Nic Elliott

200 MPs cheered a lame duck Prime Minister, and nothing changed

Why did they cheer?

Last night 200 MPs got to their feet to make some noise. But in their frenzy they forgot something.

They are the minority.

Those 200 MPs are the only ones out of a parliament of 650 that support the prime minister.

That they have a majority of their own party is irrelevant.

And this is the state of politics post 2015. Leaders that nobody really wants, that certainly don’t represent the collective views of the electorate.

Last night John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, thought nobody would notice when he pointed out how many of her own MPs didn’t have confidence in Theresa May as leader of her party.

How convenient that he’s forgotten that his own leader ignored a similar vote that he overwhelmingly lost.

But this is business as usual in the UK Parliament. If you don’t like the outcome of a vote then you try to ignore it.

Often you pretend that nothing actually happened or that somehow you are strengthened by the loss.

Are these days numbered? Will we actually get back to some semblance of normality, any time soon?

With no date set for a vote on the withdrawal agreement and the EU showing no sign of caving on the NI protocol it feels to me like Theresa May could end up being the person who leads us out of the EU with no deal. And that Jeremy Corbyn could just continue to vacillate without getting anything he really wants.

Will we be in exactly the same position in 12 months time? Article 50 extended or cancelled, Theresa May still “negotiating” with both her backbench MPs and the EU and Jeremy Corbyn still demanding but not getting a general election.

The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition seem to have one skill in common. Doing everything they can to hang on to their current positions regardless of whether their MPs or the country want them to.

I don’t see that position changing any time soon.

Photo by Jordhan Madec on Unsplash

Is Jeremy Corbyn the political genius he’s being made out to be?

When it looked like Jeremy Corbyn would win the Labour leadership election in 2015, pundits and commentators were essentially speechless.

Sure, they could point to the Momentum movement, and a desire by members to try something different. They could easily identify the new leadership election rules and allowing £3 “members” to vote as having a huge and unexpected impact.

But essentially no one knew what to make of him.

I think most people were genuinely shocked when, after the general hilarity that he had actually won, the reality of having John McDonnell as shadow chancellor sunk in.

But still, the prevailing view at the time was that this must be the gift that it seemed to be to the Conservative Party.

And in the short term it was. For all his faults, David Cameron was at ease against Corbyn at the despatch box. It was merely sport to each week point out the attempted coups, the splits and the absurdity that the Labour Party had become.

Dressing improperly, not singing the national anthem and having no idea how to handle the media (Seamus I don’t think this is a good idea…) all fed into a comfortable narrative that Jeremy Corbyn and the new Labour leadership just weren’t credible.

And let’s be clear this is excluding all mentions of the IRA, anti-semitism, and dangerous socialist policies.

But then came the EU referendum and subsequently Theresa May.

JC was virtually silent during the campaign. As was TM. Both I think for different reasons.

JC, a long time advocate of leaving the EU, realised he would alienate his party if he came out in favour of leave.

TM, in one of her more canny political moments, realised that this thing could go both ways, and better not to piss off the leavers in case there was a chance to grab the throne.

She was right. And the staggering fumbling of the Tory Brexiteers ensured she became leader and Prime Minister.

Fast forward one disastrous general election (for the Tories at least) and a failed EU withdrawal negotiation and the politics of the UK couldn’t be more different.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party could be accused of being consistent it would be in their inconsistency, in particular with EU policy.

At first it was highlighted as gaff by the media. Hang on, didn’t that shadow minister say the exact opposite of what Corbyn said yesterday?

Wait, Corbyn has now contradicted what he said last week.

And so it continued.

Now after months and months of this, commentators are starting to say that this is Corbyn’s genius. That he is actually a smooth political operator.

6 impossible tests. What a trap he’s laid.

By being all things to all people he has become the every-person leader. A man of all the policies.

Agreeing with everyone and disagreeing with the Tories.

We know he never thought he’d ever get this far. We know it’s McDonnell that we should be really worried about ever coming close to power.

And it doesn’t take a political genius to see that every move they make is about seeking power, at any cost.

But I’m reminded of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, when there was a genuine nuclear arms race between them and the west.

Western intelligence agencies could only find derelict and old missile silos. But how could this be when the rhetoric was that they had the most powerful arsenal in the world?

The intelligence agencies of the day concluded that the Russians were being so clever that they had indeed developed better weapons and the ability to make the other side think they hadn’t.

Ironically this hardened the resolve of America and its allies as they rushed to develop counter technologies to win the arms race.

History showed us that this was essentially unnecessary. The silos and missiles were exactly as they seemed. Dilapidated and under maintained. No match for their opponents.

So is Jeremy Corbyn wearing the Emperors new clothes? Political observers seem to think he has not only tapped into the current zeitgeist but is using his savvy political skills in a way that must be sheer genius.

Who else would come across as so untrustworthy and inconsistent. He must know something we don’t know.

The concern is that they are right. Not because he’s principled and just, but because the electorate will somehow be sucked in.

But I still can’t bring myself to believe that it isn’t anything other than Labour Party incompetence.

The 2017 election was a shock to me, having accurately predicted the previous 4 elections. I trusted the people to make the right decision.

Now I’m not so sure. I want to believe that the voters will, if presented with a Socialist Labour Party, will reject it, and we’ll all go back to saying how politically inept the whole experience was.

But with Theresa May at the helm of an increasingly interventionist Conservative Party, botching Brexit, with no credible free market, Liberal alternative in sight, I fear voters will waver, as I am, as to whether to vote at all.

And if voters become non-voters, then this absurdity, no matter how intentional, may yet be proved successful.

This EU madness is nothing new

“Seldom in history can a British government have shown such feebleness in defence of Britain’s interests, securing nothing of substance in return for concessions on a grand scale.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this statement had just been written. I suppose it could have been written any time in the last year with the way the current government has been capitulating negotiating.

I suppose it could also have been written at the time of when David Cameron went cap in hand to Brussels in order to present a choice between leaving the EU and a “reformed EU”.

But this wasn’t written about the current Brexit crisis, and it wasn’t written about a Conservative government.

It was, however, written about Europe.

The writer was none other than William, now Lord Hague. Former leader of the Conservative party, former Foreign Secretary and de facto deputy to David Cameron.

But he wrote it in 2009. That’s nearly 10 years ago.

Here it is in full where he writes in reply to a piece by the then foreign secretary David Miliband on defending Labour’s record in Europe.

Hague is of course speaking about the Lisbon Treaty – the friendlier name adopted by Brussels bureaucrats and European leaders for the EU Constitution.

All three major political parties in the UK promised in their general election manifestos of 2005 to a referendum on the EU Constitution.

What a wheeze it was to rename it, take out a few bits and call it something different so that that promise would not need to be honoured.

I remember at the time of the signing of the Lisbon Treaty that all media attention was focused on the Tories. What would they do? Would they commit to a referendum still? Would they withdraw from the treaty if they came to power?

I found it odd that rather than putting the necessary pressure on the Labour Party for essentially lying to the public and taking us deeper into the EU that, because the Tories are the ones seen to be “banging on about Europe”, they were the ones who needed pressure and scrutiny.

The response was simple if a complete waste of breath.

Hague himself stood up at a press conference and said “we will not let it end there”.

Arguably they didn’t, which is why we are where we are now, but I remember feeling the start of the notion of being politically cheated.

If the UK had not ratified the Lisbon Treaty because the UK public had rejected it in a referendum, then I don’t believe we would be in the situation we are in now.

Its too simplistic to try and pin the blame on the current mess on any particular person or event.

Gove for knifing Boris in the back so we ended up with May negotiating?

Cameron for thinking his weak renegotiation would be enough to sway the British people.

Blair for reneging on his promise to hold a referendum on the treaty.

Major for promising to stay in the ERM and then leaving it only days later.

The let’s not forget Facebook’s newest employee Clegg whom I remember demanding an “in/out referendum” on the EU long before it was a commitment by the Tory party, but as soon as it was a prospect, quickly changed his tune.

Now of course all the people who didn’t want a referendum on EU membership (apart from Clegg who just fence sits whenever he can) now advocate a new referendum.

Call it what you like, a people’s vote, a politicians vote, a losers vote. You just have to look at the views of the people who want it to understand their motivations.

Their plan is straight out of the EU playbook of either ignoring the results of referenda or for repeating the question until the public capitulates.

Whatever political leaders say about the record of those they oppose, one thing is certain and that is that history shows that no British government of any stripe has successfully negotiated anything with the EU.

For those of us in the real world this not only seems crazy, but shows in stark relief that the state is incapable of any meaningful change while the current political elites are in power.

Our electoral system may protect us against extremism, but when freedom from the state is seen as an extreme view, it’s going to be hard for anyone considered to be radically liberal to get the votes needed to start untangling us from this mess.

The One Where We Ramble On About Brexit

It was inevitable.  We had to talk about Brexit again, and this week we’ve dedicated an entire edition to it.  An awful lot has happened in the last week, with Theresa May releasing a draft withdrawal agreement followed by government resignations including Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab.

We talk about the possible outcomes, some off the wall suggestions of what might end up happening, and whether the Walloons can scupper the whole thing.

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You may not agree with the Persimmon bonus policy but it’s not the fault of capitalism

“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” So famously said Peter Mandelson at the height of New Labour’s power and influence.

Often that quote is truncated to remove what is the fairly important point about paying tax, so it became a phrase focused on high earnings. But regardless it became not only a symbol of how far Labour had come on its journey into capitalism but ended up firmly part of the zeitgeist.

As I read the headlines and opinion pieces on what happened with Persimmon and its now former CEO Jeff Fairburn, I can’t help but feel that everyone has forgotten what capitalism actually is.

Even the people who are notionally trying to defend it, can’t help but gloat about Fairburn’s demise, or whine about his earnings. It’s termed a “pay scandal” and “crony capitalism”, but I would argue it’s neither of those things.

Let’s keep this simple: Jeff Fairburn has made a lot of money. You can argue as much as you like as to whether he has earned it, or whether he deserves it, but he had a job, which included rewards and incentives including a salary and bonuses. He didn’t steal this money. The system gave it to him.

He’s been CEO since 2013 and since then Persimmon has done well. The CEO was rewarded accordingly.

Now wait just a minute, I hear you say. And before I hear your protestations, let me try and get in there first.

“The only reason Persimmon has done so well is because of the inept housing policy of successive governments, including most recently the Help to Buy scheme.”

“Even his reduced bonus of £75m is an obscene amount of money.”

“There should be a cap on bonuses and the board should never have approved such a scheme linked to corporate value.”

“People like this give capitalism a bad name.”

“It’s a gift to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.”

Any of those sound familiar? Maybe all of them.

But all these arguments are fundamentally missing the point. A pay scandal is where somebody hasn’t been paid what they are rightfully owed. It’s when different groups of people get paid wildly different salaries because of who they are, not the job they are doing.

This isn’t a pay scandal, it’s the politics of envy, plain and simple. How could anyone earn such a large amount of money? They must be awful.

Of course, Fairburn’s media appearances haven’t done him any favours. But he was hired as head of a house builder, not a PR agency.

But I’m not defending him personally or any action he has or hasn’t taken. The point is, the company he was hired as Chief Executive deemed it right to pay him this money (and they certainly made enough of it) and so in return he did a job.

Just because he has, so far, seemed incapable of reading the mood of the nation, doesn’t mean he should have earned less, yet I keep coming across articles that seem to suggest that for every public miscommunication an extra £5m should be lopped off his bonus.

Yet this isn’t how we treat footballers. Yes there are those who think that their pay is obscene, but they tend not to be the people who pay for the tickets or TV subscriptions to watch them play.

So where are we all going wrong? Well let’s start with this term “crony capitalism”.

I knew we shouldn’t have chosen the crony type of capitalism. We should definitely have chosen some kind of fluffy bunny type of capitalism instead. No, I’ve got it – “caring capitalism”. That’s what we’ve been missing all along. Just whatever we do, let’s not choose “death capitalism” – things could all get a lot worse.

Let’s call things what they are. Cronyism is cronyism. You don’t need capitalism for it to exist. In fact, far from it. You couldn’t get a system that encourages more cronyism than a collectivist one like socialism. Just look at Stalin’s Russia, or Maduro’s Venezuela.

The fact is that cronyism exists in every system, and the more a government intervenes, the more opportunities there are for people to get in on the gig.

Free markets are a tough sell. There’s no doubt about that. Explaining to people why Carillion going bust is ultimately a good thing takes some work, but it’s what true advocates of freedom should be doing, not becoming apologists for capitalism.

As soon as you start to advocate “good” capitalism over “bad” capitalism, you instantly fall into the trap the political left has set. And it was the easiest trap they’ve ever laid.

Because if you take one CEO, one company, one industry, then of course you will find things that you personally find unacceptable, unfair, or downright appalling. Your opinions on those entities or people will be valid. Problems will undoubtedly exist. But they aren’t a case for intervention.

Because truly free markets are driven by consumers. Free markets punish failure and reward success. They are bound by the aggregate decisions of everyone’s individual choices.

Competition for custom, and the permanent threat of failure is what drives companies to succeed.

If Carillion couldn’t make money, and were being propped up by government contracts, then it’s a good thing it no longer exists, so that a better company (or companies) can fill its shoes.

If Persimmon now think they paid too much to their CEO, they’ll review it and lower it. If the act of paying their CEO too much causes them somehow to completely fail, then it will be because they made the wrong decisions, and the market will see to it they are replaced by people making better decisions.
We must start explaining again the benefits of the system that has produced more wealth in the world than any other before it.

If there is a scandal here it’s that housing is treated differently by the state to other parts of the economy. We see the same in the financial sector and very much in healthcare.

While house builders are encouraged by the current regulations and government policy to land bank, and while they aren’t allowed to build on viable, useful (and not green) land in the green belt, the housing market won’t be free.

While there is quantitative easing, pushing up asset prices, and stamp duty discouraging sale, the housing market won’t be free.

Yes, in a free market economy, businesses will fail. But those are the businesses that should fail.

And yes, in a free market economy, some people will be paid handsomely for what they do.

But we must work to gradually remove the encumbrances from the housing market and others, as otherwise we will end up piling on more changes, more regulations and more intervention. Of course more intervention will all be with the best of intentions. But those intentions will have the unintended consequences we are already seeing. A small number of large incumbent providers lining their pockets, because the system encourages them to.

When I see the terms “broken markets” or “crony capitalism”, I can’t help but think we need to wake up from this delusion that the right person, the right policy or the right amount of intervention will “fix” the markets in the name of fairness.

The real scandal is that we’ve forgotten what free market capitalism really is.

Tax Statistics Followed On: Underwhelming Government Donations and Overwhelming Government Debt

This week we revisit voluntary tax contributions after receiving the latest figures through a Freedom of Information request and play the high/low game on how much people have voluntarily given the state. We also take a look at the staggering figures surrounding government debt, and what they don’t tell you about other government liabilities. How long will it really take to pay it off?

Voluntary Government Donations – Original FOI Request

Voluntary Government Donations – Andrew’s FOI Request

Tax Payers’ Alliance – The Real Government Debt Amount

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What have Cowperthwaite and Corbyn got in common?

If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it – so the mantra goes.

As Philip Hammond gets ready to deliver his budget speech, I’m reminded of that phrase, which I myself have used on occasion in order to justify gathering more data in business in order to be able to make decisions.

You can see the appeal of it. When you need to manage something, your instinct is to find out as much about it as you can first.

Then after you’ve instigated some changes you want to know how it’s gone so you go about getting some new measurements and probably do a comparison.

It’s in that vein that the Office for Budget Responsibility does its thing and produces a whole load of numbers and statistics for government, opposition and the media to pore over at budget time.

Some of the figures have already been trailed and leaked so that we have a sneak preview of the kinds of policies and decisions that the Chancellor will talk about.

It’s the usual politics. Can spending be increased (because that’s seen as the politically acceptable thing to do) and will the deficit be narrowed further so that the Tory party can somehow hang it’s hat on “austerity” as being a necessary evil?

It’s all about the numbers and it’s all about whether those numbers give Spreadsheet Phil the room he wants to either spend money on things or change tax policy.

MPs on the right of the Conservative party have lined up saying cut taxes, and those on the so called centre ground talk of increasing “investment”, meaning spend, spend, spend.

But they all do it based on the OBR forecasts and measurements of the economy.

Now I could start talking about the futility of “forecasts” and even try to do a study of how wrong they always are. I could also invoke the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: whatever you study, you change.

But actually, I’m reminded of economic hero Sir John Cowperthwaite, the financial secretary of Hong Kong in the 1960s, who was in a large part responsible for the economic miracle of this tiny colony, turning it into the powerhouse it is today while rocketing up the global league tables of wealth.

One of the things Cowperthwaite is famous for (other than the genius of positive non-interventionism) is refusing to collect macroeconomic statistics.

In his view the trouble with collecting figures, say the measuring of economic growth, then some idiot would want to try and control them.

He literally sent British government officials packing when they came from Whitehall to insist on the data collection.

His view was that you should just do what’s right to encourage growth and that other good effects would follow on.

That more money in people’s pockets would mean higher living standards all round.

Now we all know that the major political parties in the UK all have statist policies (although some are obviously worse than others).

But I think I’ve found a similarity between how Cowperthwaite treated the numbers and Corbyn-led Labour.

No I haven’t gone mad, and no, Corbyn hasn’t suddenly started espousing small state, low tax, free market economics like Cowperthwaite.

But what him and his cohort do have in common is that they so don’t care about the numbers. Oh they will use them today to try and bash the Conservative party to paint them as being bad at government and bad for the country. But that’s just politics as usual.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the socialist left come to power then they will act entirely without care for the numbers.

They might invent some forecasts of their own of course or rely on some “economists” they like so as to support their policies. But in truth they are acting on ideology. They BELIEVE they are right and so act because they know that they are on the right track. Regardless of what the evidence may ever articulate.

But this is what the other side is lacking. Ideology is gone. Replaced by what George Osborne calls “wise government intervention”.

Sir John Cowperthwaite believed in something. It happened to be economic freedom and non-interventionism. It was also massively successful, unlike the catastrophic policies of socialism in everywhere it’s been tried.

But he didn’t let the numbers get in the way. He chose not to measure and also not to manage.

It’s time for ideology again and it’s time to for someone to articulate positive non-interventionism. Something tells me Philip Hammond isn’t going to do that in his speech.

Democracy: What is it? And can we have too much?

This week, Nic asks some intriguing questions about democracy and we both try our best to find some answers.

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Big Tent Ideas Festival 2018

Just got back from the Big Tent Ideas Festival near Cambridge.

If you’ve not heard of it, it’s a gathering of all sorts of political types, journalists, think tankers with open discussions and debates on all manner of topics.

There are tents on Society, Hopes and Fears, Politics, Economy, Innovation, Technology, Global Britain.

In particular the IEA, one of my favourite think tanks, ran the last two sessions in the economy tent and I got to meet Lee Rowley MP and Kristian Niemietz.

If you haven’t read it yet, you must read his IEA paper entitled The Mirage of Democratic Socialism.

Its an alternate history where the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) became a “true” socialist state after the fall of the Berlin wall.  Niemietz has such a way of making the right points in the right way. It’s a must read. And no guesses where this socialist paradise ends up even when it’s non violent.

He was also a total gent when I asked him to pose with me against the art wall when I saw a particular phrase was there…

Nic with Kristian Niemietz at the Big Tent Ideas Festival

There was a surprise at the end of the day when none other than George Osborne arrived for a final interview and initially I was encouraged by his views on why he lost the EU referendum (them not being the usual remainer nonsense about being lied to or knowing more now, or not being educated enough) but then he started losing me when he talked about explicitly trying to get to a post-liberal era in the 2015 election.

His talk of “wise intervention from government” just struck me as more of the same statism we’ve unfortunately come to expect from all major political parties.

But the highlight has to be meeting Lee Rowley MP and hearing him talk.  I’d not heard of him until today but after hearing him speak clearly and passionately for classical liberal values I decided to ask him afterwards where all the other classical liberal Conservative MPs were! He assured me they do exist and that the new intake had some ones to watch.

If the Conservative Party actually espoused liberal values then that might actually give me a party to vote for! Maybe I need to move to Lee’s constituency…

When Political Quotes Are Taken Out Of Context

This week Nic challenges Andrew to guess the context of political misquotes from the past twenty years.

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