A Monument to Madness


Of the many things that the Brexit vote has unleashed, the triumphalist shutdown of any debate has to be the most insidious. For those who have the masochistic urge to take to Twitter, including celebrities such as Lily Allen and Gary Lineker, it is obvious that there is a wave of triumphalist nationalism from large segments of the Leave supporters. To question is anti-democratic. To criticise is traitorous and that does not even touch on the despicable tone adopted by the Daily Mail and Express. Many of the arguments made by the Leave campaign have been exposed as the lies that they were; however, we still plough on.


The economic impact is slowly starting to feed through. Over the summer we had a phoney war; once the power vacuum had been filled by Theresa May, investors seemingly breathed a sigh of relief and the Pound stabilised (although didn’t actually recover). Once it became clear that May was more interested in her narrow desire to control immigration at whatever cost to the economy, foreign investors let their opinions be known with a further sharp fall in the Pound. This represents a markdown in the value of British assets, driven by a belief that the UK will suffer in future years and that returns on investments will be lowered.

But, say the Leavers, the lower Pound will boost exports and Britain will become a trading powerhouse. One look at what happened after a similarly large decline in the Pound in 2008 shows that this is far from a given: to increase exports there has to be a demand for British products. Over time, perhaps many years, new industry may crop up, but there was very little sign of existing companies expanding to take advantage of a cheaper Pound in 2008.

On the subject of the single-market, we are told by many (including the likes of John Redwood) that the EU will not want to impose tariffs as they sell too much to the UK; if they do then, apparently, we will stop buying their BMWs. The argument always seems to come down to German cars. There is a problem here as well of course. Firstly, this theory assumes that the rising cost of German cars will reduce demand. However, this only holds true where there is a substitute available. Some leavers point to Jaguar as a substitute (owned by an Indian company it’s worth mentioning), and there is some truth in this, but the reality is that people in the UK will still want BMWs. Furthermore, what about VWs, Audis, Mercs, Citroens, Renaults et al? Are we going to stop buying all of these cars? Jaguar will have to increase its product line substantially. And here is the problem with the basic argument on tariffs and exports: Britain does not produce many of the things we desire. We will still have to buy imports, but they will cost more, so we either reduce our living standards by buying less, or we increase our borrowing further to purchase the same standard of living.


Then we move on to domestic benefits of Brexit. In one debate, I was discussing the state of the NHS with someone recently (relevant due to the £350m a week claim). Another winter, and the NHS faces another crisis. The person I was debating with rightly pointed out that the problems in the NHS were nothing to do with Brexit and in this case he is correct (if we accept the fact that recent xenophobic rhetoric has not yet led to a mass desertion of foreign staff). However, the question has to be, where is the benefit to the NHS from leaving the EU? We already know that it won’t be getting any of the spurious £350m a week as the PM has already made this clear. In addition, the fall in the value of the Pound will make the cost of goods that are imported more expensive placing a further burden on an already stretched budget. Another problem is that we seem determined to restrict the number of immigrants, and will probably face something of an exodus of those already living here. Immigration has propped up the working age population for some time; by reducing immigrant inflows (the vast majority of them of working age), we leave a smaller proportion of active workers supporting a growing proportion of non-workers (the elderly and disabled). So, less income and additional outgoings.


If I am making any business decisions I have to plan carefully. I must make an estimate of costs and returns on those costs. I have to plan, with a timetable, and identify risks as well as key milestones in any timeline. None of this is apparent in our current government, and nothing (beyond not buying German cars or French wine) is offered by the vocal supporters. To question anything proposed or assumed by the Brexiters is anti-democratic; to criticise is traitorous. The real traitors are those who have set about destroying more than forty years of planning, institutions and partnerships without  any clear proposals as to their replacement, leaving a vacuum. They’ve razed the foundations and now expect the new Britain to magically grow from the ruins. Theresa May promised the EU that Britain would remain strong and dependable outside the EU: Strong and dependable madness is still madness. The Brexiters have erected a monument to madness: Leave at all costs. To quote Shelley:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Dear John, you are Wrong


John Redwood is enjoying the limelight right now with such statements as these from his “Action Plan for Brexit”:

Offer talks on trade and tariffs if they wish to change anything, saying we are happy to offer them no change to current arrangements.

Clearly this is the “have your cake and eat it” argument. John wants the benefits of the single market, but does not want the freedom of movement of Labour. In addition, John wants to prevent EU law from being adopted in the UK and wants to repeal existing laws mandated by the EU. Now, there was clearly a vote to leave the EU, that is not in question. However, to participate in the single market, a country has to be a member of the EEA. According to the EU:

…one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by European Union (EU) Law, freedom of movement for workers, pursuant to Article 45 TFEU (ex. Article 39 ECT), guarantees every EU citizen the right to move freely… This freedom applies to all member states’ citizens regardless of nationality as well as to the European Economic Area

So, the EU rules on membership of the single market are quite clear: you cannot have access without accepting the fundamental right of freedom of movement for workers.  What about EU laws? Well:

In most cases EU acts can be incorporated into the EEA Agreement without any adaptation. However, in some cases adaptations of a technical or substantial nature may be needed due to the particular features of the EEA Agreement.

So, in order to access the single market through the EEA, member states need to incorporate EU law into national law, although they may be modified. Doesn’t sound like taking back control.

In other words, Mr Redwood wants to go to the EU, offer a status quo on trade, but withdraw from the fundamental right of freedom of movement as well as refusing to adopt EU law. By doing this he hopes to paint the EU as being intransigent and can say “I told you so”. Schoolboy diplomacy, but what is the fall back? Well, in a previous blog post, Redwood stated that:

There is no evidence that joining the EEC or completing the single market boosted our growth …

Quite apart from the sweeping generalisation here about evidence (I for one would like to see the evidence that leaving the single market WOULD boost growth before we subject business and the country to torturous negotiations over trade) it is clear that Redwood actually has no interest in remaining in the single market which backs up the point that his schoolboy diplomacy is nothing more than a cheap attempt to paint the EU as the enemy and blame any negative effects of leaving on them. Over the past forty years business has become used to EU regulations and has easily been able to access a market of 500 million consumers, not to mention the companies who buy British goods to sell outside of the single market. Redwood’s plan is this: submit a deal to the EU which he knows they cannot accept; then when they reject the plan, he can claim that he was right all along. By this method we leave the single market (Which is what John wants), but he can say “well we tried”.

Then we move on to:

You are not taking back control of your laws, money and borders if you need to negotiate this with other EU countries

But, and this is the part that Redwood hates about the EU, the single market acts as a single legislative area. What he is asking is that we be allowed to operate the trade rules of that single legislative area without subscribing to any of the laws. What country (if we assume the EU is a country which is Redwood’s viewpoint) would allow another nation to act as if it was part of the country in terms of trade, but not in terms of legislation? Would we allow another country to export counterfeit goods to the UK even though we may have laws prohibiting it? John attempts to counter this argument by stating:

The aim should be a short and straightforward Bill… guarantees all current EU law in the second clause as good UK law, pending any subsequent decisions to repeal or amend items not required to meet our trade obligations with the rest of the EU

So, this attempts to shift the massive amount of work required to detangle EU laws from UK law to some point in the future. Each one of those laws will have to be checked with the EU assuming that we remain in the single market (which John does not want) to ensure that the UK is not gaining a competitive advantage in trade to the single market. John’s simple and straightforward bill becomes a minefield of conflict in subsequent years, with each point causing potential uncertainty for business.

The problem is that Mr Redwood has devoted his political career in parliament to the seemingly simple objective of leaving the EU. Now that this mandate has been delivered, he is attempting to paint the exit process as being as simple as telling them we are leaving. He argues that it is in the EU’s interest to give us easy terms because they do not want to lose our market. However, will the EU lose sales if they impose tariffs and we respond in kind? The British consumer will still want to buy BMWs; companies will still require parts that are only made in Germany; in economic terms, competitive advantage means that less efficient providers will be forced out of business. There are many areas in which companies from other EU countries have a competitive advantage over UK businesses (and vice versa), i.e. German manufacturing and UK finance. So, even if tariffs were imposed we would still be procuring goods and services from the EU. In terms of UK finance, the competitive advantage would shift in favour of the EU. Unless what John is calling for is a siege economy where British businesses supply British consumers, for even if we do negotiate free-trade deals with non-EU countries such as China, they would have a competitive advantage over the UK in Labour costs at the very least.

So, there we have it: Redwood squares the circle between socialist and far-right economic policy by advocating a siege economy, or he seeks to make the UK a low cost economy and regain competitive advantage by levelling down to Chinese levels. The other option would be to increase investment, but given his proclivity towards lower taxes this would not come from the government and we would have to rely on businesses to invest rather than focussing on short-term profits.

Still, No Turning Back, eh John?

Rotten Borough Britain


We live in a country of Rotten Boroughs.

Anyone who has watched Blackadder knows the definition of a Rotten Borough:

“A rotten borough… is a constituency where the owner of the land corruptly controls both the voters and the MP”

The most famous Rotten Borough was Dunwich in Suffolk which returned an MP to Parliament despite the fact that much of the village had fallen into the sea. A more formal definition is a constituency which “had a very small electorate and could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence within the… Houses of Parliament”.

How does this apply to the UK today? Each general election is won and lost on a small proportion of seats that switch from one party to another, the so-called marginal seats. The average seat in parliament last changed hands from one party to another in the 1960s, with some seats having remained under control of the same party since Victorian times. This means that parties fighting an election will only target those seats which they have a chance of winning, which further means they will tailor their policies towards winning votes in those seats. Vast areas of the political map of Britain are an electoral wasteland, their voters condemned to a life of political insignificance.

This has never been truer than the last thirty five years. As polling techniques become ever more sophisticated and demographic datasets more available, political strategists have been able to take voter targeting to incredible detail. It is well know that the deprived areas of Britain are Labour safe seats, whereas much of rural Britain and wealthier areas are Conservative fortresses (my own constituency has never known anything other than a Conservative MP). All of these seats are ignored by political parties when crafting their policies for the future direction of Britain. In fact, it is much worse than that: the political parties know that they can adopt policies that will harm safe seats in the hands of opposing parties in order to further their chances in marginal seats causing great divisions in the country.

This leaves great swathes of the country without true representation of their opinions. Over time, voters come to realise that a vote for any party other than the resident is wasted and so they do not vote at all. Turnout falls and the electorate becomes effectively disenfranchised. So, general elections, decisions that impact on the whole of society, are decided by an electorate which is a fraction of the total population. What is that if not a Rotten Borough on a grand scale?

Rotten Boroughs lead to rotten politics and rotten outcomes. For decades dozens of smaller towns and cities across the country have been completely ignored by the main political parties, left behind in the accumulation of wealth that has occurred over that time. They have become totally disconnected from Westminster and from the areas that have prospered under the policies of successive governments. People in these areas feel they have no hope or prospects and are demonised by the media and those in better off areas; “Why should I pay for their laziness?”, “Why don’t they get a job?”.

Norman Tebbit is famously quoted as saying “(my father) got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” A fine example of Rotten Borough Britain at work: Why try and solve the genuine economic problems in an area when you can simply write off the populace as lazy and workshy, thereby appealing to your marginal voters?

The current system also means that, in theory, a party can win a sizeable majority despite receiving fewer votes than the next largest party. This has never happened, but some results have highlighted how a small difference in votes can lead to a huge majority:

Year Party % Vote Seats Party % Vote Seats
2005 Labour 35.24 356 Conservative 32.4 198
1983 Labour 27.6 209 Lib Dem 25.4 23
2015 Lib Dem 7.9 8 UKIP 12.7 1


How is this representative of the views of the population? UKIP for example, whether or not you agree with their policies, rightly felt aggrieved at the outcome of the 2015 election, gaining considerably more votes yet gaining 7 fewer seats than the Liberal Democrats. That left 12.7% of those who voted grossly under-represented in Parliament.

The only solution to this problem is to implement some form of proportional representation so that the views of the entire electorate can be heard. We may not always like the outcome, but as we have been told about the outcome of the referendum on the UK membership of the EU, you cannot ignore the will of the people. If we had better representation in Parliament we would not have found ourselves in a position where one half of the country is blaming the other half for the current crisis. It is the Rotten Boroughs and the rotten politicians formulating rotten policies who are at fault.


The chart below shows, in black, those seats that have not changed hands in over 30 years.


The left hand side of the chart shows “locked seats” that haven’t changed hands, the right shows those that have:


Constituencies with locked seats have a total electorate of 25 million of which 16.5 million voted for a party other than the incumbent. They also have far lower turnouts.

Fantastic Mr Fox


Liam Fox, the recently crowned Secretary of State for International Trade, seems to picture himself as the eponymous hero of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale. As the dust settles on the EU Referendum and the new government, we now discover that there are shades of Brexiteers:

The Soft-Brexiteers who seem to believe that we can leave the EU and retain access to the single market along with negotiating some form of deal on Freedom of Movement;

The Hard-Brexiteers who insist that we cut all ties with Europe and somehow reposition ourselves in the centre of the trading world forming agreements with all and sundry

Fox belongs to the latter. It is reported today that he is pushing for the UK to leave the EU Customs Union at the earliest possible opportunity. The EU Customs Union is an agreement that enables the free-flow of goods between member countries; by leaving, it means that goods being exported to Europe will be subject to checks, form-filling, and possible tariffs depending on the goods being shipped. This will delay the shipment of goods and add costs, particularly time-critical products like food.

So, why does he want to take this leap into the dark and potentially punish our exporters (not to mention slow imports)? Because if he does not then he unable to negotiate trade deals with non-EU countries; under the current system any deals would have to be subject to EU regulations.

The notion of hard-Brexit is one that is in favour with the hard-right of the Conservative Party and UKIP: The belief seems to be that UK trade has been hindered by our EU membership and freeing ourselves will open up a new golden age of trade with the rest of the world.

I would like to know on what basis this belief is founded, given that the EU is by far our largest trading partner. Sadly, I suspect that there is no real evidence (why trust experts and figures?) and that it is rooted in ideology. Hard-Brexit is a simple and flawed ideology: it is centred on the belief that the UK is still a major power and has a lot of influence on the world stage. The reality is that we are neither: the balance of power shifted to the US after WWI and the growing influence of China renders us even less powerful and influential. The EU, as well as providing a counterbalance to Russia’s influence on Europe also allows a loud voice in international affairs. Fantastic Mr Fox will soon find out that being a lackey of the US confers no power or influence as Tony Blair found out to his and our cost.

Next Brexit: Economy

To quote the new Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, the UK economy is adjusting to Brexit “from a position of economic strength”. The economy is driven as much by expectations as it is reality (without wishing to take a detour into Rational Expectation Theory) and Hammond is rightly trying to calm the country and the markets. However, just how much water does Hammond’s (and previously Osborne’s) glass hold?

Firstly, the UK recovery since 2009 has been lacklustre and predicated on low interest rates and credit easing. The first chart shows UK interest rates since 1980:


There had been some suggestion towards the middle of 2015 that rates may rise at some point in the future, but this has not materialised and the Brexit vote has shifted expectations towards further easing of rates. An economy in a position of economic strength is one which is able to support interest rates that are higher than the record lows we have seen for the past seven years. Let’s look at the growth rate:


The first few years following the 2008 crash display slow growth and even some negative growth. Since 2013, growth has picked up slightly, but still interest rates have been on hold. In the run up to 2008, the economy was able to support higher rates than now (around 5%), so why is the economy unable to do so now? The answer lies in Quantitative Easing, literally creating money (old-fashioned money printing) to pump into the economy.


The Bank of England (BoE) created £375bn of new money between 2009 and 2012 to support the UK economy. The problem lies between steps 3 and 4 in the above diagram: QE does indeed reduce the interest rate, but it cannot create demand for the credit and force businesses to borrow and invest.


So, despite interest rates being much lower between 2009 and 2012, investment by British firms did not increase over the same period and still remained about the same level as it was during the previous slowdown in 2000. What are the reasons for this? When George Osborne became Chancellor in 2010, he proposed to rebalance the economy, to reduce the dependence on debt and consumption and to make the UK a nation of manufacturers. The reality is that ultra-low interest rates and QE have sustained debts at their previous levels and have since started to grow:


The upshot is that the UK economy has become addicted to debt. Between 2008 and 2014, real incomes (that is the amount of money paid out to workers adjusted for the effects of inflation) did not increase and debt remained at the same level. Over the same period, house prices recovered to pre-crash levels and have since accelerated sharply:


This growth in house prices has been fuelled by low interest rates and government incentives helping buyers to afford the higher prices. The danger is that if interest rates rise then households will have less disposable income to spend on consumption after allowing for higher mortgage payments. Consumption makes up around 70% of UK GDP, so any fall has a large impact on the economy. Rising house prices also have an external effect in that they make consumers feel wealthier: If you have invested £100,000 in a house to find that it is worth £20,000 more two years later then you are more likely to spend money. No wonder successive governments have been terrified of falling house prices.

So, monetary policy (interest rates and QE) have sustained consumption and largely driven growth over the period. Therefore it is not a surprise that the economy cannot support increases in interest rates and leaves the BoE with very little room for further easing of policy. On this measure, the economy is not in a healthy position to adjust to Brexit.

A further problem with Hammond’s claim arises if we look at the UK Current Account Deficit. The Current Account is literally the balance of goods and services imported (Exports – Imports), in other words the amount we are sourcing from other nations compared to domestically. This has recently risen to an all-time record as percentage of GDP:


In earlier decades, a period of strong growth led to a rise in the deficit; subsequent recessions then reduced the deficit close to zero or to a surplus. The 2008 crash however was not followed by a return to surplus and has since increased to a record 7% of GDP, a sign of a very unbalanced economy. The increasing consumption has been fulfilled by importing goods rather than stimulating domestic production. Of course, this is partly due to exchange rates; the Pound initially slumped after the 2008 crash, but recovered fairly quickly thereafter: A stronger currency makes foreign goods relatively cheaper than domestic goods. It is no coincidence that the rising value of the Pound since 2012 coupled with rises in GDP, fuelled largely by consumption and debt, have led to a deteriorating current account deficit. In this respect, Hammond could be correct as the slump in the value of the Pound should go some way to correcting this deficit. However, this is at the cost of possible increased inflation and falling consumption domestically leading to increases in unemployment and, yes, possible falls in house prices.

The final headline figure to take a look at is unemployment.


At first glance, it appears that Hammond has a strong case: the measured rate of unemployment is at its lowest rate since 2008. However, as with all headline figures we have to dig a bit deeper.


Since 2000, and particularly since 2008, the number of self-employed has increased by six times the rate of employees. Does this mean that Britain has become a country of entrepreneurs? Not exactly. The definition of self-employed extends to contractors (those who work in large companies for daily or weekly rates and not subject to permanent employment law) and also some categories of hourly-paid workers. Jobs which previously came under the umbrella of permanent employment have switched to being self-employed. One example would be couriers working for certain large companies. Instead of being employed by the firm and provided with vehicles, uniforms and non-monetary benefits, they provide their own vehicles, pay for their uniforms and receive no benefits other than a fixed amount for each delivery made. This enables the company to quickly reduce costs when necessary and places all the risks of employment (sick-pay, capital costs etc.) on to the employee and taxpayer. These are not steady permanent positions with a guaranteed stream of income: they are unstable positions with no guarantees of salary. Furthermore, there has been a large increase in zero-hours contracts which do not provide any guarantees of work in any period. This is reflected in the failure of real incomes (Income allowing for inflation) to grow despite the increasing number of people in employment and reductions in unemployment:


Over the past couple of years, wage growth has finally exceeded inflation, but is still well below pre-2008 levels. In addition, the growth in real wages has been as a result of very low inflation rather than a large increase in wage growth. If the fall in unemployment was due to increases in full-time employment, or even successful entrepreneurial business people, then we would expect to see a much larger rise in real wage growth.

So, at first glance, the unemployment figures look great, but under the surface they mask a replacement of higher-paid jobs with unstable, part-time and lower paid jobs.

So, overall, we have to say that Hammond’s claim that the economy is in a strong position to weather a Brexit shock is false. The BoE has little room to ease monetary policy beyond launching a new round of Quantitative Easing as reducing interest rates from close to zero to a bit closer to zero (or even lower) will not stimulate borrowing by companies to invest in the economy. Consumption cannot be stimulated by lower interest rates for the same reason, and would also worsen the current account deficit.

The only viable option remaining  is for the Treasury to increase government spending on capital projects such as house-building and infrastructure which would require increasing the government deficit. This was anathema to the Osborne-led treasury, but the new Prime Minister has hinted that it is now a possibility. Given the ultra-low interest rates at which the government can now borrow money, or even have the BoE print money to fund, it seems the only way that the economy can be rebalanced. The problem is that it this requires the scrapping of more than 30 years of belief that the government should not interfere in the market. However, despite huge subsidies, the privatised railways and building firms have failed to upgrade the railways or build enough homes to meet demand. Investment in infrastructure and housing provide long term benefits to an economy in terms of increased productivity and competitiveness; it is the words “long-term” that successive governments and the free market struggle with.


It’s My Party and I’ll Cry…


Of course, it isn’t my party, but nobody seems to know whose it is.

Watching the Labour Party battling with itself is rather like watching a nuclear war: we may eventually have a winner, but there will be no prize remaining.

First, the country faced an existential crisis over the vote to leave the EU. Barely hours later the Prime Minister who presided over this fiasco quit prompting a battle within the Conservative Party to be the next leader. Finally, the Labour Party imploded as somehow the belief that Corbyn was solely responsible for the vote to leave the EU became accepted.

The Tories managed, superficially, to patch up their problems within a couple of weeks; the country will take much longer: Years, perhaps decades. The Labour Party may never recover. Just how did a referendum called in order to pacify the right-wing of the Conservative Party result in the collapse of the opposition?

You have to go back two decades to find the answer. After the 1992 defeat and the death of John Smith not long after, Labour bought into the Tony Blair project. He was the most successful Labour leader ever, winning three General Elections; yet his legacy has proved toxic to the party. Why? Well, he deliberately positioned Labour further to the right in order to capture Conservative marginal seats. Over time, the new MPs elected to Parliament came to represent this shift to the right. However, Labour’s core support remained to the left. The members were largely apathetic at the time: after all, what were the alternatives? However, the gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and its members was to become a big problem.

Tony Blair’s decision to back the US in going to war in Iraq against the wishes of the members as well as the majority of the public was to be the death knell of his legacy. To many Labour Party members this was the only thing for which he is remembered. Following Gordon Brown’s election defeat in 2010, the members opted for Ed Miliband as leader, identified by the press as the ‘wrong Miliband’. This was the members distancing themselves from the Blair project as Ed was considered to the left of the party; any MP who had backed the war was to be avoided.

After David Cameron won his pyrrhic majority in 2015, the members went a step further and elected Jeremy Corbyn; years of neglect of the Labour Heartlands and simmering resentment at Labour being seen as Tory-Lite had finally boiled over into a left-wing reaction. However, the PLP was still composed mostly of Blairite MPs who felt that the only way to win power was to mimic the Tory Policies dressed in a cloak of social fairness.

Even before he won the election members of the PLP were ruling themselves out of having any role in the shadow cabinet, thus weakening Corbyn from the outset. Rumblings continued with rumours of leadership challenges right up until the recent disastrous referendum campaign. The campaign itself was run mostly by Downing Street, hamstrung as it was by a sense that they couldn’t fight dirty for the sake of the Conservative Party (documented in great detail here: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/05/how-remain-failed-inside-story-doomed-campaign).

When the vote to leave came in, it didn’t take long for the PLP to blame their own leader for the debacle. Given what had happened to Labour following the Scottish referendum campaign, was it realistic to expect Corbyn to appear alongside Cameron? The referendum campaign was largely a Conservative leadership contest and descended into a cavalcade of lies on one side and apocalyptic warnings on the other; in what way would a Corbyn intervention have helped? Those Labour supporters who voted to Leave felt they had nothing to lose and wanted to make their voices heard for the first time in decades; faced with four more years of Conservative government, what could Corbyn have brought to the debate in order to win them over?

So, the Labour Party finds itself in a Mexican standoff: on one side, the PLP who have effectively decapitated the opposition. On the other, a stubborn Corbyn with the backing of the members and Unions. Politics is about compromise and for the sake of the party both sides need to come to some form of agreement that will at least partially satisfy both sides. If they don’t, then the party will not survive in its present form.


Flotsam and Leadsom


As the debris from Andrea Leadsom’s shipwrecked bid to become Prime Minister washes up on the shores of ambition, I’m pretty sure that the captain of The Times will be feeling satisfied. So he should be; The Times did exactly what the media should be doing which is to question our leaders and try to get to the real motives behind their actions.

The Times interview with Andrea Leadsom was the first real test of her abilities to cope with the enormous pressure of rising to the top of a political party and in this case, Prime Minister. Was she ever really up to the job? Of course, she failed the test miserably: a more able politician would have deflected the coverage and even the not-so lamented Boris Johnson would have dismissed it as piffle.

Seeing the media in action like this makes me feel both happy and sad: Happy because we have been saved from a potential disaster of a Prime Minister; sad because the media does not do this often enough. Where was the questioning of politicians during the referendum campaign? How did Leadsom even make it as far as she did without being challenged on her statements and policy claims? Boris Johnson realised very quickly that once you win a big prize – not an underpowered mayor of a large city, but the government itself – you have to answer for the words that you speak. The look in Boris’s eyes in the immediate aftermath was telling: he was unprepared to face up to his behaviour during the campaign. That Leadsom was unable to see this is a testament to how poorly she would have performed as Prime Minister during this most critical period of our history; if she could not cope with leading questions that caused her to gaff, how on earth would she cope with complex and possibly bitter negotiations with the EU or government departments?

The majority of the media is in a desperate state: print media is struggling with falling sales and advertising revenues and is trying to adapt to the proliferation of online news sources. This has resulted in a race to the bottom with online articles being written to capture the attention of social media algorithms in a bid to reach user’s newsfeeds: controversial stories are far more likely to be picked up than plain analysis and political discussion. It is a self-reinforcing algorithm: The more a user clicks on particular news items, the more likely similar items will appear in the future. A person only following news via social media could effectively live in their own bubble, unaware of anything happening outside their own narrow interests. As one user put it “On June 24th I searched my Facebook feed trying to seek out people celebrating the Leave vote; I found it near impossible as all my friends were solidly for Remain and Facebook searches revealed very little”.

Clearly this is not a healthy development; democracy is heavily dependent on the media acting as a check to the power of politicians. Without the media questioning policies and holding leaders to account we end up in a situation where they become nothing but celebrity magazines and cheerleaders for political parties. Of course, the tabloid media has always had more of a bias towards lighter news, but the advent of social media has resulted in a search for viral news, that which will quickly spread around users and drive traffic to their online sites.


The broadcast media is not faring much better: The BBC is hampered by the requirement to present a ‘balanced’ view, which means that if 99 experts support something and 1 is against then they have to give both sides equal prominence. Other channels have less such restrictions; Channel 4 News continues to cross-examine politicians but faces an uphill battle as politics is increasingly portrayed as dull and meaningless in other media. The statements ‘They are all the same’ and ‘you can’t do anything about it’ are born of years of presenting politicians as self-serving and power-hungry. This is probably true of some politicians, but there are others who genuinely feel a duty to the country and strive to improve the lives of their constituents.

What can we do about this? We live in times where our time is constantly being demanded by technology; Twitter continually bombards us with succinct, sometimes witty, summaries of stories and one-liners. Facebook friends share stories that interest them amongst updating us on their lunch plans. Instagram peppers us with selfies and pictures of food at the same time as prohibiting links to outside sites.

We can serve ourselves better by spending just a little more time finding things out for ourselves, relying less on social media feeds to drive the agenda; there are plenty of sites out there that track our politicians and companies and it is our duty to keep abreast of events. If we do not, then the calamitous Brexit campaign will only be the first of many travesties of democratic debate. We dodged a bullet with Andrea Leadsom thanks to The Times; let us find some of our own time to reward such journalism by actually reading it otherwise we may find that the next bullet is fatal.