Thursday, 20 July 2017

Could the Brexiters be the best hope for avoiding Brexit?

That the latest round of Brexit talks did not yield any particular resolutions is in no way surprising and no one, including Brexiters, would have expected otherwise. But the undercurrent of talk around this week’s meetings is alarming. The BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, amongst others, reports a sense that the British government has not agreed on what it wants, what it might compromise on, and is generally inadequately prepared for the negotiations. Instead, the UK seems to still be working at the level of meaningless generalities such as seeking “frictionless access” to the single market, something incompatible with the government’s stated policy of leaving the single market and customs union. That this is so was implicit in the end of meeting press conference, with Michel Barnier calling repeatedly greater clarity from the UK on its aims.

A significant sidelight on this was shed by former EU trade negotiator Miriam Gonzalez Durantez in a very interesting Guardian article. She argues that “the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government” are in part attributable to the leading advisory role played by the Legatum Institute think tank, the shortcomings of which she forensically dissects. Be that as it may, the core issue is that which is being played out daily in leaks and briefings, namely that the government is hopelessly divided on Brexit. It has lost its power to shock, but it is still worth remembering that they chose, of their own volition, to trigger Article 50 without having a settled view on what they wanted and how to go about it. It must rank as one of the most irresponsible acts by any government in living memory.

What is also worth recalling is that for all that the media misleadingly refer to the splits within the government as being between soft and hard Brexit they are nothing of the sort. The principle fault line is between those such as Philip Hammond, and perhaps David Davis, who want to seek a long transitional agreement and those such as Liam Fox, and perhaps Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who do not. Perhaps within that there are other differences, such as a willingness or not to entertain a ‘no deal’ Brexit or to entertain some degree of ECJ jurisdiction. Nevertheless, this is not soft versus hard Brexit, it is hard versus kamikaze Brexit. Hammond’s position may be marginally more responsible, but the margin is fine.

The kamikaze tendency were out in force today, with Michael Gove refusing to endorse a government position paper which would allow the ECJ a role even in pending cases. A more high profile intervention came from Liam Fox which included the less than overwhelming claim that Britain could “survive” without an exit deal, and the less than plausible claim that a trade deal with the EU would be the easiest in history. That latter argument recycles one that Brexiters like Nigel Lawson used to make before the Referendum (Lawson has since said that he thinks there will not be trade deal) based on the fact that the UK already has zero tariffs and regulatory harmonization, the things that usually make trade deals slow. Thus, they argue, this one can be quick. But that ignores the fact that to make these arrangements ongoing entails membership of the single market and customs union which is precisely what the Brexiters don’t want. In particular, regulatory harmonization is not a one-off event but an ongoing process of evolution which is ultimately overseen by the ECJ. But Brexiters don’t accept ECJ jurisdiction. So if it was a normal trade deal, which sought to make trade closer, it would indeed be quick. But it is not a normal trade deal, because – uniquely in modern economic history - it seeks to make trade less close.

As this pantomime goes on, the costs of Brexit in any form are becoming ever clearer – with, for example, banks already preparing to move thousands of jobs out of the UK – and those of a kamikaze Brexit particularly so – with, for example, serious threats to food supplies and air travel. At the same time, Britain’s reputation in the world is already being eviscerated, as detailed in a very thoughtful piece by Jonathan Lis, Deputy Director of British Influence, on the indispensable politics.co.uk site. One particularly interesting part of that analysis is discussion of the idea that the UK could somehow retain membership of various EU foreign policy, defence and security bodies after Brexit. This is of course, as Lis explains, completely unrealistic but all of a piece with other ideas about, for example, Euratom or the European Medicine Agency (EMA). As it becomes clearer what Brexit actually means in practice, so the UK tries to imagine that it can somehow avoid the damage by special arrangements. But one by one these fantasies are being exposed. For example, whereas David Davis airily opined that the EMA – which matters both in its own right and in its role in the strategically vital pharma industry and bio-medical research complex in the UK – might stay in Britain after Brexit that was simply brushed aside by the EU. The EMA will go.

There is therefore now a polarity amongst Brexiters (and sometimes within them). Sometimes they continue to cling to Pollyannaish fantasies of ‘having our cake and eating it’, whether as regards trade or non-trade issues. Sometimes they say that none of it matters, and that the cake can be hurled on the floor and trampled underfoot. And of course the one pole easily morphs into the other. When their fantasies are exposed as fantasies they stamp their feet like spoiled adolescents and say they don’t care.

All of this is both depressing and predictable to committed remainers. But I think its real importance lies in how it gets received by less committed remainers – the kind of remain voters who might say that whilst they did not vote for Brexit they now think we should get on with it – and less committed leavers – the kind of leave voters who accepted the Brexiter claim that leaving would be quick, easy and advantageous.

For these groups – and taken together they must be quite sizeable, perhaps half of the vote on each side – what is unfolding is likely to be increasingly alarming. On the one hand, it is all clearly proving to be far more complicated and protracted than they were led to expect. On the other hand, they are not like the Brexiter Jacobins for whom nothing matters so much as the purity of the flame. So they are likely to begin to see Brexiters as at best completely incompetent and at worst slightly mad.

From this perspective, for all that it will be a white-knuckle ride, committed remainers might have as their best hope that the government continue to display division and incompetence and bring Britain to the edge of disaster. If the relatively sensible and realistic voices of, for example, Hammond hold sway then it is less likely that Brexit will be discredited in itself, and more likely that its failures will be attributed to EU ‘punishment’. By the same token, if the kamikaze Brexiters are given their head and get to the point of disaster they will be less able in future years to nurture fantasies of betrayal (or, at least, those fantasies will have little traction outside their own fetid circle).

Of course this is very high risk stuff, not just for remainers but more importantly for the whole country. Precisely because it means going right to the brink of disaster in order to avoid disaster, it inevitably means damage. The jobs and investment lost, the companies relocating, the skilled workers leaving, the shredding of national reputation will all have long-term negative effects. But, against that, we might just get out of the even worse precipice that the Brexiters want to push us over. If this seems an unappealing set of options, that’s what the referendum campaign and its aftermath have left us with.

In this context, the Labour party stance – although I have been, and am, highly critical of it – might just possibly pay dividends. It is just sufficiently ambiguous and possibly sufficiently plastic that as the Tory Brexiters drive us towards what a majority of the public recognize as folly, Labour could, without too much pain, ride that wave of opinion, topple the government and pull back from Brexit. Alternatively, the idea that has been floating around since the referendum of a new centrist party emerging and taking power might come true. At all events, the more that Brexiters flail around incompetently, the more their mendacious predictions fail, the more extreme they become and the more the slim result of the referendum disappears into the past then the more fragile Brexit becomes. Very few people voted for the Brexit that is emerging; fewer still for the kamikaze Brexit some Brexiters dream of.

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