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Why Theresa May will stay

Whenever I get in a conversation about Theresa May's leadership - which is sadly often - I find myself confidently insisting that she's not going anywhere, rumours to the contrary. There's been so much noise in the last few weeks - today we have another story about Tory donors giving May a stern warning - that I'm not as sure now, but here is the properly articulated argument for thinking she'll remain prime minister, probably for a couple of years.
To start with I have to say that I don't have any sources in the Conservative Party (or indeed the Labour Party) to bolster this. I've heard from two people who'd heard from other people (who might or might not actually know anything) that there'll be some sort of move in the next few weeks, and I don't have any inside word contradicting that. But this is far from my first rodeo as far as dramatic leadership challenges go, and it's just hard to see how anyone could genuinely think that trying to…

It doesn't matter if you're a racist

A couple of years ago I was asked to write a summary and response to two lectures about implicit bias, whose main questions boiled down to these - does having implicit racial bias make you a racist? And if your unconscious bias lies behind you doing something harmful, are you morally responsible for it? My blogged reply, as politely as I could, said: who cares? Professor Neal Levy, in turn, responded with a blank stare: well, of course it matters if people are racist.
That blank stare, with a healthy dollop of indignation, lies behind Nick Timothy's defence of the flagrantly anti-Semitic cover story in the Telegraph today. The story is that George Soros has been helping to fund an anti-Brexit pressure group. That was already well-known, and painting it as shadowy puppet-mastery is - at the very least - an awkwardly snug fit with the Jew-baiting smear campaigns against Soros in Hungary and Poland. But, Nick Timothy and his allies say, the story can't be anti-Semitic: he is a &…

Turns out the deal on the Irish border... resolved nothing

I have had this tab open, meaning to write a post about Theresa May and the Tory Brexit ultras, since the second week of December when the government and the European Commission signed off a 'stage one' agreement on preliminary issues, notably including the Irish border. You will just have to believe me that my planned post would have contained some predictions that are now coming true: the PM seemed to get away with that December agreement because the most ardent Leavers in her party didn't understand it, a stroke of luck that was never going to be very durable.
There was plenty of sound and fury about how much money the UK will pay to the EU during and after the transition, and some performative nonsense about citizens' rights, but the real nub of the preliminary negotiations was the Irish issue. That's because avoiding massive disruption to people in the north and south of Ireland requires seamless trade, of the sort that the UK currently has with the EU but mo…

Stop trying to make home-ownership happen

The housing affordability measures in Philip Hammond's budget yesterday were no good. That's the consensus of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which publishes a report alongside the budget, and of most housing commentators. He could have done better - but maybe not much better without giving up on the core of Britain's current approach to housing.

What's the point of tuition fees?

There's no news hook for this, but I'm starting an internship next week that's not going to be compatible with publishing opinions about education policy. So here is a short rundown on why the UK tuition fees system is so contorted that it doesn't really deliver on any of the theoretical merits of student fees.
First things first: all the funding for university education comes, in the first instance, from the government. The debate is only about what revenue-raising method the government should use to recoup that money. One option is general taxation, which broadly charges everyone but takes more from the better-off. Another option is a graduate tax which specifically targets people who attended university. A third is some kind of fee/loan system, in which students are specifically responsible for a set part of the cost and repay the government that amount over time.
Why do the third one? There are a few reasons, which often get run together.

Assault is not a 'sexual indiscretion'

I used to do a lot of university debating, and what that means in practice is that you spend a lot of time sitting on buses going to and from a university on the far fringe of an exotic-sounding city. One way to pass the time on these bus journeys is to play categories: somebody picks a category, and you go round the circle naming things, knocking people out when they can't think of one.
On one particularly long bus journey in Chennai, about four years ago, we found ourselves playing the category 'famous sex scandals', and someone said Jimmy Savile. After the initial moment of pure shock, we agreed that he was out of the game. Not because of some backup, how-could-you rule, but because rape is not a sex scandal and there is no category that encompasses consensual behaviour that people are a bit shocked by and also sexual violence.
This, apparently, is not how things are understood at Westminster. The sudden fall of Harvey Weinstein is reverberating, and there's a lot …

Government debt is not consumer debt... not even for housing

Yesterday, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid declared that the government should borrow more to invest in building new homes. That's a good move, because the plummeting amount of social and affordable housing is causing an acute crisis for local councils and their working-class residents. Spending money to resolve major social problems is what the government is for, and that includes borrowing for it.
Rather than take that line, though, Tories are opting to pretend that what they're doing doesn't really count as borrowing: Key difference between borrowing to build houses and borrowing to fund deficit: housebuilding creates new assets which can act as security https://t.co/sgXXYeq2F1 — Nick Boles MP (@NickBoles) October 23, 2017 If you borrow to purchase an asset, then your balance sheet position doesn't change, because you've got a new offset that (almost) exactly offsets your new liability. This is the kind of thinking that underlies Labour's fiscal rule unde…

What the accidental Radicals reveal about 'centrism'

Last week Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist's Berlin bureau chief, 'accidentally' created a Google account with a name that could only be the name of a political party and asked people to express their interest in joining. Then, he'd have us believe, he was shocked that people did this. The word 'accidentally', as far as I can tell, basically functions as a cover for the fact that Cliffe never had any intention of bothering with any of the activities that you'd normally expect a political party to engage in, like raising money, recruiting candidates, or really trying to change anything. (They have a website, and a Twitter, which have both gone completely silent.)
The noble exception is that they have a manifesto.
Entirely possible to transform UK for the better while staying in Single Market (and perhaps even the EU). Here's the radical manifesto: pic.twitter.com/TrS0pZbwtK — Jeremy Cliffe (@JeremyCliffe) October 17, 2017 Going line-by-line through this wo…

Don't call Stephen Paddock a terrorist

Sometimes we are told by the media's great and good to calm down about terrorism. There are so few attacks that it's not rational to be scared - the real threat is our furniture. Sometimes, though, it seems they think we're not nearly alarmed enough. They think that if we counted properly we'd recognise over five hundred more terrorist attacks in the United States since last June.
Of course this isn't what they say. What they say is that gunning down dozens of people at a music festival is terrorism, and we should call it by its name. When police declined to describe Stephen Paddock's murder of 58 people from a hotel balcony as an act of terrorism, there was outrage. The point is that large parts of the media and law enforcement establishments reserve the term 'terrorism' for attacks committed by people who are Muslim. They're not wrong to point this out. The public discourse around terrorism is defined almost completely by its Islamophobic presump…

Rents, rates & house prices

Here are two fairly provocative but extremely interesting articles about housing, from Dan Davies and Andrew Lilico. (Before he developed his Brexit-Corbyn monomania.) Taken together they argue that the overall state of the UK housing market can't usefully be described as a crisis.

How could someone think this? Well, as some of the charts in my post from last week indicate, rents have actually not been growing very quickly in the UK - increases in rent have been less than the CPI, which means that rent has actually become cheaper relative to other goods over the last decade. If demand for housing was increasing (through population growth) much faster than supply, scarcity would be pushing rents up much more quickly. It hasn't.

Labour & housing: a bunch of charts about rents and construction

Rent controls, if they have any teeth to them, make it less profitable to let out houses, which means fewer houses in the private rental sector and less construction of new homes for rent. So the theory goes, and we're all being reminded after Jeremy Corbyn's speech to Labour conference that everybody agrees with this theory. (Everybody, in this case, means "Paul Krugman almost twenty years ago".)


The official rent statistics only go back to 2005, which means I can't show you a longer-run chart or one covering the period when the UK had rent control. But you can see that there's no simple connection between rents (or rent increases, which is what's on this chart) and the rate of construction.

Quick thoughts on May-Gillard-Johnson-Rudd

I tweeted a couple of days ago about Boris Johnson's apparent leadership manoeuvring, and how it fits nicely with the last paragraph of my New Statesman piece about minority government in Australia:
Even Gillard eventually succumbed – with an election looming – to the very same Kevin Rudd whom a bevy of ministers had savaged just a few months earlier. That’s bad news for May – and good news for any blond-haired challengers who fancy themselves as popular with the public, and have been eyeing the prime ministership for years. Not that the Tories have any of those. I thought it'd be interesting, or mildly entertaining, to go into a bit more detail about how the Rudd-Gillard leadership saga played out, for comparison to what might happen and what's already happening in the May-Johnson battle.

Tony Blair is not the pro-migration politician we need

For the last few months, Tony Blair has been gradually but unmistakeably reinserting himself into the front lines of British politics. Plenty of people pine for New Labour, but the core strain of Blair support these days flows from his willingness to be an unapologetic defender of the European Union and, in particular, free movement.
Until, that is, Blair’s anti-Brexit Institute for Global Change published a paper this week calling for – ahem – controls on immigration. But if this seems like a backflip for Blair, appearances are misleading: this new report fits perfectly with the dishonest and ultimately counterproductive approach to immigration politics the ex-PM has always taken.

Tim Farron and the transformation of liberalism

Sixty years ago, Britain had a debate about homosexuality that Tim Farron must be pining for. After a string of high-profile trials, an inquiry led by Lord John Wolfenden took up the question of whether gay sex should be criminalised. The report’s conclusion – that it shouldn’t – was taken up by two prominent legal figures, academic H.L.A. Hart and Law Lord Patrick Devlin.
The famous Hart-Devlin debate makes for very strange reading in 2017. The question at its heart was whether the law should enforce moral standards against behaviour that didn’t affect anyone except the people involved. It was a dry argument, drawing heavily on old theories of liberalism, about whether the law had any business trying to impose private morality.

Heading to no: Labour and the single market, redux

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Chuka Umunna's pro-single market amendment to the Queen's Speech, the conclusion of which was that Chuka hadn't given even a moment's thought to what a strategy for stopping or softening Brexit would look like. But my frustration at Labour moderates being unstrategic is starting to give way to pessimism about the chances of stopping a version of departure from the EU which - it's as true today as it was during the referendum campaign - would be terrible for everything progressives care about. Labour's infighting dynamics are heading in a very bad direction.
First things first. Hard Brexit - which, no, it doesn't really mean anything, but I'm just going to use it as shorthand for leaving the single market - would quite likely trigger an immediate recession. That would strain welfare spending, and increase the deficit and debt in a way that makes a return of austerity politics much more likely. It would almost certainl…

Going nowhere

Demos and Policy Exchange are the thinktanks responsible for the two most consequential party changes in British party politics in the last thirty-five years. By shaping New Labour and David Cameron's Tory modernisation, they've mattered to the course of everyday, cut-and-thrust politics in a way that most research institutions could only dream about. So you'd think that someone who'd held senior positions at both would know a thing or two about how things work.
On the other hand, David Goodhart didn't join Demos until 2012, when Ed Miliband had already turned the page on New Labour. And he headed to Policy Exchange in early 2016, just in time to watch David Cameron crash the compassionate conservative car and Theresa May torch the wreckage. Perhaps that makes it slightly less mysterious that Goodhart is, when it comes to the current state of British politics, wrong about almost everything.

Government deficits and the news

There were two reports released and written up in the media yesterday about the UK public finances. The deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies put out a short study about the size of the government deficit and what would ending austerity would look like, and the Office for Budget Responsibility released a 'fiscal risks report' about the level of government borrowing and what might happen in the event of an unforeseen economic shock.
Neither of these reports say anything that's at all shocking. The IFS paper starts to chase its own tail when it comes to drawing any decisive conclusions, but the main takeaway is that the government has a large amount of room to manoeuvre when it comes to public spending. If all the planned spending cuts and duty increases over the next five years are cancelled and things are maintained as they are now - "no further net tax rises, benefit cuts or cuts to spending on public services" - the deficit in 2021-22 would be 2.…

Getting to yes: Labour & the single market

The current story of the Labour Party in the UK is an ongoing, baffling reversal of factional roles. Jeremy Corbyn's wing of the party has always been criticised, above all, for lacking political realism. The Blairite contingent was famed for its hard-nosed strategising and ability to get things done in an electorally successful way, even if not quite the things Labour would get done in an 'ideal world'. But for the last year and a half moderates in the Labour Party have been making move after move that reveal either a shockingly deep level of incompetence at strategic thinking or a principled refusal to engage with it at all.
The most notable example was last summer's attempted leadership coup, in which the parliamentary party voted no-confidence in Corbyn and dozens of shadow ministers resigned from his frontbench. The goal of this was to remove Corbyn as leader but if you'd thought about for even sixty seconds it was totally clear that this was not going to work.…

Looks like we all owe Jeremy Corbyn an apology

The Labour Party has increased its number of MPs for the first time since 1997. It may well crack 40% of the vote. At every election in the last twenty years, Labour has either just held steady or lost a few points over the last two months before the election. This year, it's improved its position by more than fifteen percentage points; from a 25-point Tory lead the week the election was called, it now looks like the national vote will be effectively tied. There is not really any room for doubt that this is the most successful election campaign in recent British history - and a good case for scrapping 'recent' and 'British' from that sentence.
Theresa May obviously had an appalling campaign, but you can only play the opposition in front of you. More importantly: if you'd said to Labour moderates - or anyone - eleven months ago, when May had just become Prime Minister, that within a year she would have lost her majority and Corbyn would have given Labour its be…

The UK as one-party state

We live in hope, but the overwhelming probability is still that Theresa May will win next month's election by a landslide that effectively makes it impossible for Labour to win a majority in 2022. If that happens, then from 1979 to 2027 the UK government will have changed partisan hands two and a half times. Forty-eight years with only two changes of government, or three if you insist on taking the Lib Dems seriously.

This is not normal. Even counting only to now, not ten years into the future, Australia has had four changes since 1979; the USA, at least five, probably eight; France, somewhere between three (if you count Presidents, with their very long terms) and seven (if you count Prime Ministers).*

The story only gets stranger if you think about what politics has actually looked like during these long stretches. For most of its recent political history, the UK has resembled a one-party state in which the only opposition sat in total disarray, apparently incapable of mounting a…