Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Westminster whimper, and a Brussels bang?

So the much vaunted Tory rebellion on the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment ended not with a bang but a whimper. Those who held out – Allen, Clarke, Lee, Sandbach, Soubry and Wollaston – deserve very high praise but in the end, as outlined in my previous blog post, there were not enough of them who had the steel to stand firm. Unlike the Brexit Ultras, they seem to look for reasons not to rebel rather than being constantly on the lookout for opportunities to do so.

I received some criticism for that comment, as have others saying similar things, for giving insufficient weight the extraordinary level of pressure and outright bullying the potential rebels were subjected to. I certainly don’t underestimate that, and it is a mark of how toxic and vile political culture has been made by Brexit that bullying and death threats now characterise it. But my comment is not meant to be judgmental, just factual: whatever the reason, and however understandable it may be, as a matter of fact the rebels do not, in sufficient numbers, have the determination to rebel.

That may change, for example over possible amendments to the Trade Bill to insist on a customs union but I think this is unlikely for two reasons. First, because on the customs amendment to the Withdrawal Bill the rebels were bought off with the fudge of a ‘customs arrangement’, so why wouldn’t the same thing happen with the Trade Bill? Second because if, as seems to be the case, Grieve and others held off on the basis of the damage it would do to the government to be defeated on the meaningful vote amendment then that argument would be far stronger in relation to the Trade Bill customs amendment. For if that were carried it would rip apart a central strand of the government’s entire approach to Brexit in a way that would not have been true for the meaningful vote issue.

I don’t suppose, by the way, that the climb down will win the putative rebels any great respect or gratitude from the Ultras for having ultimately put party loyalty first, nor do I imagine that those Ultras will take it as an example of how they, too, should be willing to compromise in a spirit of unity. Rather, it will just confirm their sense that they, rather than the rebels, have the ruthlessness to hold fast to what they want and that they will continue to get it.

However, one aspect of Wednesday’s vote that I have not seen commented on is that it may end up backfiring rather badly on the Ultras. Take a step back from the immediate drama, and what happened at that vote was truly bizarre. For who would ever imagine that a legislative body when asked - about any issue, let alone one of such gravity as Brexit – whether it would like a meaningful vote would give the answer ‘no, thanks’? It’s an extraordinary idea that any group of lawmakers would choose to neuter itself to executive power in this way. But this is what our MPs have done.

Given that this is the case, it applies quite as much to the Ultras who cheered it on as to the rebels who went along with it. So if it turns out that the government negotiates a form of Brexit that the Ultras find objectionable then they will find, to their chagrin, that they have engineered a situation in which it is they who will have to take it or leave it.

There are many straws in the wind that something like this is going to unfold. Sam Coates of The Times argued last weekend that the ludicrous ploy (which has since rather backfired) of claiming a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS was a sop to the Brexiters in preparation for the government making numerous concessions on its red lines in the next few weeks. That seems plausible in that unless the ECJ red line, in particular, is substantially softened, if not abandoned, the prospects of meaningful progress on security cooperation and participation in many EU programmes is highly unlikely.

It is a point that May has half-conceded before, both in her Munich speech on security, but also in relation to the phase 1 agreement on citizens’ rights. It was always crazy to have drawn that line so firmly anyway, the more so when accompanied by the strategy – if it can be graced with the name – of seeking to opt back in to as much of the EU as possible after Brexit. It is really the key stumbling block to creating some kind of Association Agreement with the EU which many, including most recently the eminent barrister and Brexit commentator George Peretz QC, see as a more logical aim than that of a Free Trade Agreement. If May’s ‘deep and special partnership’ is to mean anything, it entails something akin to the ‘Ukraine model’, but that is unachievable without some role, even if backdoor, for the ECJ or, conceivably, some new kind of UK-EU court with the ECJ as the ultimate arbiter.

Another such straw in the wind can be found in Pippa Crerar’s report in today’s Guardian to the effect that the government’s “direction of travel” is to stay in a single market for goods trade. Such an idea seems to be a version of what is sometimes called the ‘Jersey model’, and it is not without substantial difficulties to my mind, at least. Principal of these is that it is not always possible to separate goods and services in any neat way (e.g. maintenance contracts associated with goods).

One irony of such a model is that it would finally make use of the old Brexiter saw about the advantages of the UK trade deficit with the EU, since Britain does indeed have a deficit in goods trade; but by the same token it would have a chilling effect on services trade, where Britain runs a large surplus with the EU. But, in any case, the point for present purposes is that if this is indeed the direction of travel it will entail concessions both on the ECJ and also, most likely, freedom of movement of people.

So that, too, would enrage the Brexiters whose only comfort would be that independent trade deals – in services only – would become possible. That would be mainly symbolic, of course – almost no free trade agreements touch deeply on services, primarily because to do so entails the kind of common regulatory framework that Brexiters regard as incompatible with (what they mean by) sovereignty. Then again, the entire notion of an independent trade policy is primarily symbolic anyway, since in economic terms British trade is served much better by single market membership and access to EU-brokered trade deals.

None of this should remotely be taken to imply that some version of either the Jersey or the Ukraine models would in my view be a good thing for Britain. Both of them, like any other form of Brexit, are damaging to Britain and sub-optimal (economically, politically and culturally) compared to remaining in the EU. But given that Britain seems determined to make itself a worse place in all these respects such models are – by a long way – better than the ‘no deal’ catastrophe that remains a very real possibility.

Rather, my point is that if one or other (or another) of these kinds of compromises with May’s ill-judged red lines is in prospect it will put the Ultras on the wrong side of the decision to reject a meaningful vote. This isn’t to posit May as some Machiavellian genius, playing a cunning long game to thwart the Ultras. As Rafael Behr argued this week in a very acute profile of May’s leadership, she is bereft of pretty much any of the leadership skills which Brexit demands of her. And as I have said myself in the past, she appears totally lacking in any strategic thinking, rather than the day-to-day tactics of keeping her government going and her party from completely imploding.

The window of time such a purely tactical approach is rapidly closing now. With the latest Westminster games now over, talks with the EU resume in earnest in the run up to the EUCO meeting in a week’s time. As the ever-excellent Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, argued last Sunday “the view from Brussels and Dublin is that Westminster is quite simply in a parallel universe”, quoting a senior EU official to the effect that a “cataclysmic” outcome is a conceivable prospect. So events in Westminster may have ended with a whimper, but just around the corner there may be a big bang to come in Brussels.

Friday, 15 June 2018

What did we learn from this shameful and shambolic week?

Few watching this week’s pitiful events will have thought that Westminster any longer has much claim to be called the Mother of Parliaments. Just two days (and those a concession from the single day originally offered by the government) were devoted to debating a string of highly significant amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill; with a contemptuous and contemptible 15 minutes made available for that relating to devolved powers. And a good chunk of those days were taken up by the archaic voting system, with each amendment requiring a separate ‘division’ itself lasting about 15 minutes. Given the technological wonders being promised for the Irish border, perhaps the government could turn its mind to creating the very simple system that would be needed for electronic voting? At all events, as some of the dust clears, a few things stand out clearly.

MPs have abdicated responsibility

The first is that the Commons has decided to almost entirely throw away the lifelines offered by the House of Lords. Just as they squandered the opportunity given by the Article 50 vote given them by Gina Miller’s Supreme Court case. So we had the utterly shameful spectacle of MPs voting down amendments which most of them know would at least reduce the damage Brexit will do; that is, voting to make our country a poorer and a worse place. There can be little doubt that an unwhipped, free vote would have seen most or all of those amendments upheld. The party structure is now completely misaligned with political realities.

It’s understandable, of course, that the government side would whip its MPs to vote down the amendments; it is quite extraordinary that the official opposition so often did so. If Labour adopted the policy that most of its members, voters and MPs wanted it could not only shape Brexit in a far less extreme direction it could also inflict serial defeats on the government (which oppositions used to think was a good thing to do if you could) and even, conceivably, force a General Election.

Most obviously, if Labour had supported the amendment to seek to stay in the EEA – the only thing near to being compatible with their six tests – it would very likely have carried. Instead, they whipped their MPs to reject it whilst proposing their own doomed and utterly fatuous ‘access to single market’ amendment (it is simply beyond belief that this meaningless notion is still being peddled). Kudos to those Labour MPs who defied the whip, but it was too little and, now, it’s too late.

The one amendment on which the government did look vulnerable – that on a ‘meaningful vote’ – does have an importance, but even had it been supported represents the barest minimum that the Commons could aspire to. It really is no more than the slenderest of safety nets to insure against an absolute national catastrophe. What kind of perversion of the idea of public service and political duty could have so many MPs lining up to gleefully declaim, under the shop-soiled banner of the ‘will of the people’, that our country must march towards a potential cliff edge without even that minimal insurance?

Perhaps the one thing to be said in favour of the truncated timetable was that it meant we didn’t have to hear every last Brexiter camp follower braying out this dismal slogan as if it were one of the more sophisticated propositions of Wittgenstein. For that matter, there was more than enough bloviated guff about how parliament had long ago voted to give the decision to the British people by enacting the Referendum. I’ve commented before on this blog that I don’t think the fact that it was an advisory referendum, whilst legally true, has much political traction as an argument for remainers now. But, by the same token, Brexiters cannot peddle the legal fiction that parliament’s hands are now tied; any more than Theresa May can propound the view that parliament cannot “be allowed” to reverse or ‘subvert’ Brexit. Parliament was and remains sovereign even if MPs seem reluctant to do much with it, and they don't have many chances left.

The government approach followed a familiar, doomed pattern

The second thing which stood out came from the manner in which the potential Tory rebels were placated by the government. It followed the pattern adopted by Theresa May and her government to almost every aspect of Brexit: to promise completely incompatible things to different people in the hope of keeping the dismal show on the road for a little longer and, perhaps, imagining that somehow no one will notice.

That approach is evident in the entire mantra of delivering a ‘Brexit for everyone’ whilst pursuing a Brexit which appeals to and is good for only a tiny minority of zealots. It is evident in all the promises of frictionless trade being accompanied by promises to leave the single market and customs rules that enable such trade. It was evident in accepting the backstop proposal in the phase 1 agreement when in Brussels, but announcing at home that it was something that no British Prime Minister could accept.

It was also evident in the way that another potential rebellion this week, on a customs union amendment, was dealt with: by reconfiguring it as a ‘customs arrangement’ which the rebels could take to mean a comprehensive customs treaty and Brexiters to mean something entirely minimal or fanciful. In all the rest of the drama, this derisory piece of can-kicking has had less attention than it deserves. It is worse than a ‘fudge’, since not only did it enable both sides to vote in support of the government’s position on customs but also it did so when the government doesn’t even have an agreed position on customs.

In some ways, this is just the normal tactics of politics, but with Brexit May has elevated such tactics to an entire strategy and it is a doomed one, because each time she pretends to everybody that they are getting their way it comes under immediate pressure by virtue of the constraints of the Article 50 process itself. The decisions between incompatible promises can’t be sustained forever, and in a time-limited process there is no forever anyway.

In the case of the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment the tactic lasted barely an hour, following the shambolic spectacle of the government front bench suddenly offering ‘in good faith’ concessions in a bizarre, private conversation in public between the Solicitor General and Dominic Grieve. This – along with a behind the scenes meeting with the Prime Minister - was enough to stop the supposed rebels voting to support the amendment, but by immediately disavowing what had been promised it may not be enough to hold them back next week. This isn’t short-termism, it’s micro-termism.

The Tory ‘rebels’ lack steel

It may very well backfire, of course, by enraging the potential rebels and shredding any sense of fair dealing and good will that existed. If it finally puts some fire in their bellies it can’t come a moment too soon. For the fact is that these 12, 15 or perhaps even 20 Tory MPs show no sign at all of being anything like as ruthless as their Brexiter colleagues are prepared to be, and have been in the past (for example during the ‘Maastricht wars’ of the early 1990s). Whilst the Brexiters seem to be champing at the bit to exert themselves, the rebels appear to be desperate to find any possible way of avoiding doing so.

I can understand the pressures they face, both from their party and from the sickening bullying of the Brexit press. But if they were really determined they would never have fallen for indefinite promises made at the last moment when the government saw that the amendment was lost: they would have said ‘sorry, you’ve left it too late and what you are saying is too vague’, and then put the boot in - hard. They didn’t, because they don’t really want to.

We will see next week if that has changed but, to repeat, even if so it will only be to put the most minimal of safety nets in place. It’s notable that the language has now shifted so that what used to be called soft Brexit (essentially, single market) is now seen as no Brexit, what used to be hard Brexit (no single market) is depicted as soft Brexit and what used to be the unthinkable (‘they need us more than we need them’; ‘the easiest deal in history’ etc.) of no deal has been downgraded to hard Brexit. As that ground has shifted, the options in parliamentary discussion have also shifted so that the most the rebels are offering is some degree of damage control.

Meanwhile …

None of this is happening in a vacuum, and it has costs both political and economic. The EU look on bewildered. Far from there being any sense that the British government has a clear and viable negotiating strategy that – as kept being claimed in the debates - the Commons votes might derail, there is growing alarm in the EU-27 that no such strategy exists.

That same alarm is evident in the growing evidence of business slowdown in the face of a completely unknown future, and its gleeful counterpart in the pro-Brexit hedge funds betting on just that. It’s very likely that the average voter thinks that nothing much is happening except for irritating political rows: under the surface, the economic tectonic plates are shifting and really serious damage is now in prospect.

And the clock is ticking very loud now. A Withdrawal Agreement (which, of course, is a completely different thing to the Withdrawal Bill being discussed at the moment) is meant to be ready for ratification by the EUCO meeting on 18 October. Given that almost nothing will be done in August because Westminster and Brussels close down, that means that, by my calculation, there are now just 62 working days left.

If ever there were a time for political leadership, it is now. We already know that isn’t going to come from the Prime Minister or from the government. What we learned this week is that it isn’t going to come from the House of Commons, either.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Brexit seen from abroad

I’ve been in France for a few days – hence there wasn’t the usual Friday blog last week (for which, apologies but also thanks to various people who have said they missed it) – and as a result I haven’t been closely following Brexit news. On the other hand, I have had numerous conversations about Brexit, mainly with French people but also Spaniards, Dutch, Luxembourgers, a Swede, and a Lithuanian. In age they ranged from early 20s to late 80s and in occupation from photographer to farmer to accountant to retired. Some had worked or studied in Britain at some point, and a few spoke English. It wasn’t, of course, a scientifically selected sample or a statistically significant one but, still, a cross-section of, say, 20 people.

The reason they all talked to me about Brexit certainly wasn’t because they see it as particularly important, and even though most of them were politically knowledgeable they don’t follow the twists and turns of the UK Brexit debate. Beyond a general sense that the British government was rather weak, and divided about Brexit, there was no knowledge of, or interest in, what Boris Johnson has said this week, or whether David Davis might resign (the things I might have blogged about, had I not been away). Nor did I get a sense of any particular familiarity with, say, customs options for the Irish border.

Rather, the reason they all kept engaging me, unprompted, in conversations about Brexit was because, now, this is what Britain ‘means’ or connotes to non-Brits (in Europe, anyway). In the same way as a few years ago a typical conversation with, say, a taxi driver in Europe would be about Manchester United or pop music or, I don’t know, Princess Diana, now when someone knows you are British what comes to their mind is ‘Brexit’.

That – just in itself – is indicative and problematic. There’s been much written about Brexit and British or English self-identity, but less about what it has done to our identity in the eyes of others. And it is not good. No one I’ve spoken to sees it as connoting some leap to freedom, or the opening up of new vistas of opportunity for Britain; still less as a template that they would wish to see their own countries adopt. And, indeed, statistical data back up my conversations: support for the EU has increased throughout the EU-27 since Brexit.

Universally amongst those I spoke to, the Brexit vote is seen as bemusing, and the explanations given for it are of two types. One links it directly to Trump’s election as an expression of the populism that they also see in their own countries. The other sees it as an expression of British exceptionalism in the sense of a belief in a special innate superiority. That view, by the way, is accompanied by considerable – if perhaps exasperated - affection, especially amongst the older people I talked to, seeing it as a kind of endearing eccentricity. But, whatever they ascribe as the reason, they invariably see it as a terrible mistake, and as a departure from the pragmatism which they most strongly associate with British identity.

Alongside this was an assumption, or at least a hunch, from all of them without exception that Brexit will not actually happen. That is perhaps because this dominant image of the British as pragmatic still holds sway. Or – which may be another version of the same thing – because they can’t believe that any country would choose to do such harm to itself. There was no particular sense of what the concrete mechanism for that would be (e.g. a further Referendum), just a vague belief that it would probably be reversed. In that, I think there is a large gap between what these ‘ordinary citizens’ believe and what political leaders in Europe expect or think possible.

As to who is right about that, it is still impossible to say. This week’s parliamentary votes may conceivably tell us more about what direction we will go in. But of one thing I am sure. Even if Brexit is averted at the last minute, by some combination of events, it won’t be the case, as some of my European friends think and many Remainers assume, that Britain reverts to the status quo ante. There is far too much division and bitterness for that to be the case. In that sense, I think it is astute of Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton (and Gordon Brown) to recognize in recent interventions that any reversal of the Brexit vote would have to be accompanied by policies addressing some of its root causes. Just as Brexiters are quite wrong to think that the vote was a kind of time machine taking us back to 1973, so too are those Remainers who think there is a time machine to take us back to 2016.

There was a strange and sad coda to my trip to France. Returning on Eurostar I struck up a very interesting conversation with the (British) man sitting next to me, whose work is very much affected by Brexit. Our conversation included, I suppose, a bit of ‘remoaning’, if we must call it that, but was mainly quite technically focussed on various things which, in his sector, had to be done to deal with Brexit.

After a while, an elderly British couple sitting in front of us complained that we were talking too loudly. I’m not really sure that this was so, but I do have a rather carrying voice so we continued our conversation in near whispers. Yet even though, of course, there were numerous other conversations going on in the carriage, they complained again, saying that they ‘needed earplugs’ because of us. With the best will in the world, that was ludicrous. I don’t want to over-interpret it – perhaps they were just a crotchety old couple – but I am as certain as I can be that they were upset because of what we were saying about the practical consequences of Brexit.

There’s a link, somehow, between the conversations I had during my trip about how Brexit was something to do with a certain conception of Britishness – or, maybe better, Englishness - and this complaint on the way back. It’s reflected in the way that the government continue to oscillate between ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ type rhetoric and appearing to hope that ‘we’ll just stay at home with a nice cup of tea and hope the whole ghastly mess will blow over’.

The complaints of the couple on Eurostar seemed like a kind of metaphor for what is going on in Britain right now. There’s a sense that – as with the people I talked to in Europe – we all know that Brexit is crazy, including many or most who voted for it. But it would be embarrassing to admit it (see this Mike Galsworthy video) so it shouldn’t be said out loud and we just have to get on with it, even though we don’t really want to.

That is rather an endearing, Alan Bennett-ish, national trait when applied to weak tea and stale biscuits – ‘don’t make a fuss, dear’ – but as the basis of an entire economic and geo-political strategy it’s ruinous. Britain may push ahead with Brexit on the basis of bullish exceptionalism, or pull back on the basis of pragmatic realism. But we may just drift into it from fear of embarrassment, as if voting as we did was the political equivalent of using the wrong fork and that having picked it up we are obliged to use it, or else we will lose face.