Friday, 16 November 2018

The end of the beginning

The sound we’re hearing is that of several large political chickens coming home to roost, partly as a consequence of the hopelessly ill-conceived project of Brexit and partly because of its utterly inept execution.

Some of them have been in flight since the referendum campaign – most obviously all the ‘they need us more than we need them’ bullishness, but most importantly the idea that leaving came with no price tag. As I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, the core structural paradox of the politics of Brexit is that enacting it is deemed to be the ‘will of the people’ because of the referendum, but that for more familiar electoral reasons it is also the will of the people that there be no major economic dislocation.

That paradox would have been present whoever had been the Prime Minister but the central flaw of May’s government has been to try to turn the cost-free lie of the Leave campaign into government policy.

Since that is impossible, sooner or later there was going to be crunch moment. It’s now.

The consequences of not confronting the Ultras

Closely related to that is the fact that unless the government were going to crash the economy, at some point the Brexit Ultras were going to have to be faced up to, or faced down, by Theresa May. Instead, from the start she tried to placate them by going along with – perhaps even at the time believing in - their fantasies.

Hence the initial, hardline, Lancaster House approach and the reckless decision to initiate the Article 50 process to their cheering approval. Instead of standing up to them at the beginning, when she was strongest, and when the meaning of Brexit was most in flux, she gave in to them. And as others have found before, the more she did so, the more they demanded and the more they cried betrayal.

That just postponed the inevitable confrontation which has now come. Gradually, the realization of what the economic damage of hard Brexit would mean – along with the realities of the negotiation - has led to a softening of Brexit. But only a softening. With the consequence that May is now having to have the fight with the Ultras in defence of a Brexit approach which has the support of almost no-one and which, in and of itself, has no merit.

She might have created a consensus around a single market Brexit that would have side-lined the Ultras, minimised the economic damage and muted, if not brought on board, the remainers. Instead she embraced the ultras, treated remainers with complete contempt, belatedly backtracked but did so only partially. The tangible consequences of this woeful story were plainly visible in the House of Commons yesterday when May stood virtually alone whilst MPs on every side of the Brexit debate laid into the Brexit she has come up with.

The intransigence of the Ultras

Out of that, some other chickens are coming home to roost. The Ultras are now reaping the results of their own miscalculations and their own lack of moderation. It was they who demanded developing and publishing extensive no deal plans, supposedly in order to spook the EU but in fact opening up a scenario in which almost everyone wants to avoid the no deal that some of the Ultras undoubtedly crave. It was they who insisted that the government’s negotiating hand must not be bound by Parliament, and who resisted all constraints on, or transparency about, what the government was doing, calling it treachery to ask for such things. Now, they are seeing what that means.

Ironically, they now seek to use the ‘meaningful vote’, to which they were so bitterly opposed, to derail what it has led to. For it is only because of the Amendment 7 ‘Mutineers’, subjected to such vilification by the Ultras and their feral press, that the vote on the deal will happen.

May’s deal and its prospects

The uncertain outcome of that vote again reflects the fact that, indeed, the deal May has struck is now opposed not just by the Ultras but by those on all sides. For it is a complete bodge which really has only one redeeming feature – that it is a deal at all. And for all the sound and fury about it, it is not dramatically different to what was to be expected given the phase 1 agreement last December. Again, this reflects the inevitable but still-denied truth of the one-sidedness of the Article 50 negotiations which would exist whoever the Prime Minister was, and whatever the composition of the government.

The most significant differences are, first, the idea of a UK-wide temporary customs union (although, personally, I always thought that that was going to be the direction of travel and there is probably further to go). This was primarily a device to secure DUP support, but that does not seem to have worked – perhaps not surprisingly since the DUP are as unappeasable a group as the ERG.

The second big difference I think is genuinely significant: the inclusion of scope to extend the transition period. This makes complete sense, both for the EU and the UK, but, of course, is the stuff of nightmares for the Ultras. At the same time, it might be enough to persuade Tory remainers that, along with the rather vague political declaration on future terms, this is, after all the ‘pragmatic’ Brexit they can live with. Interestingly, Ken Clarke’s initial reaction to the agreement was to say that he might support it if it contained long-term possibilities of a ‘sensible’ outcome.

This is basically the pitch that May is now making. It’s yet another variant of can kicking: accept the Withdrawal Agreement and there is still all to play for in the future terms agreement. Of course the nature of the Article 50 process meant that there was always going to be an element of this, but what has a transpired is a far greater degree of indeterminacy than would have been the case had the UK had a clear and realistic position on what they wanted the end-state to be.

So the Ultras are being told that eventually they will get no customs union, no single market, no freedom of movement, no ECJ and (the absurd) Canada +, whilst the remainers and ‘pragmatists’ can believe that they might end up with Norway + and, at least, will avoid a no deal cliff edge.

The idea is, presumably, that everyone – or enough people – in her party can therefore support it. The signs are that they won’t.

No strategy, poor tactics

The reason for this is that, as began to be clear with the Chequers Proposal, May has ended up alienating almost everyone to create the Brexit that no one wants. Again, what we are witnessing is the tangible consequence of an approach based upon constantly deferring or ignoring the real choices, and constant tactical ploys rather than strategic leadership.

It’s actually worse than that, in that a competent tactician would not keep boxing herself into corners. May did that early on with her ill-considered red lines, but continues to do so with her stubborn insistence on having “a duty to deliver on the referendum” and on there being “no circumstances” in which there would be another referendum – thus denying herself a final escape hatch, whilst, bizarrely, hinting that it might exist by suggesting that if her deal is voted down there might end up being “no Brexit”. A skilled tactician would keep the possibility of another vote open – not least as the most potent way of closing down a rebellion from the Ultras.

At the same time, May is deploying that politician’s favourite ‘the national interest’ as a way of garnering support. That is a term with an almost endlessly plastic meaning – although on any meaning there’s no form of Brexit which it applies to – and moreover one which she has used with reckless promiscuity.

For months she insisted that the national interest precluded a General Election; then, suddenly, she declared with equal conviction that such an election was vital for the national interest. Meanwhile, each version of her Brexit position has been anointed with its holy water. Again, and as with the Brexiters constant cries of betrayal, it’s a tactic which has pretty much run out of road.

Where now?

There really don’t seem to be any good outcomes now. If May gets her deal through (and if, which is usually assumed but personally I am not so sure of, it gets ratified on the EU side), perhaps at a second attempt if she loses the December vote, then what is set up is years of internecine warfare on what future terms should be sought. 

On Brexit day, far from celebrating their moment of freedom Brexiters will be wailing that they have been delivered into 'vassalage', whilst remainers will despair at the folly of it all. The nation will have been ‘brought together’ only in the sense of everyone being utterly fed up and angry, and the basic question of ‘what does Brexit actually mean’ will remain as resolutely unanswered as it was during the referendum campaign. Alongside that will be slow-burn economic decline - which Brexiters will attribute to it not having been done properly.

Alternatively, she doesn’t get her deal through (for an explanation of the different scenarios of what happens then, see the summary by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform). That will essentially depend on whether MPs who would rather hold on to the deal for fear of something worse are outnumbered by those who hope that by refusing it they can get something better.

What they mean by something better is of course highly varied, hence the peculiar new temporary coalition between Ultras and remainers. If there are enough of them, they will create the political crisis in which the whole battle about what Brexit means and whether it should happen gets fought anew and with renewed bitterness – whether that takes the form of another referendum, an election, a leadership change or some combination of these. Alongside that will be an acute economic crisis.

So although the cliché of the moment is that Brexit is entering the endgame, unlike most clichés this one doesn’t have a kernel of truth. The reality is that, whatever happens now, Brexit is only at the end of the beginning.