Sunday, 26 February 2017

Brexit and immigration: what's happening?

The latest bad news Brexit story is that net migration has fallen by 49,000, probably as a result of the referendum vote. Of course, it wasn’t treated as a bad news story in the media and was greeted with approval by the government.

The reason why it is bad news is simple: Britain needs more immigration, not less. Whole sectors of British economy and society are not sustainable without immigration at present or higher levels. These sectors span the skill range from agriculture, catering and care homes through to scientific research, medicine and finance.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, because the British economy is running at what in economists’ terms is probably full employment. That does not mean zero unemployment, as there is always a tranche of people who are unemployed for example because they are temporarily between jobs or in some cases because they are to all intents and purposes unemployable. To see what I mean, watch the instructive BBC film from 2010 on ‘the day the immigrants left’. What you will see are British people bemoaning being unemployed due to immigration but, when given the chance to do the jobs undertaken by immigrants, being for the most part completely incapable of doing so even at the most basic level of turning up on time.

It is not the case that these people are kept out of jobs by immigrants – that is the well-described ‘lump of labour fallacy’ - although it is the case that some of those currently unemployable could become employable with training and education. And this can and should occur whether or not Britain is in the EU. But training and education will not render large numbers of them capable of doing the high skill science and finance jobs that many EU immigrants undertake, or large enough numbers to fill the low skill jobs.

The second reason is demographic. Britain has an ageing population, and to sustain it entails an influx of economically active people in order to sustain economic growth and to support pension payments. It’s possible that one way of dealing with this, rather than immigration, is for British citizens to work longer before they get their pensions, and indeed it has been mooted that this will indeed be a consequence of Brexit. If so, it is unlikely to be popular with Brexiters as the responses to a report on this in the pro-Brexit Daily Express show. Nor is it likely to match the skill profile needed.

A naïve response to this is to say that if wages were higher then the British workforce could fill the gaps of immigration. The reason this is naïve is because if the people aren’t there to work then higher wages won’t create them. At best, higher wages in, say, the care sector will lead to shortages in, say, the retail sector. And whilst I’m all in favour of higher wages it will mean higher prices. Do Brexiters want to pay those, on top of the higher prices already caused by Brexit because of the collapse of sterling? In any case, as wages rise investment in mechanization becomes more attractive to companies, with rapidly developing robotic technology likely to be a growing possibility.

There’s also a lazy response to this, which is to say that immigration puts pressure on public services. It’s lazy because EU immigrants are net contributors to the public finances: the issue isn’t immigration it’s the use made of the funds contributed by immigrants. In fact free movement of labour within the EU is a particularly effective way ensuring net contribution precisely because of the ease of movement in both directions – EU migrants tend to come to work in the UK when they are economically active but not to retire in the UK.

The fact that Britain needs immigration is acknowledged, even by Brexiters. Hence David Davis and others have said that it will continue post-Brexit, something confirmed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd today. The difference, it seems, will be that it will be via some kind of work permit scheme (yet to be set out). For those who voted to leave the EU on the basis that they wanted to see less immigration, this does nothing for them. In fact, it’s becoming less and less clear what Brexit voters are getting of what they were promised. The three headline claims of the Leave campaign were an extra £350M a week for the NHS, which was immediately repudiated; regaining sovereignty, which the Brexit White Paper confirms was never lost; and a reduction in immigration, which the Brexit government now say isn’t going to happen. Plus any new trade deals with, for example, India, are likely to come with a relaxation of immigration restrictions from such countries.

Meanwhile, for those who are not concerned about immigration it just means an extra layer of bureaucracy and cost, in having to apply and pay for immigrant employment. Is it, then, a matter of no change other than increased costs for businesses (not that these are negligible, and it is strange to see a Conservative government imposing them)? No, because although at the low skill level of immigration – where all the political fuss has been – it won’t make much difference to numbers, at the high skill level it surely will. They will not be willing to go through bureaucratic hoops to come to the UK, especially when bringing families with them.

The British economy needs immigration, and free movement within the EU is by far and away the easiest way for this to happen. It enables supply and demand in labour markets to be easily matched. No other system allows this, and the benefits are not just economic because it allows all the human things around the labour market (relationships, children) to happen easily as well. Huge numbers of families in the UK (and in the rest of the EU) are now intermingled. That last point matters because migration should not just be seen in transactional, economic terms but also in cultural and human terms.

Finally, it should not be forgotten in all the talk about immigration that the hard Brexit planned by the government will also have a direct effect on every British citizen, leaver and remainer alike: we will all, at a stroke, lose our right to live, study work and retire in the EU without restriction.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Even as we leave it, Britain doesn't understand what the single market is

Both before the referendum and since there has been a persistent confusion about what the European single market is, and this confusion also informs the way in which the government plans to leave the single market.

The confusion is to think of the single market as being the same as a free trade area and, associatedly, to equate this with ‘tariff-free trade’. In brief (see here for more detail), a single market is not just about tariff-free trade and the removal of quotas; it is also about the removal of non-tariff barriers to trade and it is from this that most EU regulatory harmonization flows. Non-tariffs are the most technically complex and significant barriers to trade and are most especially pertinent to services. This is particularly important to the UK as it is a predominantly service-based economy.

Similarly, single market membership entails free movement of people not as a kind of a bolt-on which, for some ideological reason, the EU insists on but as a core part of the definition of what a single market is: a complete unification of the production and consumption of goods and services (including, also, free movement of capital). You can no more be a member of the EU single market without free movement of labour than you could have a functioning UK single market that restricted movement of people between different counties. To do so would by definition create separate markets in labour (and, for that matter, housing). In a sense, the absence of free movement can be seen as a species of non-tariff barrier in preventing a single market from fully existing (albeit that, as this helpful explainer shows, free movement of people is not the free-for-all that it is sometimes thought to be).

That this has not been properly understood is evidenced by an interesting insider account of the referendum campaign, written by Daniel Korski, formerly Deputy Director of David Cameron’s Policy Unit, in Politico. He records the frustration during the pre-referendum re-negotiation with the EU:  

“Nor would our counterparts in Europe acknowledge that the EU’s four freedoms are very much divisible. A country can reduce tariffs and remove trade barriers and still maintain restrictions on which foreigners are allowed to enter the country. This is what the United States has done since World War II, with NAFTA being the best example.”

These sentences absolutely expose the core misunderstanding: NAFTA is not a single market, it is a free trade area. They are fundamentally different things. The four freedoms are indivisible not because the EU won’t ‘acknowledge’ it but as a matter of definition. In this sense the EU’s expression that it will not allow ‘cherry-picking’ is a misleading one: the cherries cannot be picked because they are inseparable from the tree. It is a rich irony that the development of an EU single market was championed most enthusiastically by successive British governments since the 1980s, and yet they seem not to have understood what they were championing. Nor can it be said often enough that before the Referendum many in the Leave campaign explicitly said that leaving the EU did not mean leaving the single market.

The present government’s decision to cease to be a member of the single market is apparently based on a realization that membership isn’t going to be unbundled from free movement, but still seems to see this as just an intransigent negotiating position on the part of the EU and not a definitional issue of what the single market means. Hence what seems to be envisaged in the White Paper is to recreate just about every feature of the single market for the UK (even, on my reading, a form of ECJ jurisdiction, albeit via the back door of a dispute resolution system) except for free movement of people. Thus paragraph 8.1 states the intention that:

“Our new relationship should aim for the freest possible trade in goods and services between the UK and the EU. It should give UK companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets and let European businesses do the same in the UK."

These words (along with several other indications in the white paper) suggest strongly all of the regulatory harmonization and non-tariff barrier avoidance that the single market entails, save for that relating to free movement of people. If it does not mean that, then it cannot mean the freest possible trade – just some form and degree of market access.

So the government’s aim is to ‘get round’ freedom of movement of people by creating between the UK and the EU something akin to the free trade area that Daniel Korski (and, by implication, David Cameron) believed the single market was, or should be. The idea is to shoehorn together two fundamentally different models of international trade.

It obviously remains to be seen whether such an arrangement will be created but my view is that it will not be possible – and, the crucial point, not because of a failure of negotiation but because it is a logical impossibility. You might as well say you are going to negotiate to sail your boat up the M1 as to say you are going to have ‘maximum freedom to operate within’ a single market without free movement of people.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Our Brexiter masters need to accept that they have won

I caught a report on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning discussing how Brexit would affect Cornwall. The county, which voted to leave the EU, has received some £1billion in aid over the last 15 years because it is an area of substantial economic disadvantage. Now, people are worried that although the government has guaranteed funding of pipeline projects until 2020 the money will dry up after that. Similar concerns have been expressed in Wales, which also voted to leave and also receives substantial EU payments.

As I listened to the report I imagined that somewhere in the country a pro-Brexit listener was shouting at the radio something like ‘but it was our money in the first place’. That is so, but are the worries of the Cornish people likely to be assuaged by it? In the referendum the notorious headline claim of the Leave campaign was that leaving the EU would allow £350M a week to be spent on the NHS. That promise has now been disowned, or at best morphed into the idea that ‘let’s spend it on the NHS’ really meant ‘we could do so’ but let’s not go down that semantic rabbit hole. The point, of course, was that the £350M was the gross figure, including money that came back in various forms (and, in fact, some which never even went at all). And some of what came back was the money that went to Cornwall.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that absolutely nothing changes economically as a result of leaving the EU except for the end of all budget contributions. That’s an absurd assumption, of course (not least because the government have indicated that they will continue to pay into some EU projects and may pay for some form of single market access) but let’s make it anyway. It would mean that either there will not be the £350M for the NHS that leave voters in Cornwall and elsewhere were promised would be available, or that there will be none of the money that the EU previously sent not just in regional subsidies but in science funding, farming payments and so on. It can’t be both, so one way or another leave voters in Cornwall have been misled.

But suppose that we don’t take the gross figure and say that the NHS will just get the difference between the net and the gross figures. If so then maybe Cornwall can still get its regional development funds. Unfortunately, there is still a problem for those who were persuaded by the leave campaign. Because many prominent leavers, including Theresa Villiers, held out the prospect of things like farming subsidies actually increasing after Brexit. But if that is so, then something else that used to come from the EU receipts will no longer be paid, possibly the Cornwall development money. It can’t be both, so either the farmers who voted leave have been misled or someone else who voted leave has been.

Of course the reality is that money for Cornwall, or for farming, or for science that used to come from the EU will be just one more lobbying claim on the Treasury. Whether they are successful in the face of the demands to fund, for example, social care or prisons is anyone’s guess. If I lived in Cornwall I wouldn’t be optimistic, though. Also anyone’s guess is whether all the promises made by the leave campaign to Britain’s fishing industry about being freed from EU quotas can be kept – a leaked report today suggests not.

The point in all this is not to re-run the Referendum campaign, on the contrary. Remainers are constantly told to ‘move on’ and accept the result (see this post for my views on that) but that cuts both ways. The Brexiters also need to move on and accept that they have won. With that comes taking responsibility for what they have won, and accepting scrutiny of how it matches what they claimed for Brexit. Are all the things they claimed to be so easy such as, to take another example from today’s news, the Northern Ireland border really as easy as they said? With the referendum over, it’s no longer important to know whether ‘Project Fear’ was true; what matters now is whether ‘Project Complacent’, across all the myriad of complex areas that Brexit affects, is true. This is beginning to happen now – in Wales for example – and it will inevitably happen more and more in the years to come.

Shortly after the 1945 Labour government was elected it is reputed that a government minister (possibly Hartley Shawcross) said ‘we are the masters now’. The victorious Brexiters are the masters now, but with power comes responsibility and accountability. Brexiters often talk about themselves as the victims of ‘the elite’ and ‘the establishment’. Now they are in charge they need to answer not just the questions of remainers but also the questions that those they persuaded to vote leave in Cornwall and elsewhere will, ever more vociferously, ask of them.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The myth of the WTO option

When Theresa May said that “no deal is better than a bad deal” this was widely interpreted to mean that she would be prepared to see the UK trading on WTO terms if necessary. It bears saying, first of all, that if the UK leaves the EU with no deal, it will have a calamitous impact well beyond trade – everything from airline flying rights to data transfer protocols would be affected, each of which is a hugely complex issue in its own right.

As regards trade, May is channelling what has been a persistent Brexiter myth going back well before the referendum. The myth is that WTO rules offer some kind of basic, entry-level framework for international trade which is sitting, ready and waiting, for the UK to ‘revert to’. Nested within that myth is another one, namely that what is at stake in international trade rules is primarily, or even solely, tariffs (a misunderstanding that remainers, too, are prone to). And nested within that is an idea that it is companies that do trade, not governments, so that international trade rules and agreements are a nicety if not an irrelevance.

That latter point – put to me by a member of UKIP just the other day – is hardly worth discussing. Apart from smuggling, no international trade can occur in the absence of some set of laws and regulations that transcend the nation state. The idea of free trade as a kind of state of nature as it appears within Brexit mythology has recently been comprehensively debunked by Professor Steven Weatherill of Oxford University writing on the EU Law Analysis blog. This is also why the Brexiter idea of sovereignty is so naïve: as soon as international trade occurs some diminution of sovereignty (in the sense that they mean it) is entailed. This applies quite as much to the WTO as the EU – arguably even more so in terms of transparency and accountability - and indeed the WTO is often criticised by activists on these grounds.

The other issues are much more complicated. The first is the complexity of unbundling the UK from the EU’s membership of WTO. Brexiters talk of this as ‘regaining our seat’, but far more is involved than moving around the table. A particular difficulty is that the EU’s current commitments to the WTO are unknown, as former WTO official Peter Ungphakhorn explains (along with much more detail on many other aspects of what is at stake):

“The only confirmed commitments on tariffs, quotas, and farm subsidies are from before 2004 when the EU had 15 member states. The EU has expanded three times since then, but in 12 years it has been unable to agree with the WTO membership on revised commitments.”

The word ‘quotas’ in this is a reminder that trading on WTO terms is not just a matter of adopting a certain tariff regime. Within that, countries have different quotas of trade, with different tariff levels above and below the quota. Thus unbundling the UK from the EU entails establishing what proportion of EU trade in a massive number of goods can be attributed to the UK. This is not just a mindbogglingly complex technical matter, although it is surely that, but also entails potentially acrimonious political negotiations not just with the EU but with other WTO members. Depending on which good is under discussion, different countries – some friendly, some hostile to the UK – will have significant interests at stake. If Brexiters complain about the difficulties of the UK ‘getting its own way’ with 27 other EU countries, they are in for a nasty shock when dealing with the 160+ WTO members. To get a flavour of what is involved, read Ian Dunt’s explanation of the issues using the example of trade in lamb. It makes for sobering reading.

In any case, tariffs and even quotas on trade in goods are not the main issues at stake here. The WTO framework has only limited applicability to trade in services and to non-tariff barriers to trade in both good and services (for an overview, see this briefing from Sussex University’s UK Trade Policy Observatory), and indeed has in many other respects been stalled since the failure of the so-called Doha Round that began in 2001 and was effectively abandoned last year. In this sense, the idea of WTO rules as a comprehensive trade framework is a misnomer. Brexiters often sneer at those who point to the dangers of leaving the single market and the uncertainties of creating free trade agreements by saying that countries such as the USA and China trade with the EU without either single market membership or a free trade agreement. The implication is that these countries simply trade on WTO terms. They do not.

In fact, such countries trade via a complex web of Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) which are principally concerned with removing the non-tariff barriers to trade which are, in most cases, far more important than tariffs. Each MRA is a highly technical and, in most cases, lengthy document and the outcome of long periods of negotiation. The USA, for example, has some 135 MRAs with the EU, and China has 65. On Brexit with no deal, not only would the UK not have any MRAs with the EU but it would also have exited the EU’s MRAs with countries like the USA and China. For none of these MRAs exist as part of the WTO rules to which the UK will supposedly revert. It is for this reason that the pro-Brexit economist Peter North of the Leave Alliance writes:

“One can say, unequivocally, that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the WTO Option. It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government would allow it.”

So when Theresa May says that no deal is better than a bad deal she is either willing to entertain such a disaster or it is simply a negotiating tactic. But if it is a negotiating tactic it is a strange one since it is to say: do as I want or I will shoot myself in the head.

Update (16 February 2017): Since writing this post, I have been contacted by Peter Ungphakhorn (quoted in my post) to say that, whilst he agrees with the thrust of my argument, schedules for the EU-25 (i.e. its 2004 membership) were updated for goods in December 2016. For much more detail see his blogpost:

I’m grateful for that information. It does reduce one aspect of the complexities I discuss (i.e. the commitments from which the UK must unbundle). Equally, the fact that it took 12 years to get to that point serves to underscore just how great those complexities are!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Politics fail, costs rise

As predicted in my previous post, the government’s bill on triggering Article 50 was passed, overwhelmingly, without amendment yesterday. No amendment came close to succeeding – the nearest was amendment 110 which related to parliament being given a vote on the final deal. Here, rebellion from Tory backbenchers was bought off with the promise that there would be a vote – but immediately it was made clear that this would be a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, meaning that the choice would be between whatever had been negotiated or no deal at all. No deal at all would be so chaotic and disastrous that the vote would be meaningless. Even so, only a handful of Tory MPs rebelled – including, I’m pleased to say, my own MP, Heidi Allen. There’s no question that to have done so shows real courage, given what will undoubtedly have been intense pressure from party whips, but it was in vain.

As I posted before, the way that the House of Commons has responded to having its sovereignty confirmed by the courts has been shameful. In fact, it is hard to see which is more shameful – their feebleness or the glee with which the Brexiters who fought tooth and nail against parliament having a vote now greet the vote to support Article 50 (the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg inevitably amongst them). Matters now move to the House of Lords, and already the Brexit bullies are warning that any opposition there will be dealt with punitively, with the abolition of the second chamber. It is the same tactic (‘enemies of the people’) they used against the Commons and it will probably produce the same result, although it is slightly less predictable.

Labour’s utter uselessness continues. Even faced with the ludicrous idea that a final vote would be between the deal or nothing, their Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer greeted it as a victory, going on to say that in practice the government would agree to re-negotiate if parliament voted the deal down. That is absurd: in reality what would happen is that MPs would be put in an impossible situation of ratifying the deal or torching the country. If they don’t have the courage to take on the Brexiters now, they certainly won’t then. By the same token, the idea tweeted today by Jeremy Corbyn that ‘the real fight starts now’ is beyond risible when he has just forced his party to support the government’s Brexit plans.

Unless the House of Lords comes up with something spectacular, Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March and then the real stuff starts. The bubble of UK politics will meet the realpolitik of negotiations with the EU, with the first thing on the agenda being the exit bill that may be as high as £50 billion. In the meantime (meaning the last few weeks whilst the Supreme Court verdict and the consequent parliamentary debate have been happening), the costs and the warnings of costs of Brexit continue to rise inexorably.

Investment in UK start-up firms has dropped dramatically. 58% of British businesses report that Brexit has already had a negative effect. Microsoft has said that Brexit is leading it to consider pulling investment in the UK. China is warning its companies to take precautions against Brexit (aka hold off investing). The Chairman of German Industry UK is warning of a pull-out from the UK. The Bruegel thinktank estimates 30,000 financial services jobs leaving the UK along with £1.5 trillion of assets. An agricultural thinktank has produced numerous reports about the disarray that Brexit will cause to farming. Just today the football club Manchester United has announced that Brexit has already cost it almost £90M, the British Beer and Pubs Association has said that beer prices will rise because of Brexit, and the same could be said of just about every sector of the economy. As for the cost of the government having chosen to fight against the parliamentary votes we have seen this week – well, they have refused to say.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Brexit White Paper

The government has now published its 77 page white paper on Brexit, setting out its plans in slightly greater detail by elaborating on the points made in Theresa May’s recent Lancaster House speech. The headline of that speech was the announcement that the government would seek a hard Brexit in the sense of leaving the single market.

The white paper re-affirms that, but also makes it clear that the UK will seek, via a new trade agreement, to take in elements of the single market in certain (unspecified) areas and to maintain a great deal of regulatory harmonization with the EU across a very wide range of areas. This opens up significant questions about the extent to which the UK will have to comply with future changes to EU regulations over which it has no say. The plan makes it clear that the UK will leave CJEU jurisdiction, but posits some form of dispute resolution system with the EU and there is also brief reference to some form of ‘civil judicial cooperation’.

On the inter-related issue of the customs union, the white paper indicates that it wants a modified, or new, agreement which exempts the UK from commercial policy (so as to be able to make its own trade deals) and the common external tariff (this also means that the UK will definitely have the fiendishly complex task of negotiating new tariff schedules with the WTO), but continues to allow tariff-free trade and retains point of origin rules so as to avoid border checks.

What all this seems to amount to is the recreation of almost all of the features of single market membership but avoiding, at least in name, CJEU jurisdiction and, of course, free movement of people rules. There would also be no formal contribution to the EU budget but ‘appropriate payments’ would be made to programmes the UK wished to participate in. There is no indication of what the scale of these payments might be (so much for the £350M week for the NHS promise of the leave campaign) nor any mention of the exit charges bill estimated by the EU to be £50 billion. Nor is there any assessment at all of the costs of enacting Brexit, or how this compares with the costs of other Brexit models.

The big unknown in all this, clearly, is whether the EU would be likely to agree to such a deal which is indeed in essence a ‘have cake and eat it’ strategy. The white paper implies several times that the EU will see this as in their best interests, in part on the basis of the familiar Brexiter trope that the UK has a trade deficit with the EU as a whole. In many places the document indicates areas for detailed negotiation, the clearest non-negotiable being free movement of people. There must be serious doubts about whether the EU will agree to any of this given that their guiding principle will be that any terms for non-members must be worse than those enjoyed by members, and that political as much as economic interests will shape what were this week described as ‘humungously complex’ negotiations.

Almost all of the contents of the white paper are unsurprising (in the light of the Lancaster House speech) and of course destroy any residual hope of soft Brexit. But on my reading, at least, it is not clear that the additional detail provided should give much joy to hard Brexiters either. Even if the UK gets all that it wants all that will really have been achieved is to recreate at great cost and complexity a great deal of what already existed before. Of course, for some, an end to free movement of people is worth paying any price for, but it should not be assumed that a future UK immigration policy would necessarily reduce immigration numbers, it would just make the process more complex and costly (and, of course, will also make it more complex and costly for British people to go to the EU).

The other thing that will please Brexiters is the plan to be able to do our own trade deals. But that, too, now looks less distinctive from being in the EU than might be thought. Liam Fox has recently indicated (£) that on exiting the third party trade deals that the EU has, the UK will seek to re-instate them as UK-only deals on identical terms. It’s far from clear that this will be possible, but suppose that it is: what has been gained? At most, the possibility that on unknown terms at an unknown point in the future there will be new deals with additional countries (as is also the case for the EU).

Brexiters will no doubt be delighted about the idea of ‘taking back control’ but as I have indicated it looks to me as if much of what they mean by that will simply go to back door routes. That’s not surprising because all international trade entails trans-national institutional structures. In fact, the most remarkable sentence in the white paper reads thus: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” (para 2.1) This is a truly astonishing statement because it confirms that the central plank of the leave argument – that the UK had lost its sovereignty – was completely untrue. It was just ‘a feeling’. So, to assuage that, we are to turn our economy and polity upside down to create, it would seem, a situation where it ‘feels’ that a sovereignty never lost has been regained!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Parliament's Brexit shame

The spectacle of the House of Commons voting overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50, though unsurprising, was a shaming one for parliamentary democracy and sovereignty. It’s first worth recalling, since some Brexiters who spoke in the debate hailed the vote as a victory for that sovereignty, that the vote only occurred because the Supreme Court insisted that it should. Left to its own devices the government would have proceeded without parliamentary approval, and fought desperately to avoid it (ironically, the vote has now strengthened their position). Meanwhile, those who brought the court action and the judges making the decision were viciously pilloried in the Brexit press and subjected to vile threats and abuse.

Handed the power to decide, MPs (with several honourable exceptions) refused to use it wisely. Thus – and herein lies the shame – they voted to do something which the majority of them think is wrong and many know to be disastrous for this country for decades to come. Yes, to have done otherwise would have been to defy the result of the referendum and, yes, it would have led to massive criticism and a political crisis. But, against that, at this historically defining moment the MPs chose to allow the government to embark on a course of action that the majority of them know to be against the national interest and, in terms of the form of Brexit planned, probably against the wishes of the majority of the electorate too.

It is possible (but unlikely) that some amendments to the bill may be carried, or that the House of Lords may at least delay things. It is also possible (and perhaps more likely) that later in the Article 50 process parliament will assert itself. Nevertheless, at this decisive moment MPs have abdicated their responsibilities. There was almost a sense that they knew this when, hypocritically, they applauded the veteran pro-European Ken Clarke, the only Conservative MP to vote against the bill. It was almost as if they knew that he had done what most of them dared not do.

There was much talk of MPs wrestling with their ‘consciences’ as to how to vote. But this was not a matter of conscience in the sense that that terms if usually used in a parliamentary context – that is, a matter of individual moral conscience as with issues such as euthanasia. This was a matter of intellectual judgment about the long-term strategic interests of the country.

That there will be a high strategic price to pay for Brexit is rapidly becoming clear, primarily because the first days of the Donald Trump presidency have highlighted what it will be. There is nothing new in the UK seeking a strong relationship with the USA – that has been the cornerstone of foreign policy since 1945. But in recent decades that has meant primarily being a ‘bridge’ between the USA and the EU. Now, with American politics itself undergoing a rapid transformation away from its post-1945 norms, it seems more likely that the UK will be a kind of battering ram within what are rapidly becoming the antagonistic relations between the USA and the EU.

Britain, now more than ever, is desperate for political and economic connection to the USA, making its capacity to distance itself from what is already a controversial and chaotic presidency very limited. Yet at the same time there is a desperation to develop better links, especially economically, with China to which Trump’s administration is hostile and likely to get more so. On the other hand, the administration is far better disposed to Russia than is Britain, whose position is far more closely aligned with that of the EU than it is with that of Trump. But Brexit Britain has few foreign policy options open to it, so that what would, even without Brexit, have entailed diplomatically difficult choices now allows of no choices at all.

It is telling that in the ongoing controversy over Trump’s new immigration measures which in the UK are linked to the question of whether he should be invited for a State visit closely map the Brexit divide. Thus pro-Brexit MPs have been limited in their criticism of the measures and supportive of the visit. Meanwhile, the petition against the visit is reported to be most supported in those areas of the country which voted ‘remain’ (petitioners having to submit their postcodes in order to sign).

Those pro-Brexit MPs have the logic of consistency to their credit. They recognize (even if they would not put it in these terms) that the luxury of an independent foreign policy is one which can no longer be afforded after Brexit: the strategic choices are now massively curtailed and driven by a mixture of diplomatic isolation and desperation for trade deals. By contrast, the Labour Party which has been vociferous in its criticism of Trump and of the British government’s posture towards him show no such consistency. For by insisting that its MPs vote to trigger Article 50 Labour has endorsed precisely the policy that makes such criticisms futile.