Thursday, 29 November 2018

Theresa May carries on regardless

The Withdrawal Agreement that Theresa May commended to parliament met with almost universal disapproval. Both Leavers and Remainers were vehemently opposed. Many of her own party were opposed. The Labour Party was opposed. The Liberal Democrats were opposed. The Scottish and Welsh nationalists were opposed. The Green MP was opposed. And the Democratic Unionist Party was opposed. It was obvious for anyone to see that there was no majority for the proposed deal. Yet Theresa May was apparently undismayed.

Instead of recognising the reality, May simply doubled down and went into full campaign mode. She decided to go over the heads of the parliamentarians and appeal directly to the public. In the two weeks since her disastrous parliamentary statement, she has given press conferences, television interviews, taken radio call-ins, travelled the country and constantly repeated her talking points, which can be distilled to there is no other deal and not accepting the deal would be a disaster.

Watching Theresa May is a surreal experience. What is particularly troubling is the impression that she is being sincere, and truly believes what she says, and cannot see that virtually everyone else knows that what she is saying is simply not congruent with the facts. We have seen before what happens when a country is run by a prime minister who prefers belief to evidence and facts. That was how Tony Blair took us into the war on Iraq, for instance.

May's (well, Michel Barnier and Olly Robbins really) deal does not achieve any of the things she claims it does, which is why it is equally disliked by Remainers and Leavers alike. For the Leavers, it does not remove the country from the rules of the European Union. For the Remainers, it does not provide the benefits of the current relationship. It is neither Leave nor Remain, but some kind of half-way house: the worst of all possible worlds.

Yet, May is in denial. She apparently cannot understand why everyone isn't congratulating her on a wonderful deal. So to add weight to her campaign to bring the light to all those dim people who are opposed, she has had the Treasury conjure up "analyses" that show her deal is better than no deal. She has had the Bank of England create "scenarios" that show how her deal is better than no deal. Before the referendum vote, the then prime minister, David Cameron, tried this project fear tactic and the Treasury and Bank of England told the public that merely voting to Leave would cause the sky to fall. The people voted to Leave and the sky did not fall. Yet, Prime Minister May has wheeled out the self same tactic, expecting it to work this time around.

For this stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality, May is receiving much praise from many in the media. They admire her resilience and fortitude, her never say die attitude. But there is nothing admirable about her behaviour. She isn't refusing to be defeated by a mortal enemy. This isn't Churchill vowing to fight on and on. It is a prime minister who has clearly lost the capacity to see what's plainly in front of her.

However, there is a limit to how long one can maintain a delusion. In May's case, the meeting with reality is scheduled for 11 December, which is when her deal is put to the vote in parliament. There can only be one outcome: a crushing defeat for her deal. What happens then probably depends on how she reacts. If she cannot accept reality at that stage, it is inevitable that her own party will depose her. That is the Tories secret weapon: they get rid of losing leaders. The only question is: who will want to take her place?

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Theresa May in denial, her Brexit deal dead

The fundamental key to parliamentary politics is the ability to command a majority. This is so basic, one would hardly expect to need to point it out. However, judging by Theresa May's performance in the House of Commons today, she is apparently blissfully unaware of this necessity.

Prime Minister May commended to the House the text of her negotiated deal for exiting the European Union. There was no majority for the deal. This should have been obvious even before she rose to address the House. The previous day, she had had a difficult cabinet meeting. The cabinet had, eventually, agreed to the text. However, this morning saw minister after minister resign.

As MP after MP rose to speak, it was immediately obvious that there was even less support for the text in the House. Remainers were opposed to the proposed deal and Leavers were opposed. As I listened, I could only count fifteen MPs who expressed even luke warm support. The lack of support was so obvious that MP after MP pointed out that there was no majority for the prime minister's position. The Scottish Nationalists opposed. The Welsh nationalists opposed. The Liberal Democrats opposed. The Green opposed. The Labour Party (both Remainers and Leavers) opposed. The Democratic Unionists opposed. And a substantial number the Conservatives opposed. The arithmetic was obvious.

It was obvious to everyone that the proposed deal was dead. Everyone that is, except apparently the prime minister. When MP after MP pointed out what was obvious to everyone and asked what she intended to do, she responded as though she thought parliament would vote for the proposed deal. This was so bizarre, one MP felt moved point out that she was a psychologist and to assert that the prime minister was in denial.

Frankly, the prime minister's performance was worse: she was clearly delusional. She repeatedly made factual assertions that were not just false, but blatantly so.

Jacob Rees Mogg referred to the prime minister's prior commitments (commitments she apparently believes she has honoured) and pointed out how they were each abandoned in the proposed deal. He concluded by asking if he should send a letter of no confidence. Apparently, she was unable to appreciate the significance of the question and simply claimed she had maintained her red lines: something the text proved false.

Shortly after Rees Mogg's question, a substantial number of Conservative MPs left the chamber. One can easily infer that they were having a strategy meeting and, shortly thereafter, Jacob Rees Mogg submitted his letter of no confidence and held a press conference. The clear implication is that shortly there will be enough letters of no confidence to trigger a leadership contest.

Such a contest would seriously muddy the waters.

Prior to Mogg's intervention, the United Kingdom was heading inexorably towards leaving the European Union without any deal. The deal May had negotiated was dead, but she was clearly unable to even recognise it. Thus, the deal would fail and the country would leave in March 2019 without any deal. However, if a leadership contest is triggered, any, and every, candidate would have to offer a positive solution to the problem. The very notion that a candidate standing on the platform of leaving with no deal winning such an election seems unlikely. Whilst such a platform might well appeal to the party at large, it is unlikely that the parliamentary party would short-list such a candidate. Ironically, Rees Mogg's intervention might just have provided those who want a deal a last life-line.

Friday, 2 November 2018

European Court of Human Rights: rights for some only

The European Court of Human Rights has demonstrated that the right to freedom of expression is not universal and is only for some people. The Court made this blatantly clear in its differential treatment of two freedom of expression cases.

In the case of Frau S, the court found that Austria had not violated her right to freedom of expression. In the case of Pussy Riot, the court found that Russia had violated their right to freedom of expression. To any dispassionate, impartial observer, these two judgements are more than contradictory. In the first case, Frau S had simply stated the the prophet Mohammed was a paedophile. This was an accurate factual claim. Mohammed, as is well attested by the hadiths, had married a six year old girl and had consummated the marriage when she was nine. For making this accurate statement, the Austrian courts had found Frau S guilty of inciting racial hatred. (The fact that Islam is not a race only makes the ruling absurd as well as unjust.) The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Austria had not violated Frau S's right to freedom of expression.

The case of Pussy Riot is strikingly different, and the court treated it very differently too. In this case Pussy Riot engaged in a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral. This was clearly intended to cause offence to Christians and the Russian courts found Pussy Riot guilty of inciting religious hatred. The European Court of Human Rights found that Russia had violated the band members' right to freedom of expression. When this case is contrasted with the case of Frau S, there can be no doubt that the court was acting improperly. There is simply no way to reconcile the two judgements on the basis of the facts of the cases and the application of a universal human right to freedom of expression.

The court's upholding of the Austria position is clearly wrong. And that fact is underlined by the court's judgement that Russia was in the wrong, as the case against Frau S is remarkably weak; whereas the case against Pussy Riot is much stronger because it was precisely their intention to offend and to incite hatred of a religion. Indeed, the fact that the court ruled against Russia is overwhelming evidence that it should have ruled against Austria.

These two cases illustrate a major problem with the European Court of Human Rights: the court is more a political organisation than a court. Whilst the judges may well all have law degrees, they are not experienced, practising judges; they are political appointees. The judges are not people who are listening to the facts of the cases before them and applying the law dispassionately and impartially. In fact their judgements are politically motivated. In the case of Frau S, they upheld Austria in order to appease Muslims. The ruling makes this clear, as the court justifies its decision on the ground of protecting religious peace - in other words, the judges were persuaded that if Austrians could point out that Mohammed was a paedophile, Muslims might be enraged and resort to violence. That is not a dispassionate, impartial application of the law. At best, it is a pragmatic attempt to ensure peaceful co-existence in the same society between Muslims and non-Muslims by using the courts to protect Islamic sensibilities. As for the Pussy Riot case, there is an argument that the court impartially applied the law to the facts of the case, in the sense of the universal right to freedom of expression. However, if that is so, the judgement merely throws into even sharper relief the perversity the judgement against Frau S.

The European Court of Human Rights is simply not fit for purpose. It is not a court in any realistic sense of the word. It is staffed by political appointees, who lack judicial experience, and who ignore the court's own prior judgements. The court is in fact a mockery of a real court.