In defence of Laura Kuenssberg

BBC correspondent Laura Kuenssberg has recently been vilified as a covert Brexiter who has shown her true colours, a Tory mouthpiece, secretly colluding with Brexiters and systematically conspiring with neo-fascists (and that’s ignoring the more offensive stuff). What happened?

On Brexitcast, a BBC radio 5 show and podcast for “geeky gossip about Brexit from Westminster and Brussels”, she said at the 43:35 mark

First draft of history and all this, I think that people will look back and think, “hang on – people voted for something in 2016 and then lots of people in the political establishment in Westminster spent a lot of time trying to undo that. What?” […] In the 2016 referendum campaign politicians on both sides, including the then-Prime Minister, stood on platforms and said things like “if you vote this way, this will happen. There will be no going back, this is not a vote where you get to have a second opinion.” And lo and behold, now three years later, people are scratching their heads in the Labour Party, saying “oh, do you think maybe that was a bit of problem that we were trying to undo something that people voted for?” There are obviously legitimate reasons, it’s perfectly legitimate for people to campaign for a another referendum. But, I always thought, covering it as a story, people voted for that. It’s not your job to undo it!*

What I think Kuenssberg does here is to explain that in her opinion, campaigning for a second referendum was a problem for Labour because many people believed Brexit was a done deal. You can obviously disagree with the reasons she gives, e.g., that “lots of people in the political establishment in Westminster” tried to undo Brexit. Clearly, that was not what happened. The People’s Vote campaign managed to get over a million people onto the streets of London, so that’s hardly the “political establishment”. And even among that establishment, initially right after the referendum, there was almost universal agreement that the results needed to be honoured. But then Theresa May tried to prove her credentials to the Tory Brexiters by embracing a hard Brexit and setting out red lines that emboldened the extremists in her party and made it impossible to solve the Northern Ireland problem without breaking up the UK. And as the harmfulness and contradictions of her Brexit approach became clearer and clearer, opposition to Brexit rose. However, it is very hard to disagree with Kuessberg’s assessment that many people perceived it as she describes it.

Maybe you can criticise Kuessberg for blurring the line between assessment and endorsement at the end of her statement and there are other things on the show that you can disagree with or even pick at, for example making light of the illegal prorogation of parliament by summing it up as “the courts and stuff” (around 19:10). Or saying that Ireland in effect accepted a time-limit on the backstop (around 26:00), when that’s not really the case (because it is only theoretical). But overall I think the show provides a reasonably fair analysis of what has been going on, free of any glaring bias.

Which finally brings me to the main point of the whole post. I don’t know whether Laura Kuenssberg is a Brexit supporter and I don’t really care as long as it does not colour her professional work. Obviously, as a journalist, it is her job to be neutral. However, we need to acknowledge that it is very, very difficult to always completely conceal one’s personal biases. If one fails to do so, it is legitimate, important even, to point it out and criticise it, but that’s usually not what happens. Instead, every hint of bias seemingly becomes a betrayal of all that is decent, every glimpse of a personal opinion turns the other into an agent of the dark side. All that, mind you, only if the “wrong” kind of view shines through. More often than not, all cries for impartiality are forgotten when the commentator seems to play for the own team.

This tendency is highly problematic for two reasons. For a start, if we can’t even have a normal conversation with the Laura Kuenssbergs of the world, then with whom can we? We need to stop ascribing sinister motivations to everyone with a different opinion. Yes, other people are biased, but so are we. Most people are coming from a good place and have arrived at their positions for reasons that if viewed in isolation are, if not always rational and justifiable, then at least understandable. If we want to move away from the increasingly polarised and aggressive tone in society, we should acknowledge that and make it our default assumption until proven otherwise. Then our conversations may actually get somewhere.

And turning everything into ideological warfare makes it impossible to make any progress on the issues. For example, I’m sure there was bias in how the BBC reported on the election campaign. I very much doubt there was a coordinated effort to swing the electorate in one direction. People at the BBC are humans and they sometimes make mistakes. And that is how we should start approaching the issues – as honest, possibly problematic and serious, but still ultimately honest, mistakes. There are very serious problems in how the media covers politics, like the general unwillingness to challenge statements that are deflecting, misleading, or outright lies, the focus on “meta-issues” instead of real issues (for example, instead of asking Boris Johnson about his trustworthiness, ask him about the government’s impact assessment of the withdrawal agreement), the preference for controversy over competence, or false balance, i.e., the misguided tendency to give equal representation to opposing viewpoints irrespective of the supporting evidence. None of these issues will be solved if we outright deny the media any fundamental interest in doing so.

Therefore, instead of demonizing everyone for not seeing the world exactly as I do, so that I can feel like I’m righteously fighting for the good cause against evil forces, I’ll try to give the other the benefit of the doubt and try to understand where they are coming from.

* Compare my transcript to the one from the Express, which first published the story and kicked off the small shit-storm. The differences are subtle, but not always trivial. For example, they write “this wasn’t a vote that you can have a second opinion on” when Kuenssberg actually said “not a vote where you get to have a second opinion”. The former suggest you are not allowed to have a second opinions, whereas the latter means you won’t get an opportunity to express a second opinion. Or, more serious in my opinion, they write “covering it as a story, to me it just seemed like, people voted for that. It’s not your job to undo it!”, but she never actually says “to me, it just seemed like”. Even if these differences are not intentional, I would expect a good journalist to be more diligent than that.

Johnson will not pivot to a softer Brexit

Norway is beautiful, but not an option for the UK.
Photo by Yuriy Garnaev on Unsplash

The fact that Boris Johnson came out of the election with a large majority has led many pundits to believe he will change direction from hard Brexit to a softer one. Since he does not have to rely on the votes of ERG hardliners, the reasoning goes, Johnson – liberal at heart – can go for the soft Brexit he really wants. The pound’s surge right after the election results was likely the result of that belief.

It did not take long for Johnson to dismiss any such speculations, announcing today that he plans to amend the withdrawal agreement bill to rule out an extension of the transition period beyond December 2020. Whether born out of a desire for a no-deal exit or, more likely, a serious misunderstanding of negotiation strategy (more on that in a future post), it demonstrated that any hope of Johnson going for anything resembling the Norway option is misguided. However, there are other reasons why it is most unlikely that Johnson will go for a softer Brexit.

  1. He has surrounded himself with hard Brexiters and yes-men
    If you took Johnson and put him in a room with sensible people for a while, there is probably a good chance he would see reason. The problem of course is that most of the sensible and principled Conservatives have been purged from the party in September. Johnson’s cabinet basically looks just like it did before the election, hardliners and careerist without strong personal convictions. And don’t forget Dominic Cummings is pulling the strings in the background. These are the people that got Johnson where he is and he will not suddenly step on everyone’s toes to get a softer Brexit.
    Any group where every member shares a similar worldview is bound to develop a level of groupthink. This limits any kind of critical evaluation and will reinforce the belief in “unicorns” (we hold all the cards, the EU will blink in the last minute).
  2. A soft Brexit would alienate his base
    Johnson promised to “get Brexit done” and immediately pivoting to a soft Brexit would get him accused to doing Brexit-In-Name-Only (BRINO). As a result, he would immediately alienate the voters who kept him in No 10 and whom he needs to keep on board if he wants to win the next election. Admittedly, I don’t have the data to back this up, but it seems unlikely that those who were receptive to Johnson’s message were those Leave voters dreaming of a Norway model. More likely, they want an end to free movement and as little alignment with the EU as possible.
  3. It would give Farage a reason to come back
    The whole Brexit mess originally started to get Farage off the Tories’ back. With that objective seemingly achieved, it would be foolish to do anything that would give Farage a reason to start campaigning again.
  4. Extremists don’t have a history of pivoting to the centre
    Hoping that the gravity of office and the responsibility that comes with power will enlighten a politician from the political fringe has a long tradition and an equally long history of being in vain. We only need to look to Donald Trump, who was also expected to find his true liberal inner self once sworn in. We all know how that turned out.
    As a stark reminder of where such naivete can lead, we can look back to Adolf Hitler. Many people both in Germany and abroad believed that he only used anti-semitic rhetoric to get into office, but did not actually belief in it that strongly himself.*
    There seems to be a general lack of belief that someone intelligent enough to qualify for the highest office could genuinely have a misanthropic worldview. However, it turns out there are very few liberals cynical enough to play the fascist for purely opportunistic reasons. Instead, if someone says racist and authoritarian things during a campaign, they probably are a racist and authoritarian. This should always be the default assumption until proven otherwise.

* Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Boris Johnson is anything like Adolf Hitler. That would make light of the atrocities that happened under Hitler.

Reason for hope: Lose the battle, win the war

Everyone in the media seems to talk about the Tory “landslide”, the re-alignment of the political landscape, and the huge mandate Johnson has now. What — puzzlingly to me – seems to be completely overlooked is that on a night where Labour lost big (-7.8%), the Tories only gained a fairly small amount (+1.2%) of the vote. Some of it went to the Brexit party (+2%), the Greens (+1.1) and the SNP (+0.8%), but most actually to the LibDems (+4.2)% (source). Bizarrely, this swing gave the SNP 14 extra seats, while Brexit party and Greens got nothing and the LibDems actually lost a seat compared to 2017. In any case, the vote has hardly dramatically shifted the country to the right. The vote has only been re-allocated – moved around – although with admittedly dramatic effects in parliament. And yes, the number of MPs is what ultimately matters – but only for the next five years.

The Tory victory was built on two main factors: 1. Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity and 2. the desire to “get Brexit done”. The first factor will be gone by the next election and Labour will find it difficult to replace Corbyn with someone as toxic as him (though they may very well try, it seems). The second factor will in all likelihood have turned from an asset into a liability by the time the next election rolls along. It is in the nature of Brexit that most Brexit supporters will be disappointed when it actually happens. And Johnson’s promises for NHS, schools and police do not square well with Brexit either. For example, you cannot get a good trade deal with the EU while significantly diverging on regulations and keeping full control of the fishing waters. You cannot do a hard Brexit and keep the unemployment rate at 3.8%, let alone revive Northern England and spend generously on everything. You cannot at the same time visibly reduce immigration and recruit 50.000 nurses. Plus the issue of climate change – willfully ignored by the Tories during the campaign – is not something that will just fade into the background again.

So the odds are very good that by 2024 there will be enough disappointment in the Lab-to-Con constituencies for them to swing back in huge numbers. The question is will the Tories be able to retreat to their heartlands? While they did not lose much in the South this time, seats that used to have five-digit majorities are now down to 2000-3000 and very much in play for LibDems and Labour in 2024. A lot will depend on which swing voters are more likely to return home and it seems to me that it is much easier for a moderate Tory to stay a LibDem than for a Labour-Leaver to stay a Tory.

Therefore, this election may in the end turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Conservatives. Combine a halfway decent Labour leader with less than stellar five years of Boris Johnson and the Tories could see a wipe-out like Labour is experiencing right now – with the difference that the swing voters won’t be particularly conflicted about deserting them.

This is by no means a given, of course. The Conservatives will most certainly try to shift blame for everything that goes sideways onto the usual suspects. For example, expect a lot of EU bashing in early summer when Johnson will have to ask for an extension to the transition period. It will be vital at that point to remind everyone that we were supposed to “hold all the cards in the negotiations”. The ability of the Tories and their allies in the press to create positive narratives must not be underestimated. But there is hope it will not be enough this time because even the people who voted for Johnson in this election do not seem to trust him one inch.

So while things are certainly looking bleak at the moment, the fact that the Brexiters and populists have nowhere left to hide now may actually turn out to have been the best possible outcome in the long run.