by Martin Odoni

Strange interview on The Andrew Neil Show yesterday. The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, and eight-years-in-a-row winner of the ‘LibDem-Who-Looks-Most-Like-He-Used-To-Be-A-Gun-Runner-For-The-Mafia’ award, Sir Ed Davey, was getting a grilling from the eponymous seeker-after-Thatcherism on what options the party would pursue in the event of another Hung Parliament next month.

Now Davey has not had a noticeably good week, what with his economically illiterate pledge the other day to run the economy at a permanent 1% surplus, a policy that requires amoral levels of cruelty, and is physically impossible to achieve (a surplus in the public sector means a deficit in the private sector, and a deficit in the private sector, if it lasts for long, will cause a recession sooner rather than later). So, even with consequently low expectations for a rigorous intellectual experience, I decided I had to hear Davey’s reply to Neil’s question. And for sure, the reply was… interesting.

“Boris Johnson says he wants to deliver Brexit… so the only way he can do that is with a People’s Vote [Second Referendum]. So we will challenge him, and work with others to say, ‘If you want to do what you said, Mr Johnson… work for a People’s Vote… We would vote, issue-by-issue, whoever is in a Minority Government, and we would vote on the Liberal Democrat Manifesto.”

I am given to wonder whether Davey realises that he has contradicted himself. He is saying that in the event of a Minority Government, his party would operate on a vote-by-vote basis, trying to enforce the LibDem Manifesto. But he also says that as part of that process, he would try to convince Boris Johnson (yeah right, good luck with that, Ed), if he remained in office, to hold a People’s Vote.

“What’s the contradiction?” I hear you ask. Well, it is rather obvious.

A People’s Vote is not actually in the LibDem Manifesto, and indeed is incompatible with the LibDem policy on Brexit, which is to revoke Article-50 summarily – no votes, no consultation with anybody, just cancel it stone dead.

Flip-flop Davey

And people say Jeremy Corbyn is indecisive on Brexit?

Whether you agree with this policy or not, it is clearly not possible to do both that and a People’s Vote, at least not a meaningful one. This means Davey has flip-flopped within the space of less than two minutes. (Or perhaps, we have had yet another policy U-Turn before the General Election has even arrived?)

And people keep accusing Jeremy Corbyn of not making his mind up on Brexit?

by Martin Odoni

Delusions on both sides

I have written a considerable amount over the last couple of years criticising Brexiteers for their disregard for reality, and rightly so. It is one of the most painful patterns of modern political discourse trying to convince a Leave-supporter, either of the right or of the left, to take the plain facts into account when analysing how Brexit is going i.e. very, very badly, perhaps to the point of unworkable.

But I have to concede, the Remain camp has its share of pie-in-the-sky dreamers too. From those who talk in flowery, detail-free soundbites about the ‘beauty’ of European unity, which bears almost no resemblance to the neoliberal reality of the European Union, to those who confuse globalisation with internationalism and therefore fail to recognise that the EU stands far more for market power than it does for battling against inequality. Remainers tend to be less deluded on average, but “less deluded than a Brexiteer” is a little like saying, “less badly-written than a Terminator sequel”.

Deluded Remainers have drifted towards the LibDems

One problem with Remainers that is particular to the last fifteen months is the way they have been drawn in considerable numbers to the Liberal Democrats. Many Remainers, especially since Labour adopted a position in support of a ‘Soft’-Brexit-if-possible at the 2018 Party Conference, began to drift away, and the LibDems found their support growing, due to their stance of wishing to cancel Brexit summarily. This was understandable, although partly based on a misunderstanding of Labour policy i.e. Labour policy was to attempt to force a General Election, and, if elected, try to get a good deal for Brexit, and failing to get one or both of them, they would support a Referendum to resolve the likely deadlock. (Contrary to media reports, Labour have actually been consistent on this, and have stuck quite firmly to the policy. It is only because the policy has different, conditional stages that people have been getting the idea that it is ‘confused’.)

Labour’s position has now completed its switchover to supporting a second Referendum, complete with a ‘Remain’ option on the ballot, making it a perfectly valid hope for Remainers. The LibDems have continued to claim that Labour are a ‘pro-Brexit’ party, which is true in a sense, but deliberately misleading as it over-simplifies the policy.

In truth, if the LibDems were really the steadfast ‘party of Remain’ they paint themselves as, they would be trying to get as close to the Labour Party as possible, instead of vilifying them. A Labour victory in the General Election next month is the only realistic path to a potential revocation of Article-50. Labour will attempt to get an improved deal and will put that deal to the people in a confirmatory referendum with remain as the alternative. That is the only path to remaining in the EU that looks a realistic prospect.

The Tories show a rabid pro-Brexit fanaticism

Compare that stance to the policy of the Tories, which is to “get Brexit done” come-what-may, with their leader looking so eager for a No-Deal form of Brexit that he imperilled the Constitution of the United Kingdom a couple of months ago to try and force it to happen.

In the face of these options, it should be glaringly obvious even to the sightless that Labour’s position is vastly closer to the LibDems’ than the Tories. So what does Jo Swinson, the LibDems’ recently-elected leader, have to say about it?

Well of course, she repeatedly and summarily rules out forming a coalition or alliance with Jeremy Corbyn, while she unfailingly lies about what Corbyn’s policy is. At the same time, she never entirely seems to rule out a coalition or alliance with the Tories. I must emphasise that Swinson frequently speaks of Johnson in coruscating terms, but the nearest she comes to saying she will not ally with him is that she “will not support him”. This strongly implies no dirty deals, but is not quite the same as ruling one out. Certainly, Swinson does not condemn Johnson, or rule out working with him, nearly as often or as unambiguously as she does Corbyn. The anti-Brexiteer shows more sympathy for the No-Deal-Brexiteer than for the man adopting the more moderate position.

Jo Two-Face

What Jo Swinson says is always contradicted by other things she says.

The Tim Walker saga

This flip-flopping posture was made even worse this week by what happened to Tim Walker. Walker is a former Telegraph ‘journalist’ (how generous am I, using a term like that for someone who worked for that pompous rag?) who used to work closely with Johnson. However, due to his opposition to Brexit, Walker chose to stand as a LibDem candidate against the Tories in Canterbury, the former Conservative stronghold that shockingly fell to Labour in 2017. Rosie Duffield’s majority was under 200.

Walker’s candidacy was a pretty weird move by the LibDems from a pro-Remain perspective. As Duffield and Walker are both Remainers, it was clear his arrival on the Canterbury hustings could only split the Remain vote and let the Tories take the seat back, advancing the prospect of No-Deal. In fairness to Walker, this week he decided to stand down and let Duffield fight one-on-one (more or less) against Tory Anna Firth.

“Ah!” cry the LibDems’ defenders. “See? The LibDems taking a principled position, putting opposition to Brexit ahead of their own narrow interests.”

In Walker’s case, that is true, and one can applaud his decision to put himself second. But the problem is that, on learning that he had stepped down, Swinson responded by announcing that the party would find another candidate to contest the seat!

This not only defeated the object of Walker’s self-sacrifice, but it also ran completely contrary to the principle of pro-Remain – the very principle Walker had stood down under, and the principle that the LibDems are promoting as their main ‘selling-point’. For the “party of Remain” to do this should be anathema to them.

LibDem history does nothing to improve confidence

Any benefit-of-the-doubt Swinson has had up until now must therefore go. It is easy, and probably safe, to conclude that Swinson is adopting the positions she does simply because it gives the LibDems something to distinguish themselves from the Tories, (from whom they have gained a number of defectors who have ugly attitudes on other issues such as gay rights, which again raises doubts about how firmly the party holds its principles) and that she is not as fussed about preventing Brexit as she wants to appear. Yes, she is pro-Remain, but she will not risk any deduction in her party’s position in the House of Commons in order to stop Brexit.

If they gain enough support, the LibDems might, just might, win enough seats to hold the balance of power again, as happened in 1974 and 2010. But both times that they had that advantage, little good was sifted from it. In 1974, Jeremy Thorpe failed to secure an alliance from Ted Heath, and after a few months of a Labour minority Government, there had to be another Election. In 2010, Nick Clegg secured a coalition with David Cameron, and then enabled Austerity, allowing a massive hike in tuition fees that Clegg was expressly committed to opposing, among other backstabs.

So Liberal/LibDem records in attempted coalition are not pretty, and the clear worry is that, should they get into such a position again under Swinson, they will simply concede Brexit as the price of getting seats in the Cabinet once more. After all, if trebled tuition fees were not an excessive price for them when most of their support came from students nine years ago, well, what would be?

LibDem witnesses

#NickCleggsWitnesses – never let them into your House (of Commons). And on a somewhat less humorous note, have you ever seen two such obviously-false, ingratiating grins?

Jo Swinson simply is not what she wants Remainers to think she is

Therefore, it is the turn of Remainers around the country to face reality, the reality being that Jo Swinson is not the ‘Wonder Woman‘ saviour figure she wants them to believe she is. Many Remainers thought the LibDems were their only hope of stopping the undoubted misery of Brexit. In truth, there was little enough chance of a party with a smaller presence in the Commons than the Scottish National Party being able to win enough extra seats to end the madness anyway. But it is now clear that the LibDems are not nearly as passionate or steadfast on the issue as they like to sound. They are already showing various signs of compromising their “Stop-Brexit-at-the-cost-of-all-else” posture, in order to carry on leeching voters from Labour.

This, Remainers, is the reality; there is no reason, especially with their track record from nine years ago, to assume that the LibDems will not concede more, should that be the price of power.

by Martin Odoni

I did mention earlier in the year that Boris Johnson, who in most respects could hardly be more different to his predecessor, Theresa May, is nonetheless still just similar enough to make many of the same mistakes. This General Election campaign, he seems to be setting out to prove it.

We all remember, I am sure, the negativity, cowardice, and general ugliness of the Conservative campaigns in General Elections 2015 and 2017. 2017 in particular was almost painful to behold, as a mechanical, no-chances-taken, evasive, badly over-choreographed and colourless Tory campaign pretty much handed Labour about ten points in support from a public on the threshold of lethal boredom. The whole seven-week fiasco demonstrated that May was absolutely hopeless at heading up an Election campaign, and should have established her as the very model of a leader not to emulate on the metaphorical hustings.

With this in mind, and looking at the current Tory campaign, one has to ask, not for the first time, “BoJob, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnson seems to be copying May’s every mistake, having started the campaign with a mistake copied from David Cameron (as mentioned last week).

blunder-man

A XXX-rated Prime Minister if ever there was one, just not in the way he would like us to think.

Consider in GE2017, when the Tories announced in their Manifesto a change to social care policy that increased the financial burden for elderly people suffering illnesses related to dementia. Although the actual burden on patients was not as severe is it sounded, it was still a very regressive policy, which was quickly nicknamed Dementia Tax. It caused a public uproar. Within a couple of days, May had panicked and reversed the policy, the first time on confirmed record that a Manifesto pledge had been formally U-Turned away from before the General Election had even arrived. In the weeks that followed, May was nicknamed The U-Turn Queen, while Jeremy Paxman famously called her,

“A blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.”

blowhard uturnqueen

But this time, Johnson has gone one better even than reversing policy between Manifesto and Election. His Government promised less than two weeks ago to halt fracking, with a view to banning it, “until compelling new evidence is provided” to show it can be done safely. Now, before he has even published the Manifesto, that policy has been U-Turned away from as well, with Johnson accepting, via very quietly-published civil service documentation, that “future applications will be considered on their own merits”. Whatever else that is, it is clearly not a ban nor necessarily conditional on evidence, and indeed it sounds no different to the status quo that was in place beforehand.

A blowhard who collapses at the first sign of Cuadrilla gunfire, perhaps? “U-Turn if you want to?” said Margaret Thatcher. It seems that Johnson, like May, is very much for turning.

(On the subject of U-Turns, Johnson has again retreated from his vague promise in the summer to hold an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, reiterating a vague commitment to investigate “all kinds of prejudice”. This dodge might work against his party though, given the research published last week showing that anti-Semitism is absolutely rife on the right wing.)

One of May’s numerous, very cringe-worthy platitudes during GE2017 was a repetitive warning of a “Coalition of chaos” under Jeremy Corbyn, chiefly between Labour and the Scottish National Party. Two-and-a-half years of subsequent Governmental gridlock under an alliance between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party gave the punchline to that. But amazingly, Johnson appears to be matching that rhetoric by giving the same, barefaced-hypocrite warnings again. This, even as Labour are visibly moving to try and dislodge the SNP from its supreme position in Scotland, not ally with them.

During the 2017 campaign, the cowardly May famously, and probably illegally, had unapproved journalists locked in a room so they were unable to ask her questions while she toured a factory in Cornwall. There was more than just a faint echo of that kind of incredible cowardice in Nottinghamshire last week, when Johnson visited a school where the 6th Form pupils were kept away from him at all times by confining them to the common room.

Johnson refused to visit a nearby hospital on the same day when it was on ‘Black Alert’, instead choosing to visit a nearby hospital that was not in ’emergency mode’. Over the weekend, he dismissed the severe floods in the north of England as “not a national emergency” (quite the contrast with Tory reactions five years ago when it was Tory-voting constituencies further south that were flooded). These incidents have a particularly uncomfortable resemblance to another display of shocking cowardice by May in 2017, albeit after the Election, when she ran away from locals in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower Fire Disaster. The resemblance is in the combination of personality faults that it highlights – a lack of empathy with the public, and a fear of facing the public under uncontrolled conditions.

Johnson is not learning the lessons of thirty months ago. Then, the Tories were projected to win a resounding landslide. Some of the early opinion polls, suggesting that the Tories have a double-digit lead, would seem to project something similar for 2019. But look what happened in 2017 when the Tories blundered and bored in equal measure, while Labour rallied at high speed with a positive and colourful campaign. The start of Labour’s campaign this year has, again, been very positive, full of colour, with high participation, and a strong message of hope. The start of the Tories’ campaign has, again, been negative, riddled with blunders, lacking in colour, lacking in participation, numerous candidates dropping out, and with a message overly-fixated on Brexit.

And it is led by a man making so many mistakes similar to those committed by his predecessor that it raises the question of whether there was any point in the Conservative Party changing leader this year at all.

by Martin Odoni

An occasional joke about voting for the old Liberal/SDP Alliance back in the 1980’s was that it was a vote for firm, concrete indecision. Perhaps a little unfair, but it has to be said there was an echo of truth in it. The two parties couldn’t decide whether they were right or left. They couldn’t decide whether they were the same or different. They couldn’t decide whether their leader was David Steel or David Owen. They couldn’t even decide whether they were the same party or a marriage of convenience between two parties.

 After dithering over these questions for seven full years, the parties finally merged into one in 1988, whereupon they couldn’t decide what name they would have. They started out deciding to be known as ‘The Social & Liberal Democrats’, but couldn’t decide whether they liked people calling them either that or ‘The SLD’, so decided not to make a decision on that, then after a few months, they decided that they hadn’t decided that after all, and instead decided that they would be decidedly happier if they decided that they would prefer it others decided simply to call them ‘Liberal Democrats’. Or ‘LibDems’, that would be okay too, but they couldn’t really decide which of the two names they liked best.

Nick Clegg, the current, decidedly unpopular, leader of the LibDems, has turned this record of indecision into an art-form. I’m pretty sure he never decided to, but it’s what he’s done anyway. As leader of his party at the 2010 General Election, he was decidedly opposed to almost every aspect of Conservative Party policy. And in the spirit of firm indecision, he therefore decided, after the Election resulted in an indecisively Hung Parliament, to form a Coalition with the Conservative Party. Well, he eventually did, after initially being unable to decide whether he wanted to form a Coalition with Labour instead; he probably wanted to side with Labour, but couldn’t decide, so for a few days he decided not to make a decision.

Having been made Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Cabinet, Clegg then showed all the decisiveness and consistency he was now legendary for, by supporting the Conservative policies he had spoken out so bitterly against, and helping to implement them against the students who had made up the core support that the LibDem vote had been built upon. This included deciding to help push through a rise in tuition fees that he had promised never to support. He might have apologised to his supporters for doing it, but couldn’t really decide whether that might just make them even angrier.

Clegg’s party also helped push through the notorious ‘Spare Room Subsidy’ or ‘Bedroom Tax’. This was because the LibDems realised that the Government needed more money, but they couldn’t decide whether it would be more effective and morally-better to try taking that money from people who actually possessed some, e.g. rich people, or from people who didn’t have the two proverbial ha’pennies to rub together. Being unable to decide what the correct answer would be to such a knotty conundrum, Clegg decided to let the Tories make that decision for him. So when the Tories came to the ‘wholly unexpected‘ (NOTE FOR THE HARD-OF-THINKING: we are now in the wildest throes of satire) conclusion that people without money are patently the most lucrative source of cash, Clegg appears to have said, “Well, who’d have thought the Tories of all people would make a call like that? Still I’m sure they’re doing it for totally unbiased reasons…” and from there he just let the Tories decide for him which policies to vote for.

Doggedly refusing to be diverted from his unswerving course of 180-degree turnarounds, Clegg broke new grounds in the cause of indecisiveness when he decided that he could continue to be indecisive even about policies that had already been decided upon and enforced. To this end, he put forward opposition to the Bedroom Tax he had helped implement as party policy, and then decided that he had not decided any such thing, but had merely put the idea out as a speculative question – one he then decided to answer himself with ‘no’. He then publicly spoke out vehemently against the Bedroom Tax, stating emphatically that it should be repealed. Then only yesterday, when Labour put forward a motion in the House Of Commons to repeal the Tax, Clegg once again impressed everyone with his capacity for not making up his mind about policies that he eagerly enforces while speaking out against them; he and his party quite naturally voted to keep the Bedroom Tax in place for the remainder of the current Parliament.

I’ve written before that if you vote for the Tories you vote for petulance. But the strange thing is – and it’s a painful lesson I have only learned myself during this Parliament – if you vote for the LibDems, you’re not really voting for anything in particular at all. This is because, in doing so, you vote for a party that claims to be centrist, but in fact doesn’t really know how much radicalism it is prepared to stomach. This means that in a Coalition, the LibDems can be dragged to quite shocking extremes, even though their rhetoric appears to be opposed to them. The hope when the Coalition was formed in 2010 was that the LibDems would function as a ‘drag-factor’ on Tory extremism and cruelty. In practise, they have scarcely caused the Tories pause for thought, and have shown a frightening willingness to sacrifice almost anything to get an agreement on a Referendum for a fairly minor electoral reform – a Referendum that ended in a ‘No’ vote in any event.

On the one hand, it could be seen as a symptom of maturity in British politics that the two parties were able to come to an agreement and form a Government; certainly that could never happen in the tribally-polarised USA, a fact so painfully evident there at the moment with one party holding both Houses, while the other party has the Presidency. Further, I am quite prepared to concede that the Coalition, for all of its amorality and ineptitude, has managed to hold together far longer than I was anticipating back in 2010. One could even argue that Clegg has shown a measure of loyalty by staying in Coalition and fulfilling his promises to support Tory legislation, even after the primary goal of electoral reform became plainly unachievable.

But on the other hand, it has come as a horrible shock over the last four-and-a-half years to learn just how much Nick Clegg and his party were prepared to concede in order to get a few seats in the Cabinet. So much, in fact, that none of their supposed principles of fairness and progressivism appear to have left any real mark on any of the more significant policies of the Coalition at all. Loyalty to Coalition allies is one thing, but loyalty to the voters who put their trust in Clegg in the first place has been painfully notable by its absence. By facilitating, where in the past they had voiced opposition, the LibDems have allowed themselves to be part of a Government more extreme and hard-right than even Margaret Thatcher’s administration had been when it had a comfortable single-party majority.

If being too quick to make decisions can cost you a lot of votes, letting someone else make all the decisions for you can cost you a lot of seats – especially if those decisions are immoral and incompetent – and this is why there is a real danger of the Liberal Democrats having a single-digit presence in the House Of Commons by next Autumn. They have been ineffectual on the issues people voted for them for, and have been dominated by the policies those same people voted against. So the Liberal Democrats have looked both treacherous and ineffectual, offering people nothing to vote for.

Centrism is not meant to be a synonym for indecision, nor one for ‘manoeuvrable’ loyalties, nor even one for blindly following someone else, but the LibDems have let it become all three. In so doing, and in allowing that indecision to become a tolerance of astonishing social cruelty by Government, they are now as morally-bankrupt and as unelectable as the Conservatives.