How Britain should play the Trump card without folding or upping the ante

January 12th, 2018

A guest slot from Julian Glassford

The vertiginous rise of the new champion of the alt-right in 2016 prompted a palpable blend of bafflement and consternation among the political elite right around the globe. Few dared even imagine that Donald Trump would triumph over his wily, experienced, and altogether far more internationally acceptable rival in the US presidential election. Indeed, most appeared caught almost completely off-guard and, a year on, none have yet managed to figure out quite how to tame the beast (if such a thing is possible).

Before “the Donald” had even taken the oath analysts were mourning the end of the age of Atlanticism, and who can blame them? He has, after all, labelled NATO obsolete, characterised the EU a defunct vehicle for German hegemony, and now added an unedifying Twitter spat with the British Prime Minister to his growing collection of controversies. Other commentators speculated that the reality TV star turned statesman was just posturing during the presidential campaign and would reign in the headline-grabbing stunts once in office. If they were banking on 2017 being a year of relative tranquillity on that basis, well then they miscalculated, bigly.

Resurgent populism and the nationalistic upending of the Washington Consensus has left (neo)liberal internationalists the world over with their heads in a spin. “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”, and boy has the global political climate become blustery on their watch! Enter brash Trumponomics, rash social policy, and decidedly undiplomatic rhetoric scarcely seen in the West since The War.

Major domestic and international protests sparked by the Trump travel ban saga, followed by calls for the man himself to be barred from visiting countries like the UK – which have only grown following his far-right retweets – place governments in an awkward position. Few leaders can risk appearing to accept socially divisive ‘alternative facts’ or to condone his incendiary politics. Fewer still can afford to turn their backs on the largest and most advanced economic and military power on earth, however. And, given our role as a bastion of ‘soft power’ and human dignity vs. the need to nail‘The Art of the Deal’ with the US ahead of post-Brexit trade talks, this tension applies to the UK in spades.

Public figures have every right to voice their discontent, and relevant politicians and diplomats are of course duty-bound to make appropriate representations to their stateside counterparts. But, at the end of the day, whilst we do not have to respect the views and policies that President Trump espouses we cannot deny anyone’s right to hold or state them. Instead, we must trust in modern democratic institutions, our values, and unity. If we cannot place our faith wholly in these things then surely this says more about the state of our society and fragility of our principles (e.g. free speech) than it does about the vulgarian at the centre of the storm.

Far from deterred, Donald – like many an ‘echo chamber’ dwelling ‘keyboard warrior’ – appears buoyed by his latest fracas, even if most Americans clearly disapprove of his Twitter antics. As it dawns on remonstrators that the egotistical and intransigent showman is, figuratively speaking at least, sat in the Oval Office with his fingers in his ears and his direct line unplugged, many governments will be tempted to disengage completely. The UK must not do so. “Keep Calm and Carry on”, as the saying goes.

Britain can ill afford to sacrifice the special relationship as a knee-jerk reaction to political incorrectness or, indeed, in the name of tokenistic ‘virtue signalling’. Whatever the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel may say about Europe going its own way, Western interests are not well served by marginalising the United States or its capricious commander in chief. The recent announcement regarding the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem offers a timely reminder that, left to his own devices, the cocksure neophyte is liable to land us all in a world of trouble.

For all his characteristically provocative and bolshie behaviour on social media, the President is a self-confessed Anglophile with Scottish roots. He shares a close affinity with a number of British public figures, actively seeks their advice, and was of course keen to invite the PM to be the first foreign head of state to visit him in office. Slightly uncomfortable, and recently diminished, though this association has been, the spirit of such acts has value and should not be disregarded.

Rather than cancel the much maligned US state visit outright, as others have pointed out the government can just as well kick it into the long grass. With a little quintessentially British composure and savvy, it should be possible to sustain cordial relations and continue to productively engage with our friends across the pond without compromising on matters moral integrity or social stability.

Strong leadership entails embracing difficulty, acting with level-headed stoicism, and leading by example, and we are in the business of building bridges, not walls. To abandon the current US administration at this juncture would be no more flattering on the UK than the reverse proposition i.e. Blair-Bush style fawning. Instead, we must live up to the long tradition of being America’s faithful, if not uncritical, old friend and ally. This means underscoring shared pluralistic values and being the pragmatic voice of reason: ever ready to administer a helping hand and, where necessary, the odd slap on the wrist.


Brief Bio: Julian Glassford is a UK-based multidisciplinary researcher and social entrepreneur.


Marf on TMay’s big idea – the war on plastic waste

January 12th, 2018

She needs to be careful that it doesn’t become a “cones hotline”

If the object was to move on from the bungling of the reshuffle then Theresa May’s remarkable move on plastic waste has certainly achieved that.

For this is something that will affect almost everyone certainly those who have to shop and, no doubt, most people have a view.

For the reshuffle simply highlighted to the world what a weak position she was in and that there is little that she will be able to do to deal about the tight parliamentary arithmetic which was created, of course, by the general election result of which she has ownership.

But the plastic effort all seems a little petty and trivial for the PM to be announcing although, of course, the overall problem is one that government’s should be concerned about.

And why wasn’t the environment secretary, Michael Gove, the one who was making these big announcements. He is the one who has developed her an interesting narrative in his new role and this would just build on that?

It all reminds me of John Major’s “cones hotline” in the 1992-97 parliament which came to become a symbol of the then PM’s weaknesses rather than strengths.

Mike Smithson


Alastair Meeks on predicting politics better

January 11th, 2018

“How could I have known?” is the cry of palookas at the card tables everywhere.  It’s a cry that’s been heard much in political circles in the last few years.  In short order, David Cameron won an overall majority in 2015, Leave won the EU referendum in June 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016 and Theresa May lost her overall majority in June last year.  None of these events had been expected by the pundits.

But far more significantly, none of these events had been expected by the outperformers.  On the day of the 2015 election, David Cameron had prepared and delivered as a practice run a resignation speech.  Nigel Farage effectively conceded defeat on the evening of the referendum.  Michael Wolff in “Fire And Fury” claims that almost the entire Trump campaign thought he’d lost (and most actually wanted to lose).  Almost all of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign team thought that Labour would lose seats on the night of the June 2017 election.

This matters.  In physics or engineering, predictions can be made reliably.  In advertising, John Wanamaker, an American department store magnate, joked that half his money was wasted but he didn’t know which half, but even he on his own estimation managed a 50% strike rate.  In a world of politics where even the successful don’t know what they’re doing, how are the rest of us supposed to figure out what’s going on?

The problems with polling

The pollsters have had a wretched period in Britain.  They got 2015 wrong, as many got 2016 wrong as got it right and they differed so much on 2017 that it’s hard to tell whether the couple that got close got there by luck or judgement.

Polling is hard.  It’s hard to get a statistically reliable sample.  The people who are willing to pick up the phone or join an internet panel and then answer a pollster’s questions may be unusual in lots of ways.  It’s hard to get that statistically reliable sample to be truthful (or to make appropriate adjustments).  And, irritatingly, people can change their minds after they have given their responses, meaning that the snapshot is not a prediction.

These are not new problems but they seem to be becoming more intractable.  After the 2015 election, ICM reported that under 7% of phone calls placed resulted in a respondent answering their questions.

I don’t have a better indicator or predictor of public opinion than opinion polls and they obviously have some worth, but they need to be treated with a healthy disrespect.  I wouldn’t pay too much regard to the claimed margins of error.  Past experience has shown that opinion polls are nowhere near as accurate as that.

Tighter races

Adding to the pollsters’ problems, we have seen a series of close contests.  Relatively minor errors assume disproportionate importance.  52:48 is not far from 48:52, but that’s the difference between winning and losing.  The pollsters mostly got 1997 quite wrong but Labour’s margin of victory was such that no one noticed.

Increased volatility?

Voters seem in some recent elections to be less tied to particular voting patterns than previously.  Opinion polls moved massively in the 2017 general election campaign and there is some evidence of late swing in both the 2015 general election and in the US presidential election (though not particularly in the EU referendum vote).  This would be a good thing, since it would suggest that politicians need to earn more votes than previously.  It would also mean that past polling was of less value than ever before.

Set against that, polls in the UK now seem to have settled into a rough equilibrium.  It seems that Brexit and the 2017 general election may have settled the political views of many previously flighty voters for now and they will need something disruptive to make them reconsider.  Or perhaps they’ve just turned off for now and are giving their responses on autopilot until they need to think about the problem again properly.

Given recent past volatility, any sense of inevitability going into an election needs to be abandoned.  Similarly, the concept of a sure thing needs to be abandoned.  The range of possible outcomes of any election should be viewed more broadly than most people have done before.

Beware of false narratives

Correlation is not causation.  We all know that and all of us forget it all the time.  Theresa May reshuffles her Cabinet and, say, the Conservatives fall in the polls.  Does that mean that the one caused the other?  Maybe.  Or maybe petrol price rises alienated drivers.  Or maybe the NHS flu crisis has worried voters.  Or maybe Conservative voters have become unusually reluctant to answer the phone because of a spate of nuisance calls.

We all like to build stories around the facts that we have to hand.  A particular problem is that political pundits are particularly good fabulists and their stories grip their audiences.  Sometimes those stories adequately explain what’s going on.  More often, they don’t but even after dissonant information has come to light we are reluctant to discard our stories.  We need to be quicker to do so.

Picking through the rubble

That doesn’t leave much standing.  It’s important, however, not to confuse two different objectives.  If you’re looking to make predictions, the first thing to realise is that the future is fluid.  The pundit who has emerged from the last few years with most credibility intact is Nate Silver, who rated the chances of a Donald Trump victory far ahead of most other pundits and who cautioned how risky the 2017 general election was for the Conservatives. Nothing is certain.  By all means construct a narrative but be aware that the story is quite likely to be rewritten.

If on the other hand you’re looking for the best bets to place, you have to draw conclusions on skimpy information.  Often it is better to be wrong quickly than right slowly.  So long as you’re right more often than the odds would suggest or get the opportunity to trade out at a profit later on, the failures won’t matter, though they might be embarrassing (I speak from repeated experience on this).  If the electorate is more footloose and polling remains of doubtful accuracy, the value is usually going to be found in the long shots. Equally, if you spot a narrative that looks set to gain currency, selling into that narrative will often be profitable.

Of course, you might well not be right.  But so long as you’re keenly aware that there’s a high chance you’re wrong, you can make the appropriate adjustments later on.  And if all goes wrong, at least you will have a ready answer to the question: “how could I have known?”

Alastair Meeks


Farage’s surprise backing could put a second Brexit referendum on the agenda

January 11th, 2018

Probably the biggest development this morning has been the comments by the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, in a tv interview about a second referendum on Brexit.

Generally up until now the only people advocating a second vote at those who are very strongly remain although it is true to say that Boris Johnson in February 2016 supported the idea.

Farage’s reasoning is that a second victory for Leave would completely close down further discussion on the matter and set the seal on UK policy for generations to come.

I am sure that that is right.

Clearly the former UKIP leader thinks that this will be an easy victory for his side and it is hard to say from the polling whether he is right or not. Although that there have been signs of a slight movement towards Remain the general picture has been that the country is still very much divided.

There was one Pan-European YouGov poll in late November that had a 10% lead for wanting to stick with the Brexit referendum outcome.

The big questions are whether Farage’s intervention will have any impact at all on whether such an election takes place before Britain is due to leave at the end of March next year and would the Leave campaign in such a vote be led by TMay?

Mike Smithson


NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast: Reshuffles, Oprah and exclusive polling on Brexit and trust

January 11th, 2018

The PB / Polling Matters podcast returns for a new year with a new format.

The podcast starts with Keiran Pedley and Leo Barasi discussing the latest news stories from the past week. Leo talks about this week’s reshuffle and the recent hiring and resignation of Toby Young and what it means for the Tories. Keiran then gives his impression on the latest goings on in Trump-land and whether Oprah could really run for president.

Keiran and Leo then unveil some exclusive polling from Opinium on how favourable the public are towards different political leaders in the UK and who they trust (and don’t trust) when it comes to Brexit. There are some woeful numbers for Tony Blair and some interesting stats on which organisations Leave voters trust to tell the truth on Brexit.

Listen to the podcast below.

Follow this week’s guests on twitter:


First Winfrey – Trump polling has Oprah 10 points ahead

January 10th, 2018


And she’s a favourability rating of 55%

New polling just out this afternoon from the right-leaning pollster Rasmussen has a big boost for TV personality, Oprah Winfrey who has now entered, though not the race, the frame for WH20020. This is from the pollster:

“TV personality Oprah Winfrey is the likely winner over President Trump if the 2020 election were held today, but there are a lot of undecideds.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 48% of Likely U.S. Voters would opt for Winfrey, while 38% would choose Trump. But a sizable 14% are undecided.

Winfrey has the support of 76% of Democrats, 22% of Republicans and 44% of voters not affiliated with either major political party. The president earns 66% of the vote from Republicans, 12% of Democrats and 38% of unaffiliateds.

Twelve percent (12%) of both Republicans and Democrats are undecided given this matchup. One-in-five unaffiliated voters (19%) aren’t sure which candidate they would support.

Fifty-five percent (55%) of all voters view Winfrey favorably, including 27% with a Very Favorable view of the longtime media personality and entrepreneur. That’s little changed from 2011 after Winfrey announced she was ending her TV talk show after 25 years on the air. Thirty-four percent (34%) share an unfavorable view of her, with 18% who have a Very Unfavorable one.”

Clearly at this stage there is a novelty element but Oprah, like Trump as WH2016 has high level of name recognition simply because she’s is a high profile TV star.

Whether these sort of numbers would survive an actual run for the nomination and the cut and thrust of a campaign we do not know.

She is second favourite, behind Trump, on Betfair to win WH20120.

Mike Smithson


The reshuffle has left TMay weaker but has it hastened her departure?

January 10th, 2018

There’s still no obvious alternative

The former shadow CON minister and head of ConHome, Paul Goodman, has given his damning verdict on the reshuffle under the heading “The worst-handled reshuffle in recent history – perhaps ever”.

This, of course, follows other PM “set pieces” like her October conference speech and the GE17 campaign that didn’t go according to plan.

He highlights that “for several days, the media was full of stories about why the Prime Minister didn’t rate Justine Greening. If they had been knocked down, the latter might have been willing to stay on.” Undoubtedly TMay has made more enemies and Goodman raises the possibility that Greening and even DGreen might join the Brexit belligerents on the back benches.

So the Conservative’s very tight parliamentary position could get even tighter. If both Green and Greening back, say, a controversial Brexit amendment that reduces the government’s theoretical commons majority by four.

No doubt it adds to the number of CON MPs who are ready at the right moment to write to the Chair of the 1922 Committee asking for a confidence vote.

But Theresa May is still there. She is remarkably resilient and has managed to continue in spite of events that other earlier leaders would have found insurmountable. Losing the Conservative majority in June, her less than successful conference speech in October, and now, of course, this botched attempt to add sparkle to her government.

What saves her is that there is no obvious alternative. The 30% betting favourite following the election defeat last June, Boris Johnson, has now slipped sharply down; David Davis who looked like the best alternative for a long period is now down to just 3% in the betting; and two of the top three that the markets most rate, Rees-Mogg and Ruth Davidson are not even Cabinet ministers. The latter is not even an MP.

Boris is still second favourite but it is very hard to envisage him being able to secure the backing of enough MPs to get himself through to the members’ ballot.

Dominic Raab, who wasn’t given a cabinet position in the reshuffle and remains largely unknown outside the party, is now rated as a 5% chance on Betfair. He’s my long shot bet.

Andrea Leadsom is now down at a 3% chance.

Mrs May, meanwhile, continues to give the impression that she’d like to continue perhaps until tthe next general election. Maybe she will do that in spite of everything.

So I am not betting on her early departure.

Mike Smithson


Tonight’s cartoon on Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

January 9th, 2018

    Trump versus Kim: Fake News or The Day After Tomorrow?

Thank you again to Nicholas Leonard and Helen Cochrane.