Friday, 18 May 2018

Time is running out for tactical games

The twists and turns of the Brexit ‘customs debate’ are becoming more and more difficult to make sense of. The latest version appears to be an idea that the UK would seek to extend the period in which the whole of the country – not just Northern Ireland – would remain within effectively the existing customs union for a limited period after the end of the anticipated (but still not definitely agreed) transition period in December 2020.

This would, supposedly, allow the ‘maximum facilitation’ technological solutions for an infrastructure-free border to be developed. Which in turn would, again supposedly, allow three political fixes to be pulled off: ending the current impasse within the Cabinet and the Tory backbenches; placating the DUP’s objection to an NI-only backstop; and meeting the EU’s requirement that a satisfactory resolution to the Irish border issue be reached by the June meeting of the European Council.

There are layers of complexity – not to say incoherence - in this which are hard to unpick. Most obviously, an open border cannot be achieved solely or even primarily by customs arrangements. It also requires regulatory alignment with the single market. Thus the new ‘solution’ is neither a viable long-term plan for the future relationship, nor is it an adequate backstop proposal. Additionally, Sam Lowe of CER has cogently argued that it conflates the long-term plan for the future with a backstop, and moreover that the “EU will not contemplate the backstop applying to the whole UK”.

I agree about the first point. The second I would express slightly differently in that it seems to me that if the UK proposed a whole-UK backstop (and if it included full regulatory alignment), which would by definition not be time-limited as the present proposals are, then it could be viable. In other words, the proposal would be that if all else fails (i.e. the backstop) then there would be soft Brexit. Of course I realise that that is not the current proposal, but it might well be the direction of travel and the stumbling blocks to it are a) permanence and b) regulatory alignment, rather than its being UK-wide per se.

If this is what the latest proposal morphs into then such a backstop would be likely to end up as the reality, simply because the UK could only avoid it by developing technologies which no serious commentator thinks are viable. This is consistent with the wider argument that ever since the phase 1 agreement the logic has been that a soft Brexit is inevitable (according to Simon Wren-Lewis, for example) or very likely (according to Ian Dunt, for example, if I read him correctly). Or, at least, that is the logic if a no deal Brexit is to be avoided.

It’s clearly for this reason that the Brexit Ultras are so suspicious about the government’s latest proposals. They can see the possibility of this direction of travel, and suspect that it is what May is nudging them towards. However, the proposals can equally well be seen as May’s attempt to forestall rebellions in the Commons by Tory remainers or soft Brexiters on a customs union. By presenting this supposed middle way – even though it is entirely inadequate for the reasons given above – they may believe, or be able to persuade themselves, that rebellion is unnecessary. On that reading, May is nudging the rebels towards accepting hard Brexit. Or perhaps it is both: a ploy to make each group think that, when the dust settles, they will be left with what they want (indeed, for now, that seems to be working).

Who knows which of these is the case? It’s doubtful whether Theresa May herself does. This Brexit government not only has no pilot, it has no navigator and no map. The entire approach appears to be based on getting through, day to day and week to week, without the government falling apart. There is no strategy, just a series of tactics. Thus the latest developments are not really developments at all, they are yet more of the endless, doomed attempts to deny the basic paradox I discussed in a recent post of enacting Brexit without the consequences of enacting Brexit. In that sense, the details of what the government is currently saying don’t really matter (and actually obscure the real issues and choices to be made).

It’s precisely this narrowly tactical approach to Brexit that has led to the current mess about the backstop option on the Irish border. This option, according to the Prime Minister and the government, is completely unacceptable. Yet that same Prime Minister and government agreed to it as part of the phase 1 agreement last December! Indeed they trumpeted that reaching the phase 1 agreement showed how misguided the critics of Brexit were.

Thus to avoid the immediate political embarrassment and difficulty of not being able to move to the phase 2 talks on the future relationship (even though they had no agreed plan for what they wanted this to be) the government signed up to something that they now call unacceptable. Indeed, the same approach has been in evidence ever since Article 50 was triggered at the time it was, and despite lack of preparation, simply to garner the political advantage of showing the government was ‘serious’ about Brexit.

Beneath this monocular focus on daily tactics lies a deeper and stranger Brexit pathology. The government seemed astounded to see what it had agreed in phase 1 written up as a binding legal text in the draft Withdrawal Agreement. That is the latest illustration of the way that Brexiters seem, somehow, to think that leaving the EU isn’t something with real legal and political consequences but just a kind of symbolic act. That it shouldn’t – and wouldn’t, if only the EU would stop playing ‘silly buggers’ – actually carry with it all the practical meanings of being a third country (I’ve developed this argument in more detail elsewhere). Within such a mentality, Brexit becomes a kind of game, mainly focussed – and, in this, there is much media encouragement – on domestic politics. Thus it hardly matters whether what is proposed and discussed has any degree of realism to it.

This understanding of Brexit as daily political tactics or as merely symbolic is heading – fast – towards a brick wall as the endgame nears (see Kirsty Hughes of SCER’s excellent summary of this). All that we have seen this week is another attempt to delay the point at which the process explodes into crisis. That crisis is inevitable – even though the precise trigger and the ultimate outcome are unpredictable – because the government still, after all these months, refuses to get real about what Brexit means.

It will matter a lot, though, what the trigger is. If it comes from the EU, perhaps in the June Council meeting, refusing to accept the latest incoherent plan then the Ultras will certainly use that to advance their (preferred) no deal walkout, with the public probably seeing it as the EU’s fault. That may be why the EU haven’t immediately dismissed it out of hand. If it comes from one or other flank of the Tory Party then the government is likely to fall, with the public probably seeing it as the Tories’ fault. It’s the prospect of the latter outcome which presumably explains both why key Commons votes are being delayed and why this latest customs non-proposal is being floated to try to avoid a showdown with either wing.

In effect, the government are playing a game of chicken with three trains – the EU, and the two wings of the Tory Party – or, more accurately, they are forcing our entire country to play such a game. Those trains are now hurtling at high speed towards us, and it hard to see how we can avoid being hit by one or more of them, possibly simultaneously.

It need hardly be said that nothing remotely like this was what voters were told Brexit would mean.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Brexiters are running away from the consequences of what they have inflicted on Britain

During the Referendum, Brexiters offered a political message which took a traditional and familiar form: if you vote for us then various (supposedly) good consequences will follow.

It is easy to imagine what they would be saying now if any of these were evident; if companies were announcing new investments because of (not despite) Brexit; if foreign direct investment were booming in anticipation of Brexit, rather than tanking; if countries, especially Commonwealth countries, were champing at the bit to make new trade deals with Britain; if ‘German car companies’ had ‘within minutes of the vote’ to leave demanded a fantastic ‘cake and eat it’ deal and if the EU had rolled over to give it; if the Irish border was unaffected, as Brexiters had claimed it would be; or, even, if the negotiations were proceeding as smoothly and easily as they had promised.

But of course none of those things has happened and so, since winning the Referendum, the Brexiters’ message has changed in a very fundamental way. The new message takes several forms but each has the same dialectical structure: to decouple the vote to leave the EU from the consequences of leaving the EU.

It’s too late now

The first, and simplest, form is that the vote has now been held and so we must just live with the consequences. In that narrative, all debate and discussion ended with the Referendum. Remainers must get over it, leavers must be happy whatever happens. It’s a position exemplified by a recent tweet from the pro-Brexit journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer in response to being sent data about foreign direct investment since Brexit: “Mate, I really don’t care. This question was asked and answered two years ago. Move on with your life”.

Simple as it is, it’s also na├»ve. Politics doesn’t work like that, as Brexiters should appreciate not least since on the night before the 2016 Referendum Nigel Farage declared otherwise and, on the night after the 1975 Referendum, so did Enoch Powell. In this if in nothing else Enoch, to coin a nasty little phrase, was right.

Not only does politics not work like that in general, but it especially does not work like that in this case because, much as Brexiters dislike it, winning the vote was just the first and easiest part of a process which, in one way or another, will last for years. Hence they make a second claim.

It’s not up to us

The second version is a denial of responsibility, with the central idea being that leave voters and their leaders have done their part simply by delivering the vote to leave. It is up to the politicians and the experts to now make it happen. This, too, is misguided. As I have written elsewhere, their victory was in many ways a disaster for Brexiters in that it meant that they are now responsible for whatever happens. Not just responsible, but uniquely responsible. They were warned over and over again of the consequences and insisted that these warnings were not just wrong but malevolent, self-interested fearmongering. So, now, they and they alone, own the consequences. Remainers have absolutely no responsibility to try to ‘make Brexit work’ or to ‘get behind Brexit’ (whatever those things would mean in practice).

It hasn’t been done properly

That denial of responsibility feeds into the third emerging Brexiter narrative. It is that there was nothing wrong with the decision, but that the way it is being delivered by the government is what is causing the problems. This is evident in, for example, Daniel Hannan’s recent attempt to deflect blame for the policy he advocated for so many decades. It has many variants, from the outright mad (‘we should just have walked away the day after’) to the more sophisticated complaints about specific decisions, such as the timing of the Article 50 notification. It is fair comment that the government have approached Brexit in an inept way, making what the respected (and by no means anti-) Brexit commentator David Allen Green of the Financial Times has called numerous ‘unforced errors’.

Nevertheless, there are two obvious objections. First, that no one – not least the Leave campaigners – has ever specified a way of undertaking Brexit which does not damage the UK, whether economically, politically or strategically. Second, that every mis-step the government have made has been as a result of pressure from, and has been cheered on by, the Brexit Ultras. That includes the dogmatic ‘red lines’ laid down by the government, the premature triggering of Article 50, and, for that matter, the subsequent calling of a General Election to ‘crush the saboteurs’.

This narrative is a familiar one in business, where any and every failed management fad is defended by its advocates on the grounds that all would have been well but for ‘inadequate implementation’. It’s equally familiar in far Left politics, where each failed attempt to implement communism is explained away by saying that it wasn’t ‘proper’ communism.

But in this case it goes further, and links back to the second narrative, in that Brexiters continue to claim victimhood at the hands of the elite, refusing to accept that having won the Referendum and having a government now pursuing what they voted for, they are the elite, and they are the ones implementing Brexit.

It’s the Remainers’ fault

The fourth excuse is that all would have been well but for Remainers who are accused, variously, of sabotage, treachery and of talking Brexit down. Often, it’s a variant of the paranoid idea about the elite – meaning the Civil Service, Judiciary, BBC, CBI, IoD, House of Lords but not, mysteriously, the ex-public schoolboys, millionaires and hedge funds that support Brexit. Sometimes it’s the entire 48% of voters who didn’t back Brexit.

There are daily examples of this claim, but taking just one, that of Leave means Leave co-Chair John Longworth in August 2017, is instructive. The usual suspects are named, in this case for their “pretence” that Britain must pay a “divorce bill” (i.e. settle its outstanding commitments to the EU). But, of course, it wasn’t a Remainer pretence, and four months later the payment was agreed.

The more general issue is that, if Brexit were the self-evidently great idea its proponents claim, it would hardly matter what Remainers did or said. For that matter, within minutes of the vote, before Remainers had had time to engage in any of their nefarious sabotage, Sterling suffered a catastrophic collapse (which in any other circumstances would have led to a political crisis) as the currency markets priced in their prediction of what Brexit would mean.

It’s the EU’s fault

The fifth narrative is possibly the most dominant of the post-Referendum excuses made by Brexiters. It is that the problem was not with the decision to leave, and not solely (or even primarily) with the British government or with Remainers, but with the EU who have decided to ‘punish’ Britain for leaving. Such claims are invariably nonsense since they ascribe to the EU the consequences of having left the EU (and, in this sense, are another denial of responsibility). To take just the most current of numerous examples, Brexiters claim that the border controls, especially in Ireland, are something being threatened by the EU rather than being ineluctable, legal consequences of leaving the single market and any customs union.

There are many things that could be said about this punishment narrative (see here), but the core difficulty with it for Brexiters is that they repeatedly promised that Britain held ‘all the cards’ and that ‘the EU needs us far more than we need them’. If that was right, then no punishment would have been possible. If it was wrong, then the vote did indeed have consequences embedded within it, consequences which were concealed from voters by the Leave campaign.

It’s not about practical consequences, it’s about philosophical principles

Alongside these five narratives – and perhaps in recognition of their paucity – some Brexiters run a sixth. Here, the attempt is to claim that those who voted leave did so on the basis of a commitment to ‘sovereignty’ in the abstract. So consequences don’t matter, since this was a purely philosophical vote. I can (just about) imagine that this might be true for a few leave voters, though I would argue that they are wrong, but it clearly wasn’t what was proposed to the British people by the Leave campaign, which instead made arguments about immigration and NHS funding, and made claims that leaving would be easy precisely because they knew that if voters thought otherwise then would be disadvantageous to their cause. A pure sovereignty argument would not have needed to make such claims.

As the practical consequences of leaving the EU mount up, and can no longer be dismissed as Project Fear, what Brexiters are trying to do is to counter the argument that ‘no one voted to be poorer’. This is the real meaning of the claim that the vote was about the principle of sovereignty and not practical consequences since, of course, if it was about principles it can be claimed that leave voters accepted that it meant they would get poorer. And it’s probably true that some did. But it certainly isn’t true of the majority of leave voters, even as regards immigration.  Yet not only do Brexiters deny this, but some even claim that impoverishment and hardship will be desirable, in some way creating a national renewal by returning to the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But, again, there are good reasons why this was not put on the side of the Leave campaign bus: almost no one would have voted for it.

Why does this matter?

Precisely because the vote to leave the EU was the beginning of a process – the process of Brexit – rather than the end of something, the way that Brexiters are now attempting to decouple the vote from its consequences is crucial.

Brexiters are trying to use the Referendum vote, close as it was, to mandate as the ‘Will of the People’ anything that they say it means. This is most obviously true in terms of the ‘Global Britain’ agenda of free trade deals around the world. There is much that could be said about that (how does exiting the FTAs that the EU has help it? how does leaving the single market help it?) but, those things aside, how does the Referendum mandate it? For, given that in some, perhaps large, part it was a nativist and protectionist vote it mandates the precise opposite.

In this sense, there is a massive political fraud underway at the moment, and, actually, it isn’t remain voters who are primarily its victims but leave voters. They are being told that their concerns about immigration and globalization are going to be ignored. I happen to think that their concerns about immigration were misplaced and their concerns about globalization irrelevant to the Brexit debate. But I am not so dishonest as to pretend that the vote was not about those things, whereas many Brexiters are.

Thus the day after the Referendum Daniel Hannan said that the Leave campaign “never said there was going to be some radical decline” in immigration, and last March David Davis said that immigration might even rise. Both pretend that all that matters to voters is that Britain decides its own immigration policy – that all they care about is ‘sovereignty’ – rather than actual numbers. As for globalization and free trade, it’s notable that just about every Brexiter now talks as if having an independent trade policy were the main rationale of Brexit. That was mentioned during the Referendum, but it certainly wasn’t presented as the central argument for Brexit – whereas immigration was – and it certainly wasn’t explained that such a trade policy will entail the relaxation of immigration controls.

That is only one aspect of the even greater dishonesty of Brexiters. What they are really trying to argue is that the vote mandates them to do anything they want. That is an even bigger, and even more dubious, proposition than that the Referendum vote set in stone the ‘will of the people’ with respect to EU membership. Precisely because leaving the EU has such far-reaching ramifications not just for economics but for geo-politics, it can be claimed that anything done post-Brexit is mandated by the Referendum result.

So this is where Brexiters are now. All the pre-Referendum swagger has gone, all the promises made have evaporated. In their place are a series of absurd and indefensible arguments. But it is important to understand that these arguments, even if they are often run together, contain two fundamentally different claims. One is that whatever happens now is not the fault of Brexiters. The other is that Brexiters have been given a blank cheque to do whatever they now want to do. These claims are linked in that both treat 23 June 2016 as a frozen moment, denoting either the end of their responsibility for the consequences or the beginning of their freedom to define the consequences. Whilst different, they are linked in their boundless dishonesty, since neither claim was entertained, let alone endorsed, by the Referendum.

But they are also linked in another – probably more important – way. They are profoundly unrealistic. For politics did not stop on 23 June 2016. On the contrary, it began a period of political dislocation that will last for many years, perhaps decades, to come. Brexiters seemed to imagine that by winning the vote that would be an end to it. It’s already obvious that this is not so. If Brexit does go ahead, the Brexiters will, rightly, be held responsible for every consequence that flows from it. That is the significance of the narratives they are already putting forward to deny that the vote had consequences: it’s not simply that they don’t want to take the blame, it’s that they don’t want to take the responsibility.

The ultimate truth about Brexit is that through a series of accidents a protest movement with wholly unrealistic and disastrous policies unexpectedly and unwillingly became a government set upon delivering them. The Brexiters are now running away from the consequences as fast as they can. The tragedy for our country is that, in one way or another, we are stuck with having to deal with them.