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A gloomy forecast

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BY MATTHEW GRAHAM PAUL

Forecasts? Oh, those forecasts! After telling us all for ages that they didn’t exist, or weren’t quite ready, or that the dog had eaten them, the Government was obliged grudgingly to admit that HM Treasury’s region-by-region economic forecasts of the impact of Brexit on the economy, were actually a thing and weren’t actually all that encouraging.

The Treasury had reached the perhaps unsurprising conclusion that losing unrestricted access to our largest export markets and paying £40bn for the privilege might not be very good for the economy. The best-case scenario for Wales (if we stay in the single market and customs union) is the economy shrinking by 2% over the next 15 years. A full-fat, breakfast-means-breakfast, chips-with-everything Brexit will set Wales back a whopping 8%.

Ministers went into Brexit damage limitation mode. Don’t panic! Said Brexit minister Steve Baker. These forecasts are just the same sort of crap we in the Government base all our economic policy on. They’re always wrong! Brexit will be just fine.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is now on serious leadership manoeuvres, drawled a question to the Minister to the effect that a chap down the boozer had told him the forecasts weren’t just wrong, they were bent. Was the Treasury deliberately fiddling the figures, talking the British economy down and trying to sabotage Brexit?

Yup, said the Minister. That chap is spot on.

The Minister was later forced into a grovelling apology, after accepting that the chap might have said something a bit different. In an effectively led government, a minister who called another Government department a pack of fraudsters would be swimming with the fishes. That Steve Baker is still in place shows the extent to which Theresa May has dropped the reins, lost the stirrups and is now holding on for dear life to a clump of mane as about seventy of the Tory Party’s top nutters furiously spank the country towards a precipice.

Coming to prominence as a spanker is Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, who on Tuesday put his weighty paddle in on the Conservative Home website, in defence of Mogg. The economic forecasts were no more trustworthy than Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier. A small but vocal minority are trying to sabotage Brexit, led by ‘so-called experts’ (i.e. experts) telling the country how to think.

RT railed against the civil service mentality that is trying to keep the UK in the customs union and single market, when “no sensible nation would voluntarily enter into such an arrangement” (Norway, that’s you on the naughty step). “The rallying cry of the Vote Leave campaign was to “Take Back Control” – of our money, of our trade, and of our borders. It is our duty to deliver all three, undiluted.”

Anyone who believes there is such a thing as ‘undiluted control’ of our own money is deluded. Brussels never had control of our money. The strength of our money is the product of the strength of our economy, and of how international markets perceive our currency as a store of value. Puzzlingly, the referendum result value did not exactly send the value of Sterling soaring up.

Capital and money are the truly international forces that many Brexit voters were kicking off against in the first place. You can of course, if you want, try to control the coming and going of money in the same way you try to control the coming and going of people. Capital controls, like the barbed wire Brexiters want to see around our borders, are rarely the sign of a happy population or a strong economy.

May is not long for this world. The miasma of incompetence that has hung around her administration since last June gets thicker and more putrid by the week. It is a measure of how far the Tory party is drifting from election-winning Cameron centrism that people are now discussing, in all seriousness, the prospect of Boris, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their spotty state school swot hanger-on Gove mounting a successful putsch.

The only thing preventing May’s departure is the near-universal acknowledgement that we are deep into frying pans and fires territory here. However incompetent and divisive the PM may be, it is hard to identify a more competent alternative who stands any chance of uniting the Party.

Gove and Rees-Mogg have the virtue of clear, classical liberal free market views and the ability to articulate them, and Boris believes whatever it is expedient for him to believe.

Their vision is not without its appeal. But those who advocate a freewheelin’ low-regulation, low tax, Singapore-style economy should explain to the country how it is we hope to get there, and how an economic model which has been hugely successful for a couple of authoritarian far eastern city states can translate to a nation as large and diverse as the UK.

Politically, the hard Brexit dream is undeliverable. The Conservatives seem to have forgotten that they didn’t exactly win last June’s election, and are kidding themselves if they think that the Boris-Mogg-Gove model could be pushed through Parliament. They also refuse to be frank with voters about the costs, as identified by HM Treasury or otherwise, of making Brexit happen.

“The poorest parts of the UK”, RT reminded us “are looking to us to come good on our promises. In Wales, Cornwall, and Grimsby the vote to leave was driven by a visceral desire to disrupt the status quo – not preserve it.”

RT is absolutely right about this, but disrupting the status quo has never happened without a price. The voters who were conned into thinking their lives might improve by lashing out against international markets and immigration are the ones who will be worst hit by the kind of Brexit RT wants.

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Playing chicken with Putin

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BY MATTHEW PAUL

WELL, that’s Putin told. Sounding more than ever like a primary school headmistress who has found a drawing pin on her chair, Theresa May told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom” and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats / spies to show how annoyed we all are.

Ten times more lethal than VX and a hundred times deadlier than Sarin, the Novichok family of nerve agents – one of which was used in the attempt on Sergei Skripal’s life – are nasty stuff. The poison smeared on the door handles of Skripal’s BMW was developed in Russia, its production is way outside the capacity of a talented amateur, and its use was tantamount to a calling card from the Russian state.

May’s ability to respond alone is limited. Passing effective economic sanctions against Russian business interests in London – after the manner of America’s Magnitsky Act – would be the embodiment of a punishment that, in the words of headmistresses past “is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you”. The stern tone and substantive timidity of May’s response demonstrates just how few options we have in any confrontation with Russia. In any game of chicken with a nutter, the odds are pretty good that the nutter is going to win.

However strong the evidence against Moscow, it will never be enough for some folk. In particular, the Lenin-capped loon and his horrid deputy Seamus Milne proved that their ability to surprise and disgust their own party has not been wholly erased by last summer’s election result. While not quite suggesting that it was a false flag attack by MI5 or Israel, Corbyn cast doubt on the intelligence that pointed to Russian responsibility, and said everything he could to get Putin off the hook, to audible hissing from his back benches.

His front bench have already broken ranks. Shadow Defence Secretary and Llanelli MP Nia Griffith strongly supported the Prime Minister’s response. She said it was clear Moscow was behind the attack, saying this was the view of the shadow cabinet as a whole. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry accepted that the Kremlin was responsible and gave her support for all the measures taken by the UK Government.

The Russian government has reacted with a predictable display of confected indignation to the diplomatic sanctions. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said claims that Russia was behind the assassination attempt were “absolutely boorish” and “unacceptable”. Another spokesman called the accusations insane. Moscow made it clear we would not be waiting long for a response.

Mostly, though, Vlad is laughing it off. The Russian embassy in London, which seems to devote the greater part of its resources to trolling Her Majesty’s Government on the internet, tweeted out a picture of a thermometer at -23. “The temperature of 🇷🇺 🇬🇧relations drops to -23, but we are not afraid of cold weather!” In their last few days in London, the embassy staff May has expelled will probably be going around Kensington smearing Vaseline on car door handles for the lolz.

The Skripal assassination attempt –which in due course is likely to prove successful– is scarcely out of character for Russia. In 2006, the Duma (Russia’s parliament) specifically authorised the liquidation of terrorists and ‘enemies’ overseas. Showing this wasn’t just hot air, the Russian state murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London with a fatal dose of polonium-210. One of Litvinenko’s assassins, Andrey Lugovoy, is now himself a member of the Duma. Russia has repeatedly refused requests for his extradition on a charge of murder.

In 2010, when Skripal and other spies were released from custody in Russia and swapped for –amongst others– the delightful Anna Chapman, President Putin promised that these traitors “would choke on their 30 pieces of silver”. It looks as though he was as good as his word.

Russia is behaving with absolute disregard for international law, and does so with almost complete impunity. Little individual wet jobs like Skripal and Litvinenko, annoying though they may be for their host countries, are Russian state malevolence in miniature. On a larger stage, Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign territory of neighbouring states, indiscriminately bombed civilians in Syria to prop up Assad’s blood-soaked regime, and lent separatist thugs in Ukraine anti-aircraft BUK rockets, with which they shot down a Malaysian airliner.

Putin’s army of trolls delights in hacking elections and spreading disinformation. The Kremlin’s aim is to sow confusion amongst democracies, and to assert Russia’s position as a world power to rival the USA and China. When dealing with little countries like the UK, Putin is confident that there is no diplomatic or military game of chicken that he can’t win.

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Nasty Neil is nobbled

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BY MATTHEW GRAHAM PAUL

THEY finally got him. After months of bickering, Plaid Cecru’s Assembly group this week all rounded on ‘Nasty Neil’ McEvoy and expelled him from the Plaid benches in the Senedd.

A Plaid functionary announced that the group had taken the decision permanently to expel Nasty Neil, whose behaviour had left colleagues feeling ‘undermined and demoralised’.

McEvoy, he explained, was distracting Plaid Cymru AMs from getting on with their work of serving the people of Wales and holding the Labour government to account.

This is a bit rich. Neil McEvoy is just about the only Plaid Cymru AM who – in a rough and tumble, populist way – was doing anything whatsoever to hold Labour to account. As such, he was distracting Plaid AMs from acting in their usual capacity as the official collaboration and fearlessly going along with whatever Labour want to do in the Assembly.

McEvoy had been suspended from the Plaid Assembly group since March, purportedly ‘for breaching standing orders and the group’s code of conduct through unacceptable behaviour’. The suspension followed his conviction by a kangaroo court of the Adjudication Panel for Wales, for saying blood-curdling things to a Council employee about a possible restructuring of the local authority.

For the members of the Panel, who live in mortal dread of the prospect of their public-sector sinecures being restructured, this plainly amounted to bullying.

Bullying is taken very seriously in Plaid Cymru, who recently lost no opportunity to lambast Labour for their treatment of the late Carl Sergeant. It is obviously appropriate that they should take robust action against bullying by ganging up against the one AM in their party who has repeatedly tried to bully them into cracking down on lobbying, and dealing with the Welsh Government’s cronyism, corruption and waste.

Neil McEvoy’s defenestration points towards a wider problem for Plaid Cymru. What kind of a party is Plaid supposed to be?

Few, inside the party or out, have a clue. In rural areas, the yellowy-green Plaid of the countryside come across as a Welsh-language, don’t-scare-the-horses successor to the defunct Liberals. In the party’s Westminster constituencies, a vote for Plaid is a vote against Labour, rather than for anything you could easily identify as a policy platform.

Then there is the other Plaid. The greeny-red Plaid of the valleys, which has for years made a trademark of outflanking Labour to the left. With a full-on Lenin-capped loon now in charge of the Labour Party, this strategy no longer looks awfully viable.

Which leaves Plaid Cymru with a choice. Welsh voters’ unexpected enthusiasm for Brexit, and the flash-burn success of UKIP in the 2016 Assembly elections demonstrates that Wales certainly has an appetite for a new kind of politics. Decades of red-rosette-on-a-turd electoral complacency from Welsh Labour is reaping its whirlwind in working class disaffection with the Welsh political establishment.

Plaid Cymru’s headline policy of independence for Wales is a very bad one and the party has a bit of a hill to climb in attracting voters. That said, people have fallen hook, line and sinker for some equally stinking ideas recently –step forward, Brexit– and at a time of nihilistic cynicism about politics and politicians in general, there is always some appeal in novelty. But rather than making Welsh independence the party’s raison d’etre and then selling the idea hard to the public, manifesto after manifesto has made a faint cough of apology over independence, before droning on about some new measure to promote wattle-and-daub housebuilding in Machynlleth.

If you are embarrassed about your brand, your product is not going to fly off the shelves. Neil McEvoy’s vision for Plaid was of a party prouder of its USP, less tied to economic dogma and closer to the concerns of its working class target voters. At the root of his feud with the other Plaid AMs is his support for the right to buy; one of the most popular Conservative policies in history, which brought millions of working class voters over to the Tories.

In the same week that she disembarrassed herself of McEvoy, Leanne Wood on Monday published a pamphlet ‘The Change We Need’, offering her own solution to Plaid Cymru’s identity crisis.

The new direction, it appears, is very like the old one: higher taxes and hippyism. Wood’s vision is for ‘community socialism’, where running the Stasi is presumably devolved to your local community council. The pamphlet details Wood’s aspiration to rid Wales of big business –something, unusually, that she is well qualified to achieve– and replace it with locally run chutney making and basket weaving collectives. At the same time, Plaid would massively increase investment in public services; presumably asking the Sais to pay.

This is the same dismal formula that brought Plaid’s vote share down to 7% during their disastrous coupling to the Green Party, and Plaid’s latest economic strategy sounds every bit as bad. The kind of people in Cardiff who enthusiastically voted for Neil McEvoy don’t want to live in eco-hovels and aren’t going to be impressed by hippy economics.

Politicians who get things done can be abrasive and insensitive. Nasty Neil McEvoy clearly has as much of a talent for rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way as he does for sorting out his constituents’ problems. His former colleagues may well feel undermined and demoralised. It is because they know, deep down, that he understands how to make their party a success.

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