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Sensemaker: Double whammy

Sensemaker: Double whammy

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The EU confirmed Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for union membership.
  • Staff at London’s Heathrow airport approved a plan for a series of strikes over the summer.
  • A study in the Lancet said Covid vaccines had saved 20 million lives. 

Double whammy

It turns out watching porn in the House of Commons and receiving a child sex abuse conviction can have serious consequences for a prime minister whose stock of public trust is already draining away.

Boris Johnson is not the one with the smartphone habit or the abuse conviction. But they were the causes of by-elections yesterday that

  • gave Labour its first by-election gain from the Conservatives since 2012 (in Wakefield, West Yorkshire), on a swing that if replicated nationally would give it a Commons majority;
  • overturned a 24,000 Conservative majority in Devon in the biggest defeat in UK by-election history; and
  • led promptly to the departure of the Conservative party chairman, Oliver Dowden, who had seen the results coming and had plenty of time to craft a stiletto of a resignation letter.

In that letter, Dowden said someone had to take responsibility for the defeats. Translation: and we all know, prime minister, that you will not. He said he remained loyal to the party. Translation: but not, prime minister, to you. And he said party members and volunteers deserved “better than this”. Translation: better leadership, prime minister, than yours.

The usual caveats apply. By-elections serve a similar purpose to US midterms. When Downing Street incumbents are due a warning, by-election voters can deliver it. All prime ministers including Mrs T have weathered them. 

Unusual caveats, too:

  • Politico’s London Playbook said this morning it was “difficult to overstate how sensational a victory last night was for the Lib Dems”, but actually it’s quite easy. The Lib Dems won Tiverton and Honiton in Devon by more than 6,000 votes on a 30 per cent swing but as the psephologist John Curtice noted soon after: the fall in the Tories’ vote share was smaller than in 19 post-war by-elections including last year’s in North Shropshire.
  • In Wakefield, the Labour surge was less spectacular than the Tory slump, Curtice writes, and that was partly a result of a former Tory councillor running against his old party’s candidate as an independent. 
  • Dowden’s was hardly the heavyweight resignation that might have prompted a rush for the door of the cabinet room. In fact, he was already considered a likely casualty of Johnson’s next reshuffle.

So…

Johnson clings on. He said (from the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda) it was “crazy” to think he’d go because of these defeats – a classic piece of Johnsonian gaslighting, says our own Matthew d’Ancona, “but the feebleness of the Tory ‘rebels’ only encourages his narcissistic belief that he can defy political gravity and hold on, as he has for five months”.

Starmer isn’t there yet. In the 2010-15 parliament there were ten by-elections in which Labour’s vote share rose by more than it did in Wakefield last night, Curtice notes, and Labour still lost in 2015.

But the walls are crumbling. Even on more modest swings in a general election, the Conservatives would lose most of the red wall seats they won in 2019 and the Lib Dems would blow a big hole in the blue wall across southern England that was supposed to be Johnson’s base. Matthew reckons it’s too late to rebuild those walls, but asks: “who’ll drag [Johnson] out from the ruins?”

Could it be the cabinet’s own Slender Man? (See Capital, below)


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Big Bang 2.0?
Rishi Sunak, the UK’s chancellor, will flirt with the City in a Mansion House speech next month in which he’ll dangle a vision of post-Brexit deregulation. He proposes a mini-bonfire of EU rules designed to deliver a second Big Bang for financial services, and will take aim specifically at the EU’s Solvency II directive, which dictates capital requirements for insurers to make sure they can withstand economic shocks; and at the MiFID II directive on transparency by investment firms on payments and transactions. It could just be that big capital cushions for insurers and total transparency from investment banks are exactly what the sector needs to avoid another crash. But hey, all’s fair in populist politics. Deregulation is catnip for the City and the Tories’ hardline Brexit wing alike, and Sunak has a comeback to engineer. City AM has the scoop.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Guns in America
The US Senate passed a historic gun control bill to expand background checks on gun-buyers and enable police to remove guns from people deemed too dangerous to have them. By contemporary standards, the 65-33 vote was a miracle of bipartisan accord even though the bill falls far short of what gun control advocates (and a majority of voters) would like. On the same day, the Supreme Court upheld a complaint against New York State restrictions on carrying guns in public, prompting an WSJ editorial on the giant Kirkland & Ellis law firm, which represented the plaintiffs in the New York case and has since told the partners concerned to dump their gun rights clients or leave. They’ve left. The paper says it’s as if the firm had sacked the lawyer representing Clarence Gideon in Gideon v Wainwright (1963), which is plain wrong. Gideon v Wainwright was about the right to a publicly-funded defence lawyer for people who couldn’t afford their own. The New York case is about an out-of-control gun lobby with its boot on Washington’s throat. Kirkland & Ellis read the room and did the right thing. 


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

Musk burns money
Elon Musk has said his new Tesla factories in Germany and Texas are losing billions of dollars because they can’t get enough batteries and because car parts and battery-making tools are stuck in China. Tesla has lost 46 per cent of its market cap so far this year and now seems to have cash flow trouble too. In an interview with Tesla owners, Musk laid it on thick. He talked about “a giant roaring sound… the sound of money on fire”; and said his overwhelming priority was to get the new factories working so he can pay staff and not go bankrupt. He blamed the China supply chain blockages on Covid, but there’s another possible cause: Xi Jinping is on Russia’s side over Ukraine, and Musk is emphatically on Kyiv’s. For now. 


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Malta abortion 
A US woman is being air-lifted to Spain after doctors in Malta – the only EU nation where abortion is still illegal in all circumstances – refused to surgically complete a miscarriage because there was still a foetal heartbeat. 38-year-old Andrea Prudente was 16 weeks pregnant and on a “baby-moon” with her husband when she began bleeding heavily. Not removing the foetal tissue in such circumstances can put the mother at risk of fatal infection. Protesters outside the hospital this week called for changes to the law in Malta, but opinion polls in the stridently Catholic country mean a law change is unlikely anytime soon. Prudente told the Guardian: “I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have thought up a nightmare like this” – a nightmare creeping closer in her home country, where the US Supreme Court is expected to overturn Roe v Wade in a matter of days. 


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

North Sea threats
Oil and gas companies accustomed to getting their way in the North Sea have sat down with Rishi Sunak to tell him they don’t like his plan for a windfall tax on their – some would say – obscene profits since the war in Ukraine jacked-up fossil fuel prices. To recap: last month, pulling several Gs in a U-turn forced on him by MPs and the cost of living crisis, Sunak unveiled a £15 billion household support package funded partly by a £5 billion windfall tax on companies like Equinor, Ithaca Energy and Shell. Yesterday they told him this might force them to reconsider their UK investment plans. Suggestion for Number 11: think of this as blackmail. Stay the course. The planet will thank you in the end.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, AP/Shutterstock


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