Friday, 15 March 2019

Time to panic? Or boycott?

The second meaningful vote on Mrs May's deal was predictably lost. The pincer movement of remainers (many disguised as second referendum supporters) and hardline brexiteers would have made it difficult to get any deal through the Commons, let alone Mrs May's half baked effort. A huge majority voted to trigger Article 50 but there has never been a majority in Parliament for any single coherent option.

The meaningful but predictable vote has been followed by a mainly meaningless series of votes - because they don't actually change anything, at least yet. No deal was "taken off the table" but unless the primary legislation is changed - or Mrs May's walking dead deal gets approved at the third time of asking - it's what would still happen on 29 March.  The vote to flex the 29 March date depends on the EU agreeing, which depends on them knowing why we are asking for it. Which we don't know yet.

The Hilary Benn amendment that would have meant MPs took control of the Parliamentary agenda was narrowly defeated. The votes cast included at least one MP who recorded an "active abstention" by going through both voting lobbies rather than sitting on his butt. I hadn't realised that was possible. At least I learnt something interesting that day! This vote did have significance as, without control of the agenda, Theresa May might not have been able to continue to threaten her Brexiteer wing with "my deal or lose Brexit".

I suspect that the indicatve votes that the government has promised - and the Benn amendment would have delivered - would continue to reveal that there is no majority for any option - any form of out or staying in - so what next? Go with the option that gets the lowest majority against? I've heard the phrase "least worst option" often enough before but that would be the rummest version of it yet. And that could yet be May's deal, especially if the DUP blink and take a lot of the ERG along with them.

Whatever, we still don't know if Parliament will deliver on its promise to enact the verdict of the people and to carry through the Article 50 process they voted overwhelmingly in favour of triggering. I've read quite a few commentators saying that this would be a betrayal of democracy - quite eloquently by Allister Heath in the Telegraph*:
My question to those who voted to halt no deal last night, and who will wreak yet more havoc in the coming days, is this: do you not see how, by discrediting and ridiculing our democracy, you are undermining our greatest asset? Why do you think our cold, rain-sodden country with its broken infrastructure and second-rate trains has been so successful for so long? Our stability, our freedoms, our prosperity, our rule of law: all are predicated on our extraordinary political traditions. If we trash them, if our elite declares democracy to be a pathetic sham, we’ll have nothing left.....
Why risk doing so today? Yes, a real Brexit would be disruptive, but exploding our reputation for straight-dealing, for fair play, for respecting procedures, customs and rules would shake the foundations of our society, annihilate trust and prove immeasurably more damaging. The UK would become like France or Italy, unstable countries where populists increasingly rule the roost, where the public loathe their rulers and vote against them at the earliest opportunity. "

But, as "no deal" has not actually been ruled out yet, since by UK and EU law we are still due to leave on 29 March, is it time to panic? Or at least to panic buy since, if you believe the dire warnings of many bodies, there will be at least some chaos.

The reason why has never been properly explained, at least that I've seen. Plenty of spokespeople have confidently asserted that there would be disruption to transport, food and medicine supplies and many other things, only just short of the biblical plague of frogs. I can see why our exports to the EU would be hit. But as the EU producers would still want to sell to us, we would want to buy and the transport capacity currently exists it is not at all clear what specifically would cause disruption. French customs have been getting arsey in readiness but that happens from time to time anyway and I suspect their farmers would soon counter demonstrate. Of course all that is necessary is the fear of shortages for panic buying to start, which rapidly depletes supplies, proves to people that they were right to panic and starts a vicious cycle of behaviour.

So I guess I'd better start my panic buying soon as it's hardly early in this game. The last time we had that sort of thing - during Tony Blair's truck drivers dispute - Mrs H arrived home not with tins of beans and corned beef but extra toilet rolls. Maybe I'd better come along this time!

Mind, I have already been giving thought to my buying strategies with respect to EU goods. I meant to run a blog post some 18 months ago advocating a boycott of EU goods to help strengthen David Davis's hand in the negotiations.  If enough of us had done so it might have registered. But now I'm planning my own, individual Brexit protest if I decide that the EU haven't acted in what I consider to be good faith.

So Mrs H found me closely inspecting bottles of lager in the Tesco one day, checking which were brewed in the UK. I have plenty of choice of excellent, locally brewed Welsh craft bitters but lager is a bit more awkward. Yes there's the excellent Wrexham lager, but it's not so widely available. Becks has become my bottled lager of choice in recent years so what else could I find to substitute for it? Carling is ok but only available in tins and I much prefer bottled beers. Coors is brewed in good old Burton, but I'm not a fan. Looks as if it might have to be tins then, or Cobra.

You might think this all pathetically puerile but I am actually serious.

Some other decisions are easy, if not totally painless.  I like red wines from Spain, Italy and France but there's plenty of choice from the rest of the world. Spanish tomatoes may prove more problematic: I'll choose which goods to boycott, but if the Spanish play games over Gibraltar I'm going to be examining a lot of food labels more closely for countries of origin.

Larger purchases, like cars? My BMW is now 5 years old and I have replaced all my cars at 3 to 5 years old for over 20 years. But I have deferred replacing my current car till after Brexit. Seriously. Even if it ends up costing me more. If a good chunk of Britain's German car owners did the same the effect would definitely be felt in Stuttgart and Munich.

Switching from a German car would be no small decision for me. Unfortunately as rear wheel drive is not a sensible option where I live and I don't want an SUV I can't go back to Jaguar. And Japanese brands are trying to rule themselves out after some recent decisions - so Honda is out, Nissan wobbling and Toyota on the watch list. Looks like I could be keeping my current car quite a while.....

Of course, if a deal is agreed then we are only at the end of the beginning, to plagiarise Churchill. There's still the actual trading arrangements to negotiate. So why not join my move to more selective purchasing of EU goods, to strengthen our negotiating position? I'll toast you with a glass of New Zealand sauvignon.

* Britain's Remainer elites have declared war on democracy itself. Allister Heath, Telegraph 13 March 2019

Thursday, 28 February 2019

So Chuka chucked it in - for what?

So Chuka Umunna chucked it in, as I'd told him back in October he might as well do, as moderates had no place in Corbyn's Labour party (Chuck it in, Chuka, 10 October 2018). We wait to see whether the Independent Group of MPs of which he is part go on to form a new party. But if they do I've already told him we know how it will end: in failure, like the SDP.

The launch of The Independent Group, if it can be called a "launch", seemed off key to me. While I have enormous respect for Luciana Berger and sympathy for the outrageous harassment she has received from Trots in her Liverpool Wavertree constituency, I read that the timing of the announcement about the Independent Group had been triggered by her need to quit Labour before the final stages of her pregnancy. If correct that seems strange to me and a complete PR mess. It would have been much better had she quit Labour purely on the grounds of anti-Semitism. That would have avoided diluting that message. If she had been followed by the other Labour MPs who have given that as their prime reason the message would have been crystal clear. Chuka and the rest could have followed in a week or two. As it played out it looked like the people who have been needling her in Wavertree, accusing her of intending to set up a new party, had actually been right.

The other thing in all this that really got me was Chuka and his chums rejecting the idea of joining the LibDems and having the brass neck to suggest that LibDem MPs join them. For a start, they haven't formed a party for the LibDem MPs to join. They haven't espoused any particular set of political beliefs or principles. So what on earth makes them think that people who are committed to a party with a tradition going back to 1859 would contemplate switching to their embryonic venture? Why ditch the party of Gladstone and heir to the Whig tradition, going back to Palmerston and Walpole, with its belief in toleration of non-conformists, abolition of the slave trade, the supremacy of Parliament, expansion of the voting franchise and free trade? For what exactly?

The only things that the Independent Group seem likely to agree on are a second referendum (oops, Labour has gone there now, the LibDems were already there) and that Corbyn's party is a nasty hive of bullying, Trotskyite anti-Semites. Big deal.

If you look at the people who have joined the Independent Group, they comprise mainly former Labour MPs who are naturally left of centre and Tories including Anna Soubry who would more naturally be somewhat right of centre. I read that, setting aside anything to do with Brexit, Soubry's political views are as close to Thatcherite as you can get.

When the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers) quit Labour in the 1980s announcing a set of political beliefs (the Limehouse Declaration) they launched the SDP as a fully operational political party within 2 months. Don't hold your breath on Chuka and his chums achieving that. I can tell you now that, including Chuka, they don't have one person of the calibre of Jenkins, Williams or Owen, let alone three.

The SDP foundered in part on whether it should be a party of the left, taking on Labour in a fight to the death, as David Owen wanted, or a centre-party that cosied up to the Liberals, as Roy Jenkins wanted. Jenkins of course won that one. Now there should be no reason why a truly centre-ground party couldn't function successfully. After all you would find it hard to distinguish between most of the views of the left of the Tory party and the right of Labour, at least as they both were until recent years. But in practice it doesn't seem to work. I'm not an expert on European political parties but it seems to me that, in their mainly PR systems, they have moderate parties of the left and right. The extreme left wing (like Corbyn and McDonnell) are in far-left Socialist parties and the extreme right wing (like the far right of the Tories) are in parties like Germany's AfD. If there are any successful examples of true centre parties please would someone point them out to me?

As the Independent Group hasn't started out with a coherent set of principles I can't see them developing one on the hoof. So they'll have an even harder job than the SDP had in trying to "break the mould". Together with the lack of geographically clustered support, so essential in the first past the post system, they'll need more than Chuka's telegenic features. They'll need some of the political brains that I doubt they have amongst their number so far. And even then they'd face an uphill struggle. Oblivion beckons.

The question I have is whether the rift will cause Labour to come to its senses, as it gradually did after the formation of the SDP. I suspect the hard left has its hands too firmly on the levers of power and will use any means to hold on, though Chris Williamson's suspension is perhaps a cause for hope. The other chink of light is the fact that union donations to Labour have fallen. Maybe Labour just might not be a lost cause. If so Chuka and chums will have done the country a service.

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Crimson Kings

Robert Fripp is on my shortlist of the best guitarists I've seen live (see More guitarists 15 August 2018). Having last seen him with King Crimson in 1971, we caught their current tour in Liverpool late last year and I was just as impressed the best part of 50 years later.

King Crimson went from being in the vanguard of jazz influenced progressive rock to a quite pared down grunge metal sound, which influenced many bands that came later, as I now realise. American 1990s grunge band Tool from my sons' musical palette, for example, cite Crimson as a key influence on their sound, sharing Fripp's fondness for unusual time signatures.

Across the eras some of Crimson's material isn't what you would call easy listening. But Mrs H enjoyed the gig and readily agreed that seeing them perform 21st Century Schizoid Man, the first track on their highly acclaimed first album from 1969, is something everybody who likes rock music should experience.

From the late 70s onwards my attention was elsewhere and I hadn't bought any of their stuff in decades. I've now got a bit of catching up to do as I the harsh guitar laden sound is more to my taste than I realised.

I will eventually return to my guitarists shortlist (just one more to go!) but the gig also left me thinking about one of the other "members" of the original King Crimson. I say "members" because he didn't play an instrument: Peter Sinfield wrote the lyrics, acted as road manager and constructed one of the first light shows used by a touring band: it was so unusual it was one of the reasons people went to see them. So Sinfield was considered a full member of the band. Until, like all of the other members of the band in its first 20 years or so, Robert Fripp fell out with him or vice-versa. (He did fall back in with some, so I saw the proficient multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins again from the 70s band the other week).

I'd checked up on Sinfield quite recently on Wikipedia. One thing about the world of the internet is that you can nearly always answer the question "whatever happened to....?" about almost anyone who has been well known. As far as I was concerned Sinfield fell off the planet after Crimson. I should have noticed that he worked with Emerson, Lake and Palmer (well he knew Lake from Crimson). But after that he co-wrote hits for Celine Dion (her Think Twice won him an Ivor Novello award), Cher, Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Five Star and Bucks Fizz!

So he went on from writing lyrics like:
Cat's foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
Paranoia's poison door
21st Century Schizoid Man

in 1969 to

Your world is turning from night to day
Your dream is burning far, far away
Into the blue, you and I
To the circus in the sky....
In the land of make believe...
(The Land of Make Believe,  a number 1 hit for Bucks Fizz in 1982).


But I also learned it was Sinfield who coined the band name King Crimson, verbally riffing on alternative names for the devil. Strange the things you don't realise at the time.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The special place in hell and how to save the European dream

"I have been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it safely" said Donald Tusk today. You should know, Donald because it's the same place reserved for those who deliberately sabotaged the negotiation by insisting that trade arrangements could not be discussed before the Irish border issue was resolved. This was always an paradoxical impossibility. If it was a figure of speech it would be an oxymoron, two contradictory and mutually impossible conditions juxtaposed. Indeed, just moronic, Donald.

The EU insisted on setting the negotiation up that way. I understand why some Remainers say that it's the UK that is leaving, so it's the UK that has to solve the problems. However, it's the EU that set the order of play in a way that means the problems cannot be solved. Hence the need for the backstop which is causing the biggest issue.

So, Donald, you designed the place in hell just as much as any Brexiteer.

But another version of hell awaits you, Donald, if you don't show flexibility to get this all fixed. In that version your mischief making helps to contrive a position in which we stay for longer. Or maybe even for permanently. Have you thought about what that looks like?

It's easy to predict that, in the UK, the political situation will be toxic for at least a decade. The referendum arguments will be re-run ad infinitum and a eurosceptic party (maybe UKIP, a UKIP successor but probably a totally eurosceptic Tory party) will do permanently well enough in the polls that any government will find itself under pressure at all turns to stick it to the EU. So the UK will be pushed into opposing every measure, however sensible or well intentioned, that smacks of ever greater union. Like some stroppy, overgrown, sulky teenager we'll block everything and anything. Brussels, already sclerotic enough, will grind to a halt.

I must admit I hadn't given much thought about how to save the European dream. But it's actually clear what British europhiles who want to see an ever closer EU should do to save the project: they should work to ensure Brexit happens.

After all, from here all options (and I mean all options) lead to economic futures that are poorer in the short to medium term than if we had voted to Remain. Even if we stay. So the game from here is making the best of it.

We may or may not be better off outside the EU but we were given a choice and we made it, in an outbreak of democracy that is alien to folk like you, Donald. The EU may or may not be better off economically if we stayed. But in terms of their precious "project" it's clear. We've never been committed to much more than a trading entity. We've always been a pain in the backside to those wanting ever greater union. They would definitely feel in a better place without us.

So Donald, if you don't want hell to freeze over - i.e. Brussels to grind to a halt - it's time to start thinking about how to make Brexit work. After all, you created this situation just as much as Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Chocks away

I chuckled at the BBC TV news cock up that showed footage of a Spitfire over Sophie Raworth talking about Theresa May's next mission to Brussels. But, thinking about it, it's not a bad idea: May needs to dart in, hit some precision targets and get straight back out again, leaving Barnier and colleagues in no doubt, despite all their protestations, that they will have to budge. After all those earlier trips when May was humiliated - smacked across the face with a wet fish as I put it - Parliament has given her a hand of cards which are just strong enough to play. So far she's been tough with Parliament and soft with Brussels. There's one last chance to do it the other way round.

All she needs to say is:
  • The backstop has to be changed. You say you have no intention of locking us in indefinitely so make it time limited. We are only asking for something that is standard in treaties and commercial deals: an exit clause
  • Your own chief negotiator says other solutions will work. Your own policy documents have technology-based solutions as the aim for controlling trade across borders  between the EU and other countries. So there is no reason for an enduring backstop; you are playing games
  • If, as you say, you have no intention of using the backstop, why risk failure at this stage by intransigence?
  • The change must be legally binding and watertight
She needs to make clear that, as I've been proposing for many months, we will not introduce a hard border in Ireland whatever; any border will be theirs. I've read that this prospect has only just dawned on the Irish and is causing some panic. If so, they are rather weirdly confirming to jokeish stereotyping of their own nation.

Would the above approach work? The newspapers are carrying stories that it won't, the EU will let the clock go to March 29 and expect us to blink. But the eurozone economy is, in aggregate, closer to recession than any other major trading bloc or the UK. As Jeremy Warner said* "we think of Britain as in a profound state of political crisis, but the position scarcely looks any better across the water. It's a political tinder box that could blow apart at any stage". When you think of the gilets jaunes in France, the oddball coalition in Italy with it's dodgy banks, Greece still in dire financial staits, Merkel a lame duck coming to the end of her time and with parties of the right looking ominously strong in Germany and to points east, the EU is not looking particularly stable. A bodged Brexit could be enough to precipitate a very difficult situation for the EU, with Trump tariffs a further wild card that could come into play.

There is a reason why I think it is important for us to insist on a legally binding change to the backstop. Yes, of course I have always been concerned about being trapped in Hotel California. But, since I realised that need not happen - in the situation where the backstop would come in to force we just breach the agreement and walk away - there is another, more important reason. Firstly, if things pan out that way we'll have paid the EU more money than we should. I'm not one of the flat-earthers who think that no deal means we don't pay a penny of the £39 billion divorce deal. We do have obligations but they wouldn't add up to £39 bn and the EU would have to wait for the cash while the wrangle was resolved, maybe for many years. So there is no point in deferring no deal till 2020, it would be bettter done straight away.

But secondly and, for me, more importantly, we have one last opportunity to show the EU that we won't be bullied. We are going to be negotiating with these people for decades and caving in first time round would set entirely the wrong precedent.

The backstop is not acceptable to the UK parliament. It is not necessary. It must be changed.

Yes, I worry about no deal but I don't buy the more extreme Project Fear scenarios. Yes we get most of our lettuce from Spain but did we notice when their production was severely hit by flooding in Murcia last year? No, we didn't.  But if they do have lettuce to sell, do they want to sell it to us? You bet. Blocks on our exports? Well, we'll just go back to getting lettuce from elsewhere then.

Before walking out to get back in her Spitfire all May needs to do is to quietly and apologetically say she hoped to be able to get the deal ratified but she can't. So it needs to change. And she won't be changing the 29 March "Independence Day" date, so it needs to change now.

Then we can get on with negotiating the trading arrangements which will mean the backstop was all a load of hot air anyway.

* Warner's column was in the Daily Telegraph on 1 February

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Will the Masters of their Universe win tonight?

“The ball is round and was meant to go round”. This may well be a very old football saying indeed but I first heard it from George Best, way back in the day. I took it to mean that, in football, your team is never at the top for ever. Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were soon to temporarily suspend the truism, but eventually someone else wins. In football it was a new dynasty, when Alex Ferguson succeeded in knocking Liverpool “off their perch”. But even in these times of near domination there were periods when there was at least a duopoly. Liverpool and Everton in the 80s; Man United and Arsenal in the 90s. Maybe we are moving into a Man City and Liverpool era. But just maybe the huge riches of the Premier League mean we are moving into a more competitive era, when half a dozen or more teams can genuinely compete.

There is, of course, a sport which is set up to a make domination by one or a small number of teams tantamount to impossible: American football. Which ironically doesn’t have a round ball. It would be hard to replicate all of the ways in which this is done in our British sporting structures. But just imagine the bottom ranked of the elite 30 English football teams getting first pick of all the graduates emerging from that year’s under 23 teams. And then first pick in the second round of choices and so on. And having the easiest fixture list in the next season. And having an equal share of the game’s TV and league-wide commercial revenues: sponsorship, licensing etc. (The teams keep "local" revenues: ticket sales and their own commercial income). Surely this would make it impossible to build a dynasty lasting nearly two decades?

Impossible unless you are Bill Belichik and Tom Brady, coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots, who are candidates for the best team sports coach and player partnership of the current era, if not ever. By winning the NFC championship game last Sunday, in combination they have got to 9 of the last 17 NFL Super Bowls, a record unprecedented in that sport. Yes, other teams have had sustained success over a period close to one decade, but not two. In their halcyon days the Pittsburgh Steelers got to 4 Super Bowls in 6 years in the early era after the then rival American Football leagues came together to create their end of season play offs a bit over 50 years ago. And the San Francisco 49ers got to 4 Super Bowls over a 9 year period in the 1980s.

To be fair, quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Joe Montana of the 49ers won all four of their Super Bowls. I was fortunate to be at the game where Montana, who I then thought to be peerless, won his third in Miami in 1989.  But no other quarterback has more than 5 career Super Bowl appearances, no other coach more than 6. As American football pundit Michael David Smith says, even if the Patriots lose tonight, "going 5 and 4 (as the Americans put it) in Super Bowls is more impressive than going 4 and 0".

Moreover, Belichik and Brady have won about twice as many matches as any other NFL coach- quarterback combo in history. Given the way their sport works, Belichik is arguably "Ferguson plus, plus, plus" evolving and rebuilding his team for sustained success. And Brady certainly doesn’t lose out in comparison with, say, Messi or Ronaldo. Their achievements in a system stacked to prevent what they have a done is remarkable.

As, of course, is 41 year old Brady’s longevity in an extremely physical sport. I used to think the risk of injury in American Football militated against its attractiveness as a sport, notwithstanding its huge entertainment value to the TV viewer. But now the average rugby three-quarter weighs something like 25% more than when I was a schoolboy the risk of injury in that sport with a similar shaped ball is surely at least as high. American Football has worked hard for many years to limit the risk in a very physically aggressive sport. Rugby is only just starting to think about the risk, let alone get to grips with it.

And, notwithstanding the colossal entertainment value of the Six Nations, which has got off to a cracking start this year, I am usually in the dark about key refereeing decisions most times I watch rugby, whereas, after listening to the NFL officials live, backed up by the TV pundits, I always understand the decision, even though I can’t claim to be an expert on the rules. Last weekend’s win by the Patriots featured yet another piece of nerveless play by Brady at the death as he ‘found a way’ as great sportsmen do at critical junctures. But the game also involved several key decisions reviewed with great clarity and success by the officials. What struck me was how well their video review works at moments of huge controversy. To be fair, rugby's TMO system also works well, whereas soccer’s VAR doesn’t look at the moment as if it will ever work as smoothly. And when the sporting stakes couldn’t be higher, the spirit between the Patriots and Chiefs players, as they took a break from knocking ten bells out of each other while awaiting the decisions, was remarkably warm.

The two Conference Championship games (semi-finals to us Brits) were amongst the most entertaining bits of TV sports coverage I have watched since last year’s Superbowl. High drama, close finishes, huge levels of individual skill. Yes, maybe a poor bit of officiating cost the Saints against the Rams in the final seconds – no video replay available to the Rams under the cricket-like rules – but, for the neutral that only added to the drama. I don’t have the stamina now to watch the Super Bowl live in the early hours so it will be a highlights package for me. But we’ll see if Brady's throws to Gronk (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski) and Brady to Edelman (Patriots receiver Julian Edelman) bring him a record 6th Super Bowl winners ring. Nothing is certain in sport – after all Brady’s team fell short at the final hurdle last year – but I wouldn’t bet against it.

I've always found it more than odd the way Americans proclaim the winners of their national competitions world champions just because hardly anyone else plays some of their sports. But, whatever, Brady and Belichik are masters of their particular universe and we’re privileged to watch them at work in combination.

P.S. well of course the Patriots won, albeit in the lowest scoring Super Bowl, dominated by the Ds (defense). Brady to Edelman was the most successful combination and Brady has cemented his place in the pantheon of the world's greatest sportsmen. No, that doesn't mean you have to like him, after all he is respected more than liked in his own country, disliked as much as liked in popularity polls. But his stats don't lie

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The time of giants - even if they weren't properly recognised

Last week Liverpool FC celebrated the 100th anniversary of Bob Paisley's birth. When people talk about managers now, lauding Pochettino when he has won the sum total of zilch here, they should perhaps study the history of the time of giants. Not just Paisley, but contemporaneous with him, Everton's greatest manager Howard Kendall and Brian Clough with his exploits with Nottingham Forest. These guys were proper managers and only Alex Ferguson from the intervening decades can compare.

Paisley won 20 trophies in 9 seasons as a manager. 6 were Charity Shields so 14 were serious trophies. Although Ferguson won 38, including 10 Charity/Community Shields, Paisley's rate of 2.2 a season compares favourably with Ferguson's 1.3. Paisley won the league 6 times in 8 seasons and the European Cup three times.

He was Liverpool's most successful manager - the more vaunted Shankly won 10 trophies over a longer period. But didn't he just rise on the back of Shankly's success? Maybe it was the other way round. After all he had already been at Liverpool for 13 seasons, as player, physio and reserve team coach when Shankly arrived and immediately made Paisley his assistant. Smart move and, of course, Shankly was a brilliant front man and man manager. In contrast the shy and awkward Paisley wasn't a communicator and could strike players as distant and harsh. And a bit odd: Mark Lawrenson tells of how, when he signed for Liverpool, Paisley met him at Lime Street station in his usual business style suit, but wearing carpet slippers. "You'll do for me" is what Lawrenson says he thought.

Perhaps curiously, unlike Shankly, there is no statue of Bob Paisley at Anfield though there is a plaque adjacent to a gateway named in his honour.

I know knighthoods can't be bestowed posthumously but it always strikes me as odd that Paisley lived for 13 years after he retired without getting one. For much of that time Mrs Thatcher was PM: she wasn't a football fan and it was an era when football had a lot of problems. But by the 90s neither of those statements were true. And by 1999 Ferguson was knighted promptly after winning his first European Cup. Paisley got the OBE in the year he retired which actually makes the lack of a knighthood sting even more - they thought about it and didn't do the right thing.

Mind, the last English manager to win a European trophy managing an English club wasn't given a gong of any kind. That would, of course, be the great Howard Kendall, whose Everton side won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1985. Some say he nearly got the OBE but that was a waggish joke doing the rounds in January 1984. Kendall's side was struggling and it was said he would soon be given the OBE (Out By Easter). But Kevin Brock of Oxford hit a poor back-pass in a League cup quarter final, Adrian Heath equalised for Everton to scrape a draw, they won the replay and went on a run to the final (which they lost) and the FA Cup final (which they won). The next year they won the League and the European trophy. They should have won the FA Cup as well but were beaten by fatigue as much as Manchester United in the final 3 days later. The 1985 Everton team was named the best in Europe by whichever French publication does that stuff.  After finishing runners up to Liverpool, by then managed by Dalglish, in both League and Cup in 1986, Everton won the league again in 1987.  Kendall's record in his first 6 year spell at Everton compares well with almost everyone bar Paisley and Ferguson.

Kevin Brock is fondly remembered by Evertonians and the back pass clanger features prominently on his Wikipedia entry, poor bugger.

And we Evertonians can but wonder how things would have unfolded if English teams hadn't been banned from Europe in 1985. By 1987 Kendall had gone to Spain and Everton went into the Premier League megabucks era in a decline from which they have never really done much more than stabilise.

But we can still remember the time when the giants were on both sides of Stanley Park, even if Whitehall and the Palace couldn't see it. I'm against these honours things anyway, but the lack of proper recognition for Paisley and Kendall was always bizarre.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A heartwarming football story

I have been remorselessly critical of Paul Pogba as a footballer, calling him the "big I am" and accusing him of "poncing around" on the pitch, notwithstanding the occasional flash of brilliance. However I may have to make a reappraisal of Pogba the person as there was a heartwarming story in the news today.

An Australian chap currently working in England and travelling on a train from Manchester with his wife was irritated by a group of casually dressed young males, who he took to be students and who were being rather noisy. By way of an apology, one of the noisy group asked, in a French accent, if the man would like a photograph. So the chap handed the bemused Frenchman his phone and began to pose. "No, no, no, I am asking if you would like a photo with me, sir". Confused but too polite to refuse, he has his photo taken with the Frenchman and another tall young man.

Only when he sent a message to his son in Australia, asking if he knew who the chap was, did he find out it was Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic on the photo:

Not that it left him much the wiser, even though he was sharing his carriage with the Manchester United first team squad.

Two things in particular amused me about the story. The first was the reason for the noise: the Man United players were playing the card game Uno, suitable for a wide age range (officially 7 and upwards) which we often play with family and friends. And which is sufficient fun that it is very difficult to play without making some noise. The second was Pogba calling the chap "sir". Anyone who does that and enjoys playing Uno can't be all bad.

Uno playing Manchester United midfielder leaves couple baffled. BBC,

Remember, chaos suits Corbyn - but no deal suits others as well

While many commentators have been disparaging about Labour's unwillingness to enunciate anything like a clear policy on Brexit, or to embrace a second referendum, things are actually going well for Messers Corbyn and McDonnell. I suspect the last thing they wanted when they called the vote of confidence was to win it and precipitate a General Election. At least, not yet.

And the chaos - or at least uncertainty -  continues though, as I predicted, May has tacked towards her Brexiteer wing, not towards the soft middle group of MPs pushing customs union, Norway plus etc. None of which, of course, really amount to Brexit, so she can't head that way.

The games to see if the legislature, in the form of the backbench and opposition MPs, can wrest control of  the Parliamentary agenda from the exectutive, i.e. the government, still have to play out. But Wolfgang Munchau* says these shenaningans might not prove to be of significance and that the risk of a no-deal Brexit is higher than many think. His reasoning is that no deal is not the worst outcome for several major players. For May and the Tories no Brexit is worse. Corbyn might personally take that view as well, but more importantly a deal doesn't lead to the chaos that people like McDonnell have often advocated as a vital precursor for the revolutionary change they want to see. So no deal has more attraction for Labour (or at least the Labour leadership) than no Brexit.

Surprisingly, Munchau adds Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach to the list for whom no deal isn't the worst outcome. Now as no deal would probably be worse for the Irish economy than anyone else I was surprised by this. But I guess Munchau means for Varadkar personally, for political reasons. I can see that, if there has to be some kind of border, he could blame it on no deal. I'm not sure I see why that's not a worse outcome for Varadkar than no Brexit or a deal, unless it's a deal that the EU force on him. But the EU has been totally supportive of Ireland so far, why should that change?

No deal would be bad for the EU. Maybe not worse than the UK but still bad: many commentators have predicted that it would push the slowing eurozone economy into recession. Bad enough for German car makers and French wine and cheese producers - so not good for Merkel and Macron. But I could also imagine the Greeks, Italians and Spanish, who have suffered now for years in the vice of the euro, being very angry at Germans and French for messing it up if there is no deal. Munchau has said many times that the EU hasn't prepared for no deal because, in the EU, there's always a deal, even if it's at the last minute. Or a fudge, kicking the can down the road.

But there's no fudge available this time. Or is there? Muchau says that some pundits think that keeping the UK locked in the Irish backstop is contrary to Article 50, which says we can leave in 2 years. Indeed we do leave in 2 years, unless we withdraw Article 50, or there is an extension. The ECJ could even rule the backstop to be contrary to Article 50. Which would mean the other 26 could apologetically ditch the Irish.

I doubt this assessment is right. Keeping us locked in does seem against the spirit of Article 50. But if we have signed a new agreement of our own free will surely that creates new legal circumstances.

So it's not clear how the EU could pull a cat out of the bag at the last minute. And they haven't shown any inclination to do so at any point in the negotiation so far.

Which is why the default legal position, from both a UK and EU perspective, is no deal. Unless something happens between now and 29 March.

* Munchau's post "Groundhog Britain" was in his EuroIntelligence blog on 20 January

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Brexit impasse

So, as expected, Theresa May's deal was heavily voted down in the Commons. And, as expected, the resulting no confidence motion failed. After all turkeys (i.e. the Tories and the DUP) don't vote for Christmas. So, where do all these conniptions (thank you Alex Brummer, City Editor of the Daily Mail for that word which means 'fit of hysterics') leave us? The Speaker, after breaking with normal procedure and allowing amendments on the government motion to be tabled, did not call any of them. Eh? (He must have thought if he did it would make life easier for the government, I suppose). Whatever the reason we are none the wiser about what, if anything, could command a majority. But I think I can hazard a guess - nothing does.

Many commentators - and perhaps the financial markets given the behaviour of sterling in the aftermath of the vote - seem to think that this heralds a softer Brexit. I can't imagine why. Having lost by 230, May has to turn around at least 116 MPs, let's say 120 to get a guaranteed majority. Where are they going to come from?

That's nearly half of the 256 Labour MPs in the House, so it's unlikely to happen without party support. As Labour seem determined to sit on the fence, try to force a general election and blame the government for whatever happens or doesn't happen, I think real co-operation between the big parties is very unlikely, especially after Jeremy Corbyn's churlish refusal to take up the offer of a meeting.

For what it's worth I think May is right and Corbyn is wrong on the issue of ruling out no deal at this stage. While the EU is unlikely to concede much, it does not want no deal. I'm not entirely with David Davis when he says that we were always going to have to take it to the wire to get the EU to play ball, but it seems absolutely wrong to limit our negotiating position by ruling out no deal now, even if it's really not where we want to end up. And especially since, according to Wolfgang Munchau* the EU always expected there would be a deal and really isn't prepared for no deal. After all, it's what happens in the EU: there's always a deal at the end of the day.

Munchau also notes that, while the EU position has been totally united so far, cracks could now start to show between the 27 countries. While the BBC showed the tweets from Juncker, Tusk and various heads of state and said they showed co-ordination and a common front, Munchau thought it showed the EU was "clearly not prepared for this stand off" and the initial reactions were "all over the place".

Meanwhile, on the Tory side, 118 voted against, of which 16 are Remainers. And there's the 10 DUP MPs. Anything which would appeal to the hardline Tory Brexiteers won't appeal to Clarke, Soubry and Grieve. So if May goes towards a harder Brexit that's still only 102 of the 116 she needs; 112 if she also turns round the DUP.

So the numbers don't easily add up but it seems more likely to me that May would tack towards her Brexiteers than towards a softer plan B. After all, softening her approach will increase Tory divisions, not reduce them - and the whole "process" has been about keeping the Tory party together. Some commentators see portents of the end of the Conservative party as we know it. But it hasn't been the most successful political force in the world over the last 200 years without knowing how to stick it out.

I expect May will try to get more out of Brussels on the Irish issues. Not just the backstop - though the clarifications she got seemed worthwhile, they could be much more definite. But it's important to remember the DUP don't like the way Northern Ireland is treated differently from the mainland in the backstop. The differences seem small to us but these are matters of principle. I've always thought that, if May could get the DUP onside most of her Brexiteers will follow. But she may need to get some more red meat for them, even if it's in what the Political Declaration says about the future trade agreement.

It's not clear all that would be enough to get her over the line, but it would then need only a few more Labour waverers. 3 Labour MPs voted for the deal this week, she might get the handful more needed to get there.

And if not? Then reluctantly I suppose, if Parliament really cannot deliver on its promise, it's back to the people. It's not clear that there would be a majority in the House for including Remain on the ballot paper, or indeed any agreement on the question. But the likeliest way to get agreement from MPs would be to remind them that they agreed to the original referendum by a large majority, that it was entirely premised on the vote being accepted and acted on and that they agreed to Article 50 being triggered by a large majority. So the only logical question is to ask which Brexit option.

But I accept that, if Remain were to be on the ballot paper, Brexit could well be overturned. Danny Finkelstein wrote persuasively yesterday** that, while he had voted Remain but had accepted the referendum result meant that we should leave, his patience was being tried by the hardline Brexiteers. He said that, just as psychological experiments had recorded in other groups, the Brexiteers have talked themselves into an ever harder position and now reject out of hand solutions that they canvassed as acceptable a few short years ago. Like Norway. (Which isn't acceptable by the way, at least not as a long term solution, see my post of 18 December). So, if the Brexiteers won't go for May's pragmatic compromise, why should he hold to leave when he didn't vote for it?

It's a persuasive argument and one that, as an extremely reluctant, nose-holding remain voter who thinks we voted to leave so we should leave whatever,  I am struggling to rebut.

* EuroIntelligence blog 16 January
** Finkelstein's excellent column was in the Times on 16 January

Monday, 14 January 2019

Brexit - the crunch?

So now we see the shabby machinations by which MPs will try to over-ride the will of the people and thwart Brexit, aided and abetted by a Speaker apparently prepared to set aside centuries of Commons practice to deny the elected government its usual control over the Commons agenda.

It's been clear for some time that the reason Speaker Bercow has hung on in office past his self-imposed retirement deadline was because he saw a role for himself in the Brexit denoument. And also that the Remain-sympathising majority of MPs in Parliament saw fit to keep him there despite the bullying and harassment allegations as they thought he could be useful to them, notwithstanding the fact that, in the MeToo era it seems unbelievable that he was able to survive the smoke that looked and smelt of fire to the rest of us.

This Speaker is the only biased and politically motivated holder of that office in my lifetime. If you don't believe he is biased, as well as far too full of himself, please tell me why, in round one of the Commons Brexit debate in December it took him over an hour to call an MP who had any sympathy for Theresa May's deal. He wanted it to sound as if the whole House was against the deal while the media attention was greatest. I still don't understand why Bercow was retained after the last two General Elections and I think it's a great shame the voters in his constituency didn't get the chance to throw him out as the MPs should have done. For the Speaker of the House to drive a car with a "Bollocks to Brexit" sticker (he says it's his wife's car; well he would wouldn't he?) says it all. Not only biased, he doesn't care who sees it!

But will it work?

May's strategy has depended on the choice being between her deal and no deal. As soon as it becomes a three way (or greater) choice the outcome becomes much less certain. Or does it? The hard deadline of 29 March in the existing legislation will stay in place unless and until different legislation is passed. We already know that there isn't a majority in the Commons for any specific solution. Not even Remain, despite the majority of MPs having originally being in that camp at the time of the referendum.

The House might cop out and decide it can't decide so there should be a second referendum, but what chance they will agree on a question?

The only thing I can currently see them getting a majority for is delay: extending the Article 50 deadline. Which would be pointless as there is no sign that more time would help reach a consensus.

Interestingly, Wolfgang Munchau* reports that the EU could be prepared to go further than issuing clarification outside the Agreement that the notorious Irish backstop is intended to be temporary.  He also thinks that, having opened up the Withdrawal Agreement , even though they had said they wouldn't, the EU might amend the Agreement itself. But there's a sting - only if it is clear what the Commons wants. And a bigger sting - the EU might formalise its informal position that Article 50 could only be extended for the purposes of ratifying a deal approved in principle.

In that case Bercow, Grieve and chums don't have the time they think they have and can't get the control over events they think they can. The only choices available would be to withdraw Article 50 and Remain (possibly with a further referendum promised), or to exit with May's deal or no deal.

So there's a lot of water to flow under bridges quite quickly now. Like just about all commentators I hesitate to predict what will happen between now and 29 March.

But I don't think it's hard to predict what will happen afterwards if Brexit does not go ahead: the political atmosphere will become totally toxic.

If Brexit does not happen in March future voting patterns will be radically different. A serious anti-EU party, not contaminated with extremists (so not UKIP), would immediately become a major electoral player. Such a party would thrive whether or not there is a second referendum. And it would do so even if a second referendum voted to Remain. After all. you don't need 50% of the vote to win a General Election. So expect such a party to campaign on the premise that, if you give us a majority, this time we won't fail. We will use the first 18 months to prepare for exit, then issue Article 50, and we'll have been out for 18 months by the time of the next election. One could easily imagine a lot of people voting for that.

So Bercow, Grieve and even all the King's horses and all the King's men won't make Euro-scepticism go away.

MPs might be able to thwart Brexit. But if they do, they shouldn't expect normality to resume.

P.S. Munchau also notes that the major centre-right German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Germany is woefully under-prepared for a no deal Brexit. The EU has discounted this possibility from the outset, and so has not devoted any serious energy and funding to solving the problem. Germany has only just created financial room for 900 new jobs to deal with extra customs modalities that would be required to handle the massive amount of German exports to the UK. But this is not enough to avoid complete chaos....

P.P.S. The most risible thing I've read about Brexit in the last few days was John Major, advocating a second referendum, insisting that it would be a "definitive decision" by persuading each party leader to make a public statement that the result would be honoured. Er, didn't they do this last time, John?

*Wolfgang Munchau wrote in the FT and in his EuroIntelligence blog on 14

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Lucky City?

Manchester City's 2-1 win in their clash with Liverpool on Thursday gave us the right result to keep the title race tight at this stage. Now this is a game that I find very hard as a neutral. City and Liverpool are my least favourite teams (in that order, interestingly, there's a reason!). So my natural reaction would be to hope for a no-score draw, several red cards and a couple of broken legs but that would be immature, wouldn't it? (Quite, I hear you say). So I watched the game riveted as City played a high tempo, physical game - indeed a classic Premier League style game, with almost a derby match feel. Not what you might have expected from a Guardiola team. They prevented Liverpool from getting their high pressing game going and, as a result, Liverpool only showed flashes of their recent imperious form.

As Liverpool were  a bit under par arguably the result was right, but I thought City were fortunate to win, as they got the rub of the green with the present state of technology support to referees, in particular with two decisions early in the game while the score was still goal-less.

John Stones's remarkable goal-line clearance, after smashing the ball against his own goalkeeper in panic, might perhaps have been given a goal in the past. As the Sky pundits said, by the naked eye in real time "it looked in". The now well established goal line technology showed Stones was successful by 11mm:

Not only that, as you can see he knocked the ball down as much as out and, in mis-hitting hit, he avoided Mo Salah scoring on the rebound. It was a great bit of play but still fortunate and the currently approved technology ensured the right decision.

However, when Stones hit a poor pass to Vincent Kompany just inside City's half with the score at 0-0 this challenge by Kompany on Salah was so far outside the rules it should have been an automatic red card:

Now keen readers will know I've never been a fan of Kompany's. I've always felt he doesn't actually know how to tackle and this was a fairly typical Kompany challenge such as we have seen many times over the years. Kompany is always a red card waiting to happen and that is exactly what should have happened here as he launched himself off the ground with a straight leading leg and studs showing. It was worthy of the yellow card it received even if he hadn't caught Salah - but he did catch Salah. Former Premier League ref Mark Clattenburg, writing in the Daily Mail, said the lunge was worthy of a red card but excused referee on the night Anthony Taylor noting he did not have the benefit of reviewing the action and "in moments such as this that is sometimes what you need to be 100% sure".

So Clattenburg clearly thinks, as I do, that had VAR been available to the referee Kompany would certainly have walked for the proverbial early bath. The fact that we have goal-line technology but not VAR worked in City's favour.

But it shouldn't have come down to that as, surprisingly, Taylor and Clattenburg both seem to have overlooked another point. Kompany should have been sent off for the foul even if it hadn't been a reckless challenge as Salah would have been clean through on goal and a clear goal scoring opportunity was denied. It's the case that Salah was still 45 yards from the City goal but he's a speed merchant and City defenders Kompany, who had gone to ground, Stones and Laporte would have had no more chance of catching Salah than I would of matching Usain Bolt over 100 metres.

As Liverpool had weathered City's early storm and were on top at that point it is highly unlikely that City would have won with three-quarters of the game still to go. As Martin Samuel put it in the Daily Mail "Was the match better for it? Of course. Was justice done? Probably not".

City were also perhaps fortunate that, also at 0-0, Sadio Mane's shot hit their post full on, while Leroy Sane's shot for City's second found the inside of one post and skidded across the goal and in off the other.

So it was a game of fine margins decided, as so many tight games are, by an inconsistent refereeing decision. "We go once a fortnight and watch 22 men kick a ball around for 90 minutes only for the result to be decided by a random decision by the referee" a Derby season ticket holding chum once said to me at a point 10 years ago when I nearly stopped watching games because of exactly that sort of thing seeming to happening to my team week after week.

Where referee Taylor also went wrong on Thursday was in letting the game flow too much early on after foul tackles. On more than one occasion this led to angry follow on challenges which the referee didn't sanction, bringing play back for the first foul. Referees at all levels have to judge exactly that risk when games look as if they are getting heated. Perhaps Taylor was expecting a contest of silky skills and had gone into the game with a mindset that he would try to let it flow. As a result, in the context of his decisions up to the point of Kompany's challenge, he might have felt a red card was out of keeping with the way he had been reffing the game. But a red card offence is a red card offence at any stage of any game. Like most Premier League refs on the current roster, Taylor showed he isn't up to the level required for a big game. But I accept the level of entertainment provided was high, which probably wouldn't have been the case if he'd got the Kompany decision right.

How important will these tainted three points be for City at the end if the season, I wonder?