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.

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