On Monday, Theresa May will to travel to Brussels for lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier. Prior to this meeting, the UK will have present proposals on the Brexit Bill, the Northern Irish border and citizens rights. These proposals will then be debated and discussed by the EU27 who will decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made to move talks onto the next stage.
Regardless of how these talks develop and how the proposals are received, it appears unlikely it will impact significantly change public opinion in this country which remains firmly divided on Brexit and whether to hold another referendum. As parliament continues to debate legislation, public opinion on Brexit and the European Union has remained relatively static.
Polling from Opinium shows Remain would have a 1% lead should the EU referendum be held today. However, that remains well within the margin of error. Furthermore, the polling shows that 91% of Remainers and 88% of Leavers would stick to their 2016 vote. Lastly, only 35% of the public are in favour of a deal on the terms of the referendum against 53% who are opposed to a referendum on the terms of a deal.
This shows that despite a perception that Brexit talks have been handled badly to date and that according to YouGov, those that believe the Brexit vote was the wrong decision have a four point lead over those who believe it was the right decision, there remains no overwhelming desire for a second referendum on Britain’s membership or even a referendum on the terms of the deal.
Voters are liable to change their mind and may yet do so but presently there is no clear evidence that this is happening. The General Election (albeit a few months ago now) offered a test of whether British voters wanted to change their mind on Brexit. There was no clear evidence that they did. The noises about reversing and stopping Brexit are coming from the same voices. These are voices which are being driven by their own opinions rather than by the weight of public support and it will always be the latter that politicians will be concerned about.
As the Government prepare and plan their next move, it is clear as it has been since the 24th June 2016, the UK will leave the European Union. The only real question is whether the UK leaves with a deal or without a deal. Sorry, Remoaners we really are leaving!
The Government is stumbling from one crisis to another. Two senior ministers have resigned in the last few weeks and many others are under pressure. Brexit talks appear to be at an impasse and there are doubts whether the Government can get the current Brexit bill through Parliament. Under these conditions, most political analysts would expect the opposition to enjoy a substantial and growing lead. Yet this isn’t happening. So why have the polls not moved dramatically?
Firstly, it is not totally fair to say there has been no movement. The Britain elects poll tracker has a slight Labour lead of 1.5%. This is a change from the General Election where the Conservatives enjoyed a 2 point poll victory over the Labour Party. Labour has also gained 9 seats in council by-elections since the General Election whereas the Conservatives have lost 10. So, the evidence does suggest that the Labour Party is ahead at present.
However, that is not enough for many on the Labour side. Former leader and known Corbyn critic Tony Blair has suggested his party should be 20 points ahead. He has not been alone in his criticisms. One possible answer for the current static nature of the polls could be that we have reached peak Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn shocked everybody with his performance at the 2017 General Election. His energy and enthusiasm on the campaign trail was a pivotal factor in costing the Conservative Party an overall majority. This looked to have terminally wounded Theresa May. Yet, May has held on despite coup attempts, a disastrous conference speech and reports that up to 40 MPs are willing to call for a vote of no confidence. Not only this but she still retains a small lead over Jeremy Corbyn in the question over who would make the best Prime Minister. This lead is small, but it is consistent and has been static for the last few months after Corbyn made significant ground before. Very few leaders of the opposition have made the transition to Number 10 without leading on this question.
There could be several sensible explanations for these polls and given what has happened with political polling in the last few years we must take these findings with a pinch of salt. All political parties and leaders do have a ceiling though. Corbyn has divided the nation and maybe given his brand of politics, this is as high as we can expect him and Labour to go. However, until we see further evidence it would be foolish to consider this anything more than a working hypothesis.
Westminster is a place I largely admire. It is a place of great history, great tradition and great prestige. This week though, has not been a good week for Westminster. Allegations of inappropriate behaviour by MPs across the political spectrum have haunted Westminster. The scandal began when reports emerged of female researchers and aides using a WhatsApp group to share information about alleged sexual abuse and harassment in Westminster.
Whilst this story is ongoing, it is first important to remember two things. Firstly, all have to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Secondly, there is a major difference between two consenting adults engaging in a relationship and claims of sexual misconduct or harassment.
At time of writing, the biggest casualty is former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who was forced to resign after admitting his conduct had “fallen short.” This has not stopped further stories about Fallon, including reports of sexual assault, which he strongly denies. Additionally, first Secretary of State Damien Green is facing an investigation. The senior Cabinet Minister is accused of making inappropriate advances to a female activist and Conservative journalist. Furthermore, backbench Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke has seen the whip removed following “serious allegations.” The Times reports that according to a former senior Conservative Minister, seven members of the Cabinet are considering their position.
Labour too has faced a difficult week. At the beginning of the week a Labour activist claimed she was raped at a Labour Party event in 2011 and advised not to report the story. Later in the week, veteran MP Kelvin Hopkins was suspended over a sexual misconduct claim. Reports claim Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had previously been warned about Hopkins. Lastly, on Friday the Labour Party announced they were investigating Clive Lewis over allegations he groped a woman at Labour Party Conference. This followed swiftly accusations against former Minister Ivan Lewis who accepted his behaviour towards female women had been “unwelcome.”
Undoubtedly, these revelations provide further evidence Westminster needs a culture change. Powerful men for too long have been exploiting their position. They have abused young aides (mainly women) both verbally and physically who have felt powerless to act knowing these MPs had great power over their future career. This is a situation no-one should have to face. It has likely caused some to leave Westminster and others to shy away from jobs in Parliament. This is a wake-up call for Westminster and one they should heed. It is time for action.
Boris Johnson is a politician who divides opinion; a marmite figure if you will. Not many sit on the fence when it comes to the Foreign Secretary. Boris is also a figure it is hard to keep out of the news. His ‘unique’ style and tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time makes him a journalist’s dream. Qualities that some might argue are not becoming of a Foreign Secretary.
This week Boris has found himself under pressure again following comments he made to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Foreign Secretary stated that a British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe jailed in Iran had been teaching people journalism at the time of her arrest. Her family and employer have always maintained she was on holiday at the time of the arrest. The Iranian judiciary and media have seized upon these comments and claimed he has now revealed the truth about her actions. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already been sentenced to five years in jail, but could now see this sentence increase as a result of the remarks.
Mr Johnson has since apologised if his comments had “caused anxiety.” This apology of sorts does not go far enough for many and senior Conservatives have called for the Foreign Secretary to be sacked. Mr Johnson has also said that he is willing to meet the husband of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe before he visits Iran in a couple of weeks. This is a trip which could have potentially serious ramifications for his future.
When considering whether the Foreign Secretary should be sacked, it is important to remember we don’t live in normal political times and he is not a normal case.
Presently, Theresa May has limited power. Two Secretaries of State, Sir Michael Fallon and Priti Patel have just resigned from the Government. Parliamentary arithmetic is difficult and Brexit legislation dividing the party is coming fast down the line. This is not an ideal time to sack your Brexiteer Foreign Secretary.
Furthermore, for all his faults Boris is a ‘Heineken politician.’ He reaches the parts of the electorate few other can’t. He was the Conservative candidate who won the mayoralty in Labour London twice. He was the spearhead behind Vote Leave’s success in the EU Referendum. This would be a man people could flock to on the backbenches.
When deciding her next move the Prime Minister has a lot to consider. Britain cannot afford to have a Foreign Secretary who endangers the lives of our citizens abroad. However does the Prime Minister have the authority to carry out the sacking and would she survive the resulting repercussions? It is an unenviable position for a Prime Minister already on life support to face.
Free speech and open debate are qualities we rightly hold in high esteem in this country. The university system embodies these qualities. They provide a place for students to explore their political views and beliefs and debate with fellow pupils. This environment is precious and to be protected fiercely.
So why do these initial points need to be made? The answer can be found in a letter sent this week by Conservative MP and whip Chris Heaton-Harris. Mr Heaton-Harris had written to every university asking for the names of the academics teaching about Brexit. Later it has been claimed Mr Heaton-Harris was acting in his capacity as an MP and not acting on behalf of the Government, with the letter designed for academic research.
This has not spared Mr Heaton-Harris a fierce rebuke from both the political and university sectors. Universities Minister Jo Johnson said the letter “probably shouldn’t have been sent.” Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake believed the letter was “a poorly disguised attempt to shut down debate on Brexit.” Professor David Green, vice-Chancellor at the University of Worcester believed the letter constituted a “British McCarthyism”, with Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University going further saying the letter was an “extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour – offensive and idiotic Leninism.” There is a possibility now that Mr Heaton-Harris could face an official standards inquiry, after it was claimed that the letters were sent on taxpayer-funded Commons paper.
Brexit is the prevalent issue of our day. Both young and old, university educated and non-university educated have an opinion. It is a conversation that did not end after the referendum and probably will not end for some considerable time. All need the space and the freedom to reach their own conclusions. It is important that we trust our students to reach these positions on their own, even if they are not positions the Government is adopting.
It is unclear whether this was a clumsy attempt to put pressure on universities, or simply part of an ill-thought out academic process. Regardless, it crossed several lines and is not acceptable. The Government should not be in the position of being seen to influence university syllabuses. The condemnation should serve as a warning to any within the political system who would seek to direct our universities and students in a particular political direction.
Newspaper reports have suggested Brexit Secretary David Davis has ordered officials to step up preparations for the possibility of a failure to strike a deal with the EU which Davis would then present to the Cabinet. Labour has reiterated they will not accept a “no-deal” Brexit and that claims the UK could walk away from the EU without a deal are “irresponsible.”
However, surely this is simply sensible planning from the Government? Firstly, as a negotiating party there is a duty to prepare for all outcomes. A “No-Deal” Brexit appears to be gaining traction. (JP Morgan claims the chance of this occurring now sit at 25%.) Secondly, most would argue that to be taken seriously in any negotiation you have to show you are willing to walk away. Failing to do this provides the opposing side with a distinct advantage.
Crucially, though, and this point must be made clear, preparing for a “No-Deal” Brexit does not mean this is a desirable outcome. The call from Brexit pressure group Leave means Leave for Theresa May to walk away from negotiations should EU leaders refuse to start trade talks is irresponsible and dangerous. A “No-Deal” Brexit is not ideal for the country. It fails to provide economic and security agreements and provides no level of certainty. It would also be a significant negotiating failure which would have clear political consequences. So, yes it should be prepared for, but not sought for.
The reality is these negotiations are at an early stage. There is a lot to happen yet. Given that no country has tried to do what we are doing, it is clear this was going to be complex. The idea there wouldn’t be complications or disagreements along the way was simply ludicrous. Clearly, the mood music is not great at present. This does not mean that we should despair.
It is palpably in both sides interests to strike a deal. A “No-Deal” scenario hurts both the EU and the UK (yes it would hurt the UK more than the EU, but the EU will want to avoid unnecessary damage!) That is why it is likely both sides will reach an agreement at some stage. But, until that deal is agreed then the Government and the UK must have a back-up plan. And hopefully that is all this is and will be.
George Osborne, former Conservative MP and Chancellor of Exchequer, now editor of the Evening Standard, threw another grenade into the ongoing conversation about the leadership of Theresa May on Thursday evening. Speaking at an event hosted by The Spectator, Osborne firmly stated there were “very serious challenges” facing the Conservative Party under the leadership of Theresa May.
The political and personal differences between the two are well-known, but if we ignore them and just assess what Osborne said, does he have a point?
Expanding on his main hypothesis, Osborne argued that “closing your eyes and hoping leadership questions go away, or exalting people to unity doesn’t work in politics.” This is a fair assessment. Although, many Conservative MPs have not voiced their concerns about Theresa May in public, it does not mean these concerns don’t exist and aren’t bubbling away and waiting to burst out at an appropriate time. The latest polls indicate Corbyn has now drawn level with May in the best Prime Minister ratings. This will only exacerbate the debate in the Conservative Party.
Osborne also added that it was no good for the Conservative Party to say “oh, I wish we could all stop talking about it” and that you couldn’t talk to a member of the Cabinet without the issue being raised. This adds weight to claims made by Grant Shapps during his aborted coup that there were Cabinet Ministers who wanted Theresa May to call a leadership contest. The Sunday Times also reported that at least three Cabinet Ministers had discussed the need to replace Theresa May. This cannot be merely labelled a ‘Westminster bubble’ issue, this conversation is dominating the highest levels of Government.
Osborne also remains defiant about the belief that the Conservative Party are at their best when they are “positive about the country’s future”. This is a clear critique of the direction he believes Theresa May is leading the Conservatives in. The performance of the Conservative Party at the General Election raised legitimate questions about the brand of the Conservative Party and what voters believed about them. The damage caused by that campaign and the need for the party to change their image again will only persist whilst Theresa May is leader.
Projecting false senses of unity, insisting conversations aren’t happening and lastly pretending all in the party are happy with its current direction will not close this debate down. Leadership conversations in politics are notoriously messy, but until the Conservative Party have this debate, most crucially about their future direction as a party (and that includes their leader) they will not progress. Surely that is not in anyone’s interest?
The Conservative party is in disarray. Its lack of unity, its continued Brexit bemusement and its uncertainty over leadership came to a crescendo at their conference in Manchester last week. By contrast, the Labour party is inexplicably in the ascendency: a strong and stable leader in Jeremy Corbyn, a vibrant and unified atmosphere, appearances for notable intellectuals and social progressives and even an increasingly coherent approach to Brexit, outlined at the Labour conference in Brighton. The two conferences represented a decisive shift of the centre ground in politics, towards the left.
Theresa May and the Conservatives recognise this convergence. It was almost pitiful to see the Conservatives borrow the language of the left, with ‘a country that works for everyone’ emblazoned on every wall. It appears the Conservatives are also desperate enough to reprise a Labour policy from the past promising an energy price freeze (Mason,2017). Conservative efforts to remedy their estrangement with the young was symbolised by an increase to the threshold at which students would have to pay back their debts and a planned freeze on tuition fees increasing again. In a further effort to detoxify Tory perceptions among the youth, there was a promise of a £9bn boost for affordable housing to help younger generations get on the housing ladder (Bush,2017).
As Theresa May coughed and spluttered her way through a painfully unconvincing speech, (disrupted by Simon Brodkin brandishing a P45), Jeremy Corbyn delivered a commanding speech with an unexpectedly clear position on membership of the customs union and the single market, the protection of EU citizens, and a more predictable commitment to a national education service, pledges to control rents and regenerate council housing (The Guardian,2017) – policies proven to be popular with the electorate (Curtis,2017). Corbyn had the confidence of a man aware that he had conquered the mainstream media, dirty Conservative politics, an embittered Blairite coup and two landslide leadership elections. He seemed aware that he has more than earnt his place.
The most exciting and busiest Labour conference for years stood in stark contrast to the anxious and half-hearted proceedings at the Conservative conference. Despite the demonization of Momentum, it has rejuvenated the Labour party, which now has over half a million members (Waugh,2017). With the overwhelming support of young people and ethnic minorities, Momentum has provided a platform for the apathetic and the hopeless to believe in politics once again. Furthermore, its social media campaigning has revolutionised Labour’s communication capabilities. Be in no doubt, that with a return to its grass roots, full support from the unions and with honest, principled politics informing policy, the Labour party could win the next election.
The pinnacle of excitement at the Conservative conference came from the adoring fans of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ruth Davidson, those extolled as possible successors to Theresa May. They were relentlessly quizzed on their respective positions on leadership. Boris Johnson, another potential leadership candidate accused of destabilising the party, gave a hopelessly jingoistic speech about the lion of Britain roaring despite occupying an isolated and economically impotent place in world politics. He was also sharply reprimanded by Amber Rudd for not applauding the ailing Prime Minister during her speech. Johnson even had just enough time to describe his vision for Libya; he predicted that it could become the new Dubai, as long as we ‘clear the dead bodies away’ (Elgot & Mason, 2017).
Only days later, everyone’s favourite Grant Shapps claimed that an internal plot calling for May to stand down was imminent, and it had the support of over 30 MPs and ‘one or two’ frontbenchers (Bush,2017). It seems that May has been granted her wish of emulating Thatcher, but sadly it may only be in the way she is forced out by a dispute over the EU, by members of her own party. Corbyn, on the other hand, is busy preparing for the future and busy digging graves: one for Theresa, one for austerity and one for New Labour. And over the clear and aerated soil, he has planted a red rose with stronger grassroots, ready to blossom once again.
Bush, Stephen, ‘Five thoughts on Conservative party conference’, The New Statesmen (2017) https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/10/five-thoughts-conservative-party-conference
Bush, Stephen, ‘Could Grant Shapps’ plot to bring down Theresa May succeed?’, The New Statesmen (2017) https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/10/could-grant-shapps-plot-bring-down-theresa-may-succeed
Curtis, Chris, ‘Corbyn’s policies really are popular with centrist voters. But he still isn’t’, The Guardian (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/28/jeremy-corbyn-policies-yougov-centre-ground-labour
Elgot, Jessica & Mason, Rowena, ‘Theresa May faces calls to sack Boris Johnson over Libya comments’, The Guardian (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/03/sirte-can-become-a-holiday-destination-if-it-clears-the-dead-bodies-says-johnson
Mason, Rowena, ‘Theresa May’s speech to Conservative party conference: key points’, The Guardian (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/04/theresa-may-speech-conservative-party-conference-key-points
Waugh, Paul, ‘Labour Party Membership Soars By 35,000 In Just Four Days – After ‘Corbyn Surge’ In 2017 General Election’, The Huffington Post (2017) http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/labour-party-membership-soars-by-
The Guardian, ‘Corbyn’s conference speech: the verdict’ (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/27/jeremy-corbyn-conference-speech-verdict-panel-guardian