Reshuffles, moves and scuffles

This Week in UK Politics

Meanwhile, things are carrying on in Stormont as they piece their new power-sharing agreement together. Amongst this are a slew of announcements this weekend. And the Lib Dems have declared their new leader will be revealed in the summer.

Something particularly striking this weekend that will have an impact next week came from Number 10. Effectively, the head of the Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, is to tell senior members of the Cabinet that a reshuffle is pending and the only way for people to remain in it will be to focus on “delivery” of policies over media appearances.

This may present a very early sign about the type of Government Johnson seeks to manage – one where he is very much the central figure and the party stays on message. Possibly an early idea of Cummings’ approach to overhauling the workings of power.

It does mark a departure from Theresa May’s administration where leaks and inaction often appeared to be the order of the day. This can be seen as an attempt to present the Government as united and in control, which may possibly be helping with polling (latest stats below). The Guardian has more on this story.

As UK MEPs were in Brussels for the final time, there were words of regret from many of their former colleagues – some of whom have formed a WhatsApp group. On the UK Government side, there is a hardening of stance, seen from remarks from Chancellor Savid Javid. He has said that there will be no alignment with EU rules after Brexit, which seemingly contradicts the previous approach.

By declaring a lack of alignment, alarm bells were raised in the food/drink and automotive sectors. It also has mired the Government in some controversy as it has been one of the first public acknowledgements from a senior Minister that some industries will not benefit from Brexit. Linked to this was an admission from these industries that prices are likely to rise significantly. The BBC has further coverage.

Perhaps the Government feels empowered now it has a difficult to attain majority to say the things it was not comfortable saying before in a public forum. Or maybe it is a strategy of ‘talking tough’ while pursuing a much safer course of action. This may also challenge conventional wisdom about the Conservatives being the party of business. At the same time, it could just represent Javid’s personal take being off-message – maybe one of the reasons why Johnson is seeking to instil more rigid discipline.

Another sign of Johnson wanting to make his mark is the news that Ministers are considering the possibility of moving the House of Lords to York or Birmingham to “reconnect” with voters. The Conservatives’ chairman, James Cleverly, told Sophy Ridge that it was one of the options being considered. This follows a report in the Sunday Times which claimed a decision could be made in the next few months.

On the face of it, the proposal sounds reasonable. However, Labour MPs like Nadia Whittome called it ‘superficial’. Ultimately, while this removes some of the Parliamentary institutions from London, it does not address the House of Lords itself which remains unelected and lends itself to undue influence from a dominant party in the House of Commons. While the idea itself may not have universal backing, there is a fair amount of talk about de-centralising power in the Labour leadership contest.

As an update from last week’s post, Emily Thornberry managed to secure the last-minute nominations she needed to enter the Labour leadership contest. There have been hustings in Liverpool for both leader and deputy leader. Meanwhile, unions and constituency parties are deliberating on who they should back, to secure passage to the final stage of the vote. So far, polling from YouGov indicates that Keir Starmer is likely to win the vote in the second round, with a comfortable margin against favourite for second place, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

In Northern Ireland, the Government has been criticised for its financial package not being enough to fill the gap in public services. Both First and Deputy First Ministers have united on the attack, putting pressure on the Government to release extra funds. The Conservatives are so-far remaining fixed in their stance, possibly viewing this as not a priority. One would expect this argument to carry on in the background of UK politics as a whole, and the foreground of Northern Irish politics. Given the Government was able to bail out Flybe to some extent this week – despite ruling out that possibility – it is not unreasonable to assume they may give way in spite of their obstinance if it keeps Stormont quiet.

Another development that is likely to ruffle a few feathers is the release of a cross-party report into electoral law and protecting the integrity of British elections. Some of the recommendations include unlimited fines for those who breach electoral law and in response to groups like Cambridge Analytica, a call to restrict the ability to micro-target voters on social media.

This would reflect a change in the law not seen since 2001 – but will people like Dominic Cummings who have benefitted from the existing laws block this from coming into effect? And will this actually help the Electoral Commission to have a much more meaningful role when it has struggled to keep up with a myriad of developments? The Guardian has more.

Something else that is worth a mention is an update on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are to give up their royal titles, become financially independent and pay back the public purse for the renovation of their UK home in Windsor. While this is a huge development in the Royal Family, what is disheartening is the response to it. People have turned to the realms of conspiracy theories, disrespect and racism.

To those that say the UK does not have a problem with racism, stop kidding yourselves. The UK has a massive problem with racism – we have all seen it but many are uncomfortable to admit it. While so much progress appears to have been made in other areas, this appears to be persistent and needs to be dealt with urgently. It does not have a place in this century, let alone this decade.

Finally, an update on the latest stats. Labour maintained a council seat in Brislington East, Bristol with a marginal dip in vote share (1.1%). The Liberal Democrats saw a double-figure increase. This has been reflected in the State of the Parties page on this site.

After a short break, Westminster voting intention polls are back. The latest Opinium poll sees an increase in Conservative, Brexit Party and Green voting intention, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It would seem that Boris Johnson is currently experiencing a honeymoon – which is not unexpected. A rare sign of normality in these unprecedented times.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

2019 Review

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?

2019 General Election results under Proportional Representation

Data

After every election, there are numerous discussions that come to light about possible results under a different electoral system. While it is unlikely the electoral system will change any time soon, it is useful to understand the biases that can have a notable impact on the results.

For this exercise, I used a similar approach to that for European elections, where the UK is split into regions, and a list of candidates is pre-supplied by parties.

When the votes are counted, seats are assigned according to something known as the D’Hondt formula. More details here. Jeremy Vine also did a great explainer for the BBC below.

Here are the results when the data from the most recent General Election is pulled through.

A note here that I used the House of Commons’ full published data on the election results and the region from this data to calculate the number of seats allocated to each location.

As can be seen, the Conservatives would still be the largest party, but would fall short of an overall majority (326 seats). This could have a number of implications, a couple of which are outlined below.

As smaller parties could be represented better, it might also change perceptions of who to vote for. Voters may feel more empowered to vote for smaller parties as they have a realistic chance of gaining a seat.

While many voters vote for the party over the candidate, in some areas there is less space for independent candidates to succeed. This may also have an impact on party selection because the focus is much more on the national picture than local issues. That said, it may increase the significance of elections for other, more local bodies such as councils or the devolved administrations.

Parties would have to do more to co-operate with one another, as coalitions would become the norm. As the barrier of entry is much higher to gain a majority, parties would have to remove clauses from their party rulebook to enable this. This could potentially lead to more consensus-based policy making and a higher degree of stability when decisions are made.

Of course, the voting system is not likely to change. The Conservatives and Labour have been the biggest benefactors from the current First Past the Post arrangement, and public opinion surrounding coalitions or voting reform is often negative – seen often as an academic issue or leading to weakness and indecisiveness. Some argue that the rejection of AV towards the start of decade proves this, although this is not exactly the same system as has been discussed here.

However, it is interesting to speculate how things would be different if smaller parties were more empowered, and each party had to work harder to get into power. Would it make policy-making better, or would it make things more unstable?