MICHAEL WHITE: Storms are gathering for vulnerable Theresa May

PUBLISHED: 00:01 21 April 2018

MHT Empire Windrush. Picture: Gary Barker.

MHT Empire Windrush. Picture: Gary Barker.

Gary Barker

MICHAEL WHITE on gathering storms for vunerable May while Corbyn catches the mood

The politically-loaded phrase ‘regime change’ is back in the headlines in the wake of the West’s retaliation against the renewed use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. We routinely use it about governments in faraway countries of which we disapprove. But what if fundamental regime change is staring us all in the face at home?

I pose the question because the kind of people who have run British foreign policy – domestic policy too – throughout most of our lives have deplored Jeremy Corbyn’s scepticism towards the Assad regime’s culpability in the recent Commons exchanges and elsewhere. They felt the same when he asked for more proof that Russian agents tried to poison the Skripals in Salisbury.

But opinion polling suggests that more voters share the Labour leader’s doubts about Friday night’s US/UK and French air strikes than back his critics, 40% to 36% (24% undecided) according to a post-bombing Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday, assiduously reported by the Edinburgh-based, Moscow-edited Sputnik news agency.

An earlier poll had leaned the other way, public opinion is volatile and uncertain as it braces for what experts warn may be cyber-retaliation, not a router problem at home. Younger voters’ experience is so different to the baby boomers raised on Cold War assumptions.

So by 54% to 30% UK voters also backed the Corbyn position on a prior ‘war powers’ vote in parliament, though I felt Theresa May’s defence was good enough, especially when having to coordinate timing with more eager allies. But people don’t trust their leaders or their expert advisers in the way they once might have done. There have been too many disappointments.

As a result we live in an age of scepticism, albeit one strangely mixed with credulous sentimentality towards glib, populist rascals who might once have been shown the door. That and the many forms of online information warfare which Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Frankenstein has helped the rascals disseminate.

In his Congressional testimony even hard-hearted Zuckerberg seemed a bit disappointed about the way things are turning out. It is a grim thought that, just as Gutenberg’s printing press (200 Bibles in 1455) led to Martin Luther’s revolt against the corrupt clerical elite (1517) and 130 years of bloody religious wars, the new information revolution may prove as unpredictably disruptive.

It’s a bit of a leap from Luther’s attack on medieval clerical rackets to the Brexit and Trump populist revolts against the governing classes, let alone to Corbyn’s grassroots campaign against austerity, neoliberalism and other Blairite wickedness, liberal interventionism in foreign policy included.

All have been skilfully advanced via YouTube, Twitter and other online tools to offset the scornful hostility of Fleet Street’s dead-tree medium. Who knows how Labour’s latest offer of free bus travel for the under-25s is playing off-radar in this key electoral cohort, despite scepticism about its wisdom, cost and practicality from the usual suspects?

I couldn’t help making this uneasy comparison when watching television coverage of Sunday’s People’s Vote campaign – more than 1,000 in attendance – in the Electric Ballroom venue in Camden, North London, “trendy Camden”, as the tabloids put it, predictably but also true.

About time too, you may feel. At last nine anti-Brexit campaigns had come together to promote the cause of a second referendum on the eventual terms which Theresa May’s government negotiate to leave the EU – with the possibility of staying in it if voters so decide. The ‘People’s Vote’ eh, it has a positive ring to it.

The government has so far failed to pass any of the necessary legislation, failed even to introduce half the bills needed to repatriate EU rules and regulations into domestic law, so the Guardian reminded us this week. But the timetable for a Barnier/Davis trade deal is this autumn. Before then, the veteran Lord Chris Patten is inviting peers to reinstate continued membership of the customs union into the flagship EU Withdrawal Bill. Tick, tock, goes Barnier’s clock.

On the pavement outside the Electric Ballroom, Andrew Adonis got a clear four minutes to make his case straight to camera on the BBC News Channel item I watched. Surely that was proof that the Farage-style counter-intimidation that he was expounding in last week’s New European is having some effect on those craven executives at Broadcasting House.

Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, aka actor Patrick Stewart, also got some air-time, as famous faces easily do in our celebrity-orientated culture. Is Stewart still famous among the under-25s? I’ve no idea. But the whole thing had a musty, old-fashioned feel to it and no game-changing facts or figures on the platform. Anna Soubry and Chuka, Caroline Lucas, a Lib Dem called Layla Moran, comedian Andy Parsons? Well, OK, but….

What did surprise me was not that the next day’s Daily Mail contained a bitchy account (“Beam Them Up! Star Trek captain joins MPs on Planet Bremoan”), but that none of the stalwart Remain newspapers – not the Guardian, the Times or the FT – thought the event worth properly reporting, though Scotland’s pro-SNP paper, the National, did. So did Camden’s Ham and High.

I realise that local anti-Brexit events, meetings and high street leafletting sessions, take place all over the country. But they don’t seem to get a lot of traction, do they? Fatalism is reflected in polls which find that even many of pro-Remain’s 48% of voters want Theresa May to ‘get it over with’ and move on, making the best of the outcome.

That’s what the People’s Vote is up against and you sense that a single launch in North London, not a blitz across northern England, suggests they know that too. Last week’s £50 million cash float for a new Centre Party sank quite quickly. I am reminded yet again of WB Yeats’ bleak lines from The Second Coming. “The best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So that’s how it happens, is it?

A passionately pro-EU friend of mine copied me into a critique of the People’s Vote stance the other day: divided goals (soft Brexit option anyone?); the lack of positive pro-European arguments and simple ready-to-use facts or online tools (paywall links aren’t much use to young voters); fresh emphasis on local projects in jeopardy through loss of EU funding; the need to make the forward case for EU migration – we need the staff – in the face of visceral anti-immigrant campaigning. And so on. Painful to read, but my energetic friend is right.

Meanwhile Brexit’s endgame trade talks resumed in Brussels this week and the Brexit news on all fronts continues to be mixed. Record employment at 32 million, but stalled wages. Ford pledges its continued commitment to produce car engines in Dagenham and Bridgend (and thus “defies Brexit doom-mongers” proclaims the Express). But Vauxhall – a division of French PSA – prepares to slash UK dealerships as sales slump while Jaguar Land Rover, a huge success story under its Indian ownership, cuts 1,000 production jobs for similar reasons.

The reasons are always complicated. It’s as daft to blame them on Brexit as to say Brexit has no impact on corporate calculations, though that’s not the way it’s reported. Goldman Sachs boss, Lloyd Blankfein, the cheeky chappie who once tweeted how lovely Frankfurt is (but only once), is now saying the Brexit exodus from the City has been less “dramatic” than he feared. That bit gets him headlines, not his codicil that worse is yet to come.

The inescapable fact remains that the Remain enthusiasts who packed into Camden’s Electric Ballroom included many people who predicted the June 23 vote would have a much more dramatic and immediate economic impact than it has so far had. They were wrong – so far. But it’s like climate change. At the end of a very odd winter new evidence suggests the UK’s Gulf Stream central heating system is weakening, but many people just want to avert their gaze and hope for the best. It’s a very human response.

As regular readers know, my own hunch is that, in the absence of a dramatic shift in public opinion generated by dramatic economic damage, the only scenario which will derail Brexit as a risk too great to take would be a major world crisis. You can take your pick as to which one. This week the Middle East is No.1 flashpoint, next week it could be North Korea again, or even Salisbury, the sacking of Robert Mueller just as the Yellowstone magma chamber finally blows.

On the positive side, the Pentagon’s victory over the Trump White House – James Mattis over John Bolton, if you prefer – in limiting last week’s Syria raid and effectively communicating that intention to Moscow, was a triumph of old school Cold War hot lines, possibly fibre optic ones. No Russians got killed. Phew! But we shouldn’t bank on it any more than we should bank on the eurozone’s economic uptick to sustain UK exports or the Merkel-Macron axis to deliver urgent reform. That’s running out of steam too and Macron was in Strasbourg on Tuesday warning MEPs of “illiberal” forces en marche and of a European civil war. Luther again?

All of which means that centrists in all parties, the natural core of the People’s Vote lobby, remain vulnerable to what amounts to ‘regime change’ advocates of both left and right, those who don’t think much of the EU, or Nato, of the IMF and WTO, all the post-war alphabet soup or parts of it. Think of Steve Bannon meeting Jacob Rees-Mogg. Think Diane Abbott supporting just the Second World War (which she might not have done in 1939).

Curiously lacking much evident contrition, the centre is blamed by many voters for getting the Iraq War and pre-war intelligence badly wrong – hence the scepticism over Syrian chemical attacks – and for failing to spot the banking system was out of control before its near-collapse triggered 10 years of austerity that has been unevenly distributed. Oh yes, and complacency of tech and China devouring industrial jobs.

The list of expert incompetence is a long one. Those car sale problems reflect wrong government advice on ‘clean’ diesel engines that can also be laid at the EU’s German door. Just ahead of this week’s Commonwealth conference Amber Rudd belatedly acknowledged the fear and expense caused to 50,000 blameless, Afro-Caribbean ‘Windrush Children’ by the Home Office’s “hostile environment” drive against illegal immigration.

It smacks of both incompetence and callousness (again). Grovelling isn’t enough. Wasn’t the Commonwealth meant to be Brexit’s new Best Friend Forever? In which case, how could the authorities let it happen? Why did ministers not spot it? It is a Grenfell Tower question and the fact that either failure is open to crude accusations of class or racial bias for party political advantage does not diminish it.

A better opposition than Corbyn-led Labour should also have raised legitimate questions sooner. But ministers are in charge. Irish “shibboleth” gaffes by shadow trade minister, Barry Gardiner, or Diane Abbott’s latest own goal, matter, but not in the same way, not today. May and Rudd’s apology is unlikely to calm fears of the three million EU residents in Britain either. Aggressive bluster followed by retreat sounds too Trump-like.

An early test of how English voters currently see the big picture is due on May 3 when seats for a host of local authorities – and some mayors – are contested. The collapse of UKIP – like a bee it stung on June 23 and died – leaves a lot of disengaged votes there for the taking by either Tories or Labour, who are on roughly 40:40 level pegging at national level.

Local issues matter locally, but the big picture impinges. My local Labour council (Hammersmith) is asking voters to strike a blow against Brexit for London’s prosperity. In nearby Kensington Tory folly before as well as after the Grenfell fire may make an impact. In Barnet Labour’s hopes of taking control may be hit by the anti-Semitism row which Corbyn has handled so badly. Tory Trafford in Greater Manchester? A long shot. Remember EU citizens have local voting rights.

Either way the maths mean Labour will make net gains, thereby consolidating the Corbynites’ near-total grip on the party machinery and their introspective sense of electability in 2022, if this parliament lasts that long (I still think it will). Much has been made of the Labour leader’s equivocation and dishonesty over Syria, as it was over the Skripal poisonings, the Jewish controversy and the public finances for that matter.

In his exchanges with May – and in Monday’s under-reported late night debate which resulted in a 314-36 vote defeat for the SNP – Corbyn made valid points about the desirability of negotiations to end Syria’s agony. He condemned the Assad regime in severe terms. But, like the inter-war Peace Pledge Union which continued to urge negotiations with Hitler until after Dunkirk, he remains persistently naïve or disingenuous about the barrier to such progress: Moscow’s UN veto and its military shield around its client regime in Damascus.

While Trump’s America dithers, much as Obama’s did, and international institutions get hollowed out from both directions, Vladimir Putin’s forces make facts on the ground. The situation is complex and fraught with danger. Mild-mannered Theresa May is hard to portray as a dog of war, though Corbyn tries to paint her as Trump’s poodle.

If Brexit free marketer Rees-Mogg has had anything useful to say on the subject I missed it. Why wasn’t he standing up for the Windrush Children? Because ‘global Britain’ is an armchair fantasy of people who can’t explain why Germany exports so much to China from inside the EU or why French leaders visit Africa and other emerging markets more than ours do.

Lacking either a commanding presence or the numbers to impose her will on the Commons, Theresa May is vulnerable. If she falls the upheaval may produce no ‘business as usual’ change. Hard right or hard left, the old certainties may be swept away. And you’d better start looking for a new job too, Charlie Windsor. Regime change indeed.

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