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.