Friday, 24 May 2019

Theresa May's demise

Almost within minutes of launching her ‘bold new offer to MPs’, in the form of the revised Withdrawal Agreement Bill, last Tuesday it was clear that it had failed and that Theresa May was finished. The only question was when, and now we know the answer. She will resign as Party leader on 7 June.

It was a fitting end in that, far from being bold or new, it was yet another tactical gambit to survive of the sort that has characterised her premiership. She wanted, yet again, to buy a little more time, but there was no more time on sale. Again typically, its proposals were convoluted but, on decoding, amounted to little of substance. Worse, what substance there was alienated those on all sides of the debate.

It was also revealing, in that her statement that she had not realised that Brexit would be as hard as it has proved to be goes to the heart of her failure. There’s really no excuse for this. There were countless warnings of the complexity involved and it is inconceivable that her civil servants did not brief her on this from the beginning. It is clear that Sir Ivan Rogers did just that, and was pressured into resignation for his pains.

Insofar as it’s possible to make sense of this naivety, it seems May thought at the outset that Brexit would be like the negotiations she had had with EU whilst Home Secretary. Then, her approach had been to opt out of everything and then opt back in selectively. That could work in the limited – and, within her own party, relatively uncontentious - area of security and policing cooperation, an area, moreover, where the UK has the advantage of significant capabilities, and in the context of being an ongoing member. As a blueprint for Brexit it was woefully inadequate.

May’s core mistake

Her worst mistake – worse, even, than the ill-fated decision to call an election in 2017, and certainly less forgivable – pre-figured in her 2016 conference speech was to line up with the hard Brexiters to insist in the Lancaster House speech that Brexit meant no single market, no customs union and no ECJ in any form. From that decision – taken in consultation with no one except her closest advisers at the time, not even the Cabinet – almost everything that has happened since has flowed.

In particular, it meant, first, that the bitter divisions of the referendum have intensified to the point of a cultural civil war, the manifestations of which (‘Enemies of the People’, ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ etc.) she never repudiated and often stoked. She made no attempt to create a consensual approach to Brexit. For sure, that would have been incredibly difficult, and might not have succeeded. But she did not even try. It was an epic failure of political leadership at the time when the country most needed it.

Secondly, it meant that she was doomed to be accused of betrayal. For she failed to realise that no matter how much red meat the Brexit Ultras were given it would never be enough. They would always want more. Moreover, they would never accept that – as she eventually found out – Brexit wasn’t as easy as they had claimed. It would, at best, be a long, complex process entailing multiple compromises.

The attempt to turn lies into policy

As soon as she began to even slightly acknowledge that – with the Chequers Proposal in July 2018 – they turned on her and ever since then her job has been in peril. In trying to operationalise all the lies they had told, she gave the lie to them. For it is crucial to understand that what became May’s deal was not a ‘compromise’ between hard and soft Brexit. It was (the first step towards) what hard Brexit looks like when put into practice. The Ultras haven’t been asked to compromise but to accept the practical realities of what hard Brexit means.  But they have refused to do that and, instead, have doubled down on the lies and insisted that she betrayed them, and that her failure was a lack of true belief.

The latter accusation has a kernel of truth. It is indeed remarkable that for all her determination to deliver hard Brexit May has never evinced any enthusiasm for it, except to the extent that it will end freedom of movement. Notably, she has always refused to say whether, were there to be another referendum, she would vote leave. The implication is that she would not. That is truly peculiar: a Prime Minister enacting a complete resetting of national economic and foreign policy apparently believing that doing so is harmful. But that certainly does not mean that had she been a true believer the practical realities of delivering hard Brexit would have disappeared. On the contrary, precisely the same realities await her successor.

That is going to matter hugely in the coming weeks as the contenders to replace her will be making exactly the pitch that, armed with true commitment to the cause, all obstacles to the sunny uplands will disappear. In particular, the pretence will be that the Irish border backstop can be entirely removed, or substantially truncated, in the Withdrawal Agreement. As Rafael Behr noted in a recent article, “it is remarkable that the whole period of government striving to extricate the UK from the EU has left so little imprint on public debate about what Brexit involves”. Certainly, it has left no imprint at all on the Ultras.

The structural flaw in Brexit

So in the end she was left stranded, making a solitary last stand on a hill of her own making. As strident as the most extreme Brexiters about ‘the will of the people’, and implementing precisely what they had called for, she treated remainers with contempt and entrenched their opposition to the destruction that was being wrought on the country. But the Brexiters reviled her as ‘Theresa the Remainer’ even so.

To an extent her travails have been caused by her now well-known personal flaws: rigid, narrow, stubborn, unimaginative, tetchy, lacking all social skills and most intellectual ones. But fundamentally her failure arose from the structural flaw of Brexit. Doing it is claimed to be the will of the people. But it can only be done at economic and geo-political costs that range from high to horrendous, which the people will not accept. Brexiters claim it can be done without any costs and, even, with benefits and persuaded a majority to vote for it on that basis. May tried to prove that true, but it was a lie. Because it was a lie, it couldn’t be delivered.

Her successor will have exactly the same choice: face up to the lie, or face failure. To be elected leader by the Tory Party it will be impossible to do the former. So the consequence will be the latter. The only question is whether that failure will mean abandoning Brexit to avoid its costs, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal. Or agreeing the kind of deal that May came up with in order to somewhat mitigate the worst costs of Brexit, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal. Or proceeding with no-deal Brexit with all its horrendous costs, and facing the populist accusation of betrayal.

If she had tackled head on the structural lie at the heart of Brexit in her early weeks in office, when she was at her strongest and the meaning of Brexit was in flux, May had a chance – admittedly only a small chance - of avoiding that poisonous politics of betrayal. No doubt this was always the most likely consequence of the 2016 Referendum. Her legacy is to have made it inevitable.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Deal or no deal? There’s still no end in sight

And so the pitiful charade continues. To the surprise of no one at all the cross-party talks have died a death. In truth they were stillborn, but it is a recurring feature of Brexit that every development is shrouded in dishonesty, deception, fantasy or, usually, all three.

That applies to almost all the discussions of deal or no-deal. What looks certain to be May’s swansong is typical. She is now going to make a final attempt to get Parliamentary approval for her deal, this time though the back-to-front mechanism of a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) rather than another ‘meaningful vote’. In other words, the idea is to approve the domestic legislation to implement the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) before deciding whether to ratify that agreement with the EU. It might best be described as putting the cart before the dead horse.

Indicative votes

Before we even get there, it seems that there is to be a new round of government-initiated indicative votes (IVs). The previous round, initiated by the House of Commons itself, did not yield a consensus and the next version will probably have the same outcome. To an extent, that is to be hoped for, because several of the options – if a leaked document is correct – are, literally, gibberish.

In particular, one option proposes a customs “arrangement” with all the benefits of the customs union but with the freedom to make independent trade deals. About the only sense that can be made of that is if it implies services-only trade deals. If so, the benefits – already tiny, if existent at all – of an independent trade policy are further diminished: free trade agreements have limited purchase in services.

I suspect that this is what is implied because two other options refer to a “comprehensive customs union in goods and services” (so, presumably, this is the difference from the customs arrangement, which only mentions goods). But, alas, the customs union only relates to goods, not services. So voting for those options will be indicative of nothing except MPs not knowing what a customs union means. None of the customs options are anything to do with the WA anyway – they all relate to how the Political Declaration might be changed.

Other options for the IVs are different, relating to process, and here the crucial one may turn out to be on not having a confirmatory referendum. If MPs vote for that option (i.e. because the wording means that voting ‘aye’ to the motion will mean saying ‘no’ to a referendum), it will be a major blow to the remain cause although not a fatal one. A fifth option – voting on the package agreed with Labour – is of course already obsolete since we now know that no such agreement has been reached.

Deal?

With the IVs done, we will then get to the WAB vote in early June. There’s every chance that some MPs will try – and even a small chance that they will succeed – to insert an amendment based upon the erstwhile Brady Amendment or, which is more or less the same thing, the ‘Malthouse Compromise’. This would have the effect of writing into UK law something (i.e. no backstop, or a circumscribed backstop) which directly contradicted what the UK was committed to by international treaty if the Withdrawal Agreement were to be ratified. In those circumstances it’s conceivable that the EU would not even ratify the agreement anyway or, if it did, that there would be an immediate dispute about its meaning.

Supposing, though, that the WAB and the subsequent meaningful vote see May’s deal passed unamended. To hear May, and much of the media, talk you would assume that this would mean that Brexit was done and dusted. It’s reported today (£) that some potential Tory leadership candidates do indeed think that, with the legislation passed, the contest would be all about non-Brexit issues. That is the sheerest fantasy.

The reality is that if May’s deal is done it will only be the beginning of a protracted, complex and highly contentious negotiation with the EU, under the new time pressure imposed by the transition period. It will be conducted against the backdrop of vocal cries of betrayal from Brexiters within and outside of the Tory Party. And very likely it will be under the leadership of a Brexiter PM who regards the deal as odious and will seek to undermine or wriggle out of it.

Indeed, if May’s deal passes, the Tory leadership election is going to be a very strange affair. It seems unlikely that it will be another coronation, so the party membership will have a vote, which seems certain to mean a Brexiter will be chosen. Boris Johnson is generally regarded as the front runner (though I am not convinced this will prove true) but all of them will in those circumstances be unable to run on a ticket of seeking to re-negotiate the backstop. It will have been agreed by Parliament and (presumably) ratified by both the UK government and the EU.

No deal?

Clearly, though, it is far more likely that May’s deal doesn’t pass, or come anywhere close. Then, the situation is going to be enormously complex. First and foremost will be the issue of time. With no deal agreed, the Brexit deadline will be the end of October. The leadership election will take weeks, followed by or running into the summer recess. The winning candidate will almost certainly have been elected on the platform of re-negotiating the WA to remove or truncate the backstop and in the event of that re-negotiation failing leaving with no-deal.

That re-negotiation will fail, without a shadow of a doubt, but it will take up a few more weeks and the October deadline will be closing fast. Does the new PM seek a General Election – possibly requiring an application to the EU for another Article 50 extension to accommodate it - on a no-deal platform that s/he might well lose, and which would anyway provoke a huge split? Just sit and let the time run out with no-deal happening automatically? That would risk MPs finding a way, as they have before although it might not be easy to do so again, of taking over control of proceedings with a view to forcing the government to take another course – conceivably meaning the revocation of the Article 50 notice if that was all there was time for? Or might it mean the insanity of Rees-Mogg’s proposal of the prorogation of parliament in order to prevent this?

All these entail huge difficulties but suppose that, in some way or another, the new Prime Minister manages to get to no-deal. What then? The economic chaos has been widely-trailed. Less obvious, but crucial, is the point made cogently by Alex Dean in Prospect this week: it would not be an end-state, with ‘clean Brexit’ done. It would be the beginning of a new set of very urgent negotiations against a background of serious economic and social dislocation, probably including a further collapse of the pound, and major political crisis.

This is actually the sub-text of all the ‘managed no-deal’ formulations including Farage’s claim that the UK should leave and then immediately open talks on a free trade deal with the EU. But of course many other things apart from trade would need to be agreed. Some of them, such as a bare-bones deal on aviation, would likely be agreed in the interest of, and on terms dictated by, the EU without preconditions. Others, including trade, would entail as a pre-requisite agreement on all the things in the WA (Farage, naturally, still pushes the discredited pre-referendum claim that the EU will come running for a trade deal). That includes, as Liam Fox admitted in an interview this week [time limited download], an agreement about the Irish border.

Makes no sense?

So in any scenario in which Brexit goes ahead we are still, even now, only at the very beginning. May’s deal heralds one new set of negotiations; no-deal heralds a (different) new set of negotiations. But perhaps calling it ‘May’s deal’ is part of the problem, encouraging the myopic focus upon UK domestic politics in general, and May’s personal political fate in particular.

In reality, it is a deal struck between the UK government and the EU. Its form – and certainly the backstop – arises from the red lines which May and her likely successor share. The issue is that Brexiters don’t accept the consequences, imagining them to just reflect May's lack of 'true belief'. So once May has gone nothing really changes (although whether she goes with or without the deal passing will certainly make a difference to what happens next).

Nor will anything change unless or until an honest and realistic discussion of Brexit and what it means begins, of which there is less sign than ever not least because of the re-entry of Farage and the Brexit Party into the fray.

And if none of this makes sense, don’t worry. In fact, congratulations. You’ve understood what is going on.