Issue 101: 2017 04 20: Draining the swamp (John Watson)

20 April 2017

Draining The Swamp

Mrs May’s appeal to the people.

by John Watson

Gosh, for a political magazine like the Shaw Sheet, the year 2017 has cherries on it. We were looking forward to the French and German elections, popcorn at the ready, sauvignon blanc in the fridge, avidly reading Richard Pooley’s articles on the former and searching for a German columnist to provide commentary on the latter, when in an extraordinary political turnaround we got one all of our very own.

The government’s volte face should, perhaps, not have come as a surprise. Sure, Mrs May is known to have considered a general election as an unnecessary distraction from the serious business of negotiating Brexit, but it had begun to look less of a distraction than some of the parliamentary manoeuvring. The thrust of her announcement lies in two paragraphs:

“In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union.  The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill.”

“The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union.  And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.

These are the pressures which have driven the Government’s decision and they are of course augmented by the danger that some of its own MPs, having either not yet embraced the inevitability of Brexit or being head bangers who would really like to exit without a deal, may be tempted to do a little wrecking of their own. With a majority of only 12 this is a big risk.

If the reasoning which drives the government to seek a fresh mandate is fairly obvious, the position of the other parties is more complicated and could result in a shift in the tectonic plates of British politics. For example, those who regard Brexit as a catastrophic mistake and still hope that Britain will remain in the single market are likely to embrace the Liberal Democrats.

That will bring Tim Farron some new support, although it is unclear whether his much vaunted resistance to hard Brexit is a real differentiator. Is the Government really in favour of hard Brexit either? Surely not. It just has to say that it would be content with a treaty-free exit to give itself a negotiating position.

One of the government’s difficulties at the hustings will be that it cannot make this plain without jeopardising its position across the Channel. It will have to rely on political commentators to do it instead.

No wonder Mrs May does not wish to take part in a televised debate!

Labour’s slightly ambiguous approach to Brexit seems likely to come back to bite them. Those of their supporters who believe in it will be tempted to go Tory while the Remainers may be attracted to the Liberal Democrats. Still, great parties have strong core votes and it may be that if Mr Corbyn produces a radical manifesto he will gain some support among the millennials.

Not since Macbeth has the position in Scotland been so dramatic. Is Ms Sturgeon on a roll towards Brexit fuelled independence or has her support peaked? Ruth Davidson, her opposite number, is certainly hoping for an increase in the number of Conservative seats and it is possible that Mrs May, who could run Andy Murray close in a taciturnity competition, has made some ground north of the border. Certainly Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction that there need to be TV debates and that Mrs May should be “empty chaired” if she does not attend, seems a strangely lightweight response to the issues. Presumably she will campaign alongside the Liberal Democrats in the “stay in the single market” camp, although she must secretly hope that a failure to achieve this will push Scotland towards independence.

At the level of Conservative MPs, it is more difficult still. Suppose you have a keen Remainer, what should he or she do? Is the answer to line up behind the government’s position and simply declare confidence in Mrs May or is it to make a play about how one will hold the government to account and try to prevent “hard Brexit”? The latter approach could lead to deselection in a Brexit constituency: the former, if the local association is Remain. Nominations are open until 11 May so there is plenty of time for very hard talking with constituency officers. Are we going to see Conservative election addresses which are not wholly behind the Government? Or deselections? Or both? No doubt Mr Hammond has a spreadsheet which works it all through.

If the position is confusing to us in Britain, it must be doubly so across the Channel.  Why does Mr Corbyn apparently support the call for an election when he is so far behind in the polls?  Will the Conservatives’ nuttier Brexiteers stay with the party or revive UKIP?  Why would a bigger majority in the Commons give Mrs May more leverage with the House of Lords?  Those of us who have been complaining that the two-stage French presidential election, with its four slightly improbable candidates, is hard to read, have now been well answered.  The election here will be highly unpredictable as voters identify their loyalties by new criteria.

The announcement of the election resulted in an immediate fall in the FTSE 100.  In more traditional times that would have been taken as a loss of confidence in the government but nowadays we know better.  The fall was, as usual, simply the consequence of a strengthening pound, the link being that the companies which make up the index generate their profits internationally so that if the pound rises their earnings become less valuable in sterling terms.  Hence a drop in share price.  In this topsy-turvy world that makes the drop in the FTSE a sign of confidence.  Whether that is because a General Election raises the possibility that we will stay in the EU after all or whether it is simply that the City believes that the government needs strengthening for the Brexit negotiations to proceed sensibly, it is hard to say.  Probably the latter but, for all that, it would be unwise to take a Government victory too much for granted.  History has not always been kind to those who have gone back to the electorate to increase their mandates.  Remember Mr Heath going to the country for authority to take on the miners?  If only for the sake of good order, let’s hope it works better this time round.

Still, there is one place that Mrs May’s reasoning will be well understood.  Perhaps it all began like this:

“Well Donald, the people have decided but the parliamentary in-fighting is getting in the way.”

“Gee, that’s too bad Teresa.  Isn’t there some way that you can drain the swamp, bypass them all, appeal straight to the people?  What about doing more on Twitter?”

“Twitter isn’t really my thing, Donald, but I suppose there might be another way…”

It is all very 2016/17.

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