Back to Brexit: as decision-day approaches we try to work out what might happen next. Did Labour patch up its differences? Can anyone really start the negotiations again? And what would it take to get the EU to deviate from its script? Plus we explore some of the ideological roots of Tory opposition to Chequers and we ask what happened to the good old British by-election. With Helen Thompson, Chris Bickerton and Wassem Yaqoob.
DAVID RUNCIMAN: Hello – my name is David Runciman and this is Talking Politics. We haven't talked about it for a while, but I think we can't avoid it forever, so this week, back to Brexit.
DAVID: We’ve reconvened the group of people who talked about Brexit on this podcast last time—I think it was about a month ago. So we’ve got Waseem Yaqoob, with us, Chris Bickerton, and Helen Thompson. We kind of left it last time with the question of where the Labour Party was positioned. And particularly, Was, you talked about the looming possible showdown, or at least break, that might emerge in the Labour Party and particularly in the Corbyn movement between Momentum and young Momentum, which was increasingly committed to a second vote, a people's vote, and the leadership, which is for lots of reasons, many of them good reasons, very nervous about committing itself to a people's vote. So where do you think we are now post the Labour conference? The Labour conference was a pretty successfully managed event. Apart from anything else there was not any great public falling out. But where did they get to in bridging that gap?
WASEEM YAQOOB: So I think it's true to say that the party conference did go ahead without any major eruptions on the conference floor, but it's also the case that some of the tensions that we discussed last month did come out when the composited motion on Brexit was discussed. And what we saw is a motion cobbled together through a compromise between the trade unions, party delegates, including people involved in Momentum, and the leadership. It might be helpful to think less of pressure coming from… or splits within Momentum on the leadership and to think of an array of pro-remain groups affiliated with the Labor Party, Another Europe is Possible being the major one, with many members in Momentum but also outside of Momentum. And what happened when these groups came together on the on the conference floor was that we saw the party leadership able to manage the tensions and effectively come up with, depending on where you're standing from, fudge or a continuation of the holding pattern that the party has committed to on Brexit. So we saw obviously Keir Starmer give his speech that received a standing ovation that suggested Remain was still an option if a referendum, a people's vote, would still be an option. But we also saw people like the assistant secretary of Unite, the largest union, say it if there was a referendum it would be on the terms of exit; there would be no remain option.
DAVID: And the unions are clearly crucial. I think part of what came out of the conference was to see this as Momentum versus the leadership is to miss what may be the key players in this: the unions. But the unions aren't united on this question right? I mean that's the other point. There isn't a single union voice on where you go from here.
WASEEM: I think that's right, and there is also a distinction to be drawn between the leaderships of the main unions, Unite for example, and the majority of their members, who are also split on their attitude towards Brexit. Because of course one of the issues that unions are most worried about is the impact on their members of a no deal in terms of jobs, and it's not clear that any negotiated exit would allay those fears. So some of the positions taken by say Len McCluskey don't align necessarily with their own union members themselves. I think it's also fair to say that there were some other policy issues, or issues concerning the democratization of the party, that were also paying into the tensions between the trade unions, party delegates, and the leadership. So prior to conference we saw the unions water down some of the principles that Momentum had been trying to push through the National Executive Committee to allow open selection, mandatory selection for parliamentary candidates. Unions resisted that. So there is an interplay between some of the internal party matters and the party's public face on the people's vote and the referendum.
DAVID: Chris, Helen, do you think… are you clearer now than you were when we talked about this a month ago on where the Labour Party stands on what happens next with Brexit.
CHRIS BICKERTON: I think the conference, and I agree with what Was said, I think it clarified some of what we think we knew already. Did it throw up anything particularly new about where the party's positioning itself on Brexit? I don't think so. I mean seeing this from some distance—I wasn't there—what stood out I think was some of the ambivalence between McDonnell and Starmer, which is significant I think because they were talking about divisions within the upper echelons of the party. The standing ovation that Starmer got when he gave this very strong impression that Remain was an option was one of the big headlines. That wasn't a great surprise. So no, I think the party's been successful in keeping it together, let's say, and I think the conference was evidence that it's, for the time being, managing to keep it together, which is basically being quite ambivalent on Brexit. I don't think there's any sign that we’re in any decisive way towards a second vote, a second referendum, whether it's on the terms of the deal, whether it's on staying in or out… I think that debate is still some way off. So if that's the really divisive thing within the Labour Party, it's not as if there's a kind of reckoning around the corner. That just simmers on as an issue which some people are very attached to without them having to make you know really decisive sort of move on that, for the moment.
DAVID: For people who, what they're looking for, are desperately trying to cling on to, is some evidence that we can go back to before what they see as the disaster of the referendum, did anything that came out of the conference to give solace to those people in your mind?
CHRIS: Possibly, though it might be that the wish is father to the thought in their case. It certainly suggests that if the Labour Party was suddenly in a position to make all the decisions because it was the government, because it was negotiating with EU, people could conceivably imagine that it would try and take a radically different stance of some kind. I guess we'll go and talk about that in a moment. So yes I mean there's a sort of broadly Remain party I think that's probably the sentiment that came out for an outsider.
HELEN THOMPSON: I think the opposite. I think what came out from the leadership—not what goes on in the members—what came out from the leadership is that they think that there is an opportunity that will arise in the next six months to take power. And that Brexit is just the crisis, if you like, that yields that opportunity. It’s just a means and actually they want Britain to leave the European Union. When I say that I mean Corbyn and McDonnell and people around them. And I think one of the things that was quite revealing was this video that was made—it’s actually quite professionally done—it’s a clear appeal to people living in relatively small towns in post-industrial areas. It is clearly targeted at Leave voters. So you say, ‘Who was it that the Labour leadership and the people who make these videos… Who were they most concerned about giving a narrative to after the conference was finished?’ It was these voters. And I think that there's a good reason for that. They can see that Labour has not been doing well in the opinion polls. The reasons for that in part have got nothing to do with Brexit. I think they're to do with the anti-Semitism issues in the Labour party. But they are partly to do with Brexit because the conservatives have done a bit better since they were able to frame a contest between Britain and the EU. So Salzburg was actually quite good in terms of domestic political opinion for the Conservative Party. So I think that the idea that Labour can respond to this political moment by embracing the ‘Let's have another referendum’ cause, let's reverse Brexit… I think the leadership see that that is folly and I think that they're right about that. Whether it can actually yield them power is another matter.
WASEEM: What's also interesting is that in practice some of the strategies that the pro-remain groups in the Labor Party are pushing will align with the leadership strategy to push for a general election. Because what we're seeing is that groups like Labour Remain and Another Europe is Possibl, they're asking people to go to their constituency Labour parties and push for anything like a tough hard Brexit to be voted down and pressuring MP’s to vote down whatever May brings to the Commons in the hope of securing another vote. Now of course for the leadership that would be an opportunity to pressure the government into a general election.
So what we're seeing actually is that even groups that see the general election perhaps as a means to Remain are also starting to align with the leadership strategy, which is, as Helen says, to initiate a general election.
DAVID: Because the clearest thing that came out was Corbyn’s statement that he would only support May’s deal, whatever it is, on terms that clearly would be unacceptable to May. Therefore, effectively, the Labour Party will vote down any deal that comes to the Commons.
HELEN: I think that's fudgeable because it depends on what he means by customs union. Because some kind of customs arrangement is part of Chequers that doesn't mean Chequers can be negotiated.I think that he could still vote for something that was a version of Chequers and still be true to what he said.
DAVID: But do you actually think that the current Labour leadership would vote for any deal in the Commons given their number one imperative, which is to bring down the government? I mean I thought that he was constructing a position which meant it would be inevitable that they would vote against…
HELEN: I think that there's a problem for them. I mean is it a question of how many MPs they can take with them, and there clearly is a group of MPs that go well beyond the members of parliament who are Labour MPs, who campaigned for Leave, who will not vote down some kind of reasonable looking deal, if that were possible, that May brings. There was a section of the parliamentary party, not the Blairite part of it but more the middle ground of if you like, between Corbyn and the Blairites, that is clearly worried about the implications of turning Labour into an anti-Brexit party. And I think that makes it a more difficult calculation for the leadership about what to do in the face of a moment when they have to decide whether to down deal or not.
DAVID: Is that the kind of Caroline Flint faction?
CHRIS: At some level it's almost impossible to say because there are these two things going on. One is the parliamentary arithmetic around the content of whatever May brings to Parliament and proposes to go into the withdrawal agreement. And on its own terms, you have disagreements about what that actually might be, whether it's a good deal or not and whether that deal has been modified according to the things that Corbyn has said or not, whether you're simply just opposed to Chequers as a point of principle. We've seen already today that the government seems to be caving in on some of the points that the EU has been criticizing Chequers for. So Chequers as it stands is being changed already. But then there's the other question, which is how this all hangs up in terms of angling for a general election and the party politics of it. So would it be conceivable, for instance, that May brings a deal to the Commons that is a sort of Chequers light, let's say, assuming that it is going to change a bit? So Chequers might come to the Commons—are you going to have all Labour MPs rejecting that out of principle because they think this is a chance to bring the government down? Are you going to have some Tory MPs being willing to vote against this because that's not what they want or for it because it's what they want, irrespective of the consequences for whether the government stays or not? All of these things are going to be in the mix. So I think at the moment the big if is whether there's a deal that May can bring to the Commons. If so what does it look like? And when we get to that stage we’ll then be able to see a little bit about how the MPs will respond to it and whether the content will matter most or whether their party allegiances and concerns about the general election will matter most.
DAVID: And we'll get on beyond Labour in a second, but one last question… because the other thing that obviously has been a constant theme of British politics for the last two plus years is the tension within the parliamentary Labour Party about Corbyn’s leadership itself. Now of course there is a desire to have an election and most MPs could sign up to anything that would trigger that. But there are at least some, presumably, still, who aren't sure that they are particularly comfortable with a general election with Corbyn as their candidate for prime minister. Might some of them be caught on this hook? I mean there must be some Labour MPs for whom the best option would be an election, a year, 18 months down the line, where the Labour Party still has a good chance of forming a government, but the Corbyn project has in some sense moved on.
HELEN: That may be possible, but at the same time, the MPs who are most anti-Corbyn are the ones who most want to stop Brexit, and that's the dilemma that they're stuck on.
DAVID: Yeah. There is no meat package here.
WASEEM: And lots of members of the parliamentary party will have seen the pressure that other MPs came under who allowed the government stand in that vote earlier this year and will be thinking about that. And the pressure on them, I imagine, would be much greater if in this instance they allowed the government to continue and prevented a general election.
CHRIS: And a third thing is that the conference was a good conference, certainly for Corbyn.
DAVID: I think it was generally a good conference. Apart from anything else, it was much more… I don’t know if this is the right word for it… but professional. I mean people were complaining about it being stage managed. If I was the people around Corbyn I would be thrilled every time someone complains that they've stage managed an event because that was the problem. There wasn't enough management. And this one was pretty slick …
HELEN: It was but I don’t know that they got any political capital out of it.
CHRIS: I don't know about the stage managing but the Tory conference is now being defined in terms of not thinking simply in terms of what Corbyn was proposing. There is a lot of ‘we're not going to do what the Labour Party is suggesting.’ So in terms of setting the agenda, I mean Corbyn’s speech is all about positioning himself very much within the center ground. The idea that he would be incapable of leading the party in a general election out of sheer wackiness and incompetence and unpredictability—I think that ship has possibly sailed.
DAVID: No, no I’m not saying that. I mean the last general election showed that he's very very successful. It's just that deep, lingering anxiety for some Labour MPs about going into a general election where the prospect of a Corbyn being prime minister is absolutely real. We need to talk about the Tories. I think when we did this at conference time last year—so it's Tuesday morning now; you're going to hear this a day and a bit after we record this—I think last time we did it before Theresa May gave her speech and then more or less as we were speaking the letters were falling off behind her and her voice gave way. So we don't know what's going to happen with her speech, but presumably that will also be better managed than last time. I’ve got two questions about the Conservative Party: one is a more general question, which connects what we've just been talking about, and then a specific question. So the general one is if you think about the possibilities here, although it's almost impossibly complicated, there are only three things that can happen. One of which is she gets a deal through the Commons. Something comes back from negotiations with the EU and the House of Common votes for it. The second of which is there is no deal, so either it breaks down at the negotiation stage or it breaks down at the Commons stage, but the government survives. Somehow it survives, and the no deal scenario just kind of drags on as people try and work out what it means. And a third of which is that the government falls. And the government could fall because Theresa May falls and is replaced by a conservative or there's a general election. So that third scenario presumably means that whatever had been partially agreed with the EU is then no longer valid and negotiations have to start again. And the thing that I have never understood is what does that mean? There could be a deal; there could be no deal, but what does renegotiation mean? 16:44
HELEN: Just one point on that is that it’s actually a two-stage thing because it's not a deal it's a withdrawal agreement and then it's a political statement about future relations. So it's possible that one could go through, presumably the withdrawal agreement, but the political statement about the future could not go through.
DAVID: Okay, point taken.
CHRIS: I think from the EU’s position, zero changes. Absolutely zero.
DAVID: It's just part of the negotiation.
CHRIS: They have no guidelines on that and no concern. I mean inwardly they may have, but procedurally, the clock is ticking. They voted Article 50. You can request an extension of Article 50. Fine, that has to go through; that has to be asked for. There is a procedure for that, but if the government changes or Corbyn comes back and says, ‘Right guys let's start again and this is what I would like,’ you would get this implacable sort of response: We're not concerned with changes of government. This is the process of exiting the European Union.
DAVID: So the three scenarios I’ve laid out, from their point of view, the third one doesn't exist. There is either a deal, an agreement, an arrangement that gets through the Commons, or there isn't.
CHRIS: Absolutely. And there has to be a government to manage that, and if there's not a government or the government doesn't want to, then they have to come up with something. And the only thing they can come up with, I think, would be to ask for an extension or to simply withdraw their application to leave, which itself would then create a bit of a ruckus and there'd be discussions about the terms of entry and all that.
DAVID: So all the various people, whether it's on the Labour side or the Tory side, who are effectively saying they don't like Chequers, for whatever reason, let us have a go—that's meaningless?
CHRIS: Well no, they're just up against the tightest calendar you can imagine. I mean there's a summit this month. There's a summit in November. November is the latest point at which EU governments can meet, heads of government can meet, in order to get a withdrawal agreement through. Everyone is just counting back from the end of March 2019, at least on the EU’s side.
DAVID: So the general election scenario—what's the earliest there could conceivably be a general election? I suppose there could just about be one in January or something if the government fell. I mean, I just don't…
HELEN: There would be no reason. Why would the government fall simply because Theresa May is unable to get a deal? I don't think that would necessarily follow. It could fall in those circumstances, but there wouldn't be anything to be voting upon at that point because there wouldn't be any withdrawal treaty.
WASEEM: It seems likely that we'd be looking at spring general election at the very earliest. One thing that might also be worth factoring into how the EU responds is the Labour Party via Corbyn putting out feelers, as we saw, meeting Michael Barnier separately and sending signals that might be very different from what the Conservative party is sending out. But again, as Chris suggested, there’s no reason that the EU would factor this into the of the institutional architecture for exit.
HELEN: I mean the other thing we've got to think is that there is no EU actor as such in this, there is an EU representative. One of the things that's really unclear about this is what the main political actors within the European Union actually want, in terms of whether they would like Britain to stay in the European Union or not. I would guess that Macron doesn't want Britain to stay in the European Union. It's a lot harder to read what Merkel might want, even though Merkel's political influence is… it's clearly diminishing. Now you can point to the Irish government, probably the Dutch government, and the member states that are going to be most directly affected by Britain's withdrawal, and say okay they would prefer that not to happen probably, certainly in the case of the Irish government. But is the Irish government by itself going to determine what the collective U.S. position is of whether Britain really is a desirable member of the European Union? If you look at it from the Macron’s point of view in particular, there is absolutely no reason to have Britain in the European Union. It's just a problem. 20:22
CHRIS: I think it's a bit more… I mean, Macron is a pro-European as well. And there's no doubt that in terms of the ability for the European Union to describe a British return as a success story and a demonstration that the only way forward in our contemporary world, whatever they would say, is through European integration. This is the name of the game. A country decided. It looked over the precipice. It thought, ‘This is not the future we want.’ It decided to come back. And that's a great propaganda win for the European Union as a whole. Macron wouldn't be immune to that. On the other hand, so far, I mean France has really been pushing hard for a pretty tough deal, a lot of the gains may make their way towards France from the UK’s exit. The UK has been a tricky member state for a long time. So I think it's kind of a complicated decision and it would go back to the heads of government and they would have to sit around and have a debate on how they would come to that decision. How the cards would fall. Whether they would have to have some kind of vote on this. I mean it would be incredibly tricky decision from their perspective. I think the question is how much discretion they would have legally. Would they be able to refuse a British government that just said, ‘We want to stop the whole thing?’
HELEN: But which British government is going to simply say that? The British government that simply says that is committing electoral suicide.
CHRIS: So the only realistic prospect is that if you had a change of government, Corbyn would say well I want to do X, Y, and Z. Barnier would say, ‘Well, time is running out. You can maybe do a bit of that.’
DAVID: ‘You can do X and bit of Y.’
CHRIS: ‘We can squeeze that in.’ But fundamentally, the contours of the deal have already been sketched out. If Corbyn came in and said, ‘I want to have a completely different arrangement with a completely new alternative to the existing customs union,’ the pushback would be, ‘Look this is just pie in the sky. These are the terms. It's Canada or Norway. Go away and think about it and come back.’
DAVID: Chris, you have told us repeatedly, and you're right about this, that we have to remember from the EU’s perspective, this is a process. It's not a kind of piece of substantive politics. There are substantive politics in the background, but the train is running, it's going down these tracks, these tracks are the only tracks. It still leaves the possibility for the usual brinkmanship right at the last minute. You know the process then has a kind of 24-hour window in which people get together, leaders get together, and thrash something out. But, I think you said it more than a year ago, and nothing that's happened since has indicated that you're wrong. The politics on the British side is running up against something which hasn't got enough politics in it.
CHRIS: Well there’s plenty of politics, but there are so many differences and disagreements that the common position taken…
DAVID: Is the process one?
CHRIS: Is the process one.
HELEN: But I think part of that is also the British government's doing because it has not been able to disrupt it by basically tying security considerations into this—by making threats in regard to security. And you can see that the process, once confronted with Trump’s disruption over trade, actually yielded. You know Juncker’s running over to the other side of the Atlantic and making some sort of agreement with Trump. So, the EU is very keen on telling the story we’re all about process because it likes to say, ‘We’ll compartmentalize everything into this question of Europe, basically about trade and regulation, and we want to say we don’t make tradeoffs between this and other things that happen in the real world.’ But it's not actually a coherent, stable position to be able to do that. The British government should consider why it got sucked into accepting that, I would say, because it's been unwilling to make threats itself in other spheres.
DAVID: So is there something to be said for Boris Johnson's view, which is that what this needed was a more Trumpish approach? I mean disruption, however you want to put it. There’s all that politics going on behind the process, and you've got to drag it in to break the process open? 24:14
CHRIS: I think it's unrealistic to think that however you conduct the Brexit negotiations you will manage to fundamentally transform the way the European Union works. The more realistic position, which is one the government was never willing to take, was to say, ‘Okay, we take the EU as it is. These are clearly the terms.’ No cherry picking has been the most consistent theme throughout the whole negotiations. That leaves us with a certain set of options. We don't want to go for the Norway option. We're going to have to manage the effects of the Canada option, and if you don't like it, come to us with some suggestions of how to go beyond a Canada-type deal.
WASEEM: One of things that's been talked about a lot in the Tory party conference is the ball being in the EU’s court. It’s now the role of the EU to come back with something better than Canada dry, more agreeable than Chequers. But we've also seen a senior figure in the German government, in the governing party, the CDU, this morning, Norbert Röttgen, come out and say that actually the response to Chequers was bad on both sides and that the EU should consider coming back with something better. Now the question is whether Germany's role in this process, compared to say Macron and France, is enough to alter anything within the terms of the process and produce something that could be more acceptable than Chequers to both sides. I think that's an open question. And actually everything that's been said about the process having its own logic is more likely to be important.
HELEN: On the Trump disruption thing, I think there is a point to what Johnson’s saying. But the problem for Johnson is he combines it with complete vacuousness about the substance of detail, and particularly in relation to the Irish question, where it's just wishful thinking and not engaging with what's already been agreed, and how are you then going to deal with the fact that this is a minority government supported by the Democratic Unionists. But I do think that the basic intuition or insight that you have to change the terms in which the EU engages with what are ultimately political questions and reject the idea that this is simply always economic questions, always matters of trade, always matters of the EU’s regulatory authority, is correct. And that the position of the British government, not completely consistently, because the issue of security was raised in the article 50 letter that Theresa May wrote, has been largely to accept the EU’s terms, and that has proved problematic for British negotiating strategy.
26:46 DAVID: On the Tory opposition to Chequers—of which there is a lot, and it's coming from lots of different directions—some of it is clearly opportunistic, in the sense that many leading politicians, maybe including Johnson, see their own political fortunes tied with providing some alternative to this, and they want to get rid of Theresa May. Some of it is to do with a feeling that this was not what the British people voted for and people who have had a longstanding desire to see Britain exit the European Union feel that this is a kind of watered down version of the thing that they've spent their lives, in some cases, trying to achieve. But then I was struck there was an article in The Guardian this weekend about Steve Baker, the Conservative MP who is behind some of the most implacable opposition to Chequers. And that is ideological. And it does have this transatlantic context. It's part of the much wider set of ideas, some of which do have connections with Trump and Trump's movement. It’s deeply, deeply suspicious of a wide range of governmental and international institutions, committed to a kind of version of free trade which is goes back to suspicion of managed currencies. Some of it is about gold; I mean, some of it is that sort of primordial view on some forms of the right that when states print their own money the world's going to end. And the EU now prints, or effectively prints, its own money. And reading that I was struck by… Jacob Rees-Mogg is this sort of mysterious figure in all this. Is he an opportunist? Is he a traditionalist who just thinks this is what the British people voted for? Or is he the son of William Rees-Mogg, who I associate with… I associate him with a person who spent all of his life saying, when we came off gold, the world was going to end, and one day it will end cause states can't print their own money. And Jacob Rees-Mogg
was hearing this at the breakfast table—I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which there is that strand in the Tory opposition to May which has got a connection with Trump, the Mercers, that sort of radical anti-institutionalist approach.
HELEN: Trump is very keen on printing money now.
DAVID: Okay, so not Trump. The people who thought that when they were getting Trump in office they were going to get someone who was basically just going to break conventional, institutional, administrative state politics. Is that a really serious strand in current conservative thinking?
WASEEM: I think it's worth disaggregating this sort of transatlantic, internationalist, Trump, populist approach to these matters from a sort of deeper discourse about neoliberalism and a think tank network that's all in for deregulation, lowering corporation tax, and, as many people have associated with Boris Johnson, turning Britain into a sort of cut-price Singapore, a sort of tax haven.
DAVID: And I should say, I am aware I buried quite a deep conspiracy theory in that account, which is that the Rees-Mogg breakfast table is somehow the nexus around which this operates. I think we can bracket that... although I still think it's probably true.
WASEEM: So in some respects, what we're seeing are people who are opportunists more than ideologues being able to tap into an established network of policy and thinking about Britain's post-Brexit future as a sort of tax haven. I suppose question is how many of those people are just jockeying for positions when it comes to the leadership, and how many of them are actually deeply wedded to those positions?
DAVID: It's hard to believe any of them. You couldn't lead the Tory party from that position. I mean, that position is too radical isn't it? I mean Jacob Rees-Mogg couldn't come out, say he gets elected to be leader of the Conservative Party, as the person who believed that the world ended when we came off the gold standard, which his father believed.
CHRIS: Yeah, I don’t think so. I also am not sure how broadly that runs across the anti-Chequers movement within the Tory Party. Had it been something that was so long matured, as you suggested David, it's hard to believe that they wouldn't have come up with a pretty good plan as an alternative. And it was amazing that there was, you know, talk about it, and the European Research Group promised and didn't deliver. And what that seemed to me to suggest is that, above all, you have a combination of simple pure opportunism and a generalised malaise with respect to Chequers that in some way it doesn't correspond to some of the key elements of the referendum outcome, and also that it's not the end of government compromises with regards to negotiating with the EU. And that Chequers is the beginning of a process that will lead to an even lighter version of Chequers. That's probably enough to get people together, but was there a really deep idea working its way out there. I think it would have somehow come out in a plan. And we don’t have an alternative to Chequers from within the Tory party. 31:40
HELEN: Well I think there is something symbolically that they struggle with in Chequers, which is effectively the ongoing role the European Court of Justice would have, or at least could be interpreted as being had. And I think that the Court has been really important to the old euroskeptic cause within the Conservative Party. It’s one of the things that those conservatives most intensely disliked about the European Union, in part because in the way that it works, it starts from the premise of ever closer union in its judicial reasoning. I think, though, the other thing that is underlying it is a sense that Chequers means compromise, just in itself. That there was a referendum with a binary choice that one side won on the other side lost. And if you say, ‘Okay, what’s the underlying—in terms of politics not in terms of economics—what’s the underlying political motivation of Chequers.’ It’s trying to find some kind of common ground, if you like, between the coalition of pragmatic Leave voters and pragmatic Remain voters. And I think that isn’t enough for some of them because they say, ‘Look, we won, so we don’t want to compromise with the people who wish we were still in the European Union.’ But I think it also comes from a, not, in a sense, unreasonable suspicion that Chequers would simply be the way of getting back into the European Union over a 5 to 10 year period.
DAVID: And the people who seem to so say… this guy Steve Baker represents this… think that the attraction of no deal is that any deal is a compromise with bureaucratic, administrative fiat, money politics, and what they want is the ultimate disruption, which is basically to be cut free from that. I can imagine there are some people in the parliamentary Conservative Party who think like that, but I always assumed it was a really small fringe. Is that there in this or not?
WASEEM: For figures like Mogg, there’s a simple sovereigntist argument that can easily fit into a sort of Trumpist interpretation of what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily wedded to this sort of disruptor argument people like Steve Baker are making, where this is an opportunity to challenge administrative fiat and international frameworks they disagree with.
DAVID: It’s basically to break the power of central banks. That’s what they want to do.
HELEN: But I don’t believe that Steve Baker thinks that Brexit is the way to put it to the central bank. That just doesn't… I mean, I have no idea about him really… but he seems reasonably smart guy. I can’t believe that he thinks that there is a causal relationship between Brexit and breaking central banks.
And in terms of the euro aspect of this, and Britain's already free of that, it’s not like its subject to the European Central Bank in the first place… I think it's more, as I say, the fact that they thought that they won, and they want to win decisively and not make a political compromise with those who lost. And that whole issue of being able to make trade deals outside the European Union has always been important to a certain kind of conservative euroskepticism. Not all of it. There's the other side of it, the sort of Bill Cash kind of position, that’s been more concerned about sovereignty. But there's a certain group of them that want to be able to have trade deals with Asian countries and the United States and Canada and what have you. And they think Britain is too disadvantaged by its dominant service economy in a European Union that doesn't have a single market where services are concerned to sustain it. I think that is a genuine position that they've held for quite some time. 35;10
DAVID: Last question, Helen mentioned the current state of public opinion: it's very hard to read. Polls are… they haven't shifted much, and then little shifts get over-interpreted. But something that I've been struck by for a while is that British politics conventionally had another test of public opinion, which was by-elections. So for most of my adult life, through these long often long parliaments—and now that we've got five-year parliaments they're really long—there was a regular electoral test, and you never knew what it meant because each constituency was individual, but it often became a focal point for a particular issue. And often the campaigns in by-elections were around national issues that were played out there. And there haven't been any. Outside of Northern Ireland there’s been one this parliament I think, Heidi Alexander. And I was comparing it with the last minority government. The last time Britain had a minority government of this kind in the 70s—a very fragile government because, after all, we've got a minority government, they should be really unstable. And what's meant to make them unstable is you can’t hold it together because you keep having by-elections and it gets worn away. Even the Major government was worn away over Maastricht.
HELEN: It lost its majority. It became a minority government when it was… I think it had a 20-something majority to begin with, and it became still became a minority government.
DAVID: So this parliament, that isn't happening. So there are two aspects to it: one of which is it makes minority governments weirdly stable. It's part of the reason that Theresa May has been able to hold this thing together. But also, you would expect there to have been various moments where there was a kind of electoral test of some of these things. To have five-year parliaments without by-elections—and frankly the reason we don’t have by-elections is in the 1970s, I think in the ‘74-79 Parliament, something like 25 MPs died because they were much less healthy then—and now they don’t. But also they don’t resign either. There’s something missing. It feels to me like there’s something missing for us not to have had any of these during this period. It does change the dynamic a bit, or a lot actually. We’re over-reliant on other tests… the local elections weren’t really a test of people’s views about Brexit, but you can imagine, particularly say these were happening in some of those constituencies, those Labour leave constituencies. But we don’t get them.
WASEEM: I think this is a real problem for the Labour Party specifically on two counts: first that it’s not promising simply to be a caretaker, management government. It has a transformative program that did well in the last election but has actually swung slightly to the left now in policy terms. And they also of course have all these constituencies, 70 percent of their MPs are in Leave constituencies, and while their membership might be pleased with the outcome of the conference, if you look at the pages of The Sun, The Express, various tabloids… talk of Brexit betrayal might be alienating large numbers of Labour voters, and at the moment they just don't know how that's going to play out.
HELEN: I think the other thing we should bear in mind is there were, I think, three by-elections between the referendum and the general election. There was the one in in Richmond, there was the one in Stoke, and the one in Cumbria.
DAVID: Stoke and Cumbria were because there were resignations—there were Labour MPs who couldn't stomach, essentially, Corbyn.
HELEN: But they turned out to be pretty unrevealing, because, if you remember, the Richmond one told us that the Liberal Democrats were having a surge from Remain voters. And it turned out, when we got to the general election, that they were not. And then the two that came relatively shortly before the general election told us that Labour was really struggling in its Midland and Northern heartlands. In the one in Cumbria, if you remember, the Conservatives won for the first time since the 1930s, and you could find a few seats in the Midlands where you could find that pattern, so Mansfield being a clear example in the 2017 general election. But other than parts of the Midlands, that story did not actually materialize six weeks or so later. So that might suggest that even if we had the by-elections, they might not tell us, actually, what's going on.
DAVID: I mean they are famously a bad guide to general elections. There used to be by-elections all the time and then the governing party would come along and say, ‘Just wait till the general election. This pattern will not play out.’ But they are snapshots of public opinion. I mean that's the thing that's missing: parliamentary electoral snapshots of public opinion. And it's just such a striking feature of British politics that by-elections were just part of the blood of British politics, and it is not noticed much that they've gone but they have gone.
CHRIS: I also think the reliance on polls isn't a particularly good substitute because it's not a decisive vote. It's an attempt to measure, to capture, you know, public opinion. But by-elections are quite revealing because in some ways they are the manifestation of the public as a concrete body of voters who vote for you know a person. Whether they connect with general elections, often not, but whether or not they're revealing, they're just different acts. They’re a more properly political act than this on-running series of polling. So I think it's something about the changing rhythm and tenor of British politics. And I think if there's no substitute for it, then I think it's a loss.
DAVID: And May's position unquestionably has been strengthened by the fact that there haven't been, even just as symbolic moments—often the point of a by-election is to create some totally arbitrary test and say the government needs to pass this test or else it's in trouble… What we have now is a prime minister who is in many ways weak. She doesn't face an obvious rival. That's one thing that's keeping—I mean an obvious successor—that’s keeping her in place, but the other thing is her tenure has not been punctuated by moments where it looked like the voters had had enough.
CHRIS: But it might be that there's a relationship between the two. So it may be that the point about the age of MPs is, and the health MPs is obviously a more objective fact, but the choice of resignation is interesting. It might be that in an age where your resignation was less decisive in terms of the balance within parliament, you would more willingly resign and then you'd have a by-election. But when you have a minority government, when this is an absolutely critical thing, then the incentive for MPs and all the pressure is probably not to resign but to resolve differences in other ways.
DAVID: And we haven't had also resignations of Labour MPs who've nominally lost the confidence of their constituency parties, Frank Field, among others, who potentially had the option to resign and stand as independent Labour, that's not happening either.
CHRIS: What I said is actually maybe wrong. So you said the last minority government, where, presumably resignations—I’m not sure how many of those were deaths…
DAVID: They were mainly deaths…
HELEN: I’m not sure they were deaths though during John Major's government. Some of them were scandal, as I recall.
CHRIS: So either there is less scandal, or resignation as a political tool is…
DAVID: There is definitely less death. They don’t drink and smoke enough. 42:00
WASEEM: One of the things that would make resignations from the Labour side more unlikely is the fact that in the current circumstances, where’s there's a high level of partisan competition within the party, to step down as a result of a no-confidence vote in many cases would be seen as a way of handing power to the side that put you down, as it were.
DAVID: But a lot of them, I mean, do you think that Frank Field would win as an Independent Labour candidate in Birkenhead? We don't know. He needs to resign and fight it, and then we would know.
WASEEM: It goes to the popularity of an MP with the Labour Party membership or their party membership versus their popularity amongst their constituents. And Frank Field probably views himself as being more popular with his constituency than with his own party members.
DAVID: What's your gut instinct? Would Frank Field win as an independent?
WASEEM: I think he might be unpleasantly surprised.
HELEN: Yeah, I don't think he would. I think if he thought he would, he would have resigned. 42:56
DAVID: Next week, we're going to be talking about the impact of digital technology on everything Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, and Martin Moore, who has written a brilliant new book about the Facebookization of everything. After that, we'll be talking to Francis Fukuyama about the end of the end of history. Do join us for that. My name is David Runciman and we've been talking politics. 43:20
DAVID: Thank you for the questions that you've left at our website, talkingpoliticspodcast.com. It's very easy, just go to ‘contact,’ and it'll tell you how to record. Here's a great question that we got from Max.
MAX: The collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 70s has come up a few times, but I feel you haven't quite directly discussed it. After Nixon and the Bretton Woods system, was the current world order, based around the increased mobility of capital and deregulation, a necessary consequence of the problems of the 70s? Inequality has become an omnipresent political discussion, but even most politicians who discuss it don't seem to offer global solutions, aside from the recent article in The Guardian by Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis about creating a new world order based around older social democratic principles. Is it possible to address inequality in one nation? Or is it somewhat pointless if it’s not tackled by a power as powerful as the United States, the European Union, or China? Thanks.
DAVID: It’s a great question. It's a long question. It's in two parts. I think we'll come to the second part in a future episode, but Helen is going to have a go at answering the first. 44:40
HELEN: Well this is a really good question, Max, and like most things to do with the 1970s I think the answer is pretty complicated. I think what we've got to remember about the 70s is, in some sense like any other decade, but it's really sharp about the 70s, is that you've got these huge structural forces working their way through, and at the same time you've got really clear contingencies. And I think Richard Nixon himself is a contingency both because of the fact that, as we know, he was the only American president who ended up resigning, at least thus far. That meant that the whole latter part of his presidency was extraordinarily politically contested. But also the fact that he won the election in the way in which he did. Probably if Robert Kennedy had lived… or at least there's a reasonable chance if Robert Kennedy had lived that Nixon wouldn't have wouldn't have won. And he was a different kind of president than what had gone before in terms of the way he thought about the Cold War, the way he thought about international economic questions, and trade.
Having said that, I think it's probably the case that any American president confronted with a set of choices that Nixon had once he'd taken the decision to end dollar-gold convertibility—and I think others might not have decided to do that when he did in the summer of 1971—but I think beyond that point, pretty much any American president would have responded in generally the way in which Nixon did because no American president would have wanted to lose the dollar's position as the reserve currency. And that meant certain things about America's position in the international economy had to be reconstructed. And one of those, the thing that was in some sense the most advantageous, was to ensure that there was a greater flow of capital into the United States. And that allowed the United States to deal with the problem, from its point of view, that it had become, or was becoming in the 1970s, a significant oil importer.
So if we say, ‘Was financial liberalization inevitable after the end of Bretton Woods?’ I think if we ask that question about the United States, the answer is probably yes. I think the more interesting question—not interesting, but the more challenging thing to think about—is really the position of Britain, which was the second state to remove capital controls in October 1979, one of the first things that the first Thatcher government did. I think it is harder to argue that was something that was inevitable. I think that if the Labour party had won the election in May 1979, I don’t think the Labour government would have gone down that road. It also wasn’t underpinned by an economic need in the way in which the move towards financial liberalization in the United States was. Britain was going in the opposite direction with oil than the United States because of North Sea oil. It was actually going to have fewer balance of payments constraint in the 80s than it had in the 70s or indeed the 60s, for that matter. Then decision that was made by the Thatcher government had knock on consequences for others because it basically changed the choices that were confronting particularly the West German and the Japanese government. So then the question really becomes, ‘Well, if the Thatcher government hadn't done that, would one of the others have been the first mover beyond the United States?’ And I think that's the bit that's really quite hard to judge. I don't think it would have happened so soon, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't have happened. And I think that's probably as best as we can say.
Now in terms of the domestic political consequences for the states that went down the road of financial liberalization, did they have to turn out in the way in which they did? I don't think so. I mean, even in the case of Britain, the Thatcher government didn't have to combine getting rid of capital controls and having a very high interest rate policy. At the time, it did so much damage to the manufacturing sector and effectively created the high unemployment in a lot of… in significant parts of Britain the in the early 1980s. So there are things that didn't have to turn out the way in which they did, yes. But there are some structural forces at work as well. 48:43
DAVID: We also got a really interesting question from Grant in New Zealand about China, a subject that we often feel we should talk more about. We're going to get to China next week in a discussion about technology, AI, and the future, and maybe one day we’ll do a whole episode. So Grant, hang on.