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Known knowns after polling day

The EU vote may be too close to call, but three things will be certain on Friday.

First, the Government’s working majority of 16 will be dwarfed by defeated Tory malcontents (and the administration will still be heavily outweighed in the Lords, too). Second, George Osborne will be at serious risk of political reprisal – either through punishment or sacrifice. And third, the deluge of delayed legislation and the need for a ‘referendum dividend’ means the Government will be under pressure to announce a flurry of new Bills, even if it does not have the political capital to deliver them.

In short, whatever happens on Thursday, this extraordinary period of high drama in British politics will continue for many months to come. 

The GUIDE to the week

Inevitably, it’s nearly all referendum this week…

One step forward, two steps back

It’s a truism that David Cameron is renowned for getting out of political crises – and for getting into them. However we vote next week and whomever is Prime Minister after the summer, the Government will face another big difficulty, in that it will need to give a referendum dividend by the Autumn Statement. This will include significant policy changes that will need either a specific political mandate or the ability to cajole opposition parties. And the Conservatives’ hopes of either of those essential factors are not helped by Cameron ceding the stage to Corbyn et al now. In other words, a short-term tactic is – yet again – storing up trouble for the future.

Money can buy you love

Companies that get our procurement intelligence reports are already familiar with Whitehall’s rule on social policy through procurement. Later this summer, all private sector suppliers to Whitehall will have an idea of what the Government really wants when it signs a contract. The Cabinet Office has promised to give examples of contracts that deliver on the Social Value Act – and chosen case studies will be a strong signal of what it wants suppliers to do beyond what they are actually getting paid for. It will also be a big hint on whether or not major programmes like the Apprenticeship Levy will be rolled out on time…

Divided they fall

I wrote an article for Labour Uncut on why left-leaning MPs should be worried by their unity for Remain. The gist was that senior Labour types have contented themselves with Tory infighting, instead of weighing the real social justice dilemmas of Leave or Remain – Brussels promotes workers’ rights whilst stopping interventions to save the steel industry, for example. The article doesn’t argue for a particular side in the referendum, but the monochrome debate in Labour (about how loudly to campaign, not what to campaign for) suggests the intellectual innovation needed to regain power is still missing and that even MPs with a ‘safe’ seat should worry. The full article is up on the GUIDE site, too.

The man in Whitehall knows best

In times of high drama, a common cry is “Government should do something”. Drawing more lessons for the modern age from Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, perhaps it shouldn’t… In the Cuban missile crisis, Government officials almost sparked nuclear holocaust by the mundane (vital messages were delivered late because of traffic), the incredible (classified messages were sent to Moscow via Western Union) and the farcical (a bear wandering onto a US Air Force base set off very worrying alarms). After the various cris de Coeur in our EU referendum campaign, the public may be less inclined to call on Westminster to solve its problems. 

Will Corbyn or Cameron create the next Tory leader?

Kissinger was dismayed by the race for the White House in the early years of his career – and especially by Barry Goldwater, who was the Donald Trump of his day. Kissinger explained Goldwater as a result of “the pragmatists who pride themselves they’re steering the precise middle course between extremes [but are] bound to produce the extremes which everybody deplores”. If true, this suggests it was inevitable that Cameron would lead to Farage and Miliband would lead to Corbyn. Looking ahead, whether the next Conservative leader is an ‘extremist’ or a ‘centrist’ could depend on whether they are the natural political reaction to Corbyn or to Cameron…

Labour should be more divided on Europe

To abuse Boris's analogy, the ball hasn't even come loose from the scrum yet, but the referendum means Conservative players are already knocking lumps out of each other. In stark contrast, even as the country weighs its biggest and perhaps most controversial political decision in a generation, the Labour Party is in one peaceful - almost soporific - voice. The Tories are making a spectacle of themselves and Labour is just, well, spectating.

Although I wouldn't wish the Conservatives' internecine battles on anyone, I think Labour's unnatural unity in the referendum is much more worrying.

In days gone by, fierce message discipline and unity of purpose were conscious (and very effective) electoral tactics for Labour. It is a massive, risible, stretch to argue that the party is now applying the same deliberate approach to the EU referendum. If senior Labour figures can chase each other down the street - in front of the cameras! - shouting "Hitler apologist", it's hard to believe the party has gone into the referendum determined to avoid "appearing" split. In almost every other policy area, and to an unprecedented degree, Labour MPs actively and openly criticise their own leaders - and the leadership returns the favour.

And even if Labour's monochrome referendum campaign was designed with electoral advantage in mind, it would be hugely mistaken. In the next General Election, if Labour keeps pushing Remain now, for every one of its north London MPs who adds yet another thousand to their majority, a parliamentary colleague in north Lancashire is going to have to fight ever harder just to fend off UKIP.

Perhaps unity in the referendum campaign is just a natural condition, born of Labour's common values? No. However hard you squint, there is no way 'Europe' fits neatly into a unified left-wing view of the world, either.  

For every argument that the EU encourages trade and reduces prices for the working class, there's another that TTIP welcomes in private firms who'll plunder the NHS.

For every person who says we should rely on the EU for workers' rights, there's another who says the EU forbids state aid to save Redcar or Port Talbot.

Should we welcome all the world's dispossessed, or should we stop immigrants undercutting working class wages?

Should we set international trade policy to protect European agriculture, or promote African farmers?

Do we welcome skilled workers, or do we ease the pressures on public services and housing?

Do we reverse Europe's democratic deficit, or do we hope for international strength in numbers?

Can we solve tensions in the Middle East, or are we letting terrorists in unchecked?

Can we influence climate policies, or are EU trawlers raping marine eco systems?

Of course, the European Union may be the solution to all of these problems, or the cause at the root of them - but surely Labour's 400,000 members don't all agree on which it is in every case? Surely, given careful thought, some senior party figures should decide the path to social justice lies through Brussels while others say it judders to a halt there?!

Instead, the very lack of debate, dissension and disagreement within Labour over whether to Remain or Leave the European Union is a worrying and saddening symptom of a wider malaise. Both the Foot '83 and Miliband '15 vintages were tested and rejected by the public, so by definition Labour needs some new thinking to get back into power. But new ideas don't come from a party that wanders into a huge national debate in a near-comatose state, failing to test its own position before trying to convince others to follow it.

It’s striking that so many Labour figures have meekly adopted the same referendum position. For Labour, watching the Tories maul each other may well be a great spectator sport. But who goes into politics just to be a spectator?

Lobbyists: a non-scandal waiting to happen

In the second of our posts on lessons for MPs from Niall Ferguson’s study of Henry Kissinger, we wanted to highlight the historical – and current – importance of political back channels. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s Kissinger saw these in use during the Vietnam and Cold Wars. In the UK today, the more parochial, less dramatic, version of ‘back channels’ is the role lobbyists play in briefing politicians and Civil Servants. Far from being the scourge of democracy, corporate lobbyists allow candid messages to be delivered and provide essential information and expertise to an over-burdened and uninformed political class. Indeed, the UK’s Lobbying Registrar not only illustrates politicians’ misplaced attempts to “clean up” Westminster (instances of corruption featured bent MPs and journalists – not a lobbyist in sight), but also their self-denying ordinance on information that is critical to forming good laws.

Kissinger vs Corbyn

Historian Niall Ferguson applies lessons from the past to today’s problems. His excellent biography of Henry Kissinger is instructive for modern politicians – and is a must-read for everyone in Westminster. Kissinger saw the dilemma, for example, in whether to take action to prevent a political crisis (and then find it impossible to prove a crisis had been averted), or wait for the crisis to happen so that there is political support for action, but cause people to suffer the consequences of waiting. Labour backbenchers are in exactly this predicament now, as they weigh how to dethrone Corbyn – and whether to do so early enough to save their electoral skins or wait until the far-left drives the party into the ground.

The Peer with the Golden Touch

Lord Adonis has been proposed for the Chair of Crossrail 2 jointly by the Mayor of London, Chancellor George Osborne and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. Although his appointment is subject to approval by the London Assembly and Transport for London Board, it’s a helpful reminder that Adonis is now the mark for major infrastructure projects that are going to get strong Government backing.

Full details here: http://bit.ly/1TJmm5y

Monday musing

Three thoughts from the weekend…

1/ In his article for the Herald on Sunday, Angus Robertson claims the Queen’s Speech had “nothing of substance in it for Scotland” and in the Commons he went so far as to say “much of the Queen’s Speech relates just to England and Wales”. Short term, this lets him complain about Scotland being ignored, but it also makes it harder for the SNP to object to these Bills going through the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ process and will reduce Scottish MPs’ influence. Perhaps he wants the “SNP excluded” narrative…

2/ Switched on Labour staffers are following high profile MPs like Khan, Burnham and Berger by looking for roles outside Westminster, ahead of an expected defeat at GE2020. This means the party is not only losing some of its public talent, but is also being hollowed out from the inside.

3/ Talking to Tory MPs on both sides of the EU debate, it’s clear that Brexiteers are building stronger working relationships with each other than their Bremain colleagues. After the referendum result, this will make for some interesting Conservative caucuses in the rest of this session.

Déjà EU all over again

A sobering prospect for those fed up with the EU campaign: there could be another one within 5yrs, whoever wins. A vote to Leave is likely to provoke the EU institutions into offering an new arrangement so the UK continues to contribute funds, which would need political approval. If we vote to Remain, public demands for another review will rise as The Five Presidents’ Report brings in significant changes to the way the EU works.


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