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[00:00:08]

Hello and welcome to The Stand with Eamon Dunphy. The stand is proudly supported by Tesco at Tesco, our exclusive house for over sixty fives. Family carers and extremely medically vulnerable customers are every weekday, Monday to Friday, up to nine AM. Health care and emergency services have priority access at all other times now, more than ever, every little helps. Now, last December at the Tory party had a stunning election win in Britain and they had a majority of 80 seats.

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And it was a spectacular success for Boris Johnson. Following on on other successes, the achievement of Brexit, getting it through the parliament and of course, winning his place as leader of the Tory Party quite comfortably. So all seemed well in his world. However, the last nine months have been torrid, and in an opinion poll just published, it's seen that the Labour Party, led now by Kiarostami, has actually caught up with the Tory Party, that level pegging.

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And to talk about this and the need to talk about Brexit, which is about to enter our lives again in a big way, I'm joined by Brendan O'Neill. And then there's the editor of Spiked Online, a regular contributor, weekly contributor to The Spectator, a conservative magazine, not a conservative party, I should say. It's better than that. Brendan, thank you very much for joining us. Were you surprised by the opinion poll that was published in the last couple of days?

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No, not really.

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I think the Tories have had a bad few weeks. You know, they had they were given the benefit of the doubt by lots of people during the pandemic. I think a lot of people thought that the government was doing its best in a very unusual situation. And a lot of people also thought that the media and opposition parties, if they thought that they were using the pandemic a bit too much sometimes to attack the government. So people kind of rallied behind the government during that period for the most part.

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But over the past few weeks, things have been unravelling quite a lot. I think the exams fiasco, the school's exams fiasco, which I think was an unforgivable error on the government's part that will have irritated huge numbers of people, parents of school age kids will have been incredibly annoyed and also the confusion in relation to the pandemic. Now, the question of whether Britain is opening up or not, what are the new rules? Can we go back to work?

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Can we go back to the pub? Are we still really in semi lockdown? There's very little clarity on that stuff coming from the government. So I think the fact that the support for the government might be ebbing away and going towards what looks like the more reasonably led Labour Party, I don't think that's particularly surprising at the moment.

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Now, the pandemic crisis is a challenge for all governments, as you know, Brendan. And I don't think there is any government, certainly in the Western world that has handled it very well. However, in Britain, it appears to have been handled particularly badly. And the numbers bear that out in a way and only I think Brazil and the United States have more fatalities. But that's kind of dangerous because there are various ways of calculating that it has been.

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And you referenced the schools fiasco and the attempt to really, I think, demoralised students with this algorithm that would decide a government. Williamson is the education secretary. He's hopeless, isn't he? He is hopeless. In fact, it was just for our listeners benefit. I'm not telling you this because you know it. He was sacked by Theresa May when he was the defence minister for leaking very sensitive defence information. I think they have to take his mobile phone to show that his denials were untrue.

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And he was then the campaign manager for Boris's leadership attempt. Correct. And he had been chief whip of the Tory party, which is a very powerful position because, you know, everyone's secrets.

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He's been spectacularly useless, completely useless. And I think he's one of the worst education. Secretaries we've ever had and the algorithm fiasco, I think was just completely dreadful and what's really awful about it is that he was warned about it weeks in advance, weeks before the level results and the GCSE results came out. He was warned by people at the examination boards, people at the the Office for Qualifications and other officials who are involved in examining children's education and marking exams.

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They warned in advance weeks in advance, they said to him and to his department that the algorithm would likely punish children in poorer areas particularly, and also punish schools that are improving. You know, year on year. There are some schools which which improve year on year, and the kids in those schools will be marked down because maybe the school wasn't as good last year as it was this year. And also, most importantly, bright, poor children in schools that don't perform well saw their results plummet.

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Some of these were a star pupils in rundown areas whose who were at risk of being meltdowns because they were in a in a postcode that is not very high achieving in educational terms. So it was I thought it was a cruel measure. I thought the algorithm was cruel, robotic, and really summed up the idiocy of the Education Department. If it believes that you could mark children's exams and in some ways determine their futures or at least determine their university futures by, you know, by machine.

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And I mean for Tories in particular, Brendan, the individual is supposed to matter. And this was really throwing the individual to the wolves, wasn't it? Because the algorithm could only produce what was fed into it. Yeah, that's right.

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So even I know that. Yeah. So the individual was thrown to the wolves on both sides, both the individual people, many of whom were unfairly marked down or at risk of being unfairly marked down before the U-turn came into play and also through the individual to the wolves in terms of examiners and people who mark exams, you know, people who actually put a lot of effort into this and think about it carefully, whereas a machine and an algorithm can't do that.

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As you say it just you feed something in and it feeds something out. It was an absolutely absurd idea to begin with. It should never have been introduced. You know, my view, which is an unpopular one, to be honest, is that it was a mistake to cancel exams in the first place. I think it's possible to have exams even in a pandemic like situation, exams tend to take place in large halls where people are spaced out from each other.

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So I think more effort could have been done to make sure that the exams took place. But when it was clear that they were not taking place, kids should have been given their predicted results right away. The big question now, I think, is why Gavin Williamson hasn't resigned or been forced out. And I think it is, as you suggested there, it's because of his previous role. It's because he knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.

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He knows people's secrets. And I think he's got one over on the cabinet. And that's a very unhealthy situation, especially if you're running something as important as the Education Department.

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Yeah, well, that's precisely the point, isn't education is so fundamental and to people's lives and on the political spectrum after economics, it probably should come before economics. But let's say the economy first put education in a very close second. Now, Williamson on the Saturday and before do you turn on the Monday, said no way this is going ahead. So he compounded his stupidity, if you like, and long established uselessness by saying we're not for turning money.

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They turned. Yeah. And then, yeah, he he he he obviously has the stuff on Borrus and I say there's a lot of stuff there.

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Well that is he's clearly got something, you know he, he's, he's well connected. He's, he's, he was for a period of time in charge of all of them essentially. So he clearly knows something or he's clearly got some ashlock.

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That's what that's what the chief whip does, isn't it? I mean, his role in life is to compromise and find compromising material. And when it comes to important votes, to drive them into the lobby on the side, the government wishes that's that's what he's there for. And of course, there are a number of people who probably have big skeletons in the cupboard. Yeah.

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And I think that's I mean, the thing is, lots of people now think that they they are thinking to themselves, Gavin Williams and must. No things that he could possibly reveal because and the reason people are thinking that is not out of some conspiracy theory or anything like that is because they cannot comprehend why he hasn't been removed from his post.

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And if you were to create if you were to cause such mayhem and such disaster in any other department, you would hope that someone in charge would be forced to resign or sacked.

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And so the Gavin Williamson thing, I think, is indicative of a government that is slightly losing its way. I don't think it's a lost cause, but it's losing its way. And if you watch Gavin Williamson's TV interviews that he's done, I mean, talk about algorithms.

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He himself is like a robot. He just repeats the same line again and again. He doesn't answer questions. He avoids questions. He just repeats things that his advisers have told him to say. And the point the reason that's worrying is because lots of people voted for this government because they thought it would be a bit different to the technocratic managerial, very SP1 politicians that we've had for the past couple of decades. And they wanted something different and fresh. And that's why everyone who was saying, how can you vote for Boris?

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He says offensive things and shoots from the hip. They completely missed the point, which is lots of people were looking for something like that.

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And now with with people like Kevin Williamson and with Boris Johnson's failure to do something about Gavin Williams Williamson, people are now asking, is this government as fresh as we thought it was going to be?

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And they sacked the head civil servant in the development of education, correct? Yes.

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Well, you know, there's this whole thing. This is the great irony of all of this. You know, there is this desire amongst certain people in cabinet, particularly let's not go into too much detail, but particularly Dominic Cummings, who we've talked about before.

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Williamson may have had something on them.

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Well, that's very possible.

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But there is this you know, they talk about the new broom sweep and everything clean, making sure the Whitehall works, getting rid of all the kind of Robotech sclerotic bureaucratic machinery that has very correctly has existed in Whitehall for quite a long time. And yet when it comes to someone like Gavin Williamson making an error of this magnitude, they're incapable of being decisive about it. And they, you know, twiddling their thumbs instead. So that I'm not saying people are turning away from the government just because of the education thing.

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But I think for a lot of people, that will be indicative of a broader problem.

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Yes. And I mean Boris himself. Now, it is important to say I'm not alone in the fact that he did contract the virus and that he was in intensive care. And that is a tough experience and allowing for that even he hasn't been a stellar prime minister so far, has he? I mean, you expressed doubts. We both expressed doubts before he got the job that he not being a details man and might not be a very good prime minister.

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There's lots of evidence, abundant evidence, really, that he's not really very good at anything other than campaigning.

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Yes. I think the thing that's becoming pretty clear is that he's not very good at leadership now. And you don't necessarily have to be brilliant at leadership to be a prime minister. I mean, it's very helpful to be a good leader. But you can also surround yourself with strong advisers and people who are capable of leading you in the right direction and inspiring you to take the right course of action. I'm not sure he's got that either. So at the moment, I think his weaknesses are being exposed.

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And that's been happening not only during the pandemic, when I think he should have been much more visible and he should have inspired the nation a bit more instead of using the politics of fear, which I think the Conservative Party did at the very start of the lockdown. And instead of avoiding scrutiny, which they also did during the pandemic, I think he should have offered more moral leadership to the nation, which would have cohered people in a very confusing period.

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But then also after the pandemic, you know, with the Black Lives Matter protests and the tearing down of statues and various controversial things that were happening, if you look at the polling, lots of people were opposed to that stuff. Lots of people were concerned about the tearing down of statues. They were concerned about the graffiti of Winston Churchill, the the graffiti of Queen Victoria in Leeds and other things that happened. People the general public was very concerned about that.

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And a lot of people I spoke to at that time were saying, where's Boris? Why is Boris not making a statement? Why is he not standing up for British? Traditions or British history or British monuments or whatever else it might be. So on both those occasions, you know, this has been a very strange year. It's been a year of a pandemic. It's been a year of instability. It's been a year of protest and and nihilism.

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And, yes, the ripping down of monuments, he's been kind of absent. And so I think a lot of his voters, including red voters, who are the people the government really needs to impress if they want to maintain the large democratic mandate. A lot of those people are saying, where is he? Why is he not speaking to us? Why is he not leading us in the way that we thought it would?

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Yes, and I think anyone who has been a Boris ologist and studied his career in journalism and journalism and I imagine Max Hastings, for example, and others who have been pretty scathing over the decades about Boris's worth and are being confirmed in their view. Let me ask you about the the Brexit thing now, because one of Burroughs's fundamental errors in my view was that he insisted that all members of his cabinet be Brexit tears, and that rather limits everything in a way that I don't think necessarily favours talent.

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However, at Brexit, Lord Frost, David Frost, the negotiator, was elevated, as were many other people, including Embolden and your friend Clare Fox. Yes, that's right. So I, I keep my eye on that, she said.

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And I think I agree with her. She said, I'm against the House of Lords. I think it should be torn down and I'm going in there to reform.

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And I'd say I think wrongly. But where is Brexit going to be, Brandon?

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And on reflection, would you say that insisting that a qualification for a cabinet position and you had to be a Brexiteer, was that wise?

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I think it was probably.

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Unwise, I mean, I the reason I hesitated, though, is because I understand why they did it and they did it because one of the problems in this country over the past four years has been the unbelievable mismatch between public opinion and the political class. Is opinion.

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Yes. And that was one that was borne out in the election and in the referendum. That's right.

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And in the euro, a euro elections last year when the Brexit party swept the board. So. So that's that's been a problem. You know, Theresa May was running the country for a couple of years and she was a remainer at heart, even though she posed as a hardcore Brexiteer. Everyone knows she voted remain. She was very pro remain. Philip Hammond. Of course, I know some people like Philip Hammond, but I'm not a fan. He was the chancellor at the time and he was a hard core remainer.

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And according to some reports, he did various things to try to scupper a good Brexit deal for the UK. So and then there was the remain a parliament. We had a parliament where around 70 or 72 percent of MPs voted remain in comparison to just forty eight percent of the public who voted remain. So there was a real sense that the political class was completely and utterly disconnected from majoritarian opinion. And I think Boris has overcompensated for that by insisting that the virtually the entire cabinet should be hard core leavers or certainly leavers, that the problem with that, as you suggest, is that people are brought on board, not in terms of their talent, but in terms of their commitment to a project that might not have anything to do with their brief.

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So some of them might be a really good Brexiteer, but that doesn't mean they would be brilliant at running the the law or education or the Home Office.

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So that's the problem that Grant Shapps springs to mind. Why are you laughing? Well, our listeners might know, but he is the transport secretary. He was formerly the chairman of the Conservative Party. And when a scandal arose about bullying and led to suicide, I think he resigned.

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Yes. I grant the reason I'm laughing at Grant Shapps is because he's he's not the most competent person.

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And whenever I see him in TV interviews, I always think he looks a bit shady, local and and comical.

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But also the and also because his new policy idea in relation to transport seems to be to get us all walking and cycling. Now, I love cycling and I walk everywhere if possible. But the Transport Department is supposed to assist people with proper transport, good buses, good train services, good national rail networks. He's turned his attention away from all of that. And now there's there are posters everywhere you look saying, you know, are you going to the pub?

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Are you going to the office? Why don't you walk? So he's is doing a strange job in the Transport Department. But you're right, he's a good example of what happens if you overemphasize people's loyalty to Brexit and don't think about the skills they have. But I, I think what Boris should have made clear to the cabinet, the new cabinet that he was building, he should have said, listen, this is a pro Brexit government. We've just had a huge democratic mandate, primarily on the basis that we said get Brexit done.

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Therefore, that's going to be our focus. And no one in cabinet is allowed to undermine that. And from that starting point, he could have had some Romanies in there. He could have had some levers in there. But he he overcompensated, I think, for the previous four years. Disconnect between politicians and the people by filling cabinet with Brexit is right now.

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Richard Sirnak appears to have been a success from the distance I'm looking at it. He's the chancellor of the exchequer, of course, replacing Sajid Javid, who was a heavyweight leadership contender. And he resigned because of interference from Dominic Cummings and Downing Street in the Treasury, which is very unwise. He's gone back to Goldman Sachs. It's a spiritual home. But Rishi Sirnak has come up with one without plan and with the free meals and to encourage people to eat out.

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It looks like it's been a great success, has it?

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It has. I've been out every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, weeks, and I have a beer, actually.

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Yeah, it's been great.

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And the thing is, it's been everyone I know has been taken advantage of it at last. Yesterday was Monday. This week was the last day of it. Some people I know went out for breakfast, lunch and dinner to different restaurants, but I saw the queues.

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Yeah.

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And what's been most useful about it is that it has started to wake up the high street and get people out again because that. Also happening, the scariest thing from my perspective, the scariest thing was when the pandemic was winding down, when there were far fewer cases and far, far fewer deaths and everyone was thinking, you know, the worst of it is behind us for now, although there could well be a second spike. But I thought and others saw that people would go outside again, go to the pub, go to the shops, go to work.

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That didn't happen. So the government did have to do something. The question of whether things will now go back to, you know, the empty streets and the empty offices and the empty restaurants as they had been prior to this deal, I think that's something the government will keep a very close eye on now, very soon.

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Also announcements much more serious and that he intends to get the 30 billion this has cost the exchequer back by taxing the rich and other targeting really the tax hikes on people who have the money on property and assets. This reminds me of Denis Healey, who once said when he was chancellor of the exchequer or about to be, that he would squeeze the rich until the pips cried or squealed.

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It's very much a socialist measure, isn't, is it not? And do you welcome it as a socialist?

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I think it's a it's a very interesting policy and very striking one for for a Tory government to be pursuing. And you mentioned there the tension between number 11 and number 10 when when Sajid Javid was in number 11, when he was the chancellor of the Exchequer. But there's also tension between number 11 and number 10 now over this new tax hike policies. According to reports, Boris Johnson and some of his inner circle would rather pursue spending cuts, whereas the Treasury is far more keen on these kind of, you know, Labour style tax hikes, particularly against people with property and people with wealth.

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So it's very interesting. I think what it shows is that and I've thought this and I think we've talked about this before. I think it shows that sooner out of everyone in government is probably the most sensitive to what's changing in politics and particularly the most sensitive to the and the needs and interests and desires of Redwall voters, former Labor voters, which is, you know, and it's not because he comes from that kind of background. He doesn't. But he seems to be aware that politics is realigning and lots and lots of working class people now vote Tory.

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They are not mad free marketeers. They're not lined up in roundest in the way that javaid reportedly was. These are people who are in favour of public spending, in favour of taxing wealthy people and in favour of government commitment to large scale projects, community projects, community infrastructure. So I think we're actually seeing is is quite clever in the way he's doing this. It will be unpopular with the right wing press. It will be unpopular with certain free marketeers in the Conservative Party.

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But I think it could push further. What a lot of people have been saying about Surak is that which is that he could be the next prime minister.

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And there's a lot of there's a lot of support for him at the moment. People see him as probably one of the most successful cabinet members. Yes.

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And this is a return, in a way, Brendan, to old style One Nation Toryism, isn't it? And and that's what the Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson's and the Brexit is the hard Brexit is where against what? They wanted a hard right sort of thing, didn't they? Well, I think that while was hard. Right. Yeah. One thing I've always thought about some not all, but some Conservative Party Brexit is I've always thought that they don't really understand Brexit.

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So, you know, this whole thing about Singapore on the Thames and this will cut all the red tape and we can just be the most free market country in the world.

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That's not what some people no doubt voted for Brexit for those reasons, but most people didn't. And if you look at those parts of the UK, the run down parts of the UK, the former Labour strongholds, the working class areas that voted for Brexit, they weren't voting for Singapore on the terms. They were voting for more democracy. They were voting for a government which could be independent and could take firm action to alleviate poverty, build new infrastructure, create new jobs.

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So there's a real tension in the Brexit camp between free market Brexit.

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So I think are a minority and, you know, more socially inclined, Brexit is who I think are the majority. I think Rishi Sumac understands the. Another person who understands that, of course, is is Nick Timothee, who I think is a very interesting yes, he was engaged to Theresa May.

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Yeah, he was a code chief of staff at Downing Street under Theresa May. And he's got a book on One Nation Tourism, which came out recently in which he criticizes what he calls the ultra liberals on both sides of the debate, at the ultra liberals on the right who think the free market is a solution to everything. Then you have the ultra liberals on the left who are just obsessed with identity politics and individualism and weakness. And he talks for a new realignment which recognises that most people want an active government, a government which looks after them, a government which invests in infrastructure and jobs.

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And I think she soon understands that.

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OK, just final question, Brendan. And Brexit. And at the moment, a hard Brexit seems likely now. I mean, Germany stopped talking to the Brits and Barnier clearly made his anger out of frustration. So we call it visible last week. And the clock is ticking and it's taking very fast.

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It's ticking very fast on this. I think the government is actually getting it right at the moment. And now I know that's a very controversial thing to say, but even the Financial Times, which is the most hard core, remain a paper in the entire world. Even the Financial Times published a very interesting piece last week saying that the reason that the level playing field has become the main sticking point is very important, because what the EU is saying to Britain at the moment is we want you to align with us on state aid so you have to follow European Union rules when it comes to the government funding of industries and the government funding of factories and so on and so forth.

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And the government is resisting that for two reasons. Firstly, because of sovereignty and and the fact that this was about taking back control, you can't give up control over something like that. And secondly, because it will I think it will be in the government's interest to invest in industry huge. A huge amount once we properly leave the European Union, once the trade deal is done in order to boost Britain's standing and in order to strengthen British industry. So the fact that that's become a sticking point, I don't think it reveals that the cabinet is made up of petty Brexit.

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Players who just want everything to go their way, I think is probably influenced by the fact that there are people in government who recognise that this is a line too far. So but I think you're right. And other people who are predicting this are right, I think things could fall apart over this question unless one side's gives way and neither side looks likely to give way.

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So we could be heading towards a collapse of the trade deal talks and a no deal situation, in which case we'll be back to Iran and we'd like to anyway.

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We're very grateful to you for joining us on the stand. Brendan O'Neil is the editor of Spiked Online. He's also a weekly contributor to The Spectator. And we're very grateful to him.

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Grateful to you for listening and, of course, to our sponsors, Tesco. And that's all we have time for now. We'll talk to you soon.