the Tories (Conservatives) haven't got a hope".

Banks is asserting: "There are 48 hours to save Brexit and save the country from a Corbyn government", adding that, "Nigel has remade the Conservative party in his own image, the Conservative Party is the Brexit Party". Thus, he says, "The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority".

Banks is not alone in asking Farage to call off the hounds. George Farmer, who gave £100,000 to the Brexit Party in May and June, also wants half of the 300 Brexit Party candidates to stand down.

Even The Sun is taking a hand. In a "Sun says", comment piece, it declares: "Nigel Farage must swallow his pride and stand down more Brexit Party candidates - only Boris Johnson can achieve Brexit".

"Farage", it says, "is taking a monumental gamble with Brexit and his place in history. He should rethink and stand down dozens of candidates today. To his credit he did Boris Johnson a big favour pulling out of Tory seats", but it adds, "it is a giant risk to assume that in Labour marginals his Brexit Party will lure Labour voters but not Tories".

The paper agrees with Arron Banks in having the Brexit Party focus on a handful of Labour Leave constituencies. The Tories, it says, could take a back seat there, while becoming the sole Leave option in scores of winnable Labour marginals. If Boris cannot take those, the Lib-Dems and SNP will gift Corbyn power. "Painful as it is", it concludes that Farage "must swallow his pride. It's not a 'sellout' to the Tories. They simply should not be rivals".

However, if Farage does as he is asked, laying off another 150 or so candidates, it would reduce the Brexit Party to a tiny rump, with little political heft. Targeting a mere 40 seats would be even worse. Either would deprive Farage of his publicity platform, relegating his status to that of a bit player.

Predictably, therefore, The Great Leader is refusing to move, reacting defiantly, saying: "I put country before party yesterday and now will take the fight to Labour. Three hundred nominations have been signed off - time to get on the road!"

His party chairman Richard Tice is equally defiant, declaring that "Arron is talking nonsense. We are not here to help the Conservative Party".

This does rather leave the election more open than Farage might have intended. His idea of leaving Conservative-held seats uncontested was supposed to take the heat off Johnson but fighting the marginals could still cost the Tories a significant number of seats.

That, of course, pre-supposes Farage is still able command a respectable proportion of the vote. But the events of the last few days may have damaged the credibility of a man who for the past few months has been riding high. And so much of a one-man party is his creation that, if Farage goes down, his party could go down with it.

Here, the next few days might be critical. Even before Farage pulled more than half his troops out of the battle, his poll ratings were plummeting (some say that is why he acted in the way he did) and if they continue downwards then it could be game over for "our Nige" – the end of a long career.

Doubtless, there will be plenty of pundits prepared to write Farage's political obituary, and the Mirror seems already to have made a start. Under the headline, "Brexit Party implodes after Nigel Farage's general election 'dodgy deal' with Tories", it tells us that the party had been set to hold a rally in Westminster today, but this was quietly cancelled as members vent their fury at Nigel Farage over his "dodgy deal" with the Tories.

That is possibly more telling than other recent events. The party had been assiduously promoting its rally, which was due to be held at Church House in Westminster. But a spokesman has confirmed it is "not happening". He said the party had "already said what we needed to say".

This is a far cry from the heady days of Farage's launch. Now, his best chance of achieving any significant effect would be if Johnson would agree to stand his candidates down in the 40 or so seats where Banks believes the Tories "don't stand a chance".

But, so far, there is no sign of any pact in the offing. There may be local deals, with individual candidates standing down, but there is unlikely to be anything official. If it is to happen, though, tomorrow is the day, when candidate nominations have to be in.

What may doom Farage though is the latest YouGov poll. Commissioned by The Times, it has the Tory lead widening to 14 points after Farage had withdrawn his candidates.

The Tories are on 42 percent, Labour is on 28 percent and the Lib-Dems are on 15. Crucially, though, on standard measurement, Farage's party takes nine percent of the vote. But, when the removal of 317 candidates is factored in, his percentage vote drops to a mere four percent. Not only does that make Farage electorally insignificant, it also suggests that, if he drops more candidates, his vote share will simply fade away.

To that extent, Farage is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. As he approaches his moment of truth, he is damned if he gives up more candidates, and damned if he doesn't. Those political obituary writers had better get sharpening their pencils.

Richard North 13/11/2019 link

Brexit: forever cursed

Tuesday 12 November 2019  

News of yesterday was, of course, Farage's "unilateral" concession to the Tories, with a promise that he would not put up candidates in seats won by them in 2017, thus standing down 317 of his own hopefuls.

This, apparently, was not a negotiated pact, and there is no public quid pro quo from the Tories. Farage says that he was swayed by Johnson's Sunday video message, promising that the transition period would not be extended beyond the end of 2020, and the government would strike a "Super Canada Plus" trade deal.

But if Farage – as he insists – is acting to stave off a Corbyn victory, then once again he has failed to think it through. It is not the seats which the Tories won in the last election that count. With or without Farage's intervention, Johnson will probably win most of these anyway.

More importantly, there are the Labour marginals, which the Tories must secure in the coming election if Johnson is to secure a working majority. Yet Farage intends to front candidates in all of these seats.

If we use the Ukip results in the 2015 general election as an indicator of the Farage Party performance, we can see that his candidates could still do serious damage to Johnson's electoral prospects.

For instance, in England, the most vulnerable target seat is Kensington where Labour has a majority of 20 over the Conservatives. Ukip didn't stand in 2017 but it took 1,557 votes in the 2015 election. That level carried over to 12 December could make the difference between victory and defeat, especially as the Lib-Dems are also eroding the vote of the leading pair, without taking enough to win the seat.

Next in line is Dudley North with a Labour majority of 22. In 2017, Ukip did stand and took 2,144 votes. But in 2015, it took a whopping 9,113 votes. Using that as a comparator, the Brexit Party would almost certainly give the seat to Labour this time round.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is another vulnerable seat, currently held by Labour with a majority of 30. The Tories have been pushing hard in this seat but were deprived victory in 2015 when Ukip took 7,252 votes. The party didn't stand in 2017 but if the Brexit Party takes over in 2019, it could again keep the seat in Labour hands.

In Crewe and Nantwich, a slightly different situation applies. In 2017, Labour took the seat from the Conservatives by a margin of 48 votes, with Ukip scoring 1,885. In 2015, Farage's party took 7,252 votes and the Conservatives kept the seat, which could suggest that Ukip was soaking up Labour votes. 

However, 5,000 more people voted in 2017 than two years earlier and, while the Tories added over 3,000 votes to their tally, Labour piled on a massive 7,000 votes, indicating that it was the increased turnout that made the critical difference.

Moving on to Canterbury, this seat was a Labour gain in 2017, with a majority of a mere 187. Ukip did not stand. Notable then was the collapse of the Lib-Dems, who lost nearly 2,000 votes on their 2015 showing, along with the Greens who lost nearly 2.5K, while turnout was more than 3,000 up. Ukip in 2015 took 7,289.

This seat thus illustrates how the complex interactions of small party votes and turnout can affect the overall result, and it is not entirely clear that Ukip is the king maker. But the presence of the Brexit Party in 2019 can only muddy the waters.

Barrow and Furness also presents an interesting picture. A traditional Labour seat, under pressure from the Tories and Ukip, in 2015 the combined effect of both parties reduced Labour's majority from over 5,000 to a vulnerable 795. Ukip took 5,070 votes.

In 2017, with turnout up by more than four thousand and Ukip falling away to sub-thousand levels, the Tories piled on nearly 5,000 votes. Labour did less well, adding just over 4,000 votes, with the Lib-Dem and Green votes largely static. With that, Labour's majority was reduced to 209. Had the 962 Ukip votes gone to the Tories, Mrs May would have gained another seat.

Keighley in West Yorkshire, just up the road from me, is another interesting case. But here, one of the figures to watch is the turnout. In 2010, it was nearly 48K and the Tories took the seat from Labour with a majority of nearly 3,000. In 2015, turnout increases by another 2K and, while Ukip takes over 5K (up from 1,470 in 2010), the Tories keep the seat, with a majority of just over 3K.

In 2017, turnout is up to nearly 52K, 4,000 additional voters compared with 2010, and the Tories add nearly 4K to their 2015 showing. But, with Ukip dropping back to just over 1K, Labour adds 5K-plus to its score, just enough to take the seat with a majority of 249. If the Brexit Party comes in with a high vote in 2019, it looks pretty certain that Labour will keep the seat.

So far, we've looked at seven seats, all of them vulnerable to the "Ukip effect", which could rob the Tories of their local victories. But there are many more.

A particularly fascinating example is Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire. In 2010, it was a Labour-Lib-Dem marginal and it is currently held by Labour with a slender majority of 441. In 2015, Labour took 19,448 votes to hold the seat, up against the Tories who were way behind on 10,628 votes. Significantly, Ukip got 10,150 votes, almost beating the Tories to second place.

Ukip also stood in 2017, but its vote shrank to 1,885 while the Tories soared to 20,844, quite obviously hoovering up the Ukip votes. But, as turnout also increased by 2K, so did the Labour vote, just beating the Tories. A Brexit Party intervening in the 2019 race will certainly make things interesting.

And then there is Stroud. Yet another Labour marginal, the margin by comparison with the others is a relatively healthy 687. In 2015, however, it was a Conservative seat attracting 27,813 votes against Labour's 22,947. Ukip got 4,848 votes, just short of Labour's majority of 4,866.

Come 2017, with Ukip barely scraping past the thousand mark, the Tories climbed to 29,307. But the turnout also increased by 3,000 and the Greens lost just over a thousand votes. Labour crept ahead to win the seat with 29,994 votes.

Bringing to ten, the sample of seats we're looking at, we have Bishop Auckland, a Labour seat that in 2015 boasted a majority of 3,508 at a time when the Tories scored 12,799 and Ukip revelled in 7,015 votes.

In 2017, with Ukip not standing, and an increase in turnout, the Tories climbed to 20,306, within hailing distance of Labour's 20,808. The Lib-Dem vote only dipped slightly, making obvious that there had been a huge transfer of Ukip votes to the Tories. The Brexit Party could definitely cost Johnson the seat this time round.

Overall, one has to say that the so-called "Ukip effect" is not always clear-cut, but in the seats we have looked at, it seems mostly to favour Labour. By that token it is fairly safe to say that the Brexit Party definitely has the potential to damage the Tories on 12 December.

But often neglected – to the point of being ignored by many pundits, and certainly not taken into account in the opinion polls - is the effect of turnout. In some seats, we are possibly seeing the combined impact of turnout plus the "Ukip effect", and in some cases, the voting pattern is influenced by the ebb and flow of votes for other minority parties and the Lib-Dems.

In marginals, where the seat might turn on a few hundred votes, or even less, this makes for an unpredictable mix. But it will be made that much more unpredictable by Farage's announcement yesterday. In a way, the careless concession is typical of a man who doesn't do detail, and tends to act "off the cuff", rather like Johnson.

Thus, in an uncertain world, the one certainty is that the drama of the Brexit Party isn't over yet. Unsurprisingly, Farage is being urged to pull candidates out of every marginal. If he doesn't, and his party's intervention does deprive Johnson of an expected victory, one can quite imagine that, in some quarters, his name will be forever cursed.

Richard North 12/11/2019 link

Brexit: a no-choice democracy

Monday 11 November 2019  

This is the way it goes. The Tories cobble together an attack piece in time for the Sundays, claiming that Labour policies will cost £1.2 trillion, and achieve some success in placing the figure on the front pages of a few sympathetic newspapers.

By mid-Sunday, Labour has counter-attacked, deriding the Tory costings as a "work of fiction". Nevertheless, the £1.2 trillion figure has been lodged in the public consciousness and left to stew for the first part of Sunday. Labour's profligacy with public money, the message says, makes the party unelectable.

Johnson seriously needs a distraction of this nature, as his Brexit policy is falling apart in front of our very eyes. Under pressure from Farage, it seems that he has committed to getting "the fantastic new free trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020". Thus, he confirms, "we will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020".

This comes from Johnson's Sunday night "Twitter video" proving beyond doubt that the man is a complete idiot. He burbles about a "fantastic deal" that means "we can take back control of our money our borders, our laws, as soon as we come out of the EU".

"And of course", he says, "it enables us to do a big free trade deal with our EU friends and partners. And I want to stress that that will be a straightforward free trade agreement with no political alignment".

But this "straightforward free trade agreement" is "on the model of a Super Canada Plus arrangement", which is anything but straightforward. Furthermore, the actual EU-Canada agreement (CETA) took eight years to conclude.

But just to demonstrate how deeply he is embedded in his own fantasy world, Johnson tells us: "Look at how quickly we got a new withdrawal agreement done it took us less than three months" – an assertion of jaw-dropping proportions.

Apart from the fact that the bulk of the withdrawal agreement is unchanged from the draft brokered by Mrs May – with only the Irish protocol having undergone any substantive changes – the actual changes are a reversion to the previous deal agreed by Mrs May until it was scuppered by the DUP.

For Johnson to claim his process took "less than three months" puts him in the land of the fayries, where unicorns graze and cuddly white lambs gambol in perpetual sunlight. The man is barking mad.

Then to use as an example something that took the best part of a tortuous three years, as the basis for a claim that we can conclude a comprehensive trade agreement in so short a time, is to put him on another planet.

Even then, Johnson is asserting that this could be done by the end of 2020, a mere eleven months. But this will be a mixed treaty, so it will have to be ratified by all 27 EU Member States, including some of their regional parliaments.

And although there are provisions for treaties to take partial effect before ratification, the parties really need to leave about six months for the process. This means, effectively, the treaty must be concluded by June, leaving a mere five months for negotiations.

The most likely consequence of this insane timetable is that we drop out of the EU without a fully-formed deal and fall back on the EU's contingency arrangements. The best we could hope for is a "bare bones" treaty, limited to tariff-free arrangements and nothing much else.

Effectively, as we have remarked so often before, in terms of our trading relationship with the EU, this is so close to a no-deal exit as makes no difference. If Farage and his followers want WTO terms, that is exactly what they will get.

The problem though is that is what Johnson is promising, whether or not Farage is demanding it. It is his own personal default position, which he will execute if he wins a big enough majority in the election. With that, Farage effectively gets what he wants, so there is no need for him to take on the Tories with a full slate of candidates.

Despite that, the legacy media rather seem to be missing the point (as always). The Telegraph, for instance, is getting worked up about Farage's activities, running an editorial with the headline, "Nigel Farage risks losing everything with his great election gamble".

It argues that Farage now risks jeopardising the very achievement he has spent a political lifetime trying to bring about. And, while he can't win the election, and will be lucky if he wins any seats, Johnson can lose it. If that happens, the Telegraph says, there will be another referendum because Labour, the only other party likely to be in a position to form a government, is committed to one, albeit only after yet another renegotiation.

Somehow, though, I would have expected something more than this superficial analysis, even if it is rather difficult to second-guess Farage. While it is true that his party could damage the Tories, following its decline in the polls, there is probably less danger of that than there has been. There is even a possibility that support for the Brexit party could collapse.

Apparently, we will know of Farage's intentions today when he announces his plans in Hartlepool, but even if he agrees to stand down most of his candidates, it will make very little difference to Johnson's own declared plans. This is the point the legacy media seems to be missing. With or without Farage, Johnson seems to be heading for disaster.

On the other hand, Corbyn is more of an unknown quantity than even his policy ambiguities would suggest. He has said he will pursue a renegotiation if his party is elected to power, but he has been very thin on the detail. Also, he has not attempted to convince us that he could force the EU to take part in new talks, so his policy could be still-born before it gets off the ground.

Should the EU refuse to entertain a renegotiation, we are truly in uncharted territory, as Corbyn has not given the slightest clue of how he would react. He hasn't even indicated that he is aware that there is a problem.

Once again the Telegraph pitches in, this time giving space to Liam Fox to write that it is clear that anything other than a Tory victory "will perpetuate the stalemate and dither that has characterised the painful political period since the referendum".

It is not too hard to agree with this, as there is a high level of uncertainty attendant on a Corbyn victory. But that puts us, the voters, in an invidious position. We either go with Johnson who will most certainly lead us to disaster, or we choose Corbyn to take us to an uncertain destination, the outcome of which is difficult to predict, which will probably lead to disaster.

For those who are troubled by such prospects, a visit to Nick Cohen's latest column would confirm their worst fears.

He presents us with the choice in this election of #NeverCorbyn or #NeverBrexit, with the vote crossing party lines. Those who think Corbyn would be a disaster (which includes some high profile former Labour supporters) must vote for Johnson, even though they may loathe him and be unenthusiastic about Brexit. Those who believe that Brexit must be stopped at all costs are left to vote for Corbyn, even if they abhor his train-wreck policies.

According to Cohen, we must experience the horrors of either a Johnson or a Corbyn government before we have enough voters to turn against them, although that rather leaves the question hanging as to what alternative we would then choose.

This is where politics turns round to mock us. We are presented with extremely unattractive choices, with potential outcomes which no rational person would voluntarily accept. It is said that democracy is about choices, but there must be – and most certainly is – more to democracy than this.

Richard North 11/11/2019 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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