Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘UK politics’ Category

Mark Field: Conduct Unbecoming

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st June, 2019

Mark Field Mansion HouseThe Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual speech to the City of London at the Mansion House last night was interrupted by Climate Emergency protesters. But that demonstration was eclipsed by the extraordinary behaviour of the local MP — and Minister of State at the Foreign Office — Mark Field, who rose from his seat to grab a young woman protestor in a long red dress, slamming her against a pillar and then  frogmarching her out of the Egyptian Hall with his hand round her neck. Other guests at the black tie dinner sat rooted in their places as if they could not quite believe what was happening and when a clip of the incident was shown shortly afterwards on BBC’s Newsnight, presenter Kirsty Wark was visibly shaken. Little surprise, perhaps, that overnight there were calls for Mr Field to resign; this morning he has been suspended as a Minister, pending an inquiry.

What makes the affair all the more remarkable is that in his ministerial role, Mark Field has defended the right of demonstrators in Hong Kong and Myanmar and other places in his Asian ministerial bailiwick to protest peacefully and he has criticised the high-handed tactics of some countries’ security forces. Yet his own behaviour was shockingly aggressive against a woman who posed no physical threat to anyone. This comes at a time when violence and intimidation have become more common in the political arena in Britain. At times there have been ugly scenes outside the Houses of Parliament, when MPs have been jostled or threatened and rhetoric has got ever more extreme in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum. Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of he assassination of Jo Cox MP, who had worked so hard to bring harmony where there was discord. It is essential that this trend towards intolerance and aggression is reversed if Britain’s democracy is to avoid being permanently tainted. And that means no conduct unbecoming by MPs as well.

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No, Not Boris!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th June, 2019

Boris Johnson scowlThe first round of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest saw the welcome departure of Esther McVey, among others, but less heartening was the very strong performance by Boris Johnson, who came well out in front. That does not necessarily mean he will win in the end — there is a significant number of Tory MPs who fall into the “anyone but Boris” camp — but he is clearly now the firm favourite. Most of our European partners will be scratching their heads in disbelief, seeing this as proof that Brexit Britain’s disease is not only chronic but terminal. Boris has declared a willingness to press the self-destruct button of crashing out of the EU on 31 October without a deal, even though the economic effect of that is likely to be dire. Of course, when push comes to shove, he might decide not to go for the nuclear option. Consistency is not exactly his strongest characteristic. Bluff, bluster and self-promotion are more his house style. He is arguing that winning two terms as Mayor of London proves he can reach parts of the electorate other Conservative politicians cannot, which may be true up to a point but rather overlooks the fact that his record as Mayor was not brilliant. Remember the tens of millions wasted on the Garden Bridge that never happened, the white elephant of the cross-Thames cable car and the water cannon bought from Germany but never used before being flogged off cheap? His tenure as Foreign Secretary was equally uninspiring, with gaffes galore. There were literally celebrations in the department when he left. As Prime Minister, he would probably be as much of an international liability as Donald Trump, whom he increasingly resembles. Perhaps he even sees the Donald as a role model. But that is absolutely not what Britain need at this juncture. He is the worst of a singularly awful range of leadership contenders, the least bad being Rory Stewart. All of them are bent on pushing through Brexit, but a Boris Brexit would be likely to be the worst of the lot.

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Westminster Shows Its True Colours

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th May, 2019

Westminster aerial viewThere has been some very interesting number-crunching going on since the results of the European  elections in Britain were announced late on Sunday night. And one of the most intriguing outcomes relates to the Cities of London and Westminster (CLW), that quintessentially establishment constituency that embraces many of the great institutions of state, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the Square Mile. It’s actually the first place I lived when I came to London after university, sharing a flat in Pimlico and campaigning for the then Liberal candidate for CLW, Trevor Underwood. It has always been Conservative ever since it was created, but Westminster is also a bastion of Remainers. This was reflected starkly by the votes as tabulated by Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has done admirable work breaking down the results in every constituency in the country, so here is his tally for CLW:

Liberal Democrats  10537

Brexit Party               4149

Labour                        3894

Conservative             3144

Green                          3126

ChangeUK                  1942

Others                        1301

As British general elections are held under first-past-the-post, that would be an easy win for the LibDems. I have to declare an interest, as I am the LibDem PPC for CLW, but as a keen European I am particularly thrilled to know that the area understands the importance of Britain’s membership of the EU. Had many (non-UK) EU citizens not been turned away from polling stations last Thursday thanks to an administrative cock-up,  I suspect the LibDem vote would have been even higher. But how gratifying that a national opinion poll published this evening by YouGuv for the Times is saying that the LibDems are now are just on top nationally (on 24%). That is an amazing turnaround and a lot of that is down to the fact that the party has a clear message on the biggest issue of the day> Stop Brexit!

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The UK Local Elections Verdict

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th May, 2019

F5FF8AE5-5C6A-4797-B8A2-8AE9528248B4Now that the dust has settled on this week’s local elections In England — the biggest set of such elections since 2015, though not including London and various other cities and counties — the spin doctors of both the Conservative and Labour parties are in overdrive, bizarrely both pitching the same message that the massive gains by the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and substantial wins for the equally anti-Brexit Greens are somehow a sign that the public just wants the government to “get on” with Brexit — an aim shared by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that Labour has registered a net loss of nearly 100 seats at a time when the worst government in living memory is staggering from one crisis and embarrassment to the next. Some noble Conservative and Labour MPs have bravely defied their masters and declared that this is tosh — some in far more rigorous terms than that. Others have parroted the official line.

30B377CD-DEBD-4E9C-856D-7A48E234FC92Nonetheless, as I tweeted earlier, this is an Orwellian misrepresentation of facts more reminiscent of the former Soviet Union than of a mature parliamentary democracy.  Such is the sorry state of political discourse in Britain since the 2016 EU Referendum. In that Referendum, tainted by some very dodgy campaigning and funding, Leave beat Remain by about 52:48. But the latest opinion poll out suggests that were such a referendum to be held today, Remain would get 61%. In the meantime the country is bitterly divided and Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party will ensure that the political temperature is kept at boiling point. However, European elections loom on 23 May, and although Mr Farage will probably mop up previous UKIP voters and numerous right-wing Tories, both the Conservatives and Labour are likely to lose seats to pro-Remain parties. Will Mrs May and Mr Corbyn listen then? We must make them listen!

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Facepalm Sunday

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th April, 2019

E310484E-4010-467E-A40B-E1A3E3527BFBI’ve never been into the whole Easter thing, but having lived in Belgium for eight years and subsequently spent a lot of time in Brazil — both countries deeply steeped in Catholicism, despite a significant Protestant and alternative presence — I could hardly ignore the pomp, ceremony and religious fervour of Holy Week, beginning today with Palm Sunday. Of course, to get the real, majestic experience one needs to be in Spain or Italy, but anyway, you get my gist.

This year, however, it is not Palm Sunday that is impressing on my conscience but Facepalm Sunday, as British politics descends into previously unplumbed depths, at least in modern memory, leaving me aghast at the incompetence and divisiveness of it all.  MPs have gone off on their Easter hols, though the most conscientious of them will of course use the time away from Westminster to work hard in their constituencies. Much good may it do them, poor things, as their reputation has sunk below that of my fellow journalists. Please pray for us all.

1D4B2A3B-2C5E-4EE3-BADB-0625A4DB8CFFBut what is striking, and shocking, is that the Brexit process has turned into a total dog’s breakfast, leaving many people on whichever side of the Remain:Leave divide they may be, frustrated and angry. Total nincompoops have become TV stars, freely spouting their lies (not least on the BBC), while Brexiteer figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have risen from the political dead. The European elections, now almost inevitably to be held on 23 May, will take place in an unprecedented climate of political chaos, with opinion polls suggesting that the Conservatives are rapidly disappearing down the plug hole. I shall not weep. Theresa May battles on, yet on the global stage she, and Britain, have become figures of ridicule and, worse, pity.

I have argued before that Britain should take the European elections seriously, to indicate that we have not lost our collective marbles and that in principle we would like a People’s Vote to settle once and for all our European destiny. May we use Palm Sunday to reflect on what lies before us — and to remind ourselves that Holy Week  doesn’t end well — until the promise of a new beginning.

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Theresa of Maidenhead, English Martyr

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th April, 2019

1526DD0A-1DD1-4899-BF4F-4A29FF60EBBCTheresa May did not exactly have a brilliant record as Home Secretary, but when David Cameron fell on his sword after losing his foolish EU Referendum — retreating to a custom-made writing shed to concoct his memoirs — Mrs May brushed rivals aside with the ease of someone running through a field of wheat. She became the Mistress of 10 Downing Street, but then carelessly threw away her Parliamentary majority in an unnecessary general election. Undeterred, having been a lukewarm Remainer during the Referendum, in a sort of low-key, Anglican kind of way, she then became a True Believer in Brexit. The European Research Group (ERG) and the Northern Ireland DUP (who gratefully trousered a £1billion bung) we’re delighted. And when anyone impertinently asked, “But what is Brexit?” she majestically declared, “Brexit means Brexit!”

1524FC32-110A-4343-A172-DC9B7F381AC8However, events since then have shown that things aren’t as simple as that. Parliament has rejected a No Deal exit, but has not given much of a steer on anything else. The end of March cliff-edge was avoided, and now the 12 April has been overridden too. Late last night, the EU27 leaders offered a new extension to 31 October. As that is Halloween, someone (probably Emmanuel Macron) has a macabre sense of humour. Waiting outside the conference room, in sackcloth and ashes, Theresa May was told she could like it or lump it, so of course she accepted it. She now returns to London knowing that the ERG have their knives out and both main parties are recoiling at the idea of fighting unexpected European elections on 23 May. On her knees in repentance Theresa may be, but that may not save her from being burnt at the political stake. Watch this space.

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Springtime for Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th April, 2019

1D80CB15-BC26-4FA2-851F-A5D6A15752D8During the eight years I was based in Brussels covering the European institutions and European external policy, I had a nice little sideline as a film critic for the weekly English-language glossy magazine, The Bulletin. That meant two films on a Monday morning and two films on a Tuesday morning in distributors’ screening rooms. To catch up with some useful film history, I was also a regular attender at the city’s Musee du Cinema. And it was there that I first saw Mel Brooks’s 1967 movie The Producers; it became one of my all time favourites. In the film, the hero (Zero Mostel) is offered a way out of his financial problems if he can stage a sure-fire flop. This he thinks he has found with Springtime for Hitler, a musical written by a clearly mad neo-Nazi composer with a passion for pigeons. Alas, the musical is so camply outrageous that it is a huge success.

915B53E3-44E5-4CD4-A517-69589C014E53I was put in mind of this at the weekend when I was watching Theresa May’s fireside chat video, explaining to the public and Parliament why Brexit had to happen, otherwise it won’t happen (an easy choice for a Remainer like me). Then there was the sight the other day of the bedraggled remains of Nigel Farage’s March for Brexit. And suddenly I had the idea of a Faragista musical, Springtime for Brexit. It would be staged at the London Palladium, but in contrast to what happened in The Producers, Springtime for Brexit would be a gigantic flop. The dejected cast would go for an after-party at the nearest Wetherspoons, only to find that it had shut down. Oh, what strange day-dreams one has!

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Led by Donkeys

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th April, 2019

4F932FA3-85C2-4BB6-8C1B-7887E9A6149DOne of the most pleasing aspects of the otherwise deeply depressing Brexit situation has been the billboard campaign by the pressure group Led by Donkeys. As with many genius ideas, the basic premise is simple: to put up giant posters of tweets by Brexiteers and members of the current Conservative Government which they would rather now forget. For example, there is Theresa May saying she believes that Britain would be better off staying in the EU. And Jacob Rees-Mogg arguing that any EU Referendum should be in two stages. These embarrassing quotes have appeared on giant billboards up and down the country, and when Nigel Farage ordered a Brexit march on London (very poorly attended, with Farage himself only putting in occasional appearances), the group behind the anti-Brexit campaign, Led by Donkeys, imaginatively trolled the marchers by having a giant electronic billboard featuring tweets which kept joining up with them.

C46A7617-A39D-4E59-8E5D-C1F9DBA7A298Even more striking was the SOS message with an EU flag in the background, projected onto the white cliffs of the English South Coast. The name, Led by Donkeys, is itself brilliant, doubling as a slogan. Moreover, it’s a slogan that resonates, as many British people, weary of the protracted Brexit chaos and would agree that we are led by donkeys — except for Prime Minister Theresa May, of course, because she is just stubborn as a mule.

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We Should Embrace European Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th April, 2019

European elections 2019Next Wednesday, UK PM Theresa May will go to an emergency EU summit where she is expected to ask for an extension of Article50 beyond the current cut-off date, 12 April. Whereas her personal preference is for just a short delay to Brexit, during which in principle her negotiated deal could get through Parliament on a fourth attempt, in practice it is more likely that the EU will offer a longer extension — possibly flexible — even up to the end of 2020. That would of course mean that Britain would have to take part in European elections on May 23rd (UK elections are usually on a Thursday, whereas much of the Continent votes at the weekend). These direct elections to the European Parliament have happened every five years since 1979. Yet to listen to the Prime Minister — and even more, to Hard Brexiteers — having European elections now, three years after the EU Referendum led to a slim majority for Leave, is an outrage. But one has to ask: why in a democracy is a scheduled election an outrage, especially as it would give the public an opportunity to express their views at this politically charged time?

European elections 2019 1 A major reason the Conservatives are wary of the elections is that they realise they will probably do quite badly. And that is also true for Labour, which was on a high in 2014, winning four out of the eight seats in London, for example. An opinion poll by YouGov published today has the Conservatives on 32%, Labour 31%, Liberal Democrats 12%, UKIP 7%, Brexit Party 5%, Greens 4%. I suspect there will be further polarisation to the strongly pro-Remain and pro-Leave parties as the campaign proceeds, assuming it happens. But that should not put people off, especially those who wish to stay in the European Union. Indeed, we should embrace these European elections (in which EU citizens will also be entitled to vote, providing they have registered) and treat them far more seriously than any before. Turnout has been pretty dismal in previous European elections, but with a strong campaigning effort over an intense short campaign, that could certainly change.

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Whitehall Farce

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th April, 2019

Dry RotThe chamber of the House of Commons was evacuated today as water started pouring in from the ceiling. The Palace of Westminster is literally falling apart, which is a brutally apt metaphor for the current political chaos. Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, arch-Brexiteers repeatedly tried to filibuster the bill put forward in the Commons by Yvette Cooper, aimed at avoiding a No Deal crash-our from the European Union. One noteworthy contribution in the Lords debate came from Viscount Ridley — one of the remaining hereditary peers — who referred to MPs as a “despotic majority”. You couldn’t make it up. Or on the other hand, maybe someone could. I am inevitably put in mind of the Whitehall Farces staged by Brian Rix at the Whitehall Theatre in London’s West End in the 1950s and 1960s — five in all, including Dry Rot and One for the Pot. Well, now there is a sixth, called Brexit, and it is taking place not only on the parliamentary stage of Westminster but also on TV and right across the whole gamut of media, old and new. I hear the cries of those who plead, “Oh, please just make it stop!” But whatever the outcome of the next few days, or the antics of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, this is a show that is likely to run and run. If some sort of Brexit deal is passed, there will then be years of haggling with the EU about the future relationship. And if by some miracle Brexit is cancelled, perhaps by revoking Article50, the increasingly tetchy public discourse will probably only intensify. Perhaps the only way to bring the curtain down is to have another referendum, the so-called People”s Vote, with everyone agreeing to abide by the outcome. Then the doors can be shut and everyone told to go home.

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