Coding A War Against Codes

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This morning we witnessed the US Congress convene and question key members of the intelligence community who in turn provided testimony on Russian cyber-attacks linked to the 2016 US Presidential elections. An unclassified assessment report by the intelligence community on the very nature, modus operandi and motive of these attacks is impending and will be released to the public.

Nonetheless, a very key – yet awkward – issue has been the issue of price. What cost should a country inflict on the perpetrators of cyber-attacks? In the USA’s case, what cost should it inflict against the perpetrators of an attack which it believes with high confidence to be backed and blessed by the Russian security and intelligence services? Fundamentally, what metrics and principles of retaliation are reasonable in response to such attacks? How useful, or relevant, are frameworks such as ‘Just War’ theory in helping the intelligence community, and decision-makers more importantly, elucidate these questions during the planning phase of a possible response?

Retaliations essentially address two elements; discipline and prevention.

How far should victims of cyber-attacks stray from the principle of proportionality in its disciplinary response to inflict the exact cost for the actions of the perpetrators? Such attacks committed through cyberspace produce tangible and non-cyber effects – whether that is political, sociological, or economic – such as Denial of Service attacks which compromise irrigation/power systems, or in the USA’s case, inadvertently (or deliberately, we shall see) undermining one Presidential candidate in favour of another. Therefore, the logic of proportionality dictates that if the victim retaliates to inflict a price, this price should at least be proportional to the calculated costs of the initial cyber-attack.

However, tough questions must be addressed. How likely is it that such a cost can be inflicted only through engagement via the cyber domain? Let us assume the recent hacks significantly undermined the US Presidential election and inadvertently enhanced one candidate’s campaign over another, would Washington seek to retaliate with the objective of achieving similar results to which it suffered as a victim of the initial attacks? This ‘eye-for-an-eye’ approach overlooks the clear structural impediments and differences within the context of other countries and their political systems. To extend the hypothetical scenario, how viable would undermining a foreign power’s Presidential election be if there are overwhelming structural and political impediments of all candidates against a particular candidate? In other words, how likely is it to spend the time and effort in successfully executing a cyber-attack operation to undermine an election in an authoritarian, populist state?

If cyber-attacks constituting the infiltration of information concerning one candidate coupled by the fabrication of fake stories and propaganda helped swing the election in one country, should the victim country retaliate both within the realms of cyberspace but also outside if that is how it can achieve similar results of subverting a political adversary? Imposing the costs one suffers as a symmetrical price for the perpetrator to pay is an unwieldy endeavour, and can lead down a very dangerous path. For democratic states, retaliating based on this principle against less democratic regimes may not be possible without sacrificing the principle of proportionality – certainly in relation to price and results. This may also have a limited effect. As we witnessed in the US, Washington’s response to the cyber-attacks was to declare 39 Russian diplomatic and business personnel, the majority of whom were members of its intelligence community, persona non grata. A bold diplomatic step indeed, but one which has been criticised for its limited impact – ‘are they replaceable? How much has it compromised routine Russian diplomatic and intelligence operations?’ Whilst further sanctions and retaliations from Washington are expected – the current price the Russians have paid for its involvement in the cyber-attacks seem minuscule compared to the results achieved by such attacks, assuming this is in Russia’s interest (which it is) – and its very own making (which with high confidence we can say that it is).

There is also a very significant point underlying all these proceedings – the incredible difficulty of ascertaining causality with regards to who is officially behind a cyber-attack given the nature of this new theatre of war. Discussions in the US have so far centred on a dichotomy; that such attacks leading up to the election were inflicted either officially, with full authorisation from the highest levels in Moscow, or by a tech-savvy lone-wolf in his/her basement. These representations are common given the nature and theatre of a cyber-attack but unhelpful given that such distinctions are often blurred by the very fact that the identifiable source of a cyber-attack may originate from a basement but this does not disqualify the involvement or authorisation of state officials.

If retaliations seek to inflict a price by disciplining recognisable perpetrators, but are aware of the esoteric nature (and perhaps necessity) of engagement in the cyber-space, this constrains states to fight proxy wars. Each state is indirectly responsible if not knowledgeable of infiltrations and counter-infiltrations against others with the added difficulty of ascertaining beyond reasonable doubt who is really responsible for the attacks. But proxy engagements are also those which carry little weight towards setting a precedent for future prevention – after all, that is why they are proxy and rather unstartling. What is key for Washington, and any other future victim of a foreign state-sponsored cyber-attack, is not only inflicting a price for such an action, but establishing a precedent to prevent future endeavours particularly by the original perpetrator but more importantly by other entities. It is key that international norms concerning this domain are difficult to arrange, let alone monitor.

This difficulty is compounded when the domain of cyberspace is also used as a medium and theatre for war – not in the totalitarian, full-mobilisation sense, but in the ad-hoc ‘skirmishes’ sense. The latter sense of engagement and counter-engagement in this domain may even perpetuate the viability of this space. It has produced (so far) relatively little loss of life, and presents adversaries with great nuisance requiring the draining of finite resources rather than an existential threat (although, our friends in the Baltic will certainly testify that cyber-attacks which impose Denial of Service or propaganda may be the prequel to a more direct and aggressive threat to sovereignty, and life). Tangled within this mesh is the issue of espionage and counter-espionage, not only for political but also economic motivations, and the sheer complexity of this domain strikes out any impending possibility of some reconciliation and regulation in this domain that may deter such activities.

But proxy engagements are also those which carry little weight towards setting a precedent for future prevention – after all, that is why they are proxy and rather unstartling. What is key for Washington, and any other future victim of a foreign state-sponsored cyber-attack, is not only inflicting a price for such an action but establishing a precedent to prevent future endeavours particularly by the original perpetrator but more importantly by other entities. It is key that international norms concerning this domain are difficult to arrange, let alone monitor. This difficulty is compounded when the domain of cyberspace is also used as a medium and theatre for war – not in the totalitarian, full-mobilisation sense, but in the ad-hoc ‘skirmishes’ sense. The latter sense of engagement and counter-engagement in this domain may even perpetuate the viability of this space. It has produced (so far) relatively little loss of life, and presents adversaries with great nuisance requiring the draining of finite resources rather than an existential threat (although, our friends in the Baltic will certainly testify that cyber-attacks which impose Denial of Service or propaganda may be the prequel to a more direct and aggressive threat to sovereignty, and life). Tangled within this mesh is the issue of espionage and counter-espionage, not only for political but also economic motivations, and the sheer complexity of this domain strikes out any impending possibility of some reconciliation and regulation in this domain that may deter such activities.

Having established that targets and engagements via the cyberspace are interpreted as ‘fair game’, how severe must a victim’s retaliatory cyber-attack be – or as it’s implied, a non-cyber method of retaliation – in order to deter similar actions? Members of Congress raised this issue today in passing, highlighting the currently mature interpretation that ‘Russian hacks did not change the election by altering online votes, but initiated a series of actions which undermined one candidate and thus indirectly influenced the outcome’. They also highlighted how this would ‘most likely be repeated in the future’. How Washington, or any other future victim of such attacks, retaliate in a manner which inflicts the appropriate price for the initial attack whilst setting an ad-hoc precedent which deters future attacks will be an issue that may set the shifting principles of attrition between states through cyberspace for the near future.

Opening up to a stranger

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Well, I guess that depends on how you would define a ‘stranger’ (a glimpse of what three years of politics can do to you and how you approach nouns – ‘is it an essentially contested concept?’ – only kidding, I will not start that one off). It was 23:30 at the library, the night before the morning of submitting our final year dissertation project, and I’m printing copies of my thesis. As I arranged the stack of papers with my dissertation title on top, a random student beside me, a 2nd year International Relations & Politics student (something I later found out), made an impromptu remark; “that’s your dissertation then!” After a few exchanges, I found myself giving him detailed recommendations and tips on how to approach the whole endeavour when it’s his turn to go through it all. I still have no idea how we got to that stage, I hardly knew him, he hardly knew me. But the hidden force which kept our conversation flowing was a mutual interest (on his side, anticipation – perhaps dread, and on my side, a willingness to pass on my undergraduate wisdom and experience to a fellow student who seemed unprepared for the ‘crusade’ of final year). Personally, I enjoy helping others out, so this was no problem to me. And if something I have said can make the difference between somebody being more productive or less stressful with their work, then that is gratifying. But the whole experience with him felt strange in a sense that here was a 2nd year I had never met pondering about the dissertation process and here I was in a fatigued state stocked-up on cups of cappuccino despite my body screaming at me to sleep, yet committed to telling him everything. He was at the library preparing for seminar work (why?), but curious about how to make the best use of his time during the dissertation process (why??), and I was there still committed to document all of my thoughts about the whole thing (why???) when I could have been catching up on some much-needed sleep after a hectic period (why wasn’t I????).

I told him everything relevant to how my experience of third year has been. How he needed to start writing early, or at least to read around early, and how this is so much easier said than done. I told him how this is the period where you notice who your closest, or perhaps the better word would be most caring and inspiring, friends are. I told him how you learn to coalesce, stick through the ordeal shoulder to shoulder with your student colleagues, committed to helping each other out, however small the gesture or heart-warming comment offered to you by lovely people. I told him how expensive the whole process will be (I wish the SU Officer election campaigns pressed more on how I need to break into a £10 note at the library cafe for a hot drink, sandwich, fruit, and a snack).

I forgot to tell him one thing, perhaps due to the fact that this is something very innate to me. Now my whole undergraduate study is (unofficially) over, I feel empty. This is not to be misunderstood with feeling lonely, or sad, although my heart is heavy that I will soon leave the fantastic city that Sheffield is (a blog post is due on this I think!). I’ve planned to study for a Masters from this September, and before that, will enjoy a long break abroad (things that I am looking forward to). Nonetheless, by ’empty’, I mean something particular. For arguably three years, at a gradually increasing intensity, we have been disciplined into following a regimented schedule (seminar work, seminar attendance, assignment work, seminar work, seminar attendance, assignment work, exam revision…) over and over again. An interesting way to look at it all is how we approach every ‘hurdle’ (seminar/essay assignment/exam) by perceiving it with more of a mindset of ‘I just want this over and done with, bring on the next one, how quick can time pass, hope it’s all over soon’ without stopping to think that once it is all over, once we’ve passed the hurdles, we are left in a vacuum, in an empty space, feeling lost, with nothing substantial to look forward to, in the short term. Remove the weight and pressure that has burdened you for almost three years, and you feel ‘free’, but ‘free’ feels strange to me, it is almost as if university (and perhaps life) has disciplined our bodies but more crucially our minds to need pressure, want pressure, look for something to do, yearn for some sort of structure and compulsory ‘hurdle’ that we must spend our time and energy working towards.

That’s perhaps why I’m back blogging again (it’s been a while!), and I appreciate that the topic of this post is less ‘political’ (I think I need a break having written a dissertation and being encompassed with the whole referendum debate), but I thought I could offer a glimpse of my experiences, and my feelings.

Lastly, returning to how our mindsets have been ‘disciplined’ and tuned towards structure/regimentation/pressure/work. This was perhaps manifested today;  I sub-consciously boiled the kettle and poured coffee (a lot of coffee) into my mug this morning, why? I don’t need caffeine right now, my university work is finished, and I planned to spend the day catching up on some leisurely reading with the possibility of running a few errands. That is a very relaxed if not lazy day compared to the amount of stress and work required of us at the final stretch of university.

A caffeine addiction I here you say? Oh, I guess that’s another thing I forgot to mention to the stranger that night. Unless he figured this out for himself?

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Things Hold Together; The Centre Can Hold

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Many are still pondering, post-election, whether centrism has evaporated from the spectrum of British politics. A number of factors help reinforce judgements that indeed that is the case – that moderate politics in either direction is dying out.

To name a few, these include the parliamentary wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election, and the growth of initially fringe parties with radical politics such as the Green Party and UKIP. These coincided with the popular rise of the SNP and (to a lesser degree) Plaid Cymru over the past decade. Add to this the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader and we can see why one might perhaps make the argument.

But how true is this? How representative and reflective is the composition of parliament of Britain’s political spectrum? Do we have to have a strong parliamentary composition of centrist parties with centrist MPs in order to state that centrism exists, or when this composition is lacking, state that it has declined? Not necessarily.

Perhaps we should view the current British political climate in another way, recognising the existence of centrism as a viable and influential grouping on the political spectrum, but not necessarily standing alone. It has instead been subsumed within certain phenomena. Thus, rather than judging the ‘decline’, maybe we can interpret the ‘hiding away’ of centrism, such as within the Conservatives, who arguably not only stretched themselves across centrist positions with their centre-right electoral ideology, but managed to attract many of the centrist voters who were either previously Liberal Democrat voters or even swing-voters from Labour.

If the majority of centrist voters hide their votes with the Conservatives, this shouldn’t confirm the demise of centrism, and this phenomenon is not just confined to the Conservatives but also applicable with the Labour party too. While Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming leadership victory, on a huge inter-party democratic mandate, on unique policies (relative to the ‘consensus’ of three decades) helps reinforce the image of a polarisation of British politics at the expense of centrism, we should not forget that this is not synonymous with the idea that suddenly all Labour members, voters, and politicians have abandoned their centrist ideology.

And with the centrism that is not hiding in either the Conservatives, or for that matter, muted within a very left-leaning Labour party, there are still (whisper it) the Liberal Democrats. While the Liberal Democrats may have experienced near wipe-out in the 2015 general election, the sheer scale of which is demonstrated by them losing over four fifths of their parliamentary seats, they still received 2.4 million votes. This exemplifies the strange workings of our electoral system and perhaps was anticipated for an increasingly unpopular coalition party bullied by its large coalition partner, heading into an election. But we shouldn’t overestimate the idea that centrism has evaporated because the Liberal Democrats have done so. If anything, the future looks positive for the Liberal Democrats, who are not only increasing their party membership, but are expected to capitalise on Labour voters who do not subscribe to Corbyn’s ideology.

The beauty of all this is that they have time, and plenty of it, to begin recovering for 2020, when we can expect the Liberal Democrats to position themselves as the ‘safe bet’, between a Conservative majority and what they will perceive as a radical Labour Party, in order to try and regain a selection of seats lost to the Tories while fighting Labour as a credible centrist party too.

Overall, we should be cautious not to misread the supposed polarisation of British politics as the permanent and irreversible death of centrism. It may look unpopular just after an election with plenty of political fall-out, but it will not go away so easily, and taping effectively into voters’ desires for moderation could be crucial for any party, as it nearly always has been, in performing well in elections.

George Friedman, ‘The Next 100 Years’ – Overview and Thoughts

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Geopolitical forecasts for future international relations and what our world will look like, have always intrigued me. Thus it didn’t take much to persuade me to binge-read George Friedman’s ‘The Next 100 Years’. As squeezing over 300-pages of predictions into a blog post would probably require 300-odd hours, I will focus on a few significant predictions and assertions he makes. Indeed, perhaps providing a review on Friedman’s prediction for the next 100 years may seem a little premature given the book was published in 2009 and thus we are only 6 years into his predictions. Also, the copy I read is in Turkish, and thus I present to you his arguments/predictions translated into English by myself, which may run the danger of me misunderstanding some subtle nuances and details that have been lost in translation, twice. Twice because I am re-translating the Turkish (to English) which the original translator used when translating Friedman’s book from English to Turkish. So, using a famous Turkish saying, “ben onun yalancısıyım”; Meaning (literally), “I am their liar”, but interpreted as, ‘what I say to you may be mistaken and wrong, not because of me, but because of what I am told (or in my case, how it has been translated), so don’t quote me on it.’

Now we’ve got that cleared, time to highlight a few of Friedman’s predictions. He highlights certain political ‘fault-lines’ (metaphorical) which will dominate international relations with increased tension and potential conflict. One of the most significant ‘fault lines’ is Eurasia. Firstly, the South China Sea, and the Pacific in general. He predicts the growth of Japan as a power pursuing territorial expansion in order to alleviate growing pressures of firstly depending heavily on energy imports and secondly on its declining working population. This phenomenon will be situated within a 21st century in which world powers seek to challenge American dominance (these powers being Japan, Poland, and Turkey). Japan is predicted to expand its economic influence to regions of coastal China, and the Russian Far East, but this economic influence will be converted into a much bolder and perhaps aggressive Japan who is predicted to build its military strength to become the regional hegemon of East Asia. Whether this implies Japanese troops on Russian and Chinese territories seems unclear, and is testimony to the nature of what Friedman is trying to do in his book. Building military strength to project regional power across East Asia can represent an array of possibilities.

Nevertheless, I believe Friedman seems to have missed something here. For a neutral and peaceful Japan since WWII and thus for a century (Friedman believes such a phenomenon will arise in the mid-21st century) to suddenly alter its foreign and diplomatic policy overnight due to problems it has always faced, in the expense of China and Russia and in an international economic order in which it has flourished, seems slightly far-fetched.

Friedman seems to also downplay China’s role in all of this, which (together with Russia), is predicted to ‘fragment’ from the early 2020s both politically and culturally. I agree with Friedman’s analysis that intense political, cultural, societal, economic, and environmental pressures undermine China and will continue to do so in the future, and I think he deserves credit for highlighting this subtle complexity if not reminding us when the consensus seems to conflate China’s rise and prospect (to the point where many claim it will replace the United States as the next international, let alone regional, hegemon). However, in an attempt to diverge from the fashionable commentaries on when China will become the next world leader and in what shape or form, I believe Friedman has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. His prediction of China regionally fragmented yet under ‘formal’ central government rule (despite its dwindling power) seems to ignore the ability of the current regime to maintain internal order and (relative) stability in a rapidly growing economy which seems to gradually shape-shift from translating its economic zenith into a political and cultural phenomenon. Indeed, central control may not last indefinitely, but to suggest that China’s fragmentation, and wholesale decline (to the extent where according to Friedman the U.S, European powers, and Japan will re-create regional spheres of influence within mainland China), will occur within a decade or so, again grossly exaggerates the internal problems facing China that can trigger this outcome and also ignores the obstacles standing in the way for this phenomenon to materialise.

Even if we are only 6 years into Friedman’s predictions, we can safely confirm that processes occurring in the region highlight the reversal of what Friedman predicts in terms of a declining China so much so that its own sphere of influence in 2009 (arguably retrenched compared to today) will be intruded and swallowed up by multiple powers. We see China emboldened, and determined to solidify its current sphere if not expand it even further. Recent land reclamations in the South China Sea (in defiance of international law arguably and international customs/norms definitely) highlight a developing Chinese grand strategy which confirms one thing, China is throwing its weight around, can throw its weight around, and will continue to throw its weight around in the future. Scuffles with Japan, and other neighbours, coupled with the changing rhetoric echoed by the Chinese regime which is beginning to whip nationalist fervour, is incompatible with what should be happening by the 2010s and 2020s according to Friedman. Indeed, US presence will continue in the area, but both world powers will balance each other out in the region, and perhaps internationally too. I can’t buy into the idea and image of China conceding what it has, what it can potentially have, so easily vis-à-vis other powers, and so quickly (by the 2020s).

Will this mean peace or competition? If the latter was to prevail this would probably be limited to rivalry and gesturing rather than exchanging rockets. I don’t know, neither does Friedman in this case (although he does detail out a WWIII around year 2050 between the US, the ‘Polish Bloc’ (comprising some Baltic, East European and Carpathian states), Britain, India, and China on one side, and Turkey and Japan on the other, with Germany and France entering the war in its late stages on the side of Turkey and Japan – crazy right? But then again Friedman makes a point that if, at the end of WWII, somebody told you that Japan and Germany would make up the largest and strongest five economies in the world by the 21st century, you’d think they were crazy too).

Analysing this WWIII would require a lot of time, and patience, but in summary I reject this outcome, and would be very surprised if anybody didn’t. Still, it’s a good read, even humorous. On a serious note, it’s confusing how Turkey and Japan, strong US-allies (a dynamic which Friedman predicts will continue as the US supports both countries as regional powers in an attempt to prevent the emergence of a single great Eurasian power – possibly referring to Russia, Iran in the Middle East, and China), can turn into arch enemies with a few decades to the point where, according to Friedman, both states engage in a highly-technological ‘space war’ where the Japanese sneak attack the US and its allies during Thanksgiving Day at 17:00 on November 24, 2050, catching the Americans off-guard. The Turkish-Japanese alliance will then enter into negotiations demanding US recognition of their status as a fellow superpower, the US will reject this, stage a brilliant comeback and become victorious.

Friedman predicts that the US conflict with Islamic fundamentalists will die down by the 2010s. That seems extremely unlikely, and rightfully so, with the barbaric presence of ISIL, the US as a world leader will be needed to eradicate this corrupted ideology more than ever through its soft power capabilities and multi-lateral initiatives.

Where I am more comfortable in aligning with Friedman’s predictions is his analysis of socio-economic change. He predicts lower birth-rates and accelerated declines in population within developed countries, especially in Europe. This will have cultural, social, and political shifts throughout the 21st century, which appears likely as a result of a smaller working age and rapidly aging population (are we not seeing the inceptions of this problem right now?). Ironically, Friedman predicts that Western nations will begin to compete for immigrants (I say ironic because it appears that the political mood is shifting slightly on how we perceive ‘outsiders’, everybody wants to now ‘get tough on immigration). Coinciding this, Friedman predicts higher unemployment, as robots begin to over-take multiple jobs and functions which will then result in another round of attempts to limit immigration again to choke off the surplus of labour.

Friedman’s predictions do not end there, you are probably relieved that I won’t be overviewing all of them as it would be silly to do so, so go figure out the rest of them which feature in plenty throughout his book, and explained in so much detail that one may feel ever so slightly unnerved at the level of meticulousness! The strength of this book is that it is not confined to dull geo-political strategy, but focuses on other developments and contexts, such as technological dynamics (the development of hypersonic aircraft and missiles, new space-based technology fostering the development of military bases on the moon and orbiting platforms – referred to as ‘Battle Stars’), to knit together a general discussion and projection of the future.

Indeed, Friedman’s level of analysis may overlook intangible and subtle factors, for instance, the role of leaders and the populace that elect them, or events (good or bad), and so on. Some, if not all, of his predictions may appear absurd, but I’m sure even the most sceptical will agree with some of the dynamics that may feature in our world within the 21st century, and that this doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘WWIII with Japan’ but something more nuanced and optimistic within Friedman’s predictions such as the ability to power earth through solar energy and ending the dependence on hydrocarbons, or advances in genetic science which could increase labour productivity.

The Conservative ‘Victory’ may be a Poisoned Chalice

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Against all odds, the Conservatives have secured a working majority. However, history can tell us that this does not necessarily mean all is well for the Conservatives, nor does it necessarily mean that the apocalyptic theories of an unrestrained David Cameron with his majority destroying the country will bear fruit. Because actually, we don’t need to look too far into history to see the potential obstacles facing the Conservatives. Their victory may be a poisoned chalice.

1992. The majority of opinion polls and analysts predicted a victory for Neil Kinnock. Yet a fatigued Conservative Party led by John Major shocked everybody as he managed to secure a working majority of 21. With 14 million votes, Major and his party held a 6 to 7% vote share over Labour. 2015, against all odds, Cameron and his Conservatives hold a 6 to 7% vote share over Labour, translating into a working majority of 12.

However, the only significant winner from the majority gained by the Conservatives is the Conservative backbencher. Cameron has been praised for ‘controlling’ a notoriously divergent group of MPs, especially over key issues such as legislation over a referendum triggered by the transfer of more sovereignty, or the European Arrest Warrant. However, under the coalition, Cameron held a majority of roughly 70 odd. He had the luxury to dilute backbench revolt as the most rebellious MPs perceived that however hard they tried, the majority was too strong to over-turn. Indeed, the 2010-2015 Parliament was one of the most rebellious in history, and the Conservative dominated executive were defeated on legislation. But before we fear what a single-party government will mean for this country, let us realise that this ‘victory’ may destabilise Cameron’s position pretty soon. I envisage Europe to be the obstacle which will help with this destabilisation.

Just as Major experienced the problems of a diverging party amongst the pro and anti-EU factions within the Conservatives, Cameron is ultimately doomed to face a repeat of history. Even hours after the electoral victory, Conservative MPs from both sides of this faction presented their diverging views on the issue of Europe. Indeed, the current party-line is that a road-map has been established for re-negotiation, and at the end of this Britain will go to the polls on a referendum. For some Conservatives, this is sufficient and perhaps the most moderate way to solve the ‘European Question’. For others, who can empirically point to the surging UKIP vote in their constituencies from the other night, this is not enough. For another significant group of MPs, the very fact that Cameron will spend two years talking to Europe to then come back and perform a delusional Wilson-style ‘look I have renegotiated a 0.005% change in our relationship’ is gut-wrenching if not scandalous as many of their constituents begin to realise UKIP’s rhetoric that a Conservative referendum may not be ‘free and fair’ after all.

Just as the effects of Maastricht spilled over into other policy areas for Major, the brewing issue of Europe in the coming months if not years may undermine Cameron’s bargaining chips when he aims to secure legislation over healthcare, taxation, constitutional issues, defence etc. There is so many times the executive can whip its backbenchers, and even with the imposition of the whip, Conservatives MPs passionate over Europe will stick to their ideals. Politically, the displeasure of many Conservative MPs over the renegotiation deal, for instance, may determine their voting intentions and appetite to support Cameron on other policy areas.
There is also the awful prospect of death, illness, and bi-elections. If Major’s majority of 21 dissolved within two to three years, Cameron will need to make a deal with other parties as his majority of 12 decreases. The question is a matter of when, rather than if.

Overall, there is a sense of confusion amongst many Conservatives, and perhaps Cameron himself, on what constitutes a ‘victory’ for the U.K. as a whole after negotiating with the EU. The intense debate and conflicting views within his own camp is bound to derail Cameron’s ability to finesse executive positions which he has done so successfully between 2010 and 2015 (granted, some of those policy positions were controversial). Even worse, while Cameron undoubtedly recognises how history may repeat itself (if he hasn’t, come somebody plug this blog post for him to read, please), Major fails to offer the silver bullet, the solution, and the leadership required to come out of this unscathed. Yes his party lost the 1997 election because the nation woke up to explicit pictures of his cabinet members in football shirts with nothing underneath exhibiting unstatesmanlike behaviour, yes events such as the ERM scandal dented perceptions of competence, and yes the nation fell in love with Mr Blair, but ultimately, the seeds for political disaster were sown over Europe for Major.

Furthermore, if Cameron does his history homework over Maastricht, he will see that the prospects and the principles held by MPs from both factions were clearer, Britain was to either concede more sovereignty across the Channel, or not, and this was either a good thing, or not. Today, the vague and ambiguous issue of ‘negotiating a better deal with Europe for the U.K.’ not only begs the question of ‘is this possible?’ but also, ‘in what areas?’. The endless amount of permutations is bound to split backbenchers into endless factions, who may all subsequently not exactly know where they stand with what appears to be a ‘half-hearted’ approach. Finally, the first visible signs of dissent and anger amongst euro-sceptics (especially) is bound to further alter the ‘roadmap’, the strategy, and the agency Cameron and his renegotiation team will show with Europe, which then unravels another set of questions and permutations for everybody involved, ‘how do we react?’, ‘how do we appear to react?’, ‘is this possible given the circumstances back home?’.

Paradoxically, while the clear majority provides Cameron capacity to implement his manifesto and his pledges, it may also be the very dynamic which constrains him. Cameron is in for a tough ride.

Don’t go to bed with Farage, he doesn’t last long.

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I don’t speak from experience by the way, for the dirty-minded amongst us.

As we edge closer to Election Day, my eyes only look at two parties and their respective percentages: LAB and CON. Until this morning, I noticed UKIP’s rating gradually decline since their peak in 2014. Farage and his ‘fruit-cakes’ plateaued, at a very crucial time.

Indeed, minor party popularity is best when it is buttressed between two elections. The European elections also provided UKIP the platform to widen its scope and appeal to voters in a way it has never done before. Before the European elections, we downplayed them, they won. We sniggered at their lack of Parliamentary presence, they threw two Tory-defects into the Commons. We then told ourselves that their support was expected as voters feel disillusioned with the status-quo, but opinion polls constantly (and still continue to today) place them as the third most popular party ahead of the election.

Looking at the Poll of Polls (as it would perhaps undermine ones credibility to base a point on one opinion poll, and because UKIP have been rated 15% by one, and 9% by another), we see UKIP and the Lib Dems yo-yo between third and fourth place from July 2013 to December 2013. We then see UKIP break away just before, during, and after the European elections, and consolidate third place. This is where we started to hear the ‘go to bed with Farage, wake up with Miliband’ line from the Tory strategy department.

Since the New Year, however, we see the average polling for UKIP support, apart from the odd increase, decline consistently over the months. This is the reality of First Past the Post Politics, bi-party dominance of resources and campaign strategists, and UKIP’s dwindling momentum. It appears that Farage and his ‘fruit-cakes’ really did plateau at the wrong time. Indeed, the difference of an average 3% or 4% may seem insignificant for a party that has never polled so highly before, but at this rate, UKIPs dwindling momentum could be the difference between reaching double-digits in Parliamentary seats or not even returning one Member of Parliament to the Commons. Their support still seems too thin to overwhelmingly challenge and pluck seats left, right and centre. If anything, their thinly spread support will only cause headache for the other parties who have to reconfigure their electoral strategies in order to accommodate the split in the right vote, (or even the left, in some working-class areas).

Nevertheless, the point is this – what would Farage give to have the momentum he did this time last year, for May 2015? Instead of king-makers, UKIP may be lucky to return one of their current MPs, not least add to them. I seem to again wake-up every morning to read another UKIP candidate dropping out within a week of the campaign; at this rate, it seems a miracle if Carswell, Reckless and Farage can alone represent UKIP in the Commons as a trio.

Factors for this are abundant, and lie on both sides. UKIP’s message doesn’t seem to resonate as much as it did with the electorate half-a-year ago. The election is dominated by issues such as the NHS, employment contracts, tax-rates. One could not miss Farage’s awkward smile as he unveiled his campaign poster which bullet-pointed the first two obvious pledges (immigrati…zzzz, The Europ…zzzz), but also slapped on pledges over the NHS (more money to be spent under UKIP apparently), and Tax (they want to scrap NI one day, increase it on another, then replace it with another). Farage’s momentum was facilitated on the first two issues, but he has been marginalised from the debate by David and Ed. The election is only about two men, and one question, who will be having their coffee made at Number 10 after May? We are now entering a period where major-party-funding, and campaigns orchestrated by American strategists, do the talking. Even as the (Parliamentary seat wise) third largest party, the Liberal Democrats seem to have disappeared from the debate, and stuck on whether they need to edge slightly to the left, to right, or remain in the ‘centre’ (even their campaign bus is stuck somewhere in the country). Nobody cares what they have to say, as the current governing party.

The future does not look great for UKIP; Farage has failed to maintain the momentum which fuelled apocalyptic scenarios of UKIP becoming the kingmakers for the Tories. Indeed, seldom is a decline of a party’s popularity just down to them, as outside forces constrain the capacity to maintain the support enjoyed a few months back. But it’s all about who between Miliband or Cameron is ahead by 0.000001%, or where the tax bombshell will drop if the Conservatives return to power, or who came out on top overall in the TV debates with Paxman. But no wonder we’ve momentarily stopped hearing the ‘if you go to bed with Farage..’ remarks,
After all, who would want to go to bed with a leader that can’t last long?

Cameron and the TV Debates: Shrewd Politics

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Let me take this opportunity to state that I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Green Party taking part in what has now become (again, for me) one of the most exciting parts of the election campaign; the TV Debates.

The TV Debates have been structured into three separate debates; Cameron vs Miliband. Cameron vs Miliband vs Clegg. Cameron vs Miliband vs Clegg vs Farage. So far, it appears that the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett will not be included into the last ‘four-way’ debate. Cameron has refused to participate due to the Green Party’s exclusion.

However, before we lambast David Cameron as ‘cowardly running scared’ from either being shown up by UKIP, or even the Greens on certain policies, we should consider how this is an example of shrewd politics.

Firstly, if we were to predict the outcome of what the debates would look like, we would be pretty comfortable to claim that Cameron will participate in the first two debates in the end, and this article relies on this assumption. As both the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the largest party currently in the Commons, Cameron could tackle both Labour and then the Liberal Democrats over the over-arching issue of running the country effectively.

We can also predict that, if Cameron continues to refuse and in the end ‘boycott’ the third debate, the image of ‘coward running scared’ may be a problem he’ll need to shake off. But is it really that bad for him? I can imagine the PM’s inner circle of advisers telling him that this is potentially the best option for Cameron to pursue if he wants to maintain his, and the parties, lead in the current opinion polls.

Simple cost-benefit/risk-limitation calculation may have enlightened Number 10 that Cameron could potentially face more damage against UKIP over – yes that’s right – immigration or the EU, than the potential damage inflicted on his opinion poll rating for avoiding the debates. The whole nation witnessed how Farage tore the Deputy Prime Minister into smithereens (twice), and there is no reason why he is incapable of doing that to the Prime Minister. It is shrewd politics to pursue the option that limits the amount of damage Cameron could potentially receive before the General Election. It may also damage Cameron’s appeal to voters over the areas where the Conservatives appear to be successful.

The recent economic results and forecasts will do no harm to Cameron or the Conservatives as we approach the next General Election. Cameron knows that the issues which Labour and the Liberal Democrats will target the Conservatives on in the first two debates appear to be issue-areas where Cameron will proudly exemplify the results and where his opponents have no foundation to argue. Cost-of-living crisis? Unemployment figures? GDP growth? The only significant domains that Labour and the Liberal Democrats can target Cameron on is over social services and the NHS. I expect Cameron to put up a good fight on these areas, highlighting how they are domains reliant on a strong economy, something they appear to be delivering. However, this tune will fail to engage with millions of voters if the narrative of the debate is on sensitive issues that UKIP will undoubtedly push Cameron on.

Finally, the risk-limitation pursued by Number 10 by dodging UKIP yet potentially winning the arguments over the economy against Labour and the Liberal Democrats, relies on how Cameron’s opponents react to the ‘debate about the debate’. Neither Labour, the Liberal Democrats nor UKIP have seriously, pressured the TV broadcasters to include the Greens. We should think about this, before we laugh at the irony when Cameron accuses Miliband of ‘running scared’ too.

Because of the empirical reluctance from all sides of the political spectrum, Cameron may, in the end, turn out on top over all this. The gamble of threatening to ‘boycott’ the debates and endorsing the ‘moral position’ on the necessary inclusion of the Greens, may have been interpreted by the skeptical public as a manoeuvre to not only avoid UKIP, but ensure that Labour and the Liberal Democrats (potentially) have a bad time too from the Greens. But, having noticed the reluctance of the other parties, who are quick to attack Cameron on this yet sheepish in endorsing the Greens for the debates (listen to Bennett ask Clegg whether he would ask the broadcasters for their inclusion), the public may not be so harsh if not actually relate with Cameron on this.

Control the issue-areas of the debate, stay favourite on key arguments such as the economy (if Cameron partakes in the first two debates), pursue risk-limitation, watch your opponents squabble yet commit to double-standards in the eyes of the nation, come out in the end potentially better as the only endorser of an exciting party as the Prime Minister, while ensuring that if the Greens are included your opponents are pulled down too. Shrewd politics.