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Friday, July 01, 2016

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

In Macbeth Shakespeare wrote a soliloquy for his lead character:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on th'other. . . .
Macbeth Act 1, scene 7. 25–28

If he were writing today the bard might have difficulty who to apply that judgement to.

We live in extraordinary times in which all the political certainties of my lifetime have been turned upside down.

This is not just one party self-destructing as in the 1980s when Labour ripped itself to shreds, or the 1990s when the Liberal Democrats were forced to rebuild after David Owen took his toys home, or even the 1920s when Lloyd George's ambition destroyed the Liberal Party. We are now faced with both the major parties in turmoil, fighting like ferrets in a sack and apparently drifting rudderless on a fast-flowing current.

Two players stand out in the developing farce. There is Boris Johnson, whose personal ambition has led Britain to the brink of a major economic depression, only for him to bottle the final act and withdraw from the battle for the Tory leadership. The quiet assassin in the case was Michael Gove, a man running for a job he has said nine times he lacks the competence and capability to do.

The second player is Jeremy Corbyn, who is seemingly standing Lear-like, unmoved at the top of the Labour Party as his political family desert him. His conceit is that he represents the rank and file of the Labour Party against the vested interests of an establishment which has never accepted him. In that he may be right, but only another leadership contest will offer proof.

Depressingly, the British political system has a habit of re-setting itself. The one big realignment in the 1920s, was about social not political change. But with each reset there is incremental change. In the 1951 General Election 96.8% of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative. In 2015 that figure was 67.3%. The only thing preventing a major political transformation in the House of Commons is the electoral system.

Will the crises facing Labour and the Conservatives this week be the catalyst that leads to lasting reform? Not if the political establishment has its way.

But all those people who voted to leave the EU as a protest against remote, elitist politicians deserve that change.

A system that reflects the way people vote, that does away with safe seats and forces political parties to work with each other in the national interest is the best answer to that protest vote. Politicians would have to listen to the people then.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Construction sector heading for Brexit wall

The fate of the economy and that of the construction sector are intractably linked. That is why when recession hit in 2008 onwards, everybody was calling for big capital schemes to be put in place to keep things moving and to drag us out of the mire.

It is very disturbing therefore to read in the Independent today that the massive uncertainty created by the Brexit vote could mean that the UK construction industry will slam into a “brick wall” early next year.

The paper quotes an anonymous source who told them that since the shock referendum result was announced last Friday morning anxious international investors have already pushed the pause button on future UK infrastructure investments:

“Construction projects that are underway are going to continue. It’s six to seven months down the line where a lot of projects are going on to ice,” said the source. “What you’ll find is the construction industry potentially running into a brick wall.”

“There’s a danger of a huge drop off. And if this is the situation for two years [the assumed time for the UK-EU divorce terms to be negotiated] that’s an awful long time for construction companies.”

The person said up to £20bn of planned infrastructure investment was at risk and that foreign sovereign wealth funds were among those pulling in their horns.

A huge question mark hangs over high-profile projects such as a third runway for Heathrow and the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset.

But the source said there are also growing doubts about the future of less well-known operations such as the London Gateway port in Essex, operated by Dubai’s DP World, which opened in 2013 and is still only half complete.

“We’re hearing grave uncertainty [about it]” said the source. “That was built on the premise of large scale container ships from around the world using that as a point where these giant ships would dock and smaller ships would [transport the goods] straight into Europe. Now it looks like those smaller ships will have to find alternatives. They’re already talking about Hamburg, Amsterdam, etc,” he said.

The source says the new outbreak of uncertainty was likely to engulf many other ambitious planned construction projects in the UK, including the Atlantic Gateway transport hub in Manchester and Liverpool.

The paper says that the infrastructure construction sector was stagnating even before the Brexit vote and that a third of firms have said the forthcoming referendum was already disrupting orders. Construction accounts for around 7 per cent of UK GDP and civil construction companies such as Balfour Beatty and Carillion have seen double digit falls in their share price since last Friday.

They say that another industry fear relates to airports, particularly if the UK ends up dropping out of the Open Skies Agreement, which allows any EU airline to fly between any two points in Europe. This could severely hamper the UK. Their source believes that this could lead to the closure of one of London’s airports.

The absence of a post-Brexit plan on either side of the argument is making business very nervous indeed. Many are waiting to see what emerges before taking any permanent decisions. The paper says that US banks with European headquarters in London, such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, are waiting to see whether they are likely to retain “passporting” rights, post Brexit, which allows them to sell services across mainland Europe from the City of London. If not, they have signalled they would probably have to move offices, and jobs, to mainland Europe:

In another threat to the City, Francois Hollande, the French President, said this week the EU should insist the clearing of euro-denominated trades be done within the bloc. This could compel the London Stock Exchange’s LCH.Clearnet, which clears half of global interest rate swaps, to move out of London.

Analysts in Japan have said there is a 75 per cent chance Toyota and Honda could pull operations out of Britain if the country’s motor exports are hit with new EU tariffs. Ford has confirmed it may now cut jobs in the UK.

Around 80 per cent of UK manufactured cars are exported, with half going to other EU states. There are fears that UK manufactured cars could face a 10 per cent EU tariff.

What can and cannot be negotiated will be crucial in determining the safety of thousands of jobs across the UK. If the government gets it wrong we could see the virtual dismantling of London's financial sector, the loss of large numbers of manufacturing jobs and the stalling of infrastructure projects designed to bring the UK into the 21st Century and to stimulate the economy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hans Blix slams Blair on Iraq's missing chemical weapons

For those of us waiting for the publication of the Chilcott report on the Iraq war, a BBC documentary tonight might prove to be a useful appetizer. In it former weapons inspector Hans Blix claims that Tony Blair “did not represent the reality” in relation to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction ahead of the 2003 invasion. In other words Mr. Blair misled us all:

Mr Blix did not suggest the former PM acted in bad faith, adding: “Many people bring themselves to believe something that they want to believe."

The Swedish diplomat and politician added: "I think Blair had a feeling that this was an evil regime and that it was a moral thing to do away with it.

"And I don't think that's an evil thought, but I think it was a presumptuous thought that the UK and the US alone should do that."

None of this is news of course but it is good to have it confirmed by an expert who was in the front line of weapons inspection at the time. Will the Chilcott report contain stronger criticism? We will have to see.

Climate change deniers put in charge of Assembly's Climate Change Committee

The news that UKIP have been handed the chair of the Assembly's Climate Change Committee has naturally caused outrage around Wales. After all this is the party which publicly denies the existence of man-made climate change.

Quite how the new chair  is going to reconcile that belief with the evidence that he will be presented with is difficult to see. I do not share the view of some that he may be won over to a different viewpoint.

What exactly was going through the minds of party business managers when they decided on the allocation of chairs will forever remain a mystery.

However, the situation could have been worse, they might have put UKIP in charge of the committee responsible for equalities.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit campaign wipe their website to remove £350m NHS claim

The Independent reports that the official Leave campaign has wiped almost its entire website from the internet. They say that the site, which previously included the suggestion that the EU budget would be sent back to the NHS and included promises about trade deals, now just has a message thanking supporters:

The promises of Leave campaigners have come under scrutiny since the UK voted on Thursday, with leading politicians walking back promises over immigration control, NHS spending and the speed that Brexit will be undertaken.

Now all of those promises have been removed from the official site. The site now just has a message reading “Thank You” at the top.

The paper says that the centrepiece of the old site was a collection of “Facts about the European Union”. Those included messages about NHS funding, immigration and trade deals:

The page also functioned as an archive of important interviews and speeches, and editorials written by people in support of Leave. Those pages are still available since only the homepage has been altered, meaning that they can be found through Google.

The site didn’t actually claim that the money saved from the EU budget would be spent on the NHS.

The UK's official EU budget is about £350 million a week,” the relevant “fact” reads. “That’s about the same as the cost of building a new NHS hospital every week.

“We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over how it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, not the people we elect here.”

They add that there is there is just one remnant of the pledge to give £350m extra to the NHS each week remaining on the site. The picture of campaigners that is the site’s banner includes a bus that has the promise printed on its side, but the door is open and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are stood in front of the words, meaning that it’s not possible to read it.

How convenient.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bend it like Boris

I am indebted to the writer Jeanette Winterson for the title to this blog. It is worth checking out the link for a few more Brexit phrases. But the reason why I chose the headline is this article on the BBC in which the former Mayor of London proves that he really does live in a fantasy land.

The BBC reference a column written by Mr. Johnson for the Daily Telegraph in which he writes:

"I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be.

"There will still be intense and intensifying European co-operation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment.

"EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU.

"British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down. As the German equivalent of the CBI - the BDI - has very sensibly reminded us, there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.

"The only change - and it will not come in any great rush - is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU's extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal."

So Boris' vision is that we leave the EU but continue to enjoy all its benefits without any downside. Is that what people voted for? It certainly was not what the Leave campaign told people they should vote for. And there is no way European Leaders would countenance such a deal without extracting a very high price.

Boris is not stupid so that just leaves a choice of him being either very naïve or extremely disingenuous.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Will Labour enter into its own civil war in the wake of half-hearted referendum effort?

I woke up this morning to the news that Hilary Benn has been sacked amid claims he was encouraging ministers to resign should Jeremy Corbyn ignore a vote of no confidence.

The BBC quotes a Labour source that Mr Corbyn had "lost confidence" in Mr Benn after the Shadow Foreign Secretary said there was "widespread concern" about Mr Corbyn's "leadership and his ability to win an election".

We are now hearing that up to half the Labour Shadow Cabinet may resign if Jeremy Corbyn does not accept the verdict of the Parliamentary Labour Party in a no confidence vote tomorrow. As I write the Press Association has announced that Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has also resigned from Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet

The division between Labour's grass roots and the MPs has never been so stark. Corbyn has said he will stand again in any contest forced upon him. The chances are he will win again.

Where does that leave the people whose job it is to represent the Labour Party day-in, day-out in Parliament and in the media?

How can they continue to do that job and hold the government to account for its actions whilst they are estranged from their party's leadership?

The Conservative and Labour Parties are each coalitions in their own right. The way that these coalitions are falling apart highlights the weaknesses of our electoral system.

Under a properly proportional system these divisions would resolve themselves with the various factions forming separate parties and coalescing with like-minded groups to form a government.

Under first past the post that is nigh on impossible.

The referendum result has done more than divide the country, it has also fractured the political establishment, possibly beyond repair.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The big lies that secured a Brexit vote

Day Two of post-Brexit Britain and things are panning out pretty much as predicted. The value of the pound has plunged, falling more than 8% against the dollar and 6% against the euro, possibly leading to higher petrol prices.

Holiday makers are struggling to exchange currency abroad, Scotland is considering a second Independence referendum and there are calls for a vote in Northern Ireland on whether they should also leave and merge with the Republic.

Wall Street and the FTSE 100 both fell sharply on Friday in a wild day of trading after the UK voted for Brexit whilst the London blue-chip index fell 7% in early trading to just over 5,800 points ending the day 3.15% lower at 6,138 and Spain has called for joint sovereignty over Gibralter.

The Prime Minister has resigned and there are moves to no confidence Jeremy Corbyn. Oh, and the Mayor of Calais wants changes to the 2003 Touquet deal which allows Britain to carry out immigration checks on the French side of the English Channel.

The most galling moments though have been the rapid u-turns by pro-Brexit campaigners on what were obvious lies they told during the campaign.

As the Telegraph reports, Nigel Farage was very quick to admit that it was a "mistake" to promise that £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK backed a Brexit vote. The pledge was central to the official Vote Leave campaign and was controversially emblazoned on the side of the bus which shuttled Boris Johnson and Michael Gove around the country. It was an out-and-out lie.

The Guardian also reports Farage's comments but adds that the claims by campaigners that leaving the EU would reduce immigration was also a lie. Tory MEP Daniel Hannan  agreed that free movement could result in similar levels of immigration after Brexit. He said: “Frankly, if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed.”

It is funny how they waited until after the vote before fessing up. Meanwhile it is worth reading this from a Financial Times reader:

I think I will just leave it there and let people reflect on those points.

Friday, June 24, 2016

What now?

Whatever side you were on it is clear last week’s referendum result will cause a significant period of economic and political uncertainty.

The outcome was as much an anti-politics vote as a vote against immigration, further austerity and the European project itself.

Unravelling forty years of being tied to Europe culturally, legally and economically will not be easy. There are clear dangers.

Many of the measures to protect workers’ rights and to stop discrimination against the disabled introduced by the EU, for example are not instinctively supported by the Conservatives, least of all by those right wing members of that party likely to succeed Cameron.

And what about the jobs which are dependent on EU membership? This is not just about trade, but how viable will Port Talbot’s steel works be if exports to Europe now have to surmount a tariff barrier?

What about the companies who relocated here because we were in the free trade area? Will they now move onto the continent?

And will the UK Government really replace the structural funds and other support we get from Europe on a like-for-like basis?

In many ways, I am just re-treading arguments that the British people have already rejected. But the transition needs to address them all and we need to ensure that Wales’ politicians are at the table fighting for our best interests.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is an apocryphal Chinese curse. It seems that we are now living in those times. How we take on the challenges now presented to us will determine all our future.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Parliament by any other name

With the country's future hanging in the balance in today's referendum, one really does have to question whether now is the right time to table a motion in the Welsh Assembly seeking to re-classify it as a Parliament?

The Western Mail reports that a motion has been tabled by Labour's Chief Whip and Business Manager for debate on 28th June which reads: “The National Assembly for Wales agrees that: (a) its name should be changed to the ‘Welsh Parliament’ at the earliest opportunity; and that (b) it should be known unofficially by that name until such a name change can be formalised”.

It is very early in the day for the Cardiff Bay bubble to have so comprehensively engulfed politicians there but that is apparently what has happened. Whilst the rest of us worry about the economic prosperity of Wales and whether we will remain within the World's biggest free trade area or commit hari kari and leave it, the Welsh Assembly is debating what to call itself.

And it is not as if this motion has any legal effect. Yes, AMs can call themselves what they like but surely it would be better if they waited for the additional powers being proposed by the new Government of Wales Bill before rushing out of the starting blocks.

Most voters will consider this as no more than a vanity exercise, an attempt to gain prestige. They will want AMs to be taking action to protect their jobs and to bring investment into Wales, to sort out the health service and improve the performance of our schools, not to spend their time deciding whether the occupants of the Senedd will be known in future as AMs or WMPs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lies, damned lies and the European Referendum

With less than 24 hours left before polls open, it has all gone a bit Game of Thrones over here in Referendum UK. It is not quite as gory, but the leading figures of the Remain and Leave campaigns are fighting like a bunch of public schoolboys. Oh, wait a minute....!

The Telegraph's live blog of events records the insults being traded by both sides, summing up the reason why nobody believes a word either side is saying and why most people wish they would just go away and leave them alone. In fact, 10pm on Thursday cannot come quick enough.

It all started to go a bit crazy when Michael Gove invoked Godwin's Law and compared economic experts warning about Brexit to Nazis who smeared Albert Einstein’s scientific findings during the 1930s. I am not a big fan of economists myself but of course the big difference is that Einstein had a tenable thesis, whereas the Brexiteers just have speculation, and of course the economists in question are not in the pay of the government as the German scientists were.

This enabled David Cameron to have a pop at his erstwhile friend and colleague. He told LBC:

"Let me tell you what I think is the most extraordinary thing in the news today, and that is the Leave campaign, comparing these independent experts, businesses, economists, Nobel Prize winners to sort of Nazi propagandists.

"I think I’m afraid the Leave campaign here are making a massive mistake. If in our country, you know look at these people, some of them won Nobel Prizes, many of them are working for independent institutions we set up after the war. These businesses don’t normally come off the fence on an issue like this and speak so clearly. And I think when you’ve got that weight of opinion saying there’s a real risk to the British economy, to jobs, to families’ finances then it really is worth listening.

"And if we’re going to go to a world where we say, I’m not going to listen to experts, that’s an extraordinary thing to do."

And then Boris Johnson pitched in saying that the Michael Gove analogy comparing Remain-supporting economists to Nazi propagandists was okay. Cameron responded by suggesting that Gove had lost the plot only for the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to change the subject by accusing Cameron of lying about Turkey's prospects of joining the EU.

Talking of Nazis, Nigel Farage was asked if he had apologised for his controversial "breaking point" immigration poster based on Nazi propaganda, only to deny that he had done so, despite suggestions by his party that he had.

And then Michael Gove apologised for his remarks about the war: "Yesterday I was asked a question by Iain Dale about the predictions of doom for the economy.

"I answered as I often do with a historical analogy. It was clumsy and inappropriate.

"Obviously I did not mean to imply anything about the motives of those who have spoken out in favour of staying in the EU.

"Throughout the campaign I’ve avoided making personal attacks, I'm sorry for speaking so clumsily, and apologise for giving offence.

"I think Britain will be more prosperous if we end our connection to the euro project and I should have answered this question directly."

Will Boris now apologise for defending Michael Gove's misplaced analogy?

I don't think I can take the suspense any longer. I am off to watch the football where at least England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are still in Europe. For now, at least.

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