Flybe

Her Majesty’s Government have decided that it is now national policy that we must all fly more, in order to stop British European Airlines from going to the wall and because one day the plane might run off laptop batteries. Poor BEA – now trading as Flybe – has had a rather rocky career. Every time it gets a nice route up and running some evil railway company enhances its services and causes it to go to the wall.

To defend against these evil railway companies, Flybe have been obliged to sell fares at what is liable to be simply colloquially described as half the rate charged by the railway. It has always been rather intriguing as to how the company can afford to charge half the rate of the railway, and we now have the answer – it can’t. The inability to hand over to the Government the share of air fares to which the Government is entitled rather suggests that someone has been misappropriating it to keep their airline afloat. The fact that the airline is viewed as quicker and cheaper than rail, meanwhile, suggests that a vastly simpler (and more legal) solution would have been to increase fares.

While the airline rolls out their PR person to disingenuously argue that the rail industry is heavily subsidised, an Oxera report a few years ago showed that the rail industry in fact makes an operating profit but capital investment has to be met by Network Rail’s shareholder, which can be almost entirely covered by the taxes paid by the industry and the people involved within it. Flybe, meanwhile, is unable to pay the inadequate bill intended to amortise the environmental harm caused by its vehicles.

Nonetheless, let’s leave the finances and the environment to one side for a moment. The key question is simple – what benefits do Flybe’s customers actually gain in terms of time saved by going by plane? (Cost is easily resolved by writing off the extra subsidy to rail companies for cutting fares as an annual economic cost for climate change mitigation, much of which would be recovered by increased usage of the trains after the fare cuts.)

Case study: North Wales to South Wales

So, let’s imagine that our fictional traveller is in Valley, Anglesey, and has discovered an urgent need to be in Rhoose, Vale of Glamorgan. Flybe will offer two flights each way daily (weekdays only) and a round trip is of variable price (£74 for this example, but Monday morning out and Tuesday morning back is £89). It is an interesting feature of the website that it does not consider the time of these flights to be especially material – all that is of interest is that it could cost just £74:

Flybe Website 1 JPG

The outward flights turn out to leave Anglesey at 08:55 and 17:30 for a 50-minute journey (the latter doesn’t seem to run on Fridays); the return flights are at 07:35 and 16:00 (the 16:00 takes an hour for some reason; presumably pathing difficulties over Dolgellau). Passengers can bring one small item of luggage into the cabin and must be able to walk up and down stairs unaided. Hold baggage costs extra. Batteries, aerosols and matches are prohibited (remember to remove from mobile, camera and watch before boarding aircraft, and buy replacements at the other end).

The rail journey varies between 5 hours 20 minutes and 6 hours 33 minutes; it costs £93 walk-up return. Both stations are deemed to have step-free access so being unable to walk and stuck in a mobility scooter is not a hindrance to travel. Explosives, loaded firearms and pigs are banned under the conditions of carriage and railway bylaws.

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So – go ahead and fly then…

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Landscape at Valley, 55 minutes from Cardiff by plane.

For some reason Flybe offer several luggage policies – one allows you to travel but nothing else, one allows you to travel with a suitcase or a bag exceeding 55cm x 33cm x 20cm (a large overstuffed rucksack or classic briefcase will do) and one allows two suitcases and the bag. At booking stage only the third option costs extra on the Valley route, although later in the process a “Just Fly” ticket holder can buy additional hold space for an extra £29 each way or £58 return. Interestingly once taxes are deducted it costs more to carry your bags in this way than it does to carry you. If you get this wrong (some effort required) or want two suitcases from the outset then the airline now costs £132; the railway considers this to be expected passenger’s luggage. (In fact little old you can bring two large suitcases, a rucksack, a 3-year-old child in a pushchair and a bike to Valley station and load them all onto the train for no extra charge, plus the guard will hold the train while you do it.)

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So, a businessperson on a day trip will find the plane is cheaper from Valley to Rhoose, but a businessperson having a night away, or a tourist on holiday, or a student going home from university, may have to weigh up the time saving against the extra cost. (And that’s assuming you got a £74 return. If you got an £89 return, the saving was only £4 to begin with.)

And flying being the better option is of course assuming three things:

  1. Turn-up-and-go travel;
  2. The traveller wishes to travel at the times shown in the timetable;
  3. The traveller is actually going from Valley to Rhoose.

Actually, airlines are not turn-up-and-go. Flybe rather fudge this on their website:

The time required to check-in, go through security and board your flight will vary depending on the airport and the type of flight, and so we are not able to suggest a time for you to arrive at the airport.

Depending on the layout and operation of each airport, the boarding gate may close up to 40 minutes before the scheduled time of departure.

We would always recommend that you check-in as far in advance as possible to assure your travel. Online check-in is available from 36 hours prior to departure and airport check-in is open from 2 hours prior to departure.

Please note: You must ensure you are present to check-in at these times or you may be denied boarding.

Call it an hour, to be kind. That actually gives a journey of two hours each way, although this does still compare favourably to 5½. And on the railway it is actually the time shown, although as Valley is a request stop it is really necessary to be present before the train comes into view so that it can be flagged down. And the arrival time is when you are standing on Rhoose platform and free to go, not when the aircraft stops taxiing and you can begin working your way back to your luggage.

Of course, if you actually want to be in Rhoose for 3pm you can either catch the train and kick your heels watching the coastal and Marcher scenery go past (or watch Lord of the Rings films on your laptop, taking advantage of the newly-installed on-train plug sockets) or get a flight at a similarly disagreeable hour and then kick your heels enjoying the delights of Rhoose for five hours.

Well, so much for the Valley to Rhoose market. What about the passenger from Holyhead who wants to get to Cardiff?

Holyhead 1 JPG

Holyhead

Bing Maps reports that from Llaingoch (the western bit of Holyhead) it takes 18 minutes to drive to the airport. Most of us would call that half an hour. There is then an hour waiting at the airport and an hour on the plane, followed by the journey into central Cardiff (call it the castle’s front gatehouse) which, assuming you have another car to hand (or a taxi which actually takes the direct route rather than enjoying the small fact that nobody knows where the airport is relative to anywhere else) will take 34 minutes. Most of us would call that three-quarters of an hour and, as it happens, so does the bus company. This gives a total journey of three and a quarter hours. Those counting the cost should work out how much the hour-and-a-quarter in road vehicles adds to our £74.

The rail journey is quicker than that between Valley and Rhoose – now varying between direct in 4 hours 31 minutes or with a change in 5 hours 16 minutes – and, owing to the wonders of nodal ticketing structures, still costs £93 return:

National Rail Website 2 JPG

So our Holyhead to Cardiff customer could save an hour to an hour-and-a-half by flying – provided that they want to travel at the flight times specified. If they want to get up at 7am and don’t mind when they get to Cardiff provided it’s before teatime, or want to be there for 3pm and don’t want to spend ages admiring shopping centres, or have luggage, or don’t want to fuss around with check-in, travel mode changes and paperwork, then the train is probably the better option. Bung the luggage in the rack, sit down and go to sleep.

But then again, Holyhead isn’t exactly the centre of the universe. It’s Anglesey’s major place and the port for Dublin, but Bangor is bigger. So how does Bangor compare?

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Bangor city centre

Bing reckons it is half an hour from Bangor to Valley airport by car, so the journey time is similar to that from Holyhead (maybe make it three quarters of an hour from Bangor in reality to be safe). The rail option is still demonstrating the wonders of nodal ticketing and is now only 45 minutes slower than that three-and-a-quarter hour Flybe journey:

National Rail Website 3 JPG

And those 45 minutes may be very important and definitely worth the carbon emissions plus £100,000,000 in unpaid taxes. Or it might be time to accelerate the “North & West” line.

So, from Anglesey and hinterlands the plane is quicker, although if starting south of the airport the saving rapidly becomes relatively marginal for the length of journey involved. Also there’s the faff of changing transport mode plus the perceived delay in the journey caused by sitting in airport terminals and the A48’s copious traffic jams, which keep interrupting the Lord of the Rings films (especially when security enforce the “no batteries” rule and make you leave your laptop battery at the airport). Another part of the journey experience worth remembering is that Bangor station has a neat little cafe which apparently does really nice teacakes.

And what about from Llandudno? Now the airline suffers the joys of a 45 minute drive along the A55, which may be translated by those doing it often into an hour – a total end-to-end journey of three-and-three-quarter hours. While the train leaving shortly before the plane takes off…

National Rail Website 4 JPG

… is quicker. (And once the car rides are thrown in it’s cheaper, still at £93.)

Llandudno 1 JPG

Llandudno, which is big enough to have a light rail system.

By the time we’re looking at Rhyl, there’s a journey of over an hour to the airport plus the hour at the terminal plus the hour in the air plus 45 minutes into Cardiff, making a total of about four hours. Whereas the train is now down to a fastest journey time that’s not much over three hours (and has got past the node that’s priced at £93), leaving Flybe out of the market on cost, convenience, frequency, comfort, luggage space, accessibility, environmental impact and speed.

National Rail Website 5 JPG

(The 09:45 arrival time into Rhoose airport will get you into Cardiff around quarter to eleven having got in a car in Rhyl around 7am – or you get on a train in Rhyl at 07:40 and get into Cardiff half an hour after the plane’s passenger arrived, assuming the traffic on Penarth Road was behaving itself.)

And this is repeated all over the country. Flybe is quicker on certain intercity hops, particularly if the customer is willing to work around Flybe’s timetable. But once you’re going the wrong way to get to the airport, that benefit starts to collapse. From Bangor to Cardiff it is just under four hours to drive, according to Bing – a smidgen over half an hour slower than flying, and with the bonus of having your own car on hand at the other end of it.

Then we get into the people who don’t want to go even generally where Flybe wants to go. What about Bangor to Bristol? There’s no direct flight and the car journey from Rhoose airport will take an hour and a quarter to Bristol city centre – a little under four hours, twice daily. The train from Bangor takes four-and-a-half to five hours, roughly hourly, for £87. (Why it is cheaper to go from North Wales to Somerset than to South Wales, even after Transport for Wales pruned the fares, is another matter entirely.)

Bristol Floating Harbour 1 JPG

Bristol

To Summarise

So, what we have here is not really an argument for saving Flybe. It is an argument that Flybe can be done a lot of damage by some marginal rail improvements to knock out the company’s very slight advantages on a few corridors. Get Cross Country to replace their Voyagers with HSTs of a decent length, prune the fares to fill them and target some strategic speed enhancements. Separate the “North & West” stopping service from the North Wales to South Wales expresses so that the citizens of Pontypool, Leominster, Ludlow and Church Stretton get a quality hourly train service that isn’t full of long-distance travellers – and lop £5 from the North Wales to South Wales fares – and roll out more than two trains each way daily with quality rolling stock on the Holyhead to Cardiff corridor. Watch with interest as the forthcoming LNER timetable for London to Edinburgh services brings the clockface end-to-end journey times back down towards the four-hour mark and starts mangling the airlines – with an operation that washes its face financially, whatever the airline’s spin-doctor says. And build High Speed 2, which will bring London to Scottish Central Belt rail times down to three hours and finish off the airlines on that corridor. Electrify enough of the Cross Country network to allow them to use the HS2 lines to whizz across the North Midlands – there’s about 90 minutes waiting to be pulled out of the Bristol to Edinburgh journey time (currently six-and-a-half hours) that will seriously inconvenience the regional airlines but quite likely make a nice little profit with an hourly service between Exeter (well, Plymouth would be ideal) and somewhere north of Edinburgh.

It’s worth it because the railway is often quicker, and it is nicer to travel on when done properly, and it doesn’t involve hanging round airports for ages or remembering to bring lots of paperwork. And it is more democratic – it actually serves a lot of these intermediate places (ok, an argument against removing Ludlow calls from Holyhead to Cardiff trains) so that all of North Wales benefits from the railway for a wide range of journey opportunities (including to London and Manchester) as opposed to the 70,000 residents of Anglesey having access to an airport that can take them on shopping trips to Cardiff – provided that they don’t buy more than they planned.

Flybe routes look nice on bits of paper, and help a few (able-bodied) people who do long intercity journeys. Those who do them regularly should probably be questioning their lifestyles. But as a general rule, excepting the lightweight planes keeping the Hebrides and Shetland in touch with the rest of the UK, they do not add much to our transport mix. They should be allowed to go, and the airports used as brownfield land to solve our housing problems.

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Fast train to the North, hurrying through Craven Arms.

 

Election Literature 2019 (2)

Never had to do two of these in a year before…. This one might have come earlier, but I found one of those “social life” things so am busy most evenings being nice to people.

Doesn’t do much for my blood pressure, but stops me clogging up the Internet with splenetic objections to Boris’s alternative realities.

Anyway, this is the pre-election summary of election literature what I have received. (An entertaining feature is that none of the candidates personally support Brexit, which must be relatively rare and may account for it not being promoted much.) Any party not listed is apparently not standing in my constituency. In alphabetical order:

Conservative and Unionist Party (Tory)

  • Summary: The Tories have supplied two leaflets again (the candidate is evidently placing all his hopes on a roadside poster nearby – note to candidate: can’t really read roadside posters when commuting during December election campaigns). Last time these included the “Election Special” edition of a fake magazine; fortunately the party has realised this obliges them to produce regular updates on the MP’s progress and so have left it out this time. Instead we just get folded pieces of paper, one with the formal picture of him looking welcoming but determined and one showing him in mufti, squatting on a new canal bridge.
  • Key Policy 1: Advocate for the town, much loved by constituents.
  • Key Policy 2: NHS funding.
  • Transport: £100bn on roads, railways and other “responsible, constructive investment” (including canal bridges). Has already spent “millions” on new roads.
  • Proud of: Living locally and doing lots of casework.
  • Quality of election material: Quite blue. One is on more expensive paper than the other; both printed locally.
  • Party has leader?: Yes. (Said leader is very proud of having got his party to prioritise a policy that has stopped things from being “given the attention they deserve” and taking the country off “the road to a brighter future”, which he promises to remedy. Emphasises that the election is because Parliament won’t let him pursue this policy without discussing it first, which rather suggests Government policy is that we should get rid of all the current MPs.)
  • Candidate remarks: Still a friendly chap who seems on top of his brief. (But has omitted to explain why none of his transport pledges in 2015 have happened.)

 

Labour

  • Summary: In 2015 I had seven leaflets from Labour; in 2017 this dropped to two; this has now gone back up to six, including an application form for a postal vote.
  • Key Policy 1: CHANGE!
  • Key Policy 2: End NHS privatisation.
  • Transport: No explanation of how to get to any of the new Labour wonder green jobs (or non-privatised hospitals), except possibly by electric car (but the electric cars seem to be more something to be built to create jobs rather than something that anyone will want to use).
  • Proud of: Fighting for her country (couple of pictures), doing something about libraries (apparently in that we still have them) and being local.
  • Quality of election material: Still red. Candidate has been persuaded to grin more.
  • Party has leader?: No. (Though there is an old bloke waving a supportive sign in one of her pictures who looks a bit like the leader.)
  • Candidate remarks: Was very blunt and direct at the last election; have not seen her this time (the hustings have been very badly advertised, assuming that there were any), but the more local-centric bits of the leaflets read like they were written for her speaking style.

 

Liberal Democrat

  • Summary: This time a leaflet has actually been delivered to my door without me having to demand one from the candidate, which is fortunate because I haven’t seen much of him either. It is a folded sheet of A3 with lots of Liberal orange. To avoid one half of the town running out of leaflets (like last time) it is a joint leaflet of both local candidates. They are duly seen standing in front of shuttered shops, reindeer and pro-EU protests. The leaflet is most notable for opening with an appalling deer pun.
  • Key Policy 1: Take the climate emergence seriously.
  • Key Policy 2: Stop Brexit.
  • Transport: Candidates got photographed standing in front of a local steam locomotive (which loco has evidently decided she is voting for them, though will be an interesting sight at the polling station). Neither she nor they had anything to say about electrification of the local National Rail line or the excessive EU funding of trunk roads.
  • Proud of: Long-term supporter of EU membership.
  • Quality of election material: Orange and easy to read. Reasonably detailed, with lots of pictures of both candidates and their families. Slightly excessive use of bold text. Still no grasp of commas (or awareness of semi-colons), with the consequence that one candidate is claiming to have helped to write the national climate crisis.
  • Party has leader?: No.
  • Candidate remarks: Still a nice chap. (All three parties have re-run the same candidates as last time, this time in a serious election without the smaller people running around.)

 

Vote early, vote carefully and vote hopefully.

Here is a reminder of the circumstances in which you do not need to vote.

South Welsh Transport

Newport M4 Deviation Scrapped

Yarooo!

This is one of the best decisions a politician has made for a really quite considerable number of years. Can we make him Prime Minister? He might can the Heathrow third runway for us too.

In view of the comment in the article from someone who thinks that this road would have made a substantive difference to her commute in from Monmouth, this post is also an appeal for me to be Prodded until I get round to producing a nice-looking PDF on what a re-opened line from Monmouth (May Hill) to Pontypool (trains to continue to Cardiff, possibly with peak additionals to Bristol) would look like.

After all, there is now £1,400,000,000 knocking around Welsh transport and the Welsh Government is open to spending it on public transport. We have the unusual support of the Taxpayer’s Alliance for local public transport and rail spending – albeit from the misplaced belief that the HS2 money would be available for local transport if that was cancelled. It is quite obviously the challenge for all of us to explain why this money should go on Welsh rail improvements rather than, say, on the Brexit department (which is very good at eating money).

To my frustration I am struggling to find the article (must have been a BBC one; don’t think it was this one) that suggested that if the money was ring-fenced for Welsh transport improvements there could be political support for the Severn Bridge Tolls to return – after all, if the improvements are going to be there we could just as well bring them back for public transport expenditure.

Also notable are all the people who believe a) that having a motorway near them is horrible so we need more motorways, b) they live next to a motorway so it is time someone else lived next to a motorway and c) if you build another motorway traffic on the existing motorway will dry up (there’s a nice graph with predictions on this last point here, albeit from a source with an inclination against road expansion).

Political Obituary: Theresa May

The ABBA musical version. There is logic behind this, and readers who have not been paying attention will be reminded of it later.

The resignation of Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party had become so inevitable that it was barely a surprise – the lectern went out for 10am and there seemed little else that she could be intending to announce. Perhaps a statement on Tuesday, formally taking responsibility for the Euro Election results that will be announced on Sunday night, would have been tidier. But today it was – the day when it was finally acknowledged that one cannot run a Government on the basis of refusing to resign.

Theresa May came to be Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury after the European Referendum of 2016. The Leave campaign ran a slick, professional operation largely not constrained by such inconvenient points as facts. The Remain campaign ran a fairly slick operation on the basis that you should maximise your opponent’s opportunities to punch himself in the face, avoid committing to anything and occasionally point out how dangerous the ideas being promoted by the other lot are. This is not the way to run a campaign to gain the outcome that you want in a referendum that you have called; it is rather better (or at least not much worse) to set out a positive stall for why you thought it was worth crushing the other side in the first place, and ideally not given them room to punch themselves in the face publicly anyway. And people do like some commitments, particularly if they’re kept afterwards.

Still, David Cameron made a hash of it and Theresa had kept a low profile throughout. Her purposeful march for the top job and inspiring slogan of “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it” brought her party rapidly in behind her – as did the realisation that nobody else had any ideas. Ken Clarke calling her a “bloody difficult woman” gave her added bonus points for negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker as to who has the bigger economy. Her low profile was put down to a lack of enthusiasm or strategic position rather than a natural inability to campaign. It at least avoided obvious gaffes like Sajid Javid wandering around wearing a “Remain” badge while saying that if we left the EU we would be able to prop up our steelworks. (It may be worth noting that our steelworks have just gone to the wall again and the Government has refused to prop them up. Meanwhile, membership of the EU would have allowed us to argue for steel tariffs on the Chinese on the grounds of environmentalism and workplace safety, which would have made our steel much more competitive.)

As Theresa seemed to have a plan, her opponents vanished before the leadership campaign could ascertain what that plan was (and had it turned out she hadn’t got one the only alternative would have been to elect Andrea Leadsom anyway) and she became Prime Minister to great popular acclaim, a programme of rapidly sending her opponents to a gulag and a speech which suggested a premiership that would reach beyond Brexit. Not bad for someone whose previous memorable act had been a pile of rubbish about a fictional immigrant and his cat, and who had helped wreck our EU membership by sticking to an unachievable immigration target obtained by picking a number out of the air.

Her first few months went quite well; her policy of threatening to drive EU immigrants into the sea if negotiations went badly had a pleasant hint of the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, if a little reminiscent of the vans she’d sent driving round London telling people to go home. (Why, and what they were supposed to do once they were back in their suburban semis in Watford, was not wholly clear.) Perhaps her position was best summarised by the Guardian‘s political sketch-writer as he described her first day in office in tones that sounded rather like admiration.

Not that she had lost too much time in stumbling. Cameron had been on the verge of signing a contract for the French company EDF to build an untested design of nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset. May lost no time in calling it in for review, which since it involved giving the French lots of money for the opportunity to irradiate Somerset and blame the Government seemed to be a sensible idea. After spending about two weeks reading it she signed it anyway.

Underneath there was a certain failure to accept that there were some 28 million registered voters who had not voted for major constitutional change; some never really minded, some would always be against it and some could be brought round if it rattled to a successful conclusion. It was perhaps with this last grouping in mind – and the politician’s eternal horror of zombie losers coming back to bite the winners’ heads off – that May lost very little time in initiating the Brexit process. The Government’s failure to announce what it thought Brexit should look like was justified on the grounds that it could not possibly expose its negotiating hand before negotiations started. This still prompted some relatively rapid cynicism that it couldn’t reveal its plan because it didn’t have one – a problem that was kept nicely under cover by a legal action against the Government unilaterally triggering Brexit in a Parliamentary democracy.

The Government lost the legal action, but May won the ensuing Parliamentary vote. In those dim and distant times when it seemed reasonable for the referendum to be accepted, even if the ensuing wipe-out of prospects for a generation while the economy rebalanced was annoying, it is intriguing as to why she considered the vote a problem. Similarly, it was dispiriting to see the popular press slating the judges and claimant for demanding that the niceties be observed – particularly as the judges were slated as “Enemies of the People” and May seemed to consider that this was appropriate language to use about judges. At any rate, she never suggested that the tone of discourse shouldn’t go in that direction and that her defeat was not unreasonable.

She similarly wandered around describing people who wanted to have the right to live and work in multiple countries as “citizens of nowhere” while repeatedly uttering that infuriating and divisive phrase “the country is coming together”.

At the end of March 2017 she triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, writing a letter which took us out of both the EU and Euratom – a move which had the bonus of stopping the UK building too many more nuclear power stations and warheads without foreign involvement. The letter is notable for how unprepared she was for writing it. The decision on how to manage the built-up body of EU was subject to White Paper that had not yet been published. A paragraph discusses the Irish border, but does not seem to consider this a major problem for future diverging regulatory arrangements. As a former Home Secretary who had not yet escaped her former role, the letter started by focusing on the security implications of the EU losing access to British surveillance efforts (which within three months would look like a pretty negligible loss anyway), though moves onto economic ties later. Discussions of the details of the Free Trade Agreement are both absent and dismissed as unimportant. She was criticised for approaching it from a standpoint of curtailing immigration ruling out staying in the single market and customs union, but there is no real point in leaving the EU and its opportunities to affect the rules of the single market while staying in the single market anyway. But she had submitted it, and the Press were satisfied.

Having gone and put in the letter just before the French and German elections, May decided to use the time productively by taking advantage of her 20-point lead in the polls. The party had apparently believed her claims that there would be no early election, so there was no manifesto and no plan for one. It was written in a hurry. It was bad. The lead policy was to use the 20-point lead to take social care by the horns, as a result of which the lead vaporised in a few days.

Her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (who is a dismal failure who has only seen off two Tory leaders), had quite a good start to his campaign. His manifesto was unaffordable but looked good (and was strategically leaked, so we all knew what was in it and had got used to the ideas before the formal launch). He had a certain affability that May lacked. And he ran over a journalist just before the manifesto launch, which goes down badly with journalists but is oddly popular with the wider public.

Meanwhile Daesh, the Middle-Eastern terror group based on an extreme mis-reading of a warlord’s memoirs, decided to celebrate Ramadan by going around killing people. This added a certain feature to the election as politicians, in an entirely non-political manner, lined up to blame each other. Labour managed to get a distinctly palpable hit by blaming the failure to arrest the perpetrators before they perpetrated anything on the previous Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Theresa May MP, sacking large numbers of police officers. With that, and the social care, and some division over forms of Brexit, we went into an election where the Government had discarded a 20-point lead in favour of polls which went so far as to predict a Labour majority.

May lost the election. It didn’t matter. She announced she would set up a coalition with “our friends in the Democratic Unionist Party”, which came as rather a surprise to the DUP – she had not mentioned it to them before and they thought the Tories were aligned to the largely extinct Ulster Unionists. Still, the DUP know an opportunity to pump money into Northern Ireland when they see one – particularly when their power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein has collapsed – and duly signed up to a confidence-and-supply agreement which turned out to be almost worth the paper it was written on.

With the election out of the way, things could start going wrong in earnest. She was not personally responsible for a West London block of flats burning to the ground, but was unable to doing the sort of humane reaction that Jeremy Corbyn could pull off. Corbyn not losing 200 MPs gave him an odd sort of bounce that gave his policies a bit of extra popularity – rail nationalisation getting particular extra coverage when May’s Secretary of State for Transport rose at the end of the Parliamentary year to announce that he had cancelled most of the investment programme in Britain’s railways back in February 2017 but had not felt it appropriate to tell anyone before. (He had been called “Failing Grayling” for many years, but it now started to stick more widely.)

Her conference speech did nothing for an air that either she or the party was in it for the long term – the stage set fell to pieces, she was frequently interrupted by a hacking cough and a comedian managed to get close enough to pass her a piece of paper labelled “P45” before being led away in handcuffs.

Negotiations finally started with the EU – and promptly stalled on the matter of what the UK’s outstanding committed contribution to the EU budget was. Discussions nearly collapsed before they had got onto anything substantive. The hillock was surmounted narrowly in late 2017 and matters turned to the arrangements to be in force immediately after the UK departed.

It was during this period that the Government was forced to give MPs a Meaningful Vote on the deal brought back. This was perfectly reasonable. The Government – particularly in view of the fact that it had no majority and was shored up by the DUP – could not be allowed to come back with a deal and say that it was going to happen. The problem was that time margins were going to be very narrow. Even at the time, it was pretty obvious that if the Government returned with a pile of tat and the MPs told them to push off there would not be much time left to organise anything else. A particular problem was that May’s narrow majority (accounting for the confidence-and-supply agreement) could be overturned if the opposition parties plus half-a-dozen Tory MPs ganged up on her. This was not the outcome promised when she called an election to allow her to steamroller the Labour party, the rump of the Lib-Dems and the assertive House of Lords. (It might have been preferable, in hindsight, to take the opportunity to abolish the Lords. With Brexit overshadowing things and the Lords annoying enough Tory backbenchers to top up the Opposition’s block vote in favour of such a move, it would probably have gone through on the nod.)

After a long time when the Government seemed to be avoiding falling apart too much, the Windrush Scandal broke out. It seemed that a large number of Imperial immigrants welcomed into the country in the 1950s, in the days when we did not have computer databases, had not been given computerised records to demonstrate their right to live in the UK. Upon encountering May’s “hostile environment” for illegal migrants when they turned up at their GP’s surgery for a check-up (feeling lucky about getting an appointment) they were reported to the Home Office and deported. Some subsequently died. Arguably May should have resigned for it, but her Home Secretary and one-time deputy Amber Rudd was persuaded to go instead. Happily for Rudd, it turned out the whole thing was an official misunderstanding and she was later reinstated to Cabinet.

This provided a distraction from Failing Grayling not having been keeping an eye on what his rail franchises were up to, preferring to shred their investment plans and carry out ad-hoc re-nationalisations, with the awkward consequence that a large portion of the rail network through a lot of safe Tory seats had just collapsed. Grayling said he couldn’t be expected to know anything about this, which while in keeping with Leave policy of “This country has had enough of experts,” (actually a fairly reasonable statement, but easily misconstrued) did raise certain questions as to what he was for, and if perhaps he should save the taxpayer some money by resigning.

May sat down with her Cabinet at an away-weekend in Buckinghamshire (where the Prime Minister has a country seat) to hammer out an EU strategy. With nine months to go this was not exactly an ideal time to produce a strategy, but one was produced which she claimed came with the backing of her entire cabinet. Later it transpired that the agreement was because the Cabinet had been told that if they disagreed they’d have to quit and if they quit they’d have to walk 2½ miles on a hot day to find out what the Sunday service from Little Kimble station is like, owing to them no longer being entitled to the Ministerial car which brought them to Chequers or the Ministerial ‘phone that would allow them to call a loved one for a lift. In view of how the rail network was performing under Grayling, it seemed preferable to smile and nod. Once back in London such problems were gone, and the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson duly followed the Brexit Secretary David Davis out of the door in less than 48 hours.

Her replacement Brexit Secretary lasted until Autumn and a discovery that Dover is a major port that would have to be considered in any customs arrangements with the EU. This meant that he was overqualified and, finding that reality was incompatible with the Brexit deal that he wanted, he was obliged to resign.

And yet, the hackneyed old phrase that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” seemed to apply in this situation. By the end of the summer, she was relaxing. She spent a tour of Africa doing little dance routines with the locals – almost more lovably for the moves being bad. Playing on this, the party put on ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” for her walk onto the platform to deliver her conference speech – and she jived on stage to it, confident that this part of 2018 could hardly go worse than 2017. It went down well. The Prime Minister does not have to be outgoing, but people like to believe that the Person In Charge is human on some level.

The deal finally came home in October 2018. It was not well-sold. Any message about its marvellous content (which omitted our future trade agreement because there had been no time to agree one) was swept aside in the face of the clause that dealt with the problem of the Irish border. This said that the UK could not leave the EU properly until the border was sorted. Theresa had apparently asked for it. In London, she was told it was terrible. A visit to Northern Ireland saw her tell the Irish that it was terrible, on which point they begged to differ. The DUP intimated that they could not support it; the Tory backbench intimated ditto; a December Commons vote on it (necessary if the UK was to leave in March) was pulled and the party decided to have a vote of confidence in her. She survived – quite well – and under party rules of the time was safe for another 12 months.

She got out of it partly by promising not to fight any more elections, which seemed a difficult promise to keep when heading into a year highly likely to feature a snap election. Aside from any sudden discoveries that it would help if the Government had a majority, the sharks were circulating and threatening a Vote of Confidence in the House of Commons on the performance of the Government.

Grayling kindly provided a distraction with his ferry contracts. To provide additional ferry capacity in case of queues at Dover after a no-deal Brexit, he asked some ferry companies to tender in a hurry to provide boats. Based on the responses he awarded three companies contracts. The Department for Tranport’s due diligence processes, never that widely-praised in the UK transport industry, came under fire when it turned out that one contract had been awarded on the basis that the financial backer had assumed the company at issue would arrange for the chosen UK harbour to be dredged and some ships to be acquired at some point before Brexit Day. After the backer realised that this probably wasn’t the case they withdrew and the Government had to justify the press criticism by cancelling the contract. Then Eurotunnel pointed out that they had a first-refusal right to provide cross-Channel transport by international treaty and had once operated ferries. The Government said that they had to let the contracts in a hurry and hadn’t had time to wait for Eurotunnel to find boats. Eurotunnel said that “No Deal” had been Government policy for two years, during which a proper procurement process could have been run, and on the back of this the Government folded and handed over £33million for capacity improvements to support Eurotunnel’s adaptation to a post-Brexit world – not, it was enthusiastically pointed out, as simple settlement of a legal claim. On this small legal nicety the Peninsular & Oriental Line proceeded to raise M’Learned Friends to sue the Government for their £33million state subsidy to adapt to a post-Brexit world, in accordance with EU rules on state support.

When the Meaningful Vote came round it was hard to believe the estimates as to how badly she would do – it was tempting to assume that in the end everyone would troop through the “Yes” lobby on the grounds that there was no other plan. But if that was the betting, it backfired badly. The defeat finally knocked Ramsey MacDonald off the platform of “Worst Parliamentary Defeat in Relatively Recent History”, with the Government managing the unusual achievement of losing by a greater margin than the number of votes cast for May’s flagship achievement – 432 against, 202 for, margin of 232. The pound showed some brief signs of recovery from its post-referendum doldrums, which have made the country attractive for foreign investors willing to buy heavily discounted assets in a nation on the verge of recession on the offchance that it’ll all be worth something again one day. The DUP refrained from following their confidence and supply agreement on the grounds that the deal did not comply with their Irish red lines, but backed her in the following confidence motion.

Her International Trade Secretary failed to provide a worthwhile distraction from this when his success at negotiating substitute trade deals was unveiled – he had made four. His negotiations with Japan were rumoured to have been difficult, with the Japanese having tried to get far more out of him (so far as the Government wasn’t already bending over backwards to subsidise Japanese industry anyway) than they had obtained in their deal with the EU. His deal with the Faroe Islands was subject to considerable amusement, although he has not managed to persuade his Home Office colleagues to adopt the Faroe Islands visa system of demanding that tourists justify their existence economically by carrying out unpaid labour (a policy which has received many plaudits from the left-wing press, so would be an undoubted vote-winner).

Further attempts to get the deal through the Commons were unsuccessful to a lesser degree, although still in Ramsey MacDonald territory. The second attempt, excluding abstentions, was only four votes worse than the great Parliamentary vote of 1640 when Parliament ordered King Charles I to have the Earl of Stafford beheaded if he ever wanted to see his tax revenues again. The Commons proved little help in suggesting alternatives, although both a customs union (waste of a good Brexit) and a second referendum lost narrowly enough to suggest that a proper whipping operation would have carried them over the line. With this done, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested that now everyone had finished playing the Government should be allowed to go back to ramming its deal into the Commons in the face of losses by a margin of 50 or so votes. This was inconvenienced by the Speaker prohibiting the Government from wasting Parliamentary time by bringing back the same motion every few weeks; his argument was on the basis of custom and practice dating back to about the time of the Earl of Stafford (which for some reason the Press claimed also hadn’t been used since then). Opposition parties suggested compromise, ideally about a year previously, and Corbyn invited cross-party talks.

The one thing that the Commons could agree on was that a no-deal Brexit was a no-no, so in the face of insistence by ex-Remain pro-Leave members of the Cabinet (rather overdoing their performances) that a no-deal Brexit was an essential negotiating tactic (presumably with the Commons, as the EU had stopped negotiating in October) two extensions were sought. The first was naturally short; there was some pressure for the second to be a year, but Grayling threatened to resign if it was more than a few weeks. Most people would have viewed the Government well rid of him, but May based her extension application on keeping him in Cabinet. It was one of the larger signs that she was too weak to carry on much longer.

May was saved from herself by an EU insistence that the country take part in the Euro-elections instead of ignoring the campaign on the assumption that something would come up by the 1st of July (when the new Parliament will convene, now complete with British MEPs). Her policy that the country would leave the EU on the 1st of July with a deal that wouldn’t pass, but couldn’t leave without a deal and couldn’t stay because of a shortage of MEPs, was liable to create the sort of farcical constitutional crisis rarely seen since Charles I invaded his own kingdom, paying both attacking and defending armies (at least until the defending one ran away); it was a problem that couldn’t even have been resolved with a new Calendar Act indefinitely postponing 1st July 2019 by inventing new months until the problem went away. It had the especially ridiculous feature that it would be entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted. She dealt with this sort of thing by making a TV address informing the public that she was on their side, unlike their elected representatives. Remarkably, and perhaps reflecting the contempt that the population held her in, no MPs were shot as a result of this ill-judged speech.

She limped on with a final decision to discuss the matter with the Labour Party, which wanted a second referendum and a customs union. It hid the sight of Failing Grayling cancelling his remaining shipping contracts at a loss of £80million and being sued by two bidders for the East Midlands rail franchise over whether he could make them liable for pension deficits. As May wanted her deal (there is no other deal available without starting over, which is not allowed) and believed a second referendum would be a breach of trust, there was only one way these talks could end. After six weeks all involved stopped pretending otherwise and May partially capitulated on the second referendum – although not enough to win over any Remain MPs. The response from an old party grandee – the great Michael Heseltine who had brought down Thatcher – was to announce that he was voting Lib-Dem in the Euro Election, obliging the party to suspend his whip. A second referendum annoyed the Leave side, and particularly upset those members of her Cabinet who believed that they were doing a very good pretence of being pro-Leave. She was invited into an office to meet some men in grey suits, who lightly drew to her attention that having to withdraw the whip from people who had nearly been party leader was deeply embarrassing. She would have to take the responsibility.

She nearly made it through the ensuing speech to the public without bursting into tears.

It was a late moment of humanity reminiscent of the moment when Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street with his wife and two small boys, although while the small boys might have helped Comrade Gordy our outgoing Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury would not have got further by breaking down in tears more often at the despatch box. Generally she has played a shockingly bad hand as well as possible, with the main question being why she agreed to play it at all.

The contrast from 2016 in John Crace’s summary of her way of leaving office is striking – after many columns describing her as the Maybot and jokingly observing on a negotiating session that she was photographed holding with four plant pots. One of her bigger critics, in a rather satisfied manner, remarked that the ABBA-dancing prime minister had now met her Waterloo.

Ultimately her fate was settled by a combination of King Henry II’s bodged invasion of Ireland – occupying but not properly annexing it – and the activities of a Daesh bomber in Manchester. It is an unfortunate demonstration of the holistic approach to history.

She leaves no legacy, except a demonstration of what happens when you abandon ideas and reduce politics to spin, presentation and “policy-making by print deadline” for twenty-five years. The UK Government never managed to work out why it was in Europe, why this is a good thing and how to grasp the tiller to orientate development in accordance with the wishes of the second-largest economy in the group (although there were reportedly some ambitions for the 2017 turn at running the European Council, which was cancelled for obvious reasons). Nor did it ever challenge Press arguments to the contrary, with Blair’s enthusiasm for Europe being accompanied by a quiet hope that someone would spontaneously notice that the results spoke for themselves. Cameron’s solution was to create a new Eurosceptic European Parliamentary grouping – which has met with some success, possibly partly because his MEPs lost no time in handing it over to the Czechs (who know how to play politics). Having no ideas about what to do with a “Leave” vote or how to justify remaining anyway left May attempting to lose an election by presenting a manifesto devoid of popular memorable policies. Now she has crashed and burned, her apparent successors have no constructive suggestions; the only policies thus far mooted are a no-deal Brexit and the cancellation of High Speed 2. There is no suggestion that the tattered remnants of the party have any ideas for appealing to the wider country, though having lost the next election for being divided, incompetent and unable to solve actual problems will lose no time in blaming it on a failure to obtain a sufficiently hard Brexit. The noises from the membership suggest that Remoaniacs joining to argue for re-joining the EU, resuming the party’s social liberalism and supporting the poor in bettering themselves will be expelled for “entryism”, which does nothing to encourage anyone to dilute the current attitudes exuding from that direction.

The lobbying campaign for the pot plants to succeed her has, as yet, met with little success. Despite him having few obvious diplomatic skills and no obvious ideas for how he’s going to deal with the Irish Question, Boris is the front-runner – provided that he survives Labour realising that they could blame the London Crossrail debacle on him.

For some reason, May believes that there will be more female prime ministers of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the future. Unless Boris is overturned and a woman is elected in July, if Brexit goes through in October (especially on a “no-deal” basis) it seems rather more likely that she will be both the second and the last before Scottish independence. Still, she can dream.

The rest of us can dream back to the happy days of 2015, which will not be returning any time soon.

Blasts from the Past

Apropos of absolutely nothing, and therefore not publication of political matters during an election:

(Someone tell Heseltine to stop bringing down Tory female prime ministers.)

(Also interesting that John Major was not sufficiently in the public domain for Spitting Image to have decided what he should sound like.)

Election Literature 2019

To the delight of many, we are having Euro Elections on Thursday 23rd May this year. Voters will head to the polls to choose their preferred party to represent their region in the European Parliament, basing their vote on a range of environmental and regulatory considerations that are managed on a pan-European basis by the European Union – thereby ensuring that nobody has an unreasonable competitive advantage by draining their chemical factories into freshwater lakes, not installing safety facilities in blast furnaces or passing off other people’s academic literature as their own.

The ballot paper will list the usual local parties, but each has an affiliated overarching pan-European party which they will sit with in the European Parliament. The current leading party is the centre-right European People’s Party grouping that the Tories formerly sat with, although we have not been represented in this for most of the time since the 2009 election since the party no longer sits with this group. The Tories have more recently been replaced by a couple of Change UK members – whether they intend to stay in this grouping, or move to the Alliance of Liberals & Democrats in Europe, is another matter.

The Tories’ absence from the group is pretty irrelevant anyway, since the party appears (from comments by the party leader in March and my election literature collection) not to be fielding any candidates anyway.

Voters can find more about the policies at stake by watching one of the leaders’ debates, a list of which can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_European_Parliament_election#Televised_debates.

And so to the parties, listed in alphabetical order and based on their election literature:

The Brexit Party

  • Summary: A single-issue name for a single-issue party, this organisation was the first to get a leaflet to me. Argues that the country has been “humiliated” by the discovery that its government has all the management and diplomacy qualities of a hamburger.
  • Position on Europe: Out – no reasons given, except that people voted for it in 2016 so it must be a good idea.
  • Will do if elected: Change politics.
  • Key non-Europe policy: None.
  • Quality of election material: Clear and organised. Turns out that people in other regions got the same leaflet promoting the same candidates.

Change UK

  • Summary: Formerly The Independent Group (and still advertising this on their election material), Change UK consists of the bunch of MPs who defected from their parties back in February.
  • Position on Europe: In, but does not seem to have any reasons for this.
  • Will do if elected: Reform EU laws, demand climate change targets, support free movement of people and fight for the NHS.
  • Key non-Europe policy: None.
  • Quality of election material: Picture shows a bunch of happy scruffy people taking selfies at a rally. Otherwise not badly designed, though nothing terribly inspirational. Picture on the inside of the Union flag being subsumed beneath the EU blue-and-stars may be misjudged.

The Green Party

  • Summary: The Greens are primarily a single-issue climate party with some other stuff tagged on. The party is keen to promote its previous achievements in Europe as a reminder that a) the EU does stuff; b) sending people with ideas can result in them causing it to do stuff; and c) some of this stuff (like fighting tax-dodging) may actually be quite useful.
  • Position on Europe: In – then they can continue pan-European fights on tax-dodging.
  • Will do if elected: Protect the environment and take bold climate action.
  • Key non-Europe policy: None (all is neatly tied back into Europe).
  • Quality of election material: Small, clean and green. Gets quite a bit in without being cramped.

The Labour Party

  • Summary: Jeremy Corbyn’s party wish to remind you – as he stares out benevolently yet seriously from the front of the leaflet – that this is all the fault of the Tories, and that this is a General Election (not, as you may have thought, a Euro Election).
  • Position on Europe: Close relationship with the EU best, or possibly an excuse for a General Election.
  • Will do if elected: “Make this country a fair one” (although not obviously using EU mechanisms, but presumably they are relevant somehow).
  • Key non-Europe policy: Invest in our economy and local services.
  • Quality of election material: Clean and red. Slight lack of contrast in places. Lacks any particular explanation of the party’s plans for its longer-term relationship with Europe post October.

UKIP

  • Summary: The UK Independence Party takes a rather harder line than Farage’s Brexit Party, proclaiming that “Brexit has been betrayed!” beneath a picture of the man who is presumably the current party leader. He does not look especially comfortable about this.
  • Position on Europe: Out – opportunity to re-state the 2016 referendum.
  • Will do if elected: Fight for Brexit.
  • Key non-Europe policy: None.
  • Quality of election material: Purple, but gets across enough of a message for a single-issue party.

Contrary to popular belief this election does actually matter, so don’t forget to vote for a party that understands this.

Much credit must be given to all parties (except Labour) for remembering this time that this is a Euro Election and therefore European matters should be the only things on the leaflet.

The stuff from last time (ah, sunny uplands!) can be found here.

Protests & Placards

After yesterday’s rather moody post, here is a thought-provoking and optimistic suggestion of something the Government can do to make people feel better about the (hopefully) imminent death of their flagship only policy:

Placard (s) JPG.jpg

(Genuine bodged placard, as not used on Saturday.)

Sticking to the theme, here is a futuristic picture of Tintern station with the track re-instated. (A rather old futuristic picture of Tintern station with the track reinstated, but producing a new one would take a while and show much the same thing.)

Tintern Old station 8 (m) JPG.jpg