Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Brexit Ultras could have unwittingly gifted May, and the country, a slender lifeline – if she’ll use it

It’s very difficult to distil events since my previous post into one reasonably concise discussion. There’s also little point in rehashing the minutiae of the parliamentary and political infighting given that these have been so widely discussed in the media. But I think that standing back a little it’s possible to see a few important themes within the crisis. For let’s be clear, as has been long-predicted, we have indeed now reached a major national crisis.

Why is this happening?

Although there are many reasons for this crisis, it derives ultimately from the fact that the Leave campaign did not specify, and therefore the leave vote could not endorse, what Brexit actually meant. That was entirely irresponsible, but it was not accidental. Only by holding together disparate and incompatible versions of what Brexit meant was it possible to win the vote.

It’s this, even more than the closeness of the vote, which has dogged Brexit. At PMQs this week an MP drew a comparison with the referendum on Welsh devolution in 1997, which was even closer and on a much smaller turnout and yet no one questioned the result. The implication – which May agreed with - was that the same should be true of the EU referendum result. But implementing the Welsh vote was straightforward: everyone knew what it meant and how to do it. In the case of Brexit the opposite is true.

This basic fact is what has led us through all the twists and turns to the present situation. It meant that any attempt to implement the result was always doomed to fragment the coalition that brought it about. That’s why (as I’ve argued many times on this blog) Theresa May should have attempted to develop a more consensual form of Brexit – not just because it would have been the fair thing to do but because it was politically necessary.

Of course, had she done so, the ERG Ultras would have rejected that and done all they could to wreck it. But the point is they have done that anyway, and they were always going to, because their position is one of permanent campaigning and permanent grievance: nothing was ever going to satisfy them. By trying to do so May failed to build the support from elsewhere that might have enabled her to deliver a deal that MPs would accept.

Indeed, even now that the Ultras have turned on her, she continues to deploy their slogans so as to treat the 2016 vote as an inviolable mandate to deliver Brexit in the form that she has ordained, on the date she has ordained. It is a monocular, Terminator-like, dedication to a very narrowly defined mission from which she has only deviated to the extent that at some point last summer she realised that it could not be done in the fantasy way that the Ultras had said (and still say) was possible, and that she had so foolishly promised to give them. From the moment she did so, she lost their support. Now, they have struck out and even though they got enough votes to hurt, they failed to land the knockout blow.

Now May has to be honest

Such a blow may still come from a parliamentary confidence vote but, if not, the issue now is whether she continues to fail to see that the 2016 vote is not enough to take her to where she thinks it forces her to go. She has always resisted parliamentary involvement – most obviously in the absurd legal fight against Gina Miller’s Article 50 challenge – and resented it, too. That’s evident in, for example, the way she made a special trip to the House of Lords to glare, basilisk-like, at the Peers as they debated the Article 50 notification, and in the way she framed the 2017 General Election in terms of parliamentarians not having accepted the ‘country’s’ consensus. But there is no consensus in the country, as both the referendum and the election result showed and as subsequent events have confirmed.

For these and (of course) many other reasons it’s no surprise that by this week it became abundantly clear that May’s deal was going to fail spectacularly, leading her to defer the vote to an unspecified date. There simply isn’t the straight line that May imagines from the 2016 vote to ‘delivering it’. In her statement that prematurely ended the meaningful vote debate, May challenged her critics to be honest about what their own preferred approaches meant. She needs to do the same.

She has – unlike anything her opponents in both the Conservative and Labour parties have proposed – come up with a workable deal, in the sense that, operationally, it could be delivered. But it isn’t politically deliverable and because she refuses to understand that the 2016 vote isn’t a big enough engine to make it so, she is resolutely opposed to the second referendum which, very conceivably, would do the trick for her. Every time so far that the idea of another vote is put to her she rejects it on the grounds that the electorate have already voted to leave, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to enable them to support her in what, according to her, is delivering on what they want.

Will May use the lifeline?

Having now seen off the Ultras’ challenge – the latest in a series of miscalculations deriving from a dogmatic zeal that may well yet lead to the delightful irony of the ‘prize’ of Brexit slipping through their fingers – May now has an opportunity to recalibrate. She failed to free herself but, bizarrely, they have gifted her that freedom. They can’t challenge her again for a year, and she knows they will never support her. The crucial question for her, and much more importantly for the country, is what she does with her freedom.

The first thing she needs to do is to be upfront in admitting that she isn’t going to get any substantive change to the Withdrawal Agreement. Everyone knows that. She only said it to placate the Ultras and now there's no need and no point. It’s not a matter of EU recalcitrance but the fact that the EU has no room for manoeuvre on the fundamental issue of the backstop precisely because of the UK’s red lines that she herself drew. Even if she gets a bit of linguistic tweaking and some warm words, she won’t get her deal through parliament.

That being so, and given her evident commitment to her deal, her most obvious course is a referendum: ‘my deal’ versus remain. Too late for the Ultras to complain that this doesn’t include a ‘proper Brexit’ or ‘no deal’ option: they’ve blown it. Clearly this course of action would require a massive backtrack on what she has said so far, but she has some track record in that respect despite her reputation for stubbornness. It would also need an extension of the Article 50 period, but it’s widely believed that this would be achievable to accommodate a referendum.

A conceivable alternative could be to pivot to Norway Plus, for all its difficulties and unresolved quandaries*. It would, arguably, only need relatively achievable changes to the Political Declaration rather than to the Withdrawal Agreement. That could be done without a referendum, and in that way would be consistent with her mantra that the vote has already happened, and now parliament must deliver. It might not even need an extension of the Article 50 period. But of course this alternative, too, would require her to backtrack considerably, especially on her implacable hostility to freedom of movement.

One thing I do not think is currently feasible, even though some remainers hope for it, is to use this week’s ECJ ruling to rescind Article 50 but without another referendum (more discussion of this and related issues here). That would be neither politically realistic nor legitimate, and would carry real long-term danger of never putting the EU issue ‘to bed’ in British politics, which goodness knows is going to be hard enough anyway. Whatever people – myself included – may think of the conduct and folly of the 2016 Referendum, its result is a political fact. Arguing that ‘legally’ the government could rescind Article 50 without a referendum, whilst true, has as little traction as the equally correct argument that the 2016 referendum was only advisory. Political and legal realities are not always the same thing.

Either of the two scenarios sketched above would require a complex cross-party alliance, since neither would get the support of the Ultras (although it is conceivable that the DUP could support the second scenario, as it would be consistent with their deepest red line of there being no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain). It wouldn’t be a ‘national government’ in the way that some, including me but rather more significantly the MPs Nicky Morgan, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry, have speculated about, but it would entail getting support from some MPs from opposition parties. To do so would – to use May’s favourite phrase – be to act in ‘the national interest’.

Doing this wouldn’t be easy for anyone, especially someone with May’s temperament and skills. My fear, and in fact my expectation, is that what this temperament will lead to is that rather than using this moment to effect a fundamental reset, she will use it to plough on with her deal, shamefully leaving the meaningful vote to the latest moment possible in the hope of bouncing MPs into supporting it because there is so little time to do anything else. That would squander the very small chance that she – and we – have to get out of this mess. If that happens then the crisis we are currently in will continue and intensify.
*I’m well aware of the many complexities and debates about this, and will discuss them should it come about that this option gets pursued.

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Thursday, 6 December 2018

The ‘meaningful vote’ debate: still riddled with pretence, incoherence and fantasy

At the end of last December, I wrote that 2018 was the year that politicians were going to have to get real about Brexit. The squeals and crunches during the agonizing grind of the current meaningful vote debate are the sound of that happening – up to a point.

To be fair, to a degree May’s government did start to get real this year, most tangibly with the Chequers Proposal. Not because that was remotely realistic, but because it did finally attempt to garner cabinet agreement on something that might begin to be the basis for negotiation. It was far too little, far too late but, even so, provoked David Davis and Boris Johnson to return to the Brexiter comfort zone of blame and betrayal. More surprisingly, it brought Dominic Raab into government despite the direction of travel already being clear – only to resign a few months later, as if unaware that this was so.

May: the pretence of a consensual compromise

That direction of travel was realistic in the limited, but by no means unimportant, sense that it led to an agreement – May’s deal – being made in the form that we have now seen. But May remains wholly unrealistic in, now, presenting it as a ‘compromise’ between leave and remain positions which she expects both sides to ‘get behind’. By first tacking so hard towards the Brexit Ultras, and dismissing remainers, and then partly rowing back, she has created a version of Brexit which pleases almost no one.

That simply can’t be covered over by repeating, as she did when opening the debate, what against stiff competition is one of the most egregious lies told in the Brexit process. That is the proposition that since both main parties at the 2017 General Election endorsed not just Brexit but the hard Brexit of no single market membership, and since 80% of voters voted for one of these parties, this ‘proves’ there is overwhelming support for both Brexit and hard Brexit. It is manifestly nonsense, as is shown not least by the hallowed result of the 2016 Referendum. It is simply a pretence to claim anything other than that the country, like the House of Commons, is bitterly and more or less equally divided.

Corbyn: incoherence and opportunism

Nor was there any realism to be found in Jeremy Corbyn’s opening contribution. His position on Brexit remains completely incoherent – to miraculously renegotiate his meaningless “strong single market deal”. On the other hand his criticisms of May’s deal are blatantly opportunistic, rehearsing the Brexiter objections that there is no end to the backstop (see below) and no completed trade deal. Whilst he could legitimately point to false claims made in the past by the government and many Brexiters that such a deal could be ready now he is not doing so: rather, he is repeating their fantasy that there could have been.

A prime illustration of this opportunism is his criticism of May for compromising her red line on ECJ involvement, again one he takes from the Brexiter playbook. But if he is saying she was wrong to abandon it, then how would he negotiate a better deal whilst keeping it (given not just the ‘strong single market’ blather but his apparent desire to remain within various EU agencies)? Or is he saying that she should never have had any such red line at all, in which case her sin is not in compromising it but in not abandoning it all together.

He doesn’t say, or perhaps doesn’t know. Either way, it is a complete dereliction of political leadership – and in marked contrast to the well-informed, clear and articulate critiques of May’s deal made by numerous Labour backbenchers, most strikingly (from those that I heard) those of Yvette Cooper and Margaret Beckett. The latter in particular made a withering assessment both of the government and of the promises of Brexiters.

Both parties playing out their European civil wars

In a sense, what we are seeing is the playing out of decades of internal party political dynamics. Within the Tory Party, it’s the beginning of the end game of their long European civil war, with at least three sides. There is a pragmatic, pro-business, one nation and internationalist group, and a highly ideological, uncompromising albeit internally incoherent amalgam of English nationalists and scorched earth neo-liberal globalists. Between them stands May, the latest of those Tory leaders to think that she can appease the unappeasables and who is pushing the precarious umbrella that holds these two factions together to the point where it is likely to turn inside-out in the gale.

Meanwhile, Labour have managed to resurrect their own European civil war from the 1970s and early 1980s, with a Parliamentary party that has largely recognized the EU as the best regional response to globalization, and the best bulwark against the extremes of both nationalism and neo-liberalism but a leadership shaped by and still committed to the Bennite critique of the EU that arose in the pre-globalization, pre-neo-liberal era. Hence the absurd nonsense of the ‘Lexiter’ position that proposes to end austerity by collapsing the economy, improve public services by destroying the tax base, and to ensure that working class people are denied the rights of international mobility enjoyed by the wealthy and by capital.

If Labour’s civil war is slightly more muted than that of the Tories it is only for two reasons. One is that, on the EU, the membership is closer to the backbenchers than to the leadership. The other is that it’s always easier to paper over divisions when in opposition than when in government.

Brexiters: charlatanism, fanaticism and Jacobinism

If May and Corbyn are still, even now, indulging in fantasy, it is no surprise that the Brexit Ultras are now beyond fantasy and inhabit a surreal landscape all of their own. As George Eaton pithily observes in the New Statesman, “their true quarrel is not with the Prime Minister but with reality”. Boris Johnson’s typically stuttering, bumbling contribution showed that well over two years since his ‘conversion’ he has not bothered to master even the most basic facts about Brexit. Repeatedly challenged – from his own benches - to state his alternative to May’s deal he promised a big reveal.

When it came, it was the idea of telling Brussels to drop the backstop and that half of the financial settlement would be withheld until a ‘Super Canada’ trade deal was signed, with a lot of bluster about being tough. It was the epitome of the grotesque charlatanism that has characterised his entire approach and, it seemed to me, the way it was received suggested he is now listened to with very little respect by his fellow MPs.

That motif of ‘drop the backstop’ is now the central one of the Brexit Ultras’ critique of May’s deal, her acceptance of it being one of the ways in which she did, indeed, become realistic. Their critique is absurd. Ever since it was first mooted – and agreed to at the end of the phase 1 talks, although at that point they either did not understand or did not care – it was going to be true by definition that it could not be unilaterally ended by either the UK or the EU. If it could, it would not be a backstop. The prospect of having a withdrawal agreement without some such provision is a non-starter.

That was always known, or should have been, and it certainly didn’t need the release of the Attorney General’s legal advice to tell anyone. What seems to have changed is that Brexiters have finally realised that the backstop is going to end up being used. In the past, they opined that a trade deal and/or technological solutions would solve the Northern Ireland border conundrum. No trade deal will: outside of the single market a border is inevitable. Very well, then, but there are still those technological solutions, and this possibility is written into the future terms framework. If the Brexiters are right, they need have no fear of being stuck in the backstop. If they fear being stuck in the backstop, then it can only show that they know they are not right.

I essayed that point on Twitter this week and the responses were interesting. Many made versions of the argument that the problem was that the EU would not accept claims about the technological solutions and so would quite unnecessarily force the UK to remain in the backstop forever. Quite why the EU would want to do so is not clear but, anyway, it’s irrelevant. The point is that, of course, ‘claims’ about technological solutions aren’t going to end the backstop. But the demonstrable existence of such solutions – either through their adoption in some other part of the world, or through a working prototype or pilot being created by the UK – could hardly be denied by the EU and any attempt to do so would inevitably fall foul of the review mechanism.

Parliament: belatedly taking responsibility?

Will the Brexiters continue to march their troops against May’s deal? Maybe not. There seems to be some recognition amongst them that if the deal falls then so too may Brexit. The passing of the Grieve amendment, along with the early indications of how the ECJ will rule on the right to rescind the Article 50 notice, will probably push some of them to support the government. But there will likely be quite a few Jacobins who either don’t care, or don’t understand, or believe that events will play out so as to deliver ‘no deal’, and will continue their opposition. And it only takes a few, plus some remainers opposing the deal for the same reason, with or without the DUP, for the vote to be lost.

Then, we are in unknown territory, as described in my previous post. But note that the ‘ultra Ultras’ are right in one respect. Parliament cannot stop ‘no deal’ just by saying they don’t want it. It will happen by default, by virtue of Article 50, unless they agree, positively, on an alternative course of action. That will probably be as hard as it has been to get agreement on anything else about Brexit. But if they do, it’s also worth saying that the present mood music of ‘parliament good, government bad’ – most obvious in relation to the ‘contempt’ vote – is not very well-founded.

As I noted at the time they did it, it was to MP’s shame that they voted, overwhelmingly, to trigger Article 50, not knowing how to do Brexit but, for the most part, knowing that however it was done it would be bad for the country. That they did so is still used by Theresa May and the Brexiters as a stick to beat them with. From that cowardly squandering of the opportunity given them by Gina Miller’s court action all this mess has flown. If, at this late date, they minimise – because that’s the very most it will be - the damage it will only underscore the folly and irresponsibility of what they set in train with that vote.


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