Friday, May 31, 2019

Smears begin as Jo Swinson confirms Lib Dem leadership bid

It is perhaps predictable, but within hours of the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson announcing her bid for leader of the party Twitter was alive with smears accusing the MP of illegally claiming parliamentary expenses and accusing her of being 'just another Tory' for backing them in several controversial policies during the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition between 2010 & 2015.

Swinson confirms leadership bid

Swinson announced she would be standing as a contender in the leadership battle for her party on the BBC politics programme Question Time [BBC].

The contest comes after Sir Vince Cable announced he would be standing down as leader on the 23rd July [Guardian].

Accusations of lying

But soon after her appearance Twitter was alive with criticism. Several tweets accused her of lying concerning the percentage of young people going on to university [Twitter].

However her assertion is backed up by official figures [Twitter]. But that has not stopped the vitriol on social networks.

Swinson has stood by her claim, pointing out that the four percent figure came from the most recent Scottish Index on Multiple Deprivation data, published in 2016, which found the proportion of 17-21 year olds entering into full time higher education in Govan and Linthouse ranged between zero and four percent [Scotsman].

Accusations of dishonesty

There have also been accusations of dishonesty with some Twitter users digging out a 2009 article from the Daily Telegraph which highlighted Swinson's expenses claim for cosmetics, a tooth flosser and a television.

Pointing fingers

Some people on social networks have also pointed a finger at accusations made in 2017 that Swinson overspending during the 2017 election. This despite the fact that police dropped the investigation after being "unable to establish criminality" [BBC].

While it is true that Swinson claimed expenses as highlighted in 2009, most such claims were not rejected and were within the guidelines.

Expenses claims

It is also somewhat disingenuous to criticise Swinson of claiming her somewhat meagre expenses given there were many MPs amongst the ranks of both the Tories and Labour parties claiming far more significant amounts, many stretching the rules as to what could be claimed.

Michael Gove, for example, claimed £7,000 for furnishing a London property before "flipping" his designated second home to a house in his constituency, a property for which he claimed around £13,000 to cover stamp duty. It was also alleged that Gove claimed for a cot mattress, despite children's items being banned under the Commons rule. Gove said he would repay the claim for the cot mattress, but maintained that his other claims were "below the acceptable threshold costs for furniture".

Meanwhile the Telegraph reported on 28 May 2009 the the now hard-Brexiter Bill Cash had claimed £15,000 which he then paid to his daughter, a prospective Conservative candidate, as rent for a Notting Hill flat, when he had a flat of his own a few miles away and closer to Westminster. Cash defended these expenses by claiming that it was done within the rules and that "It was only for a year" [Wikipedia].

Opposition rattled

It is clear that the smears and criticism of Swinson are a result of the opposition being rattled by the Lib Dem success in the European elections and at least one recent poll which suggested the Lib Dems could win the next general election.

The YouGov poll which was published almost at the same time Swinson announced her candidacy, pointed to the Libs Dems having a two point lead over the Brexit Party and way in front of the Conservative and Labour parties.

Some 24% said they would vote for the Remain-supporting Lib Dems, with 22% backing the Brexit Party. Meanwhile, Labour and Conservative parties both polled 19% [Sky News / Daily Mail].

Heading for Number 10?

Swinson, who is the favourite to win the leadership bid, could therefore potentially become not only the first Lib Dem prime minister, but also the first female Lib Dem prime minister.

That scenario would of course depend upon there being a general election whilst the Lib Dems held high in the polls.

Given how disastrous Brexit has been thus far, it seems the Lib Dems may well have a chance, unless Labour's leadership get off the fence concerning their position on a possible second referendum.

Unclear road ahead

Nothing is, of course, certain. Following May's announcement to stand down as PM there is a leadership contest taking place with no less than 12 candidates having put there names forward. Most have proposed standing on a platform of either seeking to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU or to leave without a deal [BBC].

Given the EU has continually iterated that the negotiations will not be opened up again, a no-deal or no Brexit would be the only two options.

Labour meanwhile have still not made their position clear with Corbyn still shying away from backing a second referendum in the near future [Guardian].

There are certainly many hard Brexiters that are willing to back a no-deal, and the Brexit Party has certainly capitalised upon this base.

But the Lib Dems too are earning support from remainers and from those unhappy with the shambles created by Brexit. Indeed the party's clear anti-Brexit message appears to be resonating with many voters.

Should there be no general election and the Tories take Britain out of the EU without a deal, the ensuing chaos could well increase the Lib Dems power base.

Brexit, a deciding factor

Indeed any lack of success concerning Brexit is sure to result in greater support for the Lib Dems as will the change in demographics. Parties that helped bring about a disastrous Brexit or did little to prevent it will likely suffer and lose public support.

The future is still uncertain but today is a good day for the Lib Dems. However, given the abuse emanating from social media, it is also clear it will be no easy fight to get the keys to No 10.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, May 26, 2019

No-deal Brexit more likely after May quits

The British Prime Minister Theresa May's resignation looks likely to make the UK's looming departure from the EU even more difficult, with some suggesting a hard or "no-deal" Brexit is now almost inevitable.

Brexit costs Tories two leaders

While there remains a good number of hard core Eurosceptics who relish the idea of leaving the EU, there are many even within the Conservative party that think the referendum has brought only chaos.

Speaking in March this year Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne, told one Chinese television news crew that he expected only more chaos to follow after MPs rejected the Withdrawal Agreement for a second time.

He also expressed regret at there ever having been a referendum. "To the day I die I will curse myself for ever thinking that a referendum was a good idea," he told the BBC [New European].  

Many others within the party might also be regretful, even if they don't express such thoughts publicly.

The vote to leave the European Union has cost the party two prime ministers, a loss in public support and a reduced majority in the parliament.

Indeed, while many hard-line Eurosceptics and Brexiters refuse to accept it, the country has lost more than just a couple of prime ministers.

Cost to the country

The British pound tanked the day after the referendum and has yet to recover. And following the Theresa May's announcement to stand down as PM, the currency became volatile once again as a no-deal Brexit risk was seen to rise.

While many Brexiters have insisted a weaker pound would increase Britain's exports, due to them being cheaper, there is little sign that exports have risen at all in the last three years.

In fact there is more a sign that the British economy and its manufacturing base is flailing.

Economic contraction

The latest surveys of business activity, used as an early warning indicator by the Bank of England, showed the economy stalling in the first quarter and at risk of sliding into a downturn, after the weakest performance in the private sector in almost seven years.

The surveys have proven gloomier than official figures over the past few months, although still paint a worrying picture for the path ahead, as British firms put spending decisions on hold.

According to the survey from IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, both the construction and service sectors plunged into reverse in March, while manufacturing was only able to expand because of emergency stockpiling in the run-up to Brexit.

Trillions of assets left the UK

Ahead of the original date the UK was set to leave the European Union more than £1 trillion in assets had reportedly been shifted out of London to hubs in the European Union [Reuters].

And while Britain did not in fact leave on 29th March, it is unlikely these assets will return - at least in the short to medium term.

Relocations & slowing investment

The continuing uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and fears of a no-deal Brexit, has slowed investment and some businesses have either relocated completely or moved some of their operations abroad [Independent].

Business investment has fallen for the past four quarters and the new Brexit date is likely to prolong the uncertainty, the FT reported in April [FT]. 

Global slowdown

Brexiters might point to the fact that there is a global slowdown and that the Eurozone is slowing too. This is partly true. However, over the last decade the Eurozone has strengthened [BBC], and growth in the eurozone jumped to +0.4% in the first quarter of this year, stronger than the meagre 0.2% recorded in Q4 2018 [Guardian].

On the other side of the pond, the US is seeing an economic decline [Reuters].

The loss of momentum came even before a recent escalation in the trade war between the United States and China which could have a significant effect on the US economy.

Insulation against a global economic slowdown

While the trade war started by Trump is certainly having an effect on the Chinese economy, China is unlikely to suffer in the medium to long term. Growth is currently 6.9% and even if that were to shrink by half as some economists are predicting [Forbes], China's growth would still remain higher than most other major economies.

That is more than double that of the UK's overall current 1.5% growth rate and a third higher than the US growth rate which stands at a little over 2.2% [Sky News / Guardian]. 

The bigger a trade block the more insulated it will be should there be a global downturn. For small country and those not part of a large trading block, the risks are higher.The world economic slowdown and Brexit uncertainty have already combined to inflict damage to investment and output in Britain.

Escalating trade war

And things could get much worse if the US-China trade war escalates.

President Trump's targeting China's flagship mobile company Huawei has angered the Middle Kingdom to such an extent that there is talk that China could respond with more than just an increase in tariffs on US goods. And other countries could become embroiled as Trump has threatened countries that do business with Huawei [Guardian].

China is currently the largest holder of US government debt. It now owns $1.12 trillion in US Treasury bonds. If China decided to sell off its US government debt holdings as a form of retaliation in the ongoing trade war with the US and President Donald Trump, it could upend global financial markets and drive US interest rates higher.

Many have dismissed such a possibility - which has often been referred to as China's 'nuclear option' - for the fear it could not only upend the global economy but also China's own economy.

China is already make plans to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on foreign markets. And if push comes to shove, China might close its doors, just as easily as it opened them to the West some thirty years ago.

Only last week investors received some unnerving news after China sold $20 billion of securities with a maturity exceeding one year in March, according to US government data. The sales amounted to China's largest retreat from the market in more than two years and could indicate Beijing's readiness to up the stakes if Trump pursues his trade war against the second largest economy in the world [FT].

Many economists do not believe China would go for a large sell of of US treasuries. But not everyone is so sure. "It depends on what the goal is," says Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. "If the goal is to disturb the US Treasury market, then they may not care about inflicting self-harm." [SCMP]

Brexit risks further isolation

But what has all this got to do with Brexit? With the global economy currently displaying signs of unpredictability and volatility, it is important to create as much insulation as possible.

If Britain cuts itself off from its biggest trading partner, that being Europe, and worse, crashes out without a deal and falls back on WTO rules, it would find itself in a very dangerous place if, as has been predicted, another global recession returns.

Even if a global recession does not immediately materialise, trade deals are not going to be easy to draw up as the unease grows over Trump's trade war and concerns over global growth. And even if trade deals are able to be negotiated, they are far less likely to be favourable for Britain than to those with which it is negotiating.

Britain could find itself in some very choppy waters indeed as it would be forced to appease two of the biggest economies in the world with which it does significant trade, outside of the eurozone, and which are currently fighting each other in an ever growing trade war.

With Theresa May's departure the prospect of such scenarios are more real than ever. Most of the main Tory leadership contenders lean towards a no-deal Brexit, especially the favourite Boris Johnson.

The talk heard from several of them is that they could 'renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement', something the EU has repeated time and time again will not be done.

Speaking on College Green soon after May announced her departure, Mark Francois said he'd prefer to leave with a deal, but that if one could not be negotiated by 31st October than Britain could leave on WTO rules for a time and then negotiate a deal with the EU soon thereafter.

Boris Johnson, speaking in Switzerland, spoke similarly suggesting the Irish backstop could be dropped and that if a deal with the EU was not reached by October then Britain would simply fall back on WTO rules.

And so where do we go from here? "Oblivion," joked Alastair Campbell as he walked from College Green. It might have been a quip, but Halloween may be far more frightful than many might have thought.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Under threat from cyber-spies

Today should be a wake-up call for those with smartphones after it was revealed that the popular Whatsapp mobile phone application had been compromised with sophisticated spyware.

Cyber attackers were apparently able to install spyware on WhatsApp through its voice call function, even if the user did not pick up the call, the company confirmed [Sky News / BBC].

Dozens of WhatsApp users, including human rights organisations and a UK-based lawyer, may have been targeted in the attack which exploited a major vulnerability in the app in an attempt to take over the operating system.

The breach was discovered in early May, though no specific date has been made public, and has since been fixed. But WhatsApp, which claims to have more than 1.5 billion users, has urged people to update their app to the latest version of the software.

Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said an attacker attempted to exploit the app, and was blocked, as recently as Sunday evening.

The Financial Times reported the spyware was developed by NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity and intelligence company.

However, NSO Group has distanced itself from direct involvement. In a statement it said, "Under no circumstances would NSO be involved in the operating or identifying of targets of its technology, which is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies."

"NSO would not, or could not, use its technology in its own right to target any person or organisation, including this individual (the UK lawyer)."

While NSO may not be directly involved, the company is known to sell its technology to third parties particularly foreign governments.

In 2018 a series of reports [Foreign Policy / CitizenLab] said NSO technology had been employed in the targeting of Ahmed Mansoor, a a well-known human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates.

At around the same time Mansoor had his passport confiscated, his car stolen, his email hacked, his location tracked, his bank account emptied, and was beaten by strangers twice in the same week.

Within a year Mansoor had been detained and subsequently jailed for ten years.  

This year the New York Times reported that in 2017 Saud al-Qahtani, then a top adviser to Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, was tracking Saudi dissidents around the world and was using NSO Group's technology to aid his search. It is suspected that Saud al-Qahtani's  extensive surveillance efforts ultimately led to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

It's not just Arab states that are employing NSO's software. According to CitizenLab at least 45 countries were using Israel-based "Cyber Warfare" vendor NSO Group's mobile phone spyware suite called Pegasus.

In the past the focus has been on weapons manufacturers and governments who have been selling arms and military equipment to questionable governments around the world.

While such issues are no less important, it is clear that cyber-weapons pose a significant threat also.

The sale of such software to governments might well be legal. But there are certainly moral questions that should be answered if such technology is being used to illegally target arguably innocent citizens and detain them.

There is also the risk that such software is more difficult to control in terms of its escape into the wild. While guns, tanks and aircraft can be smuggled and sold to dubious organisations and groups outside of government control it is more difficult than disseminating code which can simply be emailed or passed to others on something as small as a memory card or USB thumb drive.

tvnewswatch, London, UK