Monday, 11 November 2019

My second election blog: What worries the Nats.

On the face of it the first Scotland wide poll published since the election was called (although its fieldwork pre-dated that) was good news for the SNP. 42% and almost twice the votes of their nearest rivals (The Tories).

But, in truth they have four quite separate worries.

The first is that they are aware of a tendency, that I have already alluded to in my previous blog, for Westminster Scottish polling to overstate their support. They themselves realise that constant references to Westminster as a "foreign" parliament, necessary for their wider project, is hardly a strong point when arguing that their supporters must nonetheless turn out to vote in its elections. The big thing about 2017 was not that the opposition Parties gained lots of votes but rather than the SNP lost them. I wouldn't bet on them having got them back.

The second is that they fear being caught in a pincer. They worry on the one hand about leeching votes to the Lib Dems, who are the "quiet life" Party in Scotland promising "no more referendums" but also promising remain. This will lose them no seats directly to the Libs, except obviously Fife NE, but it certainly, under first past the post, sees them losing seats to others. They also worry however about how their own, now more, far more, than 2017, express commitment to Remain will play with the forgotten 38% of Scottish politics. Those who voted leave in 2016, a good one third of whom at least, by most calculation, had voted Yes in 2014. Brexit wasn't really an issue in Scotland in 2017. It will be this time.

Thirdly, they worry about their closeness to the idea of making Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. He is not, by any means, the sole reason for Scottish Labour's current unpopularity. He is, nonetheless, exceptionally unpopular. Almost as much in Scotland as in England.  And yet given the way the Nats have positioned themselves, the  only way now to ensure he never enters Downing Street is to vote for the Tories or the Lib Dems. I bet, given the chance, Nicola would turn back time to adopt the Jo Swinson position of possible support for a Labour Government but never for one led by Corbyn. Then again, as she juggles the nationalist balls in the air, that might risk losing populist votes elsewhere.

And finally, they worry about the weather. Not really extreme weather that would affect all parties equally but just dreich horrible weather. The SNP are blessed, if that's the right word, by some front line supporters who would, to their credit I suppose, walk five miles barefoot through a snowdrift to cast their votes for "Freedum!" But their leadership are acutely aware that they also have more or less a monopoly of those who, on the day, depending on the day, look out the window and might not feel bothered to vote at all. Roll on the sleet.

Now, there remain lots of things to encourage the Nats. Nobody suggests they won't remain Scotland's largest party on 13th December. They have however set the bar so high for themselves, and the stakes are so high for them, that I suspect Nicola would bite your arm off now if offered the deal of a single net gain on 13th December. For she gets what a single net loss would mean.

But I finish with a telling example. In 2017, I highlighted what I described as "secret seats", meaning seats that no-one thought in play but I believed might change hands. A lot of them then did. So here's my 2019 secret seat. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. SNP vote 2015, 50.1%. SNP vote 2017, 39.9%. But that's not the really telling thing. Tory vote 2015, 5.9%. Tory vote 2017, (an astonishing) 30.5%. Apply what I say above and I think we can at least speculate it will soon be somebody else joining the Caledonian Sleeper.

Next blog, excusing events, I will turn my attention to the Labour Party. North and South.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

My first election blog.

I say with due modesty that, back in 2017, I wrote a series of blogs, in the last of which I pretty much predicted the result of the 2017 General Election in Scotland. Feel free to look them up. They were written against the received wisdom of the day, even among those equally ill disposed to Scottish Nationalism as am I. Which received wisdom was, like it or lump it, that the Nats would pretty much stand still on their annus miraculis of 2015, when they had taken more or less every seat in Scotland.

In 2017, once the people had spoken however,  the proof was in the eating. And received opinion suddenly found itself hungry. 21 seats hungry.

My starting point tonight is pretty much the same. Once again that the "received opinion" of the day, that the Nats will make significant gains, is simply wrong. They will probably stand more or less still but the opening question about the "Scottish" election should not be about how many seats the Scottish Tories will lose but rather about how many they will gain.

Let us start by looking at the polls,

Here is every opinion poll on Westminster voting since 2017. Since I'm assuming an informed readership I'm not bothering with a graphic, just a link,

Now, what does that tell you? Well, first of all, that its a bit odd that in pretty much every poll the SNP percentage exceeds anything they actually got when real people actually voted. Which might suggest sampling error. But also that, even excluding this possibility, that the "nationalist" vote bumps along somewhat short of the infamous 45%. Let along the 49% they got in 2015.

Yes (or whatever) you say, but the Tories are still in the low twenties.As indeed they are. Except that a fair bit of the overall percentage is, in the later polls, given to the Brexit Party. Who in most places won't actually be standing, or at least seriously competing. And where do these voters go in that circumstance? Add, shall we say, 4 points from the Brexit Party to the Tory column and then run the figures again through the electoral calculus own calculating tool, even giving the Nats their supposed 38.9% and the Tories lose precisely four seats. Logically, they would be Ayr, Ochil, Gordon and Stirling.

But in all of them there are particular circumstances in that the Tories  came from third place in each in 2017, leaving a significant "unionist" vote in the hands of other Parties , some of such voters we can assume were confused about where to place any anti nationalist tactical vote. I'll be very surprised indeed if the Tories lose Gordon, or Ayr or Ochil this time round. But almost as much to the point, most of the other Scottish Tory seats are just about as safe as any seat is in a four Party system. Solid majorities of around 5,000. or above.

Whereas, and here is where things get really interesting, the second most marginal Scottish Tory seat (Gordon) has a majority of 2,607. No fewer than eighteen SNP seats have smaller majorities.And 22 of under 3,000.  Most over Labour (of which more later) but five: North Perth, Lanark, Central Ayrshire, Edinburgh South West and Argyll. over the Tories. I see no reason the Tories won't take four of these. The exception is Edinburgh South West, which is very posh but also very "remainy" and where the incumbent, Joanna Cherry, is, like her or not, a very prominent "remainy" MP.

So, even giving the Nats Stirling the other way, by no means a given, the Tories would be up a net three. Even assuming a UK wide landslide didn't deliver them the three way marginals of Edinburgh North or (God forbid) East Lothian.

Now, before going on to look at the prospects for my own Party, a brief word about the Libs. They are up in both Scottish and UK polls but, except for the four seats they hold and NE Fife, anywhere else their starting point is nowhere. In only two seats beyond these five are they even third. There has been talk of the Tories not really trying in Ross, Cromarty and Skye (where they are second) in the hope of unseating Ian Blackford but, majority 5K plus, I can't see it, much as I would like to. The Libs however will regain NE Fife (SNP Majority 2) at a canter. They might well have have done so already in 2017 but for a returning officer wanting to go to his bed.

And so to Labour, second in 16 of these 22 seats where the SNP Majority is less than 3,000.

Well, the most likely thing is that we'll gain none of them. And, what's more, lose 6 of our existing 7. Possibly East Lothian to the Tories but otherwise all "back" to the SNP.

But, hope springs eternal. Two things might happen. Corbyn might once again enjoy a campaign "surge". In 2017, had we pulled resources from the quixotic attempt to regain Eastwood, we would almost certainly have won half a dozen seats in "proper" greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire. Either Kez was completely campaign deaf or, "once a volunteer", knew exactly what she was doing in that exercise. More sympathetic to "the project" leadership this time at least won't make that "mistake". Alternatively, once it is clear there is no danger of Corbyn actually winning, we might pick up some tactical anti Nat votes in the latter stages of the campaign. Although the polling and by-election results have been terrible, there remains a defiant core vote on which to o be built . That tactical add on simply didn't happen in 2017. Where Labour won, or lost narrowly, the Tory vote actually went up. As indeed did the Labour vote in the seats where the Tories defeated the SNP. If however a "unionist together" phenomena happens, where the Greens choose to stand might prove critical.

Anyway, we'll see.

For the moment my prediction is this. SNP 34 (-1) Tories 17 (+4) Libs 5 (+1) Labour 3 (-4).

But I reserve the right to revisit that as the campaign develops

Saturday, 12 October 2019


I've been to busy to do much blogging but to be honest I've also been at a loss as to what to blog about.

I know this is the weekend of the SNP Conference, so there will be once again much puffery about another Independence referendum over the next few days. But it has been clear for months, if not in truth forever, that whether there will be second such vote will depend on the outcome of the next Holyrood election. Which the Nationalists propose to hold in 2021.

And that to be honest suits the SNP. For their wiser heads know that virtually all polling indicates that, currently, they would lose such a contest. That's why they have quietly, last month, introduced the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill for the precise purpose of postponing for a year the next Scottish General Election. Which, without this legislation, would otherwise be in May 2020.

If Nicola was serious about an early referendum what better way to advance her cause than by seeking and securing an express mandate for it in just over six months? Instead she is running away. The only strategic outcome the SNP leadership seek from their Aberdeen Conference is, for internal Party management reasons, to give the impression they are serious about an early contest when in reality they are quite the opposite.

I'll only say three other things in passing.

The first is to observe that, given it is an open secret that the date of his next court appearance will be 18th November, the Alex Salmond Indictment is likely to be served next week. It would be quite entertaining if that happened during the Conference.

The second is that by the next SNP Conference in the Spring there is every likelihood Salmond's trial will be over. So the possibility that this will be Nicola's last conference as Party leader seems strangely overlooked by the press.

And the third.......I'll come back to the third. For it is connected to my other theme today, inevitably, Brexit.

Predicting the next week is not easy because of the opacity of what is happening in the EU/UK negotiations but there seems at least a possibility that Boris will get a deal. For the purpose of what I say below, I will assume that to be the case.

Boris with a deal is a very different creature from Mrs May with a deal. Those Tory MP's who believe that "No deal" is actually the best outcome are truly small in number. The vast bulk of the "hold outers" on the May deal did so in the belief that someone else could get a better deal. Their problem is that this someone else was......Boris. So that argument goes away. And indeed some of them might actually persuade themselves that Boris's deal is better, although in truth it is at best only likely to be (slightly) different. The killer argument however for more or less all the Tories to get behind a deal is twofold. The alternative to Boris's deal is not no deal. It is extension. And extension leads not to a second referendum (there is still no Commons majority for that) but certainly to a General Election as a result of which a second referendum might become inevitable.

And also, if you think things through, the Tory manifesto at that election would be for the Boris deal, so those still opposed could hardly stand as Tory candidates. Indeed they might not be given any choice in that matter.

So everything says the Tories get behind a deal and while they might lose the DUP in the process they get back almost all the rebels and, it would appear, (this time) peel off sufficient Labour MPs to get the deal through the Commons.

So then what?

Well, obviously an election.

Although when might be a different matter. A done deal requires a sitting Commons to pass the necessary supporting legislation. So dissolution before 31st October seems unlikely. Dissolution after 31st October however takes the date of the Election into December. Never mind how the public might react to Christmas being "spoiled", the prospect of the weather intervening becomes a real prospect, even more so in January and February. Certainly there was a February election in 1974 but it was on the very last day of the month. So my money would be on March. That would also give the Tories the opportunity to promote the more popular of their policies, possibly even setting legislative bear traps for the opposition in the process.

But the other question is what happens to the opposition. Labour will probably stick with Corbyn and resign itself to disastrous defeat. One thing however is certain. If Corbynism, in truth essentially the politics of perpetual opposition, survives the man himself as the dominant strand of internal Labour opinion, then, if there hasn't been a realignment on the centre left before the election, there will most certainly be one afterwards. Even assuming Labour, initially, remains the principal opposition Party in the Commons. Not perhaps a big if but certainly a small if.

But here I come back to where I started, Scottish politics.

The assumption has been that the 2021 Holyrood election will at the very least deliver an SNP plurality and thus a continued Nationalist Government. A fair assumption. For while the nationalists conduct of the devolved administration has been pretty mediocre, as outlined most recently even by their Common Weal allies, Scottish Labour is currently in an unelectable condition, while the Tories remain toxic in urban west central Scotland. Where most people actually live. And the two together as an alternative administration is inconceivable.

My own suspicion is that the more managerial Nats wouldn't mind a 2021 result that denied them the votes for a second referendum (which they fear they would lose), so long as it delivered them the votes to remain in office. They are for playing the long, "inevitability", game.

But realignment would be realignment. A specifically anti populist, fact based, politics of the centre left. The politics of John Smith and Donald Dewar.  To actually get things done. That's my third point. And where better to put that to an early test than in Scotland in 2021?

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Far too long. Far too detailed

I know many people treat Twitter as an echo chamber gravitating towards following others who share their own views and then spending much of their time agreeing with each other. That has never been my objective on the platform. I follow many of quite different views and am happy on occasion to respectfully agree to disagree.

One of those with whom I most often disagree is Henry Hill, @HCH-Hill, the assistant director of the Tory Website, Conservative Home.

It would be fair to say that our politics could hardly be further apart for Henry isn't just a Tory, he is an ardent Brexiteer and, when it comes to Scottish politics, makes no secret of his belief that the Holyrood Parliament should be abolished altogether!

But he is always polite if combative in our exchanges and we rub along friendedly enough. And very occasionally find ourselves in agreement. No more so than when we found ourselves agreeing that you can't explain British politics since the 2017 General Election without understanding how the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 has completely changed the game.

Prior to 2011, peacetime UK Parliaments had a maximum term of five years. But the governing Prime Minister had the right to seek an earlier dissolution from the Queen which was invariably acceded to, theoretically at least unless there was any prospect of another person being able to command a Commons Majority.

Excepting the special circumstances of October 1974, when Labour, although the largest Party the previous February had no majority or route to a majority, and 1979 when the Government "fell", a broad pattern had emerged whereby a Government sensing victory would go to the Country after four years while one fearing defeat held out the full five. As examples of the former, the Tories in 1983 and 1987, New Labour in 2001 and 2005 and of the latter, the Tories in 1997 and Labour in 2010. Of course things didn't always go to as expected, as discovered by Wilson in 1970 and Heath in February 1974. Or indeed more fortuitously as John Major, having put things off to the very last minute in 1992, found himself to his own pleasant surprise (at least initially) re-elected.

Partly because of these latter arbitrary events, most partisans of the two big Parties were happy enough about this but the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats never were, as they felt controlling the date of the next election gave the Prime Minister's Party an unfair advantage. And when they went into coalition in 2010 they had an additional worry. That David Cameron could call a subsequent election at a time of maximum advantage to the Tories and (potentially) maximum disadvantage to them.

So, as part of the coalition agreement, they insisted that Parliament should sit for a fixed term, eventually agreed at five years, although, to be fair to the Libs, their own initial preference had been for four.

By virtue of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011 this then became the law of the land. Crucially, it still is.

There are now only two ways a Parliament can serve a shorter term. The first is where Parliament itself votes for an early election by a two thirds majority and the second is where the Governing administration is defeated in a vote of confidence in the Commons. Crucially, the right of the serving Prime Minister to go directly to the Monarch to seek an early dissolution by "Royal perogative" has been abolished.

So let's look at the two "worked examples" since 2011.

The first is easy. The 2010 Parliament sat for five years and there then was an election as envisaged which the Tories won and not just Labour but the Liberals also lost.

I assume you already know the disastrous consequence of that although that is not an interpretation Henry would share.

However, come 2017, the Tories believed they would benefit from another, early contest. This was a belief shared across the Parties but the principal opposition Parties could hardly concede that, so, when the Tories proposed going down the two thirds majority route, they could hardly demur. As indeed they didn't. Indeed in normal political times, no opposition Party ever could.

I assume you also know the outcome of this Theresa May masterstroke.

But it is in the aftermath of the 2017 election that the impact of the Fixed Term Parliament Act really strikes home.

As you know, after the 2017 election, Mrs May had a (just) functioning majority for day to day Government thanks to her alliance with the DUP. She had however nothing like a majority for her stated Brexit policy of an orderly exit, particularly after the details of her proposed deal with the EU became known.

But, as she tried to get that deal through the commons she was denied a vital weapon, Prior to 2011, it was open to Prime Ministers, assuming they had cabinet support, to declare any vote a vote of confidence. Members sitting in the name of the governing Party had to support it in the knowledge that, if they didn't, there would be an election. An election where they could hardly expect to be allowed to stand again on the governing Party's ticket. For they, expressly, had no confidence in that Government. But Mrs May didn't have that club in her bag. A vote of no confidence under the 2011 Act must be in particular terms and stand alone from any other issue. So the Tory rebels could happily vote against Mrs May's deal and then, nonetheless, keep her, and more significantly her Party, in power by supporting her in any no confidence vote. As was precisely what happened when Labour laid a vote of no confidence after her defeat on the second "meaningful vote".

Which brings us up to today. And Prime Minister Johnson.

And here is where another piece of legislation comes into play. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I know this is boring but it is important. Section 20(1) of that Act defines "Exit Day" as 31st October 2019. That date can be amended by virtue of s.20(4) of the same legislation (as it has been twice already) but it can only be amended by a "Minister of the Crown". And, even if an election is called, then "Minister(s) of the Crown" would remain in post unless until removed at the request of the current Prime Minister, who remains in turn in office until he resigns or (less likely) is removed from office by HMQ at the behest of an alternative candidate who can, as he cannot, command a Commons majority. I appreciate this all seems arcane but it is, believe me, really important.

For, assuming we are talking about the here and now,  Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister until he is somehow replaced. An election occurring (I'll come back to this), he is still Prime Minister. Even an election resulting in no clear victor, he remains Prime Minister unless he resigns (cf. G. Brown for a few days post the 2010 election). And during all this time, the Ministers of the Crown remain Ministers of the Crown at his recommendation and none of them is ever going to invoke s.20(4) above. So, in summary, if Boris is still Prime Minister on 31st October we are leaving, with or without a deal. Even if he had a damascene conversion to remain, without changing the law, we are leaving with or without a deal.

Now, one of my other twitter pals is Kevin Hague @kevverage. He and I are much politically closer than Henry and I.  But he does draw some good natured criticism from our side of the constitutional divide for his blind faith in the value of graphs and diagrams. I'm more of a words man but the occasional diagram has its place. So here it is


Alright, basically you can't read it. I get that. So let me tell you what it says. It applies the statutory provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. On the assumption that a vote of no confidence is laid and passed successfully on 3rd September, the first day Parliament returns from recess, the earliest date (by law) on which a General Election could take place is Friday 25th October.

Now, even assuming that happened. Even assuming the election resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal Democrats, granting them an absolute majority, the timetable for forming an administration, reconvening Parliament and engaging s.20(4) is so tight as to be practically impossible.

In summary, Boris has already run out the straightforward vote of no confidence route to stop a hard Brexit.

But what if he wants to call an election using the two thirds majority route under the 2011 Act, as Mrs May did in 2017? Well, apart from the man himself ruling that out, for the opposition to play ball would be a mug's game. Sure, if he opted for that on 3rd September, the theoretical Lib Dem landslide might just have enough time. But the Lib Dems aren't going to win a landslide and if he's not now proposing to do it all, he's certainly not going to do it on 3rd September. Within a week even the likes of Richard Burgon would work out that "A socialist Labour Government" would only arrive in office already out of the EU. And having conspired at that end, be even more unlikely to ever be arrived at all. So Parliament needs to continue to sit, which an immediate election specifically rules out.

So checkmate to Boris?

In summary, if he is Prime Minister on the date of any Autumn election before or after 31st October, then yes. We are out without a deal even if he loses that election. That is the import of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Even if we have by then a Government which, given time would repeal it in its entirety. That's the way legislative democracies work.

But there is one way out and it comes back to the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Section 2 essentially provides that there will be an election called within 14 days if Parliament declares it has no confidence in the Government unless within that 14 day period Parliament declares itself to have confidence in a (by implication alternative) Government.

So suppose we vote down Boris but then declare confidence in somebody else? That somebody would have to be in the Commons, have no interest in a (future) long term occupation of the office of Prime Minister yet be patently capable of discharging the role of PM short term. They would almost certainly have to be a Tory and yet not intend to continue in elected office. They would have no interest in appointing an alternative cabinet let alone a host of junior ministers, Their Government would last no longer than a week with one simple task, to invoke section 20(4) of the Withdrawal Act to declare the "Exit Date" to be some time next year. They wouldn't even have to appoint a full administration to do that. Or even a single Minister of the Crown.  For which Minister is better than the Prime Minister? And then, once that was done, they'd declare, as they had in advance of office that they'd happily go down the two thirds majority route for an early election. In which they wouldn't stand and in the aftermath of which they would contentedly stand aside. Their obligation to the Nation done. There is one man who, by now, you have hopefully worked out could fill this role. The Rt. Hon Kenneth Clarke Q.C. M.P.

Now, I'm reasonably sure the Libs and odds and sods remainers would be up for this. Even, for a single vote of confidence, the SNP. But it needs the Labour front bench. About that I'm not so sure. But we'll deal with that if we have to.

Postscript. Since I wrote this a number of others have reached the same conclusion as I do. In the process a number of technical issues have arisen on which it would be appropriate to comment.

The first is what happens to the government and Prime Minister immediately if they lose a vote of confidence? My own view is in practical terms, nothing. The Prime Minister does not have to resign and in my opinion would be daft to do so. The country needs to have a Prime Minister and, if Johnson resigned, the Queen would of necessity have to appoint someone else, even if she knew they did not have a Commons majority. Even if Johnson offered to resign, my inclination is that the Queen would ask him to stay on in a caretaker capacity, a request  he could could hardly refuse.

The second is however how a temporary government could come into being, the suggestion that this would draw the Queen into political controversy? I don't agree with this. It wouldn't be for the Queen to pick some random and invite him or her to "have a go". The approach would have to be the other way, with someone who already had the numbers going to the palace with number and verse on that and then inviting Johnson's dismissal and their own appointment. If necessary, the Commons could hold an indicative vote to show that these numbers exist.

It's important however to note that the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires confidence to be expressed within fourteen days in an actual alternative Government and not simply a hypothetical alternative one. So the sequence requires the Temporary PM to have been appointed before the Commons holds that vote.

Thirdly, there is a suggestion this is all a dead duck as the Labour Front Bench won't play ball.
Corbyn's functionaries are certainly saying that publicly. But if any vote of confidence is delayed even by a few days when Parliament returns, any General Election would have to (by law) take place after a hard Brexit. Nobody gets that better than Dominic Cummings.  If Labour refused to support a temporary halt to that Brexit eventuality it would be expressly clear that this had been what they had done. The electoral consequences of that for (what remains, just) my Party would be cataclysmic. We could easily be the third Party in any such contest.

So it is, in my opinion, still all game to play for.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Enough (Part 1)

Almost thirty years ago I first visited a restaurant, Antica Osteria L'Agania, in Arezzo.

I have written before on this blog as to how it was my favourite restaurant in the whole world, and it was.

It had the look of a typical Italian Trattoria. Dark wood half panelling on the walls, with emulsioned walls above decorated with photographs of famous visitors or testimonials from famously satisfied customers. Together with sepia portraits of past padroni. 

Rickety chairs and tables, the latter covered with red chequered tablecloths with cutlery and napery already in place. You couldn't book and had to turn upon a first come first served basis but the treat ahead justified an early arrival or a long wait for a table.

The whole establishment was presided over by a formidable signora who, even when I first visited, was already of a certain age. She would take your order from a a menu that, despite having a virtual infinity of combinations, consisted of a much photocopied single sheet of A4, with dishes added or deleted according to the season. Antipasto, that was all. Della Casa. Which it would have been a crime to omit. Brushcette, local hams and cheeses, small torte, perhaps a miniature frittata which you suspect varied day to day according to the mood or inclination of the chef. But that was, of course, only the appetiser.

As for the pasta? Six choices, all fatta in casa, together with a similarly numerous choice of sauces with which to combine them. But the discerning diner passed on them all, for, at this stage, the real treat was zuppa. Minestrone or fagioli or...............ribollita. Ribollita to die for. More, truly, a vegetable stew than a soup, for liquid, other than soaked into  the vegetables themselves, was hard to come by. All topped with a single raw young onion, stalk and all, not to be consumed in its entirety but nibbled to refresh the pallet.

And then? The secondi. Roasts or grills or stews of almost bacchanalian choice. But with two personal favourites. Funghi, huge, "portobello" mushrooms grilled or more likely fried in a pan matching the dimension of the mushroom head itself  and...........coniglio in porchetta. Rabbit, stuffed with chopped egg, surplus rabbit meat and every herb known to mankind, all bound together by twine around fennel stalks and then coated in olive oil to keep it moist and so slow roasted you suspected they may have first placed it in the oven while you were still back in Scotland.

And contorni? Di stagione of course but I always opted for the fagioli bianchi. "Butter beans" that did actually taste of butter and were improved even further by the local olive oil.

And while all this was going on? The signora would take your order, nodding, or occasionally frowning, at your choice and, as you ate, inquire "tutto bene?" at polite intervals. If any dish went unfinished only "posto" was an acceptable response. Even about the onion.

I don't ever remember seeing a wine list. The wine was always simply Rosso or Bianco although you always got the impression that anybody opting for the latter would mark them down in the signora's estimation. I always passed that test.

For the dolce?

Frutta or Macedonia certainly, but personally I always opted for Panna Cotta. Those who know me will also know I am a creature of habit in that regard.

And with coffee and (of course) an amarro, the meal was done.

And then for the bill.

The Osteria was five minutes walk from the provincial court in Arezzo's main square. So it became quickly apparent midweek that many of your fellow diners included judges, lawyers and policemen with business there. You would therefor assume it would all be done by the book. Formal invoicing and receipts.

Only it never was. At best, a price would be written on a scrap of paper. Commonly, the signora would simply whisper it in your ear. Always far less than you expected and, equally always, ridiculously cheap. And, without saying, only to be paid in cash.

Hopefully, by now, you will understand how much I loved this place.

I also love, very much,this part of Italy. So much so that I visit it more or less every other year.

Andi and I had been there two years ago but had never got to Arezzo on that occasion.

So we returned this year for the first time in three years.

The place looked the same but even an early arrival found it strangely empty.

There was no signora and while the young man who served us seemed perfectly pleasant we were rather taken aback to be given menus not of the A4 sheet but rather laminated pre printed card. The dishes seemed the same but, ominously, also featured English translations. A wine list was also handed over from which the continued survival of a house wine had to be carefully worked out.

The antipasto consisted of, on the one hand, nothing that you couldn't have bought in Lidl in Kilsyth but even then in meagre quantity disguised by half a plateful of Panzanella.

Andi opted for a mushroom as a primo. She actually got several small mushrooms that would, to be fair, have provided a reasonable garnish to a full Scottish breakfast. I had the ribollita, which was alright but under seasoned and the whole onion bulb and stalk had been  replaced with a quarter of.....a raw onion.

Andi's roast duck was utterly tasteless while my coniglio was lacking stuffing of any sort and over roasted to the point of tasting, and having the consistency of, sawdust.

As for the fagioli bianchi? I suspect they came out of a tin.

All brought to us efficiently but indifferently, even when it was clear we had eaten so little of the main course.

But, almost more to the point, the whole establishment, where people used to queue to get in, remained no more than half full throughout. And those who were eating were almost entirely tourists, lured, one suspects, by historic tripadvisor reviews. The local lawyers and the like were clearly well gone.

The "new management", which we had only now encountered, was obviously already well known to them.

There was a proper bill and, to be fair, it wasn't expensive, although still more than in years gone by.

From the street the establishment looked the same but it wasn't the same. In truth nothing like the same. I doubt if I will ever be back.

I'm really quite upset about that.

Now, you say, why does a guy who writes mainly about politics write about this?

That's what the (Part 1) in the title is about.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Problem shared, problem solved?

Everybody seems to me to be asking the wrong question about Labour's brexit policy.

All of the focus is on whether or not we should be backing a second referendum but, with respect, this is almost irrelevant.

A significant number of Labour MPs will not vote to hold a second referendum, whether or not that becomes Party policy, and no more than a handful of Tory MPs will ever support a second vote, so there is no prospect of that proposition securing a House of Commons majority.

I should note, in passing, that there might have been some prospect of the Kyle/Wilson plan coming to fruition whereby the government conceded a second referendum in exchange for Labour support for the Withdrawal Agreement but it is clear that, with Mrs May's departure, the always very faint prospect of this has gone.

However, it is also clear that there is no majority in the current House of Commons for leaving the EU without a deal or any appetite at all on the part of the EU to remove the backstop. So, if we discount the farcical idea of proroguing Parliament, and the equally improbable eventuality of the EU throwing us out, one of two things will eventually happen. Either Mrs May's deal will pass, making a referendum irrelevant, or there will be a general election.

And the key question to be asked is not whether Labour would back a second referendum now but rather what Labour's policy would be at that General Election. It makes simply no sense for that policy to be a "better Brexit" (whatever that is) plus a referendum on that better "Brexit" with an option to remain. Why, if the government had been elected on a promise to Brexit, better or otherwise, would they then wish to give the public the opportunity to reject the government's own policy? How would the Labour Party anticipate campaigning in such a referendum? Against the "achievement" of its own government?

The truth is that calculated ambiguity may be a tactic for opposition but it is inconceivable as the position of a government. The Labour Party manifesto will have to say whether or not we support remaining in the EU. And if, advised by the first referendum, we don't, logically it should say that we would leave. And if we say we would leave, we will also have to say what we will do if the EU refuse to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or at least to concede in full the changes we seek (whatever they are). Would we then leave on the best terms available or would we stay in? I point out that, if it is the latter option, the EU would have no incentive to renegotiate at all.

But of course things are not even as simple as that. For, even with the grip Corbyn and his allies currently have on the organs of the Party, I find it difficult to see how they would engineer a situation where the Labour Party manifesto committed us to leaving at any price. Most candidates wouldn't stand for it and most activists wouldn't work for it. "They did in 2017!" I hear you protest but 2017 was a long time ago and, frankly, nobody thought for a moment we had any chance of getting elected in 2017. Next time will be different (possibly).

Now you might think that the solution was, on a circular argument.........another referendum! But think through the logic of that. The only conceivable options in that other referendum would be Mrs May's deal or remain. But we are on record as denouncing Mrs May's deal as a terrible deal (albeit in rather unspecified ways) and have voted against it as consistently as the hardest of ERGers. Our manifesto could (surely) not say "we will let you have a vote and encourage you to vote to stay but if you don't we will go away and implement this terrible deal."

In the end leaving or remaining is a binary choice. Either Labour is for one or the other. There is no third way.

And by the way, pretty much everything I say above applies with equal force to the Lib Dems. Except that I am in no doubt about what their manifesto will say. "Bollocks to Brexit" works. "Bollocks to Brexit (subject to a referendum)" doesn't.

And also, by the way, Labour has a (relatively) easy way out of this dilemma. They could vote for the deal currently on offer (with some cosmetic changes to the political declaration) and defuse the car crash coming. They would then have to resign themselves to this Parliament going full term but by 2022 it might all just seem a long time ago and in any event a fait accompli. For what it's worth, if you listen carefully to Rory Stewart, that's what I believe, as PM, he would anticipate explaining calmly and logically as is his wont, behind closed doors to my own Party's leadership.

For if, by the time of the next election, we haven't left the EU, that's as much of a problem for Labour as it is for the Tories.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Question Time

I have a tribal allegiance to the Scottish Labour Party. I joined it forty five years ago and have been a member all of my adult life.

But, to be honest, it's pretty much finished.

I could write lots and lots about why that is, in a kind of melancholic way, but the truth is that Jack wasn't Donald, Wendy wasn't Jack, Ian wasn't Wendy, Johann wasn't Ian, Jim wasn't Johann, Kez wasn't Jim and Richard wasn't Kez. I'm ignoring Henry but would remind you in passing that such a person was, despite his utter mediocrity, capable of being, briefly, First Minister of Scotland. Because of the dominance, and hubris, my Party once enjoyed. But this hasn't just been about leaders. They all (except Henry), on assumption of office, promised a different way of "turning things round", from just about every shade of internal Party opinion. And they all, in steadily increasing degrees of failure, have failed.

But while there may be a point about talking about the past, for those who do not lessons the errors of the past are doomed to repeat them, I want instead to talk about the future.

The SNP administrations since 2007 have been, with one exception, utter failures. Nobody thinks education, or health, or transport have been improved under their dismal stewardship, Nobody. Few, except their most rabid partisans, truly tries to maintain otherwise.

Yet they have enjoyed two huge advantages. The first is their one success. It has been to convince a very significant section of the electorate that things cannot possibly get better until we are "free of the English Yoke". Whereupon things will somehow magically improve. You and I might scratch our heads over this but that's not the point. It is an undoubted accomplishment, of sorts.

However their second advantage has been the lack of a competent opposition and, with that, the lack of a credible alternative.

Back in 2016, Ruth Davidson got that. Her platform was, by her own admission, not to make her, there and then, First Minister, but rather Leader of the Opposition. An ambition in which she succeeded.

But, even then, the Nats relaxed in the knowledge that at any future contest, even if the Tories advanced further still, they would still lack allies to threaten the recent SNP hegemony. For the Labour Party would never enter a coalition with the Tories based, alone, on a common commitment to the continuance of the UK.

And that's probably a fair calculation.

Except that the changed landscape of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 may have crept up on them as the Independence Referendum of 2014 crept up on the Scottish Labour Party.

I was going to expand on this thesis, except that I know I have an informed readership, so I will leave you through to think that through for yourselves.

And also to work out why the SNP decided to set their cybernat dogs on Jo Swinson over what was nothing more than a two minute exchange on last Thursday's Question Time. About which Swinson was, on any objective analysis, subsequently proved correct.

An emerging alternative Government of Scotland is......emerging.

The next First Minister of Scotland will clearly be Mike Russell or Derek McKay, because Nicola clearly wont survive the Salmond trial, whatever the verdict. If Henry could get the job, then why shouldn't they? But the First Minister after that?

Things can only get better.