Friday 18 May 2018

Time is running out for tactical games

The twists and turns of the Brexit ‘customs debate’ are becoming more and more difficult to make sense of. The latest version appears to be an idea that the UK would seek to extend the period in which the whole of the country – not just Northern Ireland – would remain within effectively the existing customs union for a limited period after the end of the anticipated (but still not definitely agreed) transition period in December 2020.

This would, supposedly, allow the ‘maximum facilitation’ technological solutions for an infrastructure-free border to be developed. Which in turn would, again supposedly, allow three political fixes to be pulled off: ending the current impasse within the Cabinet and the Tory backbenches; placating the DUP’s objection to an NI-only backstop; and meeting the EU’s requirement that a satisfactory resolution to the Irish border issue be reached by the June meeting of the European Council.

There are layers of complexity – not to say incoherence - in this which are hard to unpick. Most obviously, an open border cannot be achieved solely or even primarily by customs arrangements. It also requires regulatory alignment with the single market. Thus the new ‘solution’ is neither a viable long-term plan for the future relationship, nor is it an adequate backstop proposal. Additionally, Sam Lowe of CER has cogently argued that it conflates the long-term plan for the future with a backstop, and moreover that the “EU will not contemplate the backstop applying to the whole UK”.

I agree about the first point. The second I would express slightly differently in that it seems to me that if the UK proposed a whole-UK backstop (and if it included full regulatory alignment), which would by definition not be time-limited as the present proposals are, then it could be viable. In other words, the proposal would be that if all else fails (i.e. the backstop) then there would be soft Brexit. Of course I realise that that is not the current proposal, but it might well be the direction of travel and the stumbling blocks to it are a) permanence and b) regulatory alignment, rather than its being UK-wide per se.

If this is what the latest proposal morphs into then such a backstop would be likely to end up as the reality, simply because the UK could only avoid it by developing technologies which no serious commentator thinks are viable. This is consistent with the wider argument that ever since the phase 1 agreement the logic has been that a soft Brexit is inevitable (according to Simon Wren-Lewis, for example) or very likely (according to Ian Dunt, for example, if I read him correctly). Or, at least, that is the logic if a no deal Brexit is to be avoided.

It’s clearly for this reason that the Brexit Ultras are so suspicious about the government’s latest proposals. They can see the possibility of this direction of travel, and suspect that it is what May is nudging them towards. However, the proposals can equally well be seen as May’s attempt to forestall rebellions in the Commons by Tory remainers or soft Brexiters on a customs union. By presenting this supposed middle way – even though it is entirely inadequate for the reasons given above – they may believe, or be able to persuade themselves, that rebellion is unnecessary. On that reading, May is nudging the rebels towards accepting hard Brexit. Or perhaps it is both: a ploy to make each group think that, when the dust settles, they will be left with what they want (indeed, for now, that seems to be working).

Who knows which of these is the case? It’s doubtful whether Theresa May herself does. This Brexit government not only has no pilot, it has no navigator and no map. The entire approach appears to be based on getting through, day to day and week to week, without the government falling apart. There is no strategy, just a series of tactics. Thus the latest developments are not really developments at all, they are yet more of the endless, doomed attempts to deny the basic paradox I discussed in a recent post of enacting Brexit without the consequences of enacting Brexit. In that sense, the details of what the government is currently saying don’t really matter (and actually obscure the real issues and choices to be made).

It’s precisely this narrowly tactical approach to Brexit that has led to the current mess about the backstop option on the Irish border. This option, according to the Prime Minister and the government, is completely unacceptable. Yet that same Prime Minister and government agreed to it as part of the phase 1 agreement last December! Indeed they trumpeted that reaching the phase 1 agreement showed how misguided the critics of Brexit were.

Thus to avoid the immediate political embarrassment and difficulty of not being able to move to the phase 2 talks on the future relationship (even though they had no agreed plan for what they wanted this to be) the government signed up to something that they now call unacceptable. Indeed, the same approach has been in evidence ever since Article 50 was triggered at the time it was, and despite lack of preparation, simply to garner the political advantage of showing the government was ‘serious’ about Brexit.

Beneath this monocular focus on daily tactics lies a deeper and stranger Brexit pathology. The government seemed astounded to see what it had agreed in phase 1 written up as a binding legal text in the draft Withdrawal Agreement. That is the latest illustration of the way that Brexiters seem, somehow, to think that leaving the EU isn’t something with real legal and political consequences but just a kind of symbolic act. That it shouldn’t – and wouldn’t, if only the EU would stop playing ‘silly buggers’ – actually carry with it all the practical meanings of being a third country (I’ve developed this argument in more detail elsewhere). Within such a mentality, Brexit becomes a kind of game, mainly focussed – and, in this, there is much media encouragement – on domestic politics. Thus it hardly matters whether what is proposed and discussed has any degree of realism to it.

This understanding of Brexit as daily political tactics or as merely symbolic is heading – fast – towards a brick wall as the endgame nears (see Kirsty Hughes of SCER’s excellent summary of this). All that we have seen this week is another attempt to delay the point at which the process explodes into crisis. That crisis is inevitable – even though the precise trigger and the ultimate outcome are unpredictable – because the government still, after all these months, refuses to get real about what Brexit means.

It will matter a lot, though, what the trigger is. If it comes from the EU, perhaps in the June Council meeting, refusing to accept the latest incoherent plan then the Ultras will certainly use that to advance their (preferred) no deal walkout, with the public probably seeing it as the EU’s fault. That may be why the EU haven’t immediately dismissed it out of hand. If it comes from one or other flank of the Tory Party then the government is likely to fall, with the public probably seeing it as the Tories’ fault. It’s the prospect of the latter outcome which presumably explains both why key Commons votes are being delayed and why this latest customs non-proposal is being floated to try to avoid a showdown with either wing.

In effect, the government are playing a game of chicken with three trains – the EU, and the two wings of the Tory Party – or, more accurately, they are forcing our entire country to play such a game. Those trains are now hurtling at high speed towards us, and it hard to see how we can avoid being hit by one or more of them, possibly simultaneously.

It need hardly be said that nothing remotely like this was what voters were told Brexit would mean.

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