Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The only road to Brexit

Brexit still means Brexit. Or possibly harder Brexit. This is the message from the government after Theresa May finally outlined the framework on which it intends to negotiate the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. While the government is clearly still searching for the details of its plan, at least it has the twelve chapter headings now.

Briefly, when the Prime Minister said both houses of Parliament would get a vote on the final deal, there were gasps of relief, particularly from Remainers, that it might be subject to proper scrutiny, be open to amendment and a settlement which satisfies the vast majority might be found. But, the government has been swift to knock such notions on the head. If MPs feel that the deal on offer isn't adequate, the only alternative would be no deal; better than a bad deal, as the Prime Minister said.

It renders any vote somewhat superfluous. A debate on the terms of exit is not what the government wants; instead, as David Davis told parliament after the Prime Minister had stopped speaking:

‘What we want to have is a vote so the House can be behind and support the policy, which we are quite sure they will approve of when we get there.’

A united parliament, a united country, pulling the same way. No longer little Britain, shackled by Europe, but a Britain looking outward to the world, trading freely with whomever it chooses. This is the vision of the government. With so much rhetorical bombast on display, one half expects Sir Francis Drake to set sail on the high seas once more and plunder the Spanish Main just to show we can.

Parliament, though, isn’t of one mind and neither is the country. No matter how much Theresa May and others might implore ‘Remoaners’ to join this national independence crusade, many are equally determined to hold their position, much like Brexiters would have done had the EU referendum result gone the opposite way.

The 48% then - those who opposed Britain leaving the EU - can they rely upon the official Opposition to champion their cause? Er, no. As far as the two major parties are concerned, their cause is lost and is best ignored. Only Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes any effort in this respect and argues that any final deal should be put in a referendum.

Instead, Jeremy Corbyn came out with this:

‘She [Theresa May] has said “leave the single market” then at the same time “we want access to the single market”. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go down in Europe.... she seems to be wanting to have her cake and eat it.'

Before adding: ‘I think we need to have a deal that ensures we have access to the single market.’

Please excuse me for failing to see the enormous gulf in these two positions.

It is this type of leadership that has frustrated so many long time Labour supporters with Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently the subject of a ‘populist’ relaunch. 'Let Jeremy be Jeremy' is, apparently, the plan. Aware that he and the Labour Party are somewhat lagging behind Theresa May and her government, it is understandable why Mr Corbyn’s team thought the New Year provided an opportunity to repackage the Labour leader in the hope he might appear to lead a more dynamic opposition.

As part of this relaunch, just a week ago, Jeremy Corbyn delivered his own speech on Brexit which was supposed to provide clarity on Labour’s position. By the end of the day, Corbyn was insisting immigration from the EU wasn’t too high but Labour wasn’t wedded to freedom of movement.

Labour has a huge opportunity to tackle the government on a host of major issues, not just Brexit; the NHS lurches from one crisis to another, delayed decisions on Heathrow, complete inactivity on the Southern rail shambles. But, it seems that for many, on too many occasions, Labour has gone missing from the battlefield, its major figures just not up to the task, save for a few notable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner and Sir Keir Starmer, the last of whom cannot be expected competently to tackle the government over its Brexit spasms while Labour lacks a coherent policy itself.

Of huge concern should be the Fabian Society report, published earlier in the month, which said it was virtually impossible for a ‘too weak’ Labour Party to win a general election. Support could shrink to as low as 20 per cent and at the next election it could be left with fewer seats than since the 1930s. Its only viable return to power would be to seek alliances with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They show no inclination to forge such a partnership with Mr Corbyn's Labour Party.

This underlines a continual agonising, gnawing fear felt by those Labour supporters who aren’t convinced by the Jeremy Corbyn project and by many who believe it is a vital for all governments to have a decent opposition; the fear that not only is this Labour opposition failing to challenge the government sufficiently, but also that for many years to come no viable opposition is likely to emerge. 

The government, for many understandable reasons, is struggling to make sense of a vote to leave the European Union; a vote that was never meant to be lost and was intended, by David Cameron, to salve the running sores within the Conservative Party. But, as it tries to formulate the most important policy package this country will face in many generations, there is hardly a time in recent history when a government needed a robust opposition more.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

No need to be fearful to be Christian

Fiona Bruce MP arose in #PMQs today saying that Christians were 'fearful' of mentioning their religion or talking about Christmas in  public in these tumultuous days in case they receive a backlash.

I hope she was comforted by Theresa May's words who, being the daughter of a vicar, said:

'Of course we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can be be proud of.

'I'm sure that we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith and also be able to speak quite freely about Christmas.'

When I hear such fears raised, my mind wanders to a wonderful sketch by John Finnemore which appeared on The Now Show several years ago, and I feel confident that our country's Christian heritage is still secure and mentioning Christmas in the workplace might just about be ok.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

When will the real Donald Trump stand up?

First the good news. Donald Trump the president will be nothing like Donald Trump the candidate. The nature of the job means he will be have to be more conciliatory and willing to compromise. He will be surrounded by officials, advisers, ambassadors, secretaries, military figures –relationships he will need and have to nurture – and his bombastic, my way or the highway attitude simply won’t work.

Look at some of his most attention grabbing plans during the campaign and it’s reassuring to see many are illegal, impractical or impossible. All Muslims will not be barred from entering the United States. Eleven million illegal immigrants will not be deported. Hillary Clinton will not be sent to jail. And, while his team remain insistent it will happen, the building of a wall along the 3,200km border with Mexico will prove immensely difficult and expensive to achieve. And the Mexicans have already said they won’t pay.

In his victory speech, President-elect Trump (boy, that’s going to take some getting used to!) was clearly at pains to be as magnanimous and inclusive as he possibly could be. Far from reissuing his threats to Hillary Clinton he said the country owed her ‘a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country’. Trump made an effort to unify the nation:

‘Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division…. to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to get together as one united people. It’s a time, I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.’

Next, regardless of how isolationist Trump has threatened to be, he will find he needs international allies. Theresa May, ever the submarine, has managed not to say anything too rude about Mr Trump. She will simply have to ignore and rise above the manner in which Trump talks about women in order to build a professional, working relationship. Brexiteers are claiming Trump’s election will make negotiating a free trade deal with the US easier as we might no longer be at the ‘back of the queue’. This, however, relies on having faith in a campaign pledge – a bold step – and Trump might not show one iota of interest in Brexit Britain.

The problems begin when one starts considering what he can do and what might happen. While stopping all Muslims from entering the US won’t happen, it’s hard to imagine that American Muslims won’t face more discrimination and racist attacks under a Trump presidency; as with the Brexit vote here, racists will believe the vote endorses their behaviour, whether it does or not.

Obamacare looks doomed. During the campaign Trump said he would dismantle it ‘very, very quickly’ and replace it with ‘free market reforms’. What this means in practice is unknown, but a hasty repeal will leave millions of people, the poorest in US society, without healthcare. Will Trump even bother to find an alternative?

Trump has indicated he wants swiftly to end any US involvement in international climate change deals. Taxes for the wealthy could be cut and his desire to bring jobs back to the US and hike tariffs could trigger several trade wars.

Many clearly do feel appalled and sick to the stomach that someone who has been openly racist, boastful of sexually assaulting women, someone so crude, someone who, for some, provokes comparisons with disturbing events in the 1930s, could possibly have been elected to the highest office in the free world.

Ultimately, though, what I can’t shake from my head is David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump didn’t want his endorsement but had it nonetheless. Trump won and the KKK are celebrating. It's hard to think of anything more disturbing.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Farage loves a vacuum

It really shouldn’t be any surprise that we are in such uncertain territory over Brexit. It’s a pretty big issue after all. But, the longer the two majority parties vacillate over their positions, the bigger the vacuum being created for those who know exactly what they want to get from the June 23rd vote.

For all the cast-iron guarantees from David Cameron, the referendum was a never a vote the former Prime Minister wanted to hold. The offer was to placate his troublesome backbenchers. When, to considerable surprise, Mr Cameron led the Conservative Party to a House of Commons majority and the referendum became inevitable, it was still a vote that, for the most part, the former Prime Minister expected to win with ease. So, what preparation was done in case of defeat? Remarkably little, from all appearances. 

Theresa May’s favourite phrase these days is a commitment to get the ‘best deal for the UK as we leave the EU’, which one would hope is the basic requirement of any British government. But it says little about the relationship the government actually wants with the EU. From the prime minister down, government ministers and officials have been insistent that there will be no running commentary on Brexit negotiations and that by revealing the government’s ambitions they would be undermining their position before talks have even begun.

This is what the prime minister seems to fear after last week’s High Court ruling on the process by which Article 50 is triggered. Just what will the House of Commons want for their vote. Suddenly, the government risks losing control. Even though the overwhelming likelihood is that MPs will give their backing for Article 50 to be invoked, only this morning (Sunday) health secretary Jeremy Hunt repeated their concerns, telling the Andrew Marr Programme the ‘impact on the economy will be far worse if through some parliamentary mechanisms Theresa May is forced to lay out her entire negotiating strategy’.

This strategy does, however, rely on the discretion of EU countries; it would hardly be a surprise if the moment they receive the UK’s demands these find their way into the newspapers.

Simultaneously, we are left with a Labour Party which also hasn’t decided what it wants from Brexit negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn made an appearance in the Sunday Mirror in which he indicated he was willing to block Article 50 if the government breached his four ‘bottom lines’ including ‘access to 500 million customers in Europe’s single market’.

The only hiccup with this strategy is that it appears he hadn’t discussed it with his deputy leader first. With the ink still almost wet, Tom Watson was on the radio saying the Labour Party wouldn’t try and block Article 50:

‘We are not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster. Ultimately, when the vote comes Labour will support Theresa May to trigger Article 50.’

And, in reference to the apparent contradiction between himself and his leader, Mr Watson added: ‘We missed each other on the phone today.’

In many ways, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government and the opposition to be struggling to formulate exactly what their strategies are. Theresa May’s government received the ultimate hospital pass from David Cameron’s administration; it shouldn’t be much of a surprise they are taking a little time trying to establish what they can create from the mess.

And Labour’s problems must surely stem from a leader who has long been lukewarm towards the European project if not downright hostile. Mr Corbyn, after all, voted against membership in 1975, against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009

But, the failure of both to settle upon a position leaves the field wide open for those who do have agreed strategy and know exactly what they want from the Brexit vote.

The interim Ukip leader, still completely dominant within his own party, is the consummate campaigner of our age. In a time when mainstream politicians can be so fearful of the consequences of their words and deeds, Mr Farage benefits from being not highly electorally encumbered, letting him be nimble, proactive and impassioned. That many people can’t bear what he represents only fuels his enthusiasm for the fight.

In The Daily Telegraph last week, Nigel Farage wrote:

‘The British people voted to leave the single market, for full border controls and to take back control of things such as our territorial fishing waters. They expect to see all of this delivered.’

The British people, of course, voted for none of these things as they didn't appear on the ballot paper. Instead, voters were persuaded by a myriad of reasons to vote the way they did - principled, solipsistic and altruistic, and Brexit emerged the winner. But Mr Farage knows what he wants and, with a certainty of mind of which other politicians would rightly be jealous, can fill the airwaves and newspaper columns with his precise demands.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Is there a right way to make a Bolognese?

There are few more satisfying ways to while away a few hours than pottering in the kitchen, attending to a gently gurgling pot of ragu, glass of wine in hand, with the radio muttering away in the background. But, it seems that we in Britain have been doing it all wrong. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio has been getting a little sweaty under his apron over the way in which we make our Bolognese sauce.

According to the Daily Telegraph, whilst at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Mr Carluccio said: 'There was spaghetti Bolognese, which does not exist in Italy. In Italy, it is tagliatelle Bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and Bolognese without any herbs whatsoever.'

Mr Carluccio is just the latest to berate the British for taking a classic dish from abroad and subjecting it to unspeakable tinkering with the subtlety of a house decorator trying to restore a Michelangelo fresco.  Poor Jamie Oliver suffered the wrath of Spain for the heinous crime of adding chorizo to his paella last week. And, according to Carluccio, the only way to cook a Bolognese is this:

'You should do this: oil, onion, two types of meat - beef and pork - and you practically brown this, then you put tomatoes, then a bit of wine, including tomato paste, and then you cook it for three hours. That is it. Nothing else. Grate Parmesan on the top and Bob's your uncle.'

His argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that on the same page an entirely different Bolognese recipe appears, shorter but with more ingredients, by a chap called Antonio Carluccio:

But, is there, in Italy, an agreed way of cooking a Bolognese sauce? In 1982, the Bolognese Chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina declared this to be the official 'classic' Bolognese ragu:

As with Carluccio's recipe, there are no herbs or garlic but it still differs significantly. And I doubt whether every household is equipped with the compulsory terracotta saucepan and a mezzaluna chopping knife. 

But, here lies the problem: in Bill Buford's 'Heat' - a book which revels in the robust, macho, end of cooking - he writes 'there is not one Bolognese but many'.

'A Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen's quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings. There are at least two meats (beef and pork, although local variations can insist on veal instead of beef, prosciutto instead of pork, and sometimes prosciutto, pancetta, sausage, and pork, not to mention capon, turkey, or chicken liver) and three liquids (milk, wine, and broth), and either tomatoes (if your family recipe is modern) or no tomatoes (if the family recipe is older than Columbus), plus nutmeg, sometimes cinnamon, and whatever else your great-great-great-grandmother said was essential.... In any variation, the result is a texture characteristic of all ragu: a crumbly stickiness, a condition of being neither solid nor liquid, more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce.... Gianni speaks of the erotics of a new ragu as it cooks, filling the house with its perfume, a promise of an appetite that will mount until it's satisfied.'

Later in the book, Buford cooks an eight-hour Ragu alla Medici which used red onions, garlic, as well as the usual suspects, carrot and celery.

But, with such diverse opinions on the matter - while I appreciate Carluccio's frustration - hoping to maintain the purity of a dish to continue when, perhaps, it never truly existed in the first place, is tricky.

I had a quick look at recipes in a few cookbooks I have at home. Predictably they were all different. 

Below is from the Prue Leith's & Caroline Waldegrave's 'Cookery Bible', in which Carluccio's 'no herbs' diktat is ignored and the addition of marjoram or oregano encouraged.

Elizabeth David, in her classic 'Italian Cooking', chooses to add chicken livers, as well as nutmeg, to the pot:

I found another from Sandra Totti's 'A Taste of Tuscany' - ultimately intended for a lasagna admittedly - which uses fresh basil, thyme and sage, as well as a bay leaf and a clove of garlic. Asking a few colleagues for their interpretations, variations included adding a bay leaf to the oil and mushrooms and even olives to a classic ragu and letting it cook for as long as possible;  another might even use lamb, the addition of chilli and it's all cooked in 20 or 30 minutes. It may well be that there are wrong ways of making a Bolognese but it does seem that there are many right ways.

And, speaking personally, my Bolognese ragu often depends on how much time I have to prepare it. I use beef and pork, prosciutto, wine and, scandalously, some herbs, and try to leave it on the hob for as many hours as are available before the demands for food from my wife and children become impossible to ignore any longer. 

I'm afraid, Mr Carluccio's vision of what an authentic Bolognese is and should be has pretty much evaporated in this country. It may once have been a dish which emerged from Italian families, with all the variance that entails, and Italian academics may once have wanted to codify exactly what it needed; but, it has taken on a different form in Britain. It is not the classic Italian dish it may once have been - as this is not Italy. The spaghetti Bolognese is a British dish now.

But, if there is one way in which the British 'spag bol' and the Italian ragu are still related - and this may not please Mr Carluccio - it is this; as Italian families had their own versions, often passed down through the generations, it seems there may be as much variety in the domestic kitchens of Britain. Some, even Mr Carluccio, might find quite edible.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Theresa May; the red and purple Tory PM

Has a prime minister ever had such an opportunity to seize and control the political narrative as Theresa May does currently?

Sure, Margaret Thatcher dominated the political weather of her era but she came pre-loaded with a free market ideology which she applied, with more pragmatism than is remembered, during her time in office. And, of course, Blair swept all aside in his climb to power but, despite the country crying out for a change after 18 years of Conservative rule, he was timid in ambition, still fearful of electoral defeat.

Theresa May, though, is an accidental prime minister and already a lucky one. She is unencumbered by the baggage gathered by David Cameron after a decade of leading his party, emboldened by a Labour Party which seems content for now to wallow in protest populism, meanwhile Ukip seems to be permanently locked in petty, internecine battles. May - who was something of a Teflon-coated Home Secretary - is left clutching a broad, blank, canvas upon which she can paint her own vision for the Conservative Party and the country.

And so, we have her first major keynote speech at a Conservative Party conference as prime minister. Broadly speaking, it was a very successful, clever, speech. Much of it could have been written and said by Ed Miliband, bulked up with a few additions from Nigel Farage, though most of his script had been left with Home Secretary Amber Rudd a day previously. Delivered without fuss from a lectern, Ms May didn't feel the need to display any flashy skills. She didn't take a suit jacket off to show she means business, or memorise the whole speech in an attempt to display her oratorical prowess. Down to earth, unfussy and practical, getting on with the job; that was the message.

While many still struggle to come to terms with the result of the Brexit referendum on June 23rd, Ms May described it as being a symptom of wider issues within society. The vote to leave was about a broader vote for change, 'about a sense - deep, profound and let's face it often justified - that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them'. She went on:

'Our society should work for everyone, but if you can't afford to get on to the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you've been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. because it wasn't the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash. but ordinary, working class families.'

Compare and contrast with what Ed Miliband had to say in his conference speech in 2014.

'You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn't care about me. Our politics doesn't listen. our economy doesn't work and they're not wrong, they're right....

'Prosperity in one part of Britain, amongst a small elite. A circle that is closed to most, blind to the concerns of people. Sending the message to everyone but a few: you're on your own. See, think about it for a minute. In our economy, it's working people who are made to bear the burden of anxiety, precariousness and insecurity.'

All three paragraphs could easily have come from the same speech. But, while Ed Miliband suffered a humiliating defeat at the last general election, Theresa May is Prime Minister and received a standing ovation. She is busy taking Labour's clothes.

Corbyn himself recognises this. In his own conference speech, he acknowledged that Ms May knew there was a need for change:

The problem Labour and Corbyn faces, though, is that it currently isn't seen as a viable alternative for government. With that in mind, Corbyn is fortunate that Theresa May has ended speculation that she might call an early election for if she did, it seems fairly certain she would be rewarded with an enlarged parliamentary majority. 

Ms May currently faces bigger challenges from within her own party than the official opposition. Many Tory MPs object to the expansion of grammar schools.  There is a cohort of disgruntled Remainers. And the balance of the House of Lords is also still stacked against the Conservative Party. But all this could change. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the whole Brexit process will be a 'bumpy' road, the Conservative Party is still split over what Brexit actually means, and if the economy does indeed struggle as many experts fear, it will be this government that is blamed. Moreover, if her fine words remain just fine words and little effort is made to actually seize the centre ground, this will be noticed and Labour could still return there.

The Labour leader has been dismissed many times but he has weathered an almighty battering. It may be hard to imagine now, but, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has galvanised a movement behind him. Many may not recognise it as the Labour Party they have known for decades, but it is huge in number, over half a million in strength, and could still prove a formidable election fighting machine. The next election, however, remains Theresa May's to lose.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

I don't want to be a 'Soberhero'

Mine's a Daiquiri

It seems that barely a month goes by these days without it being hijacked by a charity eager to encourage us all to stop drinking.

Once upon a time, January was the month when people - normally of their own volition and not for charity – would lock up the drinks cabinet and forswear the public house to give their body a break after the excesses of the Christmas season. A very worthy and sensible ambition (though I remember lunching with an elderly politician and his nephew at The Gay Hussar one rainy January day and a cascade of abuse was directed at the nephew for having the temerity to emerge for lunch and not drink). Dry January has, of course, been adopted by charity and last year more than two million people took part, raising money for Alcohol Concern.

We are now, however, in the middle of a Dryathlon, promoted by Cancer Research, which urges us ‘to give up alcohol this September and become a Dryathlete’ after a ‘summer of overindulgence’. And after labouring through an abstemious month, one would be forgiven for desiring a snifter, but then we are being encouraged to become a ‘Soberhero’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, and remain booze free for the 31 long days of October. Australia has a Dry July campaign; I wouldn’t be surprised to see that emerge here too soon.

Now, this isn’t a criticism of these individual charities who all do tremendous and valuable work but rather a concern about the unintended consequences. Figures released by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in August showed that 21 pubs were closing across the country every week. Supermarkets, which still continue to sell alcohol at prices so absurdly cheap it is impossible for a pub to compete, taxes on pubs and the role of pubcos are all cited as major reasons behind these closures. But these charity events do have an impact on the pub trade. The loss of two million customers for a month will inevitably hit the bottom line. One publican admitted to me it was ‘hard to quantify’ how much of a direct hit pubs took but said its impact was ‘significant’.

It is easy to forget how much of an important role the pub plays in British society. It is a home away from home, a meeting place, a community hub. An IPPR report in 2012 said:

‘One of the most important contributions pubs make to local community life is that they act as hubs for the development of social networks between local people. Our national opinion poll found that outside the home the pub scored the highest of any location as a place where people “meet and get together with others in their neighbourhood”’.

And a study by University Hospital in Basel found, unsurprisingly, in a report published this week, that a single glass of beer can make people more sociable.

The continuing loss of pubs damages the fabric of society. But, this seems to be the ambition of some anti-alcohol campaigns. One representative, from the World Cancer Research Fund, has repeatedly claimed: ‘About 24,000 cancer cases could be avoided every year in the UK if everyone stopped drinking alcohol’. Any, albeit inadvertent, damage this could cause to social cohesion - which, in itself, contributes to the health of individuals - is, it seems, ignored.

And then there is the Institute for Alcohol Studies, which claims to be an ‘independent voice on alcohol policy’, but is in fact mainly funded by the Alliance House Foundation, once known as the Temperance Federation. Four people linked to the IAS were recently among the ‘experts’ advising the government to recommend the reduction of safe weekly drinking limits for men from 21 units to 14.
Roger Protz, the editor of the Good Beer Guide, at the launch of the 2017 edition just this week, warned:

‘the restrictions urged by the medical officers are taking us on the road to Prohibition…. All the real scientific evidence shows that moderate beer drinking can contribute to a health lifestyle. We should listen to the experts – not the kill-joys of the Temperance movement.’

There can be few people who are not aware of the risks posed by the excessive consumption of alcohol, and charities should be congratulated for finding ever more innovative funding techniques in a competitive world, funding vital work. And yes, we should probably all drink less alcohol. But, I hope we have reached saturation point when it comes to month-long dry-outs; it's enough to make one turn to drink.