Iran, Royals, the EU and Labour candidates

Just when you thought UK politics would calm down a bit with a newly dominant Conservative Party and the return to easy majorities for the Government – things seemed to flare up a bit.

Iran

First among these was the escalation of tension in Iran, where the US assassinated a senior general, and Trump took to Twitter to brag about it. Classy. The fact that this happened on another sovereign nation’s soil raised alarm bells with many who started talking about the possibility of World War Three – and drew comparisons with the ‘dodgy dossier’ ahead of the Iraq conflict.

Iran retaliated by bombing a seemingly unoccupied US airbase, and things seemed to calm down. What is now emerging is that caught up in this may have been a Boeing aircraft heading for Ukraine being shot down by Iran – although the facts of this are still being settled.

The Government was slow to respond, with Boris Johnson still being on holiday and seeming to ignore a letter from Jeremy Corbyn who still has the right to ask questions of the Government in these matters as a member of the privy council. This inaction opened the Conservatives up to a fair amount of criticism. Once the response came, it was ambiguous – claiming to be working on a European response; while condemning and praising the assassination at the same time.

In PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn asked the Prime Minister a series of questions around whether the activity was illegal, what would happen to British people living in the are and whether the Government’s response was related to a potential trade deal. The initial exchanges between them were helpful and there were constructive answers to the questions. Things took a turn when Corbyn mentioned links to a trade deal, where the Prime Minister started on the attack, criticising Corbyn and claiming the allegation was “absolute fiction”.

You can watch how this all played out below.

The Royals

When people thought nothing else could fit into the news agenda, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) unilaterally declared they were going to step back as senior members of the Royal Family. This was apparently without the knowledge of anybody else and was apparently due to The Sun being on the brink of telling everyone anyway. And how did they announce this? Via Instagram.

Many people would probably wonder this is being mentioned on a politics blog, as surely the Royal Family is above politics? Arguably, there are massive implications here as even though these royals are working to be financially independent as they call it, this has not turned out well for other members of the family i.e. the Wessexes, and there will still be a fair amount of public money spent on the couple such as their security detail. It is telling that the Government is now involved with the “emergency” negotiations with the Royal Family.

Secondly, it has raised further questions about the role of the Royal Family – and how it should look going into a new decade. Many had touted that the Cambridges and Sussexes were the ‘new face’, and represented a new approach, but this has raised several questions. This also highlights potential issues with press behaviour towards certain members of the Royal Family, which has been invasive and particularly in Meghan’s case teetering on abusive.

In a broader sense, it relates to many comments made on here previously about the nature of debate recently being toxic and highly personal. It shows that this issue is not just confined to the explicitly political space and that a wider conversation should be started in society about addressing this.

The EU

Less than a month to Brexit (part one) and conversation has started to turn toward the future relationship between the UK and the European Union where negotiations cannot formally start until the UK ceases to be a Member State.

The new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, made it clear in a speech at the London School of Economics that a full trade deal between the UK and EU (which Boris Johnson is aiming for) will be ‘impossible’ to conclude by the end of the transition period in December.

She took a pragmatic stance and said that the EU was ready to negotiate an “ambitious” partnership – but that the talks would be tough. As discussed in the 2019 review post on here, this reaffirmation of a trade deal being extremely difficult to achieve in less than a year is something to be expected and many in Number 10 and the Department for Exiting the European Union will be studying this closely.

It shows that even though the first hurdle may have been crossed by Johnson, the next one will be much more pressurised – where the expectations are much higher.

Labour Candidates

The Labour leadership election has started, with the party’s ruling committee meeting at the start of the week to decide the rules for electing a new leader.

There was much speculation about the rules potentially being tampered with to ensure a Corbyn 2.0 candidate had the most success. This was not the case, and the rules for the leadership election were not deemed to be too controversial.

In the early stages, Keir Starmer emerged as the frontrunner – easily reaching the necessary number of nominations from MPs and MEPs, and with Unison putting its weight behind him. Other candidates in the running (as of Sunday evening) are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy.

Each of these candidates represents a very diverse range of opinions within the party, and the question that will be asked is how they will bring the party together when the election results sparked a new wave of internal disagreement.

The following week will be a key part of the campaign, with nominations closing for both leader and deputy leader before an extensive voting process takes place.

Meanwhile, there has been little word about the internal post-mortem that Corbyn spoke of after the election, which is highly likely to have an impact on the leadership campaign as it progresses.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

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?