Thursday, 20 April 2017

Mrs May's Mayhem

Announcing the election
Well that was a surprise said the massed rank of journalists who were agog at Mrs May's easter bunny present of another election. I had been thinking that there has never been such a dreadful government in my lifetime, nor such a rag- tag of opposition parties. I listened to the announcement as we made a 9 hour journey up the M1, M6 and M74 dicing with the roadworks and seeing how far we could drive without stopping at the service stations that harbour all that is wrong in Mrs May's disunited kingdom. We were glad to have friends and relatives who are close enough to the route to make some diversions for coffee breaks.

The only sensible comment on the day the election was announced was Professor John Curtice explaining the dangers as well as the advantages of calling an early election. It will be fought on the old boundaries that give the Tories no added advantage as the new boundaries would have done in 2020. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are unlikely to change much, although the SNP may lose a few seats to other parties as opposition to indyref 2 remains strong. Most Labour MPs have solid majorities that will be difficult for the Tories to win unless their lead is well over 10%. The Lib Dems are likely to regain some of the 49 seats they lost at the 2015 election. So Mrs May could end up with winning only a few more seats and in the process tarnish her stainless reputation for tough talking that she has acquired in the absence of any effective opposition either within or outwith her party. Her obfuscation on many issues should become apparent as the campaign takes on a life of its own.

I watched PMQs yesterday and then the start of the debate about calling the election. Mrs May was on fire, she treated her time at the despatch box like an exam. The phalanx of her middle aged male MPs, chubby and smart in their dark suits, were fronted by a studied posse of female MPs. The Tory MPs were less smart in delivering their ingratiating questions designed to get a mention for their constituency and a pat on the back for the excellent work of the MP. Perfect material for their election leaflets.

All Labour opposition MPs had their questions ignored by Mrs May who simply challenged their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn by quoting some derogatory remark that they had made about their leader in the last twenty months. Her research staff must have worked through the night to provide her with the insults that she released with a tally-ho flourish that delighted her benches. The PM clearly believes that question time is her chance to fire the questions. She did not deign to answer any herself. She was undoubtedly well versed in numerous briefs and quite turbocharged compared to Jeremy Corbyn who simply pedalled his prosaic questions with a plodding Sturmey-Archer efficiency. They lacked inspiration although the issues were more pertinent to what is happening to Britain in the ferment that Brexit has provided. Jeremy Corbyn's aversion to issuing personal insults is an endearing feature that Mrs May could do to follow. This could play well in the election.

After the election in all probability, she would be facing a far more coherent Labour opposition party whether led by a new leader or Jeremy Corbyn. And this is where her notion that she would have a united stand on Brexit following a Tory victory does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Let's say the Lib Dems take 20 seats and have back Vince Cable and one or two other experienced MPs, the SNP will maybe lose MPs but, if Angus Robertson is returned, they provide a statesmanlike presence. The Greens may win a couple more seats giving the excellent Caroline Lucas a more powerful voice. The Labour Party have experienced and talented MPs, if they are re-elected, to have a team that could run rings round the insipid Tory cabinet.

It may be that the hidden reason for the election is that Mrs May is seeking to dispense with some of her cabinet. Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox, Jeremy Hunt, Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss, Savid Javid and James Brokenshire are all out of their depth. Amber Rudd and Michael Fallon are her attack dogs, they have a steely gravitas that merely enhances their pomposity, and Boris means Boris. Mrs May does not have a creative team about her, they are mainly defensively inclined. Her team perform like those of Jose Mourinho: ruthless, boring and defensive who will bend the rules to win.

This was clear in question time as her cabinet laughed and clapped on order. The only occasion that Mrs May became agitated was when Yvette Cooper accused the PM of falsifying the truth in giving her reasons for having an election. Parliament and the House of Lords had voted by significant majorities for article 50, which was contrary to what Mrs May had claimed. It was a reminder that Labour has some formidable parliamentarians even though many refuse to serve in the Corbyn shadow cabinet. When the more measured Corbyn and John McDonnell are not available, we have had to suffer the condescending intonations of Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott speaking for Labour on the news bulletins.  They both display an irritating haughtiness that discourages any empathy with the Corbynistas. Thornberry is quick-witted but with a vindictive streak, Abbott seems to have lost the plot in recent appearances. It is reassuring to see that politicians can be recycled as Ed Miliband has shown by appearances on programmes like The Last Leg.

Even if there were a reduced number of Labour MPs, working in harness they would provide a re-elected Mrs May government with a far sterner test than she has had to cope with hitherto. If John Curtice is on the money, even an increase in the Tory majority would be far less effective against a revitalised Labour opposition front bench, whoever was their leader. Many MPs on the left of the party have refused to serve under Jeremy Corbyn over the last eight months. This self-imposed exile has been damaging to them and the party but has probably given them the determination after the election to work collectively to rescue the party from the train crash of recent years.

It is highly probable that a Labour front bench drawn from Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle, Meg Hillier, Rebecca Long- Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves, Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Ed Miliband, Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting, Chukka Umunna, and Jon Crudas would have the knowledge and communication skills to seriously challenge Mrs May. There is also real experience in the upper house with Lords Blunkett, Darling, Falconer, Hain, Reid and Baronesses Blackstone and Chakrabarti amongst others. The real coup would be to make Baroness Bakewell the shadow minister for Culture and Media. She could reinvigorate the BBC as an institution that is once again objective and innovative. Under the threats from Osborne, Hunt and Whittingdale in recent years the BBC has become timid and an instrument of the government.

The other opposition parties would add substance and gravitas to progressive ideas through Caroline Lucas, Sir Vince Cable and some of the SNP. The Commons would become a serious debating chamber with Mrs May's cabinet and her chubby backbenchers suffering political Mayhem.

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