Theresa May’s next move

December 16th, 2018


Theresa May’s great political skill, the driving force behind her career, has been the ability to keep her head down. The virtue of ducking out of the firing line is an important one in British politics. When promotion often comes through dead man’s shoes there is a delicate art to making sure others get hit by the flak, of walking through the food fight and coming out only mildly custard-stained. When the other leading figures in your party destroy themselves, and/or each other in ever more convoluted ways it can even get you all the way to being Prime Minister.

Which is where she is, holding a far more important, prestigious, and difficult job than this humble writer will ever hold (tread softly on my dreams commenters, especially regarding my commas), while facing down the traditional bane of Conservative leaders, infighting over Europe.

May’s recent victory (there’s an unusual start to a sentence) has confirmed her as the least unpopular of the possible options. Which, given the possible alternatives, is an achievement that ranks somewhere alongside being acclaimed as the party’s favourite STI (decide for yourselves which one matches each candidate).

It also means she can’t be challenged for a full year, which now seems an unimaginably long period at a time when new disasters come along so often that click-hunting headline writers have to find ways to communicate that this story is actually about a new shambolic crisis and not the one you read about half an hour ago.

The price for this was a promise not to lead the party into the next general election, which really is up there with a turkey making new year’s resolutions. In the event of a snap election they’re hardly going to hold a leadership election (and there isn’t exactly an obvious, consensus, successor) and I don’t think many were expecting her to make it to a hypothetical 2022 election.

So having survived the internal rebellion (and I’m sure the ERG will now fall in line as model supporters) she simply has to retain the official confidence of Parliament with a Brexit vote due in January. Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, et al have started a fun Christmas twitter game of baiting Jeremy Corbyn about calling a vote of no confidence (while avoiding the suggestion they could do it themselves and dare Corbyn not to fall in line).

Corbyn has been very reluctant to do so, probably because he is worried that he doesn’t have the votes and his failure would only strengthen May. The idea that Corbyn would be happier to see May push through a Brexit deal and take the associated blame rather than have to deal with the same policy and party problems himself is of course baseless speculation that I almost totally believe.

Which leads to my advice to Theresa May. Do what your opponent wants least, force a vote of confidence now. Dare the ERG to bring a Tory government down, let the DUP stare at Corbyn and decide if they’d really prefer him as Prime Minister. This is the closest to riding high you’re going to get so use the opportunity. If you wait for one of your opponents then it will be called at one of the many weak moments to come, stretching your premiership only makes its end more certainly soon.

Break the habit of a political lifetime and force the battle on your terms, you might just win.


P.S. If you lose and push the problems of pushing through Brexit into Corbyn’s lap it’s probably the best thing you can do for the long term prospects of the Conservative party. Might even help your legacy.


Tonight’ big Brexit polling news – LAB could slip to third place if it helped CON pass Brexit

December 15th, 2018

The S Times is reporting a YouGov survey of 5,000 voters, commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign, showing that support for LAB could fall from 36% to 22% if it helped the Tories to pass a compromise deal with Brussels like the one advocated by Theresa May.

In these circumstances, the LD would move from 10% to 26% — their highest rating in any poll since GE2010.

    I should say that I am generally sceptical about polls of this nature especially when they are commissioned by a campaign group. When you ask voting questions based on “what if” scenarios it is asking a lot of the process to come up with precise measurements as we see here.

But there’s little doubt where the vast majority of LAB voters stand on Brexit and that is some distance from what Mr. Corbyn believes. Because everything has been focussed on the Tories LAB has got away with relatively little scrutiny.

By 68% to 11% by voters generally didn’t believe that that Corbyn could get a better Brexit deal if he were PM. The split amongst LAB voters was by 47% to 30%.

In the betting the Betfair exchange price on a second referendum before the end of next year is 40%

Mike Smithson


After a terrible week for the White House Trump drops to just a 61% chance in the WH2020 nomination betting

December 15th, 2018

While we have been almost totally focused on Brexit in the UK in Washington things are getting even worse for the president who is facing a whole series of probes relating to the 2016 campaign.

This week his former attorney, Mike Cohen, was sentenced to 3 years for his part including campaign finance violations by seeking to arrange payoffs to women that Trump was said to have been associated with. Cohen has also gone public in his attacks on Trump’s approach.

Also under investigation and might also be heading for jail is the president’s former campaign head and now we have a new development relating to his inauguration in January 2017. This is from ProPublica:

“When it came out this year that President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee raised and spent unprecedented amounts, people wondered where all that money went.

It turns out one beneficiary was Trump himself.

The inauguration paid the Trump Organization for rooms, meals and event space at the company’s Washington hotel, according to interviews as well as internal emails and receipts reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica…”

One of the events took place at the Trump Hotel and the question is whether Trump’s inaugural committee, which had been fundraising, were charged more than the going rate. The question that is being asked is whether donors giving money in return for possible political favours and whether foreign funds are involved.

I’ve got a long-standing bet, a lay on Betfair down to 1.41, that Trump won’t be the nominee. That’s now moved out to 1.61 and I’m not planning to close it down.

Meanwhile there’s almost a story a day coming out about the Muellar probe and at some stage, surely, the Republican party establishment is going to ask whether Trump is more trouble than he’s worth. Trump himself might decide to call it as day after WH2016 and he doesn’t appear to have a healthy life-style.

Mike Smithson


No Deal or No government: the pincers close on May

December 15th, 2018

She can’t please all the (necessary) people all the time

Not only is Theresa May a bloody difficult woman, she’s also a bloody difficult woman to shift. The ERG, with all their customary Keystone Cops planning, proved once again this week that when it comes to continuing her mission, the PM has a Terminator-like resilience to her and that it takes rather more than saying nasty things in posh voices to blow her off course.

Their failure, however, was not May’s success. The vote came about in the first place not just because of the pulled Meaningful Vote in the Commons on the Brexit Withdrawal Arrangement, but also because having declared to parliament that she understood its objections to the Deal, she then went off to Brussels defending what she’d previously agreed, including the necessity of the backstop. That was never going to generate confidence among critics on her benches.

Even so, she won. Not a convincing win – 117 MPs voting against her is a sizable block – but enough for the time being. But if that has removed one uncertainty (which it hasn’t quite – see below), the main one remains: the EU will not re-open the deal and parliament will not ratify it.

This presents a major problem for both the PM and Britain. It also poses a major problem for European and Ireland in particular. The lack of worry seems to be down to a misplaced assumption that a herd of unicorns will rescue the situation and prompt the government to reverse, or at least defer, Brexit one way or another.

The evidence suggests otherwise. May was always predictable: she would seek a revised deal, with the aim of having it ratified by the Commons in mid- to late-January. Any sooner would be impossible to get anything meaningful; any later would run into serious timetabling problems with both UK and EU law and processes.

Likewise, the EU was always predictable: it would offer clarifications while refusing to re-open the text, unless there was a major shift in UK politics – and no such shift has occurred. May was therefore always going to be unable to satisfy the critics on her own benches because non-binding interpretations cannot override the hard copy of the Agreement; hence, their fears could not be assuaged that way. Cue: seven weeks of tail-chasing.

Where does that leave us? In one sense, we’ll be no further forward. The same arguments will apply, the parliamentary maths will be the same and the red lines will be what they were (or are).

What will have changed is time. By late January, it will be extremely tight for Labour to be able to force a general election in time for 29 March. If the government was No Confidenced following the Brexit vote, the law requires at least seven weeks before polling day. That implies a polling day of 14 or 21 March. It also implies Labour having to go into what really would be a Brexit election with a meaningful policy, which at present doesn’t really exist. They could argue for another referendum but to what end: what would Labour support in that referendum? They could argue for striking their own Six Tests deal but surely Starmer must be aware that those tests are designed to fail the Tory policy, not to pass a Labour one. In truth, the Labour leadership has little incentive to generate an election before Brexit is settled – which is presumably one reason why it hasn’t tried so far.

But if the Labour leadership is willing to pay the price of Brexit in order to facilitate a Labour government, not all its MPs will be. That is Theresa May’s chance to salvage her deal.

By late-January, the prospect of a No Deal exit will loom large. The loose talk of referendums will have receded among those aware of the logistical difficulties in delivering one within the space of weeks. The choice will be hardening towards her deal or no deal. We know that the parliamentary Tory Party is deeply split but that might be the moment when Labour’s divisions reach a similar level; when enough Labour MPs decide that any deal is better than nothing and row in behind the PM. After all, to vote against it is not a risk-free option; it could easily mean to be complicit in delivering the chaos.

In truth, the only way in which May can deliver any deal is with the support of substantial numbers of opposition MPs, which almost certainly means Labour ones. This would, of course, neatly mirror the picture when Britain joined the EEC. It would also, for Tories, raise uncomfortable institutional memories of the Corn Laws split.

This is where the pivot truly lies. If May loses that vote, then Britain is set for a No Deal Brexit. There will no doubt be calls for an A50 extension or revocation; for referendums or general elections; for further talks and for different models. They’d all come to nothing. With the Commons unable to agree and the EU unwilling to change the offer, talks couldn’t succeed and may not even happen. Nor would a general election be attractive to any of the parties, as explained above (and would surely be viewed as a distraction by the public). And while a referendum might offer some superficial attractions, it would be difficult to legislate for (what questions and in which order?), it would come with the major risk of endorsing a No Deal, could of itself alienate a large part of the electorate, and would be unlikely to generate any better debate than the 2016 vote. No, if the January vote goes down, No Deal becomes highly likely.

On the other hand, if the deal is endorsed, against dozens of Tory and DUP votes but with an even higher number of Labour ones, May’s own position becomes doubly insecure. First, she may lose her leadership. Ignore the fact that the Tory leadership rules say that she is safe for 12 months. That rule is part of that section owned by the 1922 Committee and can be amended easily and as required – as Graham Brady proved when he confirmed changes to the timetable that would have followed had May lost the vote this week. All the 12-month rule does is make opponents jump through two hoops rather than one. But in the event that there was intense and widespread anger against her, it would be little help as a fireguard.

The even bigger risk however would be the DUP. If the deal as it stands, with the backstop, is endorsed then May loses the DUP’s support permanently. That means an inevitable general election at a time of Labour’s choosing but probably in the Spring.

May is like a chess player left with only king and queen, while her opponent(s) hold multiple pieces and pawns. She can manoeuvre and defend and fight off attacks for a while – indeed, if her opponents make an error, she might even make a brief gain – but sooner or later, weight of numbers will leave her nowhere to go.

David Herdson


Best historical indicator that a LOTO will become PM have been Ipsos-MORI satisfaction ratings and Corbyn’s struggling

December 14th, 2018

The Blair-Major MORI satisfaction ratings before GE1997

The Cameron-Brown Ipsos-MORI satisfaction ratings before GE2010

Current Corbyn-May Ipsos-MORI satisfaction ratings

My thanks to James Bowley for the analysis, compiling the data and the charts.

The Ipsos-MORI ratings have been used because these have been recorded at regular intervals since 1977.

The proposition works for the only other LOTO to become PM since this polling started – Mrs. Thatcher. In the 1979 polls before the election she led the PM, James Callaghan, in every single survey.

The message for today is that Corbyn needs to improve sharply if he’s to have a chance.

Mike Smithson


TMay’s new strategy – looking over the precipice as the financial markets collapse

December 14th, 2018

The betting money moves against a second referendum

While Mrs May is still in post and the EU are not going to budge on the terms of the deal then it looks as though the two big options remaining are a hard Brexit on March 29th or else a new referendum being announced beforehand.

So far LAB has managed to get away almost scot-free without being really pressed to expand its ambivalent position on what it wants.

Its main focus has been trying to bring down the government rather than seeking to find a solution that’s best for Britain. The political risk of this is taking part of the blame if there is no deal. If that happens Corbyn will struggle to retain those who tactically voted LAB at GE2017 because that was seen as the best route to stopping Brexit.

Pressure will build up as we get closer to the date. Given that Corbyn’s position of wanting to stay in the customs Union is not very much different from the Northern Ireland backstop that causes so many problems within the Conservative Party then you could just see the possibility of movement.

Meanwhile, as the betting suggests, the view that a second referendum might happen is starting to evaporate. Its now a 37% chance on Betfair. Having a second vote goes against so much that Mrs May has said although it might be that this is the one option that would prevent a hard Brexit.

What could change the political environment is if there’s a panic within the financial markets about No Deal and we see the pound collapse even more and other negative market indicators.

So a lot to look forward to in 2019.

Mike Smithson


From the Commons library a treasure trove of data for election geeks and its FREE to download

December 14th, 2018

A festive download to share with your loved one

To mark the 100th anniversary today of the 1918 election, the first one in which women were able to vote, the Commons library has produced an extraordinarily good document with just about every detail that you would want from every General Election over the past century.

There’s table after table and chart after chart of information covering just about everything that serious political geeks might want. And the great thing is that you can simply download it from the Commons library website for FREE.

I downloaded it onto my phone in the middle of the night and found myself browsing and looking at all sorts of new details like the rise in postal votes or the number of lost deposits. A very useful section is on by-elections and detailed results are included.

One thing’s for sure – a lot of the tables and charts and the data in this document will be appearing in on form or another over the years on PB.

Mike Smithson


NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast. May fights on – so what now?

December 13th, 2018

On this week’s podcast, Keiran Pedley and Leo Barasi look back at events in a frantic week at Westminster. They debate whether May was right to postpone the meaningful vote, whether a change in leader would have any impact on Brexit negotiations and the prospect of another referendum breaking the parliamentary deadlock.

Listen to this week’s episode below:

Follow this week’s podcast guests: