Hello, 2017. You look awfully familiar.

Hello, 2017. You look awfully familiar.

Hello, again. This blog has been dormant for six months, because after the British referendum on membership of the European Union I really couldn’t be bothered to write for no money in a medium I had always despised. During the referendum campaign it was all hands on deck and, frustrated by living in Amsterdam, well away from the thick of it, I felt I had to do my bit. But when the dust settled into parliamentary and legal wrangling the thousands of us volunteer foot-soldiers, each of whom had made a tiny but cumulative difference to the result, were needed no more. I thought about springing to the keyboard now and again, but the great hanging Why? sapped my enthusiasm. I packed it in by default.

So why do I write again now, on New Year’s Eve? The answer is quotidian and trivial. It is not because I am an indentured hack obliged to write something original about 2016 for readers who either don’t give a monkey’s or are so sad and bitter that they will use up a fraction of their copious free time in vicious trolling. I write now because my children are whiling away the dead hours before our neighbours start the street-party by watching films and playing Pokemon Go, I’ve done all the washing-up and laundry, set up all the weird gifted foreign booze we want to get rid of for random guests and prepared the fire in the hearth, and my wife is watching a documentary on her phone because I’m coming down with the flu and I’m rotten company. Later I shall be rotten company for the neighbours, but meanwhile I shall be rotten company for you.

What with one national newspaper firing everyone who was public school and Oxbridge out of chippy spite, and becoming a semi-literate laughing-stock as a result, and another changing to magazine format and thereby reducing my weekly space to resignation-inducing uselessness, I am now effectively a retired journalist, but 2016 has made me grateful. Oh, how I would have hated, in the past week, to have had to bang out, under the contractual lash, some screed of pompous tosh about What It All Means! 

And yet I feel a pang of regret. We are told that we have entered a ‘post-truth’ age, that the facts and figures and stats we read in the press can no longer be trusted. But I never had any truck with facts and figures and stats in the first place. True, it was an attitude that affected detrimentally the class of my degree, but it made me a journalist way ahead of his time. My work was always pure opinion, unsullied by contentious citation. I took an Aristotelian view, that in the absence of proof as to what might be (and ffs have certainly never been proof), we do not speculate but merely observe what is. Though I might have got that wrong. I can’t be bothered to look it up.

Anyway, here’s my take on 2016. It was the year in which people started using the lazy tag ‘virtue-signalling’, the verb ‘to channel’ in a sense whose precise meaning, if it has one, I still can’t infer, and also started beginning sentences, especially in answer to a question, with the word ‘so’, a device that simultaneously patronises the questioner and betrays insecurity in the respondent. This last is especially pernicious for being so catchy, like the moronic ‘up-talk’ to which so many fell prey through watching Australian soaps in the 1980s. That’s it.

Oh, Brexit and Trump? That great What It All Means thing? I’ll tell you what it means, my friends. It means bugger-all, that’s what it means. Sure, if you go for the line that the white working class seems to be in rebellion against its smug, anti-democratic masters you can spin some kind of comforting Marxist all-embracing analysis out of it, and you can stick with a broad sweep of history that lets you off having to look at the detail. But if you have some knowledge of political history, and some affection for the principle that elections are lost, not won, it all gets a bit messy. 

The American election result was narrow, and decided in Trump’s favour by Clinton’s popular vote being too locally concentrated for her to win through the electoral college system. This was the failure of the Democratic Party in blindly nominating its darling bully in spite of her record as Secretary of State being disastrously compromised in the eyes of the public. If she hadn’t used a private server for official business she would have won by a landslide; but if she’d just remembered to tip a waitress in New York State some years ago she would still have won narrowly. Trump won his nomination because so many electors fell for the line ‘He tells it like it is’, a line that had the best chance of flying against the haunted Clinton. And it worked, just. What follows is all about power and diplomacy, both within his administration and in the wider world, as always.

Clearly David Cameron would not have called a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU unless he thought he was going to win it for the Remain side. The trouble was that what motivated his campaign was not a belief in the virtue of EU membership (which neither he nor any of his inner circle ever truly held), but in the principle that referendums (correct English plural, by the way) are only useful when the Establishment side wins. The one we had recently on our electoral system is barely remembered, and quite right, too. But for the underdog to win triggers a whole new popular interest in democracy that forces the hierarchy to start from scratch, and who knows what might happen then? Much too dangerous.

And yet Cameron’s defeat and resignation resulted in a soggy centre-right government, worlds away from the threats of extremism so many European countries now face, or as so many of the American people fear they face. Just as in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1945 and 1968, when revolution was in the wind Britain put the popular voice centre-stage instead of trying to suppress it, and moderation prevailed. It’s not down to some kind of natural superiority, it’s just the way the accidents of our history have made us. We’re very lucky that way.

Now, look at those three glib paragraphs and tell me what connects Trump’s election with Brexit, let alone with the imminent presidency of Marine Le Pen in France, or the rise of Five Stars in Italy. It boils down to an enduring democratic principle: lose the trust of the electorate, and you lose the election. It’s not new, and it’s not rocket science. But try to go deeper than that and you might as well be trying to work out why, say,  Croatia and Germany both voted for Spain in a Eurovision Song Contest. There is no grand movement, only constant shifts of power and competence. It’s the same old game. Happy Same Year.

Theresa will tame the trolls

Theresa will tame the trolls

Two and a half rather news-packed weeks after the British referendum, those innocent, educated middle-class souls who posted their considered decision to vote Leave on Facebook, thinking that this would elicit only friendly banter that was just a bit more interesting than usual, are still getting hysterical, loathing-loaded tirades from their so-called friends who voted Remain. This teaches us something about social media, those cynical exploitations of social alienation in a global society, that let people pretend they are still “in touch” with college friends who have made their lives on different continents. That works as long as they only exchange trivia; but, as soon as something as big as Brexit comes up, they realise they have grown apart, and that there will never be a substitute for a long Faceface session over the booze. Late night chats cement friendships; friendships that are kept alive only by a novel toy are doomed to shatter under stress. Some people still hand-write letters to people they care about, but a personal email will do. If the friend isn’t worth even that, they are effectively discarded and lost – at least until the next face-to-face meeting.

Obvious as this should always have been, it doesn’t account for the sheer abusive heat of the correspondence – if you can call it that – from angry Remainers still attempting to grab the lion’s share of an infinite space. For that we have to dig much deeper. And it doesn’t surprise me in the least, because I’ve seen it before.

In 1979 the default liberal middle-class position was broadly that James Callaghan’s government was a disaster, but that we needed a new Harold Wilson to redress the balance of power between Parliament and the unions in order to restore British civil society while we managed the country’s inevitable post-imperial collapse into insignificance. It was simply a matter of which songs we should sing while we waited for the fire to go out. To elect a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher – Monetarism! Water-cannon! – was just vile and unthinkable. She believed in a can-do self-reliance, in a devil-take-the-hindmost push for resurgent prosperity and pride and power, that directly threatened the smug and intellectually lazy who were doing just fine in the midst of spiraling debt and inflation. The point was that they considered themselves the enlightened voice of their generation, sneering comfortably at the thrifty jingoism of their parents. And when Thatcher won the election they felt that the national mood had turned against them, against their progressive, soft internationalist stance, against the future itself.

But, of course, they didn’t turn their anger on the working-class voters who had mostly effected this revolution, for it was then an article of faith that these were merely the misguided salt of the earth, let down and alienated by their union bosses (whereas now the working class, hurt by the undercutting of EU labourers, can be vilified as racist scum – how progressive!); instead they abused their middle-class peers who had finally swung it. There was no Facebook, indeed no internet in those days, so it was all in the pub, across the garden fence, and, then as now, in the Guardian. But it was the same rage, of the comfortably ignorant progressives unable to justify in defeat a stance they’d never had to think about, that we are seeing now.

In the years following the 1979 election there was a great deal of pain before Britain boomed again, and a lot of “I told you so” from the apostles of genteel decline. But there can surely be nobody now, unless keeping the company of flat-earthers, who argues that we would all have been better off if Thatcher had lost that election (or either of the subsequent two). The truth is that the alternative, of continued Labour government and recession turning to depression, would have been far, far worse. 

And so it is now. The pain is already looking like it will be very short-lived – so the trolls might have to eat their words rather sooner – but the alternative was a Britain locked into a unifying European project intent on making rich nations poorer in order to keep poor nations poor but within the holy Eurozone, while weakening national parliaments and thereby blindly encouraging extremism. When we look at Europe 35 years from now, it will be either at a collection of prosperous sovereign nations that heeded our warning, or at an economic wasteland recovering from multiple revolutions. We are right to leave the EU, just as we were right to vote for Thatcher in 1979.

But, although Theresa May has long been braced for cheap and easy comparisons from the press were she to become PM, she is no Thatcher, and by that I certainly do not mean that she lacks Thatcher’s steel or command of purpose. Those she has in spades. But this is not 1979; she benefits from Thatcher’s legacy in that the meat-head Left, who have taken over the Labour leadership with still enduring support from major unions, are nowhere near a resurgence to their position of 40 years ago. Most Labour MPs are desperately looking for ways to save their party and their jobs, while the half a million – tops- who actually support the stance of the bumbling idiot they currently have as Labour leader will shortly disappear into fragmented little agit-prop cells, ignored by all, just as they did through the late ‘8Os. 

No, Theresa’s task is not to confront and divide and win, but to unify her party and her country and effect a civilised and beneficial withdrawal from the EU. She is no enthusiast for that institution, or for Britain’s involvement in it. As Home Secretary she was hampered a-plenty by the creeping effect of the primacy of EU over UK law, and will rejoice in its reversal. She was a “reluctant Remainer” because her office demanded support of a fragile government that needed continuity, especially in security, in difficult times; and if there was an element of calculation in that, of positioning herself as the unifying successor to David Cameron, I applaud her for it. We need a clever, experienced politician to get us out of the EU in good order and keep Labour stumbling on its back foot. And now that the party of government is breathing a sigh of relief at an end to its vicious divisions, and unifying behind her, perhaps all those Facebook grand-standers can shut up as well.

It’s Got to be Gove – at least until Friday

It’s Got to be Gove – at least until Friday

This is a short one, because its relevance is only for 24 hours from the time of writing.

On Thursday, tomorrow as I write, Tory MPs will decide which two of the three remaining, as it were, candidates for the leadership will be put before the membership.

Obviously Theresa May will be one of them, so the choice between the other two is what matters now.

Andrea Leadsom has been in Parliament for six years, and has no Cabinet experience. She has admitted that her City CV could be “misleading”, though a former colleague went rather further, and she has, alone among the candidates, refused to disclose her tax details. The most charitable explanation for the latter is that there’s something in there that is perfectly innocent, but would take time to explain, over and over, and she doesn’t want that distraction from the political issues. If that is true it’s a miscalculation on her part, and it looks ugly. But within government she also has the reputation for being baffled and clueless under pressure, as indeed she was in her hustings to the parliamentary party. And she is a recent convert to Euroscepticism who briefly shone on platforms with Gisela Stuart at her side. Most people still don’t have a clue who she is.

Michael Gove has been completely consistent in his views on the EU throughout his career in journalism and politics, has held two Cabinet posts, and has been a zealous reformer in both. His background is transparent, and he is the most articulate conviction politician in Parliament. 

Apparently, facing a huge majority in the vote of MPs for their candidate, Theresa May’s supporters are encouraging the “spares” to vote Gove, because they think he will be easier to beat in a vote of the membership than the novel and female Leadsom. They reason that he is disliked by the blue-rinse backbone of the constituency associations, among whom Boris was only slightly less popular than Bruce Forsyth, for taking a knife to their cuddly toy. 

They may be right. I don’t care. What matters is that the candidate opposing Theresa is the authentic voice of principled, intellectual hostility to the EU project, and someone of proven competence and steel. The membership must have a real choice set before them. It’s Got to be Gove.

 

Gove must win the minds of Leadsom’s supporters for the good of the Party and the Country.

Gove must win the minds of Leadsom’s supporters for the good of the Party and the Country.

The first round result of the Conservative leadership election is not a surprise. In a parliamentary party dominated by Remainers and terrified of uncertainty, Theresa May, the big beast, the safe pair of hands, was always going to top the poll by miles. The more interesting question is that of who will oppose her in a vote of largely Eurosceptic party members after tomorrow, when Tory MPs vote on the last three left standing.

At the moment Andrea Leadsom is coming second, and on course for that challenge, even though her first hustings to the whole parliamentary party exposed her as someone who had made a great girl-power team with Labour’s Gisela Stuart during the referendum campaign, but had no depth beyond the demands of that high-octane moment.

Let us not forget that Boris Johnson is now out of the frame because he just didn’t get around to responding to Leadsom’s ultimatum for the offer of Chancellor in return for her support within the time-frame she had demanded. If he had, if he’d just sent her a note or a text, instead of witticising his way through a convivial evening with friends, it would now be impossible to call whether he or May would be our next PM. But it was at the point of that fundamental political failure on Boris’s part, to do his job for his team, that Michael Gove realised the hero of the referendum was letting everything they’d fought for slip away through lazy arrogance, and took over. He had to. They only had a week.

But for this act of decisive and principled leadership Gove is now traduced as a back-stabber, even by those who had resented Boris for being a privileged, grand-standing opportunist. Crabb has pulled out, offering his support – while not having the bad taste to dictate to his supporters – to May. So now Michael Gove has a hill to climb: in order to come second tomorrow he must convince Leadsom’s supporters to defect – assuming that Crabbe’s supporters will back May. That’s not set in stone, because some might switch to the radical, reforming Gove, as they should, but that’s not to be counted on.

Boris, who has now declared his support for Andrea Leadsom, is fond of drawing classical allusions, mostly by simultaneously flattering and patronising his readers in the Telegraph, so how about this one? He is Coriolanus, the hero who disdained the good opinion of the voters, and went off in a huff to fight for their enemies, who then murdered him. Has he got any kind of deal for promotion out of Leadsom, or has he acted solely out of pique, as Coriolanus did? Meanwhile Michael Gove, the man who did his best to rule himself out of an office he didn’t want, is now Cincinatus, who reluctantly took over because he was the only man whose leadership could save Rome. 

And Leadsom? The ancient Greek dramatists made much of the fault of hubris, the over-weening arrogance that precipitates a fall. Clearly it applies to Boris himself. But a week ago Boris was the front-runner, a hugely popular national figure on course to make a serious bid for No 10. How come a junior minister who was only elected to Parliament six years ago felt she could dictate terms to him? Sure, she’d been a great double-act with Stuart in the debates, but almost everyone was still saying Who is she? And they still are. Her conversion to Euro-scepticism is recent, and career-driven, but she now has the zeal of the convert, vowing to invoke Article 50 immediately upon her victory, which is just silly when there is still much settling down of popular emotion, let alone of markets, to be ridden out. 

Michael Gove has solid Cabinet experience, in which he made enemies by getting things done. And he has never wavered, throughout his career, in his fundamental objections to Britain’s membership of the EU. The MPs now occupying the moral high ground as though it were their ancestral home, claiming distaste for his ruthlessness in side-lining a slacking figure-head, are actually thinking “If he did it to Boris, he can do it to me”. But the truth is that he won’t – as long as they do their jobs.

Mrs Leadsom’s supporters are deluding themselves if they think she, a light-weight new-comer of recent and limited celebrity, can mount a serious challenge to Theresa May in the party vote. The time has come for them to accept that Michael Gove is an honourable man who did the best for his party and his beliefs, and stop pretending to be shocked by a dramatic and bold initiative in politics. He is a true leader, and they need him. They should have the courage to switch and back him now – for it would demand of them only a tenth of the courage he showed last week.

 

Michael Gove is a hero, not a villain. Boris knifed himself.

Michael Gove is a hero, not a villain. Boris knifed himself.

My regard for Michael Gove has never been higher. As I write he is taking abuse from all sides, vilified as a scheming, cynical back-stabber who has hi-jacked the standing and popularity of a trusting friend to satisfy his own ambition, and I’m not buying it. Here’s why.

Yesterday Liam Fox described the whole Gove/Johnson/May drama as “the politics of the Oxford Union”, and, though a Glasgow man himself, he is absolutely right. For any Oxford graduate with close experience of that splendid institution, or of the Oxford University Conservative Association with which so many of its members have traditionally overlapped, will probably recall at least one instance of an over-confident front-runner, who had lost the confidence of the troops, being deposed by their closest supporter at the 11th hour in a brutal coup for the sake of the slate/faction/electoral machine they had aspired to lead. 

That intense and ruthless environment has attracted and honed the skills of a great many brilliant young people with political ambitions, as well as others, like me, who were in it for the debating, and had no desire to enter Parliament. It was there that I first became friends with Theresa Brasier (now May), then Boris Johnson, and then Michael Gove (why I was in it for so long is another story – you can let me know if you want to read it), as well as another 30-odd current MPs. And I have followed their careers, first as a Central Office hack, then as a journalist, with a keen personal interest. 

I have always liked Theresa. She is warm and charming and made of steel. She’s very bright, has an energetic enthusiasm for her job, and has got better at it the higher she has risen. She will – barring a colossal upset – be a first-class prime minister, and I shall congratulate her without reservation. But that’s not the point here.

Michael is accused of using and backing Boris while secretly planning to knife him all along, and in order further to damn him with the charge of shameless hypocrisy his former employer, The Times, yesterday printed a selection of statements from his own mouth, some from just this past month:

“I don’t want to do it and there are people who are far better equipped than me to do it. And there are people who have advocated Leave, and people who have advocated Remain who are far better than me to do it.” – Telegraph, May 2016

“I don’t think I have got that exceptional level of ability required to do the job.” – Telegraph, June 2016

“The one thing I can tell you is there are lots of talented people who could be prime minister after David Cameron, but count me out.” – Sky News, June 2016

I think he underestimates his own abilities, but there’s plenty more in the same vein, going further back.

Now one charge nobody is hurling at Michael just now is that of stupidity. He’s very clever and articulate, and knows what he’s saying. And here we have none of the locutions usually employed by the man who’s keeping his options open, no “I have no plans to stand for the leadership”, no “I’m not going to make predictions about future circumstances”, none of that waffle. It is quite obvious that the man genuinely didn’t want to end up in this position, and did his best to box himself out of it. So what happened?

During the referendum campaign we saw Boris at his best – full of energy and bounce and charm and wit, a rallying orator, a larger-than-life personality throwing his considerable all into the cause. It was obvious that Michael, the man who didn’t want it anyway, should back crest-of-the-wave Boris as Leave’s candidate to oppose Theresa for the top job. But in the week after the referendum we saw Boris’s other side –  smug and dismissive in victory, dithering and back-pedalling, and, most importantly, so convinced he had No 10 in the bag that he didn’t even turn up to PMQs, let alone make any effort to charm the considerable number of Tory MPs who resent his fame and easy success. Securing votes on his behalf became impossible. It was precisely the attitude that cost him the presidency of the Oxford Union the first time he ran for it, 31 years ago.

After David Cameron’s announcement of his intention to resign, Michael had maintained that the next PM should be someone who had campaigned for and believed in Vote Leave, not a compromise Remainer like Theresa, who might water down the implementation of the popular will. But with Boris a busted flush, in a parliamentary party dominated by Remainers, there was now nobody with the public profile to have a cat-in-hell’s chance of beating Theresa even in a vote of largely Leave party members – nobody except Michael. There was only one more thing he could do for his passionately held belief in a Britain truly divorced from the anti-democratic and stifling regime of the EU, and he did it, reluctantly but honourably, and all the more nobly for knowing that he would be branded a rat of the lowest order as a result. 

I’ve been living abroad for five years now, and this past week I was mad as hell that I wasn’t still in Westminster. I started writing this blog to do my little bit for the Leave campaign, and very little it has been. Its influence on the result must have been infinitesimal. But this is different. In the attempt at least to ensure that the Leave voice remains loud and powerful, even in the administration of a PM who voted Remain, it is vital that Theresa’s eventual opponent in the vote of party members gives her a serious run for her money. And that depends on the votes of just dozens of currently uncommitted MPs, all of them vulnerable and sensitive to the will of their constituents and associations. I have no idea who most of my readers are, but there must surely be among them many with the ability to influence those votes, and I urge them to do so, by backing the man with too much integrity for his own good – Michael Gove.