Rally Against Debt? It was more of a long queue

Lisa Hamilton, who observed the pro-cuts demonstration, was not impressed.

On 26 March nearly half a million people descended on the capital to oppose the government's cuts agenda and demand an alternative. Six weeks later 200 people (I'm being generous) stood on a pavement outside parliament to give a big "thumbs-up" to the same policies.

To say turnout at the Rally Against Debt was low is to be very polite. It was abysmal. Don't think protest. Think long queue.

In an attempt to gloss over the low turnout, one attendee has described the event as "not bad for a Facebook flashmob stunt". (Presumably the usual, good old Tory "blame it on the weather" excuse was rejected due to the unfortunately good weather.)

Hmm. A flashmob is, at least according to Wikipedia, a group of people who assemble to perform a seemingly pointless act often for the purpose of satire. A flash mob is not a publicised event with a shiny website.

The site (which hasn't been updated since a "we're trending on Twitter" post on Friday afternoon) promised a "great networking opportunity", a number of "high-profile guests" and "plenty to do" during the rally.

Unfortunately, the low turnout (Guido Fawkes claimed 500, but it looked less than half that to me) meant that most of the attendees already seemed to know each other and while Ukip's Nigel Farage had indeed flown in for the event, "plenty to do" seemed to involve standing increasingly closer together in order to make the crowd look bigger. There were also a couple of short-lived chants and EU flag-burning for those who like that sort of thing.

Toby Young, one of the most high-profile supporters of the rally, came in for mockery when he missed it – because he took his children to an exhibition about pirates at a (publicly funded) museum.

If the March for the Alternative suggested that a cross-section of society strongly opposed the cuts being made by the Tory government, then the Rally Against Debt suggested that white, middle-class, middle-aged men are opposed to taxation, don't like Europe or public services, but do like chinos, rugby shirts, looking after their own interests, and causing minor obstructions outside parliament.

The Rally Against Debt taught us nothing new. However, it did leave one big question: Why did this failure of an event generate so much news coverage?

Perhaps the snappers enjoyed the novelty of outnumbering the crowd.

You can find Lisa on Twitter: @lefty_lisa

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.