Nick Robinson and the rainbow coalition

“Audacious” move leaves BBC man dazed, if not confused.

With the possible exception of his Sky News counterpart, Adam Boulton, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, looked like the most shocked man in Britain following Gordon Brown's Downing Street announcement yesterday afternoon.

"Audacious" was the word Robinson used on the television and on his blog, but you suspected something stronger was going through his mind. Since last Friday, Robinson has barely deviated from a line that has David Cameron in No 10 as a result of either a formal or an informal arrangement with the Lib Dems. A rainbow coalition was not in his script.

It may not come to pass, but it is strange that the possibility of a Lib-Lab deal wasn't given more airspace until yesterday.

In a post last night, Robinson outlined all the obstacles in the way of Brown's power play. He asked:

- is it legitimate for Gordon Brown and Labour to stay in office, having lost this election?
- is it right for a new prime minister to be chosen, not by voters, but by Labour Party members?

Well, I guess it depends how you interpret the words "legitimate" and "right", but constitutionally the answer to both questions is an emphatic "Yes". Here is Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, writing in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman to provide the historical context:

The conventions reflect the fundamental principle of parliamentary government: that parliament decides who should govern. A prime minister in office is not defeated until the Commons votes him out. Until 1868, it was common practice for incumbents to test the opinion of parliament after a general election. That year, Disraeli became the first to break from this tradition -- he thought it pointless to meet parliament when his opponents enjoyed an overall majority.

With the development of a two-party system, it became customary for incumbents to resign if the election resulted in an overall majority for the opposition. But, in 1885-86, 1892 and 1923-24, with hung parliaments, prime ministers -- Conservative in each case -- waited until parliament had met and then produced a Queen's Speech that was, in effect, a vote of confidence. It is for parliament, not the bankers or the Daily Mail, to decide who should govern.

Robinson signs off the post by asking of Nick Clegg:

Does he now stick to his chosen path and do a deal with the Conservatives to the fury of many in his party or does he switch to Labour, risking the wrath of those who will accuse him of creating a "coalition of losers"?

"His chosen path"? Clegg always said he would talk to the Conservatives first, as the party with the "strongest mandate" to govern. But a corollary of this is not necessarily a "deal with the Conservatives".

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.