Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Labour inches towards another referendum

Political predictions are always foolish, especially when they concern Brexit so I take a little bit of credit for the prediction I’ve made since at least July that this autumn Labour would come out in favour of another referendum having been proved half true.

Only half true, because there is still some ambiguity about under exactly what circumstances Labour would support one, and what question they would push for. As for the circumstances, for now this would only be if a General Election does not occur. So the scenario envisaged seems to be Labour voting against any Withdrawal Agreement deal the government come back with – if they come back with anything at all – if it fails Labour’s six tests, which seems all but certain. If enough Tory MPs, on whichever side of the party depending what the deal is, join them, then the deal is voted down. If May then refuses to hold an election, Labour would push for a referendum. (Presumably, also, they would do so if she did get the deal through, although with little chance of success in those circumstances).

Ambiguities and uncertainties

So far, so clear. What remains unclear is whether they would push for a referendum with ‘remain in the EU’ as an option. Keir Starmer said today that such an option was not ruled out. But John McDonnell said yesterday that this option should not be available (as did the influential trade union leader Len McCluskey), but instead the vote should be on the deal (i.e. the putative deal negotiated by the government). The conference motion itself says nothing about what the ballot question would be.

Initial reports of McDonnell’s comments suggested, incorrectly it turned out, this meant voting for ‘this deal’ or ‘no deal’ – a nonsensical proposition (it would mean Labour campaigning for ‘no deal’). Later it became clear that he meant it would be on ‘this deal’ or ‘another deal, to be negotiated’. But this is scarcely less absurd – how could people know what that hypothetical deal would be? And if the vote was in favour of that option, it would surely be inevitable that there would need to be another referendum as and when that deal was done (which would be ‘new deal’ versus ‘remain’, presumably, since it must be inconceivable that anyone would suggest going back for another renegotiation). To say nothing of the imponderables of how long an extension period would be needed, and whether it would be agreed with the EU.

What is also unclear is what happens under this new policy if there is a General Election. Does Labour then adopt a manifesto commitment to holding an immediate referendum (and with what options?), or simply to re-negotiating another deal, or re-negotiating another deal and then holding a referendum on it, and if so with what options? It certainly won’t be possible for Labour to go into such an election – which will be entirely dominated by Brexit – with the same ambiguity as in 2017, and the implication of each commitment is very different. In particular, with a ‘re-negotiation but no referendum’ policy it would mean both main parties offering voters no choice other than Brexit in some form.

Labour’s Brexit dilemmas

I haven't written much about Labour's stance on this blog, and it’s worth reflecting on some of the reasons why Brexit is almost as tortured an issue for them as it is for the Conservatives, even though the vast majority of Labour members and MPs*, and the majority of Labour voters, are opposed to Brexit.

One is ideological principle. For Jeremy Corbyn and some of his allies, the case against the EU remains that of the Labour Eurosceptics of the 1970s, most notably Tony Benn. In present day parlance, the critique would be that the EU is a neo-liberal institution. I’m not sure how much traction that has, though, in that despite Corbyn’s long record on this it’s not clear Brexit is a burning passion for him in the way it is for the Tory Ultras.

After all, although he was criticised for campaigning half-heartedly to remain, the fact is that he did campaign for it, giving EU membership a “7 or 7 and a half out of 10”. It’s hard to imagine a Rees-Mogg or a Farage – not to mention a Hoey – saying the same. Contrast that with his inability to even pretend that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons and it suggests that Brexit isn’t a fundamental matter for him. My impression, for what little it is worth, is that he isn’t that much interested in it, compared with his wider domestic and foreign policy objectives. If so, it’s by no means the case that any likely Labour policy would be incompatible with EU membership. On the other hand, the economic damage of Brexit would certainly make such policies difficult to pursue.

The second reason is electoral: the concern that many traditionally Labour constituencies, especially in the Midlands and North of England, voted leave. Against that, though, it’s clearly not the case that all, or even most, of those who voted leave in such constituencies were, or are ever likely to be, Labour voters. And many who are have since changed their minds. Moreover, even for those who are actual or potential Labour voters, and who still support Brexit, it does not follow that it is anything like the most important issue to them at least to the extent that even the prospect of another vote – for this wouldn’t be a policy of Labour revoking Brexit, just holding another vote – would be anathema to them. It is probably only amongst the most hardline Brexiters that it is considered an affront to democracy to hold a vote!

A third, and of course related, reason is simply tactical – the fear that unambiguous support for another Referendum with an option to remain would hand the Tories the ‘betraying the will of the people’ stick to beat them with. But today’s limited shift has already provoked that, so Labour might as well go the whole hog. Rather as with May’s Chequers Proposal, there’s not much point in taking the pain of being attacked without the gain of developing a clear policy. By contrast, providing such clarity would offer a net gain of about 1.5 million votes according to a recent opinion poll.

If this analysis is right, then it seems highly likely that the Labour position will continue to evolve – quickly, given the press of events - toward supporting a referendum in any circumstances, General Election or no, and if so with remain on the ballot paper. As Simon Wren-Lewis cogently argues in his latest blog, this is really the only option that makes sense. Brendan Donnelly, in an equally cogent piece this week, suggests that the fall out from Salzburg makes a referendum (rather than, in his view, an election) more likely and also thinks it unlikely that remain would not be an option.

However, even if Labour supports such a referendum it does not follow that it will be held and, if it is held, it does not follow that remain will win. And whoever wins it certainly does not follow that that the issues and divisions exposed and exacerbated by Brexit will go away.
*Although for some exceptions, see this montage of quotes and images from a meeting of pro-Brexit members and delegates at the party conference, some of which suggest that it is not just amongst the Tory Ultras that some fairly extreme views are to be found e.g. that people campaigning for another referendum should be put on trial for attempting to overthrow a democratic vote!

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Britain is humiliating itself

For all the talk of Theresa May being ‘humiliated’ at Salzburg, the more fundamental truth is that Britain is humiliating itself, with May’s facilitation. To say this is, absolutely, not to be unpatriotic. On the contrary, any failure of patriotism lies with those who have brought us to this woeful pass. For as I pointed out in a post last October, humiliation has been ensured by the way that the government has approached Brexit.

That the Chequers Proposal was never going fly with the EU was obvious from the start, and it is entirely disingenuous to claim that it has been rejected out of the blue and with no reasons given. It could – and probably still will – form the basis for further negotiation, but May compounded the inevitability of its rejection by insisting that it was the only, and non-negotiable, plan*.

This set the stage for what she clearly found a distressing and infuriating rebuff to which she has reacted with ill-judged anger. Ill-judged, at least, if the aim is anything other than gleeful headlines from the dangerously irresponsible Brexiter press and, perhaps, a slightly easier ride at her party conference. But such short-termist, domestically focussed tactics are precisely what have prevented serious, strategic engagement with the complexities Brexit.

If that is an example of May’s poor judgment, discussed in my previous post (which was quoted and expanded upon by James Blitz in yesterday’s Financial Times [£]), it’s important to re-state the fact that what happened in Salzburg grows out of the much deeper failure of the British government to get real about Brexit. If Brexit was to be done, it could never be done in the way the government has tried.

The failure to face reality

In brief, the core failure has been a refusal to acknowledge the binary choice between single market membership and non-membership. That has been evident in every twist and turn of the government’s position – quite as much (albeit in different ways) in the Lancaster House approach, which Brexiters say they supported, as in the Chequers Proposal, which they don’t. These, and other variants, seek in some way to mix and match elements of membership with elements of non-membership.

The (not entirely accurate) shorthand for the binary choice is ‘Norway’ versus ‘Canada’. It is quite misleading for the government to be saying, as May did yesterday, that these are the two unpalatable options being forced upon Britain by the EU. In the run-up to the Referendum it was precisely these two (plus a no deal, WTO option) which figured as the forms that Britain’s post-Brexit future could take. This was clearly evident in, for example, the Treasury’s modelling of these three options prior to the vote.

One of the great dishonesties of the Leave campaign was to obscure or elide the different options, especially by use of the meaningless weasel word of “access” to the single market. The great foolishness of the government since the referendum is to imagine that this campaign dishonesty could be turned into policy in the form of a ‘bespoke’ or ‘red, white and blue’ Brexit.

That was and is impossible, not because of EU intransigence but because of basic definitional issues of what the single market means. And whilst this applies most obviously to the future trade relationship, it is no less the case in relation to non-trade issues such as participation in various EU agencies and programmes.

Paying the price of failure

It is from this core failure that humiliation flows. The stubborn refusal to face reality simply makes Britain look foolish. The basic parameters of the choices available have been clear for months, stated over and over again by Michel Barnier and others in the EU. Every time, the response has been either to ignore them and press on regardless, or to rail against these statements – invariably couched in polite, diplomatic language – as grotesque insults, showing a lack of respect. These narratives of self-pitying victimhood and bellicose nationalism were in plain view in May’s statement yesterday, and in the responses to it.

So we are now paying the national price for the dishonesty of the Leave campaign and the government’s pretence that it is possible to operationalise it. When Brexit was simply a matter of domestic political debate, the Brexiters could get away with dismissing all warnings as project fear and all discussion of practicalities as the tricks of saboteurs and elitists. That is precisely what happened both before and after the referendum.

But since the referendum it has no longer been a solely domestic debate. Brexit has encountered reality, and all the bluster and bullying that Brexiters use to deride and silence their opponents is completely ineffective when conducting international negotiations. It only goes to make the country look unpleasant and rather stupid. That is the humiliation, and it has been brought upon us by Brexiters and the Brexit government – not as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, but as an inevitable consequence of the way that Brexit has been undertaken.

Taking back control?

Perhaps most humiliating of all is the call from the Prime Minister for the EU to come up with a form of Brexit which is acceptable to Britain. This, apparently, is where ‘taking back control’ has brought us.

There has actually been an undercurrent of this right from the outset, as if Brexit were a problem for the EU to sort out rather than a choice that Britain had made and was responsible for. This was evident in reports that in private meetings with Angela Merkel the Prime Minister repeatedly asked to be “made an offer”, to which Merkel replied “but you’re leaving, we don’t have to make you and offer. Come on, what do you want?” with May responding by simply saying again “make me an offer”.

It is also present, in a slightly different way, in the entire notion of a ‘negotiation’, as if getting a good deal for Britain were a shared problem, whereas in fact it is Britain’s problem: for the EU the problem is how to minimise the damage of Brexit to itself**.

We yesterday heard Theresa May saying, all this time after the referendum, and all this time since triggering Article 50, and having failed until last July even to get cabinet agreement on a policy, that “we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is”. But the real issues and the viable alternatives have been well-described and well-known for years. The humiliation lies in the refusal of Brexiters to understand and accept them, and the petulance, spite and aggression with which they react when they are pointed out.

In embracing the Brexiters, May may have brought humiliation to herself. What is worse is that it has brought humiliation to all of us, and there will be much more and much greater humiliation to come.

*For detailed analysis of the series of events that led to what happened at Salzburg, see today’s article by Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor and the doyen of Brexit commentators.
*For a fuller discussion of the negotiating dynamics, and other issues arising from Salzburg, see the latest post on Tom Hayes’ consistently excellent BEERG blog.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

May in Salzburg: on pragmatism and pathology

If Brexit was supposed to be a moment of national renewal and pride with Britain striding optimistically towards its bright new future something has gone badly wrong. There are two versions of what Theresa May has done in Salzburg, neither of them especially edifying. On the one hand, she was demanding that the EU must now make compromises; on the other she was imploring the EU to recognize the domestic constraints that require her to ask it to do so.

It should go without saying that this is nothing like how the Leave campaign claimed it would be. Neither ‘demanding’ nor ‘imploring’ would be necessary: the EU would be falling over itself to offer Britain anything it wanted. This isn’t a rhetorical point: it has significant political implications, which I’ll return to.

Beyond that, demands for compromises and concessions fall into the pattern of truculence that has characterised the government’s approach to the negotiations from the start, including Theresa May’s willing embrace of the “bloody difficult woman” tag. A visitor from Mars might get the impression that Britain was being forced to leave the EU against its wishes, and therefore stubbornly insisting on as much as it could salvage, rather than choosing to leave in the confident knowledge that life outside would be much better.

As for pleas to appreciate British political pressures, these compound the widespread sense abroad that the British polity has descended into a kind of madness. A country formerly associated with pragmatism and a certain kind of ruthless self-interest – the first often admired, the second at least respected - finds itself hostage to a rag tag of perhaps fifty or so eccentric, if not in some cases outright delusional, backbench extremists.

What is rather demeaning is that there is every sign that the EU will indeed do as much as it can to rescue May from her tormentors, as if taking pity on a parent whose toddler is in a tantrum, or perhaps more accurately for fear of having to deal directly with the toddler. But it’s not at all clear that anything it can do will end the tantrum. As every Conservative leader, including May, has found the hard core Brexiters are unappeasable and every concession made to them leads to demands for even more.

The pathology of the Ultras

This almost pathological condition has many strange consequences, some of we’ve seen this week. One potentially significant development has been, indeed, a concession from the EU in the form of Michel Barnier’s proposals to “de-dramatise” the Northern Ireland backstop proposal, including the use of technology to significantly limit border checks.

Cue triumphant cries from Brexiters that they had been right all along, and that new technology could solve the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – along with a slew of vitriolic insults about EU duplicity. But, alas, their monomania (along with some misleading reporting in parts of the British media) had led them to error: the border Barnier had been referring to was the putative sea border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, not the land border*.

As this became realised, the proposals were rejected by the DUP and, subsequently, Theresa May. Still, it did raise the delightfully ironic prospect that Brexiters might, through their own propensity to misunderstand detailed practicalities, in some circumstances mistakenly accept as concessions to their position things which were not. At the least, the government’s hope must be that some constructive ambiguity may allow a deal to be made which will pass muster with them.

The barriers to such a hope were evident in another consequence of the extremism of the Ultra Brexiters which was on display this week: their rejection of Michael Gove’s appeal to them to support the Chequers Proposal ‘for now’ in anticipation that post-Brexit a different approach could be taken. As discussed in my previous post, Gove’s idea has many consequences, with one being that if the Ultras – through ignorance or wilfulness – don’t accept his argument, this makes the prospect of a political crisis much more likely. Such a crisis could, just conceivably, bring Brexit to an end, which would be the richest irony of all.

That they will not pay heed even to one of the leading figures in the Leave campaign underscores the ingrained, reckless, almost anarchistic impulses of the Ultras. These impulses mean that whatever concessions the EU may make now they may well not get the Prime Minister off the ERG hook. But, in any case, it is hardly the case that the underlying diagnosis that May is the pragmatic ‘buffer’ between the EU and the Ultras is well-founded.

The myth of May’s pragmatism

Actually, her premiership has been marked by a litany of monumentally poor judgments: not seeking a consensual, soft Brexit when she had the chance; pointlessly fighting the Gina Miller court case; failing to call out the extremist ‘enemies of the people’ rhetoric; triggering Article 50 with no agreed government position; calling and fluffing the general election; signing the phase 1 agreement that she subsequently declared (as regards the Irish backstop) to be impossible; and, when belatedly softening her approach at Chequers, producing a plan that would satisfy no one. Throughout, she has mistaken stubbornness for strength. Far from being pragmatic, she has consistently backed herself – and the country – into unnecessary and impossible corners.

That remains evident in her refusal to concede even the bare possibility of another referendum (or, even, of seeking an Article 50 extension) under any circumstances whatsoever, even though this just might provide the final escape hatch from the impasse created by all these poor decisions. It would certainly be politically impossible for her to advocate such a vote now, but it is reckless not to leave it open as a contingency, however remote.

And whatever the (very considerable) political and practical obstacles to such a vote, none exists in principle. It’s manifestly absurd to say that Brexit must go ahead even if the majority no longer want it. The foreign leaders who today, rather wistfully it seems to me, said they hope for Britain to have such a vote are only articulating what almost every person I’ve spoken to in EU-27 countries thinks: surely, in the end, a way will be found to do so.

Which brings us back to the way that what is unfolding – and will continue to unfold - is entirely different to how the advocates of Brexit depicted it. The argument for another referendum has never been that the first one yielded an outcome that almost half the country didn’t want; it is that what it has set in train is nothing like what the other half of the country, who voted leave, were promised they would get.

Update: A quick addition in the light of subsequent events in Salzburg today, which are being reported as the EU pretty much completely undermining May by rejecting the Chequers Proposal, suggesting that no attempt was made to give her political cover at home. I don’t read it this way. The proposal was never going to be accepted, for reasons set out on this blog amongst many other places. So EU attempts to help May out were never going to take the form of such an acceptance. Instead, what they said was just a fairly polite statement of the obvious (with dipomatic references to ‘positive elements’) rather than a hostile rebuke. That it is being reported as it is in the UK reflects the way that our internal political dialogue has been allowed to become so out of kilter with reality – at the very least to the extent that absurd fantasies are pandered to as if they are as worthy of attention as any other view - that reminders of that reality appear extraordinary and outrageous. But those reminders were bound to come, and with increasing clarity as the time before Brexit shortens. More in future posts, no doubt.

*It might then be wondered: couldn’t the same approach apply to the land border? No, because whilst it reduces controls it doesn’t mean the complete absence of new physical infrastructure and checks. And, also, I would think, because the volumes of goods crossings on the two borders are very different. In particular, there are almost certainly far more dense supply chains that cross Ireland/NI than there are that cross NI/GB.