Whither Brexit?

 

All in all and taking one thing with another and looking at things in the round and pondering on the reports from the two camps – Brexit and Remain – and making all due allowance for possible contributing factors like the repercussions of the attempted murders in Salisbury and the war of words in the Labour Party about whether or not the party is rife with anti-Semitism and, if yes, why, and what did Kim and Xi discuss in their clandestine meeting and how clever of the Chinese President, Mr Xi Jinping, to arrange for his term of office to be converted into a lifetime appointment and what, if anything, happened between Mr Trump and Stormy Daniels, and, in the case of the last item, does anyone really care –  let us see where we have got to, and where we are headed for, Brexit wise. 

 

 “So  who would you trust – A manic burnt-out Blair preaching doom or a rejuvenated Theresa May in touch with the people and urging unity?”
Daily Mail headline on  March 30, 2018 

 

Well – since you ask, Mr Dacre – I would trust Mr Blair.

 

“Our Ruling Class is ashamed to be British – That was Orwell’s view of the appeasers in WW2. The same accusation applies to Remainers who still think they can stop Brexit.”
Headline in The Daily Mail on March 31, 2018 alongside photos of a beaming Tony Blair, a grim faced Nick Clegg and a determined David Cameron, our former rulers thought to be ashamed of being British by Leo McKinistry and doubtless by the indefatigable Paul Dacre.

 

For my part I hope that the doughty trio of Remainers are right and that Brexit will be stopped in its tracks.

 

Let us make a start by looking at Brexit developments, or, rather, at voids where developments might have been expected since my last Brexit blog  in mid-February. 

 

  • Are we in a Brexit phony war and, if yes, when and how will it explode into action?
  • Is a rejuvenated Theresa May on the crest of a wave that is about to carry her to a triumphant Brexit outcome?
  • The media are teeming with reports purporting to be based on reliable inside information as to what is going on. Which opinions are based on reliable inside information and which opinions are just chin music?

 

Before we address those questions, there was also a welcome breaking of ranks in the Labour Party when Owen Smith outlined the case for a second referendum – on the debit side Mr Smith was promptly sacked from the Shadow cabinet by Mr Corbyn – a case of one step forward, one step back.

 

From my remote position on the margin of the outskirts of the periphery – it seems to me that Mrs May has strengthened both her own position and the prospects for a smooth Brexit in recent weeks.

 

Brexiteers are claiming that significant progress has been made in the various discussions between HMG – for HMG read Mrs May and Mr Davis – on the one hand and the EU negotiating team – Mr Barnier and Mr Juncker – on the other hand. It has been reported that some obstacles to Brexit have been overcome, and that the way is now clear for some detailed negotiations on terms and conditions between the two parties.

 

EU leaders have been filmed embracing  Mrs May – not with notable warmth but a kiss is still a kiss -after some sessions, and the Brexiteers have a collective spring in their collective step.

 

Notes on possible problems ahead.

 

“One strand is evident amongst those who believe that leaving the single market and customs union can make us better off economically.
“It will not.
“Making trade with by far our biggest, richest and closest trading partner more expensive will not have net economic benefit.”

Paul Johnson, The Times. March 19, 2018.

 

Calm, clear, measured words from the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and an accomplished numbers man – a rarity in the Brexit turmoil.

 

There was an entertaining if uninformative spat between two Tories from the toff end of the party, namely Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Bertie Wooster of the Brexit camp, and Lord  Patten, a Tory big beast from yesteryear, and a passionate Remainer. Lord Patten wondered what Rees-Mogg would like to be when he grows up – many of us would like to know the answer to that question –  and Rees-Mogg opined that Lord Patten did not want democracy in the United Kingdom.

 

I suspect that Lord Patten is more than capable of looking after himself but I also suspect that some in the Brexit camp think that the Brexiteers should appoint Rees-Mogg a minder with the qualities of Jeeves to ensure that the imbecilities articulated so beautifully by this relic are not allowed to  damage the Brexit cause. 

 

 The same point applies to BoJo only more so. Scarcely a day goes by without Boris Johnson making waves – he is evidently resolved to make himself into a UK version of Donald Trump, with the added incentive that the alarming excursions of Mr Trump into the social media seem to strengthen rather than erode his position and his prospects.

 

Both Trump and BoJo personify the old truism that you can fool some of the people some of the time.

 

A word about the Salisbury Poisonings

 

To some extent Brexit has been squeezed out of the headlines by the events in Salisbury on Sunday, March 4, 2018 when the ex Russian spy Mr Sergei Skripal  and his daughter were poisoned by a deadly nerve chemical.

 

There was an immediate and widespread assumption that the Russians were responsible, to be more precise that the crime was planned in and by The Kremlin,  quite possibly on the personal authorisation of Mr Putin  or that Russia had lost control of  some nerve gas and that rogue elements had used it on Mr Skripal.

 

In both cases the Russian state would bear  a heavy responsibility.

 

I thought at the time and have continued to think since that one or other of these explanations might well prove to be correct but I also had and have some sympathy with the argument put forward by the Russian foreign office that  the UK should both complete its investigation and then allow the Russians the time specified in the relevant protocols to respond to the charges, if any.

 

Things did not work out along the lines requested by the Kremlin. The Russia guilty view quickly gathered momentum, and the outcome was a rapid and significant reduction in the numbers of officials employed by Russia in its UK embassy and the Russian embassies of its  many allies on the one hand and a roughly similar cut in the number of  officials employed by these many countries in their respective embassies in Russia.

 

The thought occurred to me that the sequence of events indicated a degree of over manning in the espionage sector but what of that.

 

One matter arising as the crisis escalated intrigued me. The various affluent Russian oligarchs who had moved to London following the break up of the Soviet Union were deemed to be undesirables and a clamour arose in the media for their malign influence to be curbed. These oligarchs had not come here empty handed – being Russians of the thrifty type they had brought their huge fortunes with them , and had used these fortunes to buy influence in the old fashioned way.

 

As I recall much of this influx would have taken place under the nose of Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London – I do not recall that he opposed the oligarchs when he was in a position to do something about it – but then – that’s BoJo!

 

Another and much more important consequence of the Salisbury crime was that Mrs May was able to persuade her NATO allies to support her as she successfully pointed the finger at the Kremlin. This resulted in the mutual scaling up of tensions and the mutual scaling down of diplomatic head counts and this in turn led to a significant increase in her popularity.

 

I suspect that this latter bubble will burst once the hard Brexit negotiations get under way. 

 

A word about Mr Corbyn – in theory and given the precarious position of Mrs May in the House of Commons – Mr Corbyn should be in a position to make a significant input into the Brexit debate in the next few months.

 

In practice two issues appear to be handicapping him.

 

  • Can he move on from his Wilkins Micawber stance  – that of waiting for something to turn up.  Mr Owen Smith has shown him the way but Mr Corbyn seems reluctant to deal with the absurd “ the people have spoken“ position. Why not allow the people to have second thoughts?
  • Mr Corbyn has also been perceived as struggling to cope with the charges of anti Semitism – is he guilty or not guilty?

 

It seems to me that the instances quoted as illustrating that Labour is an anti-semitic party range from the clearly guilty to reasonable points about the regrettable behaviour of Israel in the occupied territories.

 

Mr Corbyn has been in politics long enough to recognise the odious nature of the crime of denying that some 6 million Jews were murdered in the second world war, and long enough to grasp that suggesting that the Holocaust did not happen is rubbing salt into very painful wounds.

 

“ When British forces entered the so called convalescent camp at Belsen is 1945 they found a scene of indescribable horror.: the wasted bodies of 50,000 human beings who had died from starvation and disease… Only a century before all Ireland was a Belsen. Nearly two million Irish people died of starvation and fever within five year; another million fled bearing disease to Liverpool and the New World.”

Opening words of “Genocide” – an essay by Professor A.J.P. Taylor. 

 

As one who is partly of Irish descent I would not take kindly – even after an interval of 170 years – to reading that the Irish famine did not happen.

 

Those seeking explanations for continuing Irish obduracy down the years would do well to bear the actions of Sir Charles Trevelyan and his Whitehall colleagues in the 1840s in mind. 

 

Back to Brexit 

 

As the two protagonists edge gingerly forward into uncharted territory – who are the key players?

 

  • For HMG –  Mrs May, Mr Davis and, more unpredictably, Mr Johnson
  • UK opinion movers and shakers – Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch
  • The EU first team – Messrs Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Barnier and Mr Tusk
  • The Remainers – Mr Blair, Mr Owen Smith , Anna Soubry, Mr George Soros and Sir Martin Sorrell. I include the Holdenforth in this latter group on the shaky grounds that the addition a few paupers to the remain group would work wonders for diversity.

 

What happens next in the negotiations?

 

“A successful Brexit will crucially depend on negotiating speedy bilateral agreements with big economies. The precedents are not good: success will take compromise.”
Times leader, April 3, 2018

 

The leading article is not exactly brimming with confidence that the outcome will be satisfactory, and it ends with the old standby that “the best may prove the enemy of the good“.

 

The Times explains its own concerns and reservations: here are the concerns and reservations of  Holdenforth in no particular order.

 

1. It is unfortunate that the next phase in what are bound to be difficult negotiations will coincide with the outbreak of an uncompromising trade war between the USA and China – not a good start.

 

2. The worsening row between “The West” and Russia over the attempted murders in Salisbury has further poisoned and polarised global politics – again the timing is unfortunate.

 

3. The 27 countries that, as things stand, plan to remain in the EU, have enough problems of their own without making matters worse by bowing to the collective tantrums of the UK, starting with the absurd Cameron decision to hold a referendum.  I suspect that the 27 will not wish to make any significant concessions and they will not wish to be seen to be making any significant concessions- after all the 27 as a group hold the stronger cards.

 

4. Accordingly, this blog predicts that the EU stance will be inflexible although couched in courteous language.  

 

If this does turn out to be the case, then Mrs May may well  have to opt for a “no deal” outcome rather than a “bad deal” outcome.

 

What happens then?

 

We could be heading for a degree of turbulence that will make the proceedings experienced to date seem positively tranquil.

 

What happens next in Westminster?

 

Holdenforth still sees only three possibilities:

 

1. Mrs May and her government stagger from crisis for the next 4 or so years. In this event and whatever else happens – the UK will be out of Europe. Not impossible but not very likely.

 

2. Mrs May loses a vote of confidence and this would trigger a general election. For this to happen just 10 Tories would be required to vote against. Quite a strong possibility – but – as noted – Mr Corbyn and his party are not exactly clear as to their policy.  A slight variation on this option is that the DUP withdraws from the current support arrangement , something which could happen at any time given the volatility and unpredictability of politics throughout Ireland.  

 

3. Around 50 or so Tory MPS would have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to request a leadership election. This is the second plausible possibility, especially given the shaky record of Mrs May in her brief but turbulent stay in Number 10.

 

Which of our two plausible  two options would have the greatest appeal to disaffected Tory MPs?

 

Quite simply the leadership challenge, even if successful, would solve nothing because the successful challenger would face the same formidable catalogue of problems.

 

This leaves the only realistic option of  lancing the boil as being for a sufficient number of brave MPs either to vote against or abstain on a vote of confidence to trigger a general election.

 

So:

 

  • There are currently 314 Tory Mps in the Commons
  • 10 or so Tory votes to support the opposition would be enough to dislodge Mrs May.

 

To put the arithmetic slightly differently – just over 3% of the entire Tory membership in the Commons would be enough to do the trick. Might we have enough Tory MPs with the required amount of intestinal fortitude and/or a private income and / or a job offer in their pocket?

 

Holdenforth asserts with confidence – Yes!

 

We urge the required 3% to follow the example of Henry V before Harfleur as he urged his followers to imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise nature with hard favoured rage, and so on and so forth by putting their heads above the parapet during and at the end of the confidence debate.

 

There would then be a repeat of the 2017 General Election – sorry about that, Brenda from Bristol –  a single issue General Election which would be a second referendum in all but name.

 

Our legislators would then be required collectively to decide how to proceed and the voters would be entertained by the spectacle of the elastic consciences of the thousand or so candidates competing to be elected to the House of Commons  being stretched to breaking point.

 

Holdenforth suggests that the scattered and disorganised Remainers adopt an approach along the following lines.

 

The key policy elements of the Remain camp to be:

 

  • Persuade enough dissident Tory MPs to trigger the toppling of Mrs May .
  • An intent to reverse the events of recent years and to recommend that the UK get back to business as usual within the European Community.
  • The subsequent general election / second referendum to be fought in a spirit that would contain a readiness to acknowledge  that the two main parties have made some appalling errors of judgement in the past few years.

 

 Let us close on an eye watering issue from down under…

 

Senior Australian cricketers have been found guilty of ball tampering and have paid a heavy price for their sharp practices

 

Just a thought –  how would you like to have your balls sand papered?

 

I have to confess that the very thought of it made my eyes water.

 

 

 

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The Prospects for Brexit in 2018

 

“The idea that Brexit can be stopped is a dangerous delusion that ignores the continuing revolt against political elites.”

Daniel Finkelstein, The Times, 3 January 2018

 

My text for today is the excellent article by Lord Finkelstein published on January 3. As always with Lord F his piece is infuriatingly plausible and irritatingly reasonable. I doubt if the case for accepting the result of the referendum could be put more persuasively. And yet I still take the view that the out decision should be reversed although I am far from clear as to how this might be achieved.

 

The key point of his article is not that there is no possibility that the ‘out’ decision is irreversible and he concedes that a way might be found to achieve precisely this objective. The thrust of his article is that that if this were to happen- “ the damage done to trust in democracy would be huge. Unless the second referendum arose from a huge public clamour (which is incredibly unlikely) millions will conclude that their vote and the promise made to them were worthless when they challenged the interests and attitudes of the political establishment.”

 

Well – only up to a point, Lord F.

 

Lord Finkelstein compares and contrasts the stance of Lord Adonis with regard to reversing the ‘out’ outcome with his own stance. He readily concedes that on the merits of the case he and Lord A are as one.

 

“Where we part company, rather sharply, is the idea that there is no self mutilation  involved in parliament overwhelmingly voting in favour of a referendum, telling voters it would implement the decision and then deciding not to.”

 

On the following day Tony Blair was asked by John Humphreys about how the various forces that were said to be gathering momentum (sorry about using that bad word) to reverse the ‘out’ outcome. The old maestro was in splendid form as Aggro Humphreys tried and failed to pin him down. Was this outcome an indication of the waning powers of Mr Humphreys, a confirmation of what we all knew and still know, namely that TB remains a very bright star in the political firmament, or, quite possibly, evidence that the electorate is becoming increasingly mindful that it got it wrong back in June 2016?

 

Most likely – a combination of all three factors.

 

A brief reminder of how we got ourselves in this fine mess or to be precise, how we were landed in this fine mess and who got us into it. 

 

The gist of how we got to where we are can be succinctly stated.

 

1. David Cameron, faced with the prospect of being outflanked by UKIP, foolishly decided to resolve the long festering in/out sore, by making an in-out referendum a key element of the Conservative party manifesto prior to the  2015 general election.

 

2. He added significantly to the rashness of his decision by banking on the previously declared support of Boris Johnson that the UK should remain in the EU.  What can one say about the judgement of a prime minister capable of such a gross error of judgement?

 

3. Cameron realised soon enough that he had miscalculated as the in-out campaign got under way, and Boris, sensing his opportunity, threw all his considerable talent for mendacity to campaign for an ‘out’ outcome.

 

4. Cameron put his party before his country in agreeing to the referendum.

 

4. Cameron paid in full for his errors, the outs had it, and he promptly resigned.

 

5. In the ensuing campaign to succeed him as Tory leader and, more importantly, as our PM, Boris was mortified – to his chagrin and to the huge delight of many opponents and neutrals – by the predictable treachery of Mr Gove. Well, it takes one to know one. It is worth noting that Boris put the interests of Boris ahead of the interests of the Tory Party and of the Country and no one should have been surprised by this flexibility.

 

6. The Tory faithful then gave the bum’s rush to Mr Gove and Mrs May strode through the gap that had opened up to become our PM. The trivial fact that she had previously been a cautious advocate of remaining in Europe was obviously not going to prevent her from seizing this fortuitous main chance.

 

7. Mrs May proceeded to make a hash of everything she attempted in her new role as Prime Minister, culminating in her decision to call a general election in June, 2017. The flighty electorate seized its chance to issue a comeuppance to her and duly did so. (Note – a sure sign of a desperate Brexiteer is one who asserts that Mrs May won the June 2017 election.)

 

And so, what might be termed the gist of the gist of the above:

 

1. David Cameron made two foolish errors and paid the price for his folly in full.

 

2. The dynamic duo – Gove and Johnson – let us refer to them as GOBO – failed to win the approval of the Tory faithful in the ensuing beauty contest.

 

3. Mrs May emerged initially as the winner, but since her “victory” has continued to dig herself deeper and deeper into trouble

 

Lord Finkelstein argues, under the flimsiest of democratic pleas, that the rest of us should accept the consequences of this lamentable catalogue of deplorable opportunism, errors and failures executed by a tiny group of shady, shabby, wholly discredited Tory chancers.

 

I have been a consistent supporter of the European Union for many years. For the reasons noted earlier I opposed the whole idea of resolving the issue via a referendum. I don’t believe in keeping a dog and doing your own barking.  I was dismayed by the outcome but not surprised by the slippery behaviour of GOBO.

 

If the situation changes – so should you

 

“In the course of time as circumstances change and the issues are altered we may find it necessary to change some part of the programme; that will not be because we thought the programme was wrong but just because it might be readjusted to changing conditions. You know, comrades, to change programmes is not an admission or error, other all history would be a series of confessionals.”

Aneurin Bevan, speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1959.

 

“Fuck Dacre”

A shrewd comment taken from the collected sayings of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch was talking about a different Dacre – to be precise he was referring to Hugh Trevor Roper – but what of it – his pithy dismissal  applies even more so to Dacre of The Daily Mail 

 

 Is it being undemocratic to seek to reverse the ‘out’ outcome?

 

Not at all and here is why.

 

I see what is happening via Brexit as a national disaster and it would absurd to proceed given the basis on which on which the referendum was conceived and how the largely uncertain pros and cons were presented to a bemused electorate, irresponsibly deceived and stampeded by GOBO. 

 

The old military maxim – do not reinforce failure – is of relevance here. 

 

“Why a second referendum is a lost cause”

Headline above a column by Philip Collins, The Times January 5, 2018 

 

Mr Collins simply plays Little Sir Echo to the points made previously in The Times by Lord Finkelstein. At one point Mr Collins notes that “back in the day (when Mr Blair was PM) the brains who powered the Labour party made up the most formidable electoral team in modern political history”. Collins is quite right to make this point – Blair was the most accomplished harvester of voters in modern times. Collins was also uncharacteristically shy when he omitted his own key role in this formidably electoral team.

 

In the long years since the departure of Tony Blair from No 10, Collins has contented himself with writing columns of quite startling blandness for The Times. Might he be persuaded to resume his former career as a mouthpiece for Blair? Once a pen for sale – always a pen for sale.

 

“Humphrys mauls Blair over call for new EU poll”

James Groves, Daily Mail, January 5, 2018

 

Well – James Groves would say that, wouldn’t he?

 

“Lies, damned lies and Blair on Brexit”

Headline above Daily Mail editorial, January 5, 2018 

 

Well – the Daily Mail leader writer would write that, wouldn’t he/she?

 

No surprises there.

 

Whither Brexit — Key points to consider. 

 

1. Brexit is the only political show in town – all other political issues are being relegated to the sidelines. Please note that a major reshuffle at the top of HMG  is rumoured to be in prospect. P 45s for some cabinet ministers are said to have been made out and are ready to the aforesaid cabinet ministers – – so be it. (See the stop press for an update here. )

 

Meanwhile…

NHS said to be in chaos – for now – just give Mr Hunt a good kicking.

.

Sanity of Mr Trump is questioned – nothing new there. Actually there is something new here – see later notes.

 

Rail transport in the home counties remains in chaos – for now – give Mr Grayling a good kicking. 

 

And so it goes on, with all issues other than Brexit being relegated to back burner status. 

 

 2. All the self proclaimed insiders are united on one point – HMG is in chaos as it tries to pick its way through the tangle that is Brexit

 

As one blogger wrote – 

 

“To this outsider, the proceedings at the heart of HMG can best be summed as the ongoing effing fiasco. In no special order the collective performance of Mrs May and her cabinet colleagues can be described as faltering, floundering, foundering, failing, flailing, frustrated, fulminating, festering, furious and fractious.

 

Another eff word suggested itself but this is a family blog and the decencies must be observed.”

 

 3.  Parliamentary arithmetic

 

“Eleven Conservative MPs led by Dominic Grieve QC collaborated with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and other opposition parties to demand that they rather than Theresa May should approve or block our withdrawal from the EU.”

Quentin Letts. Daily Mail, December 15, 2017 

 

The eleven rebels were duly Dacred – or, if you prefer, vilified, by Dacre and his underlings, an outcome which cannot have surprised them.

 

“This country has long grown used to Lord Heseltine’s love affair with the EU. But when the 84 year old grandee suggests Brexit would do more damage than a Corbyn led government, it is surely time to summon the men in white coats.”

Daily Mail micro editorial, December 27, 2017 

 

Lord Heseltine would have known that he was setting himself up to be Dacred and he was right and he was duly Dacred.

 

However this particular gem raised the same issue as that currently being raised about Mr Trump – is he losing the plot.? (Note in the case of Mr Trump – the answer is -yes!)

 

“May rift with Davis as he admits Brexit might not happen”

Mail on Sunday headline, December 31, 2017 

 

This headline from the Daily Mail’s stable mate paper gave further evidence that all is not well at the top of HMG.

 

Mr Davis has been showing signs of strain as he attempts a task comparable to all the labours of Hercules. It would not be surprising if in an unguarded moment he let slip his view that Brexit was by no means the foregone conclusion demanded and predicted by Mrs May.

 

And so it goes on a daily basis as we, the public, anxiously scan the print media and listen to the broadcasters for developments on  the Brexit – who has gone over to the Remain cause? Who is rumoured to be about to switch sides? It is all enthralling entertaining stuff.

 

 A few prosaic Brexit points

 

* The May government is sustained only with the support of the DUP – a shaky flaky foundation.

 

* There are growing signs of restiveness within the Tory ranks as the unfortunate combination of ineptitude and friction at the top of HMG becomes more evident by the day.

 

* What about Mr Corbyn – said by many to be shrewdly keeping his powder dry and relying on Mrs May to dig not only her own political grave but also that of the lame Tory government? The critics of Mr Corbyn – he has his share, including, of course, Paul Dacre – have suggested that he has taken this approach too far and that his impersonation of Mr Micawber waiting for something to turn up has been rather overdone and needs to be replaced by something rather more positive. (Shadow Cabinet – please note.)

 

 A slight digression – a word about the delicate situation within the Parliamentary Labour Party

 

Conventional wisdom back in the summer of 2015 had it that the plausible three candidates -Burnham, Cooper and Kendall – were all thought to be capable of giving David Cameron a run for his money, a run that did not exclude their arrival in No 10.

 

How did it come about that a candidate widely perceived as a no hoper BEFORE the leadership election was elected by a huge majority over the plausible three?

 

I can only guess at the reason(s)  for the unexpected outcome but I suspect that by far the most crucial reason in the minds of the 2015 electorate was that the election of any one of the plausible three would simply represent more of the same and that the electors in their collective wisdom comprehensively rejected that option. 

 

This raises the question – how does a party deal with a situation in which a huge gap opens up between the views and aspirations of the leaders and the led. Just as the great majority of Labour MPS had no  confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, so, or so it would appear,  the great majority of Labour Party members  had lost confidence in their elected representatives in the House of Commons.

 

It would not be easy to find high calibre replacements for the vast majority of the current crop of Labour Party MPs. Equally it would not be easy to discard the current crop of around half a million seemingly truculent party members and replace them  with the same number of pliable tranquil equable members.

 

Over to you Mr Corbyn.

 

What next? 

 

I am mindful that the UK political pundits collectively have a dismal track record in terms of their ability to make accurate forecasts of the outcomes of recent appeals to the electorate. Additionally and significantly the judgements of Mr Cameron and Mrs May have been notably way off the mark.

 

If the professionals can and do get it so badly wrong – what chance have I got?

 

In any event – here goes.

 

Possible outcomes include:-

 

Mrs May stays in No 10 until 2022 – her preferred outcome. The bookies are currently quoting roughly evens as the odds of Mrs May still being in office by the end of 2018.

 

Mrs May opts for another election – this is the least likely outcome given how badly she got it wrong last time.

 

Mrs May loses a vote of confidence triggering a general electionThis is by far the likeliest outcome given the continuing  of loss of support for Mrs May from within her own party, together with the jumping ship of key current Brexiteers as they realise that the game is up.

 

So – where does Holdenforth stand?

 

I predict that:-

 

* The lack of any alternative candidates perceived as being able to implement Brexit is the ONLY factor that is now sustaining  Mrs May in office.

 

* Mrs May will lose a vote of confidence.

 

* This will happen no later than the middle of 2018 and probably within the next 2 or 3 months given the steady draining away of support for her. 

 

* This event  will trigger her departure from No 10.

 

* The resulting leadership contest will end with – you tell me – in No 10. 

 

* The ensuing general election will be fought solely on the Brexit issue.

 

*  A  new political group will emerge Phoenix like from the ashes of Brexit to despatch Brexit into the dustbin of history where it belongs.

 

 Stop Press items from your oracular blogger –  January 7

 

 May set to axe “pale and stale” Ministers

Mail on Sunday headline. January 7, 2018

 

A senior government source said ”Theresa understands that, when voters look at her government, they see a lot of stale, male and pale Ministers who are on the wrong side of 50. She will be promoting more women and those from non-white backgrounds and there will be more of an emphasis on youth.

From the same Mail on Sunday report

 

So – the pale stale male aged Ministers are being lined up as fall guys – and why not?

 

Mr Marr grills Mrs May on “The Andrew Marr Show” – January 7.

 

I gave this one a miss on the grounds that Mrs May might have taken a leaf out of Marr’s book and taken out an injunction banning the raising by him of awkward questions.  

 

You never know these days.

 

 A gem from the Mail on Sunday on which to finish.

 

“ Wilson’s spin doctor: One of us must be a liar. You’ll have to judge who.”

Headline above a piece by Joe Haines in the Mail on Sunday,  January 7, 2018 

 

The issue in question refers to disputed authorship of the notorious Lavender List which surfaced after the resignation of Harold Wilson in 1976.

 

Joe Haines, one time press secretary for Harold Wilson, points the finger at Marcia Williams. Those of us with long memories will recall that Joe Haines wrote a hagiography of the portly pilferer, Robert Maxwell after leaving Number 10.

 

Like Andrew Marr – Joe Haines has form.

 

As Mr Richard Littlejohn might put it – you couldn’t make it up.

 

Image courtesy of BBC

 

Academies: Progress or Regress?

Academy Chiefs in “fat cat” pay and perks row.
Sunday Times headline – August 27, 2017

A report in the Sunday Times by its Education Editor, Sian Griffiths, got this story off to a lively start by noting that “ministers face calls today to curb the ‘fat cat’ salaries of academy school chiefs” after it emerged that more than 100 people in this group earn more than the Prime Minister – with some enjoying lucrative perks such a company BMWs.

The story did not spell out precisely how the news about the reward packages collected by this latest addition to the league of fat cats emerged. It is unlikely that the 100+ bosses in question sent off a round robin to the Sunday Times Editor to put him in the picture. I rather suspect that this particular group, like their equally well rewarded colleagues in our starved of funds higher education system – the University Vice Chancellors – would prefer to do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.

Sian Griffiths unkindly pointed out that “last year the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 63 schools was identified as one of seven poorly performing trusts …..Its chief executive Ian Comfort was reported to be on a salary of £200k last year”

Academy chiefs should be taught a lesson about greed
Sunday Times main editorial, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Times got nicely warmed up as it outlined its concerns. In its editorial it initially adopted a softer tone taking care to adopt the time-honoured approach of stressing that “the expansion of academies has been one of the successes of recent education policy” and it went on to note specific areas where the introduction of academies has been followed by significant improvements in performance. However it then observes, more in sorrow than in anger, that “ the primary purpose of academies must be promotion of excellence, not the inflation of salaries and the granting of perks.”

In the final paragraph of the editorial the rhetoric sank into bathos: “ Academy chains cannot jeopardise the public’s trust by wasting the public money they are given. Otherwise the greedy behaviour of their senior administrators will discredit the whole policy of replacing L.E.A comprehensives with independent academies.”

100 academy school bosses earn more than the Prime Minister
Daily Mail headline – August 28, 2017

The article under this headline covered the same ground as the items in the Sunday Times on the previous day. The Mail article contained a delightfully bland quote from Sir Michael Wilshaw: “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these multi academy trusts do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”

A masterpiece of understatement.

This story struck a chord with me because some 18 months ago I wrote an article on the topic and sent it to Tribune magazine. Sadly – from my point of view – Tribune was unable to find space for the piece and it languished in my rejected file. The re-emergence of the topic as a newsworthy item persuaded me to revisit my rejected piece and to add it to my blog.

My motive for doing so is to be able to claim that I saw coming what has in fact come to pass.

I leave it to Holden Forth readers – please God let there be more than one – to judge if am right.

Here goes.

Academies – The Way Forward
Article sent to Tribune on April 29, 2016

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has created something of a storm by announcing that she plans to convert all state schools into academies by the end of the current parliament.

Ought this clear statement of intent trigger huzzahs all round as being a giant leap forward or ought we to be wary? What does the plan signify and what are its implications?

I have to confess to being a little out of touch with regard to education. It is now getting on for sixty years since I walked out of school for the last time and those in the know tell me that there have been a few changes in the intervening years.
Have these changes yielded the only outcome that really matters, namely a better educated population? Opinion here is divided with some pointing to the steadily improving year on year results in measurable terms such as school leaving qualifications and the ever increasing number of college graduates. However others of a cynical turn of mind point to the simple expedient of achieving better results by lowering the bar. Which group is right?

“Education Education Education”
Tony Blair’s election exhortation in 1997 that sets the scene nicely

“The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mould a child’s character”
George Bernard Shaw, Maxim for Revolutions: appendix to Man and Superman, 1903

Don’t teachers have enough problems without being equated with abortionists, and not just bog standard abortionists but the vilest!

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet:”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

To put the point more prosaically – how exactly does reclassifying a typical secondary school as an academy change anything? The teachers are the same teachers, the buildings and locations are the same, and the curriculum is the same.

“At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall …….Youth are …. instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry” …… and so on and so on and much more besides – a curriculum wide enough to assuage the concerns of the most discerning parent.
Advert for Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

“B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, n-e-y , ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants.”
Nickolas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

An early example of a possible mismatch between the theory and practice of academies.

A stroll down memory lane

“On October 5, 2005 we published a new schools White Paper…. We made it clear that, in time, all schools could and should become self governing trusts, either foundation schools or academies, with far greater flexibility in staffing and pay …the end is quality services irrespective of wealth .. The end is utterly progressive in its values. But the only progressive means are those that deliver the progressive ends.”
Tony Blair, A Journey, 2010

It would seem from the above and from much more in similar vein from the same book that the father of the academies plan is Tony Blair, ably assisted by Andew Adonis and, sadly, impeded in this, as in other areas, by Gordon Brown and his associates. Not surprisingly, confusion reigned.

In 2010 the Labour Years gave way to the Coalition Years. In the main, these were five years of frustration as Tory attempts to usher in a new golden age were thwarted by their Lib Dem coalition partners as soon as any perceived lurches to the right were detected.

In these years one firm voice made itself heard above the raucous clamour, namely that of Michael “Aggro” Gove, as he amended the words of Mrs Thatcher taken from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi – “where there is harmony let there be confrontation” – and there was confrontation.

One issue which caught my eye at the time was the Gove advocacy of Performance Related Pay. Under this system the better the performance of the teacher, the higher the PRP element: this was to be one of the main drivers of the policy to improve standards.

This idea, unlike some of his ideas, is not even sound in theory and a recipe for disaster in practice. It causes far more problems than it solves, and these problems include the obvious one of performance measurement.

Many teachers will tell you that the task of measuring the performance of teachers is far from being a straightforward task, that a whole host of variables such as catchment area, the performance of other teachers, and, a key point, the performance of the head teacher and his senior colleagues, have a crucial impact on pupil performance.

It is alleged that the very act of trying to measure teacher performance is fraught with difficulty, and that arbitrary and inept attempts to do so trigger far more problems than they solve.

The second practical objection to a PRP system for teachers is that it tends to create antagonism and frustration rather than harmony, and that the outcome is not better quality teaching leading in turn to improved pupil performance. Instead, teachers spend too much time and energy focusing on those elements of the job likely to maximise their PRP rather than focusing on the job of getting the best out of their pupils.

Any attempt to keep the PRP element of remuneration confidential will be doomed to failure and its publication inevitably creates bad feeling among the have nots and a furtive sense of embarrassment among the recipients. However, and once again apocryphally, it is alleged that opposition to PRP has come from a dubious alliance between incompetent and/or indolent teachers and those thinkers who argue that performance measurement is intrinsically unsound, because it highlights failure.

The anti-PRP lobby found itself opposed by a formidable alliance of parents wanting to know which schools are getting the best results and of politicians wanting to get the most votes. There are many more parents than teachers, we live in a democratic society and so PRP became a sought after remedy for the academic shortcomings of the young.

I have a better alternative approach – let us call it Plan B.

  • Apply basic systems of performance appraisal on all teachers on say an annual basis and then act on the outcomes so as to weed out those who either can’t or won’t do the job for which they are paid. Any poor report to result in the issue of a formal warning to the pedagogical back sliders to get their act together or else.
  • Inadequate teachers turning in consistently poor performances to be shipped out to pastures where they can safely graze in jobs where the damage created will be greatly reduced.

On the plus side and for the good performers – the reward element is that you get to keep your job  (Aggro Gove was eventually winkled out of his education brief and replaced by the supposedly emollient Nicky Morgan.)

Let us return to Mr Blair and his journey.

Mr Blair clearly favoured the phasing out of comprehensives and their replacement by academies. His pages on this topic (as on all the other pages) were peppered with his favourite political words – modernise, progressive, radical and reform. Sadly he was long on slogans and short on detail.

I shall now examine what I see as just two of the weaknesses of the academy model, namely the confusion of core managerial responsibilities coupled with the propensity of some – not all – “academy” leaders to focus more on maximising their terms and conditions rather than on the core objective and task of ensuring that ALL the pupils are educated to the full extent of their capabilities.

The gist of the case for academy schools was and remains that the transition from a school controlled by its local authority to a school controlled by Head Teachers and a range of unspecified advisers, supporters and associates and hangers on arranged into a Trust WILL raise standards. The thrust is long on slogans and dubious statistics, but short on solid evidence.

I have argued elsewhere that the very word Trust should send out alarm bells and those anxious about Trusts should instead use the word dubieties so as to flush out the ambiguities at the heart of Trusts.

The academy advocates argue that the act of removing the dread dead hand of an alliance of political opportunists and their satellite and servile bureaucrats, and their replacement by a new breed of super heads will usher in a era of – of what?

Swift impressive demonstrable transition to the sunny uplands characterised by radical modern progressive improvements – that’s what.

I am not convinced by this vision.

Let me briefly digress with a few words about what has happened at the very pinnacle of education in the UK. I have commented elsewhere on the unseemly behaviour of the Vice Chancellors of our institutions of higher education in recent years.
Our Vice Chancellors are working tirelessly to loot the system, but one unfortunate consequence of their zeal for personal enrichment may well have been a decline in academic standards – there are only so many hours in the day, and looting can be tiring and time consuming.

Time was when such competition as existed between Universities was limited to purely academic matters such as which University was the most highly rated for electrical engineering, which for medicine and rather more muted, which for sociology.
Sadly that is not so today, and academic competition has been replaced by unseemly competition between Vice Chancellors as to who can secure the most agreeable arrangements in terms of pay and perks, with academic considerations out of the picture.

Again, sadly the absence of any effective constraints other than self regulation as to the size of the reward packages for vice chancellors resulted inevitably in packages that have grown fatter and fatter, whilst often coinciding with a simultaneous fall in performance.

The Daily Mail led the charge in its assaults on the acquisitive propensities of our Varsity Vice Chancellors but the predictable response of this grasping group has been to lie low until the Mail selects another greedy group to belabour.

So – beware of leaving any group with unfettered access to public funds because some of them will take full advantage of the fragility of the system and, confident in the knowledge that by the time the public latches on to the looting they will be over the hills and far away, with their riches judiciously located away from and outside any possible claw back.

Does this melancholy story of the decline and fall of our former centres of educational excellence have any lessons for us in terms of the Tory plan to convert all schools into academies.? Very much so.

“Parachuting a ‘super head’ into a school causes havoc in the long term and is only a quick fix for exam results, academics warn in a report seen by the Times…….. Millions are spent on super heads salaries and on consultants hired to repair the damage after the heads leave, researchers (at the Centre for High Performance at Oxford and Kingston Universities) said”.
The Times, March 29, 2016

“Academy head defends £360k pay”
The Times, January 27, 2015.

Sir Greg Martin earned £161,000 from managing a Sports Centre on the site of the school that he served as head teacher in addition to his head teacher’s salary of £201,000. MPs expressed anger at the scale of his earnings and accused him of failing to understand the concept of public service.

The MPs could not have been more wrong. Sir Greg understood only too well the concept as outlined by George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall fame: “I seen my opportunities and I took em”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s plan to turn all schools into academies continues to unravel as another multi academy trust falls foul of Ofsted. The Education Fellowship Trust runs – is “runs” the mot juste? – four secondary schools and eight primary schools … last month it received six pre termination notices from the Department of Education threatening to take two secondary and four primary schools away from it due to unacceptably low performance….. The Education Fellowship Trust responded by attacking Ofsted….”
Private Eye April 29, 2016

The above cautionary tales indicate that all is not going well in the drive to transform all our ugly duckling state schools into beautiful academy swans – but these may be just teething problems and in due course all will be well.

The declared aim of the academy propagandists is, as noted, to transfer control of schools from LEAs to a new breed of Super heads. These stars will be required to combine the existing onerous responsibilities of the job with additional heavy managerial responsibilities over staff pay, staff terms and conditions, and, crucially, powers to arrange school mergers and acquisitions which could benefit the various players in the new game.

It is that last feature that should trigger loud alarm bells. Imagine a modern version of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, a venerable head master of the old school and one dedicated to achieving the noblest aims of his profession. The ardent apostles of the academy solution would have us divert our latter day Arnold from his previous beloved objectives and priorities and, instead, to examine the scope to merge with Winchester, or to acquire Harrow or to take over Eton, or, if all else fails, to share some facilities with Neasden High School. His additional responsibilities hold in prospect an agreeable combination of riches beyond any attainable via the old honoured practices and, a key factor, escape from the disagreeable and tiresome features of being a head teacher.

Let me speculate about the probable consequences of a mass transfer of schools from Local Authority control to management by super heads. I predict that the teaching profession will be invaded by a Tsunami of Arthur Daleys masquerading as pedagogues, but in reality in hot pursuit of a quick buck, the sort of quick buck easily acquired by those familiar with the no man’s land of the public-private sector, a world where the public funds the business and the private operators scoop up the profits, if any. We are looking at an educational version of the City of London populated and run by spivs for spivs, all avid for frenetic activity in the business of mergers and acquisitions.

More prosaically, my concerns about this switch to academies centre on the following points.

  • Arrangements have been in place for many years whereby the control of schools rests with democratically elected local authorities. My contention is that to the extent that these bodies are failing to discharge their responsibilities then the public has the means to take effective actions.
  • My main concern is that this transition to academies will divert the attention of Head Teachers away from the core task of providing the best possible education for all pupils to one of casting about for ways of maximising their own reward packages. In short I see a replay of the squalid farce that has been enacted in Higher Education with the shameless looting by Vice Chancellors of the unguarded public funds.
    I see a significant number of Academy CEOs plunging into wholly unnecessary restructuring in order to line their pockets at the expense of pupils and of the public.
  • I would go further and predict that if the dash to academies wins out, in a few years time the standard of education will suffer a further decline, a decline that is wholly avoidable.

So: should primary and secondary education remain primarily in the public sector with management and control remaining with local authorities or should they be privatised via academies? As usual there is some confusion with regard to the location of battle lines with some Tory Councils anxious to repel the invaders from their territory whilst there are some Labour supporters ready to go along with academies where there is evidence of local support.

I am suspicious as to the motives of the latter group but that may be due to my innate scepticism.

As I see it the main questions and suggested answers as the debate moves on are:

If the preponderant feeling is to stay as we are – so be it. Let the teachers teach and let the head teachers focus on the time honoured priority of setting and maintaining high and improving performance standards. Let the democratically elected Local Education Authorities do the rest as per the existing arrangements.

If the outcome is an unstoppable momentum to academies – what then?

  • Who will foot the bill for all the changes? You, the public.
  • Who will call the shots? The academy CEOs who make it to the top.
  • Who will benefit? The academy CEOs with their massively enhanced reward packages.
  • Who will suffer – the school children as those responsible for their education concentrate on the agreeable activities of looting the system.

Conclusion

A concluding prediction (made back in April, 2016)

Let me suggest a plausible media item in the event of a victory for the academy cause:

A beaming CEO welcomed the arrival of the new era, an era in the course of which he managed to quadruple his reward package. On the debit side he regretted that unforeseen difficulties had resulted in many pupils leaving school unable to read and write, but he stressed that lessons will have been learned – by the senior management, if not by the pupils.

It was and remains a pity that the strong case against academies was unable to compete with the academy spivs masquerading as modernising progressive radical reformers.

Image: Thomas Arnold courtesy of Rugby School