Friday, 20 October 2017

Brexit is bringing humiliation to Britain, and there is much more of it to come

It wasn’t meant to be like this. According to Brexiters, leaving the EU would be the easiest deal in history, achievable within minutes and assured by the lobbying power of German car makers and French cheese makers as an inevitable corollary of being ‘the fifth largest economy in the world’. Such claims were made not by a few fringe figures but by almost all prominent leave campaigners including present and former cabinet ministers.

Instead Theresa May is reduced to “pleading” with the EU for a deal “she can defend to British voters”. Pleading was not supposed to be the order of the day as the British lion roared again, but perhaps this word is just The Guardian ‘as usual talking the country down’? Alas, if we look at foreign news reports it seems that pleading is the least of it. Begging is how the Swiss media describe it.

This pitiful spectacle is, in any case, not really about finding a deal which May can defend to ‘British voters’. That would probably not be too hard to do, at least if May were prepared, finally, to be honest with the electorate about what Brexit means and what is and is not feasible, and where the trade-offs and incompatibilities lie. What she actually wants is something with can be defended to the ultras within her own party. And that – which is also what prevents her from being honest with the electorate – is not just difficult. It’s impossible.

There is no deal which can be defended to the ultras for the simple reason that there is no deal that they will accept. Having pushed the envelope from soft to hard Brexit they are now openly campaigning for no deal as a desirable outcome, even though, thanks to the delays of the election and the lack of planning before the Article 50 letter, negotiations have barely started; even though the talks are following the phasing entailed by Article 50 and agreed to by the British government; and even though it is internal rows within the British government which are the primary cause of the lack of progress on the phase one issues.

EU leaders may have a small degree of sympathy for May’s domestic problems – that is implicit in some of the language at the summit and in the announcement that the EU-27 will begin to talk amongst themselves about phase two (trade) issues. But the sympathy will be very limited. That is partly because they, too, know that the ultras are unappeasable. It is also because British domestic politics are no longer of great interest to the EU. In the past, when Britain was a continuing member, a recognition of our domestic political constraints did engender considerable flexibility, allowing all the numerous opt outs and special deals that Britain enjoyed. Now, the terms of engagement have changed and the EU-27 must, inevitably, focus on their own priorities not those of British politicians. If May is unable or unwilling to stand up to the ultras that is her problem.

But of course for those of us in Britain her failure to do so most certainly is our problem. This week’s begging in Brussels is just a small foretaste of a much greater national humiliation to come. By tying the fate of Brexit entirely to the minority of ultra Brexiters May has ensured that. It is important to recall that there was nothing inevitable about this. It may, politically if not legally, have been necessary to proceed with Brexit in some form because of the Referendum. It wasn’t necessary for it to be in the form that May decided it had to at the time when she still had the authority to take a more consensual line, one more respectful not just of remain voters but also of soft Brexiters.

So the stage is set for what we might call soft or hard humiliation. Either some kind of deal will be done, primarily along lines set by the EU, in which some or all of May’s red lines are breached, accompanied perhaps by either a long transition period or an extension of the Article 50 period. Those things would not, in themselves, be humiliating. They might even, in so far as the word can be applied to any form of Brexit, be relatively sensible although will entail considerable economic and geo-political costs, some of which have already been incurred. But compared with what the ultras promised it will be a humiliation and, of course, will be greeted by them as a betrayal.

Alternatively there will be no deal, and economic and social dislocation of a sort never experienced by an advanced, democratic country in peacetime. That dislocation will come partly because, as I and many, many others have repeatedly explained, the ultras’ mantra of ‘trading on WTO terms’ is meaningless. But also because if no deal really means no deal then that applies to all kinds of things which are nothing whatsoever to do with the WTO, for example air travel and medicine licensing. In this regard, ultras have started deploying two new and highly dishonest claims. One is to pretend that, somehow, WTO rules do cover non-trade things like air travel. The other is to talk of ‘no deal’ whilst also saying, as they used to about trade, that the EU is ‘bound’ to agree (i.e. do a deal on!) these non-trade matters.

In either scenario what is about to be administered is a (long) sharp lesson in reality of an order of magnitude bigger than, say, the Suez crisis. It will certainly make what for years was the line that ‘going cap in hand to the IMF’ in 1976 was a national low seem like the mildest of shames. No one should feel happy about this, for two reasons. First, obviously, because the effects of, especially, no deal are going to land very heavily on all of us, whether leavers or remainers. ‘I told you so’ will not put food on remainer tables any more than ‘we’ve taken back control’ will put it on those of leavers.

And, secondly, because history and psychology tell us that the consequences of humiliation are almost always rage and violence. Those things are never far away with Brexiters anyway – they have been quite as angry since winning the Referendum as they were before. So if the Brexit ‘patriots’ urging no deal with the EU - who are currently on every news programme, as if their views represented anything other than a small, extremist minority – get their way we can be absolutely certain that they will not take any responsibility whatsoever for the consequences. It will be, as it always is for them, the fault of others: of the EU and, closer to home, of those of us who warned them repeatedly of the national humiliation to which they are driving us. It won't be pretty.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Talk of a 'no deal' Brexit is normalising hard Brexit

One noteworthy feature of the nomination race for the Republican Presidential candidate was that the candidates who might in other circumstances have been thought of as holding rather extreme views became seen as moderate. The reason, of course, was Donald Trump, compared to whom they were indeed relatively moderate. By moving the scale so far to the extreme what had hitherto been seen as extreme became normalised.

Something very similar is underway now with Brexit. The idea of a ‘no deal’ – or what might be better called kamikaze - Brexit was not even entertained during the Referendum campaign when, as noted in my previous post, leading Brexiters assured us that a deal would be quick and easy. But now no deal is being talked about quite blithely as not being too bad or, even, as being actually preferable to having a deal. And this comes not just from fringe figures on social media but from senior MPs like John Redwood and even cabinet ministers like Liam Fox.

Anyone who knows anything at all about it knows that the consequences of no deal would be catastrophic for the UK – not just in terms of trade but a wide range of the taken-for-granted amenities of modern life from air travel to affordable food to cancer treatments. No less significant is that such an outcome would shred Britain’s credibility as a trusted negotiating partner, with consequences for both trade and geo-political deal-making. Pretending otherwise does not hold water even as a ‘negotiating tactic’ since the EU knows all this just as much as anyone else. This is not, as some seem to imagine, a game of poker in which one player can bluff because each player already know what cards the other holds.

So no deal is not, and should not be regarded as, a serious possibility. But the consequence of talking about it as if it were certainly has serious consequences. It serves to normalise what is actually an extreme position, namely hard Brexit. Thus we are getting to a situation where it seems as if just avoiding the catastrophe of no deal would somehow be a sane, pragmatic and desirable outcome.

In fact, as those long months in which all we knew was that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ showed, in the initial period after the Referendum the spectrum of possibilities ran from soft Brexit – meaning single market membership and some form of customs union membership – to hard Brexit, meaning neither as well as exiting numerous bodies such as Euratom. It was not until May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017 that we were told that Brexit must mean hard Brexit. Yet now, it is common to see no deal described as hard Brexit, and what used to be called hard Brexit depicted as a soft position. Thus Philip Hammond is eviscerated for his lack of faith for championing what was once seen as the extreme form of Brexit.

I’ve written elsewhere about how no matter what concessions are made to Brexiters they always want more. They have now succeeded in dragging the whole country with them. There is simply no way that most, or even many, leave voters could have thought that the no deal scenario was what they were voting for. But now that this scenario is being discussed as a real possibility many voters – whether they were for remain or leave in the Referendum – are highly likely conclude that, by comparison, hard Brexit is ‘not so bad as that’*. In this way, hard Brexit, which was never voted for by the British people, is becoming normalised.


*That claim is in no way undermined by the recent Sky News poll finding that 74% of people would prefer ‘no deal’ to ‘a bad deal’ because a question posed in that form would be bound to achieve such a result. A ‘bad deal’ sounds – of course – like something bad; whereas ‘no deal’ sounds neutral, as if nothing much would change (some respondents might even interpret it to mean remaining in the EU). But if a question were posed in terms of choosing between the realities of ‘no deal’ and those of hard Brexit the result would certainly be a preference for hard Brexit.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Brexit is becoming a battle for Britain's political soul

As the complexity and chaos of Brexit become increasingly clear, the behaviour of Brexiters is becoming correspondingly unhinged and dangerous. This is most obviously manifest in calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be charged with treason or at least to be sacked for ‘sabotaging’ Brexit. His heresy is not to have questioned Brexit or even hard Brexit. It is simply that he is resisting spending money on preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit – preparations which would in any case be pointless even if the catastrophe of such a Brexit were something any sane politician would countenance as a possibility. For some Brexiters his ‘crime’ is the even more trivial one that he does not show enough positive enthusiasm for Brexit.

More insidious than, although part of, this Brexit McCarthyism is the re-writing of history which is going on apace. Examples include airbrushing out assurances given by Theresa Villiers (then the Northern Ireland Secretary) and Boris Johnson that the Irish border would be unaffected by Brexit; or the impossible promises by the Leave campaign that a new deal with the EU would be negotiated before even beginning the legal process to leave. Most fundamentally, all those Brexiters who assured voters that an advantageous Brexit deal would be easy, quick and inevitable are now insisting either that they always knew it would be hard or, even, that no deal has always been the most likely outcome. The latest offender is Nigel Lawson, but as I have catalogued elsewhere there are numerous other examples, including Peter Lilley, Peter Hargreaves, David Davis and Liam Fox.

This matters hugely not in order to hark back to the Referendum campaign but in terms of what happens now. Because it is becoming ever clearer that nothing that the Leave campaign promised voters was true and that had they told the truth about what leaving the EU meant then far fewer people would have voted for it. What this means now is that the lies told are coming back to haunt them and in particular to fatally undermine what has been their most effective line since the vote: that Brexit is the “Will of the People”. Manifestly that falls apart if what people who voted leave were promised turns out to have been a lie. There’s nothing new about that insight, of course, it has been the case since the very first hours after the Referendum but it can only become more obvious as the situation unfolds. It is not just that people will change their minds – as they are beginning to do – it is that the very legitimacy of the result is discredited in a way it could not be had Leave won on the basis of an honest campaign.

It is because of this that Brexiters are so desperate to conceal what they promised, and so viciously turning on those, such as Hammond, who are not “true believers”. That now even extends beyond the re-writing of the past to a demand that evidence about the present and future be falsified. Thus John Redwood this week called for the Treasury to revise its economic forecasts so as to be more ‘realistic’ and ‘optimistic’ about Brexit (quite how they could be both is an absurdity in itself). Forecasts are not facts, but that they are forecasts is a fact and to demand that standard models of forecasting (for all their imperfections) be doctored to fit in with Brexiter faith is ridiculous.

It is crucial that we do not think of this as just the normal business of politics, with protagonists putting the best gloss they can upon their positions. What is underway is something much more fundamental, in a sense even more fundamental than Brexit. The hardcore Brexiters of both the political Right and Left think of themselves – correctly, in my view – as enacting a revolution, and in pursuit of that they are not just willing to risk economic disaster but actually hope to destroy liberal political discourse in its broadest sense. The sinister language of traitors, sabotage and loyalty tests is not the last desperate throw of the dice as Brexit goes wrong; it is the beginning of what they want to be the normal terrain of politics. Similarly, the re-writing of history and of facts is not just a tactical gambit, it is part and parcel of their desired form of politics as decoupled from evidence, logic and rationality.

This won’t go away if and when Brexit is shown to fail. The Brexiters will not take that to show they were wrong but will say that it re-affirms they are right, as we are already seeing is the case. Nor will it go away by conceding to their demands about what form Brexit will take, since we have already seen that each concession made to them only brings forth an even more extreme demand. In a way, the Brexiters’ growing immoderation is doing us a favour in giving a warning as to what kind of country they want whilst there is still the outside chance of avoiding the Brexit which would allow them to create it. For whatever else may have been the ‘will of the people’ it was not the Jacobinism that the Brexit ultras are now revealing to the public.

In this sense, there is a battle underway which is not just about Brexit but about the political soul of the nation. And if this is so, it becomes vital that all of us, but politicians especially, recognize and respond to what is at stake. It goes beyond political party loyalties and cuts across them. There can really be no case, now, for politicians to enact or support the enactment of Brexit when – as seems to be the case for May, Hammond and Damian Green amongst many others – they not only do not believe in it but actually know it is hugely damaging. If they fail to act on that knowledge they will not only be complicit in that damage but in the even greater disaster of taking the British polity down a toxic path that leads inexorably to dark, dangerous and violent places.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

By accident or design, a 'no deal' Brexit is getting closer

Theresa May’s commons statement on Brexit progress was a strange, confused and confusing mixture indicative of the strange, confused and confusing situation we are now in. On the one hand it showed some glimmers of realism about how in any ‘transition period’ ECJ jurisdiction would continue. That immediately attracted the ire of the Brexit Jacobins, such as the ubiquitous Rees-Mogg. Interestingly, there are signs that the Brexiters in the cabinet – Gove, especially – are more relaxed about this, reflecting, I suppose, the distinction between those who have the luxury of not having to take any responsibility and those who do. On the other hand, there was a much harder sense that May is preparing for a ‘no deal’ or 'Kamikaze' Brexit, and in that, of course, she has the unqualified support of the Ultras.

Why should ‘no deal’ even be being spoken of at this point? The answer seems to be a realization that the EU is unlikely to agree that sufficient progress has been made on phase 1 issues in order to progress to trade talks, and raising ‘no deal’ is perhaps designed to put pressure on the EU – or more accurately the individual member states – to give ground on this (and, by the way, even if they do UK ideas of what the future trade relationship would look like are unrealistic).

That in itself is absurd. The reason there has been no progress on phase 1 is almost entirely because the UK has failed to come up with anything remotely realistic on the issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement or the Irish border. And the reason for that, as ever, is because the Brexit Ultras won’t countenance anything realistic on the first two of these, whilst there is no obvious solution to the third of them. Moreover, progress has been made slow by the lack of British preparation prior to triggering Article 50, the time wasted by the election and by Tory infighting, the confused departmental structure created to handle Brexit, and the low-energy approach of David Davis to the negotiations.

What May is proposing to the EU probably leaves them with no option other than to decline it – at which point they will be accused of collapsing the talks and, possibly, giving a pretext for a UK walkout. If this is indeed about negotiating tactics then it is taking a massive gamble since it would, at the least, precipitate an immediate further collapse of sterling. In the longer run, using such tactics risks the possibility of a ‘no deal’ by accident – the political equivalent of nuclear brinksmanship going wrong. If that happens then the consequences will, of course, be economically and socially catastrophic – as outlined in an alarming, but by no means alarmist, post by pro-Brexit blogger Pete North.

Even accepting that Brexit is going to happen, there is absolutely no reason why it needs to be pursued in this way. I don’t just mean that a soft (single market) Brexit would avoid what is happening now. I mean that even a hard Brexit does not need to be pursued in this fantastically reckless and incompetent way. Having made its ill-advised choice, the government could fairly easily deal with citizens’ rights by not fixating on an ECJ role, and with the financial issues which are not, in the overall scheme of the costs of Brexit (and certainly the costs of a no deal Brexit) so great. And on Ireland they could at least develop some meaningful proposals, unlike the latest absurdity. Above all, there is absolutely no reason why they need to be in such a hurry. Given the complexities involved, there’s no reason in principle why the UK could not seek a much longer transition period and/or an extension of the Article 50 period. Whilst neither could be guaranteed, a more pragmatic and conciliatory stance from the UK could have made them achievable.

But for the ultras, if not for the government, the ‘no deal’ scenario is not something to be raised as a negotiating ploy – no matter how absurd and, had things been approached differently, unnecessary – it is the desired outcome. This is abundantly clear from the statements of many of them, including a contemptible piece by Bernard Jenkin, every sentence of which was a distortion of the truth, when it was not an outright lie. The overall message was clear – Brexit should be easy, and is only being prevented from being so by the vindictiveness of the EU and the machinations of remainers, in which conspiracy the Treasury and the CBI were included.

What Jenkin and his allies plainly want is for the talks to collapse and for a no deal Brexit to occur. Whether this is because they hope this will be a platform for a complete re-design of the UK along hard Right lines, or just because they are so viscerally bent of shape by their hatred of the EU is hard to tell. At all events, the government is now hostage to them, meaning that any halfway economically pragmatic approach to Brexit is politically impossible, and anything which is politically possible is economically untenable. So we are getting closer to ‘no deal’ even if, as David Allen Green argues, it is not inevitable.

It’s possible that this will change – a collapse of the talks would, as Jolyon Maugham suggests, throw into sharp relief just what a calamity ‘no deal’ would be, and might precipitate some parliamentary regrouping around sanity. But it is equally likely in such a scenario that a narrative of ‘EU punishment’ is whipped up, driving us headlong to the reality of ‘no deal’. If that comes about, those of us who can would be well-advised to make plans to emigrate, whilst those who can’t should stock up on tinned goods and install some good, strong locks.

It should never be forgotten that nothing remotely like the situation we are in – let alone that which might shortly unfold – is what was promised to those who voted to leave the EU. They were repeatedly told that leaving would be quick, easy and wholly positive. Every reptilian Brexit politician who piously invokes ‘the will of the people’ to justify this emerging national tragedy should be reminded of that.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Brexit for juveniles: the Tory Party conference

It is well over a year since the referendum result and over six months since Article 50 was triggered. This – according to both remainers and leavers – presages a massive change in British history, with far-reaching economic and geo-political consequences and presenting very significant challenges for every area of policy.

Yet one would hardly have thought so from the Conservative Party conference. Here we had the governing party, charged with and apparently enthused by overseeing this historic transformation, with nothing to say about it of either sense or substance at all. That is not say that they partook of the Labour Conference’s absurd conspiracy of silence about Brexit. They spoke constantly of it, but in ways so ludicrous as to be laughable were it not so dangerous.

Thus Boris Johnson, forever stuck in the factory-reject Churchill imitation of the Referendum campaign trail, reprised his empty ‘be bold’ rhetoric. At least he did not pretend to have anything of substance to say. But Liam Fox, the Brexit cabinet’s job creation scheme for one man, claimed that he had. There would be 40 new trade deals immediately ready for signature on Brexit, apparently on the basis that countries with deals with the EU would cut and paste them for the UK.

No detail was given, which is not surprising as it is complete fantasy. On the one hand, no country is going to simply replicate agreements with the EU for the much smaller market of the UK. You might as well expect someone who has signed a contract to buy a five bedroom house to Tippex that out and replace it with a one-bedroom flat whilst leaving the purchase price unchanged. On the other hand, no country is going to agree anything until the terms of UK-EU trade are known, and after that it will take months if not years. What Fox said will not happen, it really is as simple as that.

Beyond the fantasy lay a massive contradiction. For Fox, free trade agreements with these countries are vital – it would not be good enough to trade on ‘WTO terms’ (not that he, like other Brexiters, shows any sign of knowing what this actually means). That is why he insists Britain must leave the Common Commercial Policy and Customs Union. Yet with respect to the EU he equally vehemently insists that there is nothing to be feared from not reaching a deal, since trading on WTO terms will be perfectly fine. So which is it? He doesn’t say because he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. His language is less larky than Johnson’s but for both of them it’s just a game, detached from any kind of reality.

Outside of the main conference hall were fringe events, with Jacob Rees-Mogg being a particularly popular fairground attraction. From him, we got such inanities as that the solution to the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland border was easy. In a master stroke that has eluded all those who are struggling with this issue he declared that we would just not have a border! If the EU wanted spitefully to create one then that was down to them. Yet this same Rees-Mogg is an enthusiast for the hard Brexit of leaving the customs union that makes a border inevitable. This wasn’t anything as mature as ‘having cake and eating it’, it was a toddler smearing himself in jelly and then licking it off in public. But how the other children cheered.

As for Theresa May’s fiasco of a speech, her remarks on Brexit, which seemed to finally reduce her to coughing incoherence, were confined to a few platitudes about a deep and special partnership (deep and special being the new strong and stable). The reason was obvious. If she indulged in the kinds of nonsense that Johnson, Fox and Rees-Mogg spouted even the very slender bridge she built with the EU in her Florence speech would be undermined. If she challenged it, the conference hall would have joined the prankster who presented her with a P45. So she had nothing to say, even if we could have heard it.

Her broken voice may attract sympathy (certainly from those of us who speak in public) but it was an overt reminder that she is a broken politician. And there should be no sympathy for that: she broke herself. Having come to the leadership by presenting herself as the adult in the room she failed to stand up to the Ultras when she could, created unnecessary and ill-judged ‘red lines’, triggered Article 50 unprepared and then called and fluffed the General Election.

Saying all this is not, in itself, to be either pro- or anti-Brexit. We now have a government which is engaged in a supremely serious business without the tiniest sign that it has any serious ideas about how to do it. To the extent that there is any serious work going on, such as the impact assessments, it is being kept secret from the public and parliament and – spoiler alert – this is not because they show that the impact will be anything other than calamitous. As this farcical spectacle plays out, back in the real world the Article 50 period is running out and business are beginning to make crucial investment decisions. It’s tempting to say that we are sleepwalking to disaster, but the Conservative Party, at least, is going there joyously, blowing a tin whistle and playing pin the tail on the donkey. Our emerging national tragedy is that the rest of us are shackled to this latter-day Children’s Crusade.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Brexit: political correctness gone mad

In October 2015 when the Referendum campaign was in prospect but not underway I wrote an article on The Conversation website outlining the main scenarios if the vote were to leave. These were the now familiar options of single market membership on the Norwegian or Swiss models, an FTA with the EU, or WTO terms.

Although somewhat overtaken by events, that article argued two things which continue to be relevant. One was that advocates of Brexit typically oscillated between, and often treated as interchangeable, these fundamentally different forms of Brexit. That persisted right through the campaign and beyond, with different Brexiters espousing different models or fudging the differences between those models by vague – meaningless – talk of ‘access’ to the single market.

The second argument was that if what leaving meant was not clarified, and if the vote was to leave, it would be no good saying – as Brexiters repeatedly claim about the 1975 Referendum – that ‘we did not know what we were voting for’. By then, it would be too late.

Well, the vote was, indeed, to leave and the ‘then’ I wrote about has become ‘now’. I was reminded of that article by the very interesting, albeit extremely depressing, ‘Brexit Reality’ feature on last night’s Channel 4 News. The format was to take a group of people who had voted to leave, along with some politicians who had been leading advocates of leave including Daniel Hannan and Paddy O’Flynn, to discuss how they saw Brexit now. It was a worthwhile format because it meant that the discussion was not a re-run of leave versus remain but disclosed what leave meant for leavers (a similar programme featuring remainers will be broadcast soon).

What emerged were very striking differences in motivations and of understandings of what Brexit meant, ranging from neo-liberal global free trade advocacy to socialist anti-austerity politics. Some were beginning to be concerned about the complexities of leaving, others were impatient of the complexity and wanted an immediate, no-deal exit. Some wanted to stay in the single market, others not. Some seemed to regret their vote and several believed that they had, on various grounds, been misled as to what voting leave meant. It was especially delicious to see Hannan put in the position of having to defend May's Brexit 'strategy' to those even more deranged and peculiar than himself. Most contributions – most certainly including those of the politicians – were lamentably ill-informed and in some cases downright dishonest. In all, it seemed like a fair cross-section of the leave leadership and the leave vote.

None of this was particularly surprising, but it served to point up very sharply the ludicrousness of the notion that there is a ‘will of the people’ for Brexit. Of course it is ludicrous, anyway, to describe the 52% of those who voted as ‘the people’. But it is even more ludicrous given that those 52% are themselves massively fragmented as to what they think Brexit means and how it should be undertaken.

The tragedy is that the long-term future of Britain is now being driven by a policy devised and supported by the people represented by this group. The angry, plethoric, we ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’ demeanour of many of them suggests a strong overlap with those who rail splenetically against ‘political correctness’ and ‘the human rights brigade’. If so, it’s ironic that there is a new Brexit political correctness in which it is deemed unsayable to mention a very obvious truth. It is that the people who lead the campaign and those who voted for Brexit do not have any idea whatsoever about the realities of what it means.

This is not just a matter of opinion, because they constantly show ignorance about very basic, factual matters, as well as telling outright lies. The consequence is that just about everybody with any knowledge of what Brexit means, and just about everyone who has to take responsibility for dealing with it, is opposed to it. Whilst just about everybody who supports it does not have the responsibility for delivering it or the knowledge needed to do so. This, indeed, is only too evident when we see how Brexiters like Davis, Johnson and Fox who have responsibility for Brexit flail around cluelessly whilst experienced civil servants despair at what they are being asked to do. And, meanwhile, the Brexiters outside of government continue to propound myths and lies about how Brexit could be done if only they were in charge, knowing that they never will be.

To say such things offends Brexit political correctness because it is depicted as elitist disdain for ‘ordinary people’. That is, of course, an absurd proposition. On the one hand it invites us to think that the very many ordinary people who voted to remain are in some way part of an elite. Since 48% of us did so, that’s a very big elite. On the other hand it requires us to believe that Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton and Oxford), Daniel Hannan (Marlborough and Oxford) and Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford) are horny-handed sons of the toil. Such is the grotesque political spoonerism of populism.

Political correctness in its conventional trope is a ridiculous fantasy in which local authority five-a-day advisers prance around in high-viz jackets promoting trans-gender Winterval whilst ordinary folk are slapped down for ill-advisedly mentioning blackboards. Brexit political correctness is made of altogether sterner stuff, with dissidents being dubbed enemies of the people, traitors, saboteurs and – if they achieve sufficient profile – receiving rape, acid attack and death threats. That would be disgusting in any circumstances, but when built upon so fragile a basis as the confused and fragmented group represented in the Channel 4 discussion it is absurd. Elevated, as it now is, to be the basis of Britain’s long-term strategy Brexit is, to coin a phrase, political correctness gone mad.

Friday, 22 September 2017

May's Florence flop

Anyone expecting Theresa May’s Florence speech to live up to its ‘momentous’ billing will have been disappointed. The part that was most heavily trailed and which will be most extensively focussed on is the willingness to continue to pay into the EU budget for a probable two year transition period whilst staying in the single market and, it seems, the customs union. But this is not some ‘open and generous’ offer: it is the bare minimum in order to achieve that transition, which all but the most cretinous of Brexiters (step forward, Peter Bone) knows that the UK desperately needs. It’s also, for all that it is being touted as a large amount of money, quite trivial in the context of the overall costs of Brexit, including those incurred so far.

In any case, it’s still not clear what this transition period (which May insisted, illogically, on calling an implementation period) means. It seems to entail freedom of movement, but with a new registration process (which may or may not be compatible with EU law) and continued ECJ jurisdiction (though May ducked the question about what happens with new EU rules during the transition). But she implied it would not involve the common commercial policy (i.e. so Britain can start negotiating trade deals) which is unlikely to be acceptable to the EU.

And May has failed to explain in detail what that final arrangement would be because her cabinet and party can’t agree on what it should be. The idea seems to be a “Canada +” deal, with the plus presumably being considerable coverage on services. If so, it will be unlike any other FTA in existence, will be a long time in the making and will involve a high degree of ongoing regulatory harmonization with the EU, whereas May wants also to have scope for regulatory divergence. She appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the Brexiter myth that existing harmonization makes for an easy agreement. It would, if we were joining the EU; it doesn’t, because we are leaving.

The wider issues of the ‘exit bill’ in terms of future liabilities for past commitments – for example to pensions – remain unresolved and were not mentioned beyond a vague statement that Britain would honour its existing commitments, which seemed to pertain to the current budget. Nothing new or useful at all was said about the Irish border, and on citizens’ rights May continues to maintain the primacy of UK courts - there was a nod at taking ECJ judgments ‘into account’ but what this might mean in practice is unclear.

So there was very little said that properly addresses the points raised by Michel Barnier, in his Rome speech, that set out what the EU were hoping to hear from May. It therefore seems unlikely that what she said will ‘unlock’ the talks so as to allow a move to phase 2 on future trade. This phasing, don’t forget, is in line with the wording of Article 50, has always been the position of the EU, and was accepted by the UK at the start of the negotiations. There’s nothing sinister about it, and the longer the UK refuses to face up to dealing with the phase 1 exit issues the closer we get to leaving with no deal in place. In effect, we have only one year to do that deal since the final six months of the Article 50 period will be required for ratification.

Thus May’s speech changes nothing, but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. It was an attempt to get the EU to solve the problems that Brexit creates for the UK. Hence the talk of ‘shared responsibility’ and of an ‘imaginative and creative’ approach. Indeed the backdrop slogans of ‘shared values, shared challenges, shared future’ all seemed to point to this as the central message. What it codes – and the same code can be found in most of the UK position papers – is the idea that the EU should come up with solutions to the hundreds of vexed issues and, moreover, in a way that respects the UK’s red lines, red lines deriving entirely from the need to appease the Brexit ultras in May’s party.

It is an approach which is unequivocally doomed to failure, and lacks any kind of political realism whatsoever. As an EU member, the UK was frequently able to extract ‘imaginative and creative’ solutions because the other countries recognized the constraints and pressures of UK domestic politics and had some interest in keeping Britain on board. Hence all the opt-outs, such as from the Euro and Schengen. Choosing to leave the EU means that horse has died and can’t be flogged back to life. The EU-27 have no reason to care one way or the other about Britain’s domestic difficulties. And that is compounded by the multiple ways over the last year or so that May and others have squandered what goodwill there might have been. If Britain wants to leave, then it is for Britain to solve the problems that leaving creates. The EU-27 will try to minimise the harm to themselves so far as possible; as for the harm to the UK, that’s our problem.

Fundamentally, May’s speech simply went around the same loop that Brexit has been in for months, albeit in different language. In essence, although she claimed otherwise, the idea is that everything stays the same and yet everything changes. We keep everything the Brexiters perceive as benefits whilst dropping all those things they don’t like. It really is – still - as simple and as stupid as ‘having our cake and eat it’ and if the EU don’t allow that then they are being awkward or punitive. It’s as if Brexiters still don’t grasp that leaving the EU isn’t some act of symbolism but has real legal and institutional effects. On March 29 2019 at midnight the UK becomes a third country with respect to the EU, with all that that entails.

Of course there is no mystery as to why we keep going around this loop and keep getting the same result. It’s squarely down to the refusal of ultra Brexiters to accept that they are living in a fantasy world. Whether May has now entered that world, or whether it is just that she is too politically weak to face down the ultras hardly matters. The effect is exactly the same. But with Article 50 triggered despite having failed to deal with the ultras something important has changed. Each time we go round the same loop we get closer to that day we become a third country without anything remotely like a deal in place. It was noteworthy that, when asked, May did not repudiate the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ formula, although not with any great conviction it’s true to say.

And, to be clear, what that would mean would be far beyond anything conjured up by ‘Project Fear’. It would mean, overnight, that Britain ceased to be connected not just to the EU but to all of the global agreements it participates in via the EU. Britain would – quite literally, because of the effects on air travel – be cut off from the world. It would be a massive and unprecedented economic and social dislocation. In practice, if we get to within a few months of that date with no prospect of a deal some of this will begin anyway, both in terms of growing company relocations and things like plane bookings not being available. So even if – as some on both sides of Brexit imagine – at the last moment the EU or the UK caves in much damage will be done, and much of that damage will be permanent.

May has blown what is getting close to being the last chance she has to re-set the course of Brexit. Admittedly, it would take political leadership of an extraordinary skill to do so. But the speech re-affirmed that she lacks any leadership qualities at all. She is entirely devoid of flair, imagination or charisma. Despite her one-time reputation for mastery of detail she seems not to understand the most basic facts about how the EU works and the issues at stake in the negotiations. She has neither the courage nor, now, the strength to deal with the ultras in her party. For that matter, as the peculiar choice of Florence as a venue and the audience who attended show, she doesn’t have the courage to speak directly to the EU itself. There’s no reason at all to expect that she will miraculously acquire any of these qualities before March 2019 any more than the Tory party and cabinet will agree what they want.

There was at the heart of May’s speech a terrible, tragic irony. All that she said about shared values, history, security challenges, economic needs and how co-operation and partnership could and should arise from these sounded like a speech making the case to join the EU rather than to leave it.