Friday, 25 October 2019

Year Zero

The Labour MP Bridget Phillipson has an essay in the New Statesman on what she describes as the party's love of nostalgia. Of course, all political parties are nostalgic in the trivial sense that they are built around historical narratives in which previous triumphs compensate for current travails. The same can be said of football clubs. But what the member for Houghton and Sunderland South appears to be suggesting is that Labour is peculiarly wedded to nostalgia because of its roots in the social response to the industrial revolution and that this blinds it to the possibilities of progress: "We love nostalgia in the Labour Party. We pepper our politics with references to people in office seventy years ago. Sometimes we seem to drench our party political broadcasts in a sense of how things were better in the past, an implicit promise that our future will be a recapturing of past glories rather than something new and different".

But it quickly becomes clear that Phillipson's own vision of progress suffers from the same blight: "It seems hard to believe that the last time we won a general election, fifteen years ago next spring, our slogan was 'forward not back'". What she is taking aim at is both old Labourism, with its anti-intellectual and misogynistic impulses, and what she sees as its continuation within the Corbyn project. The chief culprit in this charge of nostalgia is a narrative that "looks at how the status of white men in what had been reasonably secure jobs in our country saw a sudden, unwelcome, and unexpected decline, and identifies reversing that change as a central political challenge for socialists today". Linking the two is a stretch. Corbyn and McDonnell owe more to the New Left critics of old Labour than to the shibboleths of the 1950s TUC, while the idea that Diane Abbott wants to recreate a society fit for a disinterred Bernard Manning is obviously absurd.

In building what is essentially a defence of New Labour's rejection of both Labourism and the left, Phillipson creates a hybrid opponent: "For those who are sympathetic to this narrative, it offers, at least implicitly, some limited forms of policy prescription for Labour. Tighter controls on immigration, often wrapped in a language of 'legitimate concerns'. More socially conservative noises. A leaning towards an economic approach not based on full EU membership. An approach to the state's place in our society and economy where ill-defined and questionably responsive social enterprises are expected to fill key public roles, with neither the powers nor the resources necessary for success. With the Conservatives in power, the narrative focuses on organising social pressure to mitigate the outcomes of their public policy changes — through foodbanks and social solidarity — at least as much as on winning over voters or developing alternative strategies for a Labour government". The image is equal parts Sid the Sexist and Daniel Blake.

This exculpates New Labour for the role it played in promoting the language of "legitimate concerns", of voicing Euroscepticism (often reasonably, e.g. Brown's objections to the euro), and of filling key public service roles with private "partners" for whom the adjective "questionable" would be an under-statement. Clearly it is only the idea of a shared "narrative" that allows her to make strange bedfellows of the likes of John Mann, Blue Labour and Seumas Milne. Without the glue of nostalgia there is little commonality in theory, let alone in practice. There is also a hint of technocratic paranoia: "More prosaically, it implies changes to how Labour selects candidates, and a wariness around university-educated MPs regardless of their background." Phillipson is a local lass, elected in 2010 at the age of 27, who went to Oxford and whose working experience was limited to 3 years at a women's charity. This doesn't tick the "worked down pit" box, but it appears to have been enough to see her reselected unanimously earlier this month.

She understands the danger of looking backwards: "But the politics of nostalgia is not the politics of socialism. It starts not with an analysis of society today, but a very particular sort of history lesson, for it's about romanticising the past, not humanising the future. And once you start to pull it apart, that becomes all too obvious, and it also becomes very clear what lies behind it". Despite the nod to Marx (addressing society as it exists), who she even goes on to explicitly quote in her conclusion on the need for change (a rather tired Blairite trope in itself), her essay quickly turns into a plea for "modernisation". Ironically, this means piling up the nostalgic references to previous generations of modernisers and critics of nostalgia, from Anthony Crosland to Stuart Hall, but it also means presenting a counter-narrative of progress: "For there’s another story of the last fifty years that looks at what was going on for the people who weren't simply losing out from that transformation ... above all it's the story of women."

Again the ironies pile up. Phillipson references Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, but not Barbara Castle, who arguably did more for women that any other Labour politician before or since. Among contemporary female activists she singles out only Caroline Criado Perez. Once more the golden years are evoked: "The last Labour government rightly introduced or hastened many of these changes. Intervention after intervention, year after year: a steady drumbeat of progress for thirteen years … So I have little time for those who look back at the last Labour government’s domestic record without a great deal of admiration tempering their criticisms. I have less time still for those whose recipe for electoral advance is nostalgia for a world which had no place for my family and no place for me, who position - deliberately or inadvertently - women's access to modernity as threat and concern rather than as opportunity and triumph." Does she really mean to suggest that criticism of the Blair years is driven by misogyny?

Consider this: "Above all it is wrong to seek to redefine the Labour Party, and our historic purpose, in terms other than the redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunity, wrong to substitute culture war for achievable economic justice, wrong to put communitarian nostalgia in place of building a better future for all working people. We must avoid the temptation to sit round drinking out of vintage mugs, fondly remembering a world of culturally uniform slums where women didn’t get paid, men died young in industrial accidents, and Labour lost elections." That first sentence is spot on, but the second - the bait and switch - constructs a strawman that misrepresents the contemporary Labour party and creates a historical myth that flattens the actual cultural variety of the past (what happened to the Jews, the Irish, the Windrush generation?), the prevalence of working women and even the party's electoral success (I could have sworn that Labour won a number of elections before the annus mirabilis of 1997, and not even as far back as "seventy years ago").

At this point you might wonder why I am shooting this particular fish in this particular barrel. It's because I spent my formative years in Washington and even attended the same comprehensive school as Phillipson, St Robert of Newminster, though two decades before her. Even then the milieu she presents - a "culture of large workplaces, union activity, clocking on and off together, of tight knit communities clustered round employment opportunities in villages and smaller towns" - was already history. Washington was developed in the last wave of new towns, whose very purpose was deracination and whose ethos from the beginning was post-Fordist. Already in the 1980s people were living atomised lives and striving for self-actualisation through commodities. The new Nissan plant, which opened in 1986, was served from the off by a dispersed, car-owning workforce. The region's structural problems are a dependence on large employers, poor local transport and the drain of talent south. This has been the case for a century.

Phillpson's claim that Labour is currently suffering from a debilitating nostalgia does not really stand up. For all the Davy lamps on mantelpieces and the popularity of Clem as a child's name (ironically, another Blairite signifier), Labour is no more subject to this than any other party. Consider the Tories' hagiography of Churchill and Thatcher, or even the Liberal Democrats' ancestor worship of Mill,  Gladstone and Asquith (their last league triumph means their nostalgia is even worse than Preston North End's). The most recent Labour Party conference committed to an unquestionably radical and progressive programme, while its fringe was dominated by The World Transformed. So what's Phillipson up to? Given her preferences (she backed David Miliband in 2010, Yvette Cooper in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016) I suspect that the real target for her anti-nostalgia is the 2017 general election. What she is proposing is that Labour erases this from its memory, but a straight call to this effect would face derision. Far better to insist that Labour has a general nostalgia problem. But if you reset the clock to zero, who will remember the halcyon years of 1997 to 2010?

Friday, 18 October 2019


On the BBC's News at Ten yesterday it was claimed that Boris Johnson had achieved something "that people said couldn't be done". This achievement was to agree a withdrawal deal with the EU27, which was exactly what Theresa May had done before him. You could quibble that the claim referred to the apparent impossibility of squaring the trilemma presented by the conflicting demands of the EU, the ERG and the DUP, which did for May, but as Johnson has proved, this could always be resolved simply by stitching-up the least powerful of those three, which is what he has done. This rewriting of history on-the-fly has become something of a BBC habit in recent years, revealing the extent to which supporting the "national interest" (i.e. the government) has overtaken objectivity in the Corporation's reporting. You'd expect the state broadcaster to be biased, and so discount its interpretation to a degree, but the decline of scepticism at the BBC over the last decade has been alarming.

Despite "No deal is better than a bad deal" and "Do or die", a deal has always been more likely than not, given the associated risks and given also that positive support for no-deal is a minority in both Parliament and among the wider electorate (if not among Conservative Party members). That said, I confess I was one of those who thought that Johnson had decided to try and make the best of a no-deal outcome in early September, when he withdrew the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, though I didn't think he'd get to the end of October without an extension. Insofar as his administration has had a definite strategy, it appears to have been to accept that the government could not effectively operate with the current parliament. Repeatedly losing votes in the Commons simply confirmed this. Prorogation was therefore not just a tactic to minimise scrutiny, it was a way of suspending business to allow a focus on securing an 11th hour deal that would open the way to a general election.

This meant that any kind of deal was acceptable to Johnson, who is after all an opportunist rather than an ideologue. A deal that commands the support of the ERG, who appear to have been won over by the promise of a loose free trade relationship with Europe and maximum deregulation, could not be dismissed as Brexit in name only, thereby securing the Tories' flank against Farage and the Brexit Party. A deal that the EU27, and in particular the Republic of Ireland, can tolerate (and which in its essentials is the original offer they made over two years ago) takes some of the wind out of the sails of those advocating a soft Brexit, even if the eventual outcome will be a long way from EFTA membership. Alienating the DUP, on the other hand, has little in the way of a political cost, both because the unionists have few friends (and haven't used their moment in the sun since 2017 to make new ones) and because their utility as a prop for the government has gone.

The outcome of tomorrow's Commons vote on the deal is too close to call. Johnson's calculation is presumably that he can offset the loss of the DUP by minimising Tory rebels on both the remain and leave flanks (i.e. both the whipless and the ERG will largely fall in line) while picking up a useful number of pro-deal Labour rebels. My guess is that the latter will turn out to be fewer than the number bruited by the media, but I also suspect that the Tory rebels on both sides of the leave/remain debate will be reduced in number and that this may be sufficient to get the deal over the line (though you can bet if only one Labour MP votes for the deal, this will be enough for the Liberal Democrats and others to blame Labour generally). If the government is defeated, then the Benn Act will kick-in, but I get the sense that this very outcome, intended to ensure a soft landing, is increasingly being viewed with dread by many MPs who supported it but are keenly aware of the wider frustration in the country.

It is in the context of this frustration that the attitude of the BBC and the government-friendly press should be read. There is a not-unreasonable assumption that the population is sick and tired of Brexit, that it will accept any halfway tolerable deal to end the Article 50 process, and that it believes the sectional interests of Northern Irish unionists should not hold the country to ransom. However, the dominance of this set of beliefs in the minds of the media, including at pro-remain newspapers such as the Guardian, has led to insufficient scepticism about the substance of the deal and a tendency to characterise dissenting voices as unhelpful and out of tune with the popular mood. Whether this media momentum will be sufficient to cow MPs into supporting the government is open to question, but it highlights the extent to which brainless cheerleading has bled from the tabloids through the broadsheets to the BBC over the last decade.

The relationship of British Prime Ministers with the BBC has followed a distinct trajectory over the years. From the deference shown to the patrician Macmillan to the brief indulgence of Harold Wilson as a talkshow host, the common thread in the 60s and 70s was mutual respect as much as wariness. This changed, as so much else did, during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Her assumption of a regal style exploited the BBC's institutional deference while aggravating the scepticism of many of its journalists, leading to a number of bitter clashes and the defenestration of Seumas Milne's dad. This antagonism was continued by Tony Blair, who cultivated a more presidential style but also insisted on the supportive role of the state broadcaster, particularly on the issue of Iraq. One of David Cameron's lasting legacies was to tone down this peremptory attitude by Number 10 while ensuring supportive appointments to key editorial positions to reduce the possibility of friction.

This move from antagonism towards manipulation hasn't shifted the BBC on the political spectrum (it's always been centre-right) but it has dulled its journalism. It's easy enough to highlight bias and bad editorial decisions, from the unbalanced Panorama investigation into antisemitism within the Labour Party to Newsnight's habit of giving a platform to unsavoury far-right figures, but this is to ignore the more profound degradation in the Corporation's willingness to hold the government to account. The consequence is the premiership of Boris Johnson. His ascent to the top job was not facilitated chiefly by the press, despite the mea culpas and recent fawning support. The key was the indulgence shown towards him by the BBC in his time as Mayor of London. It was this, rather than his over-rated appearance on Have I Got News For You, that made him a national figure. Nothing succeeds like success, and it appears his supporters at the BBC think that Johnson has now pulled out a plum.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Dreary Steeples

Ahead of the publication of their latest book, Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World, the British Election Study presented their key findings to the press this week. But what caught the attention of the fourth estate was not the volatility of the last decade but the suggestion that British politics has become extreme. As Lewis Goodall of Sky News put it in a tweet, summarising the words of Professor Geoff Evans: "British politics is basically now Northern Ireland politics. It’s moved away from 90s centrism, electoral incentives no longer at the centre but at the extremes. Centre parties or parties which adopt compromise positions get crushed and extremist parties rewarded." The idea that British politics is being remade in the image of the sectarian division of Northern Ireland is crass and misleading. That this is an interpretation of a government-funded body whose very name disregards Ireland is not the least of the ironies.

The BES's central claim is that we face the "Most volatile British electorate in modern times", which is simply the psephological equivalent of "It's up for grabs now". Of course, volatility is not how most people would characterise the entrenched politics of Northern Ireland. You could argue that the supplanting of the UUP and SDLP by the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively marked a move towards the extremes, but a more realistic assessment is that this was actually a move towards the centre: away from the gun and towards the ballot-box. So what we have here are two claims: that the electorate is more promiscuous in its preferences and that it is attracted to more extreme positions, leading to established parties shifting away from the centre and/or the emergence of new parties on their outer flank. Northern Ireland provides a questionable metaphor for the latter, but none whatsoever for the former.

According to Professor Edward Fieldhouse: "Given the UK's recent history of vote switching and the unpredictability of the current climate, it would be unwise for any political party or commentator to presume how voters will behave in a general election, particularly in the middle of an electoral shock. But we do expect to see big shifts defined largely by Brexit". The contradiction in this statement between the unpredictability of the electorate and the certainty of the Brexit factor is obvious, but it points to what is really being argued here: that Brexit has deranged politics, eroding party loyalties and encouraging the electorate to reform itself along different lines reflecting "values" or some notional "culture war" rather than material interest. This has been a near-constant theme of centrist political commentary over the last two years, hence the warm reception of the BES presentation this week.

The BES sees Brexit as one of five "electoral shocks" that have affected UK politics since 2010, the others being immigration and the rise of UKIP, the 2008 crash, the 2010-15 coalition and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But characterising these as shocks, with the implication that they were unforeseen, is dubious. Immigration has been an issue since the 1960s, though its impact on voting has been marginal at best; the 2008 crash was the culmination of thirty years of financialisation, but it didn't reconfigure the political landscape; the Liberal Democrats' volatility between 2010 and 2015, far from being unusual, echoed similar third party yo-yoing at the polls in the 1970s and 80s; and Labour had been hollowed-out in Scotland well before the electoral slump of 2015. Brexit itself is the result of a festering sore in the Conservative Party that dates back to Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech in 1988. This isn't volatility so much as routine political churn.

In terms of longer history, the BES records only two similar periods of voter promiscuity, in 1918 and 1931, though it is questionable whether these can be taken as evidence of volatility given that the first was under a radically expanded franchise and both were won by contingent coalitions that temporarily coalesced the political centre. As subsequent events would show, the basic division between left and right that was introduced by universal suffrage remained in place. The argument for the period since 2010 is that these "shocks" have gradually weakened party identities leading to the current volatile state. An assumption here is that the reversion to the traditional duopoly in 2017, when the Conservatives and Labour combined got over 82% of the vote, does not mark a return to electoral stability, but history would suggest otherwise.

Inevitably, the panjandrums of liberalism have not been slow to spot an opportunity, with Martin Kettle particularly taken by Geoff Evans's question, "Could the Liberal Democrats be the Sinn Féin of all this?". I think it's safe to say that the answer to that is "No". Kettle's take on the "Ulsterisation of British politics" is that Brexit has created two electorates: "But if Brexit is reshaping the electoral battle, it is in reality two separate battles. The Tories and the Brexit party are battling for leave voters, while Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalists battle for remainers. Very few voters sit in the middle of the road on Brexit or the cultural issues that are so closely associated with it". That Labour actually does sit in the middle of the road on Brexit, and has been loudly criticised by Kettle and many others for that very reason, doesn't seem to give him pause for thought. Nor does he seem bothered that promoting the idea of a new political alignment based on leave versus remain, or proxies such as "open" and "closed", is echoing Nigel Farage.

There is clearly a deeper rationale at work here. It is the idea that the political division between capital and labour is a distraction from the real social and cultural antagonism between progress and conservatism. Though many liberals have made the claim that the capital/labour division is outmoded, they have been making exactly the same claim since the second half of the nineteenth century when the electoral implications of this division became clear. As universal suffrage formalised this division after the Great War, marginalising the old Liberal party in the process, the critique became a polite way of deprecating democracy. Since then, liberals have repeatedly claimed to see the tectonic plates of politics shifting in their favour as populations "became more liberal" under the delightful duress of globalised capitalism. In the political sphere, this led in the 1990s to the post-democracy of managerialist parties and an equanimity in the face of declining voter participation. That the return of politics is regarded as a "shock" tells you how tenacious this anti-democratic mentality is.

As Kettle notes, "Only the Labour party acts as if the election will be about more traditional issues". The Labour leadership is surely right to do so. All the polling suggests that voters are both tired of Brexit and increasingly engaged with other issues, from wages and housing to crime and climate change. As Stephen Bush separately noted, "They think that far from representing a new fissure, the apparent divide over age and education is in fact one driven by the new contours of class in Britain. A socially liberal graduate renting a flat lacks capital or security of tenure – while a socially authoritarian pensioner, living in his or her own home or a council house, has at least one of those, and possibly both". Depending on what happens over the next few weeks, and assuming a general election is going to happen within the next few months, the vote may be largely about Brexit or the topic could have plummeted to a status similar to foreign policy. I suspect it is more likely to be the latter, not least because no party other than the Liberal Democrats wants the election to be a de facto second referendum.

To a degree, the reformation of politics in "culture war" terms is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which probably explains much of the attraction for liberals. The change seen between the 2015 and 2017 general election results was partly down to the more pronounced authoritarian and progressive cues of the main parties, which helped re-establish the sharp division between the Conservatives and Labour in the minds of the electorate. This rather than Brexit "identities" appears to have revived the two-party duopoly after the centrism of the New Labour and Cameron years. What this in turn suggests is that Brexit, and whatever collection of attitudes and values it stands proxy for, will simply be overlaid onto the existing political formation. Ultimately, the better parallel to make with Northern Ireland is that while faces come and go and attitudes evolve, the underlying political division remains stable. As Winston Churchill said in a different context, "The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again".

Monday, 7 October 2019

Conspiracy or Cock-up?

It's looking unlikely that the government will be able to agree a revised withdrawal agreement with the EU27, largely due to the impossibility of reconciling an open border in Ireland with the UK quitting the EU Customs Union. This isn't a surprise: it has been obvious for at least two years. Theresa May's ploy of extending the backstop to cover the whole of the UK was a fudge that might have worked if there was a consensus among the Conservative Party to secure close alignment on trade and standards in the future, but as became all too clear during the tortuous progress of the Withdrawal Bill, the emerging consensus was for divergence, which made the backstop toxic for the leave ultras. Boris Johnson has been able to reconcile the different factions within the boundaries of the Conservative party's consensus, and also get the DUP onside, but this has only been possible at the cost of presenting a proposal that cannot be accepted by the EU.

It is against this backdrop that we should interpret the government's confirmation that it will obey the Benn Act, and the Scottish court's subsequent  acceptance of its sincerity. For all the imaginative talk of loopholes and Dominic Cummings' cunning, Occam's Razor suggests that Johnson intends to comply with the Act because he has no alternative. He may instruct a civil servant to sign the letter, and he will certainly publicly decry it, but an extension is now likely. As someone with a long track record of reneging on promises and shrugging off culpability, I doubt he will feel honour-bound to resign either. He will blame the opposition, and the 21 Tory rebels, for tying his hands; the EU, and in particular the Republic of Ireland, for being intransigent; and the institutions of Parliament and the Supreme Court for foiling the will of the people. This will simply be preparation for a general election.

Similarly, the impasse among the opposition over a possible caretaker government should be seen for what it is: manoeuvring ahead of that election. The claim by the Liberal Democrats that Jeremy Corbyn lacks support within the Commons is not merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is an attempt to discredit him with the electorate but without the need to actually critique his (popular) policies. Likewise, the SNP's willingness to countenance a Corbyn administration is part of their strategy to discredit the Liberal Democrats as a serious political party in Scotland. Labour's position, that Corbyn should head a government as the leader of the largest party after the Conservatives, is both reasonable and conventional, but it is also intended to highlight that the Liberal Democrats are more willing to tolerate a Tory government steering towards no-deal than enable a Labour one committed to a second referendum.

In reality, the Benn Act killed off the possibility of a caretaker government even as it made it more salient in commentary. Despite the wild talk of a coup by Johnson to frustrate the Act's intent, the central belief among his opponents has been that he will be obliged to comply. The Supreme Court's judgement against the government over its attempted prorogation of Parliament has also encouraged a perhaps complacent belief that the judiciary can prevent any chicanery that would lead to the UK crashing out with no-deal at the end of this month. The risk still remains, but inadvertantly encouraging the electorate to see Corbyn as non-threatening and constitutionally respectable now appears to be the greater danger in the minds of many. Should no-deal occur, it will be this centrist caution and blackballing of the Labour leader that will be most to blame.

The even more unlikely scenario of a "government of national unity", headed by a remainer and committed to a second referendum before an election, would be an oxymoron. Even if we assume that sentiment has shifted since 2016 - the polls suggest it has but only marginally - then the kind of centrist administration proposed by commentators would be objectionable to at least half the country - i.e. most leavers and many leftwing remainers. This is the very opposite of "unity". By definition, a GNU would only be worthy of the name if it were headed by someone prepared to countenance both leave and remain and if it committed to a policy that didn't discriminate between the two. The nearest thing to that would be a Labour government headed by Corbyn, both because of the party's even-handed policy and his supposed sympathies, so it looks like the GNU is a beast whose sole purpose is to avoid admitting that a Corbyn caretaker government is the only option if Johnson has to be unseated.

A remainer GNU is even more unlikely, not least because there isn't any consensus among remainers on what the referendum option pitted against remain would be. Would it be May's deal, no-deal, or an alternative soft Brexit? It's also likely that such a referendum would be boycotted by leavers as illegitimate regardless of the options. A remain victory on the back of a boycott wouldn't settle Brexit, instead it would embolden the Tories to commit to re-invoking Article 50 at the earliest opportunity. The most optimistic scenario would be a Labour election win on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum where the options would be a renegotiated soft Brexit and remain, but the Tories might well still boycott this as presenting an inadequate choice. A Tory-endorsed third option could only be either May's deal or no-deal, but Labour would be unlikely to agree to the latter while the Tories could not unite around the former. The Brexit Party would naturally demand no-deal, so a boycott of the referendum would still be likely unless Labour were prepared to take the risk of adding no-deal to a three-way choice.

Once the extension is agreed to by the EU27 (which is almost certain - there is surely no Hungarian gambit and Macron isn't going to do more than grumble), there will probably be either a vote of no confidence in the government or the government itself will submit a short bill to call a general election on a simple majority ("Notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act …" etc). In theory the Conservatives could attempt to hang on as a minority administration, reliant on the DUP and the support of the 21 ex-Tory MPs, but this would mean attempting to revive Johnson's moribund deal or admitting that a managed no-deal was now the preferred outcome, both of which would lead to the Benn Act part 2. Assuming the extension is only to the end of January, there seems little point in repeating the whole process over the next three months, not least because the "do or die" rhetoric will have lost its potency.

Johnson's strategy appears to be to go to the country on a people versus Parliament platform before the end of the year and hope that he can marginalise the Brexit Party among leave voters while the Liberal Democrats obligingly damage Labour among remain voters. The only way he can reliably do this is by committing to no-deal. The expulsion of the 21 rebels and the insincerity of the current phase of negotiations with the EU27 suggest that he mentally burnt his boats on this some weeks if not months ago. Though the conventional wisdom is that signing the letter mandated by the Benn Act will damage his credibility in the eyes of leavers, I suspect that he thinks he can brazen it out and even turn the issue to account by loudly complaining that his government was stabbed in the back by remainers. The forthcoming general election may well turn on whether leave voters see this latest delay as the product of an establishment plot or another chapter in the Conservative Party's history of executive incompetence.