Where now?

Given her past form, it is reasonable to assume that Mrs May’s assertion that she will fight the leadership contest with all she’s got is a sure sign that she’ll be resigning shortly; but however it plays out, it is difficult to see how the Tories will this time avoid the split they have postponed so often in the past in the name of party unity, or as the Tories like to call it, ‘the national interest’ and ‘the good of the country.’

But what then?

As I see it, all the likely permutations in the leadership contest point to the same end, which is that either one side or the other in the Tory party will be unable to support whoever is chosen:

  • if Mrs May wins and stays on, the Brexit faction will remain unreconciled;
  • if she loses or resigns (like Margaret Thatcher before her) because her margin of victory is too small, then no candidate that the Brexit faction chooses will be acceptable to the rest, and vice-versa.
  • In the event of May going, it is hard to see that there is any sense in running another candidate who takes up where she left off, and pursues her already discredited Brexit plan against a hard-liner, so the only realistic alternative is a People’s Vote candidate, who more or less admits the folly of all that has been done and says the only solution is to ask the people if they still want to do this; and that will be anathema to the Brexit faction.

It is very hard to see how any single candidate will unite the party as long as Brexit remains in contention, so whoever wins, the downfall of the government and a general election seems almost certain to follow.

Given that the Tories would enter such an election split along the lines described above, with a right-wing pro-Brexit faction seeking alliance from the other unsavoury elements and the centrists reaching out to the Liberals, will Labour be tempted to stick with Brexit in the hope of winning back their disgruntled traditional followers who voted for it, while taking for granted that they will have the support of most other anti-Tories? And in that eventuality, would the party remain united?

And don’t forget that Scotland is heartily sick of being patronised with sickly sentiment about ‘our precious union’, particularly given the way our clearly-stated view of Brexit has counted for nothing – as has Northern Ireland’s. The Republic can no longer be portrayed as a priest-ridden catholic theocracy, and a united Ireland might strike many in the North as preferable  to continued alliance with Brexit-obsessed England. This could be a seismic moment in the politics of these islands.

When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room: the collective failure of press and politicians in the Brexit debacle

It should be remembered that David Cameron became Conservative leader by being more interesting than David Davies in a couple of speeches. The bar was set low at the outset and his subsequent career was consonant with that. It is likely that he will be remembered as the worst British prime minister of modern times: his brief career was marked by misjudgement and mismanagement and culminated with his running away from the woeful mess he had almost single-handedly created.

While some might suggest that Theresa May could contest Cameron’s title – if she is ever elevated to the peerage, then a chameleon weathercock would be an appropriate coat-of-arms, symbolising her complete lack of conviction and imagination – we should remember that Mrs May is only prime minister through Cameron’s ineptitude. The best that can be said of her is that she was the least unsuitable of the candidates available.

But the blame does not rest solely with the conservative government nor even with the current crop of politicians as a group, second-rate though most of them are, with a few notable exceptions calling from the margins (Kenneth Clarke, John Major, Vince Cable). The malaise that has spread from Cameron’s blundering has infected the journalists whose task it is to hold politicians to account.

When historians look back on this period, they will puzzle at the apparent inability of both politicians and journalists to perform simple subtraction:

46–17 = ?     

65–17 = ?

If you find yourself similarly challenged, the answer in the first case is 29 and in the second, 48. 

As most children of primary school age could tell you, 17 is a smaller number than 29 and 48. Since these figures, rounded down to whole millions*, represent respectively the difference between the total electorate taking part in the referendum and those expressing a desire to leave the EU and the difference between the total population – i.e. the British people as a whole – and those expressing a desire to leave the EU, it follows as an unassailable fact of arithmetic that there has only ever been a minority of the electorate, and of the British people, who expressed a desire to leave the European Union.

And yes, it really is that simple, and that is not playing with words. If you want confirmation, you need look no farther than the Brexit supporters themselves, who continually assert that ‘the majority of the British people wish to leave the EU’ yet implacably oppose the one sure way of demonstrating the truth of what they say, a second referendum. Why?

They know, in fact, that the 17.4 million figure probably flatters them, and that many voted to leave in ignorance, or out of a desire to express their general discontent, complacently assuming that a vote to remain was a foregone conclusion; unfortunately, so did around 13 million others who did not bother to vote at all. Yet the proportion that matters is what part of the electorate and the population expressed a desire to change the status quo: it is, at best, 38% of the electorate, and around 26% of the population. That is not a mandate for change by any measure, particularly one that will have such far-reaching consequences for the entire population as this. A general election can be undone after five years; leaving Europe will affect the country for at least a generation.

And that is what will mystify historians in years to come: not that the Brexit-supporting minority were desperate to make the most of a fluke result, even to the extent of asserting that it showed the opposite of what it actually does – that much is understandable, though not particularly laudable; rather it is that almost everyone in the body politic and the press acquiesced in their false narrative and gave it currency. 

Only a couple of days ago, the chancellor Phillip Hammond – a remainer himself – became the latest in a long line of politicians to assert the falsehood that ‘the majority of the British people voted to leave’ and John Humphrys, not for the first time, was numbered with the long and ignoble line of journalists who have failed to challenge the point.

This really is a Looking-glass world: having spent nearly two years negotiating to hang onto what we already have (but say we don’t want) the politicians are pressing ahead ‘in the national interest’ with a course of action that they know will make things worse and which only a minority has ever wanted; and the commentators whose job is to call them to account are letting it happen.

Our only hope is that a fortunate combination of stubbornness, opportunism and incompetence in the upcoming parliamentary vote will deliver a chance for the majority of the British people to express what they actually want. Otherwise, it is a bleak lookout for us all.

*The rounding slightly favours the Brexit cause: the actual figures are 46.5, 65.5 and 17.4

Mogg the Mendacious

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 18.21.49

a singularly dishonest man

We know Jacob Rees-Mogg to be a consummate liar – much like Mr Bernard Jenkin,  dishonesty and false representation are his stock in trade -– but in this short interview he excels himself.

In the course of a minute and a half, he makes the following six claims, all of which are demonstrably false or intentionally misleading:

1.  ‘I’m not afraid at all, it’s a singularly silly idea (on being asked if he fears a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit)

2. ‘we’ve had three votes on this’ (i.e. Leaving the EU)

3. ‘We had a vote in 2015, the General Election, as to whether or not there should be a referendum’

4. ‘We had an election in 2017 where over 80% of people voted for parties committed to leaving’ (as evidence that this could be taken as a proxy vote for Brexit)

5. ‘The General Election was voting for parties that made it clear that they meant to implement the referendum and the two parties that didn’t – the greens and the Lib-Dems – lost votes’

6. ‘It was quite clear from the General election and the election campaign that delivering on Brexit had very widespread support, as opinion polling still shows.’

Let us take in each in turn. Regarding (1) it is evident from his whole line of argument that Mogg is terrified of a second referendum, so this is simply a lie. We shall return to it later.

2. We have not had ‘three votes on this’ – there has been only one, the Referendum itself, which was bracketed by two General Elections. It is false to represent either of these as a vote on leaving the EU, for reasons we will examine in detail below.

3. We did not have a vote in 2015 as to whether or not there should be a referendum; that is simply untrue. We had a General Election, in which the Conservatives held out the promise of a referendum. Since only UKIP advocated leaving the EU, a vote for the Conservatives could not be construed as a vote to leave the EU, nor indeed could a vote for a referendum be so construed, even if that had been the single issue in the election, which it was not. Another false representation.

4. This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. In every single General election in the past 100 years the great majority of votes have been cast for either Conservative or Labour; in 1918, it was 59%, the lowest combined total; in the 21 elections since 1931 – the first year in which the combined total exceeded 80% – the total voting either Labour or Conservative has exceeded 80% on 11 occasions (on three occasions it passed 90%).

It is true that last year was the first time since 1979 that the total had exceeded 80%, owing to the emergence of the SDP/Lib Dems as a significant third force from 1983 onwards, but all the same there is nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy about the fact that the majority of voters voted the same way they have for the last hundred years; to adduce that the percentage in the 2017 vote was primarily because the two main parties said they would stand by the referendum does not stand up to scrutiny.

5. So, the general Election was not just ‘voting for parties that made clear they meant to implement the referendum’. Leaving aside the fact that both Mogg’s own party and Labour are riven from top to bottom on the issue, so that many who voted for either were certainly not pro Brexit, it is a fact that the one party that stands most clearly for Brexit – UKIP – suffered the heaviest loss in the 2017 election. The Greens might have lost 2% of their vote, but they retained their seat; the Lib Dems suffered a fractional loss – 0.5% – but actually increased their number of seats by 50%, from 8 to 12; UKIP, however, lost their sole seat and suffered a spectacular 10.8% decline in their vote, far and away the greatest loss suffered by any party (the sum total of the rest was only 4.6%). Here, too, it is evident that Mogg is trying to bamboozle and mislead: his contention that the 2017 Election can be taken as a proxy for a Brexit vote is not only absurd in itself, it is also unsupported by the very voting patterns Mogg wishes to adduce as evidence.

6. Whenever Mogg says anything is ‘quite clear’, you should doubt it at once. For the reasons given above, it is by no means clear that the 2017 election showed that delivering on Brexit had ‘very widespread support’ (and how ‘the election campaign‘ could show anything of the kind is not at all clear); but as regards the claim that ‘opinion polling still shows’ ‘very widespread support’ for Brexit, I would direct you to this page, which is literally the first I found in seeking to test the veracity of Mogg’s claim.

It gives data for four variants on the question of whether the UK should leave or remain:

in the first series of 13 polls, conducted since March 2017, only one (2 March 17) showed a majority for leave; two (May and November 17) were level; the remaining 10 were in favour of remaining, with the gap appearing to widen in 2018;

in the second series, 13 polls between January and August 18, only 2, both in March, showed a majority for leave; 2 more (27 June and 14 July), were level; the remaining 9 favoured remain, with the gap widening steadily in the most recent.

In a third poll that asked ‘In hindsight, was Britain right or wrong to vote leave?’ Every single one of 13 polls showed a majority for ‘wrong’.

In a fourth poll that asked if Britain should remain or leave, two polls were level and remaining 10 showed a majority for Remain.

(in actual fact, the figures are even more persuasive – the four groups above are based on 42, 72, 85 and 168 polls respectively: see here for details: whatukthinks.org)

So, once more, the truth of Mogg’s assertion is doubtful.

Ah yes – that first question: are you afraid of a second poll? If Mogg is not afraid, as he asserts, then why, on being asked if Britain would still vote Brexit if they went to the polls tomorrow, does he evade the question?

This is a man who has spent considerable time assembling a tissue of specious arguments to show that Britain, not once but three times over, has already voted for Brexit – yet when the question is put directly to him, he prevaricates. Why does he not just say ‘yes of course they would vote for Brexit’ ? It is, after all, what he asserts to be true – that the great majority of people want to leave the EU.

Anyone would think he did not actually believe it himself.

Another way to misrepresent the EU referendum result: the Charles Moore Defence

Charles_Moore,_former_editor_of_the_Daily_Telegraph,_at_Edmund_Burke_Philosopher,_Politician,_Prophet[photo by Policy Exchange – Flickr: Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, at Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30224977%5D

As we have seen ( in Liars in public places) the usual method of misrepresenting the 2016 referendum result, as employed by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin and Johnson, is to lie outright –  these honourable men equate those who voted to leave with ‘the British people’ whose voice, we are told, must be heeded, and whose will must not be thwarted. Yet if we look at the actual figures, this arithmetic is downright dishonest:

British People (total) = 65.5 million

British People (eligible to vote in 2016 referendum) = 46.5 million

“British People” (as defined by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin & Johnson) = 17.4 million.

(i.e. 38% of the electorate, 26.4% of the population – a large minority by any honest measure)

This morning, Mr Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, made another sort of misrepresentation to the people – he told us that the vote to leave was  ‘a massive vote – 17.4 million people, the largest number to vote for anything in our history’   (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 February)

This is a claim I have heard before, from others who, like Mr Moore, are keen to present the 2016 referendum result as something it is not. For what it’s worth, the assertion is true (though only barely so) – but to be honest, it is not worth much at all.

For a start, we must ask ourselves on how many occasions ‘in our history’ the British people have voted on a single issue such as this*.

The answer is 3.

In 2016, as we have seen, 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU;

in 2011, 13,013,123 voted to reject the alternative vote and stick with first past the post;

and in 1973 17,378,581 voted to remain in the EU

that is only 32,161 fewer (or 0.18% less) than the ‘massive’ 2016 tally – from a substantially smaller electorate (40 million against 46.5) and a slightly lower turnout (64.67% v. 72.21%) – sufficient, I would say, to render Mr Moore’s grand-sounding claim void of any worth and confirm it as a clear attempt to misrepresent the 2016 referendum result as some sort of overwhelming landslide which it would be futile to challenge, whereas it was actually very close on the day – 51.89% v 48.11% – and in percentage terms meant that only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave as against 34.7% who wished to stay and a further 27% who did not offer an opinion.

For comparison, the 1975 result was decisive –  67% to 33%,  17.378 million v. 8.47 million, 43% of the electorate for, 21% against with 36% not offering an opinion.

I have said elsewhere that the 2016 result would be more honestly presented by saying that 62% did not vote to leave. In case I am accused of duplicity, we should consider the 1975 referendum in the same light.

Can we say that 57% ‘did not vote to stay’ ? I suppose we could; on the other hand, since the status quo then, as now, was that we were already in the EU, then voting to leave is the vote for change; so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in 1975, 79% did not wish to leave the EU, since only 21% expressed a desire to do so.

What is undeniable is that a number of public figures – many of them elected representatives – consistently misrepresent the 2016 result as so overwhelming that to challenge it would be futile and an affront to democracy. 

They do so because they fear that the result – which was actually very close and showed the country to be deeply divided on the issue – will certainly be reversed in a second referendum.

For them, that makes a second referendum something to be avoided at all costs. For us – the British people – it makes it a democratic imperative.

 

*There have been 11 referendums since 1973, but only 3 involved the whole of the UK. General elections, which involve multiple parties, constituency votes and complex manifestos, are clearly not the same as single-issue referendums in  which the overall vote is what counts. For information, since the war, the winning party has generally gained around 13 million votes, with the lowest being Tony Blair’s victory in 2005 (9.55 million votes giving a majority of 31) and the highest John Major’s 14 million in 1992, which gave him a slimmer majority of 10; while Teresa May’s total of 13.63 milion in 2017, though among the highest, left her short of an overall majority – which shows that the total popular vote is of little significance in these contests.

Johnson now certain Britain wishes to remain and would reverse Brexit in second referendum

 

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48     picture: BBC Website

Boris Johnson has admitted that a second referendum would reverse Brexit and see Britain vote to remain in the EU.

In his speech today, Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.

Since Mr Johnson presents himself as a firm advocate of Brexit, it is inconceivable that he would describe a referendum that confirmed Brexit in those terms or as having these effects; if anything, it would silence the Remainers.

His words can only mean that Mr Johnson expects a second referendum would reverse Brexit and leave the 38% of the electorate who voted for it feeling betrayed.

His words are open to no other construction.

But if he believes that the British people wish to stay in the EU, why is he intent on denying them the chance to say so? Can it be that he puts his own career above democracy?

Reading between the lines in Boris’s valentine

Boris Johnson, whatever else he may be, is a wily creature. His Valentine’s Day attempt to woo us all to get behind Brexit is a typically guileful effort. It is presented as a magnanimous ‘reaching out’ to ‘Remainers’ along the lines of ‘let’s all pull together to make this happen’.  He wishes to persuade us ‘that Brexit is not grounds for fear but hope.’ His general style, as always, is one of bluff confidence.

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48   (picture: BBC website)

However, even the wiliest creatures do not always succeed in concealing their true feelings; sometimes they let slip rather more than they mean to.

 

Mr Johnson has done his arithmetic: he knows that when he and his cronies – the reprehensible Rees-Mogg, the unspeakable Bernard Jenkin – use expressions like ‘the voice of the British people’ (which must be heeded!) and ‘the will of the British people’ (which must on no account be thwarted!) then the expression ‘British people’ actually means ‘a large minority of the electorate.’

 

To be precise, it means 17,410,742 out of an electorate of 46,500,001 registered voters (in a country with a population 65,640,000). In other words, while those in favour of leaving the EU might amount to a bare majority (52%) of those who voted, in fact they are only 37.4% of the electorate and 26.5% of the total population. Another way of looking at this is that 62.6% of the electorate did not vote to leave the EU, and the fate of the British people – by which I mean all 65.6 million of them – is being dictated by the wishes of just over one quarter of them.

 

And Mr Johnson is convinced that a second referendum will see this arithmetic expressed at the ballot box – in other words, that this time around, the majority will find their voice and say they do not wish to leave the EU.  Consider this excerpt from today’s BBC report:

‘Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.
“Let’s not go there,” he said.’
Look carefully at what he is saying here, at the place he does not want us to go: another referendum ‘would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal‘.
Does he mean it would be a disastrous mistake if it confirmed the result of the first referendum? That those who voted to Remain would, for some reason, feel permanently and ineradicably betrayed were they to lose again? Surely not – if you have been beaten twice on the same issue, you are more likely to accept the result.
No. The only sense that can be made of Mr Johnson’s words is that the 38% of the electorate who voted to leave would feel betrayed if a second referendum showed that the majority of the British people did not wish to leave the European Union and it would be a mistake to let that happen. But whose mistake would it be, and by whom would the 38% feel betrayed?
The answer to both questions is Boris Johnson and his ‘Brexiteers’.
That is what Johnson’s speech is really about: he firmly believes (as, I would suggest, do most in the Brexit camp) that a second referendum can only result in a rejection of Brexit, at which point the mob will turn and rend him. It is not any concern for his country or even his party that drives him, but a deep personal fear. Hence his desperate pretence that the matter is already settled, that there is no going back, there is nothing to see here, move along and let’s all pull together to make a success of this (and save my skin)  – and do not, whatever you do, even entertain the possibility that you, the British people,  might get another chance to have your say on the matter:
‘Let’s not go there’
I disagree, Boris. By all means, let us go there. It is the only honest course.
[The situation bears a striking resemblance to the Tories’ attitude to a second Scottish referendum, which I discussed in The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox]

 

Liars in public places

‘die breite Masse eines Volkes… einer großen Lüge leichter zum Opfer fällt als einer kleinen’ – ‘the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.’ (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

‘These are people who are bent on trying to reverse the substance of Brexit and if we finish up with Brexit in name only there will be a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’ (Bernard Jenkin MP, broadcast on the Today programme, 7 July 2017)

As big lies go, it would be hard to find a more consummate piece of public dishonesty in recent times than that.

The country voted overwhelmingly to leave

Did it really, Mr Jenkin?

I do not think that (not quite) 52% to (slightly more than) 48% can be construed as ‘overwhelming’ in any sense of that word; furthermore, a total of 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million is 37.4%: that is a considerable minority, not an overwhelming majority; an overwhelming majority would be something like 62.6%the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave the European Union.

But you know this, Mr Jenkin. You know that every time you make claims like this you are deliberately misleading the public and fostering a lie, just as Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg does when he speaks of ‘the will of the British people being thwarted’ if people have the temerity to  speak against leaving the EU.

Yet you do it, day in and day out. You try to silence your opponents by what the psychologists call ‘projection’: attributing to others the very faults of which you yourself are guilty. Thus, anyone who dares raise any difficulty that Brexit might entail (and as you know full well, there are many) is said to be advancing phony arguments for an ulterior motive; their real intention is to ‘reverse the substance of Brexit’, and that will incur ‘a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’

The truth of the matter – as you know – is that it is your arguments that are phony, and that you are determined to hustle the British people into accepting the views of a vociferous minority despite the fact that an overwhelming majority do not agree with them.

There will be a terrific backlash: but it will be against you and your like, the liars in public places, and against the craven parliamentarians and ineffectual journalists who meekly accepted your lie and did not robustly challenge it every time you uttered it.

Shame on them, and shame on you.