CLUTCHING AT CONSTITUTIONAL STRAWS

An especially inspired sequence in the landmark 90s satire series ‘The Day Today’ featured Steve Coogan as a historian urging viewers to throw out the history books when video surfaced of PM John Major having a fight with the Queen; it was an unprecedented constitutional crisis that the news programme presented by Chris Morris responded to by cutting to a pre-prepared film assuring the Great British public everything was going to be alright. A montage of the kind of clichéd images of Albion once reserved for party political broadcasts by the Tories followed, with the addition of a uniformed PC sharing a spliff with a black reveller at the Notting Hill Carnival.

At times of actual constitutional crises, the history books aren’t so much thrown out as dug up. The uncertain state of affairs Theresa May is currently doing her best to turn a blind eye to as she carries on regardless isn’t necessarily unprecedented, though it’s been a while since we experienced this kind of mess. Yes, we had similar situations in 1974 and 2010, though both scenarios were resolved with the incumbent Prime Minister standing down; this is different, in that May has decided to stay put and labours under the misapprehension she will govern the country for the next five years. It’s possible she could stagger on with a minority Government as the Labour Party did from 1974-79, too fearful of calling another Election in the next few months; but the postponement of the Queen’s Speech suggests her desperation to hang on by using the crutch of the Brexit negotiations to justify her position is something new.

Theresa May went through the motions by dropping in for a chat with Her Majesty on Friday, but the haste with which she did so – in contrast to Ted Heath and Gordon Brown in 1974 and 2010 respectively, who both spent days contemplating coalitions – was another indication of her refusal to accept the reality of the situation; she simply acted as if she’d achieved a majority and it was business as usual. Her behaviour certainly contrasts with one of her Tory PM predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.

The result of the 1923 General Election saw the incumbent Conservative administration of Baldwin finish with the highest number of seats (268), but a long way from achieving a majority. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour was in second place to the Tories with 191 seats while Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberals ran a close third with 158. The age of three party politics was writ large back then; 1923 was the last occasion in which a third party won over 100 seats. Stanley Baldwin had succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as PM seven months previously, but sought his own mandate when he could easily have waited another four years. Sound familiar?

Baldwin’s gamble backfired and when Asquith offered tacit support to MacDonald (assuming Labour wouldn’t last long as the governing party, thus allowing the Liberals back in), Baldwin had the decency to fall on his sword after Parliament reconvened in January 1924 (the Election had been held in December), following the rejection of the King’s Speech. George V then invited MacDonald to form a minority administration. This first Labour Government only lasted ten months, defeated in the Commons on a motion of no confidence, the same action that brought down Baldwin; but when Ramsay MacDonald had taken charge, he didn’t have to form a coalition to make up the numbers or prove he had a functional majority. Interesting.

Five years later, Ramsay MacDonald was back in Downing Street; this time round, Labour had won a plurality of seats (287 to the Tories’ 260), despite having a lower share of the vote than Baldwin’s party and being some distance from having a majority. Again, the Liberals – this time with Lloyd George at the helm and boasting 59 seats – held the balance of power and once more supported Labour. Baldwin, already under immense pressure to quit by the powerful press barons of the day, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, decided enough was enough and resigned as PM, though he hung on as Tory leader and even returned to No.10 six years later, eventually handing over the reins of power to Neville Chamberlain in 1937. Parliamentarians certainly knew the meaning of staying power then.

Yes, these examples are now so far back in time that one would have to be well over 100 to remember them, but they show how nothing is cut and dried when even the largest party in the Commons fails to reach a majority. In his book, ‘English Public Law’, Professor David Feldman is quoted as saying ‘If there is a Hung Parliament…the monarch invites first the incumbent Prime Minister to continue in office; if (they) are unable to do so, then the leader of the largest opposition party is appointed Prime Minister’. Those are the rules of the game and ones that all party leaders should be aware of before they embark upon an Election campaign.

If this is the system Parliament is determined to retain, then Theresa May can’t complain when finishing with the greatest number of seats still means she can’t command a majority and faces potential defeat should Labour and its ideological allies reject her delayed Queen’s Speech. If May fails to get her Queen’s Speech through Parliament, we could still end up with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, regardless of the numbers, and Labour wouldn’t have to enter into formal coalition with any other party for that to happen. It ain’t over yet, then.

© The Editor

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THE COALITION OF CHAOS

Once politicians cease to be politicians, it’s interesting how they belatedly come across as human beings; flicking between BBC and ITV coverage on Thursday night, I found the Saint & Greavsie double-act of George Osborne and Ed Balls on the latter quite entertaining and almost forgot why both provoked such loathing in me when they were in power. Perhaps there is a human being lurking somewhere in Theresa May and we won’t see it until she’s out of office; I would imagine most right now are thinking that day can’t come quick enough.

Anyone watching events on TV since Thursday night, albeit with the volume muted, might have found the images misleading. They could have come to the conclusion that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Prime Minister and that both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon were reflecting on relegation to the opposition benches. The expressions of the three party leaders mentioned were more a reflection of results catching them all by surprise. Jezza clearly never expected to do so well; May and Sturgeon never expected to do so badly. At the end of the day, Labour may still be in opposition and the Tories and SNP may still be the biggest parties in England and Scotland respectively, but the latter two both misjudged the public mood and paid the price. May is worse off now than when she called the Election and Sturgeon’s obsession with a second Independence Referendum has seen her lose 21 seats.

If the result of last year’s EU Referendum should have taught party leaders anything it was that the electorate don’t take kindly to condescending, smug, self-righteous arrogance in their elected representatives, and given half a chance they’ll reject being told what to do and how to vote by a pampered Parliamentary elite totally detached from their own lives. It would also appear that the antiquated assault on Corbyn by Fleet Street, utilising tired old tactics that seemed to work in the distant 80s, utterly backfired; our newspapers, like our politicians, still labour under the belief that the Sun can win it; it can’t. Few under 40 even buy newspapers now and the huge increase in the youth vote facilitated by Labour’s canny employment of the cyber language the majority of youth speak resulted in the highest turnout since 1992.

Jezza may have provided Labour with what was apparently the party’s biggest increase in the share of the vote since Clement Attlee, but it’s seats that count when it comes to a General Election. Sorry to take us back to February 1974 again, but it’s always worth remembering that Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals received the largest share of the vote in the party’s history in that Election – greater than even the share they had in the Liberal landslide of 1906 – yet that only resulted in a paltry 14 seats. Similarly, May’s Conservatives won their largest share of the vote since Thatcher’s 1983 landslide this time round, yet their majority was wiped out. A good deal of these statistics could be attributed to the fact that the vote has been less thinly spread in 2017, with the two major parties claiming 82.4% of it, the first time since the 1970 General Election that Labour and Tory could claim such dominance over the other parties.

Were it not for the fact that the Brexit negotiations are imminent, I’ve no doubt Philip May would never have to put the Downing Street bins out again; as it is, the Tories are postponing Madame Guillotine for the moment, but it’s only a postponement. Theresa May is a dead woman walking after Thursday’s result, our own equivalent of a lame duck US President midway through a second term, knowing re-election is out of the question. Yes, her two toxic advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have walked the plank today (May ‘laying down her friends for her life’, perhaps); but their ex-boss’s brief speech after visiting Brenda yesterday, bereft of any acknowledgement of the disaster she’d presided over, spoke volumes. Theresa May is in serious denial of her own shortcomings, refusing to accept what is evident to everyone else, her own party included.

For all the success Labour managed, the fact remains that this is the third General Election in a row the party has lost; it now has more seats than it has been able to boast since 2005, but had it managed to push the Tories as tight it did under Harold Wilson in February 1974 the outcome of this Election could have been far closer and Jezza could have a more legitimate claim to form a Government than contemplating a half-arsed coalition comprising Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP that still wouldn’t constitute a majority. However, for all the scaremongering stories about Corbyn’s good relations with Sinn Fein – standing alongside Adams and McGuinness well in advance of all the Prime Ministers that have done just that from the Good Friday Agreement onwards – the irony that Theresa May is having to reach out to the Democratic Unionist Party to prop-up her minority administration, a party whose past association with Loyalist paramilitaries is hardly spotless, can’t have escaped Corbyn.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been in chaos for months now, and the Tories throwing their lot in with the Unionist side, regardless of the traditional ties between the two, hardly looks like fair play from a Nationalist perspective. Playing the impartial broker of the peace process has been the British Government’s role ever since 1998, and May’s desperate move to cling onto power will merely add to the political turmoil in Ulster at a time when the border with the Republic in the wake of Brexit has already provoked enough uneasiness across the Irish Sea. As for the DUP’s conservative stance on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, which has received the most coverage on social media, they’re largely typical of the hardline Protestant mindset in Northern Ireland, just as they are of the hardline Muslim mindset in the rest of the UK (Ooh – Islamophobia!); but that shouldn’t be the reason why this awkward alliance is a worry.

Yet, regardless of how both last year’s Leave vote and the inconclusive result of Thursday’s General Election have served as evidence of just how disunited this kingdom really is, the PM is content to keep churning out the vacuous slogans and sound-bites she thinks will save her own skin at the expense of the country. Considering I avoided predictions when the snap Election was called, I still imagined a Conservative landslide would be the outcome and said as much. I’m glad to have been proven wrong, but God knows what comes next. Only a fool would be a betting man right now, and I can at least admit I’ve never set foot in a betting-shop.

© The Editor

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A MESS OF THE BLUES

Even a face that gives away as little as possible as Theresa May’s couldn’t conceal the immense disappointment and disbelief at the catastrophic failure of her gamble last night; watching the declaration in Maidenhead, it was evident the PM couldn’t quite believe the General Election she could have waited another three years to call hadn’t seen her sweep all before her. The poll published a few days ago that predicted a Hung Parliament was dismissed by the experts, yet the shock of the exit poll unveiled at 10.00pm, strongly hinting that the party with a runaway lead over the opposition just a couple of months back wouldn’t get a majority, also seemed too good to be true; and yet, it has come to pass.

Flashbacks to February 1974 were hard to avoid as the fascinating saga unfolded; like Ted Heath (if for different reasons), Theresa May had called a snap Election confident she would trounce the competition; it was undoubtedly a gamble, but one she entered into with unassailable arrogance and an assumption she would walk it. Like Heath, May is in possession of a rather chilly aloofness and doesn’t appear very comfortable confronting the electorate, so did her best to avoid them; even putting the shoddy manifesto aside, this didn’t play well with the public. May also has the same stubborn intransigence as Heath, refusing to countenance advice from anyone outside of her close-knit cabal; her determination to cling onto power after failing to achieve a majority – when the outset of the campaign suggested a landslide – is another characteristic she shares with her 70s predecessor.

The main difference between June 2017 and February 1974, though, is that the two main parties were far closer then than this time round; however storming and surprising a performance by Labour, they’re still nowhere near having enough seats to legitimately form an administration without entering into coalition. Harold Wilson was in a far stronger position 43 years ago. One other factor that distinguishes 2017 from 1974 is that, unlike Heath, the PM has entered into an agreement with Unionists in Ulster; at one time, the Tories could always rely on Unionist support, though Heath lost it in the wake of Sunningdale; had he been able to call on it, he would probably have remained PM. May’s deal with the DUP, emphasised by her brief lectern speech this lunchtime – when she tellingly referred to her party by its full, rarely-used title of Conservative and Unionist Party – will hardly appease the anger within Tory circles at her reckless decision to call this unnecessary Election.

Another factor that saved absolute Conservative humiliation was the party’s remarkable performance in Scotland, something that can be attributed to Ruth Davidson rather than Mrs May. Both Labour and even the Lib Dems played their part in slashing the SNP’s majority, but the Tories were the biggest national success story north of the border, a situation unthinkable even just two years ago. It wasn’t the best of nights for the SNP, though – the loss of former leader Alex Salmond and Westminster leader Angus Robertson was something of a surprise, and any talk of a second Independence Referendum is considerably more muted now; along with Nick Clegg’s defeat, these were the biggest casualties in terms of famous names. Two leading Cabinet Ministers – Justine Greening and Amber Rudd – only just scraped through too; in the case of the latter, it really was a damned close run thing.

The collapse in the UKIP vote that many assumed would solely benefit the Tories undoubtedly helped Labour capture many of the surprising seats they took, none more so than Canterbury, a seat held by the Conservatives for a century. Labour’s share of the vote was almost on a par with the share they enjoyed during Tony Blair’s landslide years, yet they had so much ground to recover after 2010 and 2015 that even the most fanatical Corbynistas couldn’t envisage them becoming the largest party. But can Theresa May command the confidence of the Commons? Losing the majority she inherited from David Cameron is hardly strong or stable.

The threat of yet another General Election within a year and the prospect of staggering on with a minority administration that will severely limit her chances of success means May’s days as Tory leader and Prime Minister appear to be numbered. The same glum expression worn by May at the Maidenhead count was writ large on the faces of many Tory MPs interviewed last night, and the thought of one more Tory leadership contest being on the cards (and therefore another unelected PM) when Britain is poised to enter into the Brexit negotiations won’t alter that, nor will the fact that the UK’s immediate political future is effectively in the hands of Stormont. This is the worst possible outcome of a gamble Theresa May should take responsibility for; and as she’s sold herself as a solo artist in Presidential mould, it’s her responsibility alone.

© The Editor

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