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Peter Golds: Why voter ID for elections is long overdue

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London Councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Amongst many revelations in Willie Carlin’s recently-released book Thatcher’s Spy; My Life as an MI5 Agent inside Sinn Fein is what he describes as his greatest achievement; the ending of “vote stealing” – the endemic electoral corruption that poisoned the electoral process and much else, in the province for decades.

This was wholesale corruption that was endorsed and carried out by both sides in the sectarian divide. As described in the Sunday Times extracts of his book, he organised the vote stealing that helped elect Bobby Sands to Parliament. This was achieved by having a team to impersonate voters whom they knew had not voted. In his words “this wide open abuse still exists on the mainland.” Chillingly, he jokes that with a small budget and a few hundred workers “I could probably win a marginal seat for any candidate or independence for Scotland.”

In order to deal with this problem the Blair Government introduced voter ID in Northern Ireland. The result has been to clean up elections in and lift the taint of corruption that for over half a century had soured elections in the province. This reform was one of a number of measures that increased cross-community confidence across Northern Ireland.

The integrity and legitimacy of the ballot and elections must be of one of the prime concerns of any democratic government – and there are serious failings in the UK at present.

To be handed a voting paper on demand, as is the custom in England, Scotland and Wales, is out of touch with reality. Democracies across the world, including those in the EU, require a form of ID for an elector to vote. The notion that ID is unavailable is wrong. It is not possible to rent a property, open a bank account, claim benefit, drive a car, obtain a driving licence, or enter many official buildings without ID in one form or another.

How often, in modern society, is ID routinely required? I continuously come across voters who express surprise that it is not required when voting.

The Labour Party has strict internal rules about ID. Two forms of ID are required to attend Labour Party selection meetings. Labour charges £30 to process photo ID to enable delegates to attend the party conference. Momentum restricted those attending a rally to campaign against voter ID to those producing ID in the form of a membership card. The latter point proving, if any proof were needed, that Momentum is a veritable corkscrew of hypocrisy.

The Electoral Reform Society naturally opposes this change. Their former director issued press statements against voter ID whilst simultaneously seeking and failing to secure a Labour Parliamentary nomination which required her supporters to attend selection meetings.

There are constant excuses that personation and voter fraud is not a problem. I have seen far too much of it to be more than aware that there is a problem. In Tower Hamlets, this has included people standing outside polling stations with copies of an electoral register to provide convenient names to potential fraudsters.

I had evidence of one fraudster placing four names (which he had forgotten) on the electoral register using an incorrect house number and demanding from the electoral registration officer cards for electors whose names he could not remember. I witnessed a man turning up in Tower Hamlets with a poll card from Enfield, and trying to look for a similar name on the register in front of the poll clerk. Then there is the sad case of the man whose death was registered in Bangladesh on an election day. Miraculously, his vote was recorded thousands of miles away in Tower Hamlets. Elsewhere there was extensive coverage of the incident in the Midlands of poll clerks showing students a register and asking them to find their name.

These are just a few tips of a scarcely-concealed iceberg which damages democracy. In fact, what I have reported above is the tip of an iceberg. Consider the situation when serious fraudsters such as Willie Carlin, Lutfur Rahman and Tariq Mahmood set out to steal an election, and have not only themselves but a machinery to achieve it. We know the answer and it can be identified in recent election petitions.

Amongst our problems in resolving this situation is the ongoing failure of the police to actually investigate personation and election fraud in any meaningful way. I accept that this is expensive and requires training of officers. Too often, the police response to complaints is to ignore them or simply do the minimum which involves looking at the offence and “speaking to the offender.” The result of this is that there is no record of far too many offences and therefore it can be said there is not a problem. However, Birmingham, Peterborough, Derby, Slough, Woking and Tower Hamlets prove otherwise.

I am concerned that the disaster of Operation Midland will make the police even less inclined to undertake investigations that intrude into politics. The legacy of Tom Watson misusing both the parliamentary and legal systems to smear political opponents for party political gain is likely to make the police even more wary of actually investigating electoral fraud.

The reason there is legislation governing human actions ranging from speeding in a car to completing a tax return is that this is essential for good conduct. The number of convictions for speeding and tax avoidance is far smaller than the incidents of both, but society expects there to be a legal framework and enforcement. Nobody says that speeding and tax evasion do not exist.

Even the feeble electoral commission have asked that the modest reform of voter ID be introduced. In Northern Ireland, any elector that does not have a form of ID can obtain a certificate from the local authority. The Government are proposing to extend this across all of Great Britain and doing so to bring our voting procedures in line with other mature democracies that value one person one vote.

There have been voter ID trials and they proved successful and popular with voters who are reassured that their vote actually counts. The opposition to this simple change by Labour smacks of cynicism and possibly something worse. Why is Labour so keen on ensuring their internal processes are managed correctly yet opposed to ensuring the integrity of the ballot in local and national elections?

Marsha-Jane Thompson a Momentum activist once employed by Tower Hamlets council, was prosecuted for submitting 100 forged applications to vote to Newham Council. She now has a House of Commons Pass and is employed to work on Jeremy Corbyn’s events and campaigns team.

Strangely, Labour are unhappy at being reminded of this. Why?

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Ryan Bourne: Beware the push by Hammond and others to make Britain an EU rule-taker

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Perhaps torture works. The collective waterboarding that is the impending Brexit deadline is forcing confessions, anyway.

Philip Hammond was in a government whose stated policy was a desire for new post-Brexit trade deals once it could exit the Northern Irish “backstop” of a single UK-EU customs territory. Now, with Boris Johnson tunneling for just that, the former Chancellor’s official position has shifted. Economic sense, he says, actually means Britain should stay in the Single Market for goods anyway, abide by “level playing field” commitments with the EU, and junk dreams of an independent free trade agenda. Buccaneering Britain, Hammond thinks, is an illusion.

Brexiteers who foresaw May’s backstop as an excuse by her to bounce us into Brussels’ permanent trade and regulatory orbit have seemingly been vindicated. But the danger has not passed. Alongside The UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, Hammond’s intervention pressures wavering Labour MPs and former Conservatives to reject Boris’s proposed “Canada Plus” destination as “too hard a Brexit” for Great Britain. At stake here is whether Britain ultimately repatriates meaningful economy policy, or becomes a rule-taker that’s only ever one small step away from EU re-entry.

Hammond couches his argument in economic terms. Everyone acknowledges trade-offs exist between policy freedom and EU trade frictions, with the latter more easily quantifiable, and the former dependent on active choices. But Hammond’s preferred modelling by the Treasury and others is based on assumptions. Results that suggest a free trade agreement Brexit must reduce GDP by 4 to 7 percent by 2030 relative to Remain, while new free trade agreements and regulatory freedoms could only possibly compensate by 0.2 to 0.5 percent of GDP, do not pass the smell test.

Pre-referendum, such results came from “gravity models,” built around observed relationships showing trade volumes rise in proportion to the size of economies and fall with distance between them. Treasury analysis back then had estimated EU membership raised trade volumes for members, on average, by 115 per cent beyond these factors, suggesting leaving full membership for an FTA would produce a large, long-term 6.2 pe rcent loss of GDP. Importantly, liberalising trade elsewhere could only weakly compensate, because of longer distances to new export markets.

Those results were challenged extensively. The model risked chalking up gains from general deregulations over recent decades (which wouldn’t be lost after exit) as EU membership benefits. Cambridge economists pointed out that the model itself overpredicted UK exports to the EU compared to real trade flows, suggesting a UK-specific trade uplift of a much smaller 20-25 per cent. Global evidence suggests services trade is much less influenced by distance anyway. Treasury results then looked biased towards big negative effects.

Since then, Hammond’s Treasury has changed model but not conclusions. Their November 2018 publication estimated a permanent net loss of 4.9 percent of GDP from a simple FTA Brexit, rising to 6.7 percent if net EU migration ceases. This is much higher than the more static estimates of trade expert and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, who estimates first-order net costs of about two per cent of GDP (before any compensatory trade liberalisation). When you hear much larger results, the findings are usually based on “black box” assumptions about large effects of trade on productivity (analysis where economists agree on the direction but disagree on magnitudes).

Four large assumptions that we can assess drove the Treasury’s results:

  1. That significant “non-tariff barriers” to UK-EU trade will arise if we leave the customs union and single market for an FTA
  2. That repatriated regulatory powers bring practically zero upside
  3. That customs procedures at the border will prove significantly costly
  4. That an independent UK free trade agenda would produce little upside.

Do these stack up? At the point of exit, UK exporters will be fully compliant with EU product standards after decades of integration. Assuming then that we’d face the same non-tariff barriers (NTBs) as existing FTA partners looks like a significant overestimate of initial new frictions. Yes, there would be economic costs associated with rules of origin requirements (though the WTO thinks these are small), and a loss of some mutual standards recognition outside the EU legal system. But bigger NTBs arise if regulations deviate. One would hope that sensible governments, Jeremy Corbyn notwithstanding, would only pursue regulatory change if it perceived net economic benefits anyway.

Indeed, it’s baffling to presume both that there will be no upside to repatriating regulation (the Treasury assumes a GDP gain of just 0.1 per cent) but that standards will significantly deviate. Current political moods might be non-conducive to widespread deregulation, but Open Europe once estimated politically feasible changes worth 0.7 per cent of GDP; let alone the potential benefits long-term of avoiding further EU labour market harmonisation, financial sector regulation, and shirking the EU’s precautionary principle in agriculture, health innovation, AI, and robotics.

Customs costs at the border look exaggerated too. Swiss estimates suggest these could be as small as 0.1 per cent. The UK’s would be higher outside the single market, of course, but Paul Krugman thinks the UK would adopt new systems relatively quickly, unilaterally lowering standards if necessary. Previous meta-analysis has found that extensive FTAs have a bigger trade boosting impact than customs unions, suggesting customs costs aren’t really prohibitive to trade flows. NAFTA, for example, is not a customs union.

But it’s really on external trade where the analysis was most slanted. Not only did Hammond’s government say the UK would not unilaterally liberalise tariffs or meaningfully reduce EU non-tariff barriers on the rest of the world; it suggested signing free trade agreements with the US, Australia, New Zealand and TPP countries would only raise GDP by 0.1 to 0.2 per cent. Closer inspection shows why: it assumes only half of the non-tariff barriers on goods and a third on services are “actionable” through these deals, and then only a quarter of these get eliminated in new FTAs. Overall then, given the countries examined for FTAs, the model assumes that the upper-limit for NTB liberalisation is eliminating 6.25 per cent of the very high level of NTBs we are assumed to want to keep.

If anything has become clear recently, it’s that Conservatives have an appetite for a far more expansive free trade agenda. Economists agree free trade boosts growth. Australia’s government estimated it has increased GDP by over five per cent over 20 years through manufactured goods trade liberalisation alone; the government’s own analysis suggests a UK FTA with the EU would life GDP by three per cent relative to WTO terms. So the conclusion that free trade policies don’t matter, especially in regards an FTA with the US, is baffling, even accounting for trade distance. Of course, the gains from a UK-US deal are bigger still when it and the EU look set for a trade war. And the UK is arguably much more likely than the EU to pursue service sector-heavy FTAs as the world becomes richer, to our own benefit.

Now I’m not arguing here that there’s no risk and uncertainty to “breaking free.” It’s difficult to ascertain precise GDP effects from trade negotiations that haven’t happened, regulations that haven’t yet been avoided, and new customs procedures that haven’t been tested. But it’s important to remember Hammond’s favoured analysis largely assumes no upsides to Brexit by construction and calculates downsides based on evidence for policies that the UK shouldn’t want to pursue, or relationships elsewhere that we wouldn’t replicate.

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James Frayne: Voters would welcome a Brexit deal. But it might harm and not help the Conservatives with working class voters.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

You can’t credibly poll how people might think or feel in the future. We can’t therefore know what the public will think if Boris Johnson secures a deal that looks vaguely similar to Theresa May’s.

But there’s been enough polling to guess. It’s reasonable to assume – hardcore Remainers aside – most voters will be so relieved it’s nearly over they’ll back a deal regardless of any friendly fire from Eurosceptics or Unionists. The Conservatives’ conference slogan – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – perfectly summed up what most people think about the whole thing. It also seems reasonable to assume most people would be exasperated and angry with those standing in the way of a deal – and there’ll likely be little interest in a betrayal narrative from eurosceptic purists.

The next stage in the electoral cycle writes itself: Boris Johnson’s ratings rise as a Prime Minister that delivers on his word, and the Conservative Party’s ratings rise too; Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage look irrelevant; and the Liberal Democrats’ position as a vehicle for disaffected middle-class Remainers is threatened as the world moves on. What do the Lib Dems stand for at that point? Amid the wreckage, Johnson at some point runs a short campaign securing a workable majority, and the Party goes back to the happy days of 2015 when it looked briefly truly ascendant.

While there’s a clear political logic to all this, delivery of a deal at least raises the prospect that the Conservative Party could become a victim of its own success on Brexit with a big chunk of its coalition. What if delivering Brexit ended up costing it working class votes?

As I’ve been arguing for the last few months here, the Conservatives’ hold on working class voters is extremely precarious. Depending on which polls you look at, the Conservatives are currently on course to secure between a third and a half of the working class vote. And working class voters have been coming over to the Party slowly for the last decade.

But they have come over overwhelmingly because of Brexit and immigration – and the Conservatives’ relative position on these issues compared to Labour. Amongst working class voters, there’s no love for the Party and there’s precious little for Boris Johnson either. The Conservatives are seen as a useful vehicle for their views on Brexit and immigration – as well as taxation and welfare. There’s no cultural affinity to those they see as “posh Tories”.

The fact is that, over the last three years, the Conservatives have talked obsessively about working class voters without doing much for them. The Conservatives’ working class strategy has amounted to little more than people saying they have one. Until Johnson became Prime Minister, the only thing the Party really did in recent times for working class voters was pledge to increase NHS spending. He has transformed the Party’s approach – as yesterday’s Queen’s Speech showed. Under him, it has pledged further funds to the NHS, schools and the police, and promised to end automatic early release of prisoners and paved the way for a points-based immigration system. It has also promised new funds for towns.

This is all progress and should not be under-estimated. But imagine that Brexit was “done”, would these things be enough to keep working class voters onside? Would they actually think that, now Brexit’s done and immigration back under control, that they can return to their natural home in the Labour Party? After all, Labour will be chucking a lot more cash about even than the Conservatives.

We don’t know the answer to this, and we won’t until Brexit is resolved. My sense is that, as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, even a halfway decent campaign on working class priorities will carry a big proportion of the working class vote.

However, my sense is also that the Party has done so little of recent practical benefit to working class voters, that Brexit and immigration done, a change anytime soon in the Labour leader to someone even vaguely moderate and competent would be a disaster for the Conservatives. The announcements that Johnson has made recently have been spot on, but they’ve come so late in the day there’s a chance they won’t filter through in time, and certainly a big chance that nothing will be felt on the ground in working class communities.

There are two implications from all this. The first is that the Party needs to view the Queen’s Speech as being the beginning of a major campaign to create a working class base that currently doesn’t exist. Similar sorts of policy announcements must follow in coming months, and obviously above all during the election campaign.

Just as the saner parts of the Labour Party are obsessing over provincial English towns (although bizarrely they’re still threatening to raise their taxes), so the Conservatives must develop the same obsession. Amongst other things, to do this they must re-form old alliances with the business community in provincial England to help them create a credible supporter base (admittedly a longer-term goal). This will likely be their starting point for the growth of a working class activist base.

The second implication is that the Party needs to look to build bridges with the middle class Remainers that have recently left the Party (or been removed from it). With the working class vote far from assured, the Party needs all the support it can get. The Party should be thinking of policies that appeal directly to middle class professionals – childcare, workplace, personal finance – that don’t risk any interference with their messages to the working class. And there should be a pathway back for MPs like David Gauke.

Time will tell, but it could be that the high watermark of the Conservatives’ attractiveness to working class voters was the autumn of 2019 – when the Party was led by a PM that would apparently do anything to deliver Brexit, amid hostile opposition from all sides. What better rallying call to the working class than to say “vote Conservative and get Brexit done”? The Party needs to do a lot more for working class voters – and very fast – so it can say “vote Conservative because we got Brexit done”.

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David Gauke: Whatever briefings from Downing Street may claim, an election fought on a No Deal platform would be disastrous

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

How much has the Conservative Party changed? To what extent has it moved from being a mainstream, centre-right party containing a broad range of views to being a party overwhelmingly focused on delivering an uncompromising Brexit?

It is a question I have asked myself a lot in recent months. Having fought off a deselection attempt because I opposed a No Deal Brexit, and having lost the Conservative whip because I continued to oppose a No Deal Brexit, it is hard to escape the conclusion that quite a lot of Conservatives disapprove of people who oppose a No Deal Brexit. Has the debate become so rancorous and intolerant that there is no longer a place for the likes of me in the Conservative Party?

The answer to that question is uncertain, but I took some encouragement from the Manchester Party conference.
I admit to attending with some trepidation. My position on Brexit is evidently a minority one within the Party. I have not sought to hide my criticisms of the substance and tone of the Government’s approach to Brexit. And I have not ruled out standing in my constituency as an independent if the whip is not returned. If ever I was going to get a hard time from Party activists, now would be the time.

And yet, at fringe event after fringe event, Party members were courteous and polite. Andrew Gimson generously wrote up my appearance at the ConservativeHome event, but a similar report could have been written for those I did with the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. Don’t get me wrong: I am not claiming that I won the audiences over to my position – the occasional eye-roll, sigh and shake of the head was detectable – but nor was there anything like the hostility one might expect if, for example, you ever read the comments below one of my ConHome articles.

In truth, the Conservative Party felt – in those fringe meetings, at least – very similar to the party of which I have been a member for 29 years. Sensible, practical, well-meaning and decent.

I also take some encouragement from the apparent, new-found enthusiasm within the Government to reach a deal on Brexit. In previous columns, I have argued that seeking a deal and being willing to compromise is the right approach. That view would appear to be in the ascendant at the time of writing.

Until recently, an alternative approach appeared to be prevailing which seemed determined to crash us out on  October 31 at any cost. I have previously acknowledged the electoral case for this strategy, but in terms of the outcome for the country, it is thoroughly irresponsible. As such, it is also a huge departure from the modern traditions of the Conservative Party.

Let me give seven examples of principles that most Conservatives would support. I would happily sign up to each and every one of them but I struggle to reconcile them with those pursuing a No Deal Brexit at any cost.

  • We believe that living standards can only be raised and public services properly funded if you have a strong economy.

It is the argument that we have to fight at every election when our opponents make great promises but we respond by pointing out that we have to create the wealth in the first place if we properly want to fund the NHS, for example. Yet the overwhelming economic consensus is that No Deal Brexit would result in a sharp contraction in GDP. And before anyone rushes to claim that this is all a re-run of 2016’s ‘Project Fear’, remember our economy is 2.5-3 per cent smaller than it would have been had Remain won.

  • We believe in free trade.

Open markets benefit both our exporters but also our consumers. This has not always been the Conservative position but, thankfully, it has been for some time. And I know that there are plenty of Brexiteers who are sincere free traders and think that Brexit provides great new opportunities for bringing down trade barriers.

Unfortunately, it is simply not true. The Government’s analysis shows the benefit of getting trade deals with all the English-speaking nations and the major emerging economies will be just 0.2 to 0.6 per cent of GDP whereas the loss of access to European markets of a Canada-style free trade agreement (let alone a no deal Brexit) will be 4 to 7 per cent of GDP. The net effect of a No Deal Brexit or even a Canada style FTA will be to make our economy less open and more protectionist.

  • We believe in fiscal responsibility.

This was the battleground of British politics from 2009 to 2015 when we made the case for getting the deficit down. The contraction of the British economy will inevitably result in deteriorating public finances. Add to that a political strategy which focuses on winning the support of traditional Labour voters which has meant that we are almost certainly already breaking our fiscal rules.  Remember when we criticised Labour for more borrowing and more debt?

  • We don’t believe that the Government should bail-out unviable industries or businesses.

As a statement, this sounds like a bit of a throw-back to the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher weaned the country off supporting lame-duck businesses. But what do we think would happen when businesses no longer became viable because of the impact of No Deal? The pressure to provide support ‘in order to deal with the temporary disruption’ will be immense. The Government has already prepared for this with Operation Kingfisher but removing that support will be very difficult politically. There is a risk that our economy will become much more corporatist than any time since the 1970s.

  • We believe in our national institutions – Parliament, the monarchy and the independent judiciary.

This should go without saying but when Number Ten briefs that the next election will be people versus Parliament, that the Prime Minister will ‘dare the Queen to sack him’, that the judiciary is biased and that the Government will not comply with the law, we don’t sound very conservative (to put it mildly).

  • We believe in national security and ensuring that we do all we can to protect our citizens from terrorism.

And yet a ‘source in No 10’ says we will withhold security co-operation from those countries that fail to block an extension. Meanwhile, the former head of MI6 says that our security depends upon co-operation with the EU and that leaving without a deal means we will have to ‘start again with a blank sheet of paper’. In addition, it is hard to see how any ‘no deal’ outcome doesn’t destabilise the Good Friday Agreement one way or another. The Prime Minister, it is reported, is increasingly concerned about the risk of an upsurge in terrorist activities by dissident republican groups.

  • We believe in the United Kingdom.

It is obvious that Brexit is placing a strain on the union. A No Deal Brexit would be likely to result in a border poll in Northern Ireland, especially with Stormont not sitting and some form of direct rule being necessary. As for Scotland, the chaos of a No Deal Brexit provides plenty of ammunition for the separatists.

Not every Conservative voter will agree with every single one of those principles, or my criticisms of a No Deal Brexit. But a Conservative Party that fights a general election with No Deal at its heart must know that it will be pursuing an approach that is such a radical departure from the traditions of the Conservative Party and that it is vulnerable to losing the support of millions of our longstanding supporters.

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Ten hurdles that Johnson must leap – even if a deal is agreed this week

  • Boris Johnson must agree a deal with the EU at this week’s EU summit on Thursday – if he is not to return on Friday, face the Commons on Saturday, and be asked how, despite the Benn Act, he intends to achieve Brexit by October 31.
  • If he agrees a deal, he will need, first and foremost, to square the DUP – since its most contentious element in Parliament will concern Northern Ireland.
  • If he can get the DUP to support him, he will then need to win the backing of the Spartans.  They have concerns not only about Northern Ireland but about the Withdrawal Agreement as a whole.  To date, Steve Baker, speaking on behalf of the ERG, is keeping his counsel.
  • At the same time as keeping the Spartans on board, the Prime Minister will need to win the backing of as many of the whipless 21 former Tory MPs as he can.  Some oppose a No Deal Brexit.  Others oppose Brexit outright.  (For example, this seems to be the position of Guto Bebb.)  How they divide up could be crucial if there is a vote.
  • Whether there is slippage among the Spartans and support among the 21 or not, Johnson may also be reliant on Labour MPs voting with him.  A group of 19 may do so, including Dan Jarvis, Caroline Flint, Sarah Peacock and Melanie Onn.  Nonetheless, Theresa May was always angling for similar support at the crunch. None came.
  •  The most solid prospects from Labour look to be Kate Hoey and John Mann. The Prime Minister will be looking too for support from the 35 independent MPs who are unaligned to any group.  He would probably win a majority of these – but by no means an overwhelming one.
  • Then there is the prospect of vote on a second EU referendum next weekend – which Keir Starmer and Tory Remainers alike will push for.
  • Our best guess is that the numbers will not be there for a referendum in the event of a deal, but could be if there is No Deal.  How many of the 21 want to stop a No Deal Brexit – and how many to stop Brexit altogether? A referendum vote next weekend would tell us.
  • Next, there is a timetable question.  Can the Prime Minister really agree and finalise a deal, and then get a Bill based on it through the Commons before October 31?  Watch for him bowing to an extension.  Or Philip Hammond and others seeking to force one on him.  And remember: the Speaker will play a crucial role in any proceedings.
  • Whether there’s an extension or not, Johnson will need the DUP, the Spartans, some of the 21 and some Labour MPs not only for any votes next weekend, but for votes on any Bill which seeks to implement his deal.  It isn’t just next Saturday that could be a nightmare for the Conservative Whips.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Will Johnson get a Brexit deal done after all?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

It is still impossible to predict what will happen next week, but whatever it is will be pretty momentous.

It still seems unlikely that a deal will be done before the deadline day of October 31st but, given yesterday’s events on Merseyside, it doesn’t seem as unlikely as it did just hours before. At the time of writing, we don’t know who has conceded what – so it’s impossible to say what the Northern Ireland parties will make of it all, and whether any concessions on the UK side would affect the likelihood of any deal getting through the Commons.

So let’s park that one and look at a somewhat negative scenario.

So Boris Johnson goes to the EU council next Thursday; it ends in chaos; he comes back, addresses the Commons on Saturday week, sends the EU a letter requesting an extension to Article 50 – but also makes clear he doesn’t believe a word of it.

The EU then grants a year-long extension, thus enabling a second referendum to happen and at that point Johnson challenges the opposition parties to agree to an election.

And that is where the fun starts. Labour decides that it will only agree to an election after a second referendum is held, and it says that the options put to voters would be Theresa May’s deal v Remain. It is assailed by the SNP for effectively inflicting another nine months of a Conservative government on the country.

At that point, Johnson resigns as Prime Minister, and attempts are made to form an alternative government – all of which fail. He fights the election on a ‘leave the EU with no deal’ manifesto, which results in dozens of Tory MPs quitting, but the Brexit Party stand down all of their candidates.

Would Johnson win a majority in those circumstances? As the polls stand at the moment, yes, but we all know what can happen in election campaigns. And if you don’t know, just ask May.

– – – – – – – – – –

The scenario I paint above shows just how much influence Nigel Farage will have over events. And the core thing to remember is that he doesn’t trust Johnson one iota. I cannot see how the latter could ever agree to a formal electoral pact with the forner and if, he did, it would have to be written in stone.

There’s some talk of the Prime Minister offering the Brexit Party a free run in 50 selected seats, presumably in the north of England, I return for a free run everywhere else. I think it’s completely fanciful. But in this political environment, I suppose stranger things have happened.

– – – – – – – – – –

The best news of the week is that Chris Mason is taking over the reins as the new host of Any Questions. Chris is one of the few journalists that is liked by everybody (by which I mean everybody in the political firmament).

This is not because he’s pliant, or soft; it’s because he’s a transparently nice bloke who knows his stuff. I haven’t got a clue what his politics are anymore than anyone else has. It’s a cracking appointment, and even though he has huge shoes to step into, I have absolutely no doubt he’ll do well and bring a freshness and vitality to the show.

I did ponder applying for it myself, but I figured there was little point given I’ve been on the show as an opinionated panellist a dozen times, and the BBC would never appoint someone to a show like that with a previous political background.

The fact that I present a similar show and have proved my hosting abilities would be by the by. Sometimes you have to just accept the reality of a situation. Newsnight quite happily employed James O’Brien as a host, but then of course he is a man of the centre left. Someone on the centre-right would never get a look-in. And if you think that’s me being paranoid, John Humphrys says the exact same thing in his excellent new book.

– – – – – – – –  – –

For almost this entire year, most of my weekends have involved work of some description or other. Not this one. At least, that’s the intention.

After doing my regular slot on Good Morning Britain, I’ll be driving west to spend three days in North Devon with my Aunt and cousins, who live in Braunton.

No Andrew Marr, no newspaper columns, no Twitter (that one is a lie) – just catching up with family gossip and reminiscing about times gone by. And a walk across Saunton Sands. I have honestly never looked forward to a weekend more. The calm before the storm…

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Why resignation may be the least bad option for Johnson

During the last week or so, it has become evident that Boris Johnson, confronted by a choice between breaking his word, resigning or breaking the law is ultimately likely to yield to the first option.

That is not the settled view of Downing Street, let alone the Cabinet.  A few within both seem willing to see the Prime Minister hauled off to Wormwood Scrubs.  But opinion in Number Ten has been moving towards an extension.  Proof of this claim can be unearthed in the explosive briefing given yesterday to the Spectator – if one is not distracted by its incendiary threats of hostile action against uncooperative governments abroad, of ending all talks with the EU, and of issuing a No Deal Conservative election manifesto here at home.

The briefing begins by suggesting that Johnson may flout the Benn Act, claiming that “different lawyers see the ‘frustration principle’ very differently especially on a case like this where there is no precedent for primary legislation directing how the Prime Minister conducts international discussions”.  But it ends by saying that “we’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or [our italics] there will be an election”.  In other words, in that last circumstance there will have been a further extension.

The tone of the briefing, plus other signals emerging from Number Ten, suggest that Johnson will not surrender, as he would put it, without a fight.  If he is prepared in the last resort to send an extension letter, as required by the Act, expect him first to refuse; to claim that the Act is defective; to seek to get the letter sent by someone else; to then be dragged before the courts (or maybe go himself).  By then, the Government’s law officers may have quit,

And only then is he likely to bow to the seemingly inevitable, send the letter, and echo the words in the briefing: “This is not our delay, the government is not asking for a delay — Parliament is sending you a letter and Parliament is asking for a delay but official Government policy remains that delay is an atrocious idea that everyone should dismiss.”

If all this happens, the Conservatives’ poll ratings can be expected to fall.  There will be frenzied speculation that they will stay at roughly the level to which they have then dropped – or go lower still.  In those conditions, Labour may go with its leader’s instinct, and support an immediate election after all.  Or it may stick with the likes of Keir Starmer, who want a second referendum instead.

Either way, Johnson would be lose his sole real gain to date: namely, the way in which he has reversed at least some of the catastrophic collapse in Tory poll ratings under Theresa May, and made an election win possible.  You may well ask why the Prime Minister is considering this perilous course.  And why, if he is doing so, Dominic Cummings (for it is surely he) is briefing the media about it.

On that last point, there is a certain logic in Cummings acting as he has presumably done.  Ministers can scarcely go on the record to prepare the Westminster Village and eventually the voters for a climbdown.  But the Government cannot afford let its opponents make all the waves – through lawsuits, Commons debates, leaks, reported rifts and making common cause with foreign governments in the EU negotiation.

Hence Cummings’ intervention recently at a book launch, his briefings to SpAd meetings that end up being reported, and his public presence when at Vote Leave.  This is not to say that every idea he throws out, like sparks fizzing from an Catherine Wheel, is workable, or likely to be acted on by Johnson.  For example, the Conservatives won’t fight an election on a No Deal manifesto without it dangling the fig leaf of a proposed deal at the very least.

It will be said that Cummings has been premature; that a Brexit deal may be agreed this week after all; or that he is deploying PSYOPs, in order to throw his enemies off balance.  But the talks look deeply mired as we write.  The Prime Minister has moved on Northern Ireland and the Single Market; the EU won’t budge on Northern Ireland and the Customs Union.

Hence yesterday’s very Cummings-like move to ensure that Angela Merkel takes the rap in the court of British public opinion for a breakdown of negotiations.  Where Theresa May’s Government would have allowed its interlocuters to set the terms of reporting, Johnson’s strives to ensure that it does so itself.  Nonetheless, there was a weakness near the heart of the briefing.  The Prime Minister does not have the power to force an election.  His attempts to do so have twice been defeated in the Commons.  His opponents are gearing up for a push for a second referendum.

That possibility offers a glimpse of a baleful future soon – with no deal in place, an extension agreed, Tory poll ratings lower, Johnson’s Government becalmed, the Cabinet openly split (Julian Smith assailed the briefing on Twitter yesterday) and the Commons denying an election in order to force a referendum, or try to.  It follows that there is a case for the Prime Minister picking the option he is most reluctant to choose – namely, resigning rather than send the extension letter, and thereby risking the same fate that overwhelmed his predecessor.

The counter-case, of course, is very strong.  Don’t take the gamble of putting Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, thereby legitimising him.  Once he got in he might be very hard to prise out.

The Commons might not back Corbyn, of course.  Instead, it is possible to imagine a “government of national unity” – i.e: a government of national disunity, since it would represent only Remain – under John Bercow or Ken Clarke or Margaret Beckett or whoever.  Such an administration would certainly seek to force a second referendum, and could solidify into a new centre party, marginalising not only Labour but the Conservatives too.

All the same, resignation would at least enable Johnson to keep his word.  He would then need only a simple majority in the Commons to force Corbyn or another Prime Minister out, rather than the two thirds he currently needs to obtain an election.  And he would not himself have surrendered to the terms of the “Surrender Bill”.

All these are “known unknowns”.  There will be more to come, and unknown unknowns too.  Such is the pass to which we have been brought by so many factors – not least the ravaging of the Prime Minister’s negotiating position by the 21 Tory rebels who helped to get the Benn Bill through Parliament, thus making common cause with governments other than their own, at the worst possible moment for their Party and country.

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Matthew Lesh: The radical neoliberal programme which can revitalise the Conservatives

Matthew Lesh is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

As the flus from last week’s Conservative Party Conference slowly fade, it is worth turning our minds back to a conference that we must never forget.

It was the autumn of 1980. The country was facing economic turmoil. Decades of Keynesianism was taking its toll with high inflation and low growth.  But there was a leader, a radical neoliberal, who refused to accept the status quo or allow the doomsters to take her off course.  “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning,” Margaret Thatcher told Conservative Party Conference.

Thatcher unashamedly spoke not just of policy change but creating “a new independence of spirit and zest for achievement”. She called her administration “one of the truly radical ministries of post-war Britain”.

Boris Johnson’s party conference speech last week has been lauded for its political nous: get Brexit done, and fund the NHS and other public services.

This makes a lot of political sense, particularly for the party’s ‘Go Midlands, Go North’ strategy: the plan to win northern Leave working class areas who traditionally voted Labour Party.

But Johnson’s spending is frustrating to many free marketeers, who have traditionally found their home in the Conservative Party. Boris speaks of a “dynamic enterprise culture” and the Conservative Party’s history in pioneering “free markets and privatisation”. But so far there has been little meat on the bone, while the party is giving up its reputation for fiscal conservatism by committing to big-spending plans.

Politically, this approach undermines support from economic liberals in London and the Southeast. This danger is heightened by the likes of Sam Gyimah’s defection, signalling the acceptability of the Liberal Democrats to Tory economic liberals. With the Lib Dems also winning over the likes of Chuka Umunna there’s a danger the two main parties are seen by voters to leave the centre stage to the Liberal Democrats — and leave governing alone to the scrap heap of history.

To get a strong majority, Boris needs to win both Chelsea and Fulham as well as Stoke-on-Trent. He needs to be able to hold up his economic credentials to win back Remain-voting Conservatives voters – not just give them another reason to abandon the party.

But this balancing act is nothing new. Thatcher, despite some reforms to childcare and housing subsidies, oversaw a huge increase in social spending. She declared that the NHS is “safe with us” and bragged about “enormous increases in the amount spent on social welfare to help the less fortunate”. David Cameron similarly declared that the NHS is “safe in my hands,” while cutting taxes, introducing free schools and reforming welfare.

Thatcher and Cameron balanced public spending with undertaking fundamental free market economic reform to boost the economy. To ensure the Conservative Party remains a broad coalition, it is important that Boris’ free market rhetoric is given meaning. There needs to be some meat on the bone. The Conservative Party will be much weaker if it does not have a serious economic policy offering that creates a clear distinction with Labour.

On the political left, while many may disagree with their approach and ideas, there is undeniably a radical reimagining of policy and a clear agenda: a four day work week, shutting down private schools and nationalising industry.

Some on the Right have chosen to respond to the emboldened Left by adopting parts of their agenda in the hope of placating and preventing the worst. But, as Theresa May’s premiership displays being Labour-lite and adopting policies like the energy price gap, or nanny state policies like the sugar tax, simply does not work.

The Neoliberal Manifesto, a joint project between the Adam Smith Institute and 1828 released last week at the Conservative Party Conference, presents a positive vision for Britain’s future. In the past, the word “neoliberalism” has been twisted by those seeking to manufacture a strawman on which to blame every societal ill.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Neoliberals are champions of freedom. We want government to protect and facilitate your ability to flourish; we believe in the power and ability of each individual; we believe in doing what is most effective; we are optimistic about the future; we support market intervention to address specific issues but reject paternalism; we are cosmopolitan and outward-looking to the world.

The manifesto calls for a liberal, free market approach to trade that encompasses cutting tariffs and pursuing deals based on the principle of mutual recognition. It declares that need to reform Britain’s outdated planning laws to allow for the building of more houses to fix Britain’s housing crisis. The manifesto also calls for a simpler, fairer tax system by getting rid of stamp duty and allowing capital expenditures to be expensed in full immediately.

On migration, it calls for a liberal system that brings the most talented people to our nation. On education, it explains the need for more choice. On innovation and technology, it calls for an optimistic approach defined by permissionless innovation.  It also calls for a liberal approach to drugs and personal choices, a compassionate but cost-effective approach to welfare, and addressing climate change without sinking our economy.

Many of these ideas are radical, and today can be expected to receive a mixed reception. But we think that our politicians should lead from the front, not the back. These policies are not designed with the idea of what may or may not be popular today, but rather setting the agenda for the future.

While not every action she took was immediately popular, Thatcher’s agenda transformed the country for the better and proved a politically successful formula across three general election victories. Cameron similarly won a majority after undertaking difficult decisions.

If the Government does not have an offering for people who want lower taxes and the state to live within its means, they risk unexpected losses.  Johnson can follow in the footsteps of successful leaders with his own liberal, free market agenda.

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