Trump’s New American Revolution

January 21st, 2017

He can’t govern in slogans but they’ll take him a long way

Inaugurations set the tone for a presidency and Trump undoubtedly set his yesterday: life will be different – for DC, for Europe, for China and for the world. In an extraordinarily pugnacious address, which might have been lifted direct from his campaign rallies, Trump served notice that the Old Order is dead as far as he is concerned. There will be no more Beltway politics, benefitting lobbyists and politicians at the expense of the public; no more Pax Americana, underwriting the global order.

Whether he can deliver on that is another matter. That he and the Washington elite kept the common folk waiting for over half an hour at the inaugural parade while they lunched was hardly a good pointer. His speech proclaimed that “we will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over.” Yet the speech was just platitudes and slogans, and a litany of complaints about the state of the country without any detail on how to address them. By his own measure, he fell short.

Trump has however kept surprising pundits and commentators with his capacity to succeed by (or despite) doing the unexpected and unorthodox. We’re in that place again. He is relying on the people that he berated in his inaugural to pass his legislation and budgets – and relying on the lobbyists and donors who might feel differently not providing an equal counterweight.

One might expect that someone who really has little support in DC, who has no political experience and who doesn’t respect diplomatic niceties (whether domestic or foreign) to fail in delivering anything that congress doesn’t want. I wouldn’t be so sure.

Trump has three main cards he can play. The first is the simple fact of his election. It might be a weak mandate but it’s a mandate all the same. The establishment lost and for the time being, that means his opponents can’t be entirely sure that they’re on solid ground going against him. Secondly, he has initiative. He has set out his new direction for America and beyond and while others can respond, he’ll be setting the terms of debate.

But thirdly and most importantly, his America First platform will be difficult to argue against without sounding unpatriotic, and patriotism, while the last refuge of a scoundrel, is also the first claim of a politician – and in particular, an American politician. No matter that ‘America First’ as a slogan hardly has an unsullied past; no matter that the practical objections of limiting trade or building walls are evident to those prepared to think. Trump cannot fail politically now unless congress blocks him and congress has already made and won the case as to why America First is wrong – and that will be extremely hard.

Of course, Trump could fail elsewhere. His businesses give ample scope for conflicts of interest and his style of management is not one that is well suited to the office he now holds. He is without many friends internationally and those he has are in it solely for what they can get (which is not without irony).

That foreign policy marks the biggest shift in priorities. The US is heading back towards isolationism, though Trump’s comments about fighting extremist Islam run counter to the general drift. All the same, the TPP is out, NAFTA may be out, co-operation on climate change is out – and NATO might well be out too. If radical Islam is the US’s number one perceived threat then the Kremlin is an ally rather than an opponent, while the European states are fighting the wrong war with someone else’s – his – soldiers. But Europe is rapidly becoming a backwater to the US’s strategic considerations. If radical Islam is the number one threat then China is number two. Again, Russia is a potential ally and Europe is of little consequence.

That shift in foreign priorities is unlikely to be unpopular in principle. In practice, ‘bringing jobs home’ is likely to be rather harder to achieve and putting up trade barriers will probably be counterproductive. But when emotions are running high, short-term politics trumps longer-term economics in decision-making.

However, as populists throughout the ages have discovered, the price of neglecting longer-term economic considerations will have to be paid eventually. And turning away from the industries of the 21st century in favour of those of the 19th and 20th is neglecting them. Regulations might bring cost but they also stimulate innovation.

For that reason, I expect Trump to lose in 2020. By then, the America First campaign is likely to have run out of steam and he’ll find it harder to hide. It’s rare for a party to hold the White House for a single term (Carter was the only example in the 20th century), but Trump is exceptional. He only just won this year against a very weak Democrat opponent and has set himself huge targets. I think he’ll get a longer run than many expect but will ultimately fail and against a stronger Democrat – there must be a moderate, sensible, successful governor thinking of having a go, surely? – will lose.

But until then, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

David Herdson


After a dramatic and historic day the world has changed and we have yet to fully appreciate what the Trump presidency means

January 20th, 2017

Following such an extraordinary day it is very hard to fully assimilate what we have seen and heard in Washington. Certainly the new President has given strong indications about his direction of travel and that is going to have huge implications in many different parts of the world including the UK and Europe.

This was an inauguration speech like no other which very much reflects the  individual personality of the new President.

At the same time it was quite moving seeing one administration and President being replaced by another one as a result solely of what has happened at the ballot box and and as a believer in democracy I find that a very good thing to observe.

One sure thing is that the new President speech today should have taken nobody by surprise. This was exactly the rhetoric and things that he has used consistently during the 18 month long election campaign that finished in November.

Mike Smithson


And now the fourth Presidential Inauguration since PB was founded in 2004

January 20th, 2017

A new US President is a reminder how long PB has been around. The site was founded in March 2004 when George W was the incumbent and beat John Kerry in that extraordinarily tight election.

Four years later it was Barack Obama who had been tipped on the site when he was 50/1. Obama was re-elected in 2012 and now, of course, Donald Trump is taking over.

What the future holds is hard to predict but I’ve not been tempted by any of the Trump betting markets. Maybe we’ll get a clear idea in the weeks ahead.

Mike Smithson


Cyclefree asks are Banks the new Unions?

January 20th, 2017

Back in the 1970’s unions were seen – and saw themselves – as a key constituency whom government had to listen to and consult.  Whether beer and sandwiches were actually served at Number 10 was less important than the perception and the reality that governments felt that it was wise to consult the unions on industrial matters and wider economic policy.  And this was done because of a desire to achieve consensus, to be seen as treating both sides of industry fairly, because union membership was large and strikes could cause significant economic and commercial harm.

It was also felt that union leaders were the only people able to control the wildcat strikers and other militants who were responsible for some of the disputes which so plagued Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.  And very few were willing to challenge the consensus that it made sense to involve unions in economic and industrial policy.  All this created what Bernard Ingham described as “the post-war impression of their invincibility”.  When a certain M Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, challenged this consensus and said that she thought that trade unionists should not get a greater say in the country’s affairs than any other voter, this was viewed with horror by some.  How could – why should – things be other than as they were?

Well, disasters usually help change perspectives and the Winter of Discontent finally persuaded many that it was time to cut the unions down to size.  28 years later the role of unions in Britain is vastly different to what it was then.  They have certainly been reined in but still exist and still perform useful functions for their members and for society as a whole.

The decline in the unions’ power coincided with the rise of finance.  Big Bang, the lifting of exchange controls, the focus on making money, privatisation, the entry into Britain of US investment banks and deregulation of many of the previous controls around credit led to an explosion in the City.  The financial services sector boomed and continued booming.  It was seen as the Goose laying Golden Eggs.  All parties worshipped at the altar of the City: the Tories because they saw it as an example of the sort of profit-focused entrepreneurship which had been lacking.  They conveniently ignored the fact that many of those who made money in the City were not so much rainmakers as lucky – lucky to be in the right place at the right time when the heavens opened and the rain fell.

Still, it is amazingly common to find people who have done very well in life downgrading the role of luck in their life and assuming that it is only their skill and intelligence which has resulted in them amassing riches beyond the dreams of Croesus (or, at least, those of most people).  The L’Oreal advertising slogan: “Because you’re worth it!” might have been written by bankers for bankers.  And Labour too loved the City – or at least entered into a Faustian pact with it – because, finally, it looked as if the City’s tax revenues could help Labour get past the charge that it would tax ordinary people more than they were willing to bear to spend on desirable public services which the public wanted.  Banks and bankers could be taxed; money could be spent on public services; the public would be happy and Labour would be in power forever (or at least for a very long time).

Well, we all know how that fable ended: with the 2007/08 crisis, the government having to bail out banks, evidence of widespread chicanery and criminality, some criminal convictions and a public perception that financiers had got away with it, that they had taken the profits and dumped the costs onto everyone else.  Governments learnt that some golden eggs are not golden at all and that banks with very large balance sheets can unbalance an economy.  And, yet, despite all the well-attested problems associated with an out-of-control and, arguably, too large financial sector, there is still an inclination amongst some in the sector to think that, because they bring in the money, their interests should predominate  It is an attitude not so very different to the unions of old: if you don’t do what we want, we can bring the economy to its knees (either through strikes or by upping sticks and moving elsewhere taking all our lovely money with us).

It is an attitude which shows a tin ear for how much of the public views the finance sector.  Rather than feel that banks have learnt their lessons and it is time to move on, many feel that banks have not yet been taught a lesson and have not fully paid the price for, at best, negligence and incompetence and, at worst, criminality.  It assumes that people are necessarily grateful for the tax revenues when they appear to come from greedy and/or disgraceful behaviour.  It assumes that money speaks and should speak louder than the votes of non-bankers.

Now, there is some hypocrisy in the public’s attitude to finance.  They like it when it allows them to spend and spend and appear to be richer than in fact they are.  And they like the tax it generates.  And they are notably disinclined to pay for proper financial advice, preferring to get “free” advice and complain later about mis-selling, or to educate themselves so as to be better able to navigate offers which are often far too good to be true.  But still, in the end, they have the votes and banks do not and the financial sector is not, after the scandals of recent years, in a position to take the moral high ground.  If you ostentatiously throw your weight around and cause problems for others, eventually those others will cut you down to size.

And yet finance matters.  It matters because the development of a modern society has gone hand in hand with the development of an efficient financial sector.  It matters because without it much of what we want to do (save, buy a home, spend, invest, start a business, grow a business) cannot happen.  And it matters that it operates – or should operate – competently, honestly, without drama and without an inflated idea of its own importance, no matter how much tax revenue it brings in, and that it remembers that it is a service industry, that it is there to serve others not primarily itself.  Naïve?  Hopelessly optimistic?  Possibly.  Nonetheless, at a time when banks have started taking some real steps towards the cleaning up of their industry (culture and behaviours and conduct risk are the buzzwords in banks these days and not all of this is just for show), the City finds itself friendless.

The financial crisis may have only been part of the context which led to Brexit.  But it – and banks’ reaction to it and their behaviour before, during and after it – is certainly one reason why this government has not made it a priority to argue the City’s case.  That and the fact that May does not give the impression of someone who venerates rich financiers in the way that her predecessors did.  Now, following May’s speech, we have announcements that some banks are looking to relocate jobs in Continental Europe.  Concerns have been expressed that this will be the start of a flood, that it will render us poorer, that we will miss the tax revenues and that by foregoing membership of the Single Market, we will hobble one of our primary and successful sectors.  Maybe.

The need to have the “passport” is only one of the factors affecting how financial firms structure themselves: automation, keeping shareholders happy, focusing on those areas where money can be made without undue risk, cost control are all factors which will affect what firms now do in a much tougher regulatory and economic environment.  Banks should not expect Continental European countries to be quite as enamoured of freebooting Anglo-Saxon financiers as Britain has been, however much they may welcome the jobs.  Maybe it will mean that the British economy can become a little more balanced, a little less dependent on one sector only.  Maybe – though Brexit is an odd and potentially harsh way to achieve such a rebalancing.

What is clear is that the City is now learning that it cannot expect the government to put its interests first.  No doubt this is a blow to its pride.  Perhaps it is a long overdue and salutary one. Whether it would have been better for the government to have made the case to British voters to stay in the Single Market in order not to harm the City is now an academic argument.  No politician would now be brave – or stupid enough – to put the interests of bankers before those of other voters.

Ironically, this country may end up doing damage (the extent of which is not clear) to one of its more successful industries at the precise time when that industry is finally learning to behave and when Britain needs all the successful industries it can get as it embarks on its bold solo adventure.

And the moral of this story?  “Ognuno e utile.  Nessuno e indispensabile.”  (Or, as the Irish might say, cemeteries are full of people who thought themselves indispensable.)  A lesson for the Tories – looking with disdain and glee at a Corbyn-led Labour party – and for Labour – seemingly entrenched in its heartlands – to ponder.



Labour chooses a Corbyn critic to fight Copeland and this and the Stoke Central by-elections could be next month

January 19th, 2017

Big developments tonight in the two by-elections where LAB is defending seats where the sitting MPs are standing down to pursue other careers.

According to Kevin Schofield of PoiticsHome Labour is planning to hold the two contests on the same day – something that always seemed likely.

It had been thought that the party would have waited until My 4th – when elections are taking place in many parts of the country and we have the first mayoral elections for George Osbornes’s new combined authorities. According to the report that plan has now been ruled out.

“..party strategists now believe they have a better chance of holding both seats if they mount short campaigns.

Copeland MP Mr Reed will formally stand down on 31 January to take up a job in the nuclear industry, while Mr Hunt will quit before the weekend to become the new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum…”

The other development is that the Corbyn-supporter on the LAB Copeland short-list has not been chosen – instead the job of seeking to become the seat’s next MP has gone to Councillor Gillian Troughton some of whose Tweets on her leader are featured above.

    Her selection means that every single by-election LAB nominee in a seat being defended since Corbyn got the job has gone to a non-Corbyn supporter.

Clearly in Copeland there is going to be an issue with the LAB leader’s widely reported position on nuclear power which the Tories have already got their teeth into.

The husband of the Lib Dem choice in Copeland, Rebecca Benson, is a nuclear engineer.

The worry for Labour is that it is under severe pressure in both Stoke and Copeland. UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall is running on Stoke Central where the party came 2nd in 2015.

Mike Smithson


Just one council by-election tonight – a CON defence in the midlands

January 19th, 2017

Norton on Bromsgrove (caused by the death of the sitting Conservative councillor)
Result of council at last election (2015): Conservatives 18, Labour 7, Independents 3, Wythall Ratepayers 3 (Conservative majority of 5)
Result of ward at last election (2015): Conservative 943 (60%), Labour 467 (30%), Green 166 (11%)
EU Referendum Result: REMAIN 26,252 (45%) LEAVE 32,563 (55%) on a turnout of 79%
Candidates duly nominated: Michelle Baker (Green), Rory Shannon (Lab), Adrian Smart (UKIP), Michael Webb (Con)
Weather at the close of poll: Clear, 1°C
Estimate: Con HOLD

Compiled by Harry Hayfield


Timing is everything. A review of Theresa May’s speech

January 19th, 2017


There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Whatever else you think of Brexit, we are being led by powerful currents taking us far from familiar shores. Whether we find safe harbour or end up washed up on the rocks is yet to be seen.

Theresa May has grasped this. After months of silence and having insisted that she would not give a running commentary, she has delivered a speech which offers as much clarity as anyone could have wished for about Britain’s negotiating strategy. Her government is to prioritise controlling immigration and as a result she is not going to attempt to keep Britain in the single market. In her words, the future relationship between Britain and the EU will be “Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.”

Presented as a strategy, this is in reality an admission of defeat. Some Leaver ministers have spent the last six months skipping like Julie Andrews enumerating some of their favourite things about the EU that they intended Britain to continue to benefit from. The Prime Minister is obviously more securely tethered to reality and has recognised that the EU’s many statements that it would not allow Britain to cherry-pick are not bluffs. She has concluded that controlling immigration is a non-negotiable component of Brexit and is proceeding accordingly. Rather than spend months pursuing the impossible, she isn’t going to make the attempt. Instead, she’s going to cut her losses now.

While this is an admission of defeat, it is also politically sensible. The Prime Minister has called this “Clean Brexit” and a more precise turn of phrase would be “Cauterised Brexit”, burning off some tissue in order to seal the wound. This was for centuries standard medical practice after amputation and entirely applicable here.

The domestic reaction came in two stages. That night, the tabloids were ecstatic. And the next day, HSBC and UBS announced their plans to relocate jobs from London – an early illustration of how Cauterised Brexit may have major costs.

For the first time, the Prime Minister also offered some olive twigs to the rest of the EU. She proclaimed her belief that the vote was not a rejection of shared values or to do harm to the EU itself (she would do well to slap down publicly some of her more excitable backbenchers on this last point). She stated that other Europeans would still be welcome in this country.

Despite the clumsy attempts at veiled threats that Theresa May dropped about how Britain could act in a hostile manner if a deal wasn’t reached, the speech received a moderate reception in the chancelleries of Europe (less so in the European press). The sense of realism and the dialling down of the rhetoric has undoubtedly helped. While there is still an enormous amount of work still to be done even to realise the very restricted Brexit that Theresa May is imagining, the risk of a chaotic Brexit has receded quite a way as a result of this speech being delivered.

The whole effort, however, has been undermined by a major flaw that is potentially very damaging indeed. Quite simply, this speech was far too late. The timetable for Brexit is demanding and Theresa May had long ago committed herself to triggering Article 50 in the early part of 2017. There is nothing that she said this week that could not have been said at the Conservative party conference. It would certainly have been a far better conference speech than the one that she actually delivered. Three precious months have been lost.

And it’s not as though those three months have been valuably or even neutrally spent. In the meantime, the British government has been burning its remaining capital with other European nations, insulting them, belittling them and threatening them. The mood is icy.

Brexit was always going to be a brutally difficult course to navigate. But by her delay, Theresa May might well find that the flood tide has been missed. Shallows and miseries might well be impossible to avoid now.

Alastair Meeks


This week’s PB/Polling Matters podcast looks at Theresa May’s speech and looks ahead to Trump’s inauguration

January 19th, 2017

This week’s podcast is split into two parts.

In part one, Keiran is joined in the studio by Adam Drummond, Head of Political Polling at Opinium. Keiran and Adam discuss all things data in the aftermath of Theresa May’s big Brexit speech. They discuss the public’s reaction to May’s speech, attitudes to ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Brexits (and why numbers are not always what they seem), immigration polling, May’s approval ratings and polling on the NHS. Keiran also explains why he does not think Labour’s polling ‘floor’ is as bad as others make out.

In part two, Keiran is joined on the phone by US political expert (and Polling Matters regular), Jon-Christopher Bua. Keiran and Jon-Christopher discuss Trump’s inauguration, what his transition says about the type of president he will be and what happens next once he takes the oath of office. Jon-Christopher also gives his perspective on the future of healthcare in the US and what a Trump foreign policy might mean for Europe. Finally, Keiran and Jon-Christopher discuss how history will judge Obama’s presidency.

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