UK Politics Update #1

Latest skinny on the Boris Johnson administration, Change UK, Lib Dems, Labour, and a Rube Goldberg-like plan to stop a no-deal Brexit. Plus, we force-feed Jeremy Corbyn a nice kosher meal, that he shouldn’t be so skinny!

I don’t write much about American politics these days. It’s too depressing, with the mass shooting du jour egged on in part by racist comments from our president. He’s desperate to get re-elected by appealing solely to his base, which obviously includes white supremacists. That desperation is driven not just by political ambition and narcissism, but by the desire to stay out of the slammer. If Trump is not re-elected, there’s a fair chance he’ll be indicted for obstruction of justice. I feel as though I’ve done my part with numerous anti-Trump posts in the past. At this point, it’s like carrying coals to Newcastle.

I’m more interested in UK politics these days, maybe because it’s less predictable and can still make me laugh. There’s also the slow-motion train wreck aspect, which I’ve alluded to elsewhere. And if course, I love the Brits.

A lot has been happening in UK politics, much of it bad. Since being selected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has appointed a diversity cabinet — but diversity is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say he’s appointed a cabinet consisting primarily of well-heeled Thatcherite toffs, some of whom happen to be non-white. This is faux diversity at best, with no true diversity of politics or culture, but rather the shared culture of money in politics. Johnson’s unity cabinet reflects a bunker mentality, with potential appointees required to sign a no-deal Brexit loyalty oath, and expected to be part of an aggressive general election strategy.

That strategy includes extensive deception about Brexit (surprise, surprise!), as well as a policy which Johnson announced in his first speech as PM, to provide “extra lubrication” to the UK economy by stiffing the EU for the 39 billion pounds owed it. At some point, the UK may want to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. That’s when the unpaid bill for 39 billion is likely to come due. The billions Johnson is currently dispensing like a fruit machine gone bonkers definitely won’t be lubricating future trade talks, and the British public are unlikely to see much of it once elections are over and done. But for that brief moment which is the election season, the party of austerity shall become the party of casting its bread upon the waters, the party of borrow and spend. I wonder how much interest the EU will charge on the 39 billion.

Johnson’s rhetoric often waxes Orwellian in its internal contradictions: The EU are our “friends and partners,” but those who try to maintain a relatively close and civil relationship with them are “collaborators.” No-deal is only a one-in-a-million chance and will not damage the economy, but the government are planning huge bailouts (known as “Operation Kingfisher”) to prop up businesses which fail.

I’m reminded of a line from a Raymond Chandler detective yarn: “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.” Likewise, as soon as anyone says that such-and-such won’t wreck the UK economy, you’d better start a mammoth contingency fund. Convert all your sterling to a more stable currency, like nacho chips. 😉

More On No-Deal Brexit Machinations

The consenus among political mavens is that the UK is headed toward a no-deal Brexit or crash-out from the EU, while at the same time the Johnson administration is engaged in a coordinated strategy of blaming the EU — and now British collaborators as well. It makes a kind of perverse sense that just as Brexit has philosophical underpinnings rooted in archaic World War II thinking, now that things are approaching a crisis point it becomes necessary to firm up perceptions about who’s the evil enemy (the EU), and who’s helping them work their evil (those accused of being collaborators, like Philip Hammond).

Hammond is, of course, a Tory ex-chancellor, Theresa May loyalist, and true believer in leaving the EU with a deal — a good deal as was promised by the Leave campaign. Hammond has made it clear that to him, leaving without a deal would be as much a “betrayal” of Brexit as not leaving at all. Because he strongly opposes no-deal, he’s been branded a “collaborator” by Boris Johnson. This occurred in remarks Johnson made in his premiere “People’s PMQs” Facebook video discussed here, though he did not identify Hammond by name.

Johnson’s public diplomacy on Brexit might be dubbed the Br’er Rabbit strategy: Oh please, European Union, don’t throw us in the no-deal patch. Anything but that! This meme, perhaps better-known in the US, consists of vehemently protesting an outcome which one actually desires.

In order to fend off encroachment by the Brexit Party, which threatens to steal votes from the Tories, Johnson has to be seen to deliver the hardest, most macho Brexit possible, i.e. a no-deal Brexit. But as the dire consequences of leaving the EU without a deal become more apparent over time, Johnson also needs to be able to shift blame to the EU and to purported British “collaborators.”

Indeed, even before the recent Bojo “collaborator” comment, ministers appear to have been sent out armed with written talking points instructing them to blame the EU for a no-deal Brexit, and to accuse the EU of failing to negotiate. Hammond pricked Johnson’s ire by pointing out (quite truthfully) that it’s Johnson who torpedoed negotiations by setting the bar impossibly high, with preconditions he knew full well the EU couldn’t meet. Welcome to the latest developments in the endless Tory psychodrama!

The problems associated with adopting no-deal, even as a limited negotiating strategy, I have discussed before. The position of some hardliners is that no-deal must be kept on the table as a tactic. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They’re like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

If we look to both the Johnson government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems doubtful, especially since some hardliners are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some people claim the PM only needs for protection. Meanwhile, others are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control.

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run?

A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through some series of legal maneuvers. No-deal is a weapon too dangerous to be left in the hands of a political faction whose members (many of them) have expressed an ardent desire to use it, and a callous disregard for the consequences, which could include the dissolution of the United Kingdom, with the Scots being the first to jump ship.

Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, and a Labour Plot

The sun shone brightly on The Independent Group, a.k.a. Change UK, when it first coalesced in February, 2019.

It began with tremendous enthusiasm and cohesion among former Labour and Conservative MPs who felt that their respective parties had grown too extreme, and were wracked with internal problems not being addressed by leadership.

Despite what I see as a genuinely promising start, Change UK has thus far not found a solid footing in the short period of its existence. Some members were discouraged by the fledgling party’s poor showing in the European Parliament elections of May 2019, where they failed to win a single seat.

Since then, there’s been an exodus from Change UK, particularly by some high profile members. Heidi Allen resigned to found a looser-knit group called simply The Independents. Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Change UK was right to believe that there’s currently a need for a centrist, Remainer party. Unfortunately, they were out-jockeyed by the Liberal Democrats, who aggressively claimed that territory for themselves. Change UK’s philosophical bent and admirable openness to different ideas coming from members may have (paradoxically) hurt them in an age of strictly-defined boundaries and no-nonsense branding. They may nevertheless continue to play a valuable role

– As a halfway house for MPs who’ve been made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their prior parties, and need time to sort things out.

– As a platform for dissenting views and straight talk about the ways in which UK politics has broken down.

– As a forum to discuss hybrid solutions which don’t fit neatly into the manifestos of the other parties — a crucible in which to forge good ideas which might then be taken up in due course by those wielding more power.

– As a venue to voice conscientious objections, to shout loudly that the Emperor is stark naked — a soapbox from which to be delightfully curmudgeonlike, defying the mandate to be upbeat, optimistic, and can-do at a time when things seem to have gone to hell in a handbasket.

Much attention has now shifted to the Liberal Democrats and their newly elected leader Jo Swinson because, by and large, the Lib Dems succeeded in branding themselves as the centrist, Remainer party. Some of their methods lacked subtlety, as when newly elected Lib Dem MEPs all showed up wearing bright yellow “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT” t-shirts.

Whether you give them an ‘A’ for realpolitik or an ‘F’ (for occasional crassness), the Lib Dems have taken center stage as the most viable general (non-regional) alternative to the Tories and Labour. They now figure prominently in potential plans to form a unity government as an interim measure to prevent a no-deal Brexit. As I write, things are in a particular state of flux regarding which parties would cooperate in such a plan, and who might be “PM For A Day” in such a unity government.

Under the UK parliamentary system, only the official opposition party (presently Labour) can force a vote of no confidence which could lead to the formation of a unity government. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s price for calling such a vote appears to be that he be selected as interim PM.

Corbyn is considered a toxic figure by some, and Jo Swinson has suggested that for the plan to achieve maximum inter-party cooperation, the caretaker PM should be someone who enjoys a great deal of respect among MPs across the House, and not someone with ambitions to become Prime Minister in the longer term. She’s floated the names of Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman (known respectively as the Father and Mother of the House), while other names surfacing include Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, and Margaret Beckett — none of whom rankle in the manner of Corbyn.

If you’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Labour as the party of acerbic Sturm und Drang, you’d be astonished to discover it’s also the party of the eminently calm, reasonable (and likeable) Margaret Beckett.

Harman, Cooper, and Beckett are all Labour MPs, and it would be uncharacteristically humble and self-effacing of Corbyn to compromise on any one of these three prospective candidates. Were such a plan successfully implemented, it would also mean that one of them would be the first female Labour Prime Minister, even if in a brief caretaker role.

To be clear, it was Corbyn who put forward this plan in concrete terms. But will he back his own plan with a different “PM For A Day”? The change is needed for these reasons:

1. The Tories plus the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland) have an ultra-slim majority of only 1 in the House of Commons. Several rebel Tories who passionately oppose a no-deal Brexit are said to be close to supporting this type of plan entailing a vote of no confidence followed by a time-limited unity government. Their votes are crucial, but also hard to secure.

2. Those same Tories may see installing Jeremy Corbyn as PM, even for a day, as a bridge too far. Fairly or unfairly, he has come to symbolise everything the Tories hate about Labour, and their hatred of him is both white-hot and totemic.

3. Rebel Tories who dare to support a vote of no confidence take their political lives in their hands. In the present toxic environment, they’re sure to be branded traitors, and linked to Corbyn forever. The propaganda posters more or less print themselves, right down to the Photoshop flourishes making Corbyn look more like a Soviet-style dictator.

4. Again, fairly or unfairly, some people view Corbyn as untrustworthy and megalomaniacal. Already, a government spokesman (Transport Secretary Grant Shapps) has responded officially to the plan by raising public fears: implying that Corbyn might not leave on time, and warning that “he’ll wreck the economy; he’ll destroy people’s jobs, their livelihoods, their savings.” Ironic, considering that Brexit may do the same. Just try going on foreign holiday when the British pound reaches parity with the Mexican peso! (not to speak of the Mexican jumping bean).

5. The same plan — but with a more likeable, less divisive figure than Corbyn as caretaker — would be easier for rebel Tories to swallow. And let’s face it: Though the biggest Corbyn-haters are found among Conservatives, he has his share of detractors among other parties, even Labour. A number of independent MPs are refusing to support him.

6. In opposing the plan with Corbyn as PM, but supporting it with Clarke or Harman, Lib Dem leader Swinson claims she’s certain Tory rebels won’t tolerate Corbyn. This view is reasonable. Moreover, Swinson is not proposing that she herself, nor any Liberal Democrat, be interim PM. She’s shown herself more willing to compromise than Labour, which stubbornly continues to push Corbyn.

7. Tory rebels won’t easily stand up and be counted in support of a plan which would mean their political suicide. If you understand this, you don’t try and sell them Corbyn as PM. That is (as Swinson says) a waste of time and energy. (She’s persuaded me!) The numbers are simply not there.

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to show true leadership in a time of national crisis, he should back the plan he put forward, but with a different interim PM. Besides the reasons already stated, such compromise is necessary due to the rampant factionalism of UK political parties, both large and small — reminiscent of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian where the Judean People’s Front is portrayed as endlessly squabbling with the People’s Front of Judea:

So, the plan cannot succeed without a universally liked reconciliation figure. Even then, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. The plan (which is still somewhat barebones) could face both legal and practical challenges.

Some might consider the Corbyn proposal an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, and prefer to focus on a more arrowlike solution, such as a single piece of targeted legislation which, if enacted, would prevent no-deal from happening on October 31st — perhaps by mandating an extension to Article 50, followed by a second referendum. This is Jo Swinson’s first choice. On the other hand, as long as the present government remains in power, there’s the potential for a no-deal Brexit to keep “respawning.”

The ultimate Rube Goldberg machine:

Getting Tory MPs to go along with installing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister (even for a day) would be only slightly more difficult! Pick your simile… Like getting cats to march in a parade.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Jeremy, who does look sickly with no flesh on his bones. The man has no flesh! Such a skinny, he should essen ein bissel, not that it should make him fat like a beached whale or anything… Corbyn has been accused of coddling anti-Semites in the Labour party (which was the main reason Luciana Berger left), so I soulfully dedicate this tune to Corbyn:

Jeremy, dahlink, boobala… Eat something! That when you go to visit the queen, they shouldn’t slip you in through the mail slot. And for those still tripping on the Rube Goldberg meme, here’s a parting funny:

Kim Jong-un visits Singapore’s famous Rube Goldberg Hotel

So there it is, the latest skinny!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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