Will Richmond Park ‘Sack Zac’?

Zac Goldsmith.

On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October. 

Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives. 

However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit. 

Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow. 

As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here. 

In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50. 

Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith. 

Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes. 

What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum. 

Whoever wins, it is going to be close.

So much for ‘Take Back Control’.

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On 23 June, the UK voted to leave the European Union on the back of a successful campaign from Vote Leave which emphasised taking back control and regaining sovereignty from the European Union. Indeed Vote Leave’s slogan was ‘Take Back Control’, and the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove repeated this phrase endlessly throughout the campaign, it seemed to be the answer to every question posed of them.

Alas, when the UK judiciary did take back control last week, those on the Leave side of the debate were not best pleased.

Last week, High Court judges ruled that Parliament had to have a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the article which starts the process of withdrawing from the EU and which has to be triggered before any formal discussions can begin between the UK Government and the EU on a trade deal amongst other things. Theresa May and her Government felt that they should be able to choose when to trigger Article 50 themselves, and has such they have suggested that they will be appealing the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court in due course.

The result of this court case led to huge anger from Leave campaigners like Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan-Smith, Suzanne Evans, and of couse The Daily Mail, all of whom cried (as they always seem to) that the ruling amounted to some sort of establishment stitch up.

However, wasn’t this exactly what they wanted?!

Their whole campaign to Leave the EU (which in economic terms was nonsensical) rested on the idea that the UK’s sovereignty was being impeded by the European Union. So you would think that there would be some pleasure in seeing UK Courts taking control of the situation.

But no, all we got was anger and even a suggestion from UKIP Leadership candidate Suzanne Evans that we should end the independence of the judiciary, with judges being elected to their positions — what a disaster that would likely turn out to be.

I suppose ‘Take Back Control So Long As The Decisions Made Are In Our Interest” wasn’t catchy enough for the big red battle bus.

What Leave voters need to understand (and very few of them seem to) is that the court case is not about stopping Brexit, indeed the vast majority of those who voted to Remain accept the result of the referendum. Full disclosure: I voted Remain myself, and was strongly in favour of remaining. Although I am still of the opinion that the referendum should never have been called it ultimately was, and I am willing to accept the result. However, just because the Leave campaign won, doesn’t mean that the views of the 48 percent who voted Remain should be completely ignored, we should be seeking some sort of consensus in order to unite the country. Equally, amongst the 52 percent who voted Leave, many voted for completely different things. Some voted to completely withdraw from Europe and all its institutions, some voted purely to retake Parliamentary sovereignty in terms of legislation, some voted purely to reduce immigration, many voted to leave the EU but still harboured a desire to remain inside the Single Market — including former Conservative MP Stephen Phillips who resigned on Friday.

Yes, the public have voted to Leave the European Union, but that does not mean we should just Leave straight away without the Government even thinking about it first. In my mind, there is surely no better way to do this than to put the issue to Parliament, to individuals who deal with complex legislation every day.

In addition, it is important for the electorate to now where the government stands on negotiating a deal with the European Union — where the government’s ‘red line’ is, so to speak. Given that Theresa May hasn’t been elected as Prime Minister, this is even more important. Yes, I know that technically we have a Parliamentary system where we don’t elect the Prime Minister, however I personally think that the vast majority of people cast their vote based in large part upon the party leaders who are the prospective Prime Ministers.

On this basis, it seems right that the government should call an early election in order to gauge public opinion about what sort of Brexit the electorate wants. For the government to go into negotiations in effect blind, means that there will definitely be a vast majority of UK citizens who feel disappointed with the results — likely including many who voted Leave on June 23.

As for those Leave campaigners who are still criticising the judges who made last week’s decision, they are playing a very dangerous game. As one of the more sensible Leave campaigners, journalist Iain Martin wrote in The Observer on Sunday: “we could try electing judges, or ordering judges to disregard and ignore the rule of law on the order of politicians, but the international historical precedents do not suggest it ever ends well.” Those Leave campaigners should stop to discredit and promote the illegitimacy of these judges. For them to continue to do so could be hugely harmful to the rule of law in this country.

They should remember that the decision is not a stitch up which aims to stop Brexit, but it is simply the court ensuring that Parliament plays its rightful role in the process, by providing a check to the government’s power.

Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in Las Vegas. 

Both Clinton and Trump had their best debate, but the Democrat came out on top.

Last night the final presidential debate of this marathon of a campaign took place at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For the first half an hour, we were treated to something we hadn’t seen so far in this year’s presidential campaign: an actual policy debate!

The forceful moderating of Fox News’ Chris Wallace led the candidates to discuss some actual issues. The debate touched upon the Supreme Court, gun control, abortion rights, and immigration; and for this first half hour, both candidates did pretty well.

For the first time, Trump put forward some actual policy, and it was clear that he had been well coached in what he needed to say to reassure the Republican base. He was clear about how he would appoint pro-life Justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, putting the issue of abortion rights back into the hands of individual States; although his knowledge of what actually constitutes a partial-birth abortion was lacking. He was clear on his opposition to any form of gun control, and made a big thing about his endorsement from the NRA. He then went on to talk about how he was the only one of the two candidates who could reduce immigration, reinforcing his commitment to building the impossible border wall, and once again falsely claiming that he had been endorsed by ICE. Throughout this, Hillary Clinton was calm and collected, giving strong policy answers, which were typically almost opposite to Trump’s views.

At this stage, it would be fair to say that Trump and Clinton were neck-and-neck, both debating strongly, and putting forward strong policy based answers.

But then, Trump decided he’d had enough of being Presidential, and the classic Donald Trump re-emerged. He became short-tempered, and began to constantly interrupt his opponent.

In one exchange, Clinton was asked about the details of her paid speeches which had been revealed by the hack on John Podesta’s emails. She managed to successfully pivot onto a point about Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and whether Russia was behind the hacking. Trump then stated that Putin didn’t have any respect for Clinton or President Obama, to which Clinton responded: “that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President.” In typical Trump style, the only response he could conjure was “You’re the puppet.”

This was pretty much how it went for the rest of the debate, Trump veered a long way off-piste from his original plan to look more Presidential and put forward actual policy (a plan to which he was actually adhering for the first 30 minutes of the debate).

In a question that Trump was surely expecting, he was asked about the sexual assault allegations that have been levelled against him in recent weeks. However, despite the sheer obviousness of the question, he didn’t appear ready for it. Trump claimed that the allegations have been “largely debunked,” suggesting that he isn’t completely denying them; and once again claimed “no one has more respect for women than me,” which is clearly untrue regardless of the veracity of these latest allegations. Clinton countered with a stirring answer headlined with, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.” This was perhaps one of the few moments, where we have seen some real emotion for Clinton in these debates, and she did well.

Both candidates struggled in questions about their respective foundations, but Clinton then came out on top in a question on experience. When Trump reused a favourite line about how Clinton had been in public office for thirty years but hadn’t, in his opinion, done anything, she had a strong (albeit pre-prepared) response. She did well to compare her career with Trump’s, explaining how their respective life experiences made her the better candidate. Trump had little in response, and by this point he was largely beaten.

This meant that he wasn’t well prepared when asked whether he would accept the result of the election. In answer to this he produced the soundbite that will be played over and over again, the only real takeaway from this debate: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now,” suggesting that he would consider not accepting the result. Clinton responded that the remarks were “horrifying,” and put forward a catalogue of times when Trump had also cried ‘rigged’, including when he didn’t win three Emmys in a row, to which he interjected: “should’ve gotten it.”

Although Trump began the debate well, and acted calm and Presidential, this soon changed, to the extent that at times the debate resembled a slanging match between a brother and sister. Petty responses like “you’re the puppet” and “should’ve gotten it” only add more ammunition to those who say Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be President. They would be right. It seems fair to say that anyone that can get as riled up by Twitter as Trump, shouldn’t have the nuclear codes.

Overall, although this was probably Donald Trump’s best debate performance, it won’t have done much for his chances in this election. He started well and things were looking good for him, but he quickly lost interest in proper debate and things descended into name calling, with Trump using his closing statement to call Hillary Clinton, “a nasty women”. For Clinton, all she had to do was turn up, and barring any revelation about a serious scandal she would be ok. She did this. For Trump it was a last chance to appear Presidential. Although he did this for the first thirty minutes, the way he lost his cool later on completely wrecked his progress.

Now the only question is how close this election will be, because surely Trump cannot win. I remain of the view that the popular vote will be relatively close, but it looks as though Clinton could win a huge victory in the Electoral College. All we can do now is wait and see.

In terms of the Supreme Court, this is the most important presidential election in years.

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The Supreme Court.

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on 13 February, no one quite expected just how bloody the battle to choose his replacement would come. However, given that Scalia was one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, and the Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress it was, in hindsight, rather predictable.

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Antonin Scalia, whose death created a Supreme Court vacancy.

 

Nonetheless, it is rather rare for the majority party in Congress to not even consider a nomination made by the sitting president, as was the case when the Republicans in the Senate made clear that they would not be considering Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland under any circumstances.

 

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President Obama nominates Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

On the face of it Garland was a consensus pick. There is little doubt that Obama could have chosen a far more overtly liberal justice in order to fill the vacancy left by Scalia. However, he recognised that with his party in the minority in the Senate, he would have to appease Senate Republicans somewhat. What he didn’t count on however, was that the GOP would have no inclination whatsoever to even consider his nominee.

The rationale of Senate Republicans was that withholding confirmation for Garland was necessary in order to, “protect the will of the American people”.Suggesting that with the Presidential election ongoing, the new President should be the one who is allowed to pick the next justice. However, this was somewhat undermined by the comments of two Republican Senators.Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona suggested that Garland should only be confirmed if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, because Garland is less liberal than any nominee Clinton is likely to put forward, suggesting that if Clinton win then, “we ought to approve him quickly.” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah concurred with Flake’s view. Comments such as this suggest that Senate Republicans were motivated far less by democracy than by partisan concerns regarding the direction of future legislation.

Realistically, the reason for the unwillingness of Senate Republicans to give Garland a confirmation hearing was due to his significance to the future direction of the court.

Following the death of Scalia, the court is locked 4–4 between Democratic and Republican appointees. If Garland were to be confirmed then there would be majority of Democratic appointees for the first time since 1969. This has serious significance for the direction of future legislation.

However, Merrick Garland is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how significant this Presidential election is to the future make-up of the Supreme Court.

It has been suggested that the next President might be able to appoint up to four Supreme Court justices, with Donald Trump even suggesting that they might be able to appoint five if Garland hasn’t been confirmed prior to the inauguration.

The reason for this is that many of the Supreme Court justices are now getting to the point where they might consider retirement. The left-wing justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 83, whilst centre-left justice Stephen Breyer is 78. If Clinton is elected come November, then expect these two to retire. Likewise, the relatively centrist Anthony Kennedy is now 80, and surely nearing the end of his career.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy are all nearing the end of their careers on the bench. 

Each of the last four Presidents has had the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court Justices. This means that already it is looking as though the next President is going to have a outsize influence on the makeup of the court, meaning a sizeable influence on policy for a generation.

Earlier in this election, Donald Trump took the slightly unusual step of releasing a list of prospective Supreme Court justices, who he would look to appoint were he elected in November. Unsurprisingly, most of the list had impeccable conservative credentials. Trump’s reasoning for this is that he wants to appeal to Republicans who want to protect recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United which prohibits the government from restricting the election spending of corporations; and District of Columbia v. Heller which further protected the right to bear arms. Whilst the also wants to attract voters who are keen to see the rolling back of Roe v. Wade and Obamacare. Conversely, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are on the complete opposite of this debate.

Both candidates clearly understand the importance of this election in terms of the direction of legislation in the future. Given that Supreme Court Justices are given a lifetime appointment to the court, these decisions will affect the direction of legislation well beyond the presidencies of either Trump or Clinton.

This only serves to make this election even stranger: the fact that the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, will have perhaps more impact on legislation than any of their predecessors.