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Monday, December 11, 2017

Arrogance and bad faith: A Brexit Tale

Nobody needs me to elaborate on the vagueness and contradictions inherent in the deal that Theresa May has struck with the EU when it is set against her government's determination to leave that institution, whilst keeping the United Kingdom intact. Needless to say at some stage a decision will have to be made and stuck to.

However, for one Government Minister, the compromise half-agreement the Prime Minister signed off on last week is a sore he cannot help but keep picking. Brexit Secretary, David Davis seems determined to wreck any hope of agreement (and of a trade deal with Europe) even before the ink is dry on the paper.

As the Guardian reports, Davis has clashed with the Irish government after claiming that the Brexit divorce agreement between Britain and the EU was a “statement of intent” rather than something legally enforceable.

They add that the Brexit secretary’s crass comments came in the light of a missive from Downing Street advisers, which told cabinet ministers who campaigned to leave the EU, that promises around full regulatory alignment were “meaningless”.

In addition, Theresa May has also appeared to suggest there was still some flexibility in the deal reached at the end of last week, writing to all Tory MPs to set out the details of the agreement but promising that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The Irish of course are incensed. They have issued a statement to the effect that “Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement.” In addition, the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, highlighted a line in the agreement that said commitments relating to Ireland would be “upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the EU and UK”.

The point is of course that if the UK cannot bring itself to hold good faith over this fairly flimsy agreement of principle then how can anybody trust them on more substantive treaties, including on trade?

The arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of hard line Brexiteers in Theresa May's cabinet are threatening the very future of the UK economy. Their actions could torpedo any deal with Europe and leave the rest of the World wondering whether it is worth even talking to us.

The need for a second referendum on whatever emerges from these talks is becoming even more urgent. And it is crucial that the public have an 'exit from Brexit' option on that ballot paper.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is an obsessive Government ignoring bread and butter issues?

I have said it before on this blog, it has been said by professional commentators and now the public are saying it too (or at least that is what the polls say), the obsession of ministers with Brexit means that they are neglecting other challenges facing our country.

The Independent reports that the large majority of British people think the Government’s struggle for a Brexit deal has become so all-encompassing that other crucial challenges have been forgotten about.

The papers says that its exclusive survey by BMG Research showed some 60 per cent of people believe “important domestic issues” are being ignored by ministers as Brexit relentlessly diverts their attention, with problems faced by the NHS and the housing market consistently appearing in surveys of voter concerns:

The data is a stark warning for a party stung at the election by a public tired of austerity, angry about the housing crisis and worried about the state of the NHS.

In October, it emerged that the civil service will have to hire an extra 8,000 staff to deal specifically with Brexit, a sign of how its resources are being diverted towards the challenges of leaving the EU.
Nearly 3,000 new posts have already been created

to help face what will be the biggest administrative challenge they have faced for half a century. Brexit Secretary David Davis told Cabinet colleagues that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also have to recruit between 3,000 and 5,000 new members of staff next year.

If the new recruits earn an average of £50,000 each, the wage bill would top £400m. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the £35bn to £39bn the UK will have to pay the EU as part of its divorce settlement – a figure many expect to rise higher.

That also does not include the cost of new technology and extra infrastructure at borders that may be needed, which Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested could divert funds from the NHS and education.

It is not just the Tories who need to heed these findings. My party, the Liberal Democrats also have to listen. We have quite rightly branded ourselves as an anti-Brexit party but Vince Cable and his spokespeople also have to be talking just as loudly about our solutions for the crisis that is affecting education, the health service and housing as well.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Michael Gove and the art of spin

There is no point shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted but it is an activity that Michael Gove appears to be fairly fond of if this Guardian article is anything to go by.

The paper reports Gove's statement that voters will be able to force changes to an EU withdrawal deal at the next election if they do not like it:

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gove said: “The British people will be in control. If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

He said that after a transition period, the UK would have “full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and customs union”.

The next General Election is due in 2022, that is three years after the 29th March 2019 invocation of Article 50 and one year after the end of the two year transition period. By 2022 everything will be done and dusted and there will be no going back.

Of course there was a General Election this year that effectively rejected Theresa May's hard Brexit. If Gove is serious about giving people a meaningful say on the final deal then he will be advocating a referendum that allows us the choice of accepting what is negotiated or exiting from Brexit altogether.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The mis-marketing of higher education

Living in a City with two universities I am used to hearing a plethora of claims about what they can offer students. There are claims about their place on obscure ranking tables, some of which I find difficult to validate, whilst various departments compete to convince prospective entrants into HE of their excellence, both in terms of research and teaching.

The introduction of tuition fees effectively marketised higher education, colleges started to make decisions based on the demand for their courses and how much income they could generate, rather than on the provision of a broad based curriculum. For example, chemistry virtually disappeared overnight from most Welsh colleges, only for them to bring it back in some cases years later.

At the same time students started to have higher expectations. Now that they were personally paying for courses they wanted value for money, and quite rightly.

It is no surprise therefore to see this story in the Guardian, which reports on the verdict of the National Audit Office that if universities were banks they would be investigated for mis-selling.

Auditors say that the Department for Education needs to do more to help “vulnerable” students make better choices about courses. The National Audit Office has called on government to provide more aggressive oversight to ensure value for money:

Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office said: “Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value.

“If this was a regulated financial market, we would be raising the question of mis-selling. The [DfE] is taking action to address some of these issues, but there is a lot that remains to be done.”

The NAO found that the increased numbers of disadvantaged students now attending universities were mainly going to lower-ranked institutions – “which risks creating a two-tier system”, dividing those from rich and poor backgrounds.

If Universities are now a business competing for customers then it is quite right that they are better regulated and their claims challenged.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The latest absurd Westminster plot story

The problem with working in a bubble like Westminister or Cardiff Bay, surrounded by ambitious people, all of whom have an agenda and a list of enemies as long as their arm, is that people lose perspective. That is especially true of journalists who, if they are not careful, can get carried away dealing with the constant stream of rumours and innuendo they are being fed.

Of course the difference between a proper journalist and somebody riffing it on social media is that the former tends to check their sources and approach the more unbelievable stories with caution. Every now and again though, somebody might decide that even if what they are being told is not credible, it suits their paper's agenda and so it is worth running with it.

As far as I can see that last scenario is the only rationale for this story in today's Sun in which they say that supporters of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis have seized on Theresa May’s latest Brexit woes to start building another plot to sack her and put him into 10 Downing Street instead.

They say that one of Davis' closest allies, former chief whip Andrew Mitchell is organising discreet drinks evenings with him and new generation Tory MPs:

Three of the newly elected high-flyers invited to one soiree last week were Tom Tugendhat and James Cleverly – both tipped as future party leaders – as well as highly respected rookie Gillian Keegan.

Under the ‘dream ticket’ plot, Mr Davis would take over as Prime Minister from beleaguered Mrs May, but only for a few years.

The 68-year-old former SAS reservist would then stand aside for one of the new generation elected in 2015 or 2017 to take over in time to prepare for the 2022 general election.

A key ally of Mr Davis told one of the younger Tory MPs: “Theresa has the smell of death around her. “She’ll be gone by Christmas. It’s time to rally around DD.”

David Davis of course is the Brexit Secretary who led Parliament to believe that there were 58 top secret reports assessing the impact of Brexit on key sectors of the economy, only to reveal that they didn't exist when the House of Commons insisted on seeing them. He makes Theresa May look like a giant on the world stage and that is saying something.

I won't comment on his performance in negotiating Brexit with Brussels, except to point out that he has effectively been relieved of the really important stuff by the Prime Minister herself. Perhaps that is what has upset his fan club.

For the rest of us, we have to reflect that if David Davis is the answer to the incompetence of the UK Government and their determination to drive us over an economic and constitutional cliff then it must be time to rephrase the question.

The idea is so absurd that the only reason I can see for publishing the story is to further destabilise the Prime Minister and her government to make way for a more realistic contender for the leadership, if such a person exists.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The search for truth around the Carl Sargeant sacking

By my estimation there are now three separate inquiries looking at the circumstances around Carl Sargeant's tragic and untimely death four weeks ago. There is the inquest, an independent QC-led investigation seeking to establish whether the First Minister followed the correct procedures in sacking the former Minister, and now we have an inquiry looking at whether news of the sacking was leaked.

At the heart of all this is a war of words between friends of Carl, including former minister, Leighton Andrews, Cardiff Bay lobbyist, Daran Hill, and the First Minister himself. At the same time an increasingly bullish Tory leader, is seeking to drive home a perceived advantage by pressing Carwyn Jones on details in the Senedd Siambr, even to the point of appropriating Leighton Andrews' twitter feed as a source for his questions.

As if to add insult to injury, Carwyn Jones has gone on the record with the BBC, claiming that he could not have done anything differently over the allegations made against Carl Sargeant. There are many who would disagree with that.

For a start it is my view that Carwyn should have followed the example set by Theresa May over Damian Green and suspended Carl whilst the allegations were investigated, rather than sack him. Secondly, he should not have added insult to injury by giving more details of the allegations to the media, the day before Carl died.

Carwyn also adopted a more traditional political stance in the interview by seeking to attack the messenger rather than address the message. He accused Leighton Andrews, a fellow Labour Party colleague of waging a "trial by Twitter" and labelled him as being perpetually grumpy when in government. Nobody who knows Leighton can deny the 'grumpy' tag, but really, how is it relevant?

The nub of the disagreement between Carwyn and Leighton centres on the latter's claim that at sometime in October and/or November 2014 he raised with the First Minister in a one-on-one meeting, allegations of bullying behaviour within Carwyn's office. This is denied.

With a by-election now scheduled on 6th February, this is not going to go away soon. Hints are being published on social media that Labour may find itself opposed by an independent candidate in the seat, whilst there are also suggestions that there are more questions to be answered than have so far been posed.

For now, the Assembly Labour Group appears to be backing the First Minister. Whether they do so once the various inquiries report is a moot question. Leighton Andrews has consistently said that he is not calling on Carwyn Jones to resign, but consequences are not always predictable and with the First Minister continually digging himself deeper into a hole of his own making, it is clear that this is now a fight for his political survival.

Update: I have been reminded of a fourth inquiry as to whether the First Minister misled the Assembly when he said no allegations of bullying had been made to him in 2014.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The impossible conundrum of Brexit

For a few brief moments yesterday I genuinely thought that Theresa May had achieved the impossible and got herself a deal with the EU on how to take Brexit forward. Admittedly it was less than perfect - the concessions over Ireland were bound to produce demands for similar treatment from Wales and Scotland, subsequently undermining the stability of the UK - but it was a valiant attempt to square a difficult circle and some credit should be given for effort.

The problem of course is that May had already put herself in an impossible position through her supply and confidence agreement with the DUP. It took just one phone call from Arlene Foster to scupper any chance of a compromise being reached with the EU.

And there is our problem - the UK is effectively being held to ransom by a bunch of reactionary unionists camped out on the other side of the Irish Sea. The peace deal in Northern Ireland has been effectively wrecked, valuable resources have been diverted away from giving public sector workers a decent wage so as to pay off the DUP, and any possible deal on some of the most intractable Brexit issues is being sabotaged by Arlene's veto.

Unless Theresa May can pull a white rabbit from her hat, we are now left with the possibility of the UK Government painting itself into a corner, whereby if they are to pursue Brexit at all, then it will have to be one based on 'no deal' with the EU being reached.

That scenario will plunge the UK economy into recession as all our trading partners, old and new, impose WTO tariffs, whilst the pound falls still further adding to the cost of living woes of millions of people in this country. Wages will remain static for even longer than predicted by the Chancellor in last month's budget and thousands of jobs will relocate to the continent.

In addition, the UK will become vulnerable to the demands of global economic sharks like Trump's America and China as we go cap in hand for trade deals without any real leverage in the subsequent negotiations. All of this because of the incompetence of politicians who preached that it would be all so easy but, when it came to the crunch, were unable to deliver on their promises.

The time has come to call a halt, admit that Brexit is not in our national interest and abandon the process altogether. That is the only way we will ever get back control over our own destiny.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Should Nigel Farage give up his EU pension?

Having railed constantly against the European Union gravy train for decades, one would have thought that Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage would set an example by putting his principles where his wallet is. That though is not how the former UKIP leader sees things.

According to the Independent, Farage refused to pass on the money when challenged on the Andrew Marr Show, demanding to know why his family should suffer for his beliefs and actions.

Farage is entitled to an estimated annual pension of £73,000, which he would be able to claim in ten years time at the age of 63.

As sympathetic as I am to the plight of Nigel Farage's family, it does seem to be faintly hypocritical to attack the European Parliament for its very existence and then to benefit from its largesse, whether he is entitled to or not.

The fact is that UKIP has built its organisation around the money it gets from the EU, whilst at the same time campaigning for us to leave. If we leave the EU they should be made to pay it all back.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Theresa May misplaces an entire agenda

A number of people with inside knowledge have told me that the UK Government's fixation with Brexit has left the machinery of government with little appetite or capacity for anything else. That is certainly one explanation being mooted for the delay in a decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon by those who still think it may yet happen.

The truth of this insight has displayed itself again today with the decision of a key government advisor and his entire team to quit. Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the government’s social mobility commission, said that he and all three of his fellow commissioners were walking out, including a leading conservative, Gillian Shephard, because the prime minister is failing in her pledge to build a “fairer Britain”.

The Observer says that Milburn's resignation letter warns that dealing with Brexit means the government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality":

“I have little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain,” he tells the prime minister. “It seems unable to commit to the future of the commission as an independent body or to give due priority to the social mobility challenge facing our nation.”

According to the paper Milburn says failing to deal with the inequalities that fuelled the Brexit vote would simply lead to a rise of political extremes: 'In a devastating assessment of the lack of progress, Milburn says: “The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it. It’s almost better never to say that you’ll do anything about it.

“It’s disappointing at least that the government hasn’t got its shoulder to the wheel in the way it should to deal with these structural issues that lead to social division and political alienation in the country.

“In America for 30 years real average earnings have remained flat. Now here the chancellor is predicting that will last for 20 years. That has a consequence for people, but a political consequence as well. It means more anger, more resentment and creates a breeding ground for populism.”

It is understood that Shephard, former Tory education secretary and deputy chair of the commission, will also resign. She is said by friends to be “absolutely livid” with the way in which the commission has been treated. The social mobility commission, set up by Nick Clegg under the coalition government, advises ministers on the issue and monitors progress. Its most recent report last week warned of a “striking geographical divide”, with London and its surrounding areas pulling away while many other parts of the country are left behind.

Given that the Prime Minister used her first speech in Downing Street after taking office to vow to tackle social injustice and inequality this is a massive blow to her agenda.

It appears that not only is Brexit making us poorer as a country and weaker on the world stage, vulnerable to the blandishments of right wingers such as Donald Trump, but also it is distracting Government from one of its key missions, to improve the lot of UK citizens.

Surely it is time for a rethink.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Should Meghan Markle set a precedent for other non-UK nationals?

Back in September the Guardian reported that the European commission is examining the increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from Britain and has warned it will take “appropriate action” against Theresa May’s government if it believes the rights of EU nationals are being compromised.

They add that detentions and enforced removals of EU citizens from the UK have risen sharply since the Brexit vote, prompting critics to claim the Home Office is deliberately targeting EU nationals as part of the “hostile environment” May promised for those she believes should not be in the country.

In addition as the Migration Observatory advises, in 2016, 39,626 people were removed from the UK or departed voluntarily after the initiation of removal. The UK removed 6,171 foreign national offenders in 2016. Almost 5 out of every 10 people (48%) deported or voluntarily removed from the UK in 2016 were nationals of Asian countries. Nationals of India, Pakistan, and Romania made up 32% of the 2016.

In that context a few letters in today's Guardian are of interest:

Judy Clement from York asks: 'While Prince Harry would certainly meet the minimum income requirement, will Meghan, as a US national, have to return home to live for up to a year or even longer while her partner visa comes through, as would my non-EEA daughter-in-law if she wished to reside in this country with her British husband and their two dual-nationality sons?'

Whilst Austen Lynch from Gatstang in Lancashire adds: 'As an aspiring British citizen, will Meghan Markle be required to sit the complete citizenship test, including the written questions on the role of the monarchy? Or will Britannia waive the rules?'

These are fair point. As Corinne Boyce from Swainsthorpe in Norfolk says: 'I wonder if the happy couple will find themselves at the “wrong end of an uncaring bureaucracy” which is blighting the lives of ordinary British citizens who fall in love with foreign nationals.'

Like others I extend my best wishes to Harry and Meghan. I hope they will be very happy and have a long and fruitful marriage. However, rather than Meghan being the exception to UK immigration law and practises wouldn't it be nice if, in future, the way she is treated becomes the standard for everybody else in her situation.

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