Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica: A stench enveloping Downing Street and the Cabinet’s hard Brexiteers

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Stephen Parkinson, Now political secretary to Theresa May, previously national organiser Vote Leave Pic credit: Powerhouse

 

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The growing and completely unpredictable coverage following the exposure of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, for data harvesting is  fast turning into a scandal that  will seriously damage the reputation of the government or eventually could even bring it down.

From past experience of Westminster and Whitehall scandals once the genie is out of the bottle there is precious little those in power can do to put the stopper back. And from this weekend due to a crass and vile statement from Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, about  the private life of the latest whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, it has drawn Downing Street into the fray.

For the ordinary voter the row over data analytics  and how it may have been misused may sound a trifle arcane – since it goes back to two past events – the election of Donald Trump and the controversial Brexit vote. Those in power will be tempted to say – nothing to see here, all done and dusted, let’s move on.

The problem is that they can’t. The huge scale of data harvesting  by Cambridge Analytica via  Facebook of 50 million US citizens plus the potential Russian involvement is now the subject of a huge investigation by  special counsel Robert Mueller and that will not go away. Already Facebook has taken a financial hit  for not protecting our data.

And in England, the Electoral Commission is now investigating the Brexit donations and the  Cambridge Analytica  and Vote Leave’s links to other companies, including the Canadian firm,AggregateIQ (AIQ). The Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating Cambridge Analytica for potential data breaches for political purposes. Neither investigation is likely to stop.

I won’t need to go over the details of the story which now involves two whistleblowers and has led to the suspension of  the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix.

You can find it in full in The Observer by the dogged and determined Carole  Cadwalladr  here. Or you can see the excellent Channel Four documentary here.

What I will do is look at the ramifications which are now knocking on the door of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both in the Cabinet. Central to this is why £625,000 was given to the student run  Vote BeLeave campaign to spend on a Vote Leave analytical company, when Vote Leave was not supposed to be connected to Vote BeLeave – and could breach strict  campaign spending guidelines. There are also the very serious allegations – of the mass removal of emails and links between Vote BeLeave and the two highly seasoned campaigners, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers alliance fame  and chief executive of Vote Leave, and the aggressive  ex special adviser Dominic Cummings, who jointly ran Vote Leave. He is denying this happened but it appears the whistleblower has sent information to the Electoral commission contradicting that.

Did Gove and Johnson know? and why is Johnson just saying it is ludicrous to suggest this happened – ” sound bites ” don’t make the issue go away.

And finally there is the behaviour of Theresa May’s political secretary. Stephen Parkinson, in deciding the world should know about his previous love life with the whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni.  Shahmir did not wish to go public to the whole world that he was gay. Mr Parkinson is not some political celeb – his role, as I am sure he will be reminded pretty quickly by the Cabinet Office, is to stay in the background not to become part of a public love story. Most people won’t care a damn who he sleeps with – so the only real reason can be a botched attempt to discredit and embarrass the whistleblower.

Parkinson also has previous form. According to Spinwatch’s Lobbying Portal he is an experienced campaigner, being part of the ” No to AV ” campaign to stop the alternative vote in 2011. He also was involved in the scandal over whether the Tories had broken election law in 2015 by overspending. They were mainly cleared of this  but there is a legal case pending  in May against Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet, his agent and a Tory campaigner, for making false election returns. Parkinson has worked for Theresa May since 2012 – apart from his work on the Vote Leave campaign.

The real problem for the government is that the next revelations could come from anywhere – it could come from the US  investigations or it could come from the UK if more whistleblowers come forward. They are not in control. So far the reaction has been pure bluster.

I can see in the end the most serious issue will be the use of people’s data by political organisations and breach of privacy – which will  even override  the bitter aftermath of Brexit and the US election result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does the demise of UKIP offer a lifeline to embattled Tories?

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Will the Tories replace UKIP? Pic credit: Matt Dent; A mad man with a blog

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The performance of UKIP  in the polls has  been pretty disastrous for some time now. But if the party dies this weekend which other party is going to benefit from its demise.

After losing their only MP at the general election the party performed very badly at local level and is continuing to do so. And ironically Britain’s departure from the European Union will destroy its biggest base which is in Brussels. So by 2019 when we leave it is possible that UKIP will have completely disappeared from the political scene. It is very much a case  of don’t get what you wish for.

But the destruction of UKIP  at the moment appears to be more of a problem for Labour than the Tories. It is a considerable dilemma for Jeremy Corbyn on how he handles Brexit and suggests he, as well as Theresa May, is caught between a rock and a hard place over this issue.

Younger Labour Party voters – particularly in London and the South – are very strongly pro Remain – welcoming the diverse nature of the UK and enjoying the reality of visa free travel across most of Europe.

But Labour voters outside this group – in the North, Midlands, East Anglia and parts of Kent- are pro Brexit. And furthermore the former UKIP voters are obviously keen for Britain to leave.

So for Labour to get back these working class voters it has to be seen to be  both supporting Brexit and sympathising with Remain  at the same time. It also means the party – which has had success particularly at the last election – has highlighted domestic issues like the NHS, education, transport, housing and student loans rather than Brexit.

Labour’s dilemma is shown up in a scattering of local council by-elections across the country this month. Of course one should not put too much score on local election results – because of low polls and because simply that they are local.

But one trend has emerged where UKIP had a previous strong showing.in local areas and either doesn’t stand or puts up a candidate who is trashed by the electorate.

What appears to be happening  is that both Labour and the Tories are gaining votes – but the Tories are getting the lion’s share. This means that either Labour cannot win the seat or as in Bolton last night – they lose a seat to the Tories.

The results in Thanet in Kent –  a former UKIP stronghold where they got control of the council – is a case in point. It has seen the Tory and Labour vote go up – but has allowed the Tories to retain their seats with a bigger majority. Roughly two in three former UKIP voters seem to have switched to the Tories compared with one in three supporting Labour.

In Bolton where on a  nearly 30 per cent poll – the Tories took a seat off Labour – the result again showed  both the Tories and Labour gaining votes – but the Tory share of the vote went up 16.7 per cent to take a seat in a safe Labour Parliamentary constituency. Again UKIP had polled very well in the ward in the past.

Similarly in Newport Pagnell, a council seat on Milton Keynes council  where UKIP had got a big share of the vote last time – the Tory share jumped over 15 per cent – while Labour jumped just under 12 per cent. UKIP got  nearly a quarter of the votes last time but didn’t stand.

These actual votes may explain the closeness in the polls between Labour and the Tories – the Tory vote is simply being buoyed up by former Kippers. It may also explain why William Hague, the former Tory leader, would like to see UKIP wound up as the best chance for the party to stay in power.

It is also quite clever  of Boris Johnson to raise the issue that the NHS would get even more money after we leave the EU – it is aimed at those people keeping faith with Brexit believing the country will enter a Shangri La once we are out.

I personally don’t believe a word of it – but to my mind it does suggest to me that Labour should not take the next election for granted. They have to continue to work on these voters by offering a much fairer society. But it also leaves them with a very delicate balancing act over Brexit.

 

 

 

Time for MPs to take back control of Parliament

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John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

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There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.

The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to  take  back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.

Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament  through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.

The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.

In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to  allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.

As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:

” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”

He goes on in this longer extract:

” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.

“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.

“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”

Now you might say -particularly after this long extract –  why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.

First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.

This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.

Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by   ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named  after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.

These could be used to  change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).

This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t  avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.

So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said  week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

My billet-doux from Theresa: Push Brexit from the comfort of your own home and register your vote plan at Tory Central Office

Theresa May

May’s billet doux campaign to her supporters Pic credit:BBC

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One of the more amusing things about this election is that Conservative Central Office appear to have registered me as a Tory supporter, How this has happened I do not know but as a result nearly every day I receive a Dear David  billet-doux from Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Patrick McLoughlin telling me what line to take against Jeremy Corbyn.

They were especially active when Theresa May  and Jeremy  Corbyn were facing separate Paxman interviews – with five lines to take – emphasising Corbyn’s support for the IRA .

But in the last week it is clear that the Tories have gone back to basics and  even after the Manchester terrorist attack – are now trying to get a big majority on Theresa May’s stance over Brexit.

As this letter shows:

Dear David,

I’m excited about the future.

If we make a success of Brexit, there are great opportunities ahead.

My plan for Brexit will return control to Britain – and help us shape a brighter, fairer future for our country.

But David, I need every Conservative supporter to get behind my plan to make Brexit work.

So please join our team speaking to voters around the country by signing up to make calls today.

As we approach the final week of this campaign, it’s crucial that everybody remembers this fact: Britain is about to enter into the most important negotiations of my lifetime.

Brexit negotiations are set to begin just eleven days after polling day. And the European Union is already adopting an aggressive negotiating position.

That’s why Britain needs a strong government and a strong Prime Minister capable of standing up to Brussels.

Your support is more important now than ever. Because every vote for me in this election will strengthen my hand in the negotiations that are about to start.

So, David, help me make my case to the country – and help me make a success of Brexit – by signing up to make calls today.

 

Thank you for your support

Theresa May
Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party

If you click on the link you will find three choices – join a phone bank, go to Conservative Central Office ( you get a special rousing address from Boris if you do) or make the calls under Tory guidance from your own home. Fascinating to know how many people have received calls in the last few days – and whether this appeal has been launched because the Tories have not had enough support from members to do the work despite overflowing with cash donations.

On polling day Theresa has asked me to have a plan on how I am going to vote – suggesting I might go with the family, friends and neighbours to stop Jeremy Corbyn Diane Abbott and  John McDonnell going into government.

As she says here:

Dear David,

Today I’m asking you to do one crucial thing: make a plan to vote.

If the Conservatives lose just 6 seats next Thursday, we will lose our majority: and Jeremy Corbyn will be in charge of Brexit, Diane Abbott our national security and John McDonnell our economy.

There is so much at stake David – and I need your support.

Please make a plan to vote on our website today, so you know what time you’ll be voting next Thursday, and who you’ll be going to the polling station with.

And then forward this email on to every Conservative supporter you know, so they can make a plan to vote too.

Thank you for your support,

Rt Hon. Theresa May MP

Theresa May
Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party

 

What this does show is that even on polling day – who goes out to vote will be absolutely crucial to the result – and the Tories are planning to monitor their supporters to make sure they have voted. Interesting times.

The Treasury: Destroying Britain’s world leadership in green technology

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Carbon capture from Cop21

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There has been much said that Britain doesn’t capitalise on its own innovation – and leaves other countries to do so. Much of the blame is put on companies not wanting to invest – but it is often acknowledged that the state has a role to pump prime innovation.

In green technology Britain is seen to have surrendered the lead it once had on wind farms – with nearly all the technology now being imported.

What has not been really reported is the role of the Treasury in encouraging or discouraging green technology. Until now.

A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in the dying days of Parliament shows just how baleful the Treasury has been in destroying Britain’s world prospects coupled with writing off taxpayers money. And the main culprit in the last six years must be George Osborne and to a lesser extent, former Liberal democrat energy secretary, Chris Huhne- despite the Liberal  Democrats green image.

Officially the report was on the abandonment of carbon capture technology. –

The Commons  criticised the handling of decisions by the last coalition and Conservative governments to waste some £168m by cancelling competitions to develop new carbon capture technology before its potential could be realised.

The Mps concluded: “ The UK has now missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry” but say this is part of the pattern where the Treasury halts projects for short term financial gain over the last decade.

“The UK may now have lost any competitive advantage to export CCS technology to countries that are seeking options to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions, which could have created engineering and R&D jobs in this country. This is reminiscent of government decisions in the 1980s not to develop renewables, meaning the UK lost its position as the world leader in emerging technologies such as wind power.

“Neither the Department nor the Treasury evaluated the potential benefits for the UK’s economy of having a globally competitive CCS sector prior to the competition being cancelled.”

What is more damning is how MPs go on to provide a shopping list of failure to support green technology.

“These included cutting feed-in tariffs for solar and onshore wind; scrapping the zero-carbon homes regulation; withdrawing the grandfathering support policy for biomass projects; privatising the Green Investment Bank; and cutting subsidies for low-emission vehicles.”

The original decision to halt the first attempt at carbon capture technology was made by Chris Huhne when he cancelled an experiment at Longannet power station in Scotland. Then George Osborne halted for short term savings a development at Drax coal fired power station in 2015.

Mean while in the rest of the world 20 projects are going ahead. As Mps conclude:

“Halting CCS’s deployment means that the UK will have to pay billions of pounds more to meet its decarbonisation targets, has missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry, and has damaged investors’ confidence in working with the government on CCS in the future.”

Given we are supposed to be proudly standing alone -post Brexit – and need to develop new technologies here, this is doubly damaging. But then it seems politicians are more interested in rhetoric than action.

I have written a piece in Tribune on this.

 

Why Theresa May must ensure transparency between top politicians and big business during Brexit negotiations

Theresa and Philip May

Theresa and Philip May: Pic Credit: ITV

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Tonight Theresa May and her husband Philip May appeared on the BBC One Show together – providing a major personal boost for the PM during the General Election campaign.

Last month Byline carried a story about the Cabinet Office being asked to investigate an issue that is very close to home to both of them – whether there could be any conflict of interest between her role as Prime Minister and his role as a senior investment manager of the Capital Group, which moves billions of pounds every day in the money markets.

The question is important – not because there is any evidence that either Theresa or Philip May  have abused that relationship to make money – but because the Whitehall rules are still pretty lax in ensuring that there is full transparency despite fine words in the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

As it says :“Ministers must ensure that no conflict arise, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.”

I raise this because last month the Cabinet Office insisted that there was no investigation into this and that  “The Prime Minister has declared in full her interests and the interests of her husband.”

That reply covers a multitude of sins because the same code allows nothing to be declared by Theresa May if she puts her investments in a ” blind trust” and leaves it to the trustees to invest. Similarly her husband Philip need only declare very basic information because  such details “would involve unjustifiable intrusion into the private affairs not only of Ministers, but of their close family.”

I also raise it because the Cabinet Office seemed unduly sensitive about this inquiry. I am told by another media source that it privately briefed that not only was there no investigation but there was no email correspondence about such a complaint or response from the Cabinet Office about it.

I have double checked my sources and indeed discovered a civil servant from the Cabinet Office did acknowledge the complaint and promised to examine the issue  after it was pointed out that billions if not hundreds of millions of pounds are involved in currency movements depending on speculation on Brexit.  I won’t embarrass the civil servant by naming the person on this site as I know the source won’t want to be identified.

This leads me to one conclusion. If the Conservatives do win the election, for the next two years the money markets will be desperate to know the state of Brexit negotiations – as there are hundreds of millions if not billions of pounds to be made by having an ” inside track “.

Therefore I think declarations by ministers and their close relatives – given the close connections between the City and prominent Tories – should be made much more transparent. This is one for Lord Bew and the Committee on Standards in Public Life but it needs to be sorted quickly.

 

 

Must a stellar Tory performance lead to Labour oblivion?

Theresa May

Theresa May:Leader of the Tory party. Pic credit:BBC

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If I was a Conservative strategist I would be very pleased with myself. The local election results could not have gone better to plan. In one fell swoop the 650 plus Tory gains have put Labour on the defensive and even threatened their heartlands, halted the Liberal Democrat revival in the West Country, pushed back  the SNP advance in Scotland and destroyed UKIP.  One symbolic Tory gain was winning a seat in Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s old Durham constituency.  The only small flies in the ointment is that the Tory advance was contained in the big South Wales cities and they failed to make any impact in Manchester and Liverpool.  We have no indicator of how London will vote.

On the face of it Theresa May is heading for a coronation in  the June general election with a majority of anything from 140 to 220 with  most of the four million UKIP voters in the bag to add to her diehard Tory supporters. Grim reading indeed particularly if the convention is  that previous local election results underestimate swings to the government party in a general election.

But note that the Conservatives are not crowing too much about this result. The result in one sense ( with 11 council gains) has been too successful and they have to big up ” Corbyn ” or they will have no bogeyman to frighten their more affluent voters to come out and vote for May. Because if they think it is in the bag they may not bother.

They also have an interesting campaigning challenge – do they limit campaigning in Tory seats on the grounds that they are impregnable now – and go and campaign in seats where Labour has a 10,000 majority on the grounds that May is so popular that they can take these. Or do they take a more cautious approach and fight hard in their marginals.

Whatever the situation  the Labour top team have got to up their game and try and convince both working class and middle class voters that are tempted by May and her robust nationalist challenge over Brexit to switch.

Labour should have the high ground on the rest of the agenda, the NHS, police and crime, education, transport, the environment and welfare. In all these areas the government is making a mess of it – and with five years of more austerity and rising prices the message ought to get through that we need a change in direction.

But it will still to be dominated by Brexit and how Britain is going to lead the negotiations – and Labour has failed to counter this.

There may be a way to deal with this. As May is not going to reveal her negotiating stand perhaps Labour who have a talented Brexit secretary in Keir Starmer should do so. What would happen if Labour took the risky chance of holding a press conference to announce their negotiating stance and their team that would go to Brussels. And what if that was combined with the post Brexit future a Labour government would provide for Britain. It would look like a government in waiting.

It would be controversial as the media would concentrate on Labour’s plan but it would put May on the defensive to explain her vision – something she is reluctant to do so given she is after a blank cheque wrapped up in the Union Jack.

And it would widen the gap between Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are seen as the remain party – but they have the problem that their increasing vote share has been eclipsed by UKIP supporters swamping them by voting for May in the West Country and elsewhere. While the Lib Dems will probably gain some seats in Remain constituencies  ( St Albans,Twickenham and Bermondsey) they have no chance of becoming the official Opposition even if Labour do badly.

To my mind for Labour to try and combine their vision for Britain with their vision for Brexit could cause some of the people who have quit Labour for May to think again. It could also avert some of the most dangerous aspects of a complete breakdown with Europe.