UK Election 2017: A comedy of errors

13 mins. to read
UK Election 2017: A comedy of errors
Drop of Light /

It was the big-budget West End musical that flopped. The “snap” UK general election of 2017 never really had a compelling plotline. Its major characters were poorly drawn, the acting wooden and the singing excruciating. The theatre had to be evacuated twice for security reasons. The diva-heroine didn’t even make it on the stage for her main character song. The dance routines were chaotically choreographed. Most of all, its conclusion was pitiful, and there was no curtain call. Theatre-goers left the auditorium with no idea of how its vacuous message impinged upon their lives…

An election with no winners?

The Jaguar is purring up the Mall bound for Buckingham Palace for a very special audience with HM The Queen. Sitting in the back: Mrs May.

Although she knows that, as a matter of constitutional automaticity, Her Majesty is about to re-appoint her as Prime Minister, she realises that the turmoil that she has put herself – and the country – through over the last six weeks wasn’t worth it. She is already thinking about the curtains in her retirement bungalow…

A night of surprises

I must admit that the ten o’clock BBC Exit Poll yesterday threw me. George Osborne tweeted that it was a “catastrophe” for Mrs May. Even before midnight they were saying that Mrs May was a goner. Those horrible words hung parliament echoed across the airwaves…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. On 04 May the Tories won the local elections so convincingly that we anticipated a Tory majority of more than 100. How cruelly is hubris punished, Arachne…[i]

I had planned to stay up all night to watch a Tory victory unfold; instead I went to bed at midnight. But at least I awoke to learn that John Lamont had won Berwickshire (about which I wrote last week) and that the SNP had lost more than 20 seats. (How sweet that Mr Robertson and Mr Salmond will not be able to inflict their boorishness in the new parliament.) It was a good night for Unionists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But – let’s not mince words – this is a disaster for the Conservative Party, for Sterling, and for the Brexit project…

Mr Corbyn’s Labour has achieved 41 percent of the popular vote – the highest Labour share since the days of Harold Wilson. That is an extraordinary achievement. Mr Clegg is out; Sir Vince is back. Sir Richard Branson, Gina Miller and Tony Blair have been texting mutual congratulations all night long…

Reversed expectations

Theresa May started the campaign just after Easter as Queen Boudicca setting forth on her chariot; this morning her battered Mini didn’t even make it over the finishing line. Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn was expected to impale himself on his selfie stick at the first opportunity; in the event – partly thanks to a decent haircut and a trip to Marks & Spencer – he actually grew in stature and authority. On Tuesday evening the Newsnight voters’ panel unanimously agreed that Mrs May was diminished by her campaign, while Mr Corbyn was augmented by his.

As for the manifestos – which, as we all know, only the anoraks actually read – Labour’s reeked of sugar and spice and all thing’s nice, while promising the biggest hike in state spending in British economic history. And the Tories were left gormlessly holding the ends of a few burst balloons labelled, social care, pensions and strong and stable government – all splattered liberally in fox blood.

Labour voters care about money too. If I were an ex-student burdened by £60k of debt incurred at uni I would certainly have voted Corbyn to magic away my debt.

Someone on BBC R5Live said the other night: Labour cares about people; the Tories care about money. But Labour voters care about money too. If I were an ex-student burdened by £60k of debt incurred at uni I would certainly have voted Corbyn to magic away my debt: somebody else can pick up the £30 billion price tag for that wheeze. And if I were a nurse in an NHS hospital, I’d probably vote for a pay rise. But if Labour’s plans were predictable red-blooded socialism, what is more perplexing is why so many natural allies found the Tory Party manifesto so anti-business.

And what struck me most about this campaign was the dramatic tension – as in a play by Henrik Ibsen – of the dramatis personae studiously not talking about the burning issues that really mattered. There was minimal discussion of the economy; I did not hear the word productivity uttered even once; and the fiscal deficit – constantly on the Cameron-Osborne’s lips two years ago – had evidently become taboo.

Nor was there any mention of any of momentous themes that I have been banging on about in these pages over the last year or more. The impact of AI; the potential digital revolution in healthcare; the implications of electric, self-driving cars (another reason surely to dump HS2!); the rise of quantum computing; how Fintech will disrupt conventional banking; mining in space; the future of agriculture; cyber security…

In fact, the entire British political class seems to have zero interest in science and technology. That is both lamentable and objectionable.

Nor was any light shed – by either side – on the modalities of Brexit. We know no more today about Mrs May’s Brexit strategy than we knew following her Lancaster House speech on 17 January, a full five months ago. And while we understood that Labour is committed to Brexit, we suspect that it would be a Brexit of such soufflé lightness, that it would be quite indistinguishable from a soft Remain.

This morning, the prospect is one of marshmallow Brexit

Social Care and the Dementia Tax

As I explained two weeks ago, the chronic diseases of old age leave the elderly stranded half way between the NHS and council care budgets. This is an urgent problem: the ONS estimates that by 2039 the number of people in the UK aged over 75 will have risen by 89 percent to 9.9 million.

It was therefore brave of the Tories to tackle the thorny issue of social care in their manifesto and the proposals they advanced were sensible. As I argued, it is not unreasonable to expect people who have assets to use them towards their care in old age. If the state were to pick up the entire bill the costs would be crippling. The £100,000 “floor” on such assets represented a bonus for middle class families hoping to inherit their parents’ assets.

But Labour, partly by an artful campaign on social media, managed to brand this proposed floor as a dementia tax (just as they branded the restrictions on Housing Benefit the bedroom tax).

Moreover, Labour indicated that it would not raise the state retirement age any further (it will rise to 66 by 2020 and to 67 by 2028). It seems that John McDonnell is unconcerned that the dependency ratio (the ratio of retired people to people of working age) will rise from 310 in 2014 to 370 in 2039. Why would Labour wish to alarm people with such figures?

The Terror Factor

This was the first British election campaign which was punctuated by not one but two major Islamist terrorist incidents. The Manchester bombing (22 May) and the London Bridge-Borough Market massacre (03 June) were very different categories of terrorist attack.

The first involved a relatively sophisticated device which the bomber, Salman Abedi (a pedigree nerd), would have almost certainly required help to assemble. A suicide bombing, it required a degree of planning, suggesting teamwork. The London Bridge incident was a “primitive” style attack using a van as a weapon and then lethal blades. For all we know at this stage, the three perpetrators might have decided to wreak mayhem a matter of hours before they actually did so.

Ms Abbott has a spreadsheet – somewhere – showing how much this is going to cost.

These ghastly events should have given rise to a cross-party consensus on how to deal with this increasingly intractable problem – without making it worse in the process. Instead, Labour reacted with recrimination, blaming Theresa May for cutting police numbers when she was Home Secretary, saying she should resign.

This was disingenuous. According to Home Office figures the number of authorised firearms officers in England and Wales was nearly 7,000 in March 2010 but was down to 5,600 in March 2016 – the most recent figure available. However, the Evening Standard estimates that about 641 new firearms officers have been recruited in the past year – as well as 41 extra armed response vehicles. Yet it is true that the French have approximately twice the boots on the ground when it comes to police as we have.

Now Labour wishes us to believe that Islamist fanaticism could be defeated just by putting more plods back on the beat. They despise the intelligence services – Ms Abbott recently described GCHQ as snoops. Yet now, suddenly, they want more policemen (with capes and truncheons?) on the ground. And Ms Abbott has a spreadsheet – somewhere – showing how much this is going to cost.

It is ironic that Labour was allowed by the mainstream media as the party of law and order – the policeman’s friend. This was the very party, let us recall, which for years hummed Lord MacPherson’s tune that the British police were institutionally racist. These were the people who consistently opposed stop-and-search. And it was they who consistently opposed all restrictions on the liberty of suspected terrorist sympathisers.

Indeed, Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, during her 13 years as Chair of the campaign group Liberty strenuously opposed almost any preventative security measures on the grounds of human rights. Lady Chakrabarti had an almost permanent seat on the BBC Today Programme, Question Time, and Newsnight where she could declaim her bitter opposition to “excessive” anti-terror legislation. She was also a vocal supporter of the now disgraced human rights lawyer, Philip Shiner, who prosecuted numerous British servicemen who had served in Iraq over alleged human rights abuses.

Not to mention that the mainstream media obscured the fact that Mr Corbyn was not in early peace talks with the IRA at the time that they were blowing up innocents in shopping malls. Rather, he actively sought to give them succour.

The present Labour leader signed a House of Commons early day motion just weeks after the Enniskillen Remembrance Sunday massacre of 08 November 1987 (which killed 11 people laying wreaths at a war memorial and mortally injured another 68) putting the blame for the atrocity on “the long-standing British occupation”. His then partner, Ms Abbott, also signed the motion. Mr Corbyn and others even refused to describe the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester as “terrorism”. Just as they now resile from calling the recent outrages Islamist terrorism

Labour’s strategy of parading itself as the law and order party – the last bastion against terror – was entirely fraudulent. But it worked.

Corbyn & Khan: Steptoe & Son

Apart from Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell the only Labour politician who emerges from the election campaign with his reputation enhanced is London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan – who is, of course, not a Corbyn man. Anyone who gets insulted by President Trump on Twitter must be doing something right.

Yet – perhaps it is the South London accent – Mr Khan increasingly reminds me of Harry H Corbett playing Steptoe fils. One can hear him chastising Mr Corbyn for sniggering at a lewd joke: You dirty old man…

Seriously: as I see it, only Mr Khan hereon in will have the heft on the left to unseat Mr Corbyn…

Six lessons from the 2017 election

The first is that – as I have been warning since Mr Corbyn’s arrival at the helm of the Labour Party – more than a quarter of a century after the demise of the Soviet Union – there is a political market for Marxist ideology repackaged as a tax-spend-and-nationalise agenda.

The narrative that capitalism is a fundamentally obnoxious framework is more widespread in the UK, and indeed across Europe, than at any time since the 1960s. Especially amongst the young (who do not remember the ravages of state socialism). Much as I find this regrettable, I now think it will be a permanent fixture of the political landscape. Blairism and New Labour were exploded in the Financial Crisis of 2008. One more crisis in capitalism like that, and the Marxists might achieve their dreams.

One more crisis in capitalism like that, and the Marxists might achieve their dreams.

Political opinion is polarising – partly due to reliance on social media which tends to re-inforce people’s prejudices – at precisely the moment when social cohesion is loosening. That bodes ill for the future.

The second lesson is that there is – and never will be – a precise Brexit roadmap. Mrs May (if she survives – which is very doubtful) and her negotiating team will set short-term and long-term goals. But in practice, as they have always known but would never admit, they will be making up their proposals and counter-proposals as they go along.

We were told that Mrs May is a zero-sum negotiator, in the sense that she does not horse-trade. But I very much doubt if even she ever knew whether we would regain sovereignty over our national waters for our fisherman; or whether a hard border with the Republic of Ireland is avoidable; or whether landing rights will be secured for our airlines across Europe…and so on…

If you believe, as I now do, that a comprehensive deal is virtually impossible in the 22 month time-frame, there will either be some kind of transitional arrangement or the UK will crash out of Europe on 30 March 2019. I would have favoured the latter scenario as an opportunity (though one that few people voted for yesterday, I admit!). Now, the impetus for a hard Brexit is lost.

The third lesson is that there is still no fundamental strategy to address the real challenges to the long-term prosperity of the UK. These are the stubbornly persistent structural fiscal deficit and the UK’s failure to rival German, French and Japanese levels of productivity. I will continue to explain going forward why, in my view, these things cannot be addressed without reforming our welfare, technical training and healthcare models.

The fourth lesson is that Mrs May’s kitchen cabinet is not a good model for cooking robust policy. If Mr Johnson or Mr Hammond are fired today, I hope that they will make an effective case for cabinet government from the backbenches.

Fifth: Greens are Reds riding bicycles. The Green Party agenda is exactly the same tax-spend-nationalise-control prescription that Labour offers. They hate business, not because it pollutes, but because it makes some people richer than others. They love Europe because it is a cosy plutocracy of subsidy-junkies designed to distort the energy markets. True conservationists are, by definition, conservatives. (Note the etymology).

The sixth lesson is that mainstream media is falling behind social digital media more rapidly than even I had supposed. In an age of information, the BBC’s Today Programme or Newsnight cannot possibly keep up with the internet. Though Today is moderately useful aural wallpaper while doing the morning chores. As for Newsnight – I’d rather read a book. Cornelia Parker, the official 2017 general election artist, says that she captured the essence of the election from – Instagram[ii].

Investors take note

The probability of a market upset has increased markedly since the preternaturally calm days before Mrs May announced this election – as Jim Mellon has warned in these pages. I sniff a chill in the economic breeze. (The world economy will grow by 3.5 percent this year but the UK economy by just 1.6 percent, so the OECD tells us).

There is a good case for putting a larger part of one’s net worth into cash. Especially now that I think interest rates are about to rise – about which I shall have more to say soon. At least the Pound would benefit from a rate hike in the months and years to come.

This morning the Pound is looking anaemic, but not stricken; the FTSE-100 is holding up…for now. The boys in red braces are staring into their smartphones, scratching their heads.

After the audience

HM The Queen: One thought she looked rather wan, Philip.

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh: Bloody liverish, if you ask me, Lilibet.

HMTQ: One is rather gratified however, that one didn’t have to give Mr Corbyn the royal hand to kiss.

HRHTDOE: I daresay we haven’t seen the last of that old cove. That reminds me, Old Girl, there’s a rather good musical on in town…

[i] Ovid, Metamorphoses.

[ii] The Evening Standard, 07 June 2017, page 36.

Comments (4)

  • David Molloy says:

    When you talk about the media and their failure to recognise changes in the world of communication you completely ignore the role of the press in this campaign and to some extent your own longevity

  • Lawman says:

    The politics: Since his election as leader in 2015, I have been concerned at the communist influence on Labour. Mr Corbyn achieved a startling success due to the poverty of thought among mainstream Labour MPs, and an understandable desire to move on from New Labour. The flaw is that it need not be such a binary choice.

    The election: The Conservatives lost it. Their campaign was dreadful. If you ignore the cost in tax and borrowing (the small matter of national bankruptcy), the Labour manifesto offered a positive alternative; the Conservatives nothing (I read both). Apart from keeping out Labour, was there a single reason to vote Conservative?

    The economy: regardless of politics, I agree with the writer that prospects are dire. I hold 15% in cash, and comparatively few UK equities. Time to batten down the hatches.

  • Jon says:

    Brilliant. As usual.

  • roger bennett says:

    Why is there so little real analysis of politics and economics in the mainstream media, or information on EU countries. Why did no one mention the doublethink of all conflicts end with a peace process and dialogue. A meaningless statement attempting to obscure the fact that conflict must end first as in WW2 and Japan.

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