Friday, October 25, 2019

Labour MPs' endless can-kicking on an election could lead to the very thing they don't want - a No Deal exit next year

With Jeremy Corbyn holding off to hear how long an extension the EU would offer before deciding whether to vote in favour of the election motion on Monday, the most quintessentially Brexit thing to happen was clearly for the EU to announce that they won't actually decide on the length of the extension until Monday or Tuesday.  That presumably guarantees the election motion will fail if it goes ahead on Monday, which in turn means that if Boris Johnson doesn't put the vote back until later in the week, we can reasonably infer that he's playing games.

That said, it's beginning to sound like the vote will probably fail whenever it's held.  So Labour won't allow an election to take place, Johnson won't allow parliament the chance to pass his own withdrawal deal unless there's an election, and the DUP probably won't allow a vote of no confidence to replace Johnson with an interim Prime Minister who could break the deadlock.  (I presume the DUP's vote with the government on the Queen's Speech can be taken as a pretty strong signal of what they would do on a motion of no confidence.)  On the face of it, that means we'll just stumble on like zombies for an indefinite period with the government unable to govern and Brexit being continually kicked down the road - although never very far down the road.

I'm guessing the optimists on the Labour side think the effect of what they're doing is to gradually make Johnson look utterly ridiculous in the eyes of the electorate, and thereby start to wear down his opinion poll lead.  The theory will be that it won't much matter if Johnson has been thwarted by forces outwith his control - all the electorate will see is that he made a series of grand promises that he utterly failed to deliver.  "Do or die, Brexit on 31st October with or without a deal, I'd rather be dead in a ditch than ask for an extension beyond that date."  That could be much more of a problem for him if Labour spin the crisis out until the spring or beyond.

But I'm not so sure that's how it would play out in practice.  For the crisis to go on indefinitely, Labour would need the EU27 to play ball and continue unanimously granting extension after extension.  So far President Macron has always backed down on his threats to veto a proper extension, and he'll probably do so again this time, but I suspect there'll come a point next year where he'll feel he's earned enough capital to be able to say "we've bent over backwards but enough is enough".  If and when that happens, it will lead either to No Deal or to parliament effectively being blackmailed into passing Johnson's deal as the only possible alternative.  That might be an indirect boost for the Scottish independence cause, but it's not what Remain-supporting MPs are supposed to be working towards.

I'm particularly puzzled by the SNP leadership's role in all this, because we've been told for weeks that they're eager for an election as soon as possible.  That makes perfect sense, partly to avoid any clash with legal proceedings against Alex Salmond, and partly because they have a handsome lead over the Tories and Labour in the polls and it's always good to strike while the iron is hot.  And yet if they wanted to maximise the chances of their preferred timing, the mood music last night should have been "we can't go on like this, in the national interest we need to break the deadlock before Christmas".  Instead Ian Blackford launched into a monologue about dark December nights in Inverness and how it was "barking mad" to hold an election in winter.  Well, waiting until winter is over means waiting until at least March, and more likely April or May.  That's surely far too long.

It's perhaps asking too much of Labour to back an election in which their working assumption is that they'll lose seats.  Chuka Umunna on behalf of the Liberal Democrats hinted last night that he might drop his opposition to an election if he could receive some guarantees from Johnson that the Brexit process would be suspended until polling day.  So maybe the way out of this impasse is for the three parties that think they have something to gain from an immediate election (the Tories, the SNP and the Lib Dems) to try to reach some sort of understanding between them.  Admittedly, that would require Johnson to stop behaving like a toddler, so it's a long shot.  But a short piece of legislation circumventing the two-thirds majority stipulated by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act could be a way forward.  Another possibility is that the SNP or the Lib Dems could be given parliamentary time to table a motion of no confidence, and that the Tories could abstain to ensure it passes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Is this the most outrageously hypocritical thing Boris Johnson has ever said?

Boris Johnson was asked in his interview with Laura Kuenssberg what he would do if parliament rejected his request for a general election on 12th December, and this was his reply -

"We would campaign day after day for the people of this country to be released from subjection to a Parliament that has outlived its usefulness."

In other words, he would campaign for the people of this country to be "released from subjection" to the result of the 2017 general election, which under the law of the land was intended to be binding until May 2022.  He's also saying that the democratic verdict of voters in that election is no longer "useful".  Can you imagine the blind fury that the SNP or other Yes campaigners would encounter if they said "we demand that the people of Scotland be released from subjection to the result of the 2014 independence referendum, which has outlived its usefulness"?  Maybe we should try that line and see how far we get.  Come to think of it, how would Johnson himself react if People's Vote campaigners asked to be released from subjection to the result of the "useless" 2016 EU referendum?

My prediction only an hour ago that the election motion would pass on Monday already seems to be well on the way to being proved wrong, largely because Johnson's "offer" to reintroduce the withdrawal agreement bill in return for an election is being (understandably) interpreted in some quarters as more of a threat.  There's arguably now a clear incentive for the Liberal Democrats to resist a December election, because it would be a strategic disaster for them if Britain has officially left the EU before polling day - their "stop Brexit" message would have been overtaken by events.

*  *  *

UPDATE: Unlike the Lovatts of this world I've never believed that betting markets are a predictive God, but for what it's worth punters currently seem to think there's a slightly less than 50% chance of Johnson getting his way and an election being called by the end of the year.

Would a general election in December help or harm the cause of independence?

So Boris Johnson wants a general election on Thursday, 12th December, and my guess is that this time he'll get his way.  Labour are split down the middle on whether to give the green light, but with the parliamentary arithmetic the way it is, an election can't be delayed forever, and I'm struggling to see how a delay of a few weeks or a few months will in itself get them out of the electoral hole they're in.  (Indeed they must bitterly regret refusing to back an election in October, which could have prevented Johnson negotiating his Hard Brexit deal.)  Stephen Bush suggested that it would be politically difficult for the SNP to vote for an election if Labour don't, but this isn't 1979 - a vote for an election is a vote for an opportunity to remove a Tory government from office, so it's hard to see how any cry of betrayal would stick.  In any case, there's another way of looking at this - if the SNP are minded to bring about an election, it would be politically difficult for Labour to be seen to resist an election that is going to happen anyway.  (Although a two-thirds majority is required under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, that can be circumvented with a short piece of legislation, in which event SNP support would be sufficient.)

Someone asked me a few minutes ago how a general election would actually bring us closer to independence, and I suppose the answer is that it could simultaneously bring us closer and further away.  2015 was an example of what I mean - the SNP's 56 seats vastly exceeded expectations, and yet they were denied the balance of power in the House of Commons that had looked possible (and maybe even probable) throughout the campaign.  If the SNP gain seats in December and win a third successive outright majority of Scottish constituencies, they'll have a tremendous moral mandate, but they could be faced with a powerful majority Tory government committed to defying the will of the Scottish people for five whole years.  That'll be a shock to the system that I don't think we're quite mentally prepared for, even though we've been staring down the barrel of substantial Tory leads in GB opinion polls for several months.  However, the silver lining is that a shock of that sort might put irresistible pressure on the SNP leadership to change their thinking on a Plan B.  The SNP rank-and-file have shown themselves to be patient recently, but I'm not sure they're patient enough to accept "we'll have another crack in 2024" as an acceptable strategy, especially given that we'd still be placing ourselves at the mercy of English voters in 2024.

That said, the electorate is more volatile than ever before, and we can expect pro-Remain tactical voting in England and Wales on an industrial scale.  Any Tory that thinks the election is a foregone conclusion is deluding themselves.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Is there any chance at all that Labour could lose Edinburgh South?

I've lost count of the number of times over the last year that I've said "if this poll proves to be right, Labour would lose almost all of their Scottish seats to the SNP", with the "almost" referring to the seemingly inevitable fact that Ian Murray will easily hold Edinburgh South for Labour no matter what happens elsewhere.  Last night brought news that the Unite union has voted to "trigger" Murray (ie. to attempt to deselect him as the Labour candidate as punishment for his disloyalty to the party leadership) and that Murray has retorted with all sorts of dark warnings about how replacing him with a "Marxist" could cost their Labour their only safe Scottish seat.  He even suggests that he could help that process along by standing as an independent.

This is almost certainly a bit of a red herring, because reselection attempts very rarely succeed - it's probably intended more as a means of applying indirect pressure on Corbyn-sceptic MPs and encouraging them to toe the line.  It's still pretty likely that Murray will be the Labour candidate at the general election unless he voluntarily walks away.  So the more interesting question is whether there is any chance at all that Labour could lose with Murray as their standard-bearer?

On the face of it, that's a classic QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No), because two years ago Murray had a lead of more than 32% over his SNP opponent, which means on a uniform national swing that the SNP would require a highly improbable Scotland-wide lead over Labour of 42% before they could expect to gain Edinburgh South.  But it's worth remembering that in 2015 (the election before last), the SNP came reasonably close to winning the seat with a national lead over Labour of 'only' 26%, and some opinion polls suggest they could be back in that ballpark now.  So if the local contest ends up resembling that of 2015 more than that of 2017, it's not totally impossible that Murray could prove to be vulnerable.

The snag is, though, that what happened in 2017 seemed to decisively change the game and it's hard to imagine that process being reversed.  The decline in the SNP vote in Edinburgh South was actually slightly below the national average, but Labour still built up a formidable advantage by adding 16% to their own vote - completely against the Scotland-wide trend which saw them more or less flatlining.  By contrast, the Tory vote only increased by a trivial 2% locally at a time when it was essentially doubling across Scotland.  It's blindingly obvious that many people who would otherwise have voted Tory lent Murray their vote on a tactical basis to stop the SNP.  And there's little reason to think most of those people would go back to the Tories now, given that Edinburgh is such a solidly Remain city and the Tories are the only major party that is in favour of a Hard Brexit.

But the flipside of the equation is that many people who voted tactically for Murray in 2017 may now be much more preoccupied with stopping Brexit than with stopping a second independence referendum, and will thus no longer have such a laser-like focus on choosing the candidate most likely to beat the SNP.  Is there any reason to suppose that they might be tempted by the Liberal Democrats, rather than the Tories?  Well, yes there is, because you don't have to go too far back in history to find a time when Edinburgh South was a highly competitive Labour-Lib Dem battleground seat.  In fact the Lib Dems came slightly closer to beating Labour in both 2005 and 2010 than the SNP did in 2015.  And the Lib Dems actually held the equivalent Scottish Parliament constituency between 2003 and 2011.

Much depends on whether Remain supporters think that a Labour vote would be an endorsement of Ian Murray's personal anti-Brexit stance, or the Labour leadership's much more convoluted position.  If the latter, we could see a substantial swing to the Lib Dems in Edinburgh South, and that could open up the possibility of either the SNP coming through the middle and taking the seat, or of the Lib Dems winning from nowhere themselves.

I'm not saying that's particularly likely - I would expect Labour to hold on.  But it may be a much more competitive contest than a lot of people are assuming.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Unseasonal Elections And Their Effects

Someone suggested on the last thread that I should use the possibility of a December or January election as an excuse to write a blogpost about "Unseasonal Elections And Their Effects".  I think he was probably trolling me, but I'm going to do it anyway.  Never let it be said that I'm not accommodating.

Most general elections in recent decades have taken place in either May or June.  There were a couple of elections outside "peak months" in April 1992 and October 1974, but the last truly "unseasonal" election was in February 1974, and just like the one that's about to come, it took place in the midst of a national crisis.  Edward Heath's Tory government had a perfectly sustainable majority that could have seen him through all the way until mid-1975, but buoyed by favourable opinion polls, he instead took the fateful decision to seek a fresh mandate that would supposedly send a message that it was the elected government that governs, and not the unions.  Polling day was 28th February - officially the last day of winter, although as we all know, early March often feels like an extension of winter in much the same way that early September often feels like an extension of summer.  As polls closed the expectation was still that Heath's gamble would just about pay off, even though Labour had managed to stall his momentum somewhat during the campaign.  But early results showed a surprisingly decent swing to Labour, and although the Tories did narrowly win the popular vote, that translated into a very slight lead for Labour in terms of seats.  After a short delay of a few days, Labour leader Harold Wilson was invited by the Queen to form what was effectively a caretaker government until a new election could be held later in the year.  Crucial to the outcome was the fact that every Ulster Unionist that was elected was opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement, and therefore no longer took the Conservative whip.  If the UUP had still been inside the Tory fold, Heath would almost certainly have clung onto power, albeit at the head of a minority government.  It was also, of course, a big breakthrough election for the SNP - they jumped from two seats to a new all-time high of seven.  And there was a Liberal surge that didn't really produce any meaningful rewards as far as seats were concerned.

Does this tell us that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems can expect to do well in "unseasonal" elections?  Probably not.  I think the main thing it tells us is that winter elections are likely to only come about as the result of a major crisis, and that the outcome of the election will be determined largely by voters' reaction to that crisis, not by the temperature outside.  Although oddly enough, the only other post-war winter election wasn't (as far as I'm aware, anyway) triggered by an immediate crisis - Labour PM Clement Attlee went to the polls in February 1950, a few months earlier than he needed to, and paid the penalty.  His huge majority from 1945 was all but wiped out, and although he clung on to power for another year and a half, guerilla tactics in the Commons led his exhausted (literally physically exhausted) government to feel they had no choice but to call a snap election in late 1951, which they narrowly lost to Winston Churchill's resurgent Tories.

If you watch election results programmes from the distant past, you'll find the theory always used to be that a "high poll" (ie. a big turnout) favoured Labour, which might lead us to conclude that bad weather in winter that deters people from voting could be good news for the Tories.  But arguably the 1992 result gives the lie to that - there was a bumper turnout of 78% (which hasn't been repeated in any general election since), but Labour did much worse than anticipated.

For my money, the biggest issue with a winter election is the slight danger of freak weather conditions such as the Beast From The East that would make it impossible for many people to vote, and to the best of my knowledge there are no legal provisions to postpone a vote at the last minute because of the weather.  If, in a parallel universe, the Liberal Democrats had gone into coalition with the SNP in 2007 and had agreed to Alex Salmond's preferred date of St Andrew's Day 2010 for an independence referendum, there would have been major disruption because of heavy snow.  There probably would have been controversy for years afterwards about whether the outcome of the vote was really legitimate.

Final thought: if the EU extend Article 50 until 31st January and we need an election before that date to break the deadlock, surely it'll have to be just before Christmas?  I know it's getting very tight if that's going to happen, but the alternative would be either a mid-January election that would require campaigning to take place over the festive period, or a late January election that would be right up against the cliff-edge.

The Scotsman newspaper should be deeply ashamed of lying to its readers - yes, lying - in today's headline about an independence poll

So, right on cue, the Survation poll with the confusing question that I mentioned in my previous post has been trotted out by the Scotsman newspaper, and they've done exactly the same thing that the Sun newspaper did in its reporting of the previous poll in the series - they've told their readers a downright lie about the trend shown by the results.  The headline reads "Poll: Scottish independence supporters switching to back the Union".  In fact the poll shows the complete opposite of that - it shows that voters have swung towards independence since the previous poll.

The percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland becoming independent" has increased from 24% in the previous poll (conducted in March) to 26% now.  By contrast, the percentage of respondents who say that they "completely support Scotland staying part of the UK" has fallen in the same period from 40% to 37%.

If you also take into account respondents who are not on one of the two extremes, the pro-Yes trend is even stronger.  The percentage of respondents who are on the pro-independence side of the 0-10 scale has increased significantly from 35% in March to 40% now, while the percentage of respondents on the anti-independence side of the scale has declined sharply from 58% to 51%.

It's rare that we can simply say that a newspaper has lied, as opposed to just misleading its readers or telling half-truths, but this is one of those rare occasions.  The headline contains no quotation marks, and it doesn't say "according to Scotland in Union" or something like that (although I think we can make a fairly safe guess that's how this story came to appear).  It simply tells a direct lie.

As for the question of why this poll format produces such different numbers from standard Yes/No polls, there's something of a mystery.  We know from David Halliday's screenshot that at least some respondents were confusingly asked to regard the number zero as being the pro-independence end of the scale, and the number ten as being the anti-independence end of the scale - which may well explain why a wildly implausible 16% of Yes voters from 2014 are now supposedly expressing "complete support" for Scotland remaining in the UK.  (The equivalent figure from the March poll was almost identical.)  And yet the Survation datasets suggest that the opposite was done, and that the number ten was in fact the pro-independence end of the scale.  Are the datasets inaccurate?  Was there a dummy poll conducted in a different way for research purposes?  Either way, it does seem very surprising that Angus Robertson's Progress Scotland have persisted in commissioning polls using this format after the results produced in the spring proved to be so totally out of line with the results of conventional independence polling.

UPDATE: I see The Herald have done much the same thing as the Scotsman - their headline is "New poll suggests shift in support away from Scottish independence".  I don't think any of us are going to faint with amazement if it turns out that both papers have just lightly rewritten a Scotland in Union press release without bothering to check whether its factual claims are accurate.

Monday, October 21, 2019

"On a scale of confusion from 0 to 10..."

Regular readers might remember that back in the spring of this year, when Progress Scotland published its first poll, I pointed out that the Sun newspaper had misreported it (probably at the prompting of Scotland in Union) as showing that support for independence had "dropped below 40%".  It was perfectly true that support appeared to be lower than 40%, but the inaccurate word was "dropped".  In fact, the question format was completely different from standard independence polls, meaning it was impossible to make a comparison with those polls and conclude that the Yes vote had either risen or fallen.  There was no way of knowing whether earlier polls using the same format would have shown greater or lesser support for independence, although it did seem pretty likely that there was something about the question that was producing less favourable numbers than a Yes/No question would.

Basically respondents were asked to express their degree of support for independence on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating total support and 10 indicating total opposition.  I speculated at the time as to why that might have produced an artificially low result for independence, but now we have a stronger clue.  The pro-independence Twitter legend David Halliday contacted me three weeks ago to say that he'd just taken part in a Survation poll using exactly that question format - and that he'd accidentally indicated total opposition to independence.

"Just had a really interesting - if embarrassing - experience taking a Survation poll. It started out about me - where I lived (which region in Scotland - clearly Scotland only), age, children, income - then on to how I voted in 2017, 2016 and 2014. Then - this is the interesting and embarrassing bit - it asked a question about independence on a scale of 0 or 1 to 10. I went straight to 10 ("Totally in favour of") and clicked next and only then realised that 10 was "Totally in favour of staying within the UK" (or similar) while 0 or 1 was "Totally in favour of independence". I tried to go back but couldn't so stopped the poll, in the hope my vote won't be counted. A real life example of how the wording of the question in a different way (and one that confusingly harked back to the 1 to 10 questions Yes canvassers asked in 2014 where the 10 was dead in favour of independence) can skew the result. I'm wondering if it was deliberate."

It's obviously unlikely that any poll commissioned by Angus Robertson would have tried to achieve that effect deliberately, but it does illustrate why any numbers produced by this question format should be taken with a pinch of salt.  If someone as intelligent and politically-engaged as David was capable of misreading the question and saying the opposite of what he intended to say, it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to suppose that plenty of other respondents may have done exactly the same thing.  Even if you hadn't encountered the 1 to 10 questions asked by Yes canvassers in 2014, it's entirely natural to assume that the highest number would indicate the maximum support for the proposition you are being asked about.

Here is a screenshot that David took of the question when he managed to revisit the poll later - would you have been confused?  Particularly if you weren't looking too carefully?

Based on other questions that were asked, David is very confident that the poll he was taking was the latest one for Progress Scotland, and yet oddly the datasets for that poll suggest that the question was asked the other way around, with 10 indicating total support for independence and 0 indicating total opposition.  So what's going on?  Are the datasets wrong?  Were two different halves of the sample asked the question in different ways?  No idea.  For what it's worth, though, this poll is slightly better for Yes than the one in the spring, with exactly 40% of respondents putting themselves on the independence-friendly end of the spectrum, and another 6% choosing the neutral option of 5.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

FACTCHECK: Have the SNP "gone into alliance with the DUP to kill independence"? (Spoiler: No, they haven't.)

The beautiful city of Bath in south-west England has been the source of a surprising number of furious anti-SNP rants over recent weeks, but today has seen perhaps the most unhinged of the lot.  Apparently (and brace yourself for this) the SNP are about to enter into "an alliance with the kill independence".  Which would be absolutely shocking if it were true.  To quote the immortal line of 1980s Doctor Who assistant Tegan Jovanka, "if" is truly the most powerful word in the English language.

The basis for this latest ludicrous Wings claim is a tweet from James Melville claiming that the DUP are "on board" for a second EU referendum and that it's likely that the votes are now there to make that referendum happen.  Now, first things first: we do actually have to test the accuracy of Mr Melville's claim.  I'm sure he's a great bloke, but he's also well known on Twitter as a bit of a Remain/People's Vote propagandist, so naturally he's going to sometimes say things that turn out to be a tad over-optimistic from his own point of view.  I can't see any evidence at all that the DUP have come out for a second referendum - there's speculation that they might do, but to the extent that they've commented on the record, they've given the firm impression that they won't.  And even if they do, I'm doubtful that would be enough to swing the balance in itself.

If the SNP and the DUP do end up walking through the same lobby in favour of a People's Vote, does that mean they're "in alliance" with each other?  No, it does not.  That's one of the silliest and laziest allegations in politics.  In a binary vote, all you can control is which way you vote and your reasons for doing it.  You have no control whatsoever over how other parties vote, and in many cases you may not even know what they're planning to do until the vote is actually underway.  Parties can sometimes end up voting in the same lobby for polar opposite reasons - indeed, that happened only yesterday.  The SNP voted for the Letwin amendment because (among other things) they think the new deal gives Northern Ireland an unfair advantage over Scotland, and the DUP voted for the Letwin amendment because they think the deal is bad for Northern Ireland.

And in the unlikely event that a People's Vote is actually held, would that have the automatic effect of "killing independence"?  No, of course it wouldn't, for the obvious reason that we don't know what the result of the People's Vote would be yet.  If, for a second time in four years, the people of Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the European Union but were outvoted by people in another country, that would strengthen rather than weaken the case for independence.  And it's perfectly conceivable that could happen.  Although most recent polls show a Remain lead, it's usually not an enormous one, and in any case the referendum choice would be framed as "Deal v Remain" rather than "Leave v Remain".  The Brexiteers will have something positive to sell, and that could make all the difference as the campaign unfolds - especially with the financial muscle of the Tory party firmly behind them.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the dread words "best of both worlds" might be given another outing.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm on the record as being sceptical about the SNP's strategy of backing a People's Vote, and I do still worry about the danger of throwing away the casus belli for an early indyref.  But I also think it would be a rather good idea to avoid hyperbole and hysteria about the effect of the decision that the SNP have made.  It's far from clear that it's going to be the unmitigated catastrophe that Wings is so vividly painting in his readers' minds.

And why in the name of all that is holy is an alleged independence supporter trying to push the self-destructive narrative that the SNP need 50%+ of the vote (as opposed to the SNP and Greens winning a majority of Holyrood seats between them) to claim a renewed mandate for an independence referendum in 2021, if required?  And why does he chuck in gratuitous attacks on other miscellaneous SNP policies such as the fictional "car park tax" and tail-docking of working dogs?  Is he trying to do the unionists' work for them?

Oh no, I was forgetting, he wants to be Deputy First Minister.  Silly me.  (Although that probably amounts to the same thing.)

Are we finally moving towards clarity on the general election date?

The successful Letwin amendment "rules out No Deal", or so we're told.  Doesn't that sound strangely familiar?  How many times has such-and-such a vote or such-and-such an action supposedly ruled out No Deal? Presumably if No Deal had actually been already ruled out, it wouldn't be necessary to keep doing it again and again and again.  I don't think the Letwin amendment will be any more effective at taking No Deal off the table than the previous attempts - although admittedly it does significantly reduce the risk of a No Deal exit on Halloween.  Without Letwin, the government might have been able to hold a gun to the head of MPs and say that they had a straight choice between approving the legislation implementing the deal in unamended form, or an immediate No Deal crash-out in the absence of the Benn Act safety-net (although presumably they could still have got around that by seizing control of the timetable again and passing Benn Act II).

If there's any light at all at the end of the tunnel, it's the approaching clarity on the date of a general election.  In principle, Johnson appears to have the numbers to pass his deal - but the devil is in the detail, and all it would take to kill the deal (at least this side of an election) is a successful amendment that makes the legislation depart significantly from what was agreed with the EU.  If the DUP seek to amend the arrangements for Northern Ireland, for example, it's not impossible to imagine some Tory Brexiteers abstaining rather than voting with the government.  Either way, though, we'll know very soon.  If the legislation is passed to the EU's satisfaction, Britain will officially leave the EU in less than two weeks' time and it would make obvious sense to then move on to an election to ensure a proper mandate for whichever government enters into the next round of negotiations with Brussels during the transition period.  If, on the other hand, the legislation hits the rocks, it's likely that the EU will reluctantly agree to parliament's request for a three month extension, which on the face of it would satisfy Jeremy Corbyn's stated condition for agreeing to an election.

Would Labour still look for an excuse for further delay, given their unpromising showing in most current opinion polls?  Maybe, although it's no longer clear that playing it long will actually improve their position.  They had previously thought that if they just held on for a bit, Boris Johnson would be boxed into campaigning for No Deal at the election, which would have allowed Labour to portray themselves as the only viable alternative to an extremist government.  But whenever the election is held now, Johnson will be able to sell his deal as a grand compromise, and so arguably Labour might as well just get on and face the music.

If they do seek an excuse for a delay, it'll probably be the old favourite of "we can't annoy the voters at Christmas".  But pretty much any party would be quite happy to interrupt people's Christmas preparations if they thought there was the remotest tactical advantage.  Back in the day on Stormfront Lite, Tory posters used to complain that polls conducted over Christmas underestimated their party due to voters being away on holiday and whatnot, so who knows?  Maybe Labour will calculate that they're better off going to the country while Tory voters are disproportionately likely to be away skiing in Saalbach-Hinterglemm.

If the election is held before Brexit, each party is going to have a very obvious pitch -

Conservatives: Get Brexit done with our compromise deal and bring the country back together

Labour: Only we will let the people decide on Brexit

Liberal Democrats: Stop Brexit

SNP: Stop Brexit and reinforce our mandate for an independence referendum next year

All of those sound like potential winners, but self-evidently they can't all be.

*  *  *

Regular readers might remember that a few months ago I wrote about the absence of a Scottish Gaelic course on Duolingo, and urged people to add their name to the campaign for that to be rectified.  After that post, I spoke to a couple of people who had been seeking to engage with Duolingo on the subject for many years, and they were extremely pessimistic that progress would be made any time soon.  But just for once, there's an unalloyed good news outcome to report: Gaelic will shortly be added to the site!  You can sign up in advance HERE.  It'll still be a few months before the course is fully up and running by the looks of things.  In the meantime, I can recommend the free Gaelic course on Glossika that someone directed me to.  (Glossika is mainly a pay-site, but Gaelic is one of a small number of languages that are currently offered for free, presumably due to being endangered.)