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What I got right, and wrong, in politics in 2018

I live and learn.

I thought that giving key Brexit jobs to Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox was a good move on Theresa May’s part

This was the year in which a particularly bad piece of work from July 2016 finally took its last breath. It’s hard to zero in on any individual lowlight as there are so many contenders. The headline – “Sending Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office is bad for Britain, good for Theresa May” – has aged better than the piece in that at least everything before the comma has held up.

What I got wrong here was that I had completely misunderstood Theresa May’s governing style, which is to restrict political control to a trusted circle of herself and one or two trusted advisors. I knew from my Liberal Democrat sources from the coalition years that this was how she treated them and knew that she behaved in combat with George Osborne’s Treasury, but I thought this was because she saw those two forces as political opponents. I now know that this is May’s default political setting with essentially everyone.

By not sub-contracting Brexit out to Davis and by shrinking the Foreign Office’s power, May allowed both men to walk out with very little blame. The important lesson here is that you have to assess what a politician does through two prisms: the first is what they are actually like and then what they want to achieve.

It may be that the damage that Davis and Johnson did both suffer to their reputations in their post did help May personally, in that if they had been free from ministerial office they might have seemed like plausible alternatives to her. One reason why May survived is that Conservative MPs felt that it was a choice between the devil they knew and wildly unsuitable alternatives. We can’t prove the counterfactual, but while May’s reshuffle didn’t work for the reasons I thought it would, it might have benefitted her in other ways.

I was right that Labour’s strategic ambiguity on Brexit would last the year

This is an interesting one – an analysis that is holding together as of 2018 but may well fall before March 2019. (Rather like the United Kingdom, in fact.) Could Labour continue to face both ways on Brexit? At the start of the year, I thought it would:

“Day-to-day, Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit is sustained by clever tactical work on the Labour side and May’s unwillingness to work with other parties.

That means that the only big bear trap for Labour is the vote on the deal itself, when Labour will have to commit to one or the other. But I don’t think they will get caught on that one, as the easy way out is just to vote it down because it does not secure ‘the best possible access’ to the single market, a form of words around which all of Labour can unite even as they disagree on the meaning.

One can fairly ask how much of that work has been “clever” and how much of it has been just good enough to overcome flat-footed opposition, but the pattern from the polls and the local elections is that Labour is still holding onto its 2017 coalition. It did suffer what seems to be a permanent downward change in its poll position, but that was over the Skripals (of which, more below).

I thought Theresa May appointing Philip Hammond was a good move

My aforementioned 2016 piece on Boris Johnson’s position at the Foreign Office contained another howler. I thought that by appointing Philip Hammond as Chancellor, an early backer of her leadership, she had made the same essentially correct call as Jeremy Corbyn had in backing John McDonnell:

“Just as with Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to overrule many of his own allies and put John McDonnell in as shadow chancellor, May will start with the all-important unity between Downing Street and the Treasury without which no government or opposition can prosper.”

Of course, we now know that one of the many remarkable things about the May-Hammond relationship is that the latter chose to endorse the former without ever sitting down to discuss their stances on Brexit, the customs union, or the British economic model, while the former chose a Chancellor with whom she disagreed on the final shape of Brexit, Britain’s economic model and the public spending decisions taken from 2010 to 2016. 

So the Corbyn-McDonnell analogy is useful only in contrast: while Corbyn put his close ally in the vital shadow Treasury role, May set her closest ideological ally, Damian Green, to the post of Work and Pensions, and presumably wouldn’t even have done that had scandal not ended Stephen Crabb’s career.

I don’t see how I could have avoided getting this one wrong, as it is a failure of political tradecraft so basic and so profound that it isn’t reasonable to believe that any senior politician – let alone two senior politicians – would do it.

What is less defensible is that it is only very recently – that is to say, in the back half of 2018 – that I absorbed the really important lesson, which is that Theresa May is not only bad at politics but appears to lack any political sense whatsoever. It’s not so much that she makes political judgements that are bad, it’s that she doesn’t seem to make political judgements in a meaningful sense. Almost every analysis – mine and other people’s – which was based on the idea that there is a strategy beyond what is visible from the surface in May’s movements has ended up looking very bad. 

I was right to be sceptical of the chances of another referendum

At the start of the year, Nigel Farage popped up to suggest that it might be a good idea to hold another referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union (it’s been a long year). I was sceptical that the idea would ever fly:

“Any conversation about a second referendum has to start with a meaningful analysis of how you get 325 MPs to vote for it and how you get that vote in the first place. Brexit continues to have a number of powerful guarantors: Eurosceptics on the Conservative backbenches, Eurosceptics in the Labour leadership, pro-Remain Labour MPs in Leave-heavy seats who don't want to go the way of all flesh, to name just a few. Not only do you have to overcome all of that, but you have to overcome it all multiple times in a new referendum bill.”

There are a few things I’d missed: I’d underestimated the opposition that even committed pro-European Conservative rebels like Nicky Morgan had to the idea, and for reasons that now escape me I hadn’t included Theresa May as a factor in her own right. But broadly that paragraph has held true.

Though I briefly thought I wasn’t

When Sam Gyimah quit as universities minister, I wrote that a parliamentary majority for a second referendum was now achievable as he was the type of Conservative MP who although we wouldn’t expect to back another vote would have to in order to overcome both the government’s majority and the Labour rebels who will vote against it come what may.

Although I knew that some more vocal pro-European Conservatives were against a referendum in private, I had underestimated how committed Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles were to resisting one until they went public.

I’m intensely relaxed about this one – it’s important to change your analysis in the presence of new information in order to avoid being one of those people saying minutes before the 2017 exit poll that the only plausible outcome was a landslide for Theresa May.

I completely failed to predict the damage that the Skripal row would do to Jeremy Corbyn

Partly because of the political leanings of most of the commentariat, particularly those bits of the commentariat that writes about the Labour party, there has been a lot of ink spilt about the Labour party’s relationship with Remainers.

The year has seen a decline in the Labour Party’s poll position, but the damage has been caused by Leave voters. While the party is still neck-and-neck with the Conservative Party, if everyone who was telling pollsters they were voting for the Labour Party at the start of 2018 was doing so at the end they would be ahead, as the Tory party’s position has also declined.

What’s driven the fall in Labour support is not Brexit but a shift in both the party’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s overall ratings – and it happened over a very brief period of time: after the Labour leader’s response to the poisoning of the Skripals.

I didn’t think this would happen and at the time I was very cautious about rushing to conclude that it would necessarily harm Corbyn or that the polling damage would be longterm. I noted that since parties tend to do better when issues that they are seen as strong on are in the headlines – and the Conservatives are more trusted on security issues – Labour’s polling recessional might be temporary. I also thought that Corbyn’s dovish position on the issue might strike a chord with an electorate that is still very nervous of confrontation in foreign policy.

I thought that, even though the attack happened on British soil, that it happened to two Russian nationals would mean that there would be a larger domestic caucus for Corbyn’s message of de-escalation than there was.

I thought that the row would be the 2017 election all over again, when Corbyn gave an isolationist speech that was widely panned by pundits but – to my eyes at least – was clearly in tune with the vast majority of British voters post-Iraq. I was right in that instance but wrong in this one.

My understanding of the contours of British isolationism and its political desires is not as good as it could be and something I’ll aim to improve on in 2019.

I was too quick to dismiss Facebook’s influence on our changing politics

In February, I wrote a very sceptical piece about the Cambridge Analytica revelations and their influence over the Brexit result

I am still highly dubious about whether Cambridge Analytica had a significant role in the referendum outcome, as every story suggesting it did has overcooked the reach of its work and undercooked the reach and influence of the longstanding engines of pro-Brexit sentiment in our country (such the Express, which spread like wildfire through Facebook in the run up to the vote).

But I think I overcorrected. Social media in general and Facebook in particular are the biggest changes to how we consume news and talk to one another in our history. In 1970 we would have regarded anyone claiming that the arrival of television as a mass medium hadn’t changed politics as an unutterable moron and, likewise, making the extraordinary claim that Facebook is not changing our politics requires extraordinary proof. Just as the spread of television is only part of the story of how politics changed in the middle of the last century, Facebook is part of a story involving a global refugee crisis, a deep and world-altering recession, and much else besides. But it is still an essential part of the story.

What troubles me is that one of my conclusions of my post-2016 post-mortem was that I had underestimated Donald Trump because, instead of critically examining the question “can Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election?” I was critically examining people whose reasoning was “I didn’t like Brexit, I didn’t like Corbyn, and I’m not going to like Trump so that will happen too”.

I clearly haven’t done a good enough job of actually learning from this particular mistake. Something to watch out for in 2019 is not just what I get wrong, but how much I am merely repeating the same mistakes in a different fashion.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.