Friday, March 1, 2019

If we really must "reinforce" the mandate we already have for a referendum, let's do it soon and make clear we won't go round in circles forever

So just a few miscellaneous thoughts about the BBC's latest reporting on where the indyref2 saga goes from here.  I know some people always get irritated with me if I take the BBC's account of anonymous briefings on trust, but let's just assume for the purposes of this blogpost that the report isn't entirely a work of fiction.

* First of all, it's encouraging that the expectation is still that Nicola Sturgeon will shortly renew her demand for a Section 30 order.  There was a brief spell a few weeks ago when the mood music from one or two key people in the SNP seemed to suggest that even the Section 30 request might be subject to an indefinite delay, so I'm relieved that doesn't appear to be the case after all.

* There's no mention (as far as I can see) that the Section 30 request will be accompanied by an announcement of an intended date for the referendum.  On the other hand, there's no indication that it won't be.  My own view is that specifying a date would be highly desirable, because it would bring into sharper relief the fact that Westminster are attempting to obstruct an exercise in Scottish self-determination.

* Obviously the indications from Tory sources that Theresa May will deny a Section 30 request are no great surprise.  We may have all been shocked two years ago when the Prime Minister reversed decades of British government policy by announcing that Scotland no longer had an unconditional right to democratic self-determination, but we now fully understand that the United Kingdom has become Scotland's prison, and the only question is what action we are going to take on our own initiative to escape.

* I'm heartened that the SNP leadership have clearly been giving serious consideration to that question, but I'm troubled that they might be coming up with unwise answers.  We seem to be looking at the next Holyrood or Westminster election (whichever comes soonest) being used to produce an even more emphatic mandate for a referendum than the mandate we already have.  Essentially that means that unless a snap Westminster general election happens to be called prior to May 2021 (something we have very little control over), the current mandate for an independence referendum will be allowed to expire.  That seems to me a wholly unnecessary admission of defeat - albeit defeat only in one battle, rather than the whole war.  But if it's really deemed necessary to seek a renewed Holyrood mandate, surely consideration should be given to doing so via an early election held well before 2021.  Yes, that would be a drastic step, but if we're serious about Brexit being an emergency situation, there's nothing inappropriate about taking emergency action.  If an early election is called for the express purpose of securing an indyref mandate, and if that mandate is duly secured, it would arguably become politically much more difficult for Westminster to continue saying "no".

* Nevertheless, there is a chance they will continue to say "no", and we need to have a Plan B ready for that eventuality.  The Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter suggested a few weeks back that we should respond to every successive rejection of a Section 30 order by just "campaigning some more for a referendum".  That is not a sustainable position - if we go to the people asking for yet another mandate for a referendum, we have to be clear that if the mandate is secured we will expect it to be respected this time, and that we won't just keep going round in circles forever.  That would mean moving forward to an alternative method of winning independence if there is a further refusal to grant a Section 30 - probably either a consultative referendum or a decision to use the next available election to seek an outright mandate for independence.  Why the SNP leadership appear so squeamish about those options is beyond me, given that they would both be perfectly legal (a consultative referendum could only take place if it was upheld by the Supreme Court).  And as it happens, the SNP have already moved beyond strict constitutionality anyway - as I understand it, Mike Russell has said that the Scottish Government does not accept the legitimacy of the EU Withdrawal Act as it affects the devolution settlement, even though there is no dispute that it is the law of the land.

* In a perverse way it's helpful that an SNP source from the 'delay' lobby was more specific than usual in claiming that we won't be ready for a referendum before 2025 at the earliest.  Leaving aside the fact that this seems to be a random date plucked out of thin air, it makes abundantly clear that at least one of the 'delay' parliamentarians does not take seriously the manifesto commitment he or she was elected on to hold an independence referendum in the event of Brexit.  I don't think any SNP voter who read that pledge would have thought they were in fact voting for a referendum six years after Brexit, and four years after the parliament they were electing had been dissolved.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Remember: if the UK and EU can't reach agreement on the length or purpose of an extension, No Deal next month remains the default outcome, regardless of how parliament votes

As ever, trying to tease out Theresa May's real objective is the riddle at the heart of this latest Brexit development.  Using the threat of a vote on No Deal to coax Remainers into voting for the deal wouldn't make any sense, because everyone knows parliament will vote against No Deal anyway.  So logically that only leaves the possibility that the threat is intended to bring Brexiteer Tory MPs back on board.  But even if that worked, would it actually produce a majority for the deal?  There's been a theory that the deal might go through thanks to a coalition of spooked Tory Brexiteers and self-styled "responsible" Labour rebels.  But the main reason a fair number of Labour MPs were thinking of backing May was to prevent No Deal, and if everyone knows that a vote the next day will produce a thumbs-down to No Deal, that reason diminishes somewhat.  So I think we still have to assume that the likelihood is that the Commons will vote down the deal again, albeit probably by a significantly narrower margin than before.

Once again today, we've been treated to a depressing display of slipperiness and imprecision in the way that journalists have reported the latest twist.  The BBC website claims that the vote on the day after the deal is rejected would be on "ruling out no deal".  My understanding is that it would actually be about avoiding a No Deal exit in March, but wouldn't seek to remove the option of No Deal at a later date.  And in any case, it's not actually in parliament's gift to rule out No Deal (unless it revokes Article 50 altogether).  Any extension would have to be agreed with all of the other 27 EU member states, and the mood music suggests that the EU would only grant a temporary extension if the UK has come up with a credible Plan B.  If there is no clear alternative way forward, the EU would be looking for a very lengthy extension lasting almost two years.  As things stand, there is no sign of a Plan B, and May has ruled out an extension beyond the end of June, so once again we're heading for a direct collision between two irreconcilable positions, with No Deal on 29th March remaining the default outcome if neither a deal nor an extension is agreed.

Avoiding No Deal is in the mutual interest of both the UK and the EU (although it's obviously more important to the UK side), so you'd think some sort of halfway house compromise on an extension would be the most likely outcome, although at the moment it's murderously hard to see what form that could possibly take, especially if the Prime Minister is as hellbent as she says she is on avoiding UK participation in the European Parliament elections in May.

Not the Nine O'Clock News

A few days ago, I took a first look at the schedules of the new BBC Scotland channel and came to a sudden conclusion that the whole thing was a sham.  It seemed to me that the BBC were so determined to finally settle the Scottish Six issue without making space on BBC1 that they were quite prepared to construct an entire channel of repeats around a single programme.  Since the channel actually launched, my mind has been set to rest to some extent, because a lot of what looked like probable repeats have actually turned out to be new shows (or at least 'first looks' at shows that will appear on BBC1 later).  But tonight I watched the first edition of the Scottish Six substitute, known as The Nine, and a different concern started to form in my head.  Is the very programme the channel has been built around itself a sham?  In a nutshell, is The Nine actually the integrated Scottish, UK and international news programme that was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise, or is it a different sort of beast entirely?

In fairness, the show kicked off with a genuine news story - Jeremy Corbyn finally committing Labour to a second EU referendum.  But there was no actual report to cover that story - just a couple of two-ways with BBC journalists in London and Brussels, and then a live interview with Neil Findlay of all people.  The subsequent stories were packaged more conventionally, but none of them (as far as I could see) covered actual 'news of the day' events.  They were more like 'magazine' items that you might see on Scotland Tonight, or Eorpa, or in some cases even on an entertainment programme like The One Show.

A lot of people are complimenting The Nine for its relaxed presentational style, and are suggesting that sort of distinctiveness might carve out a niche and help attract viewers against the stiff competition from the network news programmes.  But the thing is, if you depart too far from what is recognisable as a news bulletin, you're defeating the whole purpose of winning those viewers.  I mean, if something almost indistinguishable from Scotland Tonight qualifies as "an integrated news programme", what have we actually been campaigning for all these years?

It's early days, of course.  Maybe there were a disproportionate number of pre-cooked stories simply because it was the opening night.  We'll see what the rest of the week brings.

*  *  *

For what it's worth, Jeremy Corbyn's decision has not changed my long-standing view that we are unlikely to be heading towards a "People's Vote".  Both the Tories and the DUP are opposed to a referendum, and those two parties still hold a slender majority in the Commons between them.  That essentially means pro-referendum Tory rebels would have to outnumber anti-referendum Labour rebels if the government is to be defeated.  And as it happens, Stephen Bush (who in the past has often proved himself to be near-omniscient on such matters) seems pretty confident that the Labour rebels handily outnumber the Tory rebels.  He's not completely ruling out the possibility that the arithmetic might change, and that being the case it can maybe be said that Corbyn's change of heart has made a referendum a bit more likely - but only a bit.  Frankly, even in the unlikely event that parliament votes for a referendum, I think Theresa May would be brazen enough to sidestep it.

The real significance of tonight's announcement may be to staunch the Labour bleeding - ie. to deter further defections to the Independent Group, and maybe even to reverse some of the recent damage in the opinion polls, assuming that Remain-minded voters in England now start to coalesce around Labour as the best available vehicle for frustrating Brexit.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Independent Group look increasingly like the Tory B Team

Heidi Allen revealed yesterday that the Independent Group have decided not to take any action that would precipitate a general election - an extraordinary public position for a small group seeking to exercise influence in a hung parliament, because if you want to win concessions from the government you need at least some measure of threat, even if you know privately you'd never see the threat through.

The Independent newspaper interpreted Allen's words as meaning that the Independent Group will "back Theresa May" on any no confidence motion.  I suspect that's not quite right - I presume their plan would be to abstain, because it would be a dreadful look for the eight Labour defectors to be immediately voting to prop up the Tories.  But the practical effect of abstentions will be exactly the same as voting with the government - it gives May a slender DUP-proof majority, and means that a general election can only now happen in the foreseeable future if May or her successor as Tory leader decides to call one in search of a more decisive mandate.  That's far from impossible, as we know from recent experience, but it's still reasonable to conclude that the chances of an early election are now somewhat lower than they were before the breakaway.  The only thing that might change that calculation would be if there's yet another breakaway, this time from the Tory right, although that will probably only happen if May softens her stance on Brexit in a way that nobody really expects her to do at the moment.

Would there be anything good about this parliament trundling on for another two or three years?  Well, at least it would secure the SNP's position as the majority party in terms of Scottish seats at Westminster.  At the moment, polls suggest that the SNP would make a few net gains in any snap election, mostly from Labour, but in the 2017 election campaign we saw how quickly things can turn around.  The arithmetic is scarily tight in a lot of SNP-held seats, so if anything went wrong during the campaign, the outcome could be disastrous.  There's also the point that 35 SNP MPs might actually have more influence in a hung parliament than 40 SNP MPs would have in a post-election parliament with a Tory majority.  I know we haven't seen much sign of SNP influence over the last two years, but that might change if there are a few more Tory defections, because that would mean May or her successor can no longer cobble together a majority with the DUP alone.

On the whole, though, I've been hoping for an early election, if only because of the SNP's own hesitancy about getting on with an independence referendum.  Psychologically, they might feel more ready to take a risk (and an indyref will always be a risk whenever it's held) if they've got firmly onto the front foot by gaining seats in the most recent election to be held.  There's still some sort of chance of a European Parliament election being held in the UK in May, and that could be the best available substitute for a snap general election, although what worries me is that the SNP have repeatedly underperformed in European elections since proportional representation was introduced in 1999 (probably because the voting system has encouraged SNP voters to drift off to smaller parties).  But who knows, past history is no guide to future performance, and this would be a very different type of European election campaign from any that have been seen before.

*  *  *

Last night, Opinium became the first pollster to produce a Britain-wide poll featuring the Independent Group on the standard voting intention question, as opposed to asking a convoluted hypothetical question about how people would vote if the Independent Group stood.  As could probably have been anticipated, the results are less favourable for the Independent Group than the hypothetical polls have been, although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are still taking a big hit, while the Tories are mysteriously unscathed after the onslaught from Soubry and co -

Conservatives 40% (+3)
Labour 32% (-5)
UKIP 7% (n/c)
Independent Group 6% (n/a)
Liberal Democrats 5% (-3)
SNP 4% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Plaid Cymru 1% (+1)

So it looks like Chuka shouldn't start measuring up curtains for 10 Downing Street just yet.  The Independent Group are going to need a lot more critical mass if they're to get anywhere (indeed if they're to have any chance of holding onto even a handful of their current seats), and just for the time being the defections seem to have ground to a halt.

Incidentally, just as a matter of principle I think Opinium have made a mistake by including the Independent Group as a standard option.  The defectors have been quite explicit that for now they are not setting up a political party and that they are not standing candidates.  That will probably change, but I believe I'm right in saying that the SDP were not included in polls until they had formally launched as a fully-fledged party.  If I was in the Labour party, I'd be extremely annoyed with Opinium for taking a premature decision that will artificially deflate the reported Labour vote.  It's also a bit odd that Opinium are including the Independent Group but not Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, which is a registered political party, and already has a bigger contingent than UKIP in the European Parliament.

*  *  *

For what little it's worth, the very small Scottish subsample from last night's GB-wide poll from Deltapoll suggested that the SNP's lead increases when the Independent Group are offered as a hypothetical option...

Without the Independent Group:

SNP 41%, Conservatives 26%, Labour 26%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 2%

With the Independent Group:

SNP 45%, Conservatives 29%, Labour 13%, Independent Group 9%, UKIP 2%, Liberal Democrats 2%