Friday, 15 March 2019

This is what a politics based on lies looks like

When I was about nine or ten years old, I became fascinated by the idea of building a perpetual motion machine. My father, who had been an army mechanic, understood the fascination but patiently explained the impossibility. I refused to believe him, but after several fruitless hours with my Meccano set had to concede that he was right. It was a salutary lesson. Just because you want, believe and insist something to be true you cannot make it so. It’s a lesson that is currently ongoing in Brexit Britain (“the painful intrusion of reality” as German newspaper Die Zeit witheringly put it yesterday).

For underlying all the chaos and confusion of this week’s Parliamentary events, what is being tested to destruction is a set of propositions made in the Vote Leave campaign about how Brexit would be quick, simple, easy, would cause no damage (either economically or politically) and indeed would be beneficial in every respect. The result of the Referendum did not mark the end of anything, rather it was the beginning of an ongoing process which is what we are now living through.

May’s self-inflicted tragedy

For almost three years now Theresa May has sought to put those propositions into practice: accepting the hard Brexiters’ interpretation on the single market, customs union, and ECJ whilst trying to fashion something which, although certainly highly damaging, at least tries to contain the very worst of the damage. Insofar as there is a workable version of hard Brexit, her deal delivers it. Part of what makes it workable is the backstop, by recognizing the contradiction between hard Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement.

The Brexit Ultras’ main objections to this is, even within its own terms, nonsensical. They claim to fear being ‘trapped in the backstop’. They also claim, not just as a future possibility but as a current reality, that the technological and administrative means (“alternative arrangements”) exist which make the backstop unnecessary in the first place. Those claims cannot both be true. And what certainly isn’t true is the claim made by Boris Johnson and others that the Irish border issue is simply a confection cooked up by Brussels and Dublin.

Because what the Brexiters want is a fantasy, no deliverable version of it will ever satisfy them, and they will always seek a pretext to oppose it. Hence most of them refused again to back her deal on Tuesday. May’s tragedy is that in seeking to operationalise their impossibilities she has also lost the support of those who wanted or would have accepted a soft Brexit.

Hence the bizarre spectacle of her this week stridently proclaiming (so far as her voice would allow) the full, uncompromising hard Brexit mantra – the “voice of the country” has “instructed” us to end freedom of movement, take control of our trade policy, and have our laws made and judged in our own country – even as the hard Brexiters gave her yet another kicking. She has only herself to blame: she pretended their lies were true and vilified those who said otherwise.

The fantasies and lies continue

It’s important to keep remembering the origins of this mess in the 2016 Referendum not in order to re-run it but because of the constant, sanctimonious, self-righteous invocation of the ‘17.4 million’ who are claimed to have given unanimous support to things that they were never asked about and mysteriously endorse things they were never told about. Given that is the Brexiters’ claim, it remains necessary to remind them of the documented promises they made during that travesty of a campaign. Indeed, even the endless vox pops of voters angrily demanding to ‘just get on with it’ are a direct consequence of the campaign lies that it would be quick and easy. Brexiters say we mustn’t betray these voters, but they have already been betrayed by the Brexiters who told them those lies.

It is also important to recall the fantasies and lies of that campaign because Brexiters continue to peddle fantasies and lies even now. The details differ but they all have exactly the same character of pretending that there is a quick, easy route to successful Brexit if only ‘elitist remainers’ would stop creating unnecessary problems. Before the referendum it was the ‘German car makers’ myth. That is no longer heard but in its place are bogus invocations of half-understood quasi-legalities (e.g. the GATT Article 24 nonsense), the ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border, or the ‘managed no-deal’ oxymoron.

No doubt it will be quickly forgotten, but the Damian Green amendment to Wednesday’s no-deal vote based on that latter fantasy got the support of 164 MPs including at least four cabinet ministers. Reflect on that for a moment: something literally impossible was voted for by about a quarter of the House of Commons, by no means all of them Brexiters.

Parliamentary wheels within wheels

However, whilst much of what is happening grows out of the false claims of Brexiters, somehow this hapless government manages to make things even worse than they need be. That has been true in a myriad of ways over the years, as chronicled on this blog, but was especially evident in the sometimes farcical events of this week.

In particular, it was only because of substituting a tricksily worded motion for what had been promised for Wednesday’s ‘no-deal’ vote that the government had to suddenly whip to vote against ruling out no-deal having spent the whole afternoon explaining how awful it would be. And losing anyway.  And then promptly pulling a similar trick for the ‘extension’ motion, by tagging it together with the re-presentation of May’s deal – although very narrowly getting away with it this time, defeating the Benn amendment by just two votes. Even then, on the main motion, there was the bizarre spectacle of the Brexit Secretary winding up the debate proposing the motion, and then voting against it!

I must admit that I find the procedural intricacies of all this quite fascinating. But as a response to the crisis engulfing us it was pretty pitiful, and typical of the endless shabby, counter-productive tactics that are May’s hallmark. But her conduct, irritating as it is, and her overall position, ill-judged as it is, do at least possess a kind of gimcrack sincerity and a degree of clarity. Corbyn’s position and conduct, by contrast, were yet again shown this week to be utterly feeble. As ever, he had little to say and what little there was was incoherent. Notably, it is Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn who have been providing all the effective leadership from the Labour benches.

Labour’s continuing flakiness over a second referendum was again on display. It’s true that there is a genuinely difficult tactical dilemma about when is the best moment to push for it in Parliament. It’s true that even with Labour support the vote on the Wollaston amendment that called for a referendum would probably have failed. It’s also true that the People’s Vote (PV) campaign made a statement saying they didn’t want MPs to support it anyway.

Despite that I think that if Labour are ever going to make good on the policy of actively supporting another referendum, now is surely the time to at least begin to do it. The argument put forward by Keir Starmer was that Thursday’s vote was about extension rather than anything else, and the question of a referendum is for later. But extension cannot really be separated from its purposes, for these determine both what length of extension is needed and how persuasive that would be to the EU.

Starmer and the PV campaign may be proved right, but in one combination of events, in which May’s deal finally passes next week, any call for another referendum will be redundant. Thus Labour may not pursue its policy of last resort until it’s too late.

What now?

At all events, as the dust of this week settles two things are clear. There will be an application for extension of Article 50 and we do indeed now face the third meaningful vote (MV3) early next week (as trailed in my previous post at the end of last week).

As regards extension, the admission that Brexit will not happen on 29 March (unless the EU-27 decide it will), even though every informed person has realised this for weeks now, is a big ‘political-psychological’ moment given May’s dogmatic, repetitive insistence that that was ‘the date’. But it will not have a huge impact if MV3 passes and she gets (as she surely would) a brief ‘technical extension’.

So what of MV3? Like PV campaigners, the ERG face a tactical dilemma, though of a different sort: back the deal or perhaps lose Brexit.  They may already have made the wrong call by not backing May in MV2. That was my immediate sense after Tuesday’s vote, if only because it may galvanize Tory ‘pragmatists’ to take the gloves off as some threatened. In other words, it may be that more ‘pragmatists’ vote against MV3 than did against MV2, having finally tired of showing the party loyalty that the Ultras disdain. In any case, with party discipline in free fall all round, those pragmatists may realise this is their last chance to avoid the disaster of Brexit and grab it.

There is a general expectation of the ERG softening, but amongst the real hard core there is already evidence of a determination to dig in (the piece linked to, by their researcher, was, be it noted, tweeted by Steve Baker who is an influential member of the group). Some will undoubtedly do so. Ironically remainers’ best hope now is that large numbers of the ERG prove to be fanatical dogmatists, which isn’t an entirely unrealistic hope to have. That number, along of course with how the DUP and Labour Brexiters vote, will determine what happens. It looks like being very close this time.

If it squeaks through, despite being something that nobody really wants, it will set up years of acrimony, slow-burn economic decline and rumbling political crisis. If it is defeated again, all bets are off (including, if it is only narrowly defeated, the tear-your-hair-out possibility of MV4). Very likely that will bring a long extension and if so then at that point the loss of the 29 March ‘independence day’ will become a huge development.

My childhood perpetual motion machine was a rickety Heath-Robinson structure, consisting of a complex interplay of pulleys, strings, cog wheels and axles. Built on a flawed premise, it was doomed to failure. The politics of Brexit has a similar crazy array of moving parts and suffers from a similar basic flaw.

You can’t turn lies into policy.

Friday, 8 March 2019

The Brexit torture continues (and there's no end in sight)

It’s been another painful week of shadow boxing and game playing that hardly begins to address the crisis the UK is now in, and refuses to address the choices that it must make. As the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog puts it in a good synopsis of the current mess, “there is something infantile about all this. It’s like children who know they have to tidy their rooms but come out will all sorts of bizarre excuses as to why they can’t do it just yet”. Will next week see any sort of resolution? Almost certainly not.

It’s clear that nothing much will or could come from the ludicrous attempts this week to get EU agreement that the Irish backstop should have all the features that make it a backstop removed. Flogging that dead horse again wasn’t so much serious politics as a case for the RSPCA.

It had been rumoured that the Attorney-General and even the Prime Minister would be returning to Brussels, but that is now apparently off and, instead, May made a “plea” to the EU in a speech in Grimsby. It’s as if she’s forgotten that she already agreed to the backstop, and the reasons why she did so. Even if the outcome is some new document or form of words it’s very unlikely to persuade the hard core, at least, of the ERG to support May’s deal.

Moreover, news that the government is planning a programme of massive unilateral tariff abolition in the event of no-deal – for all that the detail of what this means is unclear – is the kind of thing to get the Ultras salivating. Why vote for any deal when there is a real madness in prospect? After all, May’s deal only eviscerates UK services, but with unilateral tariff abolition in prospect these economic Jacobins can finish off manufacturing, and with a fair wind agriculture, as well.

Meanwhile, the meagre ‘left behind fund’ and unenforceable promises about future workers’ rights protections are unlikely to get any more support from Labour MPs than would have been available anyway. Thus any such votes will be insufficient to make up for the likely scale of the ERG rebellion, to say nothing of how the DUP and Tory remainers may vote. So although the margin of defeat may well be less than in January, it is hard to see the outcome being any different.

That seems to be made more likely rather than less by the soul-sapping reports that if she loses May intends to then seek yet another meaningful vote (thus, in the latest jargon, MV2 will be followed by MV3). Leaving aside the grotesque irresponsibility of extending the agony for businesses and individuals who have no idea how key aspects of everyday life are going to work in just three weeks’ time, it’s also terrible tactics.

Hitherto, the attempt has been to threaten the Brexiters with the possibility of no Brexit and the assorted pragmatists and remainers with no-deal. By creating the possibility of MV3, those threats disappear and potential rebels of all hues can vote against her deal in MV2 in the hope that something will then emerge that suits them better.

The prospects for the Kyle-Wilson amendment*

One potential point of interest will be the fate of the Kyle-Wilson amendment, assuming that it is tabled which, like so much else about next week, is currently in doubt. Proposed by the two Labour MPs whose name it bears, in its present form it would see MPs support May’s deal contingent on it being put to the electorate in a confirmatory referendum.

In principle, Kyle-Wilson could be passed if sufficient backbenchers voted for it. In practice, it will not succeed without support being given from the Labour front bench, and Jeremy Corbyn is reported to be under increasing pressure to do so. That would likely entail that it be re-worded so that it didn’t require Labour MPs to actively support May’s deal, but rather to ‘withhold support’ for it until after the confirmatory referendum. Even so, many Labour MPs would certainly refuse to vote for it, and the revised format would make it (even) less appealing to the Tory rebel MPs whose votes would also be needed to pass it.

So it seems very unlikely to succeed next week, but I do just half-wonder whether, if we do get to MV3, the Kyle-Wilson amendment might be accepted by the government. That currently looks like an utterly absurd suggestion given May’s implacable opposition to another referendum. But she has been forced to change her mind before, for example over the Brady and, in effect, the Cooper-Letwin amendments, and might have to do so again. Impossible as it seems now it might end up being her best, perhaps by then her only, chance of getting her deal agreed.

Actually, it would have made a lot of sense – and probably been achievable - had Theresa May said from the moment she took office not just, as she did, that the referendum result would be honoured but that she would go even further and promise the electorate the chance to accept or reject the outcome of the negotiations when they were completed. You, the people, will decide! After all, something like that seems to have been envisaged by none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg back in 2011 (although he claims this has been taken out of context). In fact, it would be a pretty obvious thing to do were it not for the toxic and irrational politics that Brexit has spawned.

Such a declaration from the outset, especially had it been combined with a deliberative process of public and parliamentary debate, plus some form of expert commission, in advance of triggering Article 50 might have done a great deal to avoid all the problems that have arisen. We’ll never know, now, whether that is true or not. So, to use that well-worn political cliché, ‘we are where we are’ and have to deal with it.

In accepting that, it also has to be accepted that any course of action now contains severe problems – there are no good outcomes left for almost anyone at any place on the spectrum of Brexit opinion. So setting out the case for Kyle-Wilson, or something like it, is emphatically not to say that it is an ideal solution, just that it at least deserves consideration.

Kyle-Wilson addresses the actual choice the UK must make

The most obvious objection to it comes from Brexiters, for many of whom having (presumably) May’s deal as the only Brexit option on the ballot paper will be, to say the least, unpalatable. It is worth recognizing that for some of them that will be because it means too soft a Brexit, for others because it is not soft enough. That is important, because it actually goes to the heart of the case for Kyle-Wilson.

As I and many others have repeatedly pointed out, the core problem that delivering Brexit has faced came from the fact that the 2016 Referendum mandated leaving the EU, but not the form of leaving. Eventually, the form it would take was going to have to be defined, and (with the caveats below) May’s deal does that. So, of course, for many Brexiters it is not the form that they would like.

The same would be true whatever form it had taken. Brexit does not mean any one thing to those who want it. By the same token, the claim that 17.4 million who voted leave in 2016 knew what they were voting for cannot, by definition, be true since what it meant was not defined until long afterwards.

So another national vote now on May’s deal cuts through all this by saying that - rightly or wrongly, necessarily or unnecessarily - this is the shape that the meaning of Brexit has taken. It is no longer a theoretical proposition, or one which can be negotiated a different way because the time for negotiation has run out. What Brexit means, empirically, now, in 2019 is: this. The question for the UK is: do you want it, or not?

The UK has to answer that question, so the only issue is whether that answer is going to be given by Parliament or by the electorate. Parliament seems incapable of doing so, certainly in any way that provides a stable basis to deliver on the answer. It is already clear that even if Brexiter MPs do, against all predictions, vote for May’s deal they will immediately say that it was not an acceptable one, and that they had been bounced into supporting it. That is no basis on which to then begin the long years of negotiation that will follow – ‘Brexeternity’ as Denis MacShane dubbed it this week.

Moreover, given that one possible answer is ‘no, we want to remain’ then it really needs a referendum to say this since it was a referendum which – again, rightly or wrongly – set the whole process in motion. Even with a referendum that would be difficult enough; without it there would surely be a political meltdown.

Would we know what we were voting for?

A better objection to Kyle-Wilson is that May’s deal only defines what Brexit means to a limited extent. It defines the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), of course, but the Political Declaration (PD) on future terms is only a fairly vague set of parameters. Apart from the fact that this is also the case for MPs voting on the deal, this objection can be answered in three ways.

First, it was always going to be the case that future terms would only be fully agreed after the Article 50 period had ended and the UK had let the EU. Claims to contrary, by Theresa May and numerous Brexiters at various times, were always false. It is true that the PD could have been much more detailed. That it was not reflects the fact that almost nothing happened in phase 2 of the Article 50 talks because as soon as phase 1 was agreed in December 2017 the government fell into disarray about what it had just agreed (specifically the backstop) and as to what it wanted the future terms to be. Even though the PD was never going to be a completed or binding agreement it could have been more than, in effect, a restatement of UK and EU red lines.

Secondly, despite this, it is not quite true to say that the PD is entirely vague, or that the fact that it is non-binding makes it of no relevance at all. By embodying the red lines it does set the political direction of travel and a fairly particular one in its reference to ending freedom of movement (and, therefore, no single market membership) and the UK having an independent trade policy (and, therefore, no customs union). We don’t know exactly what will be delivered, but we do know roughly what is envisaged.

Thirdly, unsatisfactory as it may be not to know anything like the full details of the future relationship, now is the last moment at which it is possible to ask the question as to whether people want to leave on what the terms look like being, or remain in the EU on the current terms (e.g. the various exemptions that the UK enjoys). That is the only meaningful question to be asked. Once the Article 50 period has expired, the possibility of asking it will no longer exist. So, again, we are where we are. It may not be ideal, but that’s the way things are.

Back, yet again, to Norway?

A different way being touted to get around the impasse is the resurrection of the Norway+ idea, currently also referred to as Common Market 2.0. That would entail the passing of an amendment which would require the government (presumably alongside applying for an extension of the Article 50 period) to renegotiate the PD so as to articulate as the clear direction of travel membership of the single market and a customs union.

There have been reports in the last couple of days that Jeremy Corbyn is discussing just this with some Tory backbenchers. It is, to say the least, absolutely ridiculous that he is only now, with a few weeks to go, looking seriously at what would have been the logical position for Labour to take from the outset, as the only even approximately ‘jobs first’ Brexit available. Instead, thanks partly to his lack of interest in Brexit, but more the ideological aversion he and his core advisors have to the single market, he only belatedly endorsed a customs union. Even now, after all these years, he still talks cakeist drivel about a close relationship with the single market, as if there is an intermediate position between the binary of ‘in’ or ‘out’.

If Labour were, belatedly, to endorse single market membership then it is conceivable that such an amendment would pass. It is then, in turn, conceivable that the PD could be re-negotiated along those lines. But there is absolutely no reason to think that, if on that basis a Brexit deal was ratified, there would be a UK government that would or could deliver on it. It would be a non-binding commitment created by opposition and rebel votes that would have to be enacted by a minority government under May or another, probably even more hard line, leader.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum seeking soft Brexit would have been both a possible and sensible way for the UK to proceed. Now, although in times of such uncertainty nothing is impossible, I think that ship has sailed. The only realistic way of reviving it would be if, as some have mooted, there were to be a long extension agreed to Article 50, effectively pressing the re-set button on the whole Brexit process.

At all events, whatever happens next week we will still be lashed to the Brexit torture rack which Britain has inflicted on itself. Wikipedia notes that “one gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments and bones”. As our MPs bray and shout in the chamber and lobbies next week, it’s worth bearing in mind that, metaphorically, those are the sounds we will be hearing: our country being pulled apart by confusion, incompetence, cowardice, delusion, and lies.

*Update (10/03/19): As half-anticipated, Kyle-Wilson will not get the backing of Labour, and will not be tabled as an amendment to Tuesday’s meaningful vote, but both may happen afterwards. Meanwhile, there’s some slight indication that my avowedly absurd idea that the government might end up accepting it is not entirely preposterous, with reports today that its authors have had detailed talks with the Brexit secretary.