Sunday, 13 October 2019

Blame game put on hold - for now

The most encouraging development in the Brexit negotiations since, well the start really, has been the refusal of key players to provide details or engage in direct communications with audiences outside the negotiation since the meeting between Johnson and Varadkar. Varadkar's press conference after the meeting, which I heard live on the radio, was the first time I think I've ever heard him say anything sensible, because he declined to say anything very much. This sort of communications embargo is essential to allow any negotiations the space to operate. In that regard the timing of Boris Johnson's lawful second attempt at prorogation has proved to be well timed as you can bet mischievous elements in the Commons would have continued their determined attempts to undermine any prospect of a deal. The fact that this prorogation is presumably lawful as no-one took the PM to court, rather than because it follows any explicit "law" just shows how farcical the plot has become.

I've been particularly ascerbic about Junker and Varadkar but Donald Tusk has probably been the worst culprit for talking out instead of keeping shtum. Wolfgang Munchau noted a few days ago* that his tweets have been unhelpful: "You cannot simultaneously complain about politicians resorting to a blame game, and then blame the other side". He also believes that Tusk's persistent moralistic interventions has strengthened the Brexit camp in the UK. "The more you push, the bigger the push-back".

Meanwhile Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to the US and Germany, argues strongly that the concept of "red lines" has been unhelpful in the negotiation, saying it's imprecise and not clear whether they represent a bottom line, a fall back position, or something in between**. He favours the simple modus operandi of having an opening position, fallback positions and a bottom line you won't go beyond, after which no deal is always better than a bad deal. But he notes that the last part of that has become politically toxic, even though without it the other side will assume you will do a deal at any price, giving them a huge advantage. He tells of how walking out of a negotiation with the Russians in the 1980s led to their team coming to Moscow airport to re-open negotiations as ultimately they didn't want no deal but the Brits were prepared for it. "From a purely negotiating point of view, the Benn Act is folly on stilts" he says, though he is hoping that the damage no deal would do to some EU regions will mean that Brussels can't, in the limit, afford no deal either.

My observation would be that, almost without exception, everyone who says no deal should be taken off the table actually wants to remain and it is, almost without exception, simply a ruse to to to prevent us leaving under any circumstances. Wanting to remain is a legitimate desire, but I just wish people would come clean about their motives. After all, can anyone name me a single prominent leave supporter who would not, under any circumstances, accept no deal?

Ironically then Munchau thinks the Benn extension bill makes the prospect of a majority in favour of a second referendum less likely because it takes the pressure is off. "This is the trouble with extensions. They resolve nothing".
It's going to be a long week in politics leading up to the unusual, outside of war, sitting of the Commons on a Saturday, the 19th of October, the date by which the Benn Act requires the PM to send his surrender letter, sorry extension request, to Brussels if there is no Parliamentary approval for a deal or no deal. After which we might all be in a tunnel but not of love - one with potential for resumption of litigation and court cases on a grand scale.

Alternatively there could be a breakthrough that leads to a deal which can also command a majority in the Commons. The odds must be against that as I can't quite see how Johnson gets enough of the Spartans, the DUP, the ex-Tory rebels and a handful of Labour MPs to vote with the rump of Tory MPs to win a vote. But first he has to get something from Brussels. May's red lines proved unhelpful because they weren't red or lines but the Brussels position has been totally inflexible and has paid no regard to the need for new and therefore unproven solutions to solve the Irish border issue. Even if Johnosn can keep no deal on the table Munchau isn't certain the EU will respond, saying the tragedy of the EU is that it will only offer real concessions in the Brexit negotiations when a no-deal Brexit looks certain. "At that point, it might be too late".

But at least they could then all resume the blame game.

There will be plenty of blame to place. Not just whether we've remained or left - and if left on what terms - but potentially a resumption of the Irish troubles and the break up of the United Kingdom. Would such a break up be a bad thing? a thought for another day.

*Eurointelligence blog 9 October

** "Swap red lines for no deal and, hey presto, a deal" Sunday Times 13 October



Thursday, 3 October 2019

Rotten to the core

I've commented before about there being five EU presidents, none of which (I think) we can get rid of. I admit one is the president of the European Central Bank, which doesn't really count from that point of view. People who know a thing or two have told me that the Commission is the EU's civil service and, since we can't get rid of civil servants in the UK through the ballot box, then I'm barking up the wrong tree. I had accepted that this was a fair point, until I read today an academic piece that attempts to properly kibosh my argument. Except that it doesn't.

Eponine Howarth of the LSE has published an article titled "Is the European Union governed by 'unelected bureaucrats'". Eponine has an LLB, i.e. a bachelor's degree in law, so will know a lot more stuff than me. She says the claim shows a "deep misunderstanding of European executive politics". (Guilty, though I've been in the Berlaymont many times and seen some of it for myself, which I think counts for something). While the EU Commission staff, some 33,000 of them, are indeed unelected and bureaucrats, Eponine points out that this is fewer civil servants than run a major city, like Paris or London and the UK nationally has 440,000 civil servants, all unelected, just like those of most other governments. She gives the example of Michel Barnier, the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, who is responsible to the Commission and to the 28 member state governments. She describes the main role of the Commission, lead by its president Jean-Claude Junker, as being to propose legislation, manage the implementation of policies and funds and represent the EU in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. The European Commission is also “the guardian of the Treaties” and can take EU Member States that infringe EU law to the ECJ (European Court of Justice). The Commission acts under powers delegated by the member states represented in the European Council. If you are interested in the detail the article, referenced below*, is quite short.

But hold it right there, Eponine. The Commission's main role is to propose legislation (the italics are hers, not mine).  That is not the way the a national civil service works at all. Sure, they produce all sorts of position papers and float ideas which, via Sir Humphrey influence, they might manage to persuade ministers of the crown to adopt. And anyone who has read Ken Clarke's description of "the blob" will know how much power they can wield and how much inertia they can summon up when they dig their feet in. But fundamentally the ideas for legislation here come from election manifestos. 

Eponine undermines her own argument further by pointing out that, not only is agenda-setting delegated to the Commission, "the Commission .... has the ability to change the direction of the original policy outcome, despite following the broader policy directions imposed by the heads of state in the European Council." Yes the EU Council has to approve the resulting legislation, but the initiative is with the blob.She then describes the accountability mechanisms which I would simply comment don't seem to be very effective in changing anything very much.

The power to take member states to court also seems to me a complete confusion of roles, totally unrelated to the role of a civil service.

So don't kid yourself, the EU is indeed run (or at least driven) by unelected bureaucrats. 

The reason I was researching this was a piece in the weekend's newspapers about the incoming EU Commissioners, due to take their posts at the end of October. They include some strange characters**:

  • Ursula Von der Leyen, who is due to succeed Junker as president of the Commission, faces a grilling from the German parliament over allegations of mismanagement and misspending during the five and a half years she spent in her last job at their defence ministry. 
  • Laszlo Trocsanyi, a former Hungarian justice minister due to be in charge of the EU's further eastward expansion (eh?) had his candidacy vetoed by the EU's Parliament's legal affairs commitee last week. He was blocked because of concern that the law firm he founded had been granted contracts by the Hungarian state while he was in government together with his role in extraditions to Russia
  • Romanian Rovana Plumb, set to become transport commissioner, is under scrutiny because of loans she had taken and whether they could be repaid in an "open and transparent manner". But she was already notorious because of claims in the Romanian media that, in 2014, she "forgot" to declare her Audi Q7 car which had been registered in Bulgaria in an apparent attempt to avoid a special tax on 4x4s - which she had introduced herself as transport minister.
  • Sylvie Goulard, a former French defence minister and ally of President Macron. She is a suspect in a case involving fictitious jobs when she served as an MEP.
  • Dubravaka Suica, who has amassed a large property portfolio in her native Croatia, which she has dismissed as "fake news"
The Romanian government may replace Plumb but the Hungarian PM is reportedly ready to fight over Trocsanyi. But MEPs were angry that the legal affairs committee was told to hold a further hearing with these two candidates. While purportedly because of a "minor procedural error" they saw it as an attempt to pressure them to reconsider their verdict.

It's not all bad news for the candidate commissioners: Belgian authorities have dropped an investigation of corruption and money laundering into Didier Reynders, their country's commissioner nominee.


This bunch of candidates is all too typical of the third rate or plain dodgy politicians for whom member states use the EU as a route to put out to grass. And, while in principle member states can object, it doesn't get them far and they don't have a veto: look how far David Cameron got in 2014 trying to block Junker.

So I disagree, Eponine. These people hold huge influence over the future direction of the EU and individual member states can effectively be railroaded. They occupy positions that are quite unlike our civil servants, they are unelected and we can't get rid of them.

Of course, Remainers argue that the EU isn't perfect and they accept it needs reform. We've tried that for 20 years and failed. But we can get out of this inefficient, bureaucratic and arguably corrupt quasi- state: by removing ourselves rather than them.

One of the real problems with Brexit is that the Commission is driving things for the EU, not the member states. The commission has a vested interest in keeping the UK in the EU and in showing others that it's impossible to leave. Because that's what keeps them in the style they are accustomed to.

If I understand what people in the EU and Ireland are saying tonight about the latest UK attempt to get a sensible deal, decoded it means "you can't actually leave. You can sort of leave but not leave (i.e. stay in the single market and customs union). Or at least you can't really leave and also keep the United Kingdom intact". Because that's what it amounts to. If that is what they mean I say "just try us, chum".


* https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lseupr/2019/02/19/is-the-european-union-governed-by-unelected-bureaucrats/

** from "Bad start for the new EU chief as two of her team get the kibosh", Sunday Times 29 September 2019.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

The English Civil War

Joe Strummer sang about what he saw as the increasing risk of unrest because of the rise of the far right National Front in The English Civil War in 1979. In an update of the old American civil war song When Johnny Comes Marching Home he sang that Johnny would come by bus or underground this time "because he hasn't got far to march".

The National Front - and all it's successors to date - haven't amounted to much.  But nevertheless the binary nature of Brexit has proved the most divisive political issue in my lifetime. The House of Commons has become increasingly febrile as the latest deadline approaches, for one side of the argument must eventually lose.

Personally I didn't find the nature of the debate at all surprising when the Commons resumed after the prorogation that legally never happened . Boris Johnson's "humbug" remark was inflammatory and his remark about Jo Cox misjudged at best but, as usual, the real venom came from the left. I think it ill behoves Labour MPs to howl at the PM in outrage with their faces contorted with what looks pretty much like hate to me for his relatively mild language when those individuals haven't, to my knowledge, criticised their own colleague John McDonnell for saying "lynch the bitch" when referring to female MP Esther McVey a while back. And that is just one of so many examples of the left using appalling language, a habit which dates back a long way - at least to Nye Bevin calling Tories "lower than vermin" in 1948.

Of course were those MPs to criticise McDonnell or any of his cronies they know for sure that the stream of hate that would flow their way from people supposedly on the same side would have plenty of, shall we say "momentum". So they don't do it. Which makes them cowards as well as hypocrites.

Johnson should probably apologise if only because, in the modern way of looking at things, if his opponents felt he was offensive, then he was. But his opponents have far more apologising to do in the main.

However, the division in the country does worry me. I listened to some of the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 recently. Now Vine, for me, has declined since he participated in Strictly Come Dancing as he seems to think he now has personality - or is one - and the BBC build up the "wacky" side of his character, which actually isn't that wacky. However this session with callers was very good. It focussed on how friendships and relationships have been damaged, or ended, over Brexit. It was hurtful listening to callers who told of families divided and life long friendships ended.

There were callers who voted Remain and said that they just could not speak any more to relatives or friends who had voted Leave, sometimes without any discussion or argument - they just cut them off, which amazed as well as saddened me. There was a caller whose long standing friend had winkled out of him how he had voted. When he reluctantly admitted to voting Leave the friendship had been damaged - "we still see each other at the match, but it's not the same". There was a musician who also reluctantly admitted he had voted Leave only to receive a relationship ending blast on the lines of "you've ruined my retirement". (The other musician was planning to retire to Sweden. Not only did he ignore the fact that it took 17 million others to vote the same way, he still could, of course, retire to Sweden now or in the future).

Vine noted that the common pattern was that it was almost all one way - it was Remainers who had cut Leavers out of their lives. "Are Remainers actually less tolerant?"  he pondered. He also wondered if it was that way round because Remain had lost. I'm sure that's the case but I don't know if it would have been as marked in the opposite direction if the result had been the other way. I think the fact that Remain lost unexpectedly had a lot to do with it. It's also the case that the Brexit debate has set people who had hitherto had similar political viewpoints against each other, as the binary split is very much not on traditional party lines. But for whatever reason it's still hurtful that some people who preach tolerance don't exercise it on a personal level.

Now I've only found one or two people who have become hostile even at the idea of a debate on the B subject. One person said "stop right there or we can't be friends", having guessed wrongly how I had voted. But I've said before in this blog that, whatever happens now, the political atmosphere in the UK will be toxic for decades due to Brexit. I had posited to Mrs H that it could be a bit like the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war: the topic might appear to go away but the rancour, splitting families and friends, would remain just under the surface through generations. I hadn't written on this because I suspected that my analogy was just to extreme, indeed tasteless. Prorogation, backstop, even no deal are hardly Guernica, are they?

Even so Strummer's song might be coming true after a fashion, though hopefully not in the way he envisaged through the rise of the far right - the far left getting in seems more likely to me, after all they've taken over a traditionally mainstream party. Not that the far right and left behave at all differently.

The problem with Brexit is that it's binary and essentially irreversible. It's not like voting for a party knowing you can chuck them out in 5 years time. And, even if it's only words, the division it is causing is a kind of English Civil War. What was that saying about sticks and stones? It doesn't work like that though, does it? Especially, it appears, if coupled with a vote in a referendum.


Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Law makers and law breakers

The Supreme Court ruled that Boris Johnson's prorogation of Parliament was illegal so now we have the predictable calls for him and his Attorney General who advised him that his actions would be  legal to resign. Folk are so quick to criticise in this unforgiving social media age but it seems to me that Johnson broke a law that wasn't specified before he broke it. It's not as if he wilfully drove past a 30mph sign at 50mph, for example.

It's only in authoritarian countries that one is accused of breaking a law that didn't explicitly exist before you broke it. The strength of our unwritten constitution is that it can evolve with circumstances and be re-interpreted. But it also means that Johnson broke a "law" that hadn't been made up at the time he broke it. The Supreme Court made the law retrospectively after the event which, in this kind of case, it is entitled to do. But spare us the faux outrage, please, this is the most technical of infractions after all.

As for the Attorney General, this is far from the first time that the occupier of that post has advised that a course of action is legal only for the courts to take a different view. All normal for the legal profession.

But did Johnson mislead the Queen? Of course not. He asked her to prorogue Parliament, which he believed he was entitled to do for reasons he declined to state to the Supreme Court but which were clearly political. But then proroguing Parliament is political, so what other reasons would there be? The Queen had no choice but to comply, unless she wanted to re-open matters settled with the Civil War. Johnson was not required to explain his advice to the Queen, so he didn't lie. Did he make it look as if she had done something improper? No, of course not. I'm sure she was more embarrassed by blabbermouth Cameron's book.

And, while Johnson's actions were clearly questionable, plenty of commentators and legal professionals thought he would get away with it. I assumed that he would, though I changed my mind when I heard one of the arguments coming from the Scottish case on the radio. This was that, if the PM could prorogue Parliament whenever and for whatever period he wanted, what would stop an incoming PM after a general election proroguing Parliament for 5 years? Clearly that would be unreasonable. So Johnson had stretched the period one might consider reasonable and it was tested in the courts. I still thought he might get away with it but, with hindsight, it's not a shock that the Supreme Court ruled as it did. If they'd said it was ok, a future PM might have stretched it a bit more. The law still isn't specific but future PMs would be advised to assume that anything materially longer than recent precedent might be retrospectively ruled illegal.

The Court made clear that the case wasn't about Brexit (er, even though it had originally listed it as a Brexit related case!) But, of course, it was all about Brexit. Johnson wanted to get breathing space for his negotiations and the people bringing the case all wanted to deny him that. There wasn't a single party to the case saying "I think we should leave the EU but proroguing in this way sets a dangerous precedent". While it's Gina Miller who causes the highest levels of blood pressure amongst Brexiteers in the general public, John Major's participation in the case was the most risible. Here was a man who prorogued Parliament to avoid debate and scrutiny on the cash for questions scandal arguing that Johnson shouldn't be able to do the same over Brexit. You really couldn't make it up. I'm left wondering whether Major's prorogation was also unlawful. In that case, as the Supreme Court ruled Johnson's prorogation was null, void and never happened, then presumably the 1997 Parliament is still sitting and the last five Parliaments never actually happened. Fancy rubbing out Blair, Brown and Cameron from history! Actually, I shouldn't joke about this in case Gina or her ilk take the case and make not only the Article 50 legislation but also the referendum legislation lapse...... a bit like having a time machine!

Before the ruling I felt that the Supreme Court hearing was almost irrelevant; merely a bit of constitutional clarification that wouldn't have much impact. After all, the case that Parliament couldn't do its job was weak - it had passed the no-deal "surrender bill" in record time, so clearly there would be time for Parliament to scrutinise any deal that Johnson brings back from the October EU summit and to pass further laws if they wished. But it's much more basic than that. Johnson's political opponents have united behind "say no to no-deal" but the thing that really terrifies most of them is that he will get a deal as then we could be out of the EU very quickly. Of course the remainers don't want to risk that and would prefer everlasting limbo as an alternative.

Johnson is only likely to achieve his 31 October exit deadline if he convinces both the EU and Parliament that an immediate no deal exit is the alternative to a deal. Even then he might not get enough movement on the Irish border question but, if the EU would commit to jointly working up a solution on the lines of their own vision for future border controls (essentially the smart border 2.0 concept advocated by Lars Karlsson, a former director of Swedish customs*) then most of the means to avoid a hard border would surely become possible.

By dragging Johnson back to Parliament the Remainers who took the cases have ensured that they can snipe at him on an almost daily basis, knowing that the Speaker will connive with them to make it almost impossible for Johnson to make any actual progress with the EU by forcing him to report on "progress" and ensuring that any such progress is undermined. Although I don't doubt it was not their intent, the court's decision has materially reduced the chance of Johnson getting movement from the EU, if only because they will judge the chance of him forcing through no deal has reduced significantly.

The court has taken an entirely justifiable and responsible decision, which strengthens the constitutional position of Parliament. But it has still been used as a patsy.


* Smart border 2.0: solving Brexit's Irish border challenge, https://www.governmenteuropa.eu/smart-border-2-0-solving-border/91512/


Monday, 16 September 2019

Take the H out of HS2 now

Boris Johnson has inevitably called for a review of the escalating cost and ever extending timescale of the HS2 rail project. After all, it's been clear for some time that the project budget is completely blown and those in control are in denial, and/or covering things up. And also that the project is completely dysfunctional, with horror stories about egregious behaviour towards displaced landowners. It seems clear that many are not being paid adequate market value compensation for their assets, but I was even more horrified to learn that they don't actually get any money for quite some time after they have to vacate.I thought appropriation of assets without timely and fair compensation was something that only happened in authoritarian countries, at least until or unless Corbyn and McDonnell get in.

There is a strong case for cutting our losses at the already substantial sum of £7bn already spent and allocating the resources elsewhere. But we do need to improve our creaking infrastructure, economically it makes sense to spend on infrastructure while interest rates are low and there just aren't other "shovel ready" projects to start. And won't replacement projects just overrun (or never deliver) as well?

In a country where we can't seem to build any major project to time and cost any more it would be easy to despair. But there may be a way to salvage something useful from the mess.

The problems for HS2 started, well, at the start. I'm fairly sure the costs estimate was always ambitious, probably because the project would never have been approved at the numbers now being spoken of. But major projects often overrun and it doesn't stop them being seen later as a success, for example, the Channel Tunnel. Though of course in that case it was private shareholders who lost their shirts, just as they did in the case of the early waterways and some London Underground lines. Plus ca change.

The real problem for HS2 was in the name: "High Speed 2". OK, HS1, the line into London from the Channel Tunnel, had been a success with trains speeding smoothly into London. Previously passengers sped through the French countryside and the tunnel itself only to trundle slowly into Waterloo, sharing the line with slower traffic. But there is no great advantage in trains running between London, the midlands and the north at very high speed rather than at speed and smoothly, without stops. Rather like Concorde, reducing the flying time part of the journey doesn't necessarily reduce the overall journey time enough to be worthwhile. For me, the main reason to build HS2 was always the additional capacity because of growth in passenger journeys.

Following rail privatisation in 1996 rail travel started to increase for the first time in decades. If you go back to the start of railways, passenger numbers increased sharply from 1840 as the newly created rail network expanded. It reached a peak in the first world war then declined, peaking at a lower level in 1947 before remorselessly declining through the "age of the train" as Jimmy Saville (who Mrs H always knew was a perv) called it on the TV adverts. But then growth resumed in the mid 1990s. It can be argued as to whether or not privatisation was the main reason for the subsequent unexpected upturn, but the end of the not then lamented British Rail was certainly a factor as passenger numbers grew rapidly from exactly that date, passing first the 1947 peak and then the first world war all time peak in rapid succession around a decade ago. It's an interesting graph:



Of course, the size of the network was significantly reduced in the 1960s by the infamous Dr Beeching, though Beeching's cuts were surely necessary at the time to prevent the cost of the railways becoming so unaffordable that the whole network bar the main inter city routes might have been lost. So all those extra passengers were cramming onto a congested system, resulting in over crowding and other problems.

All this was clear by 2009 when the HS2 feasibility study was launched and even more so when the project was sanctioned in 2012. The trend continued: by 2015 the number of rail passenger journeys had doubled since 1997.

So why was very high speed considered so important? I can tell you exactly who is to blame, a chap called Professor Andrew McNaughton. I met McNaughton while I was working in the rail services sector and he was Chief Engineer at Network Rail; it would have been around 2006 or 2007. Even though his reputation preceded him I was surprised at just how full of himself this chap was. He had the greatest sense of certainty that he was right about everything of anyone I came across in my 40 year career in chemicals, nuclear, manufacturing, consultancy and rail. And I met quite a few with that tendency. I realise that comment will make some readers guffaw, as I am very capable of coming across the same way myself, never being short of an opinion. Indeed, sometimes more than one on any subject and often contradictory.... But I can assure you that, in football parlance, I am barely League Two or Conference standard compared with McNaughton who is international class at knowing he's always right.

Soon after that he was made Prof at some Uni or other and I would ask my engineering team colleagues, when they had gone to meetings at which he was present, what pronouncements Professor, Sir, Lord Andrew McNaughton had made. (I called him this so many times in jest I began to think he actually had been knighted. Only a matter of time, Andrew, I'm sure). In 2009 he became Chief Engineer at HS2 and later Technical Director. Since 2017 he has been HS2's part-time Strategic Technical Adviser. At HS2 he was the architect of the gold-plated specification that is now proving so expensive. The trains had to run at 360 km/hr with scope to increase that to 400 km/hr (250 mph in old money), making possible a journey time of 1 hour 7 minutes between London and Manchester.

Why so fast? Here is what McNaughton told MPs in 2012: "We learnt very strongly from people we respect, like Guillame Pepy in France [Pepy was boss of the French state owned rail company SNCF] that they had wished they had not designed to the limit of the day because the technology continues to advance". That tells you everything: HS2 was designed to work with technology not yet available. This is not how large projects are successfully delivered. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, not surprisingly, would not licence construction of a nuclear power station which is partly based on technology that doesn't yet exist. If you go on a Trident nuclear submarine, which I did some years ago when the boat concerned was about ten years old, so only a third of the way through its operational life, it is striking that much of the equipment looks like stuff in a museum*. For the obvious reason that it was designed and the equipment ordered the best part of 20 years ago then, more like 35 to 40 years now. That's the point: these projects have very long life cycles and it's pointless to try to catch the wave of the next technological developments as it will all look out of date in one way or another long before the system is middle aged.

The HS2 design concept has huge cost implications. It dictated the route (gentler curves, fewer stations), requires bespoke trains and more resilient tracks. Another Professor, Rod Smith, has said HS2 was "being ruined" as speeds of up to 400km/hr were "completely unnececessary. It knocks the hell out of the track. The dynamic forces at those sort of speeds are incredible." And, as I said above, "it doesn't even save much time". Smith said the UK should learn from Japan's high-speed railway: cutting speed and moving stations out of city centres could help halve HS2's cost. "There's been an abject failure to win hearts and minds about this programme. It's not been explained why this is necessary and a golden opportunity to remodel the country."

I haven't met Rod Smith, who is a Prof at Imperial College and chairs the Future Railway Research Centre, but one of my colleagues in the rail business whose understanding and expertise of the railway was as good as anyone I ever came across always spoke highly of him. If Rod Smith says the H in HS2 is unnecessary then I'm sure my view based more on hunch and prejudice is sound.

HS2 has long prevaricated over what the main rationale for the project is. I went to see the then Transport Secretary, Patrick McLaughlin, talk in Derby (a rail city and near his constituency) in early 2013. He argued that HS2 was needed for the additional capacity it would provide as well as the benefit of higher speed. Indeed HS2 executives have promoted the capacity argument and even considered changing the route's name, but they decided that people would still keep calling it HS2 regardless. Hmm: they might not have done that if the project had been explicitly de-scoped in terms of highest speeds. And folk did eventually stop calling Sellafield Windscale.

I wonder if it's too late for Johnson's review to look at de-scoping the project. A lot of money has been spent and committed but some of the largest companies working on the project think big savings could be made. "We have some frustrations with HS2" one said. "There are savings we know we could make and we could certainly get near or below the budget. They should cut the speed". Wow - "near or below" a budget that might currently get bust by a factor of maybe two.

In 2018 McNaughton was appointed by the government of New South Wales to advise on their plans for a high speed rail network. As the distances are greater there, speed might make some sense. But I'd still say "watch your pockets, chaps". One thing McNaughton will do is give you very confident and assertive advice. Whether it's good advice is another matter.

One thing that isn't quick about HS2 is the delivery. It was originally due to be complete by 2026. I was due to be in my mid 70s by then. There is talk about it being delayed by 5 years. The ability of the UK to deliver projects is such that I currently have no expectation of riding trains on the route.

It's time to cut back on these grandiose requirements which add little and save the project from cancellation. Take the "H" out of HS2 and it might make a lot more sense.

*I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know (no official secret, it's on Wikipedia) that the tactical information and weapons control system on the Trident submarines is essentially based on Microsoft Windows XP. It's called the Submarine Command System Next Generation and, to slightly undermine my argument, it was developed in collaboration with Microsoft during the design and construction phase. But to bolster my argument, there wasn't much doubt about Microsoft's ability to deliver the software and, while Windows XP was cutting edge at the time, Windows is just a wrapper round MS-DOS, already by then well established software.

** The quotations are from "End of the line for HS2?" by John Collingridge in the Sunday Times on 1 September 2019 but the personal recollections and gratuitous opinions are of course mine.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Time for the sin bin

Watching the weekend's Premier League games on tv left me feeling that deliberate foul play has become too widely accepted as part of the game.

I've written before about how Manchester City are the masters of the quick foul after a transition where they lose the ball in their opponents half (see The Most Cynical Team in the Premier League, 3 April 2018 and Ole's right - City do kick players, 24 April 2019). On Saturday's Match of the Day pundits Jermaine Jenas and Tim Cahill made the point that City centre back Laporte got injured in fouling a Brighton player running at speed in City's half because their comparatively new midfield player, Rodri, didn't "make a foul" (as people say these days) a couple of seconds earlier on the halfway line. The coverage showed an agitated Guardiola waving his hands and talking to his coaching staff. Whether he was complaining about the intercepted pass which preceded these events or the weak attempt at a tackle by Rodri wasn't clear, I admit, but I suspect more the latter. Now don't get me wrong, as a player I committed many deliberate fouls. But 40 years ago, before the phrase "taking one for the team" was coined for a professional foul leading to an inevitable yellow card to prevent a dangerous breakaway, we didn't feel particularly proud of ourselves for doing it and we didn't generally do it in our opponents half, when there was no imminent danger.*

But now it seems to be taken for granted as an accepted part of the game. I understand the logic: a foul high up the pitch is better than a last ditch tackle around your own box; the free kick holds no danger and a red card is much less likely. But when the best team behaves like this it seriously reduces the chances of any shocks and makes the outcomes tiresomely predictable. After all, when Laporte injured himself City were winning 1-0. At home. To Brighton for frig's sake. Not very edifying, though perhaps my reaction, that at least City and Laporte got some penalty since Laporte may have injured himself badly enough to miss a chunk of the season is, I admit, equally unsavoury. But the yellow card obviously doesn't provide enough punishment, since teams would rather take that that let in one goal. In a tight match that might affect the result and the points tally but, given the situation in the particular match, I was left feeling that City must think the league could be so tight it might come down to one goal this time, having been one point last season.

Now I accept that City are simply the most professional team at the moment in everything they do, just like the Liverpool team of the late 70s and early 80s were in their era. But in those days the cynicism didn't necessarily run through the whole team. Forwards generally didn't stop the opposition in their tracks after losing the ball high up the pitch, it was left to the likes of Graeme Sounness and Jimmy Case. Now everyone through the team is expected to do their duty.

The City match wasn't the only one which had me feeling this way. I watched Everton v Wolves live and was taken aback by how many niggly fouls were committed by Wolves. I thought they were a footballing team, based around a very skilful midfield. But on reflection, in most of the matches I saw  last season they were playing at home. Their coach, the grandly named Nuno Espirito Santo (which I always think of something a priest would say in church) got a lot of plaudits for his team's performances last season. At Goodison their creativity was close to zero, based around two attacking threats: the speed and power of wing back Traore (who had the beating of Everton's player of the season last year, Lucas Digne, at will in the first half) and long throw ins. But it was the number of fouls, with some fairly ruthless examples, that was most striking. The Goodison crowd got restive, clearly feeling the referee wasn't taking enough action and letting too much go even though, in the end, Wolves had 6 yellow cards, with two for Boly meaning red, compared to Everton's one yellow. It was Wolves's tenth game of the season to Everton's fifth because of the ridiculous Europa League schedule but that's no excuse. It's not just me: a friend who went to the game reported that Wolves had been "very cynical".

My own team weren't blameless. Fabian Delph gave a very impressive display in midfield leading my brother to suggest that he might "be a Gareth Barry" for us. Or, indeed, a Phil Neville, bringing a consistency of performance and mentality to the side. But Delph was Everton's yellow card, taking one for the team as a Wolves player escaped from him 10 yards inside Everton's half. The situation was indeed dangerous and I'm left feeling that matches are being decided on whether a team can be sharp enough to commit rapid foul when they lose the ball in such positions.

I'm a huge conservative when it comes to rule changes in sport. It took many years before I would admit that three points for a win had improved football, pedantically clinging to the feeling that it destroyed the logic of two points being at stake in a match - one team wins them both you or share them for a draw. I did, however, feel that introducing a red card for bringing a player down who was clear through on goal was a huge improvement, even though I was playing in the back four at the time. This was the act originally termed a "professional foul" as the cynical move-killing foul up the pitch was virtually unknown. But it's become a blight on the game and is spoiling entertainment.

These offences don't merit a red but the yellow card clearly isn't enough. While players might eventually get banned, the size of squads limits the downside. And I've seen too much of teams taking it in turns to foul an opposing team's main threat (Zaha of Crystal Palace would be an example) so they don't get cards ("but it's my first foul, ref"). Or hitting such a player with what is known as a "reducer", a tackle which leaves enough on an opponents calf or, better still, achilles to slow the victim down for the match and reduce their ability to move quickly. In David Moyes's Everton team Steven Pienaar was a player who could accelerate from a standing start and burst past players in midfield, creating overloads on the opposing defence but it became routine for him to take such a hit early in the game as other sides realised the importance of that supply line to Everton and Pienaar's unfortunate vulnerability to a knock on the ankle.

We all know these type of challenges when we see them and I don't think referees have much difficulty telling the difference between them and a late, clumsy or simply mistimed challenge. It gets my goat that players can be penalised for what, in my day, would have been seen as a perfectly fair and honest challenge on the grounds that it used "excessive force", when deliberate fouls - which are just as likely to cause injury in my view - receive limited sanction.

It's time to introduce the rugby style sin bin, with ten minutes off the pitch as well as a yellow card, for the perpetrators of deliberate, cynical fouls anywhere on the pitch to improve the ebb and flow and spectacle of the game.

* Come to think of it I was most likely to commit a deliberate foul because an opponent had just fouled one of our younger players in a way I took exception to, or just because he was an irritating twerp who'd been getting on my t*ts and so I felt it was called for. "I'm glad you did that, he's been irritating me too" a team mate once said after I'd flattened a gobby opponent. I suspect it would have been worth ten minutes on the sidelines....

Sunday, 1 September 2019

I wouldn't have started from here, at least not now

Loyal readers may be surprised that I have resisted commenting on the unfolding Brexit saga/fiasco/train wreck/opportunity (delete as applicable) for some time. I felt that there wasn't much point in just saying "I told you so at the outset", though I did. I couldn't see how the Irish border issue could be solved from before the referendum and once the negotiation started the way the question was framed seemed to make it totally impossible. Then the "joint report" in December 2017 made it even clearer that we should never have accepted the EU's preposterous "sequencing" of the negotiations which meant that we couldn't talk trade until we were out, thereby requiring the backstop and definitively dooming the Irish border question to failure, since the Tories without the DUP would never have enough votes to carry the day, Labour having decided just to make mischief for the government at every turn, hoping to capitalise politically. I also repeatedly urged that we should walk away from the negotiations in an attempt to reset them, or at least give time for thorough no deal planning, which of itself would increase the chance of an agreement. Readers will know I've been saying all of this since at least 2017, so no point in repeating it. I also conveyed Yanis Varoufakis's point that the EU had set up the negotiation to fail, so our only options were to go for an EEA deal, capitulate or walk away*.

But I just can't resist any longer.

Threatening no deal now does, of course, absolutely make sense, as it just might bring enough movement from the EU side for a deal to be reached which could pass through Parliament. Otherwise there ain't a deal that can pass. I'm assuming that it would be necessary for a fair number of Labour MPs to support any deal to counter the awkward Tories and maybe absent DUP. Which could happen as apparently many Labour MPs from leave voting constituencies regret not voting for May's deal. Taking no deal off the table is in my view daft, as there would be no need for the EU to move while also no chance of getting anything through the Commons. But of course, it carries risk, for the country and for Johnson's government.

One assumes Dominic Cummings has gamed all the possible outcomes and decided many work for Johnson and his party. I personally think it was quite clever from a tactical viewpoint to prorogue Parliament and hold a Queen's Speech, if morally dubious, as this effectively brings on the vote of confidence that the opposition seem reluctant to hold. If Johnson loses either a vote of confidence or the vote on the Queen's Speech I doubt the opposition will be able to put together a government which can win such a vote either, so an election will follow.  It would suit Johnson for an early election to be forced on him, rather than calling it himself. In that election Johnson could be confident of squeezing the Brexit party and, on current polls, could be confident of winning. (But May thought the same). And, depending on what happens when Parliament briefly resumes, Brexit might happen during the campaign. (I'm not arguing that any of that is good, just commenting that it's smart tactically).

Many other foreseeable outcomes would also probably work ok for Johnson, though one outcome probably doesn't: if the election is shortly after a no-deal exit and there is a lot of chaos then the electorate might, entirely reasonably, blame the Tories. But there would be no reason to vote Brexit Party, so that would still help them. And outraged remainers might be more likely to vote LibDem than Labour. Overall such an election would probably swing on the Tories demonstrated incompetence versus fear that Labour's would be worse.

For what it's worth I agree with what Varoufakis said in 2017, that Merkel didn't come to the rescue of the Greeks and won't come to ours. So, while justifiable if two years late to threaten no deal I don't expect the EU to bend, though they might panic and offer more time. But as the most common reaction I hear is "just decide what to do and do it", more time isn't really relevant.

Perhaps the most amusing outcome would be for Parliament to insist that the government seeks a further extension and the EU holds to its stated position and refuses one. While I think that is unlikely it would be consistent with what they've said and entirely understandable. But they still want to sell us those BMWs.

Several months ago I lost what remaining sympathy I had for the Tory Brexiteers when they rejected May's deal, which I would have reluctantly taken and which I felt gave them 80% of what they ever said they wanted. And more recently, why on earth would they say they would not accept the deal, even if the backstop were removed? But then a dawning realisation hit me. It's really quite simple.Under the Withdrawal Agreement, even without the backstop, we are still subject to many EU rules and the whim of the ECJ during the transition. Do I trust them? Well you know I don't trust the Brussels eurocrats, but surely we could trust the Germans? Er, maybe. 50% of the time perhaps. But the French - could we and should we trust the French? Just asking myself that question made me laugh out loud. What on earth would make anyone think that we could trust the French? It's almost a rhetorical question.

So could the day still be saved?  Is the only choice between a poor deal or no deal? Maybe not.

As recently as June Lord Owen was still banging the drum for us leaving via the EEA stagepost**. Owen notes there is no support in the House of Commons for leaving with the available deal or without a deal, yet the single market is designed to include countries inside and outside the EU that are signatories in their own right to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. The Bruges Group, a euro-sceptic think tank founded in 1988, has proposed that the UK leaves the EU but remains a member of the EEA "participating provisionally" in the single market. The term "provisional" is important. Since 2014 Croatia has been a provisional member of the single market without ratification. So the UK could do the opposite: leave the EU on 31 October and become a non-EU member of the EEA. Now Owen has long advocated that the UK should assert it's legal right to remain in the EEA pro-tem, but the elegance of doing it this way is that the EU need not concede this claim but only grant the UK "provisional" status. The big advantage behind this way forward is that the provisional status would buy time for the UK and EU to negotiate a free trade deal, but the UK would have actually left and would not be subject to a Withdrawal Agreement in the interim.

This solution is beguilingly attractive and I don't know what the downsides are to even the most hard bitten euro-sceptic. The cost would probably be lower than the divorce payment for starters and could be linked to the completion of a free trade deal. But it may be that European Court would still hold sway over us. However, unlike the backstop situation, we could get out any time. The EEA solution answers some of the Irish border issues, as logically the situation would be no more complex than it is between Sweden and Norway.

But the big plus is the UK would not be a supplicant, as under Article 50. Owen says it would be a proper negotiation, not the take it or leave it approach built into Article 50. I guess this is because the UK would be starting with rights as well as obligations.

I've not read enough about the EEA option to know what the catch is, though I think it doesn't automatically sort out freedom of movement. But it's surprising that it's not had more debate. The Commons voted against it in the indicative votes but I'm not sure how informed that debate was. If it's good enough for Lord Owen, I'd buy it on trust.

And, after all the hot air on the Irish border, maybe I'm wrong in thinking that it's an insoluble Gordian knot. The Tory MP Greg Hands, a cabinet minister in 2015-16 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has published a report*** which says that the backstop isn't needed because the border issue can be fixed. Hands led an Alternative Arrangements Commission which went to Ireland several times and Brussels, Berlin and The Hague to explain its proposals, which include a series of "administrative and technological measures" all of which are already in place somewhere in the world today. That last bit is important as the EU has been quite pedantic about needing an available solution, which seems to me to be too restrictive given the particular and unusual features of the specific border. Now much of the solution proposed we've all heard of: a tiered trusted trader scheme similar to that used for the USA-Canada border to cut down on paperwork and checks at the border, for example. But there is one part of their proposal that I hadn't thought of, even though it is startlingly obvious. That is to have "enhanced economic zones" straddling much of the border, with tax breaks and a free trade zone to avoid duties. D'oh! That's so obvious! Indeed, why not, in the limit, make all of Northern Ireland and chunks of the Republic one enormous freeport? OK, that would mean controls on leaving the freeport and it might not be politically possible for that "border" to be in the Irish Sea between the North and mainland UK. But surely a version of it could work?

It would certainly avoid the much publicised problems in the immediate border area of free movement of people, goods and animals such as the farm through which the border anecdotally passes. I'd always felt the only logical way to resolve those local problems would be to agree on redrawing the border, but as logic would get nowhere in such an emotional minefield I viewed it as a non-starter, even for solving a number of very specific local issues affecting a limited number of people.

For what it's worth I believe Hands as well as Owen. These things CAN be solved, but not if the EU insist on the precise solution already having been demonstrated elsewhere and available in full on 1 November like some genie from a lamp, only if it is accepted that the solution will have to be bedded in and evolved over time. There's been a lot of huffing and puffing over the UK's "red lines" but, for me, it's the EU's red lines which have prevented agreement. After all, May conceded on most of hers. Which is just another example of the EU setting up the negotiation to ensure it fails, whether intentionally or not.

I understand and accept that the EU's prime objective is to protect (oh, irony!) Margaret Thatcher's brainchild, the single market. But their subsidiary aim, to demonstrate to other members that they should never contemplate leaving, is probably the bigger factor behind their intransigence. However, now they have a maverick and unpredictable UK PM who is prepared to fight dirty with them and with Parliament, whereas May tried to railroad Parliament while always giving way to Brussels. But time is now very short.

So, if asked what I would do now, it's just like the old Irish joke: "how would you get to X..... well, I wouldn't start from here". At least not now, though I would have started from walk out/no deal 2 years ago.

It's hard to put aside the risks of a sudden no deal exit. But if you can treat it as pure political theatre, it's fascinating.


* well, not repeating itin full but here are some of the relevant references:
25 Oct 2016, in Cold Front at Calais,  I referred to the EU as an "abusive and self-harming partner" behaving like a "psycopathic sado-masochist" and said "if we stay on terms that meant we didn't really leave they would know they could bully us forever"
17 Sept 2017, in Don't Walk Away Renee, I argued it was time to walk out of the negotiations in an attempt to get a proper, rather than sham, negotiation going. If that wasn't possible we wouldn't lose anything and would have more time to plan for the consequences.
8 December 2017, in Reasons To Be Cheerful - or Entangled?, a post laden with dodgy musical references on publication of the joint report on the first phase of the negotiations, I noted that the EU had succeeded in all its negotiating aims and that the Irish backstop risked leaving us entangled in Hotel California, checked out but unable to leave. And implied that the smirk on the face of the Taoiseach told you all you needed to know about how things were going.
Not much seems to have changed in the intervening 20 months though Varadkar has gone from smirking to shifty to looking a bit worried.....

**  David Owen's article Our EU escape route exists already. Europe set it up was in the Sunday Times on 23 June 2019.

*** Greg Hands has been widely publicised, for example "Here's why we don't need the Backstop (by an expert who REALLY knows) in the Daily Mail on 23 Aug 2019