Tory Leadership Contest and Brexit

It’s Sunday morning and time to talk politics, which I have not done for some time. A satisfactory resolution of Brexit is of some relevance to the performance of many UK companies which is a key focus of my readers.

How did we get into the current mess? Weak leadership and a lack of consensus both among Government ministers and in Parliament. Our negotiating position with the EU was confusing with changes of policy and people leading the team changing whereas the EU Commission decided what they wanted and stuck to it. The EU insisted early on that any post exit trade relationship would not be part of the withdrawal negotiations which the UK meekly conceded. The Withdrawal Agreement looks like it was drafted by the EU as a result.

It was very interesting watching the Storyville TV documentary that followed Guy Verhofstadt, MEP and leader of the EU Parliament team during the Brexit negotiations. Consistently it seemed that Britain did not know what they wanted. It was also clear of course that in the EU elected Parliament members (MEPs) have little influence and the Commission and the Council dictate policy – a good example of how undemocratic an institution it is.

Where to from here? Firstly the Conservative party need to elect a new leader who will be appointed as Prime Minister. The bookies seem to be tipping Boris Johnson who is popular among Tory party members. He also managed to get elected twice as Mayor of London despite London being generally very left wing in outlook due to the number of immigrants now living there. For those readers who do not live in London, here’s a brief summary of his record there. He removed the Western extension of the Congestion Charge, a popular move, but retained it otherwise and proposed a ULEZ scheme for the central zone. On the Environment his steps were reasonable but he fell in love with cycling and cycle superhighways which has made traffic congestion much worse. His support for the Garden Bridge was a mistake but he otherwise did keep the TfL budget in some kind of order, unlike his successor, and public transport was improved. He did not make unwise promises to the electorate to ensure his election. His record on crime and policing was OK, and better than his successor, but housing in London remained a major issue mainly because of the policies of his predecessor (and since followed by his successor), to encourage immigration and more business development when the needed infrastructure and housing lagged behind.

As Foreign Minister Boris was prone to gaffs and he is certainly not appreciated by some. My wife’s latest comment on him was: “he just needs to grow up”. His chances of unifying the Tory party behind him seem low.

Another leading contender is Dominic Raab, but like all the others, he lacks a lot of public recognition. But he did give a very polished performance on the Andrew Marr show this morning. He was very definite about wanting Brexit to happen on the 29th October with no further delays, and would accept a “No Deal” Brexit if it is impossible to change the Withdrawal Agreement before then. That to my mind is the right approach to take and I do not see a No Deal Brexit as a disaster like some. The economy would soon recover from any temporary disruption and the money saved from our EU contributions would help a great deal.

Some are tipping Michael Gove but I just do not see him as a personality that could win a general election for the Tories. Sajid Javid might be a better bet, but none of the other declared runners looks a winner to me.

The ability to win a general election, and face down Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party, is quite essential because Jeremy Corbyn is still fence sitting in the hope of forcing a General Election. He is 70 today so must realise that his chance of winning power may be slipping away.

Any new prime minister needs to tackle the issue of the Irish border and the “backstop” in the withdrawal agreement. He needs to appoint a cabinet that will back his chosen approach and either conclude that with the DUP or call a general election. That needs to be done quickly if it is to take place before October 29th when we exit the EU unless something else is put into law.

Apart from the Irish backstop proposal in the Withdrawal Agreement, which tied the UK into a Customs Union potentially for ever, there were other aspects of it which were not favourable. If the EU sits on its hands and refuses to renegotiate it a No Deal exit might be best so we can go back to square one and settle on a new trading relationship with them.

Economically the EU needs a good trading deal with the UK just as much as the UK needs one with the EU, if not more so taking into account the balance of trade. But if you have weak, inconsistent or muddled leadership then the chance of the UK getting what it wants is low. To my mind, Dominic Raab might be a better bet to achieve that than Boris Johnson.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Labour’s Plans For Confiscation of Shares and Rail System Renationalisation

Jeremy Corbyn made it clear in a speech last night that the rich will be under attack if Labour gets into power. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, will present his plans today to give 10% of shares in all larger companies to employees over a period of years. The Daily Telegraph described it as a Marxist plot to control businesses while Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI attacked it as a “new tax that adds to the impression that Labour sees business as a bottomless pit of funding”. The proposal seems to be based on setting up a trust for employees into which the shares would be deposited and from where dividends would be paid to employees.

Comment: It will certainly dilute existing shareholders so readers of this blog might find they and the pension funds that invest in shares are proportionally poorer. Although it sets a bad principle, if the numbers being proposed are enacted it might not have a major impact on companies or investors. Enabling employees to have a financial interest in the profits of a company is quite a sensible idea in many ways. But it might simply encourage companies to take their business elsewhere. If they are registered in another country, how will the UK Government enforce such legislation?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. John McDonnell said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems, or renationalising the utility companies such as National Grid which is also on the agenda, shows the same defects.

The above might be controversial, but I have not even mentioned Brexit yet. Will the Labour Party support another referendum as some hope and Corbyn is still hedging his bets over? I hope not because I think the electorate is mightily fed up with the subject. In politics, as in business, you should take decisions and then move on. Going back and refighting old battles is not the way to succeed. All we should be debating is the form of Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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