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What a DUP-dependent government means for the UK

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and until January the first minister of Northern Ireland, may now play a key role stabilizing Theresa May’s government. (Facebook)

What seemed like a certainty in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, June 9, now seems far more treacherous nearly a week later.

British prime minister Theresa May may have assured nervous Conservative MPs Monday that she can steady a minority government. With contrition for her campaign missteps and the loss of 13 seats (and the Tory majority that David Cameron won just two years ago) and claiming, ‘I got us into this mess, and I will get us out,’ May seems to have united her parliamentary caucus, at least temporarily, behind her leadership.

But it may be even more difficult than May might have realized to secure and maintain a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Though a formal coalition was always unlikely, May will need the DUP’s 10 MPs to have any hope of a reliable majority in the House of Commons.

The deeply evangelical DUP’s hard-line stand on abortion, women’s rights and LGBT rights (its founder, Ian Paisley, once led a famous ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign) have alarmed many, including some leading Tories, such as the Scottish Conservative Party’s openly gay leader Ruth Davidson, whose newly elected bloc of 13 MPs may function as a liberal (and relatively pro-European) Tory bulwark in the new parliament.

Notably, in Northern Ireland, reflecting trends that began in the early 2000s and have only accelerated since, the DUP and the republican Sinn Féin each won record numbers of seats. Ironically, that benefits May in two ways. First, it gives her more DUP MPs to shore up a Tory-led majority; second, it means a smaller number to reach an absolute majority in the House of Commons. That’s because Sinn Féin, which advocates Northern Ireland’s ultimate unification with the rest of Ireland, refuses to swear an oath to a British monarch and, correspondingly, refuses to take its seats at Westminster. With those seven Sinn Féin MPs abstaining, it means May needs three less MPs in total for a majority.
Forebodingly, former prime minister John Major on Tuesday warned May against working with the DUP, even as May was engaged in negotiations the same day with DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy DUP leader Nigel Dodds to foster an agreement. (The pending Tory-DUP deal was, according to reports, set to go ahead on Wednesday, but has been postponed until next week in light of the deadly blaze at Grenfell Towers). Major joins a growing chorus of leading figures urging caution, including Jonathan Powell, the Labour chief of staff who helped negotiate with Northern Ireland between 1997 and 2007, and Leo Varadkar, the newly elected Fine Gael leader who became Ireland’s taoiseach on Wednesday.

Why everyone from Major to Labour is so wary of the DUP

Theresa May may need the DUP’s support to remain in 10 Downing Street, but leading figures in both the UK and Ireland are urging caution. (Mirror Online)

Major’s wariness comes, in part, from his own history.

After Major won an unexpected victory in the 1992 general election against Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the Conservatives lost their majority in December 1996 due to by-election losses and attrition, and Major turned to the then-dominant force in Northern Ireland’s unionist and Protestant politics, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). That arrangement lasted barely six months, coming right before the ‘New Labour’ landslide that swept Tony Blair into power in May 2017.

The UUP was, at the time, engaged in the negotiations that would two years later blossom into the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement. The UUP leader, David Trimble, shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with his counterpart John Hume, the leader of the republican (and largely Catholic) Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

While Major’s government leaned on the Ulster Unionists, the DUP in the 1990s was a far more right-wing and recalcitrant group. Indeed, the Tories have never formally turned to the DUP for support like May is now doing.

Founded in 1971 by Paisley, a Presbyterian fundamentalist preacher, the DUP bitterly opposed the Good Friday Agreement on the grounds that it allowed the republican Sinn Féin, a party with ties to the Irish Republican Army, to hold public office. By the early 2000s, moreover, the DUP had eclipsed the UUP as the leading unionist party in Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin was itself eclipsing the SDLP as the leading party of the Catholic, republican left. Those tectonic changes in Northern Irish politics brought a halt, after just four years, to the widely hailed devolution in Northern Ireland, collapsing a power-sharing arrangement between the UUP and the SDLP.

Between 2002 and 2007, as internal unionist and republican politics were sorting in new directions, Northern Ireland reverted to a period of home rule through the Northern Ireland office. Eventually, the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to a new power-sharing agreement of their own, a step that more firmly enshrined the Good Friday framework under Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, on the one hand, and under the DUP, first under Paisley, then under his successor Peter Robinson and from January 2016 until January 2017, Foster.

McGuinness earlier this year bowed out of the power-sharing agreement over the botched Renewable Heat Initiative, a scheme hatched by Foster when she was Northern Irish minister for enterprise. The idea was to offer subsidies to businesses to use wood pellets and other renewable heat sources. But businesses instead abused those subsidies so corruptly that they ultimately received more subsidies than the total amount spent on wood pellets altogether, costing the Northern Irish government nearly £500 million.

A snap election in March did little to solve the impasse; Sinn Féin and the DUP essentially tied, and Sinn Féin came incredibly close to emerging as the leading party for the first time in Northern Irish history, as unionist parties lost their majority for the first time as well. McGuinness himself died days after the regional elections. When May called a snap election nationally, James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, prolonged the deadline to reach a deal until June 29, well after the general election result.

Under the Good Friday framework, the national government has an obligation of neutrality in helping various parties reach a power-sharing arrangement in the Stormont-based Northern Irish Assembly. Major and others worry that with the new Conservative government so dependent on DUP votes for its survival, that neutrality will be threatened. That’s doubly dangerous, first because it comes at a time when the power-sharing arrangement between the DUP and Sinn Féin is in danger of collapse after a decade and, secondly, because both unionists and republicans worry about the consequences of Brexit, with fears that the re-imposition of a genuine border could re-ignite tensions after EU guarantees and the Good Friday Agreement virtually erased it 20 years ago.

Moreover, a Tory-DUP deal might buy May just months, not years. In 2016, deaths, resignations and other matters resulted in seven by-elections for parliamentary seats. With the Tories now polling behind Labour in the wake of last week’s election, the DUP’s negotiating position would strengthen with every Conservative by-election loss, and a handful of by-election losses would render the Tory minority unsalvageable, even with DUP support.

So these are all legitimate concerns, of course, and it’s why May is wisely inviting leaders from all five major parties to discuss power-sharing in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, on Thursday.

Reason to be optimistic about a Tory-DUP alliance?

Though Sinn Féin’s leader Michelle O’Neill seems unlikely and unwilling to join another power-sharing agreement with the DUP in Belfast, both unionists and republicans could gain from a Tory-DUP alliance. (Facebook)

While the stakes of a significant DUP role at Westminster are high, there’s nevertheless a strong chance that the DUP’s influence could ultimately benefit Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom more generally.

After all, if the late Martin McGuinness, a militant republican, could make a deal with the DUP, certainly Theresa May can too.

Deal or no deal, though, Sinn Féin seems unlikely to continue its power-sharing arrangement with the DUP so long as Brexit negotiations are ongoing, because signing off on a hard Brexit (or even a soft Brexit) would be so politically toxic for Sinn Féin. The DUP is the only party that supported Brexit last year, even though Northern Ireland backed ‘Remain’ by a margin of 56% to 44%. Sinn Féin’s voters overwhelmingly backed Remain, and they especially loathe the idea of re-introducing a border with the Republic of Ireland (which of course remains a full member of the European Union). Despite the incompetence of the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, it was always more a fig leaf for Sinn Féin than a genuine grievance.

Today, it feels like a near-certainly that home rule will become reality on June 29, and Brokenshire, the Conservative secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was always going to have greater unionist sympathies. That was true even when polls showed the Tories winning a 100-plus majority back in April.

Entering a period of home rule, Sinn Féin hopes (with some reason) to consolidate its growing position as the part of the Catholic republican left. Meanwhile, if it concludes a deal with May, the DUP likewise hopes to consolidate its own support by bringing more economic aid to  Northern Ireland as its price for floating May’s government. It’s a win-win situation for both parties, who see it as an opportunity for dual, perhaps fatal, blows to the UUP and the SDLP (and maybe the non-sectarian Alliance as well), all of which lost their remaining Westminster seats last Thursday.

It’s true that the DUP has an incredibly conservative position on social issues like gay rights, abortion and same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where marriage equality isn’t the law of the land. But as even leading LGBT activists in Northern Ireland admit, the DUP’s stand today is far weaker than the Paisley view of the 1970s. Moreover, though it was Cameron who shepherded same-sex marriage though parliament in 2013, more Tories opposed it (134), including then-home secretary May, than supported it (126). So it’s not just the DUP that has had a tough time accepting LGBT rights and marriage equality.

Moreover, as the DUP and Sinn Féin have become the leading parties for their respective unionist and republican electorates, they’ve shed some of the harder edges of their pasts. The DUP is simply not the same today under Foster, who is Anglican (not Presbyterian) and who was originally elected as a member of the Northern Irish Assembly from the UUP before switching to the DUP in 2004, as it was under Paisley. Dodds, who has served as deputy leader since 2008, is a Cambridge-educated pragmatist and dealmaker.

The same is true for Sinn Féin, whose leader in Northern Ireland is Michelle O’Neill, a run-of-the-mill social democrat who was a child and teenager during the Troubles, and accordingly far less tainted by the legacy of the IRA violence of the 1970s and 1980s (unlike McGuinness and Gerry Adams).

To that end, the DUP is also reportedly rebuffing the Orange Order and hard-line Presbyterian demands to re-open a once-settled issue involving Ulster unionist parade routes designed to provoke Northern Irish republicans. That’s a responsible step, as DUP leaders have made clear their demands from May will be non-sectarian in nature. Though, as Major cautions, English and Scottish voters may well be annoyed at more funds going to Northern Ireland, even Sinn Féin, I suspect, will be happy to see more money from London, given that Brexit means financial support from Brussels will chiefly come to an end (unless funneled through Ireland, whose government, by the way, would balk at picking up the hefty tab that London currently pays, in the unlikely event of unification).

Though the DUP is pro-Brexit, it is in favor of a relatively softer Brexit that keeps Northern Ireland within the EU single market, and it also opposes restoring a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Given that the border issue is the most delicate and perhaps most intractable surrounding the Article 50 negotiations, the DUP’s input may be helpful. Though DUP officials are reportedly asking May for a pledge not to call a ‘border poll’ over the term of the next government, it’s not clear there’s anything like the sufficiently widespread support today (or in the foreseeable future) for Irish unification to justify May calling such a referendum under the Good Friday framework anyway — though it’s a matter that could arise following a hard Brexit. In the long run, a softer Brexit is far more important to stability and peace in Northern Ireland than any short-term turmoil related to the DUP’s role at Westminster. If both May and Foster exercise caution and restraint, the DUP could help nudge a better outcome for all of Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, the unionists (and Ruth Davidson) strike back

No Conservative had a better night than Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who won more seats than at any election since 1983. (Facebook)

It was the worst night for Scottish nationalism in over a decade — worse, perhaps, than the narrow vote against independence in 2014.

Though the Conservative Party lost its majority at the national level, thanks to a loss of 21 seats in England, it will stagger on as the largest party in the House of Commons thanks in no small part to a surge in support in Scotland, where the party picked up 13 seats, all at the expense of the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Though the SNP still won a greater share of the vote and more seats than any other party in Scotland, it was a very bad night for the party, which lost more seats, in total, than the Conservatives nation-wide. It was the worst electoral performance for the SNP since 2010 — former SNP leader Alex Salmond lost his seat in Gordon, and deputy SNP leader Angus Robertson lost his seat in Moray. Other MPs, like Mhairi Black, the 22-year-old who is the youngest member of the House of Commons, were easily reelected.

It was a sign, perhaps, that Scottish voters are growing weary of the SNP’s focus on independence after first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to demand a second referendum on Scotland’s status after Brexit negotiations conclude in 2019. As all three national parties made gains in yesterday’s general election (including what amounts to one-third of the Liberal Democratic caucus in the House of Commons), it leaves Sturgeon and the SNP in a precarious position.

After becoming the indisputable leftist opposition to conservatism in Scotland, the SNP now faces the dual threat of a plausible Tory unionism to its right and a resurgent Labour under an equally left-wing Jeremy Corbyn.

The SNP’s Mhairi Black, at 22 years old, is the youngest and one of the most outspoken voices in British politics today. (Facebook)

Though Sturgeon won a fresh mandate in the Scottish parliamentary election last May (and will not face voters again until 2021), the SNP’s plurality in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh falls two seats short of an absolute majority. While the SNP and its allies currently command a majority in favor of calling a second referendum, the 2017 general election result may force Sturgeon to rethink that approach in favor of more quotidian concerns. Moreover, she will have to reorient the SNP approach after it has held power in Scotland since 2007, first under Salmond and, since 2014, Sturgeon. Not an easy task for a party that thought it could keep amassing outsized margins solely by demanding a second referendum.

Sturgeon herself admitted that the ‘referendum-or-bust’ approach may have backfired. Since prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, Sturgeon and the Scottish government have demanded a second referendum on independence for Scotland. The region’s voters narrowly chose in September 2014 to stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%. The same voters, however, opposed Brexit in the June 2016 EU referendum by a margin of 62% to 38%, joining ‘Remain’ majorities in Northern Ireland and London.

Sturgeon has threatened that if the Brexit negotiations do not leave Scotland with access to the European single market (and a ‘hard’ Brexit would not guarantee that access), Scottish voters deserve the chance to seek independence again as one way to return to the European Union.
Continue reading In Scotland, the unionists (and Ruth Davidson) strike back

LIVE BLOG: 2017 UK election results

The Houses of Parliament at sunset. British voters are taking part in their likely final election as a member of the European Union (sborisov / 123rf)

Throughout the night, Suffragio will be live-blogging the results of the United Kingdom’s general election to elect all 650 members of the House of Commons on a constituency-by-constituency basis.United Kingdom Flag Icon

BBC Exit Poll
10:00 pm BST, 5:00 pm ET

Conservative Party — 314 (down from 330)
Labour Party — 266 (up from 229)

Scottish National Party — 34 (down from 54)
Liberal Democrats — 14 (up from 9)
UKIP — Zero seats.

If these results are true, the Tories are in for an awful night. Theresa May called a snap election to boost her majority. She’s not only lost seats, but this result would mean a hung parliament and, more likely than not, make Jeremy Corbyn the next prime minister. With this result, however, it is very unlikely that we will know anything about the composition of the next government anytime soon.

10:36 pm BST, 5:36 pm ET

Note that the UK pound has dropped from $1.29 to $1.27 upon news of the exit poll showing that the Conservatives have lost their majority. Spectacular. Feels much like Brexit.

This is all still way too close to call anything.

A 10-seat swing could mean the difference between government and  opposition.

On these numbers, though, it’s possible that neither Conservatives nor Labour could gain a majority (even if it means , which means a more unstable minority government or even a fresh election later this year (and it seems unlikely that May will stick around to lead the Tories — instead, foreign secretary Boris Johnson or Brexit secretary David Davis. Of course, a second 2017 election would take place as the two-year clock continues to tick from May’s decision in March to invoke Article 50, depriving the United Kingdom of precious negotiation time vis-à-vis Brexit when it will be focused on internal domestic politics.

If you add the Labour projection to the Liberal Democratic, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru and some of the republican MPs from Northern Ireland, it’s still difficult to see how Corbyn gets to a majority.

But it’s clear that some leading Tory figures, like home secretary Amber Rudd, could be in trouble. Though it was clear that May’s campaign stumbled, the final polls (save Survation) showed the Tories with anywhere from a 1% to 12% lead. This seems to indicate that youth turnout was higher, boosting Labour’s surge.

One question is how the Scottish National Party seems to have done so poorly — it’s set to lose 22 seats from the 56 seats it won in 2015. That’s even worse than the Tories. If that holds, I’ll be curious to see if the SNP lost to Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives or to a last-minute Labour surge. If the former, it means that Labour has done incredibly well in England.

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Newcastle upon Tyre North
11:06 pm BST, 6:06 ET

The first seat to report — and not in Sunderland! Note that this a constituency that swung to Labour in 2015, and it’s a predictably safe Labour seat in the northeast. It’s also a constituency that held wide appeal for potential UKIP voters.  What’s interesting is that the UKIP (and even the Liberal Democrat and Green) vote has collapsed from two years ago. So while Labour won nearly 5,000 more votes than in 2015, the Tories have also won nearly 2,500 more votes from the last election.

Labour — 24,071 (19,301)
Conservative — 9,134 (6,628)
LibDem — 1,812 (2,218)
UKIP — 1,482 (5,214)
Green — 595 (1,724)

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Houghton and Sunderland South
11:15 pm BST, 6:15 ET

Again, a reliable Labour seat, and Bridget Phillipson will hold onto this northeastern seat. But the Tory swing here is larger than the Labour swing. Not a great sign for Labour’s hopes tonight, because it seems to show that so many of those UKIP voters, some of which might have once voted Labour, have now switched over to the Conservative Party. In this constituency two years ago, UKIP placed second. Still too murky to know what, exactly, has happened today on a national (or even England-wide) basis.

Labour —24,665 (21,218)
Conservative —12,324 (7,105)
UKIP —2,379 (8,218)
LibDem — 908 (791)

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Newcastle upon Tyne East
11:58 pm BST, 6:58 ET

Opposition chief whip Nick Brown holds this seat, with a much improved margin. Labour will take solace in this result, the Tories less.

Labour — 28,127 (19,378)
Conservative — 8,866 (6,884)
LibDem —2,574 (4,332)
UKIP — 1,315 (4,910)

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North Swindon
12:00 pm BST, 7:00 ET

Tories are swinging up 3%, Labour is swinging up 11%. Conservative Justin Tomlinson holds the seat, but another data point in favor of a strong night for Labour. This is the first seat announced from southwestern England, so it’s perhaps more meaningful than the previous Newcastle and Sunderland results.

Conservative — 29,431 (26,295)
Labour — 21,096 (14,509)
LibDem — 1,962 (1,704)
UKIP — 1,564 (8,011)

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Washington and Sunderland West
12:10 pm BST, 7:10 ET

As in Sunderland Central and Newcastle Central, it’s a bigger swing to the Tories than to Labour.  Sharon Hodgson will still hold the seat with a strong majority, though. The regional picture seems to be showing that the Tories are taking more than their fair share of northeastern UKIP voters, even as Labour is improving on its 2015 showing. This is yet another seat where UKIP finished second (above the Tories) in the last election, and it’s still held onto nearly 7% of the constituency vote in 2017.

Labour — 24,639 (20,478)
Conservative — 11,699 (7,033)
UKIP — 2,761 (7,321)
LibDem — 961 (993)

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12:30 pm BST, 7:30 ET

In the center of the country, Northamptonshire, Philip Hollobone has held this seat since 2005. Hollobone is a very euroskeptic MP, and while there’s a 6% swing to the Tories, there’s an 11% swing to Labour. So far, all holds. No gains for any party — yet.

Conservative — 28,616 (24,467)
Labour — 18,054 (11,877)
LibDem — 1,618 (1,490)

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12:30 pm BST, 7:30 ET

UKIP is down 11%, now the Tories and Labour are both up 6%. Marcus Jones will hold this seat.

Conservative — 20,827 (23,755)
Labour — 19,016 (15,945)
UKIP — 1,619 (6,582)
LibDem — 914 (816)

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12:40 pm BST, 7:40 ET

This is the first seat in the southeast, and it’s a great story for Labour (as opposed to the story in the north). The Tories, and Charles Walker, will hold this seat, but Labour will have seen a double-digit swing. UKIP came in second place here in 2015, and their collapse has helped Labour far more than Conservatives.

Conservative — 29,515 (25,797)
Labour — 13,723 (8,470)
LibDem — 1,481 (1,467)
UKIP — 9,074 (848)

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12:57 BST, 7:57 ET

Well. Both the Tories and Labour are up 8%. This is a good result for the Tories, but not nearly the kind of result May needed for a landslide. UKIP, of course, is down 10%. Another seat in the North East in county Durham, and Jenny Chapman holds.

Conservative — 22,681 (17,637)
Labour — 19,401 (14,479)
UKIP — 1,180 (5,392)
LibDem — 1,031 (1,966)

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1:08 BST, 8:08 ET

This is the first result from Wales, and Ian Lucas will hold this seat. The swing here is just as much to Labour as it was to the Tories. UKIP didn’t field a candidate, so its 5,072 votes from 2015 were up for grabs. Notably, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru has lost some of its vote share from 2015, too. So that means that UKIP voters have split between the two major parties.

Labour — 17,153 (12,181)
Conservative — 15,321 (10,350)
PC — 1,753 (2,501)
LibDem — 865 (1,735)

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Rutherglen & Hamilton West
1:18 BST, 8:18 ET

This is the first seat from Scotland, and it’s also the first Labour gain! Ged Killen here will take the seat from the Scottish National Party, in line with exit polling that shows it will be a very bad night for the SNP. Notably, though, while the SNP swing is down 16%, Labour swung up just 2%, while the Tories swung up 12%. That’s good news for both of the two unionist parties, perhaps, and it shows that the SNP is not only fighting a two-way race against unionists in Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, but a four-way race with the Liberal Democrats and Labour as well.

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1:27 BST, 8:27 ET

Tooting is the first constituency from London, and wowza. Rosena Allin-Khan has retained the seat from the 2016 by-election that Sadiq Khan vacated when he became London’s mayor. A big swing to Labour, nonetheless, from the 2015 election in a constituency that the Tories thought they might steal at the beginning of the election. The Liberal Democrats are doing better here than in 2015, too.

Labour — 34,694 (25,263)
Conservative — 19,236 (22,421)
LibDem — 3,057 (2,107)
Green — 845 (2,201)

* * * * *

Mhairi Black, the 22-year-old MP from Scotland, has won reelection.

Paisley & Renfrewshire South
1:32 BST, 8:32 ET

Mhairi Black, the youngest MP at just 22, will hold this seat, finally some good news for the SNP tonight.

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Vale of Clwyd
1:44 BST, 8:44 ET

Here’s the first Labour gain in Wales. Chris Ruane will take back the seat he lost to James Davies in 2015 by a health majority of nearly 2,500. Again, the Liberal Democrats are down, Plaid Cymru was down 3%, and UKIP was nonexistent (after winning 4,577 in the last election).

Labour — 19,423 (13,523)
Conservative — 17,044 (13,760)
PC — 1,551 (2,486)
LibDem — 666 (919)

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1:49 BST, 8:49 ET

Justine Greening, the sitting education secretary, has won her seat in Putney, another London seat. But whereas she won by a margin of 53.8% to 30.0% in 2015, she’ll only win by a margin of 44.1% to 40.8%. Notably, as in Tooting, the Liberal Democrats are winning more of a very reliably pro-Remain vote, and they will have nearly doubled their support from the last election. Another good data point for Labour in London. The Greens are also down sharply from 2015.

Conservative — 20,679 (23,018)
Labour — 19,125 (12,838)
LibDem — 5,448 (2,717)
Green — 1,107 (2,067)

* * * * *

Angus Robertson, deputy SNP leader, has lost his seat. (Facebook)

2:21 BST, 9:21 ET

This is a huge win for the Tories. After winning Angus, they have now won Moray from Angus Robertson, the deputy SNP leader. And it wasn’t close, a 16% swing to the Tories and a 11% swing down for the SNP. With 48% of the vote, Douglas Ross nearly won an absolute majority. A great night so far for the Tories, who have taken two seats from the SNP (and won a swing of 12% from the SNP in the third seat that Labour won).

Conservative — 22,637 (22,637)
SNP — 15,319 (24,384)
Labour — 5,208 (4,898)
LibDem — 1,078 (1,395)

* * * * *

2:21 BST, 9:21 ET

This is another London constituency, and it’s a 10% swing to Labour. Jane Ellison, who easily won in 2015, has lost to Labour’s Marsha de Cordova.

Labour — 25,292 (18,792)
Conservative — 22,876 (26,730)
LibDem — 4,401 (2,241)

Three reasons why Corbyn and Labour are ‘surging’

It’s not exactly Corbynmania, but the narrowing gap between the Tories and Labour is due in large part to Labour leader’s near-flawless campaign, composure and a less-than-radical platform. (Facebook)

In a country where, two months after VE-Day, voters were willing to turf out Winston Churchill in favor of a Labour landslide, no one should have doubted the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn would, two days before the 2017 general election, be within range of overtaking prime minister Theresa May and the Conservatives.

That’s astounding, because when May called the snap election in mid-April, it looked like the Tories would win by the largest margin in a generation, if not their largest margin since the 1931 Tory landslide. One ComRes/Sunday Mirror poll gave May’s party a margin of 50% to just 25% for Labour.

Corbyn has, to say the least, had a difficult time since winning the Labour leadership in the summer of 2015. Despite the support of a majority of the rank-and-file membership (including many thousands of supporters that Corbyn himself recruited to the party) and the labor unions that form the backbone of Labour’s organization, Corbyn failed to win loyalty from among the center-left MPs that comprise the parliamentary party. Indeed, Labour MPs launched a fresh leadership challenge in the summer of 2016 after the failure of the ‘Remain’ campaign in the Brexit referendum, and Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has dwindled from a fairly wide cross-section of Labour to a group of Corbyn’s most avowed (and hardline) supporters — shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.

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RELATED: Why Labour’s 2017 defeat could be much worse
than Foot’s 1983 disaster

* * * * *

But throughout the campaign — and especially after Labour’s manifesto release — Corbyn has clawed back into contention, confounding almost every prediction at the beginning of the campaign. What was supposed to be an easy victory lap for May and the Conservatives has turned into a genuine fight over the direction, not only of the Brexit negotiations that will ensue for the next two years, but of British economic policy, security policy and relations with the United States and the controversial Trump administration. One Survation poll from the weekend gave the Tories just a 1% lead; another ICM/Guardian poll taken between June 2 and 4 gave the Tories a 45% to 34% advantage. (No herding here!)

It’s believable that, after two terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and accusations on security by both sides, there’s more volatility in the electorate. If Corbyn has truly succeeded in motivating younger voters (and polls show that Labour leads among the youngest voters by as lopsided a margin as the Conservatives lead among older voters), polling expectations and weights may be incorrect. Moreover, after polling in 2015 failed to predict a Conservative majority, there’s reason to be wary.

At this point, it’s possible that May will increase her majority (currently just 12) to 30 or 40 and it will still be viewed as a ‘victory’ for Labour, because expectations were so high earlier in the campaign (a 100-plus Conservative majority). Moreover, if Labour can manage its way to a hung parliament, the arithmetic for a Labour minority government is much easier, because it will be able to look to nationalist parties in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales — and to the Liberal Democrats, potentially.

But as voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, there’s no doubt that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership is surging. Here’s why.

1. Labour’s platform under Corbyn isn’t as radical as expected 

Labour’s 2017 platform is more moderate than it looks — and would pick up many policies where the Blair-Brown governments left off. (Facebook)

Forget about the alarmist headlines — the promise of four new bank holidays, the pledge to re-nationalize Great Britain’s railways, some utilities and the post office, Corbyn’s ennui towards Brexit and the Trident anti-nuclear deterrent. When you strip Labour’s 2017 platform down to its nuts and bolts, it looks a lot like the Labour platforms under the Blair years — and what 13 years of government under New Labour looked like: a lot of spending on health care and education.

Of course, no Blairite or Brownite platform would pledge to increase corporate taxes as much as this platform does, or raise taxes on those who make more than £80,000. Nor would New Labour likely pledge to roll back tuition fees all the way to zero (though Blair introduced tuition fees, New Labour capped them at £3,000 — the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition controversially raised the cap to £9,000). But the New Labour project has been so derided as a neoliberal and neocolonial project that too many people forget the Blair-Brown governments were also social democratic governments in many ways. That’s especially under Gordon Brown as the 2007-08 financial crisis hit. Labour’s 2017 platform, in crucial ways, pledges to pick back up where the Brown government left off in 2010. Introducing tuition fees in the mid-2000s, moreover, made it possible to open more spots in higher education to working-class and poor students.

For all of Corbyn’s hard-left quirks, he’s waged a general election campaign playing to well-trodden themes that have won elections for Labour in the past. Corbyn certainly isn’t running as New Labour 2.0, but he’s also not running as Tony Benn or even Michael Foot, and  he’s shown that he can moderate his policy emphasis to appeal to a wider audience — not just his hard-core supporters, but all of Labour and potentially beyond.

That, more than anything, explains the rise in Labour’s polling numbers over the last three weeks and, especially, the rise in preference for Corbyn as prime minister over May.

Neither Corbyn nor New Labour grandees like former prime minister Tony Blair care to admit it, and Corbyn rose to the Labour leadership by denouncing Blairite policy, but the two leaders share far more in common than not. Since 2015, Corbyn has been defined by what he was against. That’s served to emphasize Corbyn’s presence on the fringes of the political mainstream (i.e. the anti-Semitism row, the friendliness with Hamas and Hezbollah, Hugo Chávez, certain militants from Northern Ireland, London mayor Ken Livingstone). Aside from the vague bromides during the pivotal Labour leadership election in the summer of 2015 (‘Jez, we can’) and from Corbyn’s ineffective and listless efforts during the 2016 Brexit referendum, no one’s judged Corbyn by what he’s for, and as it turns out, Corbyn shines far brighter in this position.

Also, say what you want about his performance as opposition leader, but Corbyn shines brightest when he’s on the campaign trail. That was true in both of his leadership campaigns in 2015 and 2016, and it’s true now in the general election.

2. A tighter race was inevitable 

Though the Scottish National Party and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon expect to maintain their support, the collapse in Liberal Democrat and UKIP support means that the two main parties could together win more aggregate support than at any time since 1979. (Facebook)

There was always a floor of Labour support that would invariably return to the Labour fold. Though Conservatives hoped a month ago that they might outpoll Labour even in Wales, that now seems ridiculously fanciful. A two-to-one victory for the Tories was always wishful thinking, not a possible reality. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s national margin of victory was 14.8%, in 1997, Tony Blair’s margin was 12.5%.

That seems clear enough from the polling trends. From the most dire to the most generous surveys, the Tories are winning anywhere from 41% to 45% of the vote, which isn’t far off from the level of support they enjoyed at the beginning of the campaign. The narrowing gap between Conservatives and Labour comes less from eroding Tory support than from winning back skeptical voters who are historically inclined to vote Labour. There’s some evidence that Corbyn’s surge comes too much from strongholds like London and Wales instead of those crucial English battlegrounds like the North East and the Midlands.

Notably, trends show that both parties will improve on their 2015 tallies because the United Kingdom’s third parties — excluding the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) — are all faring so poorly. For the first time since 1979, it’s possible that support for the two main parties will exceed 80%.

The Liberal Democrats, who hoped to rally ‘Remain’ supporters under their new leader Tim Farron, may actually win less support than the 7.9% they won two years ago. Farron spent the first half of the campaign distracted in questions about his personal religious views and LGBT rights. Many of their former supporters, certainly, will now support Labour. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has collapsed, with former leader Nigel Farage no longer around and with its raison d’être, Brexit, now accomplished. It will struggle to win even a third of the 12.7% it won two years ago.  Many of those UKIP voters, especially in the south, are boosting Tory support. Other UKIP voters, those crucial ‘Leave’ voters from the north, may be returning to Labour (though, perhaps, not all of them).

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has anchored her campaign to calls for a second, post-Brexit independence referendum, the SNP may nevertheless struggle to repeat its bravura performance in 2015, when it took 56 of 59 constituencies in Scotland. Local Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has adroitly consolidated unionist support and has emerged as the leading opposition to the separatist SNP, and the Tories expect to pick up at least a handful of seats in Scotland tomorrow.

3. May’s fumbles

Theresa May is seen to have stumbled throughout the campaign. (Facebook)

No one expected the three national party leaders in this election to have mastered campaigning at the national level, given that each of them (May, Corbyn and Farron) are each waging their first general election campaigns as leader of their respective parties.

As noted, Farron botched a promising position early on by spending the first weeks of the campaign bogged down over his personal views on LGBT rights, then betting too strongly that ‘Remain’ voters would vote entirely on Brexit and not on other issues. Corbyn, as noted above, has impressed on the campaign trail — so much so that it seems inevitable he will remain on as Labour leader, even if he loses seats on June 8.

It’s May, however, who has stunned with her truly abysmal campaigning skills. May refused to join the other party leaders last week in the sole debate and, when Corbyn decided at the last moment to show up, she looked weak and cowardly by sending home secretary Amber Rudd instead. May has waged an incredibly cautious campaign that has carefully managed interaction with regular voters. As several wits have noted, it was a mistake for the Conservatives to anchor the campaign in a personality cult for a leader who doesn’t have much of a personality. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who once had (and may still have) leadership ambitions of his own, would have shined in this regard.

Not May, who allowed Corbyn to outflank her on security earlier this week when he pilloried her for budget cuts in her six years as home secretary that reduced the total number of police.

Meanwhile, her claims of ‘strong and stable leadership’ have been derided with her u-turn over a policy that would have required some seniors to pay for their own social care — dubbed the ‘dementia tax’ by the press. If the initial policy seemed like bad politics (turning off the elderly voters than trend Conservative), her decision to abandon the policy made May look weak and panicky.

Now, even if May goes on to win a double-digit victory, she will not necessarily get the credit she deserves.

Genial former speaker Scheer wins tight contest to lead Canadian Tories

Former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer narrowly won the Conservative Party leadership on May 27. (Facebook)

There will be no populist wave — for now — set to sweep Canada.

After flirting with the harshly anti-immigrant Kellie Leitch, reality television star Kevin O’Leary and Québec libertarian and party stalwart Maxime Bernier, Canada’s Conservative Party has elected a far more mild-mannered leader in Andrew Scheer, a genial 38-year-old MP from Saskatchewan.

Think of Scheer (pronounced ‘share’) as the love child of Brad Wall (the Saskatchewan premier) and Stephen Harper (the former prime minister), but with a better smile. An MP from Regina since 2004, Scheer is the first Conservative, Progressive Conservative or Canadian Alliance leader from the province since John Diefenbaker, prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

In a sense, Scheer is the smartest choice that Canada’s Tories could have made. He is an approachable and friendly Conservative who could serve as a relatively pragmatic foil to the popular Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, whose still-high favorability ratings have slumped somewhat since his party’s landslide victory in the September 2015 election over the current budget, proposed alcohol tax increases and ongoing concerns about the state of the economy.

In Leitch, Canada’s conservatives might have tapped into a potent vein of economic anxiety and nationalist populism, though that has never traditionally been a style capable of winning a general election in Canada.

In O’Leary, at least before he dropped out, they might have tapped into a less vulgar version of Donald Trump — a novice and a showman with a fresh approach to Ottawa.

In Bernier, a former foreign minister, they might have tapped into a powerful new flavor of libertarian conservatism, from Francophone Canada, nonetheless, who was willing to put principle over surface-level popularity (as Bernier demonstrated time and again in his willingness to oppose the ‘supply management’ system that benefits dairy farmers, but which would also have lowered milk prices for consumers nationwide).

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RELATED: As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

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But in a country where ‘nice’ counts, and where Trudeau glided his way to power in no small part due to his novelty, youth and optimism, Scheer is perhaps the best-matched opponent to take on Trudeau in the next election, due sometime before October 2019. When Scheer moves into Stornoway, the official residence of the opposition leader in Ottawa, he will do so as a father of five children and fully seven years younger than Trudeau, an approachable and pragmatic prairie conservative with a telegenic family. It doesn’t hurt that Scheer grew up in Ottawa, and so he is at ease in both French and English (unlike several of his English-speaking competitors and unlike even Bernier, who speaks English with a heavy French accent). Continue reading Genial former speaker Scheer wins tight contest to lead Canadian Tories

As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

Kevin O’Leary (right) dropped out of the Conservative leadership race last week, but his endorsement of former minister Maxime Bernier (left) doesn’t guarantee Bernier’s victory. (Facebook)

It turns out that Kevin O’Leary wasn’t quite Mr. Wonderful for Canada’s Conservative Party.

Last week, on the brink of the final debate among the candidates to lead the party, the television star and businessman dropped out of the race. Arguing, oddly, that he didn’t think he could win enough votes in the French-speaking province of Quebec, O’Leary immediately endorsed Maxime Bernier.

O’Leary, the closest thing to a frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, has boosted Bernier to quasi-frontrunner status as Conservative party members begin casting ballots that will be counted by the end of May.

That doesn’t mean, however, Bernier has a lock on the leadership. Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, the former speaker of the House of Commons, has emerged as his leading alternative, though a handful of Ontario-based candidates lingering in third place could ultimately determine the outcome — or emerge as compromise candidates themselves. Continue reading As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Tim Farron has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new broad-based liberal, moderate and pro-Europe party across the United Kingdom. (Facebook)

In calling a snap election for June 8, British prime minister Theresa May has done exactly what former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown didn’t do a decade ago — taking initiative to win a personal mandate and extend her party’s majority for up to five more years.

With Labour’s likely support tomorrow, May is set to win a two-thirds majority to hold an election, in spite of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that would otherwise set the next general election for 2020 — long after the two-year negotiations triggered last month by Article 50 to leave the European Union are set to end. May and the Conservatives now hope that voters will give her an emphatic endorsement for her approach to Brexit — and a much wider majority than the 17-seat margin the Conservatives currently enjoy in the House of Commons. Though some commentators believe a wide Tory victory would make a ‘hard Brexit’ more likely, a lot of sharp commentators believe that it could give May the cushion she needs to implement a much less radical ‘soft Brexit.’

In any event, it’s not unreasonable for May to seek a snap election while EU officials pull together their negotiating positions for later this summer — since the last vote in 2015, the country’s experienced the Brexit earthquake and a change in leadership among all three national parties.

It will also come as the Tories are riding high in the polls by a margin of around 20% against Labour, now in its second year of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left leadership. If the election were held today, every indication points to a historic defeat for Labour. It’s not only the polls, which are dismal enough. Corbyn has made so many enemies among the parliamentary Labour Party that many MPs will not stand for reelection (including former home secretary Alan Johnson, one of the few genuinely popular figures around who represent ‘New Labour’).

Corbyn’s electoral record, too, is weak. When Jamie Reed, a Corbyn critic and an MP since 2005, resigned, Conservative Trudy Harrison captured his Copeland constituency by a 5% margin against the Labour candidate in a February 23 by-election. Not only was it the first gain for a governing party in a by-election since 1982, it was a seat in Labour’s once-reliable northern heartland, held without interruption since 1935.

Without a major change (and it’s hard to see anything that could swing voters on Corbyn at this point), Labour is doomed. The next 51 days will likely bring iteration after iteration of Corbyn’s political obituary, with a crescendo of the infighting within Labour that has characterized his leadership.

It will be ugly.

Labour, with 229 seats, is already near the disastrous levels of its post-war low of 1983 (just 27.6% and 209 seats), and there’s reason to believe Corbyn could still sink further. No one would laugh at the suggestion Labour might lose another 100 seats in June. For Corbyn’s opponents within Labour, the only silver lining to a snap election is that a decisive defeat could end Corbyn’s leadership now (not in 2020), giving Labour an opportunity to rebuild under a more talented and inclusive leader.

Moreover, in the wake of a call for a second referendum on independence for Scotland (which would presumably seek to rejoin the European Union), Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon could well improve the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) position — the party now holds 54 of 57 seats in Scotland with the unionist opposition divided among the three national parties.

So where does this leave anti-Brexit voters who are uncomfortable casting a vote for May’s Tories?

The Liberal Democrats. Continue reading Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Northern Ireland struggles to form government after close vote

Arlene Foster’s year as first minister ended calamitously with the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, the fall of her government and early elections. (Facebook)

It was  first set of regional elections in the United Kingdom since Brexit. 

But the impending conundrum of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland — the future of vital EU subsidy funds and the reintroduction of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that had become all but invisible within the European Union — wasn’t the only issue on the minds of Northern Irish voters when they went to the polls last Thursday.

The snap election followed a corruption scandal implicating first minister Arlene Foster — leader of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — that caused then-deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to resign from the power-sharing executive, forcing new elections, just 10 months after the prior 2016 elections.

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RELATED: Why Northern Ireland is the most serious
obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

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Politics in Northern Ireland runs along long-defined sectarian lines. Most of the region’s Protestant voters support either of the two main unionist parties — the socially conservative and pro-Brexit DUP or the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which backed the ‘Remain’ side in last June’s Brexit referendum. Most of the region’s Catholic voters support either of the two republican parties — the more leftist Sinn Féin or the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), both of which are fiercely anti-Brexit. An increasing minority of voters, however, support the non-sectarian, centrist and liberal Alliance Party.

Since the late 1990s, when the Blair government introduced devolution and a regional parliament at Stormont, and when the DUP and Sinn Féin displaced the UUP and the SDLP, respectively, as the leading unionist and republican parties, the DUP has always won first place in regional elections. That nearly changed last Thursday, as Sinn Féin came within just 1,168 votes of overtaking the DUP as the most popular party.

It leaves the DUP with just one more seat than Sinn Féin and below the crucial number of 30 that it needs to veto policies. Without 30 seats, the DUP will no longer be able to block marriage equality (Northern Ireland lags as the only UK region that hasn’t permitted same-sex marriage) or an Irish language bill that would give Gaelic equal status with English in public institutions. It was high-handed for Foster — and Peter Robinson before her — to block the popular will on both of those issues over the last decade. That, in turn, is not helping the DUP in its bid to negotiate a new power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin.

More consequentially, it leaves unionists with a clear minority for the first time since devolution — just 40 seats in the 90-seat parliament (the number of deputies dropped from 108 members for the 2017 election). Most crucially of all, the election result creates a new equilibrium for the post-election talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which are now one week into a three-week deadline to form a new power-sharing executive, as guided by the British government’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. Continue reading Northern Ireland struggles to form government after close vote

O’Leary, businessman and ‘Shark Tank’ star, wants to be Canada’s Trump

A more polite Donald Trump? Canada’s Kevin O’Leary hopes to make the same leap from business to reality TV to politics. (Facebook)

If Kevin O’Leary has his way, Donald Trump won’t be the only public official who won power as a businessman-turned-reality TV star. 

From the set of ABC’s Shark Tank — produced by Mark Burnett, who also brought Trump to the small screen with The Apprentice — O’Leary hopes to wage a campaign to bring his brusque ‘shark tank’ mindset to Canadian politics, first to the Conservative Party, then by bringing the fight to current prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Unlike Trump, however, O’Leary will at least be able to say that he’s won an Emmy.

After months of consideration, O’Leary three weeks ago entered the crowded race to lead the Tories. So far, he’s a shark who is making a splash.

O’Leary, the son of an Irish father and small businessman, got his big break in business as the founder of Softkey, a Canadian software producer, riding the wave of growth in the personal computer industry that began in the late 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. O’Leary’s financial empire, over the years, grew to include everything from investment management to physical storage services. But his real claim to fame lies as one of the stars of Dragon’s Den, a reality TV show that launched on CBC in 2006. On the show, O’Leary portrayed a no-nonsense venture capitalist judging the projects of various contestants. (Sound familiar?)

Wildly popular in Canada and, indeed, one of the most popular television programs in Canadian history, Burnett picked up the concept for American television in 2009 and turned the series into Shark Tank, where O’Leary continued to hold a leading role and quickly assumed the nickname ‘Mr. Wonderful.’

Conservative Party members increasingly believe that Mr. Wonderful may also be Mr. Right, insofar as they think O’Leary can lead them out of the Trudeau-era wilderness and back into power. They will vote in May to crown the party’s first permanent leader since prime minister Stephen Harper’s defeat in the October 2015 general election. Continue reading O’Leary, businessman and ‘Shark Tank’ star, wants to be Canada’s Trump

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

(pixelbliss / 123rf)

There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November. 

But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?

Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.

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RELATED: Leave campaign’s immigration emphasis
could trump Brexit economics

RELATED: In defense of David Cameron

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Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.

At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters.  Continue reading Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

Blair, once unstoppable in British politics, reviled as worst postwar PM

Former prime minister Tony Blair appeared a sad shadow of his once dominant self responding to the Chilcot report on the mistakes of the Iraq war.
Former prime minister Tony Blair appeared a sad shadow of his once dominant self responding to the Chilcot report on the mistakes of the Iraq war.

It’s staggering to think that the man who stood in front of a drab yellow backdrop earlier this month, still defending his decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, was the same man who once charmed the British electorate with a staggering electoral haul of 418 seats in the House of Commons that once reduced the Conservative Party to a rump movement in British politics.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Nineteen years ago, Blair bestrode British politics with a mandate that not even Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher ever claimed. To this day, the 418 seats that Blair won as the head of a re-energized, re-focused, and rechristened  ‘New’ Labour in 1997 is the most sweeping victory that any prime minister has claimed since the 1930s. To put that into perspective, if Conservative prime minister Theresa May called a snap election today, polls show that Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, would do better than the Tories in 1997, when Labour swept to power on a 12.5% national margin of victory.

Blair pulled his party out from the disastrous shadow of the 1970s, when Labour’s Britain was falling far behind continental Europe, infamously amending the Labour Party constitution’s ‘clause IV’ that committed the party to socialism and nationalization. There’s no dispute that Blair approached ‘New Labour’ with enthusiastic acceptance for much of Thatcherism and free markets. Of course, it’s fair to say that 18 consecutive years of Conservative government and dysfunctional divides in the later years of John Major’s cabinet left British voters willing to take a chance on anything. It’s not incredible to surmise that a lesser political talent — like Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, or the late John Smith, whose 1994 death paved the way for Blair’s ascension — would have won the 1997 election with ease.

But with the release of the Chilcot report’s damning verdict about the leadup to the Iraq invasion, just six words from a pre-invasion memo in 2002 to then-US president George W. Bush will forever define Blair’s legacy:

I will be with you, whatever.

Six words. But they contain everything explaining how Blair went in two decades’ time from electoral behemoth to politically radioactive. The Chilcot Report, commissioned in 2009 by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, found that Saddam Hussein in 2002 and 2003 posed no imminent threat to the United States or to the United Kingdom, that both American and British leaders embellished intelligence suggesting the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and that post-invasion planning by both US and UK officials was horrifically inadequate. In short, the worst British foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis in 1956 and, perhaps, even worse than that.

Just as David Cameron’s legacy will now begin and end with Brexit, Blair’s legacy will forever begin and end with Iraq.

Continue reading Blair, once unstoppable in British politics, reviled as worst postwar PM

Ten things that May’s elevation to No. 10 tells us about Britain’s future

Home secretary Theresa May has a clear path to succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)
Home secretary Theresa May has a clear path to succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

It’s as if an entire season of Game of Thrones swept through British politics in the space of two-and-a-half weeks.United Kingdom Flag Icon

The list of political careers in ruins runs long and deep. Prime minister David Cameron himself. Chancellor George Osborne. Former London mayor Boris Johnson. Justice secretary Michael Gove. Nigel Farage, the retiring leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Maybe even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who may enjoy the support of grassroots Labour members, but not of his parliamentary party.

Monday brought another casualty of the post-Brexit era: energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, who withdrew from the September leadership contest for the Conservative Party leadership. The decision came just four days after Tory MPs pitted Leadsom (with 84 votes) in a runoff against home secretary Theresa May (with 199 votes), eliminating Gove (with just 46 MPs supporting him).

Leadsom, who supported the Leave campaign in the June 23 referendum, had garnered the support of the eurosceptic Tory right, including endorsements from former leader Iain Duncan Smith and other Leave campaign heavy-hitters like Johnson and even Farage. But Leadsom struggled to adapt to the public stage as a figure virtually unknown outside of Westminster a week or two ago (reminiscent in some ways of Chuka Umunna’s aborted Labour leadership campaign last year).

Though she promised to bring far more rupture to Conservative government than May, Leadsom also struggled to defend against charges that she embellished her record as an executive in the financial sector before turning to politics. Over the weekend, she suffered a backlash after suggesting she would be a better leader because she (unlike May) had children.

tory 2016

It was always an uphill fight for Leadsom, despite the rebellious mood of a Tory electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and was clearly attracted to Leadsom’s more radical approach. May, a more cautious figure, supported the Remain campaign during the referendum, though she largely avoiding making strong statements either for or against EU membership. At one point, she argued that the United Kingdom should leave the European Court on Human Rights (a position that she has disavowed now as a leadership contender).

So what happens next? And what do the prior 18 days portend for the policies and politics of the May government?  Continue reading Ten things that May’s elevation to No. 10 tells us about Britain’s future

Who is Michael Gove?

Michael Gove will now stand for leader, upsetting Boris Johnson's hopes to become the next prime minister. (Getty)
Michael Gove will now stand for leader, upsetting Boris Johnson’s hopes to become the next prime minister. (Getty)

It was a standard assumption throughout the United Kingdom’s EU membership referendum that former London mayor Boris Johnson supported the ‘Leave’ side due in large part to his ambitions of succeeding David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and then as prime minister.United Kingdom Flag Icon

At one point, Amber Rudd, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, in a debate over Brexit, argued that the only number that Johnson was interested in was the number 10 — as in 10 Downing Street. And that was from a rising star in Johnson’s own party.

When Johnson made his high-profile decision to join the Leave camp, he did so shortly after another top figure in Tory politics made the same decision — Michael Gove, previously a close Cameron confidante and justice secretary, but whose main mark on government had been four years of tumultuous (and often divisive) reforms as Britain’s education secretary.

Gove entered politics at Cameron’s request, and he was so close to the prime minister that he served as godfather to Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan (who sadly died in 2009). It was a blow to Cameron when Gove declared his support for the Leave campaign, and the two’s once-solid friendship is reportedly strained.

After weeks of campaigning alongside Johnson and emerging on the winning side of the referendum debate, however, Gove’s declaration this morning of his own leadership contest has strained far more than a friendship, upending British politics in a week when every hour seems to bring a shocking new twist. Indeed, Gove’s leadership challenge and his ‘more in sadness than in anger’ conclusion that Johnson wasn’t up to the task of being prime minister will now define Gove’s political future. Just as Ed Miliband never fully escaped the cloak of treachery in pipping his own brother, the far more experienced former foreign minister David Miliband, for the Labour Party leadership, Gove’s eleventh-hour change of heart will dominate the narrative of the campaign ahead. Nigel Evans said that Gove had ‘stabbed Boris in the front,’ and even Johnson, in his remarks in withdrawing from the leadership race, paraphrased Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, subtly comparing Gove to Brutus, the friend-turned-assassin.

When a private email to Gove from Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, was accidentally leaked to the press yesterday, it showed that Gove and his private circle held considerable doubts about a Johnson government. In closing out her email, Vine advised Gove to ‘be his stubborn best.’

It seems that Gove was far more stubborn than anyone believed possible when he made a late-night decision to stand for the leadership himself — Johnson found out along with the British press this morning as Gove announced his plans:

In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take.

Gove will be a formidable candidate. He comes to the Tory leadership race, presumably, with many (though not all) of the MPs who were prepared to support Johnson and Gove as something of a joint ticket (with the implication that Gove would serve as Johnson’s chancellor and a guarantor that a Johnson government wouldn’t go wobbly on Brexit).

But while Johnson may have indeed been a fair-weather convert to Brexit, no one should doubt Gove’s long-held euroscepticism. It comes, in part, from Gove’s own background, watching the fishing business that his father and grandfather built destroyed by European competition in the 1970s. If Johnson brought the personality and ‘star power’ to the Leave campaign, Gove brought with him the accumulated credibility of one of the Conservative Party’s brightest and most committed reformists. Though Johnson and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage perhaps won more headlines, Gove was also in the mix, making a credible case for Brexit, earning plaudits as the ‘brains’ of the Leave campaign.

After leaving Oxford, Gove entered the media world and quickly became one of the lights of the right-wing press. When he came to politics in 2005, winning election to parliament from the southeastern English constituency of Surrey Heath, he was part of Cameron’s original ‘Notting Hill’ set that included chancellor George Osborne, whose vigorous support for the Remain campaign eliminated his long-held wishes of succeeding Cameron as prime minister. On social policy, Gove has always been as progressive as Cameron or Osborne — he supported providing marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the 2013 landmark parliamentary vote, for example.

Upon the Conservative victory in the 2010 general election and Cameron’s governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gove became secretary of state for education, and he used the position to upend the state of English education for the next four years. To this day, Gove is a figure of hatred and scorn among British teachers for the pace and extent of the policy reforms he initiated. As education secretary, he uncoupled schools from local authorities (giving them more freedom) while introducing all sorts of micromanaging revisions to the English curriculum (thereby taking away much of that freedom). He made it easier for researchers to access information about education and schools to determine which strategies are performing well.

Though Cameron, in part due to howls of protest from teachers, demoted him to chief whip in 2014, Gove was appointed secretary of state for justice in 2015, where he has had much less time to implement deep reforms. (He did, however, discontinue a court fee introduced by his predecessor Chris Grayling).

Gove will now make the case that only a Leave supporter — unlike his chief competitor, home secretary Theresa May — can credibly assume the premiership after the decision in last Thursday’s referendum. He will also argue that, unlike May, he alone is willing to hold firm in negotiations with the remaining 27 member-states of the European Union. As one of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Gove will begin with significant support among the Tory eurosceptic backbenches. If he winds up as one of the final two contenders, he may find that his Leave support will be rewarded among those rank-and-file Tory members who will determine the winner of the runoff this summer. His starring role in the Leave campaign may have made him far more palatable to Tory rank-and-file who now see him less as an Oxbridge policy nerd and more of a crusader for their own (anti-EU) values.

But as Hugo Dixon noted earlier today, Gove is a something of a radical — more so than just a small-c conservative — and that separates him from Cameron, May and perhaps even Johnson. In light of the rapid pace of political developments, however, there’s no guarantee that Gove will even make it into the wider runoff. Work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb has already amassed several high-profile endorsements and the support of nearly 20 MPs. If Gove helped put Johnson on the pile of so many would-be prime ministers who never quite made it out of the starting gate — Michael Portillo, Kenneth Clarke, David Miliband — no one should be surprised if Gove himself winds up behind May and Crabb in the parliamentary voting that will take place in the first two weeks of July. Unlike Johnson, May or Crabb, Gove has something of an awkward, even oddball, personality, and Gove himself has many times said that he lacks the talent to be prime minister.

Then again, after getting the best of one-time mentor Cameron and one-time ally Johnson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gove thrive, either.

Corbyn suffers massive parliamentary revolt as Labour unravels

Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it's not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)
Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it’s not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)

A few months ago, I argued that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a tailor-made opportunity with the EU membership referendum. United Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that working-class Labour voters would be likely to determine the result, Corbyn could have shown that he has what it takes on the most crucial national referendum in decades. Most importantly, for a nervous set of Labour MPs warily eyeing a general election in 2020 or even sooner, it would show that Corbyn could actually win votes.

 Corbyn, who fought a lonely fight in the 1970s and 1980s against Margaret Thatcher, then increasingly against his own party’s moderate ‘third way’ leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, was uniquely placed to win back those voters in northern England, many of whom supported Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 general election. Of course, they are the voters who also voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Sadly, Corbyn had the kind of credibility that could have brought more working-class voters in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands to the Remain camp.

As it turns out, Labour supporters backed Remain by the considerable margin of 69% to 31%. But that 31% that supported Leave could have made the difference between failure and victory.

Today, as over 80% of the Labour Party’s MPs have delivered a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, and as Corbyn now faces — at minimum — a humiliating new leadership challenge, it’s clear that his lackluster performance in the ‘Brexit’ referendum has energized his opponents and caused even longtime supporters to reassess his ability or willingness to make the case to voters.
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