Friday, 15 November 2019

And there are still four weeks to go ...

As strongly foreshadowed in last week’s post, Nigel Farage did indeed retreat on his threat to stand a Brexit Party (BXP) candidate in every seat unless Boris Johnson shifted to a no-deal or ‘clean’ Brexit position. Instead, the party will only stand in seats not won by the Conservatives at the last election.

There are three dimensions of this which are worth considering - motivation, reaction, and consequences - because each feeds into wider aspects of the Brexit situation.

Farage’s motivation

First, his motivation. There has been much talk of clandestine pacts with Johnson, and the possible offer of a Peerage. The former seems to be untrue (£) in that various pacts have been discussed but not agreed. As for the latter, only time will tell although it would never be possible to know for sure. My own view is that Farage expected his campaign launch to be greeted with huge acclaim and an instant opinion poll bounce. Like many populists, he tends to imagine that he is more popular than he is. Receiving no such reaction but, rather, condemnation from many of his allies and a decline in the polls he backtracked.

Whether or not that explanation is correct, the one he gave was most certainly nonsense. He claimed that he had extracted a change in policy from Johnson, such that the transition period would not be extended beyond 2020, and that a “Canada-style free trade deal without political alignment” would be sought. But Johnson has long insisted (very possibly untruthfully) that he won’t extend the transition. And a ‘Canada-style’ trade agreement has been the aspiration going right back to Theresa May’s deal.

So it is disappointing that (so far as I have seen) Farage has not been challenged in any interviews as to the supposed reason for his change of heart. Even more disappointingly he and more importantly Johnson have not been significantly challenged on the sheer impossibility of negotiating a trade deal without an extension, making it a recipe for a new kind of no-deal cliff edge at the end of 2020.

That is explained with great clarity in a recent article by trade expert David Henig, a punchy Twitter thread by Simon Fraser, former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, and has been given greater public airing in interventions this week from the former Conservative Justice Secretary David Gauke, who is running as an independent in the election.

Brexiter reactions

The second strand of interest arising from Farage’s new stance is the reaction of his supporters. This reveals the latest version of the dynamic of purity and betrayal amongst Brexiters, the political psychology of which has so captured and deformed our entire political discourse. For in seeking to conciliate those who criticised him for a position which did, indeed, make Brexit less likely to occur, he has pleased almost no one.

Those critics, such as Arron Banks, continue to attack him because, by standing in Labour marginals targeted by the Tories, he may split the leave vote and allow Labour to hold those seats. On the other hand, by stepping back from contesting Conservative seats, Farage has now made an enemy of his most hard core supporters. Amongst them, he is being denounced as a “traitor”. It is, in a way, a delicious irony but it arises as the logical end point of what in a post last January I called the poisonous politics of betrayal which have held sway since the Referendum.

This is one reason why Brexiters have so signally failed to ‘get Brexit done’. As we saw with May’s deal, the ERG at first, and the Spartans to the last, refused to endorse it since it supposedly betrayed Brexit. Meanwhile, erstwhile remainers, such as David Gauke and Philip Hammond, were hounded out of their candidatures as traitors despite having voted each time for May’s deal and, subsequently, for Johnson’s.

Once politics gets configured this way, anything and everything can be represented as betrayal. So whilst there is some amusement in the spectacle of Farage being spit-roasted both for having compromised and for not having compromised enough - and, from either perspective, the charge is one of betraying Brexit - it’s not really funny.

For the painful truth is that if Brexit does go ahead it will be done against the wishes of the majority, who now want to remain, but, in any form it occurs, it will leave a substantial minority of those who do want it thinking it is a betrayal of Brexit anyway.

Consequences of Farage’s decision

This brings us to the third issue arising from Farage’s decision, and from events more generally. Is remaining in the EU now more or less likely? That of course is another way of asking whether a Tory victory is now more or less likely. Farage, showing a rather presumptuous attitude to the electorate for a self-styled anti-elitist, claims that he has gifted the Tories a couple of dozen seats.

That remains to be seen, and would most likely apply to Conservative held seats in the South-East, but which voted remain, which the LibDems might take, especially where they are covered by the Remain pact. In some of those seats – from Guildford to Cambridgeshire South – constituency-level polling by Survation shows potentially huge swings to the LibDems. But this polling predated Farage’s announcement, so there may indeed be an effect on the outcome in those seats.

Crucially, though, such an effect would only help Tories to hold existing seats, not to gain new ones. On that point, Chris Curtis of YouGov predicts (with caveats) that the effect will be very small in terms of enabling Tories to win Labour marginals, as they would need to do to form a majority government, because of course BXP will still be standing in those seats (indeed, that is precisely the complaint of people like Arron Banks).

However, at least one BXP candidate in such a seat has already stood down, and others may follow or not mount serious campaigns. The more this happens, the worse for Labour’s prospects of holding those seats, and the slimmer the chance of Brexit being avoided.

The doyen of psephologists, Professor Sir John Curtice, agrees that the effect will be small, making the additional point that Farage’s announcement will do little of nothing to help Tories defending their seats from SNP gains in Scotland since the BXP has little support there anyway (and, again, one BXP candidate has already stood down in protest against Farage’s new policy). It’s also worth adding that, not least because of the mixed messages Farage has sent his supporters about Johnson’s deal, the way individual BXP voters respond is far from predictable: they won’t necessarily vote Tory just because there is no BXP candidate available.

Consolidating the remain vote

With all that said, even a small effect in terms of enabling Tories to retain seats they might have lost could have a significant consequence for the outcome, and therefore for Brexit. The extent and efficacy of tactical voting therefore remains a central issue. That has been made complicated by the proliferation of rival tactical voting sites, with a swirl of conflicting claims and counter-claims about their accuracy and motivations.

However, an excellent source of reliable information about each constituency has been created by political data analyst Christabel Cooper. This is not a tactical voting site per se, but it does provide very detailed information that would allow a tactical voter – especially when combined with on-the-ground knowledge – to make a sensible choice.

Voters for whom remain is the sole, or top, priority are also not being done any favours by the behaviour of the LibDem leadership which, under Jo Swinson, is proving to be disappointingly and (to me, having had quite a high opinion of her) surprisingly tribal and unimaginative. Whilst Labour’s refusal to undertake a pact is to their great discredit, the obvious fact is that, like it or not, the only realistic way to avoid Brexit entails a Labour administration, perhaps in a minority but with support from unequivocally pro-remain parties.

It is perhaps understandable that Swinson fears she would lose the potential votes of ex-conservatives (£) if she supported a Corbyn government. Personally I think that to do so for a few months to secure another referendum would cause few problems and would even appeal to many such voters, but of course that is a judgment call. However it is simply ridiculous for her to oppose LibDem candidates pulling out of contests where the seat is marginally held by a Labour remainer, and to stand against David Gauke’s independent campaign. That makes no sense at all and, with things so finely poised, represents a substantial failure of leadership and judgment on her part.

The wider debate

It remains the case – as per my previous post - that, for all the talk of Brexit in this election campaign, very little of substance is being said about it. In that post I gave, in passing, the example of the fact that no one really knew what the arrangements for Northern Ireland in Johnson’s deal meant in practice. As if on cue, just a few hours after it was posted, it emerged that Johnson himself did not know that it meant customs forms having to be filled in on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Businesses, Johnson opined airily (some suggested drunkenly, and certainly his speech was strangely slurred), could just ‘throw the forms in the bin’.

Yet, even then, the discussion was mainly about how this exposed a rift between what Johnson and the Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, had said. Is there a split? Was it a gaffe? The real point, that it was one example of how Britain is in danger of entering something the consequences of which even those recommending it do not begin to understand, was hardly picked up on at all. That is staggeringly irresponsible given that, if the Tories win, that will be the reality we have to live with just six weeks after the result.

Looking further ahead, the entire notion of a ‘Canada- style’ deal – even if it could be struck in time - has never been subjected to proper examination in the Brexit debate, and is still not being. Absurd as it may seem to say so, I honestly think that the reasoning of many of those who propose it amounts to little more than: ‘Canada sounds like a nice sort of place that seems to do quite well, at least that’s the impression my brother-in-law had when he lived there in the 1970s. And they were on our side in the war. So if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for us’.

Perhaps that is unfair, but, at all events, the idea that it could substitute for full single market membership, even for goods, let alone services, and be suitable for a country which - unlike Canada - does half its trade with the EU, which – unlike Canada - has the EU as its geographically closest market, and which – unlike Canada - has 40 years of complex supply-chain and regulatory integration is simply nonsense. That isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a basic economic and business fact.

Moreover, the notion that such an arrangement can be made ‘without political alignment’ makes the whole proposition even more fantastical. In a detailed assessment of EU preparations for the trade talks, RTE’s Tony Connelly explains how, for many EU countries, a deal without substantial UK commitments to Level Playing Field (LPF) provisions simply won’t be acceptable, especially for a country which - unlike Canada - is on the EU’s doorstep. And the extent of regulatory alignment required, with all that implies politically, can only increase the more that Brexiters add + symbols or super- prefixes - which are mainly code for more extensive services provision - to the ‘Canada’.

Connelly’s article also shows how much more prepared the EU are for these trade talks than the UK. If and when they occur we are likely to see a reprise of the way that, when it came to the phase 2 (future terms) talks of the Article 50 process, the UK had no agreed position and had created no political consensus as to the trade-offs involved. Again, no attempt whatsoever is being made during this election campaign to address any of these issues or to prepare the population for what may be about to come.

Who cares?

Bemoaning this is, of course, a waste of words and time. There are many people who understand and care deeply about the dangerous situation which will emerge, within days if not hours, of a Tory government being elected with a mandate for its Brexit ‘policy’. But most do not. In any other circumstances it would be a scandal to be flying almost blind into such a situation. Instead, it’s just accepted.

In a similar way, the failure to release the report on Russian interference in British politics, with potential implications both for the Referendum itself and for the present election is extraordinary. Of course, we have no idea what it contains. But the public interest in its publication is obvious, and the excuses given for not doing so entirely flimsy. There may be nothing of importance in it. Yet it being withheld suggests otherwise. Either way, releasing it after the election will be too late, even it is not simply kicked into the long grass in the way that the Darroch leak inquiry (remember that?) has been.

It’s the same kind of thing with each incremental piece of evidence of the economic consequences of Brexit – for example, this week, the story that Tesla will invest in Berlin and considers the UK too risky because of Brexit. And this is an industry identified by Johnson as a key part of the country’s post-Brexit future, an industry to which on the very day of the Tesla announcement he was staging an electoral visit. Yet after a brief flurry of reporting such stories get forgotten.

I’m not disposed to see in any of this as some great conspiracy. No doubt, there’s plenty of political machination going on but it arises as much as anything else from the nature of the 24 hour news cycle. And also perhaps from the desensitization which that engenders, so that minor gaffe and massive scandal are treated virtually alike.

But ultimately it’s about the lazy, cynical way too many of us shrug things off as ‘just the way things are’ - until something happens to affect us personally, when we self-righteously and angrily shout that ‘they should have done something’ (it’s always ‘they’, the despised elite; never ‘we’, who went along with it).

I very much expect that Brexit is going to see that dynamic played out in political High Definition.