What If Theresa May Had Confronted Her Brexit Wing Sooner?



Elvis Presley, in the midst of his 1968 comeback special, admitted “I’ve got to do this sooner or later, I may as well do it now, baby”. He then launched into Hound Dog, which was what everyone wanted.

I can’t help keep thinking that Theresa May should have taken inspiration from this. She had to confront her ERG Leaver wing at some point, why not sooner (baby)? What could May have won, if she’d confronted her strong Leavers back far ago in 2016? What if she’d challenged them to a showdown not in Christmas 2018 but the summer or autumn, say, of 2016?

Well, there would still have been a row. Possibly a hell of a row. But think this through. She was riding high in the polls, with a reputation for diligence and taking tough decisions. She was more popular than Cadbury Dairy Milk (Britain’s favourite in 2018, though see what was number three for a real shock).

Instead of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and triggering article 50 what if she had gone all ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’? She could have told the UK ‘look, this is all very complicated and we need some time’ because ‘otherwise’ she could say, doing her stern face ‘it will go badly for us’. It would have bought May the only thing a politician ever really needs. Time. Time to prepare, discuss, plan.

If the ERG had challenged her approach, May could have said ‘give me your own plans’ while saying loudly under her breath ‘idiots’. This would have been easy, given their plans, after two long years, seem to be ‘tell the foreigners more firmly about our Spitfires’, threaten Spain with war and place David Davis on the Irish Border with a speed gun.

The last few weeks has shown just how weak this group is, especially now it has lost its ‘turn it up to 11’ amplifier of the Daily Mail. Rees-Mogg can neither change a nappy nor organise a coup, and should think seriously about spending more time with his indigenous communities/far right friends. This group ruthlessly exploited the very real grievances and anxieties of people up and down the country who are now, ironically, more pro-immigration than any time since 2002.

Instead, now May heads to a proper crunch vote. She needs Conservative and Labour votes to get her agreement through the Commons. And here’s the problem (brace yourself). May’s party is split between soft, hard or Remain and she herself voted Remain in 2016 (quietly), then went all hard Brexit in 2017 before walking backwards 2017-2018. She also needs votes from a Labour party that are (mostly) pro Remain, and are increasingly favouring a Peoples’ Vote. However, the Labour leader is a bigger Brexiter than the prime minister, but is either back-tracking slightly, doesn’t understand or hasn’t decided, all the while secretly hoping Brexit will put him in Downing Street. Just before you suggest we should take heed of the public, 30% of the public polled think MPs should accept May’s deal, 41% think MPs should reject it and 29% don’t know (and a full 59% find it ‘fairly’ or ‘very boring’) .

It gets more complicated. Most MPs are dead against May’s plan and the only thing that unites them is not wanting a no deal, despite the cheaper trainers it could bring. May continues forward, relying on her classic World War One general style approach. It could be she knows something we don’t or she has a plan B (and possibly a plan C) but she can’t say this because it would making voting down her deal less scary.

If May loses, as far as I can work out, we will either (brace yourself) have another vote on it post some tinkering, she’ll resign and someone else will have a go, or Corbyn might become prime minister. It could also lead to a no deal. Rees-Mogg reassures us this will lead to cheaper footwear, and we can test our new cheap trainers as we can scavenge for blood supplies, insulin and clean water, while dodging aircraft falling from the sky (which he’ll watch from binoculars over the Irish border where the investment firm he founded has apparently re-located).

The outside possibility is that they’ll be another referendum. I’m pleased about this, as I feel the last time we had one, which was in June 2016, we really sorted out, very clearly indeed, the issue of our future relationship with Europe.

The real tragedy is that the noisy group that caused all this, shouting about straightening bananas since the days of John Major, have been shown to be pretty feeble. ‘Weak, weak, weak’. I began with Elvis so I’ll end with Bowie. Very much like when Sarah finally discovers the Goblin King’s weakness in Labyrinth, all May needed to say was ‘you have no power over me’.

Originally on the Huffington Post


Is Theresa May Safer Than She Looks?


I know it doesn’t look like it. May appears to be now deep in her final, terminal doom loop. For more than a year she seems to have been the ‘are you still here?’ leader. Now it seems that time is up. She has, in Churchill’s phrase, stayed in the pub until closing time.

But May has sailed past a series of fatal, points of no return for a PM. She lost an election, nearly broke her party, and has performed a series of spectacular U-turns on Brexit, the one thing she was supposed to get right. Of late, she has lost a Foreign Secretary and two Brexit Secretaries, plus a host of others.

How is she still there? Here’s a few things to keep in mind as the plots and possible vote of confidence swirl:

1. She is still the prime minister and no one else is. She still has the office and the prestige. If she walks into a room, the Prime Minister of the UK and First Lord of the Treasury has arrived. If Boris Johnson walks in, the ex-foreign secretary/ex-Mayor of London has shambled in.

She also still has the power. She has patronage, party loyalty and the force of prime ministerial persuasion. For all her supposed weakness, what she says and does still makes the weather. On Brexit her speeches and comments are poured over and examined. Ultimately, while she’s still in Downing Street only she can decide, negotiate and sign an agreement, subject to a ‘meaningful vote’. What can Boris Johnson do? Write columns. The key question is whether she has any authority left.

2. Removing prime ministers is very difficult. The rules for electing a leader were written by leaders to protect leaders. It’s no longer the case that you can stand ‘against’ a Conservative leader. In the past Tories had a bizarre rule where a challenger could have a go and mount a challenge annually.

The new rules mean that there are no stalking horses, hats in the ring or challengers. You have to remove before installing, in two distinct stages. Stage one is that 48 letters are sent to the 1922 committee, meaning that a vote of confidence is called that the leader must win with 50% or more (in this case 159 votes). Only if she loses does the process move to stage two, where there would there be a leadership election between new candidates, voted on first by MPs then the party membership.

The process means not one but potentially two votes, if not three, with each stage full of uncertainty. What if May survives ? What if she loses narrowly and a new leadership election starts? What if the rows break up the brittle Tory party? In a crisis like Brexit, most MPs will stick to the devil they know rather than risk it. This is especially the case if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually Boris Johnson speeding down the tracks towards them. Being more Machiavellian about it, having Boris doesn’t even increase the Conservatives poll lead. I’d strongly advise you follow Dr Catherine Haddon to find out more (@cath_haddon)

It also comes down to cold numbers. Unhappy Brexiter MPs have enough grumpy members to get 48 letters written (probably) but not enough (probably) to win a confidence vote. Hence the rumour and plots have been a smokescreen for their weakness, a bluff that has been called over and over. Hanging over all this is the danger that, though some constitutional quirk, Corbyn could become prime minister and have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the Mighty’, as a great man once said.

3. Chaos is the new normal. Brexit is one big, rolling multi-layered constitutional, political and social crisis. Remember how worried everyone was by Scottish Independence in 2014? By my rough calculations, May has created or worsened four major constitutional crises so far. That’s one crisis every 5.5 months. We’ve got so many crises we’ve forgot we are in them. The more used we get to upheaval and sheer weirdness, the less we are shocked by plots and leadership crisis. How many crunch votes has May scraped through? How many leadership ‘challenges’ or plots has she survived? This probably makes May safer as a source stability – and what’s a lost vote or a little leadership plotting when the UK seems to be disintegrating?

So far, as I’ve said, May has been lucky in the incompetence and division of her enemies. However, these factors that protect her could all be short-circuited if she resigns or is forced to step down. So far, May has followed Harold Wilson’s approach. ‘I know what’s going on’ said Wilson when he heard of plots against him ‘I’m going on’.

Originally on the Huffington Post

‘Heir Apparent Prime Ministers in Westminster Democracies: Promise and Performance’ by Ludger Helms


See this new article by Ludger Helms on ‘inheriting’ office


While the grand narratives of political leaders and leadership in parliamentary democracies tend to centre on victorious campaigners, prime ministers ‘inheriting’ the office from their predecessor between two parliamentary elections are a widespread occurrence in constitutional practice. Focusing on four Westminster democracies (Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), this article inquires how such heirs apparent have fared in terms of prime ministerial performance. Although in light of their experience, expertise and public recognition, heir apparent prime ministers can be, and have been, considered to be particularly well placed to succeed, when eventually securing the most powerful political office, most of them have actually been conspicuous under-performers. The single most important and strongly counter-intuitive finding of an empirical investigation of different prime ministers is that extensive experience in government, both in terms of duration and diversity of ministerial offices held, seems to correlate more with failed rather than particularly successful premierships.

See the article here .

Full reference: Helms, L. (2018). Heir Apparent Prime Ministers in Westminster Democracies: Promise and Performance. Government and Opposition, 1-23.

Brexit for our time? What Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May have in common

One MP said of Boris Johnson’s recent resignation speech: “we needed Winston Churchill. Instead, he gave us a modern-day version of Neville Chamberlain”. But could this complaint fit Theresa May better?

In her two short years in office, the historical comparisons chart May’s rise and fall. Her premiership began with comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, encapsulated in the Daily Mail’s ‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’ cartoon. After June 2017 commentators turned to the troubled premierships of John Major, Gordon Brown and James Callaghan. But what if historians are looking in the wrong place? Does the Neville Chamberlain tag tells us more about May than Johnson?

Chamberlain’s name is, of course, synonymous with failure and weakness. He was a champion of appeasement who embarked in 1937 on a “special and personal mission to come to friendly terms with the dictators of Italy and Germany”. The threats of the 1930s were, of course, far graver than May’s, and he is one of the few prime ministers whose difficulties make Brexit look simple. He faced war with two fascist dictators (with the USSR lurking behind).

Though it’s a comparison no prime minister would want to hear, at first glance certain May-Chamberlain parallels are intriguing. Both leaders had a business background, experience in local government and served as Conservative party chairs. Both were ‘takeover’ leaders, following on from Stanley Baldwin and David Cameron, who were themselves rather too relaxed and stumbled when they put their ‘party before their country’.

The two leaders made their name as domestic politicians who styled themselves as radical reformers. Chamberlain was a highly successful and innovative Secretary of State for Health (twice), helping lay the foundations of Labour’s later Welfare State. May was the second longest serving Home Secretary since the 1940s, pushing domestic violence reform (while dog whistling over immigrants). Critics felt both had too little or narrow experience of foreign affairs. Churchill described Chamberlain as ‘a Birmingham town councillor who looks at our national affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe’ while Attlee spoke of his ear being permanently tuned to ‘Midland Regional’. May too was seen as having limited interaction with the EU as Home Secretary, from which she drew all the wrong lessons, with her eyes permanently fixed on the UK side of a Border agency desk.

Once in Downing Street, Chamberlain and May went from huge success to deep failure. The two leaders sought to navigating huge, complex issues involving Britain’s status as European and global power, its influence and future relations. Both lost a powerful Foreign Secretary and rival to resignation (though Boris should note it took Anthony Eden 17 years to get to Downing Street) and had to appoint, eventually, sworn enemies to their Cabinet (Churchill and Gove).

May gambled away her authority on a general election in June 2017 when her slogans of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘strong and stable leadership’ gave way to ‘weak and wobbly’. Chamberlain gambled his on a series of meetings with Hitler. After his visit Munich, he was cheered into the night from Downing Street by happy crowds until he opened the window and famously, fatally, declared ‘Peace for our time’. Their popularity may have been rather exaggerated: Chamberlain went to great lengths to manipulate the presswhile Murdoch has “astounding access to Downing Street”.

Their personalities too seem similar. Both were diligent and hard-working with a “narrow sharp edged efficiency”. They were also aloof, secretive, and obstinate and given to narrow thinking, with an unwillingness to back down: happy, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘to strive continually in the teeth of facts’. Their lack of charisma was hidden behind symbolic props, in Chamberlain’s case an umbrella (see this great article) and in May’s her kitten heels.

It was over pieces of paper that the two leaders came unstuck. Chamberlain’s famous Munich Agreement, a piece of paper hastily signed by himself and Hitler, was supposed to secure European peace (see Chamberlain’s Cabinet report and the agreement here and his notes of his first meeting with Hitler here). May’s first document was her article 50 letter, sent at the cost of £985.50 according to this FOI response, which was, it now seems, despatched too early. Her December 2017 ‘backstop’ agreement, requiring a late-night flight that Chamberlain pioneered, was the second, which seems to have fallen apart in months. All eyes are now on what the third piece of paper, a UK-EU agreement, might say.

The verdict of history has been passed on Chamberlain, partly because Churchill wrote it. It now awaits May. She can only hope that she won’t have to repeat Chamberlain’s remarkable admission of failure in September 1939: ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’.

Originally on the Political Quarterly blog here

Is Donald Trump A Fascist?


We know Donald Trump is a racist. He passes the pretty simple test for being a racist: does he do and say racist things? The answer is yes, regularly and repeatedly.

After the revelations of camps and forced separation, there’s now a bigger question that’s been lurking for too long: is Donald Trump a fascist? Phrases like ‘alt-right’ or ‘white nationalism’ are fashionable ways of avoiding the big f-word.

In one sense, George Orwell was right long ago in 1944 when he said the word fascism is “almost entirely meaningless”, especially as people still “recklessly fling the word… in every direction”. It’s hard to pin down exactly what a fascist is. There are common threads, a fascist family resemblance if you like, such as a glorification and love of violence. However, fascism was different in form, from Spain where it was a kind reactionary oppression to Germany where it was ultimately about racism and genocide. A further problem, as many scholars point out, is that it was easier to work out what fascism was against than what it was for. Even a rough list of what it was against is enlightening when we think about Trump: equality, diversity, democracy.

There are very obvious ways in which Trump isn’t a fascist. He has no armed squads, youth movements or a one-party state. He is surrounded, hemmed in, with democratic institutions. I don’t know if, in the darkest and deepest recesses of his imagination, he wants parades and uniforms and marching squads. Perhaps. Probably.

Even without the parades, I’d argue Trump does have a fascist state of mind and, at the very least, borrows their way of seeing the world and mode of working. Joe Biden said as much a few day ago. Trump has already done what fascists did, just as Salvini is busily doing in Italy (in the fascist office of choice, the interior ministry). He has poisoned the well of public discourse, pushing away the boundaries of decency and spewing hate. He called Mexicans rapists and publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He went on, while in the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, to praise Nazis. Remember? Time and again he has struck the classic famous leadership pose of a man with a ‘grievance against the universe’ and styled himself as ‘the martyr, the victim… the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds’.

In office, again like Salvini, he is trying to undermine democratic norms daily, as if melting democracy from the inside out. He seeks to undermine the very essence of democracy at the push of a tweet: yesterday it’s judges, today it’s the rule of law, and tomorrow it’s the voting system.

What the past week has shown is that his policies too now resemble fascism. He has created a series of camps, yes that word again, camps, perhaps the word that defined the 20th Century. He separated out vulnerable groups and targeted them, testing the waters of extreme policy semi-secretly, to see how the public react. For all the myth of imposition, Fascist regimes too carefully calibrated and re-calibrated policy, while covering them in a smoke screen of denial, partial back down and obfuscation. See how Trump’s defenders argued the nuances of Nazism or what constitutes a ‘cage’ for a toddler?

This is not to say Trump is a full-on fascist dictator, much as he may want to be. He remains constrained, so far. Much of his success has been because others, notably the Republicans and parts of the media, have allowed him, excused him and appeased him. Rather than a new Hitler he perhaps resembles some of the incompetent leaders in Weimar Germany before him, happily eroding democratic defences before letting in (actually inviting in) the Nazis. Most of all, he looks like his idol Mussolini, heading a ramshackle ‘propaganda regime’ long on rhetoric but short on concrete achievements. Before we make ‘hail Mussolini’ jokes, bear in mind , according to Bosworth, that Mussolini was responsible for a million deaths, the dropping of poison gas and the kick starting of a vicious civil war from Italy has not fully recovered.

For those who doubt, perhaps we can turn the question around. Let’s apply the LBJ test and see if Trump can deny it. How often has Trump proved himself not to be fascist and a supporter of democracy? I don’t mean his own imbecilic boasting, but democracy in general? How often has he championed freedom of speech (for everyone)? Or praised an opponent? Or publicly favoured minority rights? Never. Trump’s inclination may not be the full-throated marching fascism of the past but, as Umberto Eco pointed out, it can change forms. So we should assume the worst and point out the worst. Never normalise, never accept. Primo Levi’s warning echoes back to us “it happened, so it can happen again”

Originally on the Huffington Post blog here

Three Tips For A Prime Minister In Trouble


Another week, another attempted removal of Theresa May. May appears to be, again, in deep trouble of her own making. However, if May’s premiership proves one thing, it’s that prime ministers, for all the sound and fury of unhappy MPs or macho manoeuvring ministers, are much harder to remove than they look. Rumours are easy to start but action is hard, partly because the rules for triggering confidence votes are made by the leaders.

Prime ministers go in one of three ways, more or less. They lose an election (John Major, Gordon Brown), are forced to step down (Tony Blair, David Cameron) or go at a time of their own choosing. Only Harold Wilson, long ago in 1976, stepped down when he really wanted. Tony Blair pretended he left the club of his own accord, but he was really bundled out by Gordon Brown’s bouncers. So that leaves just two options: exit by election or force.

The problem is that a well-protected leader, with no election near, can stay in power while MPs, the press and other critics busily kick away their support and authority. So here’s my three tips for a prime minister in trouble.

Remember to keep an eye over your shoulder

The great Anthony King warned prime ministers that trouble comes ‘over your shoulder’ from their back benches. It is there, and in the tea rooms and corridors, where rumours start and plots bubble. Just a few words can set off a frenzy of speculation about names on a list, ‘hats in the ring’ and ‘stalking horses’ (note that you can’t ‘stalk horse’ a leader under Conservative election rules).

But this over the shoulder fear has its limits. The very fact that the hard Brexit MPs keep threatening May’s removal shows that they can’t do it. The small rump of Brexit MPs are fast becoming the drunken bores in the pub, full of empty threats. They should perhaps tweet less about David Davis’ ability to destroy a tank with a carrot and learn to count and read some Shakespeare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, when not cavorting with supporters of Mussolini and the Far Right, needs to keep in mind that removing leaders is a difficult, messy and unpleasant business, not for the inexperienced. Like, I don’t know, changing nappies.

Remember not to try anything stupid

There’s a temptation when a leader is in deep trouble, for them to try a grand gesture or big event to ‘cut through’ (insert North Korea joke of your choice here, dear reader). This should probably be avoided. John Major, at the very lowest point of his vest being tucked in his pants, decided to resign as Prime Minister in 1995 to take on his critics, famously telling them to ‘put up or shut up’. This was the prime ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher saying ‘well why don’t you tell the whole class the joke and we can all have a laugh?’ No good could ever come of it. They challenged him, he won and they continued criticising him.

The same goes for something like a referendum, of course. And most of all, and this is very important, don’t call a snap election. Snap elections have now become the famous last words and the ‘hey everyone watch this’ boomerang of British politics. Whenever talk turns to them just calmly repeat, with arms folded, ’1923, 1974 (‘February’ add quietly if you want to be pedantic), 2017’. Each of these shock polls were supposed to boost the government majority. Each failed.

Remember things always get worse

For a prime minister, thing almost always get worse. You get less popular, you make more mistakes. Gordon Brown famously went from Stalin to Mr Bean. Theresa May went from Iron Lady Mark 2 to Maybot 2.0. Past decisions, like shredding Windrush documents or cutting police numbers, come back to haunt you.

To survive this arc, a leader needs to draw on all their reserves of cunning and skill and hope for a dollop of luck. May’s cunning and skill are roughly equivalent to those of a World War One general, constantly pushing the same futile, failed approach (at great cost to others) and expecting different results. She has only lucked out on the fact Corbyn keeps voting through her hard Brexit and that her rivals are utterly, utterly incompetent.

So what can a prime minister do? It’s important to remember that just by being in power there’s a lot a prime minister can do to roll the pitch. Clement Attlee once faced down a leadership plot, it is said, by calling in the conspirator and saying ‘I hear you want my job’. Perhaps the final word should go to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister who won four General Elections (yes, Jeremy, four) and a referendum on Europe, all while possessing a KGB codename. His recipe for success was simply to be ‘an optimist with a raincoat’.

Originally published on the Huffington Post blog here

New Paper ‘Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?’


See this new paper by Ludger Helms, Femke van Esch, and Beverly Crawford,
Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?
in: GERMAN POLITICS, published online ahead of print on 3 May 2018.


For most of her political career Angela Merkel has been perceived as a pragmatic  political leader, avoiding tough and divisive decisions wherever possible, and joining decision-making coalitions on contested issues when they emerged. To some extent, this remarkable ability appears to explain her extended hold on the German chancellorship. In the midst of her third term, however, her behaviour changed suddenly and unexpectedly, or so it seemed. When in July 2015 the euro crisis flared up again due to the standoff between Greece and its EU partners on the second bail-out, Merkel let her European convictions prevail and backed another support package against the wishes of many in her party. Moreover, when Germany was hit by a wave of refugees only a few months later, Merkel became the torch-bearer of a ‘culture of welcome’ and defended her ‘open-door’ policies with a measure of conviction that few observers would have considered possible. This paper looks at Merkel’s leadership performance during her third term through the lens of the concept of ‘conviction leadership’, and inquires if, or to what extent, Merkel can be meaningfully considered a ‘conviction leader’.


The free access-link to the article is here at

[image By European People’s Party (Angela Merkel) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]