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