Transatlantic distraction

It’s been a relatively quiet day in British politics, after yesterday’s excitement, though I guess it’s a sign of what a febrile state the country is in when the sight of the Prime Minister scuttling around the continent in the vain hope of finding some support in foreign capitals, while back home her own party plots to depose her, counts as only moderately notable.

It makes me nostalgic for the days when we smug Brits could look across the ocean, and laugh at our American cousins as they elected a cartoonish huckster to the highest office in the land. Now the boot is on the other foot, as the US, and indeed the whole world, watches our national descent into irrationality with unbelieving amusement.

Donald Trump can still be relied upon to deliver some diversion; today’s televised tantrum about shutting down the government if he doesn’t get the money to build his wall certainly raised a chuckle or two, and the unfolding Mueller probe promises more entertainment in the months to come.

But these will be only brief distractions; I’m resigned to it being a nonstop Brexit horror show round here for the foreseeable future.

The lady is very much for turning

Well, once again we see that one underestimates the incompetence of British politicians at one’s peril. Having adamantly stuck to the line that there would be no postponement of the vote on the Brexit deal, the government this afternoon performed a shameless volte-face and deferred said vote to some unspecified time in the future.

The ostensible reason for this is to allow Theresa May to travel to Brussels and negotiate a better deal, but, unsurprisingly, the general reaction in European capitals has been a rolling of eyes, a muttering of the local version of “FFS”, and a reiteration of the unanimous EU position that the offer on the table will not be changed.

Since it is inconceivable that May could have expected any other response, one can only conclude that this latest manoeuvre is an attempt to bounce nervous Remainers into backing her, by wasting time that could have been used to craft a better alternative to the nightmare of a no-deal scenario.

Will this work? One might think that, faced with such a cynical ploy, Parliament would rise up and hold the executive to account, but that, I fear, is to expect too much. There could be a lot of sound and fury in the next few days, but she might just get away with it.

Waiting for Tuesday

Attentive readers may have noticed that I’ve fallen a bit behind with my promised daily updates on the UK political situation, but in my defence I’d point out that a) it’s been the weekend, with festive socialising to be done; and b) nothing much has changed on the Brexit front, unless you count the rumours of Theresa May having a cunning plan, which involves postponing the parliamentary vote until she has been back to Brussels to extract some major concessions from the EU, a scheme which would be harebrained even by the recent standards of British political life.

There may be something more to report tomorrow, though a significant change in the immediate outlook seems very unlikely. The government will almost certainly lose the vote on Tuesday, but after that it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. My feeling is that there will perhaps be less chaos than some are predicting; the ruling class in this country does have a history of cobbling together compromises when the alternative is complete disaster, so some sort of resolution will surely emerge. We’ll know soon enough.

Debate fatigue

The mobile internet was broken today, so I wasn’t able to obsessively follow the news like I usually do, but it didn’t really matter, since nothing much has changed in the political landscape since yesterday; it still looks like the government is going to suffer a heavy defeat next week, and nobody knows what will happen after that.

There was an interesting YouGov poll published today, which suggested that, while practically no one ranked Theresa May’s deal as their first choice, a clear majority did choose it as their least-bad option, when the alternatives were no-deal or no-Brexit. If this is a true reflection of popular sentiment (and YouGov are fairly reliable) then May should be feeling confident; unfortunately for her though the electorate she has to convince is not the nation at large, but their parliamentary representatives, who, all the evidence suggests, are much less convinced of the merits of compromise.

There is talk of the fateful vote being postponed, presumably in the hope of a mass outbreak of reasonableness. Stranger things have happened I guess, but such a course of action seems most likely to just prolong our agony. I’m coming round to the idea that any decision will be better than continued uncertainty, so that we can start dealing with whatever mess we end up in.

Pete Shelley RIP

Sad news tonight of the sudden death of punk icon Pete Shelley, lead singer of the legendary Buzzcocks.

I was too young to see the band in their original incarnation, but I got into them towards the end of my school days, and listened to them a lot when I was in college, a time in my life when lovelorn pop-punk was exactly the right soundtrack. Of course I eventually grew out of that phase, and it’s a good while since I last put on one of their records, but I still turn the sound up, and dance around a bit, if they come on the radio.

Anyway, here’s my favourite Buzzcocks tune – how could it ever let me down?

Risky business

In today’s main Brexit-related development, the Government reluctantly released the full text of the legal assessment of the proposed deal, which confirmed that the much-discussed Irish backstop could not be unilaterally terminated by the UK.

In itself, this is not really new information, since both Theresa May and attorney general Geoffrey Cox had previously admitted as much, though not in such stark language. In the debate yesterday Cox made the perfectly reasonable point that lawyers can only identify potential difficulties; the decision whether the risk is worth taking is a political one. May’s argument is that it is extremely unlikely that the backstop will become permanent, if indeed it is ever activated, since both the UK and the EU would be keen to end it, and thus the gamble is justified to win the prize of a deal.

May’s opinion may be accurate, but it doesn’t matter; the mere possibility, however remote, that the backstop will persist is enough to give cover to the faction within the Tory party who are determined to oppose any agreement that fails to correspond with their delusional ideals, allowing them to present themselves as patriotic defenders of national integrity, rather than fanatical wreckers.

Still the doomed process stumbles on; there are another six days of this to endure before the parliamentary vote puts the deal out of its misery, and the real politics can begin. Of course that is when things may start to get even more ugly, but hopefully whatever relatively sensible elements remain within the ruling class will have their minds concentrated enough to steer us away from disaster.

Early update

The first skirmishes in the Brexit debate did not go well for Theresa May. She managed to lose three Commons votes in a single day, something no government has done since the 1970s, and a clear indication that she is losing control of the narrative. Her strategy depends entirely on convincing MPs that there is no sane alternative to her compromise plan, but it is increasingly evident that nobody really believes that. Parliament is polarising around a straight choice between a hard exit and staying in the EU, but it’s still unclear if either position can be sure of commanding a majority.

Some encouragement was given to the Remain cause today with the opinion from the ECJ advocate general, likely to be upheld by the full court, that the UK can call off its departure by unilaterally deactivating article 50. This, along with the vote affirming Parliament’s right to propose a plan B if and when May’s deal is rejected next week, signals a possible escape route. Another referendum would be needed to give this course of action some democratic legitimacy though.

Despite this, Leavers still have the advantage, since Brexit is the default position, so all they have to do is to frustrate any other plan for the next couple of months, a goal which they seem more than capable of achieving. If that doesn’t work they might be tempted to accept another plebiscite, in the hope that they will win again, an outcome which, although terrifying, is not unimaginable.

So, it’s no exaggeration to say that the next few days might shape the country’s destiny for a generation or two. It would be nice to think that our political class was up to the job, but the very fact that we are in this mess suggests otherwise. We’ll know the answer before too long I guess, but in the meantime there’s nothing to do but wait until the immediate drama has played out, then try to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

For the ages

I’ve been on the planet for a few decades now, so inevitably I’ve lived through some pretty momentous historical developments, some of which I’ve noticed at the time, like the end of Apartheid, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many more, no doubt, that have passed me by, and will only become evident later.

Anyway, everyone is saying that the looming constitutional crisis over Brexit is going to be an upheaval of similarly epochal significance, so I figured that I should try to make a record of it, by blogging every day until the all-important parliamentary vote, currently set for next Tuesday.

Theresa May seems to be sticking to her plan to rally a majority behind her patched-together deal by convincing Remainers that the alternative is a hard Brexit, while simultaneously telling Leavers that in opposing her they risk ending up with no Brexit at all. To be fair to her, it’s difficult to see what else she could do in the circumstances, and the first part of the equation could have worked out, since even the most committed Europhiles might have blinked when confronted with the threat of a no-deal disaster, as long as the fall-back position was May’s proposal, which is unpleasant, but not catastrophic. However the hard-core Brexiteers seem determined to wreck any arrangement that conflicts with their reactionary fantasies, which means that anything even vaguely in touch with reality will fail to win them over. Since any attempt at compromise seems doomed, Remainers have the motivation they need to gamble on paralysing the process and forcing a second referendum. Crucially, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be coming round to the idea of a repeat vote, as the proposition that Labour could negotiate a better deal collides with the determination of the EU to give no more ground.

Five days have been set aside for the debate, though it’s difficult to see why, since the parliamentary arithmetic seems unlikely to change. The really interesting developments won’t happen until the vote is lost anyhow. Watch this space.

Falling standards

I know that the passage of time tends to smooth off the rough edges of history, but it’s still been rather disconcerting to read the obituaries of the late George Herbert Walker Bush, in which he is portrayed as a wise statesman who skilfully navigated the treacherous international waters of the early 90s, and not, as I remember him being thought of at the time, as an out-of-touch elitist who oversaw an economic nosedive, and suffered the ignominy of being thrown out of office after only one term. Establishment commentators have generally downplayed his domestic shortcomings, and focused on his role in cementing US hegemony in the post-Soviet world, as demonstrated by his orchestration of the 1991 Gulf War, taking for granted that this development was a good thing, which is of course debatable.

I guess the present incumbent has reset expectations to such a degree that the 41st President’s failings now seem more forgivable, and, to be fair, he was clearly dedicated to public service, albeit in a patrician fashion, rather than personal enrichment. Still, I suspect that, when posterity draws up the rankings, HW will be firmly mid-table – not as bad as Harding or Buchanan, but no Lincoln or Roosevelt.

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