Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Westminster whimper, and a Brussels bang?

So the much vaunted Tory rebellion on the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment ended not with a bang but a whimper. Those who held out – Allen, Clarke, Lee, Sandbach, Soubry and Wollaston – deserve very high praise but in the end, as outlined in my previous blog post, there were not enough of them who had the steel to stand firm. Unlike the Brexit Ultras, they seem to look for reasons not to rebel rather than being constantly on the lookout for opportunities to do so.

I received some criticism for that comment, as have others saying similar things, for giving insufficient weight the extraordinary level of pressure and outright bullying the potential rebels were subjected to. I certainly don’t underestimate that, and it is a mark of how toxic and vile political culture has been made by Brexit that bullying and death threats now characterise it. But my comment is not meant to be judgmental, just factual: whatever the reason, and however understandable it may be, as a matter of fact the rebels do not, in sufficient numbers, have the determination to rebel.

That may change, for example over possible amendments to the Trade Bill to insist on a customs union but I think this is unlikely for two reasons. First, because on the customs amendment to the Withdrawal Bill the rebels were bought off with the fudge of a ‘customs arrangement’, so why wouldn’t the same thing happen with the Trade Bill? Second because if, as seems to be the case, Grieve and others held off on the basis of the damage it would do to the government to be defeated on the meaningful vote amendment then that argument would be far stronger in relation to the Trade Bill customs amendment. For if that were carried it would rip apart a central strand of the government’s entire approach to Brexit in a way that would not have been true for the meaningful vote issue.

I don’t suppose, by the way, that the climb down will win the putative rebels any great respect or gratitude from the Ultras for having ultimately put party loyalty first, nor do I imagine that those Ultras will take it as an example of how they, too, should be willing to compromise in a spirit of unity. Rather, it will just confirm their sense that they, rather than the rebels, have the ruthlessness to hold fast to what they want and that they will continue to get it.

However, one aspect of Wednesday’s vote that I have not seen commented on is that it may end up backfiring rather badly on the Ultras. Take a step back from the immediate drama, and what happened at that vote was truly bizarre. For who would ever imagine that a legislative body when asked - about any issue, let alone one of such gravity as Brexit – whether it would like a meaningful vote would give the answer ‘no, thanks’? It’s an extraordinary idea that any group of lawmakers would choose to neuter itself to executive power in this way. But this is what our MPs have done.

Given that this is the case, it applies quite as much to the Ultras who cheered it on as to the rebels who went along with it. So if it turns out that the government negotiates a form of Brexit that the Ultras find objectionable then they will find, to their chagrin, that they have engineered a situation in which it is they who will have to take it or leave it.

There are many straws in the wind that something like this is going to unfold. Sam Coates of The Times argued last weekend that the ludicrous ploy (which has since rather backfired) of claiming a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS was a sop to the Brexiters in preparation for the government making numerous concessions on its red lines in the next few weeks. That seems plausible in that unless the ECJ red line, in particular, is substantially softened, if not abandoned, the prospects of meaningful progress on security cooperation and participation in many EU programmes is highly unlikely.

It is a point that May has half-conceded before, both in her Munich speech on security, but also in relation to the phase 1 agreement on citizens’ rights. It was always crazy to have drawn that line so firmly anyway, the more so when accompanied by the strategy – if it can be graced with the name – of seeking to opt back in to as much of the EU as possible after Brexit. It is really the key stumbling block to creating some kind of Association Agreement with the EU which many, including most recently the eminent barrister and Brexit commentator George Peretz QC, see as a more logical aim than that of a Free Trade Agreement. If May’s ‘deep and special partnership’ is to mean anything, it entails something akin to the ‘Ukraine model’, but that is unachievable without some role, even if backdoor, for the ECJ or, conceivably, some new kind of UK-EU court with the ECJ as the ultimate arbiter.

Another such straw in the wind can be found in Pippa Crerar’s report in today’s Guardian to the effect that the government’s “direction of travel” is to stay in a single market for goods trade. Such an idea seems to be a version of what is sometimes called the ‘Jersey model’, and it is not without substantial difficulties to my mind, at least. Principal of these is that it is not always possible to separate goods and services in any neat way (e.g. maintenance contracts associated with goods).

One irony of such a model is that it would finally make use of the old Brexiter saw about the advantages of the UK trade deficit with the EU, since Britain does indeed have a deficit in goods trade; but by the same token it would have a chilling effect on services trade, where Britain runs a large surplus with the EU. But, in any case, the point for present purposes is that if this is indeed the direction of travel it will entail concessions both on the ECJ and also, most likely, freedom of movement of people.

So that, too, would enrage the Brexiters whose only comfort would be that independent trade deals – in services only – would become possible. That would be mainly symbolic, of course – almost no free trade agreements touch deeply on services, primarily because to do so entails the kind of common regulatory framework that Brexiters regard as incompatible with (what they mean by) sovereignty. Then again, the entire notion of an independent trade policy is primarily symbolic anyway, since in economic terms British trade is served much better by single market membership and access to EU-brokered trade deals.

None of this should remotely be taken to imply that some version of either the Jersey or the Ukraine models would in my view be a good thing for Britain. Both of them, like any other form of Brexit, are damaging to Britain and sub-optimal (economically, politically and culturally) compared to remaining in the EU. But given that Britain seems determined to make itself a worse place in all these respects such models are – by a long way – better than the ‘no deal’ catastrophe that remains a very real possibility.

Rather, my point is that if one or other (or another) of these kinds of compromises with May’s ill-judged red lines is in prospect it will put the Ultras on the wrong side of the decision to reject a meaningful vote. This isn’t to posit May as some Machiavellian genius, playing a cunning long game to thwart the Ultras. As Rafael Behr argued this week in a very acute profile of May’s leadership, she is bereft of pretty much any of the leadership skills which Brexit demands of her. And as I have said myself in the past, she appears totally lacking in any strategic thinking, rather than the day-to-day tactics of keeping her government going and her party from completely imploding.

The window of time such a purely tactical approach is rapidly closing now. With the latest Westminster games now over, talks with the EU resume in earnest in the run up to the EUCO meeting in a week’s time. As the ever-excellent Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, argued last Sunday “the view from Brussels and Dublin is that Westminster is quite simply in a parallel universe”, quoting a senior EU official to the effect that a “cataclysmic” outcome is a conceivable prospect. So events in Westminster may have ended with a whimper, but just around the corner there may be a big bang to come in Brussels.

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