Monday, 31 December 2018

I Should Have Known That

I posited recently that the Premier League at least looked like it would be a race (At Least It's A Race, 21 December) albeit at the risk of Liverpool winning their first top flight title in 29 years. Yes - and it's only 3 years more since Everton won it.  I ended by asking when male footballers started wearing sports bras, like this Wolves player:

Of course I should have known that this is the StatSports vest fitted with GPS which is how they can tell you how far each player ran, how many sprints they did at what maximum speed etc. The plain vest costs about 25 quid; fitted with the GPS tracker more like £250. There are cheaper competitor products available, but they aren't used by the likes of Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. Indeed, football and other sports clubs all over the world have of course been using this kit for several years, I just hadn't realised that's what it looked like.

Looking at the StatSports website it's not clear to me whether players have to wear the type that looks like a bra, or whether there are other styles. But it would appear to be a fashion choice as most Premier League players wear base layers, once called "vests" youngsters, in which case the GPS thingy is presumably tucked around a belt - or somewhere else.

Either way, I would have thought it would get a bit warm in hot conditions wearing the bra style. But at least it avoids the risk of jogger's nipple.

With that a happy, safe, prosperous and peaceful New Year to all my readers. After all, what could possibly go wrong in 2019?

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Tens of Thousands?

The Government's White Paper on post-Brexit immigration will not reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands, even if that is a sensible policy aim. Who says so? Former Theresa May confidante Nick Timothy. Timothy says*:
  • Despite the headline promise of a skills-based system, there are several gaping holes in the white paper that will allow low-skilled immigration to Britain to continue, and cause an unlimited volume of supposedly skilled migration.
  • The cap on skilled migration will be removed. Rules requiring employers to advertise jobs in Britain before recruiting migrants will disappear. The need for employers to obtain a “sponsor licence” will be dropped. Subject to a salary threshold, any worker classed as skilled – from anywhere in the world – will be entitled to compete with British workers for the same job.
  • What constitutes skilled work is changing. Work permits will be made available for medium-skilled as well as high-skilled workers. The qualifications required to prove skilled worker status include A-levels and NVQs. Migrants will be free to apply for 142 additional occupations, including hairdressers, newsagents, bricklayers, gardeners and fitness instructors. All in all, this is the equivalent of five million jobs, a third of Britain’s entire full-time workforce
Timothy argues that the white paper "risks taking us back to the bad old days under Labour". Then, almost one third of supposedly “highly-skilled” migrants were working as shop assistants, security guards, supermarket cashiers and care assistants.

Yes, there is a salary cap of £30k but the white paper says the Government will “allow migration at lower salary levels” for some jobs and sectors. It promises that foreign students should, upon graduation, be “subject to a lower salary threshold”, regardless of the quality of their degree. And ministers are arguing that the salary threshold should be lower than £30,000. As a result, although the Migration Advisory Committee recommendations were made following an extensive consultation with business, there will now be another consultation with employers. Their interest is obvious: many labour market studies show higher immigration can reduce wages for people in certain jobs.

Timothy's summary is that the white paper proposes lifting the cap on skilled migration, expands the definition of skilled work, and makes British workers compete for millions more jobs. It acknowledges that unskilled immigration will continue anyway through family visas, the asylum system and labour mobility schemes. And it confirms that we have more than 1.5 million low-skilled migrant workers already in Britain. It also proposes new short-term visas for low skilled workers, lasting for less than 12 months and so outside the immigration statistics.

So the White Paper is highly likely to fail in its supposed aims. Timothy also sees it as a missed opportunity:
"Aligned with industrial strategy, it could have prioritised the sectors and skills our economy needs. Aligned with an ambitious cities strategy, it could have done more to make regional cities more dynamic. Aligned with the Brexit negotiations, it could have offered preferential treatment for European workers in return for better access to the single market. And it could have brought control to our immigration system. Instead, it is a missed opportunity that risks bringing about the very opposite of what ministers promise."

I am a supporter of an Australian points-based system for immigration, focussed on getting the skills and numbers we need while ensuring that we develop British people to meet as many of the needs as possible, rather than just turning to immigration to fill all the needs on a short-term basis.  I am deeply sceptical that a salary cap is the way to go as the implication is that higher earners can come in regardless. I don't think this is right from the point of view of developing our own people, though I accept that, in key industries, we need the skills when we need them to for businesses to develop.

I had thought Sajid Javid showed promise. But this all sounds like another fine mess in the making.

However, the important thing about all this is that, after Brexit we can have a comprehensive immigration policy. If the one adopted isn't fit for purpose we can change it. I would still rather it was up to us.

* Nick Timothy's article The Government's grand post-Brexit immigration plan is likely to see numbers rise was in the Telegraph on 19 December

Friday, 21 December 2018

At least it's a race

Given that Liverpool and Manchester City are my least favourite football teams, you might think I'm a bit depressed at the Premier League table at the moment. But I have to admit they are serving up a feast of football and, for the moment at least, it looks like we have a meaningful title race. Which is better than the alternative, given that Everton winning it by a procession still seems some way off.

I expect it to stay a race to the death as Liverpool have been hugely improved by the signings of pretty boy man mountain centre back Virgil Van Dijk and "sponsored by Brylcreem" goalkeeper Alisson Becker. As you can see by the simple stat that, after 18 league games this season Liverpool have conceded 7 goals. After the same number of games last season it was 20.

It's also the received wisdom that Liverpool's front three aren't firing as effectively this season. Yet they have scored 39 goals in those 18 games. At the equivalent time last season they had scored 38. And Mo Salah, who Mrs H had said recently looked "tired - is he unwell?" looked to have got the  twinkle back in his eye. Most people would after his classy finish for Liverpool's first goal tonight at Wolves.

Liverpool's second goal was scored by Van Dijk and I enjoyed seeing it, because of his movement after a Liverpool corner had been half cleared to Salah just outside the Wolves box. Van Dijk had not been the furthest forward Liverpool player and was close to the edge of the box. As the Wolves defence unthinkingly moved up and the Liverpool attackers moved out with them, Van Dijk spotted his opportunity and jogged forward. Salah saw him, timed the cross and Van Dijk prodded in calmly with his foot. The Wolves defenders had vacated what I call the "danger slot" (or Tim Cahill zone) 4-6 yards out right in front of the goal and that gave Salah the opportunity to play the ball over their heads, dropping well before the keeper and into the path of the onrushing Van Dijk . The mistake the Wolves defenders made was moving up when there was no pressure on the ball.

The reason I enjoyed Van Dijk's goal was a semi-forgotten memory it stimulated from 35 years ago when I was playing at centre back, as I did for 6 seasons after converting from winger via midfield and full back. Seeing a corner cleared to one of my team mates who also had time to look up we made eye contact and I made a similar run to score a free header from a similar position. Most centre backs don't get that many goals - I certainly didn't - and this was one of my better efforts.

But I enjoyed just as much watching Van Dijk hold off one of the Wolves forwards who first tried to burn him for pace (Van Dijk accelerated smoothly and closed the space down in a flash) and then tried to out muscle him but bounced off the centre back as the ball rolled back harmlessly to the Liverpool keeper. I didn't posses Van Dijk's turn of speed let alone his physique and would have been horribly exposed in the equivalent position, albeit with the game at my standard being much slower. Van Dijk makes this stuff look easy and his composure and confidence has flowed through Liverpool's back four. A Liverpool season ticket holder tells me Van Dijk directs the young players who have been his most frequent defensive partners (Alexander-Arnold, Gomez and particularly Robertson), talking them through the games. Van Dijk's transfer fee may have been a world record for a defender but he looks a bargain.

I will finish with one oddity from the Wolves-Liverpool game. At the end, as Mo Salah and a Wolves player exchanged shirts  I spotted this:

As I said to Mrs H - since when do footballers wear sports bras?

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Norway - no way (says Mark Carney)

While calls for the country, or just its MPs, to come together continue to be resisted by everyone digging their trenches deeper, what can we tell from the Bank of England's Brexit "scenarios not forecasts"? Not much, I think. We all knew that the uncertainty of a leave negotiation would hit the economy. It has, though not as much as predicted and our economy is still doing relatively well internationally. Investment has been seriously hit though and that will have an insidious impact down the line. Moreover, on any scenario, the transition to future arrangements is likely to hit growth. Further down the line one would expect a recovery as business adapts. Whether we end up a bit better or a bit worse off way down the line is a matter of judgement and opinion, but most long term economic forecasts show that how well we are doing in 20 years time depends more on factors like our ability (or inability recently) to improve productivity than Brexit, which is a second order effect. And, as Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead.

Most of the above was broadly evident at the time of the referendum and we all heard Project Fear just as loudly as Boris's £350 mill. So I discount all comments about people in the referendum not voting to make themselves poorer, partly because the risks were writ large (they were the main reason for me turning chicken and voting Remain) but also because many people voted on non-economic factors. Wolfgang Munchau  put this succinctly in his Eurointelligence blog when he said "Economics is a useless tool when it comes to discussions about distant future states of the world, which is why we are ignoring the hysterical warnings by the Bank of England and the Treasury on the impact of various Brexit scenarios. The only point we would make is political: a fear-based campaign did not work last time, and we don’t think that the current hysteria will fare much better."

It is not clear if a debate will be allowed before the clock runs down as that seems to suit both May and Corbyn. But if it were to be one option that could yet emerge as the most supported in the Commons, though without an overall majority (no option has that!) is the so-called Norway plus option, supported by Lord Owen*, Tory Nick Boles and probably quite a few on the Labour benches. This option is the just about the closest you can get to staying in while leaving so I have always been suspicious of it. But the Bank of England has told us why it's a bad idea: it would be "a threat to financial stability" (wow!) Sir John Cunliffe, a deputy governor at the Bank, told the Treasury Committee "Our financial sector is about 20 times bigger than Norway's. It is much more connected internationally and more complex..." Mark Carney added that "the risk of being a rule-taker goes up with time" and "from a financial perspective it is highly undesirable to be a rule-taker and to lose supervisory autonomy for any considerable length of time". David Smith** notes that the Norway option could be modified to allow significant UK input on the rules affecting financial services and that it would have to be to come close to satisfying the Bank.

One can criticise the government for not starting off our Brexit process by having a kind of Royal Commission to analyse the alternatives and flush out these issues while there was time to do something about them. But I suspect this would have been pie in the sky - the whole Brexit issue had got too heated for anyone in politics to attempt to debate it dispassionately.

Smith notes that the Bank is often accused of being "Remainer Central" but if that were the case it would presumably support Norway plus as an option. He has also commented on no deal saying that, if you take the Mad Hatter, a box of frogs and the pop group Madness, no deal is madder than all of them put together. Wish I'd thought of that one!

As I always suspected, there's no perfect answer here, no matter what folk might claim. May's deal that isn't yet a deal still looks the least worst to me.

*Lord Owen says its EEAsy PEEAsy, my post of 13 August. Owen actually advocates staying in the EEA as a step towards future arrangements, not a destiny in itself, which is why he says we must assert our legal right to stay in the EEA as its members would not accept us joining temporarily.

**David Smith's column Be braced for more chaos, but give thanks to the Bank was in the Sunday Times on 9 December.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Brexit hokey cokey. But there is a way out......

In, out? Shake it all about! There's certainly a lot of hokey being spoken about Brexit at the moment. For a start, I think I'll go crazy screaming at the radio the next time I hear some blithering idiot castigating the government for wasting 2 years and still not getting a final deal. The EU set it up that way, they would not negotiate about the future until after we leave. The time to complain about that was 18 months ago. I did.

Conscious that I would add to the hokey I have kept my peace till now about Theresa May's "deal" that isn't a deal, it's just a Withdrawal Agreement. But whatever I think of it is irrelevant as it's a dead duck. Or is it?

I think it would have been easier for May to sell now had she not played her cards so close to her chest, not even keeping her SoS for Brexit in the loop. It shouldn't have been a surprise that this was the case as we knew that was how she ran the Home Office. Once a control freak, always a control freak. But this meant little scope for expectation management, which is so often crucial to the perception of the outcome of just about anything.

There is some groundswell for a second referendum since the ECJ has ruled that we can change our mind and unilaterally revoke Article 50. But we must do so "unequivocally and unconditionally" following "democratic process". Is there time for that? The Article 50 deadline could be extended. But there is a problem. Just as Parliament cannot form a majority view, neither can the public. Referenda are only useful in choosing between two clear options, not for clarifying between multiple choices some of which might not be available anyway. And I don't buy that we now know what we are choosing between. We don't know in detail what any of deal, no deal or staying in the EU hold for us. The EU were not prepared to negotiate the future arrangements before we leave so, by definition, we can't have another referendum knowing what leave means before we do leave. And yes, I do mean we don't know what staying means. The people behind ever greater union don't normally come clean up front about their plans but things slip out now and then, like the current Franco-German drive for a European army. And if there were to be a second referendum - not a "People's Vote", more like an elitists demand for a mulligan - we have to know for certain what the terms of staying would be. What about our rebate and opt-outs? What about the useful if limited concessions Cameron won in his rather pathetic renegotiation before the referendum? What about the Schengen area and membership of the euro? My guess would be we would hear very little about those but guess what? If we lost the opt-outs they will come on the agenda sooner or later, as sure as eggs are ovoid things with shells.

The people voted to leave. Parliament promised to do it. It was left up to them to find the best way of doing it. I'm not impressed if they fail.

But what of the deal itself? Of course hardly anyone likes it but that was always inevitable. If you go into a genuine negotiation you rarely get everything you wanted, especially if you are the inherently weaker party. Were Remainers ever going to welcome it? No. Were hardline Brexiteers? No. Were the softest of soft Brexit supporters? No. So by definition I am not surprised that only around 15 to 20% - a third of a half - think it's a "good deal". (A half because half voted to Leave and a third of Leavers are prepared to shoot for somewhere between hard and soft). Of course the deal feels uncomfortable and unsatisfactory, but that doesn't mean it automatically is a "bad deal".

When Mrs May came back from Brussels with what I called "peace in our time" and got through her 5 hour cabinet meeting with the loss of only one more front line minister I was interested to see the reaction of the Brexit supporting newspapers. The Daily Mail has been behind Mrs May throughout and is strongly supportive of the deal, while accepting that it is disappointing in many ways. I think they feel it's that Brexit or there will be no Brexit. The Daily Telegraph has tended to be more dogmatic about what represents a good Brexit. It ran a leader that I had to read twice before deciding that it's editor doesn't much care for the deal but couldn't actually come out against it. All of his feature writers did, apart from one, Jeremy Warner, who I'll come back to. The PM's deal is a far cry from the free market prescription the Sunday Times advocated in the immediate wake of the referendum. But its editor is urging MPs to back the deal as the best of the options now available. Meanwhile Niall Ferguson, writing in that paper on 18 November, said the deal isn't a bad deal "it is a terrible deal". He also disputed Jo Johnson's comparison with the Suez crisis or, as some have suggested, Chamberlain's Munich agreement of 1938. Ferguson is a real historian so he argues cogently that this is much more like Henry VIII's decision in 1532 to leave the Catholic fold. That does seem a much more apposite historical analogy. But oo,er - that rumbled on for decades and was nearly overturned. However, the Reformation eventually stood. Will Brexit?

What do I think? The deal gives a smooth flight path towards unspecified final arrangements that are likely, but not guaranteed, to honour much of the expectations of most leavers. While far from perfect I find it a sensible way forward, albeit very hard to rake up much enthusiasm for. I am concerned that the final arrangements are less than clear but they were never going to be, the EU decided that a long time ago.

I could easily be persuaded to back the deal apart from the worry I've had all along: the 'locked-in syndrome' of Hotel California where we risk being kept in the backstop against our will for ever, as reputedly threatened by Sabine Weyand, Barnier's deputy. This is also the main concern for most Tory Brexiteers and is linked to the DUP's problems with the deal.

I've read an opinion that while our original decision to join the EU did not compromise the sovereignty of Parliament - because the ability to leave the EU was retained through the ability to repeal the relevant legislation - the deal does cede sovereignty as the EU could refuse to allow us to leave the customs union. I have seen it argued* that this breaches the constitutional principle that parliament cannot bind its successors. I hesitate to quibble with a professor of law but I'm not sure he's right as governments do sign up to international treaties which bind their successors. However there is always a way out.

The key issue is can we ever get out of the backstop. The Attorney General's legal advice didn't tell us anything we didn't already know - we can read! I find it persuasive that the EU won't actually want to keep us in a customs union indefinitely. After Weyand's smarmy threat the backstop was changed to all of UK staying in the customs union, not just northern Ireland. I think this was a key concession by the EU. The DUP do not seem to understand that this makes it much harder for the UK to be broken up. And the EU would not want the 5th biggest economy in the world benefiting from being in the customs union indefinitely without any formal arrangement to pay for it or accepting free movement. So they do have a big incentive to reach a trade agreement, even if it could take ages.

Jeremy Warner** argued this in the Telegraph. He recalled Nixon's economic adviser saying something like "if something is unsustainable, it won't be sustained", in other words the backstop arrangements would eventually inevitably unravel. Even if it means breaking the treaty. Warner said the idea that the EU could force, or indeed want to force, the UK to stay in something it was determined to leave "is not quite right".

I'm not so confident that they wouldn't want to keep us in a situation causing us difficulty for quite some time, while they weakened our competitiveness across the board. But if we get impatient we could always just tear up the agreement. It might not do much for our reputation but in the limit it could be done.  Or we could just break all the rules and then, when we get fined, refuse to pay. What could they do? Chuck us out! I am calling this the "Brer Rabbit" strategy after the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby (no, youngsters, this isn't politically incorrect, look it up).

So, deal or no deal? Or, as Griff says to McFly in  Back To The Future "Chicken?"

Well, am I? I was in the 2016 referendum by voting Remain. Backing May's deal feels just as tawdry to me. But I think I'm 52-48 for it because to me the only alternative is no deal so, yes, I'm chicken.

On balance I would urge MPs to back it. It's this deal, no deal or stay. No deal would be disruptive and divisive. Staying would be even more divisive and would poison our political ecosystem for at a long time. It's already two decades since Major's "bastards" and I think staying would be regarded by a substantial proportion of the electorate as a gross betrayal for a much longer period. Normal politics would not just be resumed. And if we did stay in I've seen it argued*** that the damage to Britain's international reputation would be much worse than if we go ahead and leave.

It look's like Hobson's choice to me. May's deal is definitely the least worst option even if it doesn't feel very good.But, as Warner says, it looks as if she will be denied her plan because of lack of competence, leadership, statecraft, failure to manage expectations, or whatever. For me, "whatever" is  the peculiar and specific combination of circumstances including the hardline Brexiteer headbangers, the recalcitrant DUP handed the balance of power by May's election gamble, the opportunistic power seeking Marxist left and the stubborn Remainers all of whom it seems would prefer to chose chaos if they can't get exactly what they want. The only group there I can really understand is the Marxists, who've always seen chaos as a means to their end.

Worrying times.

* Prof Richard Mullender, Newcastle University Law School. Letter in Sunday Times 25 November 2018

** Jeremy Warner's column was in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2018

*** Remaining in the EU would come at a big price for Britain. The Spectator 27 November.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Five barely alive

I have a new pet hate on the BBC. (And it's not a small field, the BBC figures I love to hate). Nihal Arthanayake took over the 1pm to 4pm slot known as Afternoon Editon a few months ago. The first few times I heard him I wondered who this pleasant sounding, mild voiced chap was. And why did he keep repeating himself, speaking painfully slowly and generally losing my attention because of the snail like pace of his show? Mrs H also noticed the slow pace, asking who was this chap who seemed to need winding up?

For anyone who suspects my dislike of Nihal has any hint of racism I would note that, other than suspecting his accent was vaguely London sounding, I had no idea of his name, background or colour the first 20 or so times I listened to him. It was a genuinely "blind" assessment on my part. It turns out I should have known of Nihal, or DJ Nihal as he had been known earlier in his career, first as a rapper, then music promoter and journalist and then award winning radio DJ, broadcasting on Radio 1 for 12 years, as I learned when I Googled for the name of the twerp who had by then been boring me to tears for weeks whenever I heard him.

I had already long decided Nihal was not to my taste when yesterday I got in the car and left Five Live on despite hearing his dulcet tones. For the first time Nihal managed to get me not just engaged but enraged. He was debating Brexit with two callers, in particular freedom of movement. Nihal just could not understand why anyone would be prepared to give up this precious (to him and some others) freedom, even in exchange for other freedoms. The persistant Brexit-supporting caller made the point that it would still be possible to live and work in EU countries, it would just require acceptance via a process. The caller may also have been a person of colour as Nhial challenged that in that case "you might end up being racially profiled". The caller calmly said words to the effect of why would I want to go where I wasn't wanted. This is exactly an argument I have been making. Nihal disparaged this argument calling it ridiculous or maybe something stronger.

Now whether you think it is an argument with merit is a judgement - how important it is for you to be able to travel and stay to work permit free to some countries while not being able to do so for many other countries. What the argument is not is ridiculous. Personally I have no difficulty if the ease of travel to the EU becomes no different from Australia or the USA, even if that means it is not quite as convenient as it is now. And if I wanted to live in the warmer climate (and maybe try to find work, ha ha) of, say, Spain or Italy then why would I want to go if they didn't want to have me? So I place a low value on freedom of movement though I accept that others place a high value on it.

Nihal didn't seem capable of seeing past his own value set on this issue. He then went on to say the caller was wrong and was telling lies in a further debate on trade.

Now I thought the caller was also probably incorrect in what he was saying about trade. But BBC presenters abusing callers rather than challenging in more moderate terms was new on me, other than football phone-ins perhaps.

Maybe the Beeb has decided it has lost so much ground to LBC and TalkSport that it has to be more controversial. The problem is that Nihal wasn't just being controversial, he was closing the debate down without attempting to explain why he took a different view from the caller, or tease out the issues behind what dissolved into a shouting match.

Well Nihal, I can assure you my words about you were very much stronger. Next time I hear you I will reach straight for the station change button. I wonder why you got picked for the job? Let me guess.....suited the optimal profile on age and some other parameters perhaps? Sorry to come over all Michael Buerk on you* but there must have been some reasons Five Live chose you, other than Radio 1 needing to move you on...

* Michael Buerk famously said that female television presenters and news readers who had been given jobs because they "look nice" shouldn't complain of ageism when they lose them. "If you got the job in the first place mainly because you look nice, I can't see why you should keep it when you don't," he said.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

A non-problem without a solution

I was surprised so much was made of the government losing three votes in quick succession  over the publication of legal advice on the EU Withdrawal Agreement the other day. Yes it was unusual but people seem to have forgotten that we have a minority government. All the opposition parties could have been expected to vote against the government to make mischief. And the DUP had every reason to do so as well in case they could use any information that was revealed to undermine the Irish backstop. So they were all going to vote against and the goverment was bound to lose.

The published details revealed - of course - absolutely nothing. The precise words of the cabinet briefing may have been more stark than the Attorney General's statement but there was no material difference. After all, the AG would gave been daft to say anything very different to the Commons knowing the paperwork would probably have to be disclosed shortly afterwards.

For what it's worth I think a very dangerous precedent was set by Parliament though I'm sure in the future, when a government is pressed to release "full" legal advice, it will hide behind the exceptional constitutional circumstances of Brexit.

In this case, as expected, we didn't learn anything new. We already knew that the backstop would kick in at the end of the transition period if a trade deal hasn't been completed and will stay in place unless and until one is. Nothing new there: Hotel California.

It has been clear from the outset that it is difficult for the UK, including Northern Ireland, to leave the EU without either having a border of some kind in Ireland or in the Irish Sea. I've been banging on about this pretty much since the referendum. More importantly the EU saw the issue with some clarity at the outset as well.

Keen readers of this blog will recall my facile solution: we say that we aren't erecting any kind of border in Ireland and effectively dare the Irish to do the same. Actually, it ain't so facile as the amount of north-south trade, while important to locals, is very small in the bigger picture. And we could continue doing VAT and other checks as they are now, away from the border. Such checks could be beefed up if there were signs of organised criminality or just, in the charming phrase of my old boss (a wonderful and determined lady) of folk "taking the piss". If the EU were to force the Irish to implement a border we simply say "it's not ours". And the UK government has had the sense to say that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it would not build a physical border in Ireland.

I don't follow the pronouncements of the smirking Taioseach, Leo Varadkar, closely as it wouldn't be good for my blood pressure. But apparently he has said that even in a no deal scenario the Irish would not construct a hard border either. And the WTO has said that it would not demand a physical border or call for additional checks. Reporting this, Dominic Lawson* said numerous customs experts, both British and European, have argued that tariff deviation between the north and south of Ireland could be handled without intrusive border infrastructure. He asked, rhetorically, if Brussels would send in its own officials to construct a hard border against Dublin's wishes?

Lawson described this situation, which appears to be a problem that isn't a problem but doesn't have a solution, as a "mystery". But it's not really mysterious, is it, Dom? Brussels has used it throughout as a lever in the negotiations, steadfastly refusing to countenance potential solutions and ignoring similar non-borders around the EU periphery.

Perhaps Schrodinger' s cat has the solution. Those of you who have never studied quantum mechanics may not have heard of Schrodinger's thought experiment, a paradox in which a cat trapped in a box could be simultaneously dead and alive. But if you opened the box to observe it the cat would be either dead or alive. By analogy, perhaps we could have a border that is both things at once, looking soft to some and hard to others depending on the point of view of the observer. Is this what the British side means when it talks of "technology"? Maybe we should suggest M Barnier looks up Schrodinger's Cat on Wikipedia (as, of course, I just did).

Otherwise we might have to consult Alice in Wonderland.

* The main theme of Dominic Lawson's column in the Sunday Times on 2 December was "Mrs May is the last person to sell her own agreement". Quite!

Friday, 7 December 2018

What a way to run a railway 2 - blame your predecessor

I noted the awful start the new Welsh train franchise has made (29 November). The previous franchise holder Arriva has been "largely" blamed by Welsh Assembly Transport Secrerary Ken Skates (er, seriously, that's his name!) for the poor state of the fleet leading to the recent availability problems. Arriva inherited old trains and passed them on even older so why anyone would be surprised surprises me.

The report I read* notes that the Welsh system needs 80% availability of its fleet to meet the timetable. This means there is capacity in the system to allow for the inheent unreliability of the old rolling stock compared with companies that have newer fleets or less demanding routes.

There is some technical stuff too. Unlike most units operating elsewhere in the UK, the Welsh trains don't have wheel slide protection. This means when there are low adhesion conditions (yes, like the infamous leaves on the line) the trains are more likely to slide. Steel wheels sliding on steel rails get worn, just as your car tyres do if you brake hard, lock the wheels and skid. The resulting "wheel flats" mean the wheels go out of round, making for a clunky ride at best. Transport for Wales, taking over in the autumn, had the foresight to have plenty of spare wheelsets to allow the damaged ones to be repaired. But the trains still have to be taken out of service while the wheels are changed over.

Mr Skates did not mention the repainting and rebranding but I note this has continued, so some of the non-availability has undoubtedly been due to it.

Arriva has said it acted in good faith, no doubt to the terms of its contract. Companies inevitably limit spend to the minimum in the run up to handing back a franchise and the contracts do cover this to provide protection. Whether adequately is another thing of course. Apparently the new management could not get access to inspect the condition of the trains before handover, though I suspect if they had asked for a briefing by the maintenance managers they would not have been refused. That contract was called "dreadful" by Skates.

So the train company is blaming its predecessor and the politician now in control is blaming the people previously in control, the Department for Transport in Whitehall.

Which reminds me of an old joke. A new manager is briefed by the person he is taking over from. The departing manager says that the business has lots of problems and if the results are poor the new manager will find three numbered envelopes in the desk which should be opened in order and which he might find useful in defending himself. All goes well to start with but soon the results deteriorate and the new manager opens the first envelope. "Blame your predecessor" it says. That is what he does and it seems to work. A bit later it proves necessary to open the second envelope. "Blame market conditions". Again it works. But when it is necessary to open the third envelope he finds it says "write out three envelopes".

Mr Skates and Transport for Wales are one envelope down.

* Rail News: Arriva blamed for Welsh train problems. 29 November 2018

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Oh shit! Pete Shelley's dead

I was saddened to hear that Pete Shelley, lead singer and songwriter of the Buzzcocks, has died today.

The punk/new wave era reinvigorated the sub 3 minute pop single and Shelley's quirky, angst ridden lyrics over spiky guitars brought us some wonderful pop music. His 1978 song Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn't Have? is one of my favourites from any era:

You disturb my natural emotions
You make me feel I'm dirt and I'm hurt
And if I start a commotion
I'll only end up losing you and that's worse.....
Ever fallen in love, in love with someone
You shouldn't have fallen in love with?

Not at all like the rather turgid thrash which became associated with the punk genre. The title of the Love Bites album from which the song was taken is one of those lovely double meanings (bites as a verb or noun). I've read some people trying to claim a third meaning - bites as in sound bites - but that phrase didn't originate in the American media until the 1980s. But you can read it that way now as well if you wish.

Mrs H and I saw the Buzzcocks, not in their youthful pomp but about a decade ago at Nottingham Rock City. Mrs H hadn't been a fan of stand up gig venues until then: we had a memorable evening as the band played the tracks from both of their first two albums in sequence, some 30 years on from their release.

The band's name, which was appropriated for the similarly named BBC music quiz show, isn't rude. It came from a Time Out magazine headline for a review of the TV series Rock Follies which said "It's a buzz, cock", buzz being the excitement of playing on stage and cock being northern slang for mate. (I remember the first time I got called cock when we moved to St Helens - I thought it was right weird, duck).

Apologies for the vulgar post title, but it is apposite, as that's what the B side of the Buzzcocks second single, What Do I Get?, was called.  Not perhaps Shelley's best lyric, even if it was quite funny:

Oh shit, I thought you and I were friends
Oh shit, I guess this is where our love ends
Oh shit, I thought things were goin' well
But it hasn't turned out so swell, has it?
Oh shit, oh shit.
Oh shit, I wish I'd known before now
Oh shit, that you were such a cow
Oh shit, I wouldn't've wasted my time
Oh shit, chasin' somethin' which wasn't mine, face it
You're shit
You're shit

Admit, admit, you're shit, you're shit, you're shit, you're shit, you're shit

Trust me, it sounds ok to the music: you can hear it on you tube here.  Because of the song title, the rather sensitive employees at the packaging plant refused to handle the sleeve with this now very mild sounding obscenity emblazoned on the back. Different times!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The vampire stirs

So Nigel Farage has quit UKIP. The news story generated little comment today. I suspect Farage has decided that Brexit could easily go awry and he might soon be campaigning in a new referendum. Also that the Tories could implode and there might be a general election. It doesn't need much of a crystal ball after all.

In those circumstances it isn't surprising that the current UKIP, with its connections to Tommy Robinson and the far right, is not only an unsuitable vehicle for Farage's return but a downright liability.

Farage is now free to campaign in a referendum in his own right, or to try to form a new party if he needs it for a general election. Maybe he thinks there could be a political realignment. The Tories and/or Labour splitting into fragments which coalesce with other groups into new parties is, I think, highly unlikely but not totally unthinkable.

So Farage has cleared the decks and Dracula's coffin lid is creaking open. Not a prospect I welcome apart from one specific situation. If Brexit were to founder and we end up staying in the EU, with less influence than ever over the ever greater union juggernaut in Brussels, then we (or at least I) will need a virulently eurosceptic party that isn't totally beyond the pale to vote for in European elections. Why? To make common cause with the equivalent nutters from other EU countries and form a eurosceptic group as large as possible in the European parliament to harry and block euro-federalism wherever possible. I am being serious here. While I could never vote for a party with Farage in it in a domestic election at any level from parliament to the parish council, what would be the downside of voting for such a party in a euro election? Who else could I trust to oppose the whole awful Brussels/Strasbourg circus?

Indeed what other legal and non-violent way would there be to resist the march of the eurocrats? Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May, Johnson, Davies and Gove would all have failed, so not much point in having Tory MEPs.

I realise I am going out on a deliberately provactive limb here. But if I could even conceive of thinking that way then I suspect there would be plenty of others. Possibly around half the population.

Golly, if Brexit does pan out that way, hopefully something else will come up for the resistance to focus around.

Where's Peter Cushing with his mallet and his stake when I need him to save me from myself?

Monday, 3 December 2018

My Brexit advice isn't legal

The critical Commons debate on the Withdrawal Agreement will be delayed because of the barney over the government publishing only a summary of its legal advice rather than "all" of it, whatever that means. As the government did not oppose the motion calling for all the advice to be published it may well be in contempt of the House and, if so, it will begrudgingly have to release more stuff having made an ass of itself. Whether they ever release it "all" very few would ever know. But one thing is clear: as we can all read for ourselves that there is a risk of being locked in to the Irish backstop indefinitely, the advice - in summary or total detail - won't tell us much we don't already know.

For what it's worth I don't think such legal advice should ever be published, for several reasons. Firstly, it's advice and as such an opinion, not factual or guaranteed. Courts often give decisions that set precedents. By definition any prior advice given on those cases would almost certainly be incorrect. Secondly, it's given in confidence. If it might routinely be published it will be more time consuming and costly to produce and will be worded more cautiously and caveated even more. It could become worthless to the intended recipients. Thirdly, it is given in the context of the specific time and situation. Taken out of that context it is likely to be misconstrued. I accept this third point doesn't apply to this Brexit spat.

So I think the delay in the debate about matters of substance is unfortunate, a points scoring sideshow when there are more important matters at hand.

That said, it was clearly appropriate for the Attorney General to brief the whole House, not just the government, on the draft Withdrawal Agreement. I listened with interest to some of his speech. I thought his presentation, including answering whatever questions MPs asked of him, was clear and useful. It reminded me of many briefing meetings with legal advisers and commercial managers, taking operational management through the key aspects of a new company law requirement or a draft contract. In the latter case there were many, many occasions where I, and other colleagues, had significant concerns about particular clauses which evaporated when the reason for the clause (which we had often misunderstood) was explained, together with how it would operate in practice and what relevance other parts of the agreement had.

The Attorney General's strong advice that the issues raised by the Withdrawal Agreement were for political debate and decision rather than a matter of legal interpretation strikes me as 100% correct and is further reason for me considering this whole issue of legal advice a distraction.

The silver lining was that his explanations - and I didn't hear all of his speech - eased  concerns I had on several points. Indeed, on everything other than the Irish backstop and the risk of 'locked-in Hotel California syndrome'. I'll come back to that before the Commons vote as I think I have formed my view.

However, I would argue strongly that Remainers don't logically have a stake in this issue. It seems to me that, while May's deal could leave us locked in to a customs union, everyone wanting a softer Brexit would leave us in a customs union. Labour's policy would, as would some Norway/EEA variants. As, of course would remaining in the EU. The only difference is we might be locked in under May's deal. So this issue should only be of concern to Rees Mogg and the hardline Brexiteers. Some days this does include me but I will come off that fence soon.

My advice: the sooner MPs get to debating the real issues that they need to decide on the better.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

What a way to run a railway (updated)

Trains in Wales are now operated by Trafnidiaeth Cymru (Transport for Wales) controlled by the Welsh government. The previous operator, Arriva Trains, had become unpopular and decided not to even bid for the new franchise. It's not really a re-nationalisation as a private company, KeolisAmey, run the trains even though they don't have their name on them. It's early days but they haven't been happy so far, with a big increase in cancellations and delays.

In south Wales a commuter service from Chepstow and Caldicot to Newport and Cardiff has been cancelled 16 times in 20 weekdays. In north Wales there has been no service all day at Blenau Ffestiniog, Llanrwst and Betws-y-Coed on 7 of 20 weekdays.

To be fair TfW only took over in October and they have 36 of their 127 trains "being repaired", in some cases due to damage from Storm Callum. Having nearly 30% of your trains unavailable is remarkable. Yes, there was storm damage - I've seen photos of trains up to their ankles in water as it were. Trains are actually pretty reliable. One London commuter train company I had knowledge of ten years ago had around 38 units, one of which was in major overhaul at any one time. They could only afford to have one other unit unavailable to meet their peak hour timetables. So they needed 95% availability from their rolling stock to stand a chance of success.

It's been very noticeable that the trains are being very rapidly repainted and rebranded. Here it is being done (BBC photo):

I may not be alone in wondering how many of the trains being "repaired" are actually being repainted rather than that work being rescheduled given the other problems. If that's the case this really is a bad start for TfW. They might have committed to contracts to have the trains repainted but, in that case, they should have had a break clause to defer work if they needed the trains to be operating because of other problems. I may be an old sceptic but either way it's not an encouraging start.

And passengers aren't  faced with branding on the trains of a voracious private company only interested in ripping off the public. So that's alright then I suppose?

A turn up for the books

It seems the changes in schools implemented by the much maligned Michael Gove are working. Who says so? Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at the Uni of Buckingham. His evidence? Leading state schools have raised their game and narrowed the gap with the independent sector in terms of  results in the new, tougher, GCSEs. Smith credits the changes initiated by Lord Baker, carried on by Tony Blair and built on by Michael Gove. His reason? Independent schools weren't obliged to go along with the Gove changes and the stats show the percentage of privately educated pupils attaining top grades stood still.

Many experts had feared that the harder courses, harder exams and additional top grade would further widen the gap between the independent and state sectors. But the best state schools upped their game and the number of them reaching the exceptional performance standard doubled. Still only a third of the total reaching that level of attainment mind, but bucking the trend of recent years.

That all seems fairly convincing. I'm personally not surprised as the howls from teachers representatives and the education lobby, not only because he referred to them as the 'blob', made me fairly certain Gove was on the right track.

Grammar schools still dominate the state school league tables, except in the north east as it doesn't have any.  And the results in the north east were poor with only 15 state schools in the top 500, half its population share. Pupils in the north east have also scored worst on a scale devised by the Department for Education to measure the progress of all secondary students to GCSE. An obvious connection, especially when you factor in the fact that Wales, with no grammar schools, has the fewest schools in the top 500 whereas Northern Ireland, which does have grammar schools, has double Wales's top 500 tally with a smaller population.

That's not to say grammar schools are the only route to high performance but to me it seems self evident that the presence of a grammar school in an area will give a competitive stimulus to the best non-selective schools nearby. Standards will tend to be dragged up rather than leveled down. Smithers notes that there is a lot to be said for bringing bright pupils together as learning is a social activity. He was a working-class grammar school pupil himself and says his classmates showed him what was possible if you applied yourself. He suspects that, in a less challenging climate, he would have coasted. The concept of training elite athletes together is not controversial, so why is it in the case of academic learning?

However, Smithers notes there is a price to pay - the impact on those not selected. I don't find this a reason for not grouping bright children together, either through grammars or setting and streaming. After all, significant numbers of pupils who show promise at primary school fail to attain any A grade GCSEs. A quarter of them don't get any Bs. So there is a problem about developing children with potential which needs to be addressed by the state system anyway.

And this isn't just about developing the brightest. There is a long run trend for schools rated good and outstanding to cover an increasing proportion of pupils. Some dissenters claim this result is skewed because of population growth and infrequent Ofsted inspections. Schools rated outstanding were exempted from routine Ofsted inspections in 2011, but a sudden decline in results would prompt an inspection so I suspect we can ignore that quibble.

Checking my privileges, as I understand they say now, I was a grammar school pupil myself. But pretty much since I was, I have been a supporter of comprehensive schools with rigorous streaming in academic subjects. It seemed to me that large schools run that way could offer the best of everything: the widest range of subjects, sports and extra-curricular activities, the high intellectual challenge for the brightest and the social interaction of mixing all students together in general activities. But I have reluctantly concluded that the toxic combination of peer pressure, the disorientation of some children in large schools and the difficulty of managing large organisations of any kind mean that my long-held views are naively utopian. Most failures in organisations of any kind are essentially failures of management, but these problems are so ingrained that the larger schools in the more difficult areas must be a nightmare to manage. Just dealing with the day to day job takes all of the management's attention and longer term stuff like continuous improvement gets neglected. You see this elsewhere all the time: in care homes, hospitals and the railway, for example, anywhere where the daily challenge of just keeping the show on the road dominates the available management bandwidth.

So with some reluctance I have come round to the view that more grammar schools should be allowed, provided always that there is an adequate choice of schools for parents in any particular area. We need to be doing the best by all of our children and, for the benefit of the country and all of us in it, that includes development of the brightest children from whatever background, which was the traditional strength of the grammars. Encouraging independent schools to admit a token quotient of pupils from less privileged backgrounds isn't the answer. There aren't enough such schools to make a real difference and it wouldn't address the children from the middle ground.

Focussing on getting the highest proportion of pass grades matters but isn't the whole answer as it won't give us a competitive edge internationally.

We have a disproportionate number of the world's best universities. We have some excellent schools but not enough. We could do so much better. But maybe Gove has given us another push in the right direction after a number of years of treading water.

When Gove was moved from Education in 2014, because David Cameron wanted to reduce controversy in the run up to the general election, Cameron wisely instructed his successor, Nicky Morgan, to continue implementing Gove's reforms. This was critical, as it takes longer than the tenure of most Secretaries of State to make progress and the establishment is very good at playing the long game. After all it was actually Ken Clarke who implemented most of Baker's reforms. Clarke also had problems with resistance from the establishment, calling it "like wading through treacle". Even the Guardian marked Gove's departure by saying that, while he had been controversial and arguably the least popular education secretary in history, two of his reforms could end up being the most influential in 20 years time. The first was the phonics check for year 1 pupils. Phonics had theoretically been government policy as the most effective way to teach reading in the early years at school for a number of years, as it had been before the trendy 60s and 70s cultural revolution in education which did just about as much harm as Mao's version. But inertia and opposition meant it had never been properly implemented. The phonics method works. The second was opening up the national pupil database so that researchers could access information on aspects such as poverty, disadvantage and educational achievement. The impact on educational policy and identifying problems over a long period is likely to be profound. At the time the Guardian noted that the changes to A levels and GCSEs would take a number of years to work through the system. Now we know those reforms also seem to be working, make that at least three major successes for Gove's reforms.

On reflection it might well be that there is a correlation over my lifetime between the Tory politicians most hated by the left and the government ministers who have been most effective in making major changes which have been positive for the well being of the country. I give you Thatcher, Gove and Duncan Smith as examples. None of whom I was convinced about, to put it mildly, when they were setting about their most important reforms.

I might have gone to a grammar school but I wasn't bright enough to see that at the time.

* Michael Gove - a controversial but influential education secretary. The Guardian 15 July 2014

Friday, 23 November 2018

DIssembling politicians and more EU self-harming

I have resisted commenting yet on the deal that may or may not be a deal as I'm not sure I have understood enough of the ramifications yet. I know that hasn't stopped lots of people commenting, including many politicians, who clearly haven't read the draft and understand even less about the process.  Or maybe they are just dissemblers on a grand scale. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn and Dominic Grieve, of course this includes you.

Corbyn probably does understand much of the draft and surely must understand, when he refers to the brief Political Declaration document and asks what the government has been doing for two years, that the EU was not prepared to even discuss the long term trade and other aspects of the relationship until we get into the transition period after we have left. Of course this is totally daft as you can't design the transition unless you know what you are transitioning to: all good project managers know you start at the end and work back when you are planning. Perhaps the EU wanted to influence where we do transition to or maybe they are just pig-headed and incompetent. Or all three. We all - including Corbyn - know he wouldn't have got any further than May in changing that process, though I would have been tempted to walk out at the start in an attempt to avoid being driven along the path that we have been taken. A number of commentators are saying we should walk out now but it is far too late for that. Just as it's too late to  put in place the preparations for no deal, for which we can thank Phil 'Spreadsheet' Hammond. So we can forget those as viable options now.

We know Corbyn - and indeed the whole Labour party - are dissemblers at best on Brexit. Their strategy is to criticise whatever the government does, even as it gets ever closer to what Labour has been proposing. Of course what Labour is proposing - getting all of the benefits of the single market while not being in it - is impossible. I'm indebted to Stephen Bush* for pointing out that Labour's "six tests" for the government's deal actually boil down to one: is the government in question a Conservative one? If yes the deal fails the test. If no, the same deal would be acceptable.

Though I've never thought Jeremy Corbyn clever, I rather assumed Dominic Grieve, as a QC, member of the Privy Council and former Attorney General, was. I've met a few barristers - and I've been cross examined by a QC (commercial arbitration case, I hasten to add!) They were all fiercely bright and quick on the uptake. So I was staggered when I heard Grieve complaining last week, as May returned from Brussels with peace in our time (or something) and before the draft Withdrawal Treaty was even published, that the draft Political Declaration was only a few pages long. He surely knew that the EU had specified the negotiating timetable which, inter alia, meant that none of the long term issues would be resolved yet. So either he's got memory loss or this was posturing just as much as Corbyn. All very unedifying.

My biggest concern is that the Withdrawal Treaty puts us pretty firmly in Hotel California, checked out but unable to leave, which has been a major concern of mine since the Joint Report was published last December (see Reasons To Be Cheerful - or Entangled, 8 December 2017). I will return to that soon but at the moment I am influenced by other developments within the EU and gossip we hear from the negotiation.

A long time ago now I referred to the EU's self-harming psychopathic tendencies.  By that I meant that their precious "project" is more important to the Brussels bureaucrats than the well being of the peoples of the EU. Indeed, that self-harming psychopath phrase is probably the single thing I'm most pleased with since I started this blog. Anyway, they are still at it.

Italy's populist coalition has set a budget that is within the EU's rules for budget deficits. Nevertheless the EU is insisting that Italy revise it. The IMF has been broadly in agreement with the EU stance, while not being entirely without sympathy for the case for a growth stimulus. I wonder if those europhiles who also bang on about austerity (Nicola Sturgeon for example) realise that their precious EU would lock them into long term penury like they have Greece and may be shaping to do with Italy. The EU is very good at insisting on some aspects of its precious single market - the four freedoms. But it is also very good at turning a blind eye to the dysfunctionalities in the EU, under which Germany gets ever richer and the struggling countries are condemned to continue struggling.

This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I referred to self harming psychopaths, though it was specifically Darth Vader, aka Martin Selmayr. Selmayr was Juncker's Chief of Staff who then got himself appointed as the Secretary General of the Commission in a process that was reported to be flawed (or, if you prefer, fixed) but of course he has been allowed to stay in post. Selmayr is supposed to have said that the UK must pay a price for leaving the EU and the price is losing Northern Ireland. Selmayr has form, we knew what we were up against and we met fire with, well what exactly? A polite British smile?

Meanwhile Sabine Weyand, Barnier's deputy chief negotiator and reputed to be the "brains" in his team, blew the gaff telling EU ambassadors that the notorious backstop would be used by the EU as a basis for the long term relationship with the UK locked in to the customs union and level playing field of EU rules for social and environmental policy. And, lo and behold, a week later that is pretty much how you can interpret the Political Declaration.

Why am I not surprised?

Of course, staying relatively close to the EU is a perfectly tenable long term policy, but Mrs May's cards close to chest approach means there hasn't been much debate about that against less constrained options. So I am suspicious: the kind of feeling you get when you know you're about to be conned and you might not be able to do much about it.

People like Selmayr and Weyand are one of the reasons I've been a eurosceptic since I spent quite a lot of time in Brussels at the Berlaymont and subsidiary buildings in the 1990s. They also remind me of an interesting conversation I had with one of my son's friends recently. Justin (that isn't his name but if he reads this he will appreciate the joke) is perhaps the only Brit I know who has taken advantage of freedom of movement - he lives and works in Madrid. In passing I note that I could reel off the names of at least a dozen people I know who have gone to live and work in English speaking countries: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Now I'm of an age where that might be the case, but it's still an interesting personal statistic.

Anyway, I was more than interested to debate Brexit with Justin. At one point I made my cheap jibe that the fact the EU has 5 presidents and that we can't get rid of any of them directly through the ballot box tells you all you need to know about how anti-democratic the EU is. He responded immediately, pointing out that folk like Juncker and Tusk are actually EU civil servants. We don't elect our civil servants so why should we expect to elect Brussels bureaucrats? I had to concede this was a good point. However, on reflection I would point out that British civil servants don't have a public profile, don't talk directly to the press and don't formulate policy but carry out the instructions of their elected ministers. Maybe apart from Olly Robins they do what they are told. So I think my point still stands even if it really means there's a democratic deficit is in the balance of power and lack of checks and balances between the Brussels eurocrats and the elected politicians.

Though reading what Dominic Raab had to say after his resignation** it does seem that said Olly Robins has been given too much discretion and has kept the SoS for Brexit out of the loop at key times. We knew from her time at the Home Office that Mrs May is a control freak who works more closely with her trusted officials and advisers than her ministers. Raab says he was unaware of the key backstop clause until a day before the deal was announced when it had been under discussion, without his knowledge, for 4 days. "I've asked how this change was made and who licensed it and there's not been a clear answer".

Raab, talking about the 'controlling' nature of the EU, says "the trail always seem to lead back to Martin Selmayr" and he has strong words about the Irish government with what he calls unprofessional and unstatesmanlike behaviour by Leo Varadkar. Well, Dom, if you'd been reading my blog you'd have known to watch out for these two. Raab also says he doubts Brussels ever thought the 'difficult woman' was prepared to walk away, an essential ingredient to a succesful negotiation. Oh Dom, you really should have been reading my blog a year ago!

Meanwhile the ECJ continues to stick its oar in where it isn't wanted, ordering an immediate halt to a £1bn scheme designed to keep Britain's lights on. The Government's "capacity market" energy security scheme pays the owners of Britain's gas coal and nuclear plants a fee to guarantee that they are available to power up the grid when demand for electricity is high. The scheme has encouraged investment in much-needed new power units and smoothed energy market price spikes by ensuring that there is always enough power on standby to meet demand. It seems a sensible intervention in the energy market. But the ECJ ruling prevents the UK Government from holding any capacity auctions or making any payments to power generators that have already won contracts. By 2021 as much as 8 gigawatts of new power plants, batteries and energy-saving devices could be at stake if the capacity market is permanently dismantled. I'm not sure whether the ECJ thinks this is anti-competitive because it advantages current providers against new suppliers, though I don't see many companies willing to build new power plants, or because it disadvantages suppliers from other countries, even though the capacity of the inter-connectors to the continent are limited. Now I'm a believer in free markets but if the government thinks this scheme is necessary I am very unhappy indeed at the ECJ's interference. The Telegraph said*** that there is unlikely to be a higher risk of blackouts but I think it leaves a risk that energy providers may decide market prices aren't high enough to be worth keeping some of their plants ticking over in hot standby when consumers would want them to.

[P.S. added later: The case came to the ECJ because of a complaint by a small company called Tempus energy. Tempus specialise in trying to help reduce energy demand: "Our technology uses AI and smart algorithms to control and optimise when flexible assets use energy" they say. But they couldn't get anywhere and pulled out of supplying energy in the UK earlier in the year. They are now focussing on Australia. Give me a break! Unless they are prepared to build and operate enough power stations to meet demand peaks their complaint should have been thrown out. Some observers say the wholesale price of electricity could double as a result of this unwelcome and surprising ruling.]

The ECJ's role in our long term future is very much an issue in the current debate. I am very clear: it shouldn't have any role unless we decide to comply with EU rules in specific areas. Then it's purview is unavoidable. And that is perhaps the prime reason I am uneasy about staying too close in any aspect of the relationship. I could buy into a common rule book but not if that's just a euphemism for EU controlled rules backed by the ECJ.

If I can make my mind up about the deal I'll let you know next week sometime, but I think the PM has bought some time to try to sell it. It seems that, once again, there is a disconnect between the people and Parliament with the deal a damned sight more popular with the public than MPs. I think the vote, when it comes, could be close. I am mildly amused that MPs will be the target of Project Fear (the prospect of no deal and/ or Corbyn) over the next few days. Why not? We've had to put up with enough of it.

I'll end with a comment I saw on Facebook a couple of says ago. Bruce Burniston (no idea who he is) responded to one of the Brexit threads I saw with this commendable rant:  "I really fear for the future of the young of the UK if we remain shackled in any way to the EU. Remaining won't affect me and I can travel to the Continent which I enjoy. However, the reality is that those clamouring for Remain simply do not understand how the UK has been consistently economically shafted by its membership of the EU. A modest trade surplus in 1973 has been converted into a horrendous trade deficit now approaching £100 billion annually. Our fishing, shipbuilding and steel industries have been decimated in favour of continental industries. Brussels has never contemplated the single market for services, in which the UK excels. The UK makes a monetary transfer to the rest of the EU of around £145 billion a year (trade deficit, plus 2.5% VAT plus membership fee less grants etc, plus 80% of duties on imports from outside the EEA, plus remittances home from EU workers here). You cannot spend money twice. Our collapsing infrastructure and public services are the result of several decades of wealth being siphoned off from the UK and transferred to the rest of the EU.The real and present threat to democracy by the increasing power of the unelected administrators in Brussels and Frankfurt is just the icing on the cake for the argument against remaining in the EU."

Bruce's rant is economically naive, adding direct payments to trade deficits, though that wouldn't trouble President Trump. But he caught the flavour of much of what I feel.  I've been doubtful about the EU for 25 years. This maybe our one shot to change our future. We could escape, end up in Brussels orbit, or remain wading in treacle, supposedly having influence and a 'place at the table' but actually being pretty much ignored as Major and Cameron were, while we subsidise the whole shindig.  "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" The Who sang. Is that what you are offering, Mrs May? The problem is not only do we not know for sure where Theresa's deal would take us, she doesn't either. But Martin Selmayr might.....

* Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His column "No, Prime Minister" - the only words uniting the wrangling factions of Labour was in the Sunday Times on 18 November.

** 'I was hoodwinked': Raab calls for inquiry into Brexit. Sunday Times 18 November 2018

*** UK back-up power scheme frozen by ECJ. Daily Telegraph 16 November 2018

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Isn't he just a fraud?

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon is the geezer who has been in the press recently because he is genetically white, but he won Arts Council England funding intended for "people of colour". This has led to plenty of comment about the issues of people self identifying as, well whatever. The craziest I read so far was an American who self identifies as a dog. It wasn't entirely clear if this was a wind-up. We used to laugh at Ali G saying "is it 'cos I's black?". And I've often deliberately pushed the political correctness boundary by claiming to be a person of colour - pink. After all, males of my age are sometimes referred to as "gammon" because we aren't very white.

But back to Tony, as I'll call Lennon, just to annoy him. He has white Irish parents, though he says* that, in his mind, there is no doubt that he has some African ancestry, recalling the old comment "mother's baby, father's maybe". He has a brother two years younger who looks much the same as he does, but there's an obvious possible explanation for that. Oh and he felt very comfortable in a Rastafarian neighbour's home as a youngster.

Strictly speaking our Tony is a fraud. He knows that he officially has white parents but he benefited from representing himself as mixed race, which he may or may not actually be. Fraud is wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain. That might be a dictionary definition but the legal definition, according to the CPS website, is making false representation dishonestly, knowing that the representation was or might be untrue or misleading with intent to make a gain for himself or another, to cause loss to another or to expose another to risk of loss* (my emphasis on might).  Lennon did gain funding and, in doing so, deprived others of that opportunity. Others who really are people of colour, Tony, though I don't expect you to feel a moment's guilt.

Now the CPS may not be able to find time, in the midst of all it's bureaucratic pursuit of Jimmy Saviles and hate crimes to charge Tony. But the issues raised show some of the difficulties with concepts such as self-identification which are becoming mainstream thought in this era of gender and identity politics. 

One current hot topic has been the vexed issue of trans folk who were born male but self identify as female and seek to be considered as female. It seems to me that protecting the rights of a very small minority could easily prejudice the hard won rights of a significantly larger group that has suffered prejudice over many years. I proffered an opinion the other day that the obvious end point of this process is that everybody gets treated as a minority of one. Which doesn't actually get us anywhere.

But back to Tony. Maybe the CPS should take a test case against him. After all it would create an interesting legal precedent which might just return some sanity to the debate about self identification. You can call yourself what you want, but surely not for gain or if it disadvantages others when your claim cannot be factually justified.

Otherwise I'm not sure we we are going to end up, though I do know that it won't make much sense, as it will actually become much harder to achieve the more equal society that many of those championing minority rights claim to want to see.

* Yes, I have white parents. But I have African ancestry too. The Guardian 10 Nov 2018
** Fraud Act 2006, The | The Crown Prosecution Service,

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Super League - now that's not fair play

It looks like Manchester City have been caught cheating the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Der Spiegel says they inflated various sponsorship deals to balance the books, "manipulating contracts" - or to put it more bluntly laundering Sheik Mansoor's money - through fronts like the Abu Dhabi tourism authority. It must be said the size of the various sponsorship deals always looked dodgy. City needed to do it not just to buy players but to pay off the hapless Roberto Mancini when they sacked him. Hapless because Mancini struggled to even find a way to beat Everton. "There is no answer to the problem of Everton" he once said, possibly after the Toffees beat his team home and away in 2010-11, though he did somehow manage to finally win the Premier League the next season, even if he didn't last much longer. Possibly it had something to do with spending around £200M net on players?

I'm no fan of FFP, which was never designed to make the competition "fair". On the contrary, it was designed to pull up the drawbridge so the most wealthy clubs could never be matched. It has been spectacularly successful in Germany, where Bayern Munich has won the Bundesliga 6 times in a row and 8 times out of the last 10. And in Italy where Juventus has won Serie A seven times in a row. So, when FFP was being introduced, City knew they had to push hard to break into the top echelon of the Premier League, before they found it was unattainable.

And who is complaining the most about Man City? The egregious Uli Hoeness, who complained that "Abu Dhabi only has to open up the oil spigots to afford expensive players". That would be the Uli Hoeness who, in addition to being president of Bayern Munich, was jailed for three and a half years after admitting evading €28.5 million in taxes. No lessons in propriety needed from you, Uli.

Besides being a fundamentally bizarre concept - fining clubs that get into too much debt  - FFP crushes the dreams of fans that their club might find a wealthy owner and make a breakthrough. Even the Leicester fairy tale needed investment. FFP, if it operated as intended, would just guarantee that the biggest clubs stay the biggest clubs, forever.

But even that isn't enough for the elite clubs. They are always greedy for more. Or, in the case of Juve and Bayern, they realise that their fans will get bored. So it was no surprise to read that a group clubs are holding discussions about forming a "super league" of 16 with 11 founders, including 5 English clubs, inviting 5 "guests" to make up the numbers. Guests because they can be relegated, or at least disinvited, whereas the others would have 20 year franchises.

If this feels a bit like deja vu, then it is of course. The then "big five" threatened to breakaway from the Football League in the late 80s. Youngsters might not identify the five correctly: Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal yes, but the other two? Everton and Spurs. The FA decided they liked the idea, partly because they had their own issues with the Football League but probably also because they would get something out of it. So they formed the FA Premier League, allowing the top division to ditch the remainder of the Football League, though at least retaining promotion and relegation. The essentially simultaneous arrival of satellite TV turned it into what it is now - yes, a grotesque money go round but at least it's a very competitive. So much so that the original big 5 have not dominated it. OK Man United won the Premier League 13 times in 21 seasons to 2013 but they haven't won it in the last 5 seasons and no club has retained the title since 2009. Arsenal haven't won it since  their "Invincibles" of 2004. And Liverpool and Everton? Nix. Six different clubs have won it. The English game must be in much better shape than any other league in the world.

Whether all the clubs that have been mentioned are actually in cahoots over the European super league isn't clear: for example, newspapers say Chelsea remain committed to the Premier League. Of course, it may just be a lever for these clubs to take an even bigger share of the cake. They always forget that you need a full set of clubs to make a league and want to keep what they see as their "own" revenues from TV rights for example. I have long thought that this is anti-competitive and all such revenues should be shared equally, much as they are in the NFL.

Nevertheless, I have long said that, if a group of clubs want to go off and form a euro-league, let them. (Actually my language is much riper than that, it would only take you one guess I'm sure). And I still take that view. But if the football authorities want to block it they have the power. Every club has to be affiliated to its national football association, or a regional sub-body. In England this goes for clubs from the Premier League to your local park pitch. Of course, you can organise an unauthorised competition, but anyone who plays in it will get banned from playing in authorised football for a long time. This very rule squashed an under 18s Sunday league I started playing in as a schoolboy, not realising it was unauthorised, in the 1960s. And so the FA can ban anyone playing in an unauthorised super league from playing for England, as can all the other countries. Indeed, FIFA has said today that it would ban any such players from playing in the World Cup.

Martin Samuel made much the same point in his column on Tuesday*. He went further, saying the FA could threaten any clubs who went to play in a super league with a ten year ban from re-applying for membership. And then they would have to start off at the bottom of the football pyramid. Samuel is right: the risk of your big fixture being FC United ought to deter Manchester United.

But also, as he says and I have said for several years, super league games wouldn't be interesting enough to hold the attention of football fans in general. I haven't subscribed to Champions League matches for several years now, not because my club isn't in it but because I can't justify the cost for the odd game that I fancy watching. United v Barcelona, yet again, is a yawn.

I think the business model for a super league is therefore flawed. Yes, there are a lot of Man United and Liverpool fans. But, at the moment, when they play each other a lot of fans of other Premier League clubs want to watch on TV. If the game was a fixture in a league their own club wasn't playing in I think a lot of them would lose interest. So a super league can only work if revenues from around the world were much higher.  So guess what? Samuel correctly says the problem with a super league is that it wouldn't be like a permanent Champions League. Games would inevitably be hawked around the world for ever more money. And franchises could move - why does Manchester or London need two teams for example? Samuel thinks a super league, even if it was launched, could collapse. Quite possibly. Whatever, the super league is another European dream I don't buy into.

So call their bluff. Or, alternatively, encourage them to go by making the share of TV revenues completely equal between Premier League clubs. We can do without them.

I nearly said we'd be better off without them. But I doubt that is the case. If the Super League concept is as flawed as Martin Samuel thinks it is, then revenues would decline. Both for the clubs in it and possibly for the remaining Premier League clubs as well. So it probably wouldn't do much good for the business case for Everton's stadium right now.....

*If our greedy, pampered clubs want to join a super league, call their bluff. Daily Mail 6 November 2018

Deal or no deal?

Some journalists are getting excited that a Brexit deal with the EU is getting close. But, because the whole negotiation is back to front, i.e. future arrangements last, transition to those arrangements before you know what they are beforehand and divorce settlement, citizens rights and Irish border before you know either, it is of course dysfunctional. Like Yanis Varoufakis I thought at the outset this was deliberate because the EU wanted to set the negotiations up to fail. I'm coming to the view now that it's because the EU is not just a bureaucratic nightmare but they aren't even good bureaucrats. Our negotiating team have probably been worse but I'm not sure that would have mattered too much.

So, as expected nearly a year ago, we are left with the Irish border issue. Or, since that can will be kicked firmly into a pile of fudge along with lots of other issues, we are actually left with the argument over whether or not the backstop is time-limited or can be unilaterally ended. Which, of course, is just as binary. D'oh!

The smirking Irish Taoiseach has been unhelpfully digging his oar in a lot lately, possibly because he is worried that the other 26 EU countries will stitch him up, but more likely because he is in a fairly weak position in his own country. Just like Theresa May, which is proving to be a very unhelpful combination of circumstances. When Varadkar seemed to be signalling he would agree to May's version of the backstop, his opponents immediately stuck the boot in and Varadkar panicked, insisted on speaking to May and introduced a new and additional condition for removal of the backstop. Though that new condition, referring to a suitably ambitious vision for the future with no hard border, doesn't sound very new to me.

I didn't think you could go off someone you already disliked but Leo Varadkar obviously has hidden abilities. But then supposedly senior politicians who get into Twitter spats with punters aren't too clever. Varadkar responded online to a jibe that the UK had helped bail out the Republic after the financial crisis, saying "Ireland has no budget deficit now and we have a Rainy Day Fund. Happy to do same for UK and help them out financially in the future if they need it for some reason…”* That's very big of you Leo but, as several said, not very statesmanlike. "We won't help Brexiteers design a border we didn't want in the first place" he has said. Well don't complain if you get something you don't like then chum.

Nevertheless it seems as if we could be heading for the whole of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU for the transition period, defusing the Irish border issue for now. Behind this is a key concessions made by Brussels - the first one of any great significance I have detected so far. The EU has apparently conceded that checks can take place "completely in the market" meaning that British trading standards officers can police EU regulations where goods are sold, rather than where they cross the border. Without this type of arrangement none of the mooted solutions, other than staying in the single market, can work without a hard border in Ireland. Not Chequers, not Canada Plus, not Switzerland. "This is a big deal for us" an EU official was quoted as saying, "we'd be allowing a third country to enforce our rules for us which we don't normally do". But there is still some way to go as Brussels has yet to agree to such a checking process for so-called "phyto-sanitary goods".  What are they? Plant-based products where EU law stipulates that checks should happen at borders. But the EU would have the transition period to change its law, so that shouldn't be a deal breaker.

So is being in a customs union the answer, whether it's for a transition or for ever? It's not.

Andrew Marr had Keir Starmer on his show on 21 Oct. Had in both senses of the world, shouting that it was "just too late" to start the negotiation over again as Labour pretends and also pressing him hard over whether Labour's plans for a customs union are workable. Being in a customs union of itself doesn't solve the Irish border issue. For once I'll save a thousand words and just show why. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU and this is what the land border looks like:

Not exactly frictionless. To be fair Starmer says that he isn't looking for a Turkey-style solution, without saying what he would try to negotiate, how it would work and why the EU would accept it. Pie in the sky, then - the standard Labour Brexit position.

But other solutions get advocated, like Switzerland or Norway. A buddy told me about his recent road trip from Spain to France and Switzerland and back. The Swiss-French border was as noticeable as the Irish border, while the France-Spain border felt much more like a real frontier. He probably went over a border crossing that looked a bit like this:

I think the major crossings used by lorries look a bit more like a border, but could the Swiss model be the answer? Switzerland sells a bit more than half its exports to the EU; we sell a bit less than half of ours to them. But Switzerland manages to sell  more than 5 times as much per head to the EU than Britain. Does this mean that the Swiss model would be good for the UK? Well, no it doesn't.

There a lots of reasons why the Swiss deal isn't any good, including**:
1. The Swiss don't actually have a deal - they have around 120 bilateral agreements negotiated over many more than the two year transition period envisaged for the UK to conclude arrangements
2. The Swiss "deal" involves free movement. This is controversial in Switzerland: 50.3% of Swiss voted against free movement in a 2014 referendum and their government is still trying to figure out how to do it without contradicting free movement and breaking their agreements
3. The Swiss deal doesn't give its large financial services sector a clear legal framework for doing business in the EU. The cross-border activities of Swiss banks are legally grey, inhibiting growth. The UK's larger financial sector would find that difficult to say the least
4. Switzerland has to pay into the EU budget, complies with EU rules for its exports (but you can't really complain about that!) with no control or influence over new rules, whereas the EEA countries are involved in the working parties designing EU legislation
5. Yes the Swiss can do their own trade deals. They have one with China but, given the relative bargaining power it's a bit rubbish, allowing immediate access to the Swiss market for the Chinese but phased over many years in the other direction.
6. It isn't actually available. The EU doesn't really like the Swiss arrangement and want to change it. They certainly don't want it repeated on a larger scale with the UK. And the Swiss aren't that happy with it either.

So the customs union is a turkey and, like its cheese, the Swiss model is full of holes. However, most Leavers feel the Swiss "deal" is better than the Norwegian arrangement, which gives single market access but wouldn't really constitute "leaving". If you are in the single market and paying into the budget you might as well be in the EU. Palatable to Remainers, but it isn't what we voted for.

This explains why Theresa May wants a bespoke deal for Britain. The EU don't; they talk of cherry-picking. And yet the Swiss "deal", being a series of bilateral deals, is exactly that.

I've come to the conclusion that the problem over the Irish border is not only the complexity, given the common travel area with the UK that long predates the EU but also that a higher bar is being set for the solution. I don't know, but I daresay that the Swiss border with France is based on custom and practice and could in principle be changed to a more conventional border at any time. The Irish solution needs, apparently, to be fully agreed and permanent. Which shows how little trust there is in the negotiation.

There may, of course, be an answer to what I described as a Gordian knot oooh, a long time ago, in 2016. After all a 16 year old Brit called George has found a way to solve the Rubik's cube in "four easy steps"^. It takes him between 4 and 8 seconds because observation is still key and, to my eyes, the fourth "easy" step isn't that well defined. But it can be done. ("You're saying there's a chance!"#) However, it's taken nearly 4 decades for George to emerge, so the transition period could need to be rather long.....

The radical way to cut through this knot, of course, is for Northern Ireland to decide to join the now more liberal and less Catholic Republic, solving the border problem and saving us a huge wedge: £9.2 billion a year, more than the £8.1 billion it costs the UK to be in the EU. A recent poll had more than half of UK voters saying they wouldn't be too bothered about formation of a united Ireland.

But, given that isn't going to happen any time soon, if there is a deal it looks worryingly like Hotel California: a transition that we can't be sure we can ever get out of, checked out but never actually leaving. Just what I've been worried about all along.

If so it won't remotely put the issue to bed. It will be very much alive at the next general election and probably the one after that. Groan......


** Would the Swiss model suit a post-Brexit Britain? SWI,

***  Swiss border shows free movement works perfectly well without customs union. The Sun 24 April 2018

^ Four steps to solve a Rubik's cube, BBC Newsround, 31 October 2018

# A reference to the film Dumb and Dumber, see my blog of 22 October 2017