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.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Brexit: stuck

Predictable as it was, it’s difficult to feel anything other than astonishment and despair at what is – or more accurately isn’t – happening with Brexit. It is now six weeks since the UK was due to leave the EU, and there is still not the remotest sign of any realistic thinking about the predicament that our country is in.

The government’s talks with Labour are ‘ongoing’, supposedly given new impetus by the local election results which both May and Corbyn, apparently, think were a message to ‘get on and deliver Brexit’. That’s absurd, given that the main gainers were remain parties but, even if we indulge the absurdity, it seems clear that it is only a matter of when, not if, it is announced that the talks have failed. They were probably doomed from the start.

The trap of betrayal

Even if that is not so, it is abundantly plain that if they did yield anything then the hard core Brexiters would say it is a betrayal. Farage has already warned as much – in fact, he calls it the ‘final betrayal’ (though, with Farage, you can be sure that there is always another one in his back pocket). And that is the crux of the trap that May’s Brexit premiership has created for itself: if she gets a deal through it will be seen by Brexiters as a betrayal; if she doesn’t then that too will be seen as a betrayal. But still she presses on because – having imbibed their language without gaining their support – she thinks that to do otherwise would be … betrayal.

Were there to be, as Labour hope, a General Election bringing Jeremy Corbyn into power he would face the same situation. It was clear in his launch of Labour’s European elections campaign yesterday that he is committed to delivering Brexit (but the Labour version, which is still based on the ‘single market access’ fantasy). If that happens it, like a ‘Tory Brexit’, will be seen as betrayal by the Faragists and also opposed by the bulk of his own party, in a mirror image of May’s dilemma.

Small wonder that Corbyn doesn’t want to talk about Brexit much at all during the European elections and in that, too, there’s a mirror with the Tory Party. It has already become obvious that they can hardly campaign on May’s Brexit policy because it so bitterly divides them. But nor can they campaign on any other Brexit policy whilst May is their leader. Thus their line seems likely to be that the elections don’t matter because the MEPs elected will not take their seats because something will turn up and they are reportedly resigned to a disastrous, perhaps even sixth place, result (£).  So from the two main parties on the biggest defining issue for decades, which dominates the political landscape, there is a total void.

The Brexit black hole

Into this political black hole step the Brexit fantasists who, untrammelled by any need to take responsibility, can continue to promote an imaginary ‘true Brexit’ that could never be delivered. Still struggling with the concept that leaving the institutions that make borders unnecessary has the consequence of making borders necessary (the political equivalent of 2 + 2 = 4), they continue to promote ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border that don’t exist.

Sometimes, ludicrously, as when proposed by David Davis who as former Brexit Secretary had ample opportunity to learn it was nonsense, the proposal is that this is something that May might negotiate. More commonly, it is proposed as something that her replacement as Tory leader could do and it seems certain that most candidates for the job will make this their pitch. It is pure hokum as has been pointed out endlessly, not least on this blog.

Almost invariably, those proposing these dead-in-the-water ideas claim that they have ‘had conversations in Brussels’ revealing that the EU have made it clear that they are completely open to them, if only the British government would formally propose them. Needless to say, no evidence is ever given. In a variant on the same theme, others claim to have met ‘senior WTO people’ (never named) and on that basis conclude that the Article 24 nonsense is a viable way forward. Yet even these proposals, gibberish as they are, are a masterpiece of statecraft compared with the entirely content-free offering of the Brexit Party. Extraordinarily, the plan is, apparently, to release their manifesto after the election whilst campaigning on a platform of – you really couldn’t make this up – defending democracy.

Alongside the pretence of a miraculous way of doing Brexit if only ‘they’ would do it, one of the most notable things about Brexiters now is that they have ceased to make any pretence at all that Brexit is desirable in and of itself. The latest example is the bathetic comparison made by Ann Widdecombe, now a Brexit Party MEP candidate, between Brexit and – inevitably – the Second World War. Apart from the notion, at once ludicrous and offensive, that voluntary membership of an international body is equivalent to fascist domination, she was reduced to saying that whilst no-deal would produce some bumps in the road, it wouldn’t be anything like as bad as what people had suffered during the war. Goodbye ‘sunny uplands’, hello ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Truly inspirational.

The betrayal trap contains the seeds of a solution

Eventually we need to face up to some unpleasant truths. Any conceivable government delivering any conceivable Brexit is now going to be accused of betrayal. This would apply even to a no-deal Brexit under a new Tory leader since the disastrous consequences would inevitably be ascribed by those Brexiters now calling for just that to its having been ‘done the wrong way’. The betrayal accusation is probably going to be believed by something like a quarter to a third of the electorate. Sky News’ political correspondent Lewis Goodall summed this up very well in an article this week, arguing that Brexit is just the beginning of a much bigger populist revolt.

If that’s right, and I think it probably is, then the conclusion is that it doesn’t much matter what we do about Brexit – even, that Brexit isn’t really the issue. However it is delivered, and whether it is delivered or not, the same anger, the same sense of betrayal, the same sense that an amorphous ‘they’ always get their way will exist. But if that is so, then why not abandon Brexit, since there will be that sentiment anyway? It is rather like the old joke of the man who goes to the doctor and is offered some tablets with the warning that they may cause impotence, halitosis and baldness. I’ve already got the side-effects, he replies, so I might as well start taking the medicine.

Drifting to a referendum?

Parliamentary revocation has never in my view been a politically realistic route, except in extremis if there was no other option, but another referendum looks increasingly likely (although, of course, there’s no guarantee that the result would be to abandon Brexit). It’s true that the Tories are still steadfastly opposed to it, and Labour is so equivocal as to be unsupportive of it in all but name. For them, as re-iterated by Corbyn yesterday, the dodge is to keep it as an ‘option’ if a General Election cannot be achieved. That is a formula for potentially endless deferral since it will always be possible to say that wait another day and the government will fall.

Even so, since endless deferral isn’t really an option given the Article 50 process, and since neither party looks like coming up with anything else, it seems quite likely that one or even both of them will get to a referendum policy in the end (clearly it would be an easier pivot for Labour to make than for the Tories). I’ve thought that this was the direction we were going in since last February (and in that post accurately predicted that there would be European elections and the shape the campaign would take).

The longer things drift on and the further the 2016 vote recedes into the past the more likely it becomes. We’re clearly not there yet but there are currently rumours that May is at least considering the possibility of a parliamentary vote on the idea and amid his restatement of Labour’s non-policy yesterday Corbyn made some positive remarks about the healing possibilities of a referendum.

If for no other reason than getting off the hook on which Brexit has impaled their parties they might not be that far from realising it is the only way out. Few will think it a good solution, just the only thing left. A strong showing by remain parties in the EP elections would give impetus to that. Na├»ve as it might be to say so, one might even think that the fact that opinion polls have for some months now shown that the majority no longer wish to leave the EU might make a difference.

For now, though, Brexit – and with it Britain - is stuck on the same endless loop of nonsense we have been going round for years.