Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A dangerous limbo

We remain in a situation of complete limbo as to what the government plans to seek for Brexit, possibly because of the forthcoming Supreme Court case but also, presumably, because they have no agreed plans.

A chance photograph of some notes, apparently from a briefing meeting, was seized on by the media for what it might disclose about these plans, but I am not sure that any of the speculation was warranted by what it showed. Instead, it seemed only to suggest an almost embarrassingly na├»ve and thin set of ideas. Very basic options (EEA, Canada, ‘having our cake and eating it’) were noted, along with the idea that services will be difficult to do a deal over because of ‘the French’ (services are difficult to deal with full stop; the idea that this is because of Gallic ill-will is banal). It seemed to be ‘Janet and John learn about Brexit’, and if this really is the level at which discussions are occurring within government then we are in serious trouble.

What is becoming ever-more clear is the massive damage already being done, even before we get to the point of triggering A50. The recent budget predicted a £100bn fiscal black hole over the next five years as a result of Brexit. This is not, of course, the full price tag of leaving the EU, just the effect on the government’s budget and, moreover, it was a cautious estimate provided by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – the reality may well be much worse.

Even this cautious estimate brought forth howls of anger from Brexit politicians and newspapers, with the OBR viciously attacked. This is now the habitual mode of conduct of the Brexiters. Unable to come up with any plan or any forecasts of their own, they simply lash out at anyone who injects any kind of realism into the situation. This is what happens when a protest movement founded on lies and fantasies actually wins: they continue to be a protest movement but get angrier and even more detached from reality.

Another indication of that is the response of the Brexiters to the refusal of the EU to agree a deal on the rights of existing (including British) migrants within the EU. There is a very good reason for that – it can only be agreed as part of the exit negotiations, which cannot start until A50 is triggered. But for the Brexiters it is just another occasion to proclaim victimhood at the hands of the EU, as if the consequences of Brexit were something that had been forced upon them, rather than something they had agitated for.

At the forefront, if only because the media afford him such attention, of the most spiteful Brexiter rhetoric is the Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. Described as a ‘leading Brexiter’ (although he played little role in the campaign) this epitome of establishment privilege (Eton, Oxford and the City) depicts himself as an anti-establishment voice and specialises in ill-informed invective against any who dare prick the bubble of Brexiter fantasy. His repeated baiting of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney – about the only person to keep the UK economy on the road since the referendum – is noteworthy both for its nastiness and for its ineffectiveness. Carney, a sophisticated and highly intelligent technocrat, is well able to look after himself and his critics were humiliated by having to beg him to extend his term of office, knowing that his departure would cause a further collapse of the pound.

The Rees-Mogg versus Carney mismatch is a microcosm of a much more serious problem. For it cannot be said often enough or forcefully enough how dangerous the current situation is. Just about every person who is competent to make a judgment knows that Brexit will be a disaster – a disaster that is already happening – and that a soft Brexit is the least-worst way of enacting the letter of the Referendum decision. But there is no political mechanism to enforce that judgment. The entire future of the UK is now being held to ransom by a small group of Conservative MPs, such as Rees-Mogg, who are completely detached from reality and who will not allow anything other than the hardest of Brexits to occur. Meanwhile UKIP, under its new leader, is, as I predicted in a previous post advancing the even more insane idea of leaving the EU without triggering A50 at all.

I have just returned from France where, understandably, most political conversation is concerned with the forthcoming Presidential election there. But there is also plenty of interest in Brexit and the overwhelming sense is one of bemusement; bemusement about the referendum decision itself, and about the UK government’s lack of clarity about what it wants. But more than that an amazement that Britain, which is seen in France, as in many other countries, as a bastion of pragmatism and political stability should have become, as one person put it to me ‘completely crazy’. It’s a truism that if you hear your country criticized when abroad you instinctively defend it, whatever your own reservations may be. It is a mark of how desperate the current situation is that I felt neither inclined nor able to offer any defence.

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