Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Nervous times as crisis grows

Theresa May’s latest Brexit statement means nothing has changed except, of course, it takes us closer to the scheduled exit day with no sign whatsoever of when or how the Brexit chaos is going to be resolved. As a consequence we face a growing business crisis as well as further diminution of Britain’s international reputation. It’s becoming so familiar now that it’s important to keep reminding ourselves how utterly extraordinary it is to have a government so reckless of its basic economic and foreign policy responsibilities to the point of seeming indifference.

May repeated all the well-worn phrases she has been trotting out since December but with the addition of a new injunction to ‘hold our nerve’. This might be good advice for a nation facing some terrible external threat but it is an absurdity when applied to an entirely self-inflicted fiasco.

The idea seems to be the standard line that EU negotiations ‘always go to the wire’ but this mistakes the Brexit negotiations for standard EU summit talks where there is last-minute horse-trading to get the multiple sides on board. Here, there are two sides and, for all that May speaks as if the negotiations are ongoing, so far as one side is concerned they are over. Moreover, the stakes are far greater for the UK than in any previous negotiations and the costs of brinksmanship to the UK are (already) racking up. Far from giving leverage, this just increases the self-harm of Brexit.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t at some late point be a piece of paper produced about the backstop that says the same as has already been agreed but in different language. Very likely there will be, as the well-connected journalist Nick Gutteridge suggests, but it won’t change the fundamental situation.

May’s contradictory messages

Of course, May’s tactic – if it exists at all – is that by then MPs will be so spooked by the prospect of no-deal that they will vote for her deal. If so, that entails a rather curious contradiction with the ‘hold our nerve’ rhetoric since it requires MPs to ‘lose their nerve’. Will they? For at least a hard core of the ERG the answer is surely no. They either actively want no-deal or are so splenetically bent out of shape that there is no deal they would agree to – which comes to the same thing.

But May can have some hope that a few of the ERG will buckle, and rather more hope, perhaps, that the Tory ‘remain rebels’ – who have hardly been Cromwellian, so far - will do so. Ultimately, the hardcore Brexiter rebels have always been far more ruthless, and totally unswayed by any idea of party loyalty. Then, if she picks up some Labour rebel votes, she might just get it through. I still think, as I suggested last December, that this is not completely impossible – though it certainly wouldn’t constitute anything like the settled and stable outcome the EU hope for and which would be needed to actually deliver the next stage of Brexit.

This tactic is predicated on the assumption that MPs will conclude that no-deal is too awful to be contemplated. But here, again, there are some curious contradictions. One is that there have been several reports, for example in Paul Waugh’s excellent article in HuffPost, that May might be coming to the view that no-deal is not such an unthinkable disaster. It’s possible that this is so, if only because her dogmatic and monocular focus on leaving the EU on her ordained date may trump all else in her bizarre interpretation of where her ‘sacred duty’ lies.

Equally, it’s conceivable that, as George Parker in the Financial Times (£) discusses, it is a form of ‘madman theory’, designed to strong arm the EU. But just as British politicians don’t seem to have understood that the messages they send out for domestic consumption are also seen in the EU, so too do messages sent for EU consumption have a domestic consequence. Thus if May is signalling to the EU that Britain can live with no-deal then she is also signalling to MPs that continuing to vote against her deal will not bring catastrophe.

Delicate judgment is lacking

The situation strikes me as strangely similar to a scene in the classic novel and film noir The Maltese Falcon*, where Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has a showdown with ‘the Fat Man’ (Sydney Greenstreet) who wants him to disclose the location of the eponymous bird. The dialogue runs:

“Spade: If you kill me how are you going to get the bird? And if I know you can’t afford to kill me, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?

Fat Man: Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.

Spade: Yes, that’s … that’s true. But there’re none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them. You see what I mean? If you start something, I’ll make it a matter of your having to kill me or call it off.

Fat Man: That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. Because, as you know sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.”

May’s current Brexit manoeuvrings involve similar calculations, but between multiple actors. Unfortunately delicate judgment appears wholly lacking, hence the widely commented on prospect of no-deal happening by accident rather than design or, still less, by an unemotional calculation of ‘best interests’.

Multiple outcomes are possible

There’s a wider issue here, too, beyond tactics or lack of them. The more no-deal gets talked about as a possible outcome – even, as an increasingly likely outcome – the more it becomes normalised as something which is, indeed, within the scope of the possible. Paradoxically, this is also true when what is being said, for example by businesses, that it would be a crazy and hugely damaging outcome. For even that brings it into the frame of the thinkable, the discussable and, hence, the doable. Meanwhile, of course, the hardcore Brexiters claim, quite mendaciously, that no-deal was what Brexit meant all along, and that 17.4 million voters knew this and voted for it.

At the same time, there are entirely contradictory reports, based on an overheard conversation in a Brussels bar, suggesting that far from no-deal being the consequence of May’s deal failing the consequence would be a lengthy delay (this, of course, would in any case be contingent on EU approval). This, too, is a plausible scenario but, again, perhaps it’s just about offering different messages to different groups of MPs: no-deal to threaten the ‘pragmatists’, delay to threaten the hardcore ultras. If so, it’s back to the issue that each group hears the message intended for the others, as well as for themselves, and calibrate (or ignore) them accordingly.

The plain fact is that no one knows what direction May is heading in, or the country as a whole (hence, ludicrously, we are reduced to guesswork based upon bar room gossip). As I suggested in my previous post, she may well not know herself, and even if she does it does not follow that this is what will happen.

From that point of view, it is remainers who really need to ‘hold their nerve’. I received some criticism of that previous post for, some felt, discounting the possibility of Brexit being reversed (Andrew Adonis, for example, called the post “ridiculously pessimistic” in that respect). But what I said was phrased with intentional care to say there is “currently no viable route” to remain. That could change and – an obvious point I’ve made many times on this blog – the main thing that is likely to make it change is a political crisis which is insoluble in any other way than, in particular a referendum (the outcome of which, of course, is unknown).

We may be approaching that point (perhaps via the latest idea for a cross-party amendment from Peter Kyle and others) and the more May procrastinates the deeper the crisis becomes. At all events, we are already in a situation where all outcomes are almost as likely – or unlikely - as each other.

Update 15 February 2019

A brief update in the light of the government’s defeat in last night’s vote. Whilst dismissed as symbolic, symbols matter hugely so the question is: what does it symbolise?

This was primarily an ERG rebellion, and shows that even as May continues to do their bidding (in seeking ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop) they will kick her in the teeth whenever she gives them the opportunity. She still seems to operate on the basis that they are appeaseable, despite all evidence to the contrary, and for as long as she does so they will continue to do it.

On this occasion, the rebellion was based on the flimsiest of pretexts (the arcane point that in being asked to vote to support the position agreed in vote of 29 January this might be taken to endorse the non-binding Spelman amendment ruling out (sic) no-deal). They no longer even pretend to believe that MPs need to give May ‘ammunition’ she supposedly need to undertake the supposed re-negotiations that they supposedly support.

Perhaps because they are now facing a fairly robust backlash from some of their fellow Tory MPs (a further example of the spreading language of treachery and betrayal, by the way), the ERG have been keen to point out today that it was not just they who rebelled but also Tory MPs on the remain or soft Brexit side. The implication is of a common concern across the party, rather than the ERG being a ‘party within a party’.

This ignores the fact that the reason why some on the other wing rebelled was partly because they didn’t support the Brady amendment that was also tagged to it and partly because, in trying to appease the ERG, the government sought to portray the Spelman amendment as completely irrelevant (which, confusingly, it is in substantive terms but not in the way suggested by the government).

So, what all this symbolises is that the Parliamentary Conservative Party has now to all intents and purposes ceased to function as a party (and, for that matter, the Labour Party is getting close to that state). This in turn points up sharply what has been true since last summer’s Chequers Proposal: that for the purposes of Brexit the UK no longer has a functioning government. It is extraordinary to have to state such a thing, but it is a plain fact. Which in turn underlines the point with which the main part of this blog post concludes: the political crisis is now deepening on a daily basis, opening up the space for many possible outcomes.

Arguably, this latest vote has shifted the dial a little towards a delay or even an eventual abandonment of Brexit. There is a growing sense that the ERG are overplaying their hand in refusing to support the Brexit that is in prospect in favour of the Brexit of their dreams. That’s an old story amongst ideological fanatics, and one mark of fanaticism is being so entrenched within a bubble of the like-minded as to be blind to what is happening around them.

*(Finally, many thanks to the people who have pointed out that The Maltese Falcon makes a rather appropriate metaphor for Brexit in general in that something believed to be a prize of huge value turns out to be a worthless piece of junk).