There’s an election next month in the United Kingdom, though there’s not much political suspense.
The Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a crazed Bernie Sanders-style leftist, and British voters have no desire to become an Anglo-Saxon version of Venezuela.
Or, since Corbyn’s main economic adviser actually has said all income belongs to the government and Corbyn himself has endorsed a maximum wage, maybe an Anglo-Saxon version of North Korea.
Given the Labour Party’s self-inflicted suicide, it is widely expected that the Conservative Party, led by Theresa May, will win an overwhelming victory.
But what difference will it make? Will the Tories have a mandate? Do they actually want to change policy?
Let’s start by asking whether policy should change. The good news is that the United Kingdom is ranked #10 according to Economic Freedom of the World. That means the U.K. is more market-friendly than the vast majority of nations (including the United States, I’m sad to report).
The bad news is that the U.K.’s score has been slipping throughout the 21st century. Basically, there were a lot of great reforms during the Thatcher era, but policy in recent years has been slowly deteriorating.
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Theresa May’s formal response to Nicola Sturgeon was not going to be a surprise given that her initial line on Monday, when the First Minister demanded a second independence referendum, was that “this is not a moment to play politics”. Speaking this afternoon to Robert Peston, the Prime Minister repeatedly made clear that “now is not the time” for another vote.
Mrs May was never going to agree to a vote during the period suggested by Ms Sturgeon of autumn 2018 and spring 2019, unless she wanted to be thrashing out the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union while fighting to keep the United Kingdom together. The window given by the SNP leader would also likely close before the Brexit terms were ratified, and their consequences became clear. The Prime Minister suggested as such on ITV News, declaring: “Just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship.” That decision has infuriated the Scottish Nationalists, who argue that Holyrood should have control over the referendum timing. Nicola Sturgeon branded her response a “democratic outrage”, and will no doubt build on that when the SNP gathers for its spring conference tomorrow.
Crucially for the SNP, the UK Government hasn’t ruled out a second referendum. Theresa May insists that the next few months are “not the time”, so Ms Sturgeon can dig in and argue over when exactly they could say “now is the time” for a vote. The Prime Minister has full control, by contrast, over the time that Article 50 is triggered, as the Queen has given royal assent to the Brexit Bill. Of course, the Scottish Nationalists will be determined not to let her proceed with it quietly.
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Another week, another Brexit row in Parliament. Last week, it was over the House of Lords’ insistence that ministers guarantee the residency rights of EU nationals before triggering Article 50. This week it’s whether Parliament should have a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal before Britain agrees that deal. Of the two issues, this week’s is more serious, and more revealing.
Serious, because there appears to at least some chance of a real Government defeat. Assuming the Lords back the “meaningful vote” amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, it’s possible that enough Conservative MPs will rebel next week to back that amendment. Hence No 10’s pre-emptive strike, warning giving Parliament the chance to reject a proposed deal would give the EU an “incentive” to offer a bad deal, in the hope that Parliament would then reject it and maintain EU membership, at least until a new one was agreed, or perhaps in perpetuity.
Telling, because that warning gives some interesting clues about how solid No 10 believes support for Brexit really is. Right now, Brexit has the irresistible momentum of an express train at full speed. Hence the Commons’ easy passage of the Brexit bill. But in a couple of years’ time, after the hard pounding of talks in Brussels? The converts in No 10 appear to have been infected by the fears of some Brexiteers that their victory is fragile and reversible, that a country that today strongly backs Brexit could be persuaded to think again. Mrs May is currently supreme, but she takes nothing for granted.
That warning also tells us something else about Mrs May’s Brexit thinking: she doesn’t share the true Brexit believers’ conviction that even leaving the EU without a deal and relying on basic WTO rules is preferable to continued membership. Believers such as Daniel Hannan have argued that while they’d prefer a deal, Britain should not fear a WTO Brexit. Doesn’t today’s warning over the Brexit Bill amount to No 10 tacitly admitting that Parliament (and perhaps, the British public) wouldn’t share that confidence, and thus would not back a Government that rejected a bad deal from Brussels and walk out of the EU empty-handed.
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Theresa May went up to Glasgow today to reassure Scottish Conservatives of her intention to keep the Union safe as part of the Brexit process. The Prime Minister insisted that Scotland and England would not “drift apart” under her watch, and used her half-hour address to set out a detailed case for the “enduring” economic, security and social benefits to the Union. Her unerring focus on the Union did make it sound like Downing Street is preparing for Mrs Sturgeon to demand the power to stage a second independence referendum, most likely when the SNP gather for their Spring Conference in a fortnight.
Mrs May’s speech came after Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, told the Telegraph that the Unionists would win another vote by an even larger margin but hinted that Mrs May would not allow a rerun of the 2014 vote until after Brexit. The Prime Minister went after the SNP as well, declaring that there was “no economic case” for Scottish independence”.
The Tories’ punchiness has impressed Tom Harris, who has written today about how “it is the Scottish Conservatives, not the Labour Party, to whom those who still cherish the Union are turning.” Ruth Davidson is one of the few politicians happy to challenge the SNP to a “ square go”, he says. “She seems to have boundless energy and a thick skin. She’s going to need both in the next few years.”
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