Britain and Europe after the veto

What a day. Five observations:

  1. My initial reaction this morning: On a sinking Titanic, the UK is lobbying to avoid further damage to the iceberg.  If David Cameron was motivated mostly by his wish to suck up to the City (and to his backbenchers), then he deserves all that fate can throw at him. He has transformed eventual British exit from the EU from Eurosceptic fantasy to the new conventional wisdom in just 12 hours. Quite a feat.
  2. But maybe… his government has decided that the euro is now doomed and has made a rational decision to swim as far from the vortex as possible. Many believe that a disorderly break up of the single currency has become more likely than not. That would probably cost the UK 10% of GDP and make British default a near certainty. But if that’s what’s going to happen, then we better knuckle down to being as resilient to the shock as possible.
  3. The British veto makes euro failure more, not less, likely. In theory, agreement between a core group is easier than having all 27 countries in the room, but the legal complications of conjuring a new set of institutions from thin air are daunting. Also, expect the core to shrink as the summit’s aspirations are chewed up by domestic politics. Each defection will provide a potential trigger for wider breakdown – probably when a group of the strong decide all hope is lost, and make a collective rush to the lifeboats. By being the first to desert the ship, Cameron has made it much easier for other European leaders to follow.
  4. Contingency planning must now go much deeper. Behind the scenes, governments are playing out failure scenarios, and most big businesses have some kind of post-euro plan in place. Much of the thinking is still pretty rudimentary, however. The eurozone countries can’t risk letting markets see them flinch and have to put a brave face on their prospects, but the UK no longer needs to have such scruples. What exactly would we do if the euro goes down? What would be thrown overboard? What, and who, would be saved? How can the government organise effective collective action as the catastrophe hits?
  5. Nick Clegg is dead, politically. That was already true, but I can’t imagine even Miriam González Durántez now plans to support her husband at the next election. Paradoxically, accepting his terminal status could give Clegg new freedom of action. Instead of continuing to play the role of coalition gimp, he should offer leadership to those keen to explore what comes after the storm. Politicians with proper jobs – Cameron, Osborne, even Cable – are going to be overwhelmed by events throughout this parliament, even in the best case where Europe struggles back onto its feet. Clegg, though, has an opportunity to focus energy on the longer term. He’ll still lead the Lib Dems to electoral Armageddon, but catalysing a vision for renewal might make posterity a little kinder to the poor man.

After the vote – resilient strategies

Yesterday, I indulged in some late night speculation, wondering whether the only ‘impossible’ election outcome – the Queen being forced to send parties back to the country – might now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.

Why consider such an outlandish possibility?

It’s important to do so, I think, because that’s the only way to make good decisions under conditions of radical uncertainty.

Look at how David Cameron’s team is said by the Telegraph to have acted even before polls closed last week:

By shortly after 7pm on Thursday, Jeremy Heywood, the Permanent Secretary at 10, Downing Street, received an extraordinary telephone call.

On the line was one of David Cameron’s closest aides, so confident of a Conservative majority that he spent the next five minutes dictating the names of every minister in the new Cameron government and the names of the civil servants who would be sacked the next day.

Even in the midst of the most unpredictable election in a generation, I suspect the Conservatives were far too committed to their preferred outcome to be well prepared for the labyrinth of choices that would soon confront them.

Similarly, I don’t believe Nick Clegg had really gamed out the dilemma his push for electoral reform would place all leaders in, as they became exposed to the unpredictable and shifting preferences of their own and each others’ backbenchers; and – through a referendum – to those of the public.

I wonder too whether Labour ‘strategists’ (most of whom are actually dyed-in-the-wool tacticians) saw credible routes to power if Gordon Brown resigned. Or was this merely a Hail Mary pass disguised as a game-changing moment?

(My first thoughts when Brown used his decision to stand aside as a negotiating ploy were: (i) Which of the leadership candidates were involved in the decision? And (ii) Will this later be seen in the same light as McCain’s surprise announcement that an unknown Alaskan governor was joining him on the Presidential ticket?)

In conditions of uncertainty, parties need what I think of as resilient strategies – ones that are not easily shifted from long-term goals, but blend this with a sensitivity to unpredictable outcomes, and which look beyond preferred outcomes to encompass a ‘plan b’ (c, d, e…) for failure.

So here’s a question for parties. Which of them has a ‘red team’ that has been isolated from the negotiations and has been asked to think simply about how the party should react to a ‘no deal’?

During the negotiations, the Tories have made major policy shifts, which they are going to find hard to reconcile with their core platform. Labour has initiated what is likely to be a long and acrimonious leadership campaign, which is going to turn it inwards at a time of national crisis. And the Liberal Democrats have sacrificed their reputation as standing for something other than the ‘same old politics’.

Each of them – in different ways – now stands on unstable ground. Unless their strategies are resilient to changed circumstances, they could find their support eroding very fast indeed.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

After the vote – what if we’re snookered?

A week ago, when I tried to map the outcomes that would follow a close UK general election, I found it hard to find any easy path to the Lib Dems getting their primary goal – electoral reform with full PR.

In all scenarios, I suggested you should:

  • Expect an extended period of political instability at a time when the government will face a highly challenging domestic and international agenda.
  • Give at least reasonable odds for the whole enterprise ending in ignominious failure.

A referendum would de-stabilise any government, I argued. LibCon because ruling partners would campaign on opposite sides. LibLab because there’d be an obvious risk of losing the public vote, especially if the electorate was mostly motivated by a wish to punish the government.

And if a referendum on electoral reform was won, then the Lib Dems would of course want an election as soon as possible. If it was lost, the party would lose its main reason for staying in a coalition.

The fear of these outcomes, meanwhile, would make it harder to form a government in the first place. Why would any party form a deal if it couldn’t be sure what it was going to get for it?

Now we are deep into precisely this mess. The problem has been compounded by the failure of leaders to recognise the first rule of coalition-building: negotiate first with your base.

As I wrote yesterday:

[Cameron] is making a big mistake if he gets out too far in front of his party. He’s going to need every single of his MPs to back his first Queen’s Speech. And he’ll then be vulnerable to any subsequent rebellion turning into a confidence issue.

And what about Labour? […] Assume Brown goes, I simply cannot see how a new leader will have any legitimacy to lead a Lib-Lab coalition and take power as PM. For a start, there’d be a messy and lengthy succession process. After that the new leader would be damaged goods from the get-go – tarred with the ‘unelected’ brush that so damaged his (or her?) predecessor.

Sure enough, Conservative backbench support looks even more shaky now that leaders have suddenly offered the Lib Dems a referendum on electoral reform.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s shock resignation (planned by a small clique) was hailed as a game changer, but a LibLab pact is already facing attack from within his own party (mutual assured destruction for both parties, according to John Reid).

Amidst the uncertainty, too many pundits have tried to maintain the fiction that they know what is about to happen.

How many times have we been told absolute tosh about the negotiations between parties, by people who make it sound as if they have spent the day sitting on David Cameron’s knee, but are actually passing on ill-informed scuttlebutt, or simply making things up?

The truth is this election has left British politics snookered. Four days after the vote, we are still no nearer to knowing what is going to happen.

I’d guess there’s still a good chance that a deal of some sort will be cobbled together in the next few days, but even then, it could fail to make it through a Queen’s Speech (for LibCon a few defectors will have enormous power, while LibLab will need the support or acquiescence of other parties).

So, at the same time, I wonder whether the only ‘impossible outcome’ – the one commentators said could never happen – may now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.

Maybe we will see no swift resolution, no outbreak of amity, no sudden agreement on what the ‘national interest’ means. Instead, perhaps a fresh election will be the only solution left standing, and not called later this year – but reluctantly – in the next few weeks.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

After the vote: negotiate first with your base

One lesson I took from from the Northern Irish peace process was that, when building a complex agreement, trouble results if any party forgets this rule: the first negotiation is with your own base.

Republicans understood this well:

Sinn Féin has emphasised that it is involved in a double negotiation – with its political opponents on the one hand, and with its supporters on the other. ‘For the IRA’s position to have been released or made public without its grassroots having had the opportunity to engage … would have been a total disaster,’ Gerry Adams has argued.

But David Trimble failed to keep his base on side, leading to a long period where Unionists were unable to project a credible position at the negotiating table. Their leaders weren’t taken seriously, because no-one could be sure who they were really speaking for.

Back in 2003, the British government was terrified that stalemate was allowing Ian Paisley’s hard liners to grab power – expecting this to lead to a titanic (and fruitless) ‘battle of the bottom lines’. Their pessimism was misplaced. The DUP was able to advance the talks, precisely because it had a much firmer bond with its own supporters.

How does this lesson apply to today’s post-election shake out in the UK?

Nick Clegg has been forced to by his party’s constitution to keep in close contact with his party – he needs 75% of MPs and 75% of the federal executive to approve any deal. He also went out onto the streets to talk directly to demonstrators backing PR.

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Clegg may end up failing to take his party with him – but at least he seems to be trying to keep them on board.

David Cameron, however, seems much more isolated. The Guardian, of course, has an enormous incentive to sow dissent on Tory ranks (it badly wants a Lib-Lab pact that leads to PR), but its account of rebellion within the Conservative Party has a ring of truth about it.

Most damaging was that not all the dissent came from the backbench MPs (who are said to have heard little from their whips). One ‘senior frontbencher’ was prepared to dish the dirt (off the record, of course):

He ran his campaign from the back of his Jaguar with a smug, smarmy little clique – people like Osborne, [Oliver] Letwin and Michael Gove. He should get rid of all of them. The party will settle for nothing less.

For Cameron, there’s an enormous attraction in binding his enemies, the Lib Dems (or as Alex prefers, ‘the frenemy‘) into a formal coalition. He can dump unpopular policies foisted on him by the grass roots, implicate his coalition partners in all the hard decisions about spending, and leave the Lib Dems too unpopular to ever win the argument on PR.

But he is making a big mistake if he gets out too far in front of his party. He’s going to need every single of his MPs to back his first Queen’s Speech. And he’ll then be vulnerable to any subsequent rebellion turning into a confidence issue.

And what about Labour? I wonder if here, too, the interests of the ruling Brownite clan diverge from those of a (currently silent) faction in the party.

Assume Brown goes, I simply cannot see how a new leader will have any legitimacy to lead a Lib-Lab coalition and take power as PM. For a start, there’d be a messy and lengthy succession process. After that the new leader would be damaged goods from the get-go – tarred with the ‘unelected’ brush that so damaged his (or her?) predecessor.

Maybe, maybe, they might hope to wait out the storm that would accompany them taking office and wait for better economic times to heal the wounds – but they’d have a referendum on PR to fight, and that – as I argued last week – could well get ugly.

Surely better to head into opposition with a decent share of the seats and fight a government that – whether its Tory minority or LibCon – will struggle with some of the hardest political decisions of a generation.

But Gordon Brown has no incentive at all to see things that way – opening up a gulf between the leader and a party he still (just about) leads…

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

After the vote – politics in an age of uncertainty

It’s a fitting end to the British general election.

We have had thirty years of entrenched majorities – as a dominant party defined the terms of the debate, and the media made sure the opposition never caught a break. In 1997, the swing from Conservative to Labour dominance was sudden and decisive.

Now we have an utterly unpredictable polling day. Tiny shifts in the share of vote between parties and, especially, its geographical distribution could have a disproportionate impact on the political landscape that emerges on Friday.

If it’s close, it will all come down to spur-of-the-moment decisions by three very tired men. Constitutionally, Brown remains Prime Minister until someone else can command ‘the confidence of the House.’

As incumbent, he also should get first dibs on forming a new government, though it is widely expected that Cameron will declare victory early, and use the media to establish his right to govern.

As Alex has warned, there’s also a possibility that the bond markets will push the pace, as they open at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning to react to election news. Yields on UK 10-year bonds have spiked this morning, but are still lower than they have been for much of the year.

If Cameron gets the most votes and the most seats, he’ll surely go on to form a government. If not, a period of Florida-style uncertainty seems more than possible. What, one wonders, will be the UK’s equivalent of the hanging chad?

Either way, we can expect some exceptionally close Commons votes, perhaps a referendum on electoral reform, and  – surely – a Parliament that won’t last for a full term. That means more elections for parties that have bankrupted themselves during this one.

This unaccustomed volatility in the electoral system seems curiously appropriate. As the past few years have shown, we now live in an era where the UK is far from being in control of its own destiny.

Look forward and we can expect the following forces to frame the government’s strategic choices.

First, global risks will continue to drive domestic policy. Voters will not actively call for a more effective foreign policy, but they will notice and bemoan its absence.

Global forces will continue to have considerable impact on their lives, with the main sources of strategic surprise coming from beyond the UK’s borders.

Over the next ten years, moreover, most risks will be on the downside. We have lived, as I have argued, through a volatile decade. There is every reason to expect risks to continue to proliferate.

Each new crisis will create political aftershocks with demands for governments to clear up the mess, matched by inquiries into why they failed to prevent the problem in the first place.

Finally, the government will find that, in most cases, it does not have the levers to manage risks as effectively as it would like to.

Whatever the next Prime Minister wants to do, he is going to find that global volatility, a lack of money, and government mechanisms that are equipped for the problems of another age, constrain his scope for action.

On top of that, he’ll only be able to solve problems if he can rustle up a coalition of other countries, all of whom will be beset by the same problems.

If – and it’s a big if – there is to be a new dominant paradigm in British politics, replacing those established by Thatcher and New Labour, then it will be because a leader emerges who has the skill to govern well in an age of global uncertainty.

I can’t imagine a more exciting time to pitch up in Downing Street, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

Charlie Brooker’s take on party leaders

Goes like this (read the whole thing):

Picking a modern leader boils down to a question of which false persona you prefer. At least Brown’s is almost admirably crap. It’s easy to see through it and catch hints of something awkwardly, weakly human beneath.

Clegg’s persona is roughly 50% daytime soap, 40% human, and 10% statesman. Cameron is 100% something. He isn’t even a man; more a texture-mapped character model. There’s a different kind of software at work here, some advanced alien technology projecting a passable simulation of affability; a straight-to-DVD retread of the Blair ascendancy re-enacted by androids. Like an ostensibly realistic human character in a state-of-the-art CGI cartoon, he’s almost convincing – assuming you can ignore the shrieking, cavernous lack of anything approaching a soul. Which you can’t.

I see the sheen, the electronic calm, those tiny, expressionless eyes . . . I glimpse the outlines of the cloaking device and I instinctively recoil, like a baby tasting mould. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see a power-crazed despot either. I almost wish I did. Instead, I see an avatar. A simulated man with a simulated face. A humanoid. A replicant. An Auton. A construct. A Carlton PR man who’s arrived to run the country, and currently stands before us, blinking patiently, blank yet alert, quietly awaiting commencement of phase two. At which point, presumably, his real face may finally become visible.