27 February 2017

Those two impostors

When the Sunday Times ran an exclusive on 22 January 2017 about a Trident missile having “experienced an alarming failure after being launched from a British submarine off the coast of Florida in June last year”, they went into the “What did they know, and when did they know it?” mode much-beloved of investigative journalists. Readers of the story, which derived from “a senior naval source”, were told that
The incident happened shortly before Theresa May became prime minister but she omitted any mention of the failed test when she persuaded parliament to spend £40bn on new Trident submarines in her first big Commons speech on July 18. The revelations are likely to cause a political storm. MPs will want to know why such important information … was withheld …
As Cameron remained PM until 13 July, this line was not exactly supported by
The source had told this newspaper that the test took place at the end of June – about the time of the Brexit vote on June 23.
or by a story in The Times the next day, US urged Britain to keep Trident blunder secret:
Officials from the Obama administration asked David Cameron’s government not to comment on the malfunction during a test of the Trident nuclear deterrent in June, it is understood.
The Sunday Times returned to their story on 29 January, sticking with “the serious malfunction [having] been covered up by Downing Street” but shifting the emphasis to “problems with the gyro within Trident’s guidance system” and US documents, backed up by “A source close to the US military”.

Neither of the Sunday Times reports made anything of the closeness of the British Trident test (actually on Monday 20 June – see below) to the date of the EU Referendum. A post here last year looked at the opinion polling in the days leading up to the Referendum and any impact of the death of Jo Cox MP and suspension of the campaign on Thursday 16 June. Parliament was recalled on 20 June and campaigning resumed the following day. At this point Remain seemed to be doing better in the polling than hitherto, or as it turned out, on the day.

The Sunday Times’s political editor, Tim Shipman, has written in depth about the Referendum in a highly-regarded book, All Out War.  At the end of a chapter on the aftermath of Cox’s death, he records:
… Another senior figure in the campaign described Jo Cox’s death as ‘a disaster’ for Stronger In: ‘That weekend , I bet the papers would have splashed on a five-point Leave lead in the polls, and I think on Monday and Tuesday the markets would have crashed. We would have had a cycle which was much closer to Scotland. Actually it took the sting out of the campaign. It meant that the bounce back to the status quo never really happened. That was something we were banking on happening”. 
Cox’s death also meant Mark Carney’s final intervention on the day of her killing received almost no publicity. ‘He was just wiped off the news agenda, and that was devastating from our point of view’, a Tory source said. … (page 388)
The next chapter of Shipman’s book deals with the final ‘Great Debate’ of the campaign held at Wembley on Tuesday 21 June. By then the news of the test failure would have reached Whitehall - which raises an interesting point: what effect, if any, the news might have had on the campaign.  In so far as it could appear to the public as being a loss of face for the government and the prime minister, it might have been considered as unhelpful to the Remain side and even as undermining its authority. 

Two other, albeit less intriguing, points about timing lurk in all this. Firstly, if the story didn’t break surface last summer soon after the event, why should it emerge in January, seven months later? Perhaps it should be noted that President Obama’s period of office ended on Friday 20 January and the new Trump staff in the White House would have had no interest in responding to The Times’s story on Monday 22nd, if they were even aware of it.

Following the Sunday Times story, a Labour MP, Kevan Jones, put down an Urgent Question on 23 January:
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the test firing of a Trident nuclear missile in June 2016.
The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, responded:
In June last year, the Royal Navy conducted a demonstration and shakedown operation designed to certify HMS Vengeance and her crew prior to their return to operations. It included a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch. Contrary to reports in the weekend press, HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle. We do not comment on the detail of submarine operations, …
Lines which he continued to take in response to questions. Another MP, John Spellar (Labour Minister for the Armed Forces, 1999-2001), asked:
Will the Minister confirm that in Lord Hennessy’s book “The Silent Deep” there is a full description of a previous firing?
Spellar could have asked the book’s author who must have been in Westminster, for later the same afternoon in the House of Lords, Earl Howe, Defence Minister, repeated the statement Fallon had made earlier (although the words “In June last year” were replaced by “On 20 June”) and Lord Hennessy would speak:
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I witnessed the launch in question from the survey vessel two and half miles away from where the missile came out of the sea. I put it to the Minister, with great respect, that it would make it much easier for those of us who very powerfully support the independent deterrent, and the building of the four “Dreadnought” submarines in the successor class, to make the case generally in the country when we are interviewed in the media if the Minister could assure us that a full analysis has been successfully made of whatever went wrong—I have no knowledge at all of the nature of what went wrong—and that remedies have been put in place. I understand that every particle of a D5 missile is riddled with the highest security classifications, but in this case, such an assurance could be possible and would be very welcome.
Earl Howe replied:
My Lords, the most important assurance is the one that I have already given: this is a system in which we have absolute confidence. It has never been the practice of government to give Parliament details of submarine operations or of the systems and subsystems that are tested during a demonstration and shakedown operation. But I hope I have said enough to reassure noble Lords about our deterrent and its reliability.
Peter Hennessy, as well as witnessing the June 2016 launch, had been present at launches in May 2009 and October 2012 (The Silent Deep, page 638). By yet another near coincidence of timing, the paperback edition of his book had come out on 2 June 2016. The Submarine Service seems to have embraced Hennessy as warmly as the civil service used to in the days when his books on Whitehall would admiringly recount how “down these mean corridors a man must go”. But perhaps he shouldn’t book his flights to Florida for 2020, say, too soon, in view of Fallon’s response to Spellar’s question above:
… I have already made it clear that, of course, earlier Governments in different circumstances took different decisions not to share details with Parliament, but to release information publicly about the completion of tests. We have to take our decision in the light of the circumstances that prevail at the time and the national security considerations.
And if 2020 turns out to be the next year a British submarine tests a Trident missile, do not expect it to take place before 7 May!

Fallon must have been left wishing that in the past others had adopted the reticence implied in Kipling’s advice:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster  
And treat those two impostors just the same

20 February 2017

Elisabeth Frink at Hauser & Wirth

Two previous posts have been about exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in Bruton: in 2014 their opening exhibition was of works by Phyllida Barlow who will have a solo show in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017; last year, drawings by Louise Bourgeois. Their current show in Bruton is Elisabeth Frink: Transformation.

Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) was a major figure in British sculpture from the early 1950s until her death. The sculpture and drawings selected for this show concentrate on the 1950s and 1960s. Birds appear frequently in her early 1960s work:

 and in semi-abstract form in her drawings:

The male form, often nude, appears frequently in her work, never, it seems, the female:

Birdman, 1960
Her large male heads, particularly the Goggle Heads from the late 1960s, are well-known in her late works:

Goggle Head I, 1969 (left) and Desert Quartet III and IV, 1989 right
It may seem carping when there is no charge at Hauser & Wirth for their exhibitions, but to me this show was woefully under-curated. The exhibits were not labelled, or even numbered, so their titles, dates and provenance had to be gleaned, and then only to a limited extent, from the press release and from a commendable Education Guide. It surely would not have been a major effort to overcome these deficiencies, most of the information presumably having to be collated for insurance purposes if nothing else. Annette Ratuszniakh’s Elisabeth Frink Catalogue Raisonne of Sculpture 1947-93 would have been of help.

Elisabeth Frink: Transformation continues until 7 May 2017.

19 February 2017

Peter Mandelson and Alternative Facts

From the transcript, the first question that Marr (AM) put to Mandelson (M) this morning: 


 AM: Peter Mandelson, Brexit is going to happen, isn’t it?

 M: The question Andrew is, on what terms? And what we’ve learned since the referendum and obviously the government has to respect, and parliament has to respect the decision, the majority decision expressed in the referendum, even though it represented only 37 per cent of the public who voted to leave. …

Only 37%?  Wasn’t the result 51.89% Leave, 48.11% Remain (I certainly thought so when I posted this the other day)?

But the turnout was 72.21% and, guess what, 72.21% of 51.89% is 37.47%, hence Mandelson’s “37 per cent”. However, on that basis the Remain vote would be 72.21% of 48.11%, ie 34.7%. And, anyway, it wasn’t “37 per cent of the public who voted” – perhaps the non-voters didn’t care or didn’t know, they can’t be assumed to be Remainers!

Mandelson always regarded himself as the architect of Blair’s 1997 election victory when Labour secured a 179 seat majority. Using Mandelson’s measure above, Labour’s 43.2% of the votes cast on a 71.3% turnout would have amounted to “31 per cent of the public who voted”!

18 February 2017

Donald Trump and Tony Blair February 2017

President’s Press Conference, The White House, 16 February 2017 

... And just while you’re at it, because you mentioned this, Wall Street Journal did a story today that was almost as disgraceful as the failing New York Time’s story, yesterday. And it talked about – these are… front page.

So director of national intelligence just put out, acting a statement, any suggestion that the United States intelligence community, this was just given to us, is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.  So they took this front page story out of The Wall Street Journal top and they just wrote the story that its not true. And I’ll tell you something, I’ll be honest, because I sort of enjoy this back and forth that I guess I have all my life but I’ve never seen more dishonest media than frankly, the political media. I thought the financial media was much better, much more honest.

But I will say that, I never get phone calls from the media. How did they write a story like that in The Wall Street Journal without asking me or how did they write a story in The New York Times, put it on front page? That was like the story they wrote about the women and me, front page, big massive story. And it was nasty and then they called, they said we never said that, we like Mr. Trump. They called up my office, we like Mr. Trump, we never said that.

And it was totally — they totally misrepresented those very wonderful women, I have to tell you, totally misrepresented. I said give us the retraction. They never gave us a retraction and frankly, I then went on to other things.

Tony Blair's Speech on Brexit for Open Britain, London, 17 February 2017 

... There is an effective cartel of media on the right, which built the ramp for pro-Brexit propaganda during the campaign; is now equally savage in its efforts to say it is all going to be ‘great’ and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor or moaner; and who make it very clear to the PM that she has their adulation for exactly as long as she delivers Brexit.

It hugely skews the broadcast coverage. For example, a week ago there was the annual survey of top business bosses of the leading UK companies. Over half said Brexit was already having an adverse effect on their business. And half did not have confidence in the Government negotiating a good deal. It led the FT. It was barely covered elsewhere. The BBC had it as an item of business news. Suppose the survey had come to the opposite conclusion. It would have had at least 4 papers headlining it and would therefore have featured prominently on the broadcasts.

15 February 2017

Brexit: London Boroughs and MPs

In a post here in January about the 2016 Richmond Park parliamentary by-election, I pointed out that “Anyone who attempts to look at [the relationship between the by-election and the 2016 EU Referendum] will encounter a problem: the Referendum results in London were reported at borough level, not by parliamentary constituency” and that I would “provide some further analysis of the London boroughs and the parliamentary constituencies within their boundaries” so here it is, for what it’s worth.

What constitutes London? Its orbital motorway, the M25, might provide a clear physical boundary but many people outside it earn their living in the city and its area assessed in terms of economic impact spreads a long way. For political purposes London is the combination of its 32 Boroughs with, at their centre, the City of London, both of these having Mayors. Within that London, there are 73 Parliamentary Constituencies (PCs). However, the City of London does not have its own MP, sharing one with next-door Westminster. So, for the purposes of most of what follows, I have combined the separate Referendum results for the Borough of Westminster and the City into “Westminster and City of London”.

A further complication is that 10 of the PCs straddle two LBs, Richmond Park being an example with its voters in Richmond upon Thames and in Kingston upon Thames. The table below shows how seats are distributed across the boroughs, 18 out of 32 sharing a PC with another. After the 2015 election the majority of London seats were Labour, and there was only one Liberal Democrat.

The 18 LBs and 10 PCs are shown below:

The 2016 EU Referendum introduced a new dimension into UK politics. The most pro-Remain area in the UK was Lambeth LB at 78.6%, 30.5% more than the UK average. But another London borough, Havering, at 30.3% was 17.8% below. 369th of the 380 UK reporting areas, Havering was almost as inclined to Leave as Boston in the East Midlands, the 380th at 24.4% Remain. The Remain and Turnout percentages for the LBs are shown in the chart below:

The chart shows that in London with exceptions (eg Richmond upon Thames) the relationship between Remain and Turnout was slightly inverse: that is to say, as the first went down, the second went up.

Across the UK, turnout for the Referendum in 2016 at 72.2% was higher than in the previous year’s general election at 66.4%. This was the case in most of the London PCs, but not all:

The LBs where turnout was less in 2016 than that of constituent constituencies in 2015 are shown below:

The Lewisham turnout reduction is unusual, involving all three of the PCs in the borough.

Finally, the chart below brings together the 2016 Remain results for the LBs (measured relative to the UK outcome – x-axis) and the majority in each of the PCs in 2015 (y-axis), both being percentages. PCs spread across two LBs are denoted with hollow bullets and linked with dotted lines. The outcomes of the two London by-elections in 2016 (Tooting just before the Referendum and Richmond Park nearly five months later) are indicated by the vertical arrows leading to stars.

The bullets with green shrouds indicate the PCs of MPs who voted against exercising Article 50 on 8 February. Not surprisingly, these represented constituents from LBs that had favoured Remain. The Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington is a notable exception. The MPs for the two PCs with voters in boroughs with marked differences in attitude to Remain (Erith and Thamesmead in both Bexley and Greenwich and Ruislip Northwood and Pinner in both Harrow and Hillingdon) did not vote against Article 50.