There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Darkness before the dawn

On the eve of what promises to be another disastrous electoral experience for the Conservative party, what little authority Theresa May still has is rapidly draining away, as cabinet ministers openly question her judgment, and backbenchers bay for her immediate resignation.

This might be amusing, were it not for the fact that the main beneficiaries of the Tory meltdown look likely to be the extreme right, currently coalescing around the Brexit party. With the pro-Remain vote split, the resulting narrative seems set to be one of triumph for the forces of reaction.

I’m not too discouraged by this though. The immediate practical consequence will be that the next Conservative leader, most likely Boris Johnson, will feel obliged to pull the party even further rightward, which does not seem like a strategy for success in the general election which must surely happen sometime before October. Assuming that Labour move far enough towards promising a second referendum to capture most of the votes of the anti-Brexit constituency, we might well have a progressive government before the end of the year.

Local confusion

After a relative period of calm over the Easter holidays, politics has broken out again with a vengeance, as voters had their first chance to deliver a verdict on the Brexit debacle in the local elections.

But what was that verdict? Superficially it seems obvious; the populace is mightily pissed-off with the establishment parties. This mainly affected the Conservatives, who lost over 1300 seats, but also Labour, who failed to make any progress, despite the Tory meltdown; instead the beneficiaries were the Lib Dems and the Greens, plus a host of independent candidates.

The cause of this mass disaffection is less clear-cut though. Are people annoyed that Brexit hasn’t been delivered, or are they signalling that they want a second referendum? The gains posted by the Liberals and the Greens suggest that the latter is true, but the absence of an unambiguously pro-Brexit alternative to the Conservatives on most of the ballots may have limited the scale of the anti-EU protest. In any case the results are skewed by the fact that important remain heartlands like Scotland and London weren’t voting in this cycle.

Of course this uncertainty hasn’t stopped politicians from all parties declaring that this outcome unequivocally supports their position, whether that is Leave or Remain, and it seems unlikely that there will be any significant changes as a result of it. It does increase the pressure on Theresa May to somehow secure a deal in time to cancel the European parliament elections at the end of the month, since that poll is likely to be even more of a horror show for the Tories, but the Westminster numbers just don’t add up; the concessions that might get Labour on board – a customs union, perhaps a confirmatory vote – would alienate large swathes of her own party. Labour have little incentive to help her out; they may do badly in the Euro vote, but the Conservatives will undoubtedly do worse, and the fallout may precipitate the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been aiming for all along.

So, we’re back on the Brexit rollercoaster; no doubt the political classes will be up to fever pitch by the time we vote on the 23rd. I’ll try to keep up the commentary, but it might all get too much…

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Once more on Wikileaks

It’s nearly seven years since we last posted about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; our take at that time was that freedom of information was a good thing, but that promoting it didn’t give anyone a pass for sexual assault.

Now that Assange’s falling-out with the Ecuadorian government has brought the issue back into the news, should we reconsider our position? Since 2012 the waters have been significantly muddied by the role played by Wikileaks in the 2016 US election, but I see no reason to think differently; we would oppose his extradition to the US on hacking charges, but think he should answer the rape accusations in Sweden.

More broadly, I think the last decade has seen a change in the way that the ruling class tries to control information. Keeping secrets by throwing people like Assange (or Chelsea Manning, who is much more deserving of support) in jail seems old-fashioned; it’s more effective to undermine the whole concept of objective truth by flooding the internet with conspiracy theories, so that any real scandal that leaks out can be plausibly dismissed as fake news. Social media, which promised to democratise information flow, has instead concentrated control in the hand of a few secretive corporations, with links to government that we can only speculate about.

We’ve known since the days of Marx that workers’ control of the economic levers of society is a precondition for progressive change, but economics is not everything; Gramsci illuminated the importance of cultural hegemony in maintaining the dominance of capital. Today our culture is more than ever mediated through the control of information; transferring that control from the bourgeoisie to the masses is perhaps the most pressing task facing revolutionaries in this era. The lesson of the Wikileaks story is that such work is too important to be left to fallible individuals; it must be a collective, democratic enterprise.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.

Neighbourly intervention

Back home again, to the news that the EU 27, presumably motivated by a mixture of pity and self-interest, seem set to offer the UK an extension of article 50 until the end of the year, thus saving us from crashing out this Friday, on the condition that we use the time to get our collective shit together.

That is perhaps asking more of us than we can deliver; the immediate consequence of the delay will be to oblige the country to participate in the European elections, which seem likely to turn into a rerun by proxy of the 2016 referendum. I guess it’s possible that the nation will take the opportunity to engage in some serious reflection and respectful debate, before coming to a considered decision that everyone can live with, but, you know, probably not.

So it looks like, come December, if not before, our continental relatives will once again be asking themselves if this relationship is really worth putting any more work into, or whether they should let us get on with fucking ourselves up, and wait for us to crawl back in remorse at some point in the future.

Comforting distance

I’m posting this from a location deep in central Europe; I’d love to say that I’d moved here permanently, to escape the madness of political life in the UK, but, alas, I’m just here temporarily for a business trip.

I’ve been in transit for the last few days, only partially aware of the news from home, but I’ve caught up a bit more today. Theresa May seems to have switched back to conciliatory mode, offering to form a united front with Labour to find a way through the Brexit impasse, though the consensus among left-leaning commentators, with which I am inclined to concur, is that she is negotiating in bad faith, in the hope of frightening her own party into finally backing her deal. It appears doubtful that the ERG, having held out so far, will crack at the eleventh hour however, and in any case Labour, understandably wary of sharing any blame for the debacle, would most likely make any agreement conditional on confirmation by a popular vote, an outcome May has vowed to resist.

Meanwhile, in Brussels the EU, adamant that there will be no further short extension to article 50, are stepping up preparations for an unruly UK exit on April 12th, and in Westminster the desperate parliamentary manoeuvring which seeks to wrest control of the process away from the government looks doomed to failure. It’s very difficult to remain optimistic. Perhaps I should cash in my return ticket and apply for political asylum…

Uncoupled from reality

Tomorrow will see the latest in the ever-lengthening series of “decisive” parliamentary votes on Brexit. Having apparently given up all hope of winning a majority for her plan, Theresa May is now inviting MPs to simply approve withdrawal in principle, with the details of the final political settlement to be worked out at some unspecified time in the future.

May evidently hopes that, presented with a blank screen, people will project their own ideal outcome, in much the same way as they did in the original referendum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, exactly the opposite is happening, as leavers anticipate betrayal of their fantasy departure, while remainers fear the prospect of a deal negotiated by May’s successor as Tory leader, who will undoubtedly be a europhobic head-banger.

It all seems certain to be in vain though, since the DUP are not on board, the ERG are unconvinced, and there is no sign that Labour Party discipline is about to break down.

Predictions that the final act in this tragedy is at hand have been wrong before, but time is desperately short now, and May cannot continue to simultaneously threaten remainers with no-deal and leavers with no-exit; both groups have called her bluff and she will have to choose which trigger to pull.

She could request a long extension of article 50, and persuade the EU to grant it by promising a general election. That would mean agreeing to participate in the European elections too, but that bitter pill could be sweetened by holding both polls on the same day. Whatever government emerged from the process would have an unquestionable mandate to sort out the mess, and we could all move on.

That solution seems reasonable. Which is why it will probably never happen.

Tactical resignation

As the Commons debated several more or less fantastic solutions to the Brexit conundrum this evening, without coming to any conclusion, Theresa May decided on a last roll of the dice, and promised that she would vacate the office of Prime Minister if her party would only support her deal, at the third time of asking.

Will this gamble succeed? As I write, it is still unclear. Boris Johnson, never one to allow principle to stand in the way of his ambition, has declared he will now back May’s plan; Jacob Rees-Mogg and other relatively sensible members of the ERG are wavering; more fanatical leavers like Steve Baker are standing firm in their opposition. Crucially, the DUP seem unconvinced, so the numbers aren’t really adding up in May’s favour.

In any case it is not certain that the Speaker will allow another vote, though I guess that John Bercow might shy away from precipitating an even greater constitutional crisis if it looked like the deal had a chance of getting through.

So it appears that the nation’s agony will continue for another week at least. I still think we’re heading for a general election, but there will be plenty twists to come before then.