Monday 23 July 2018

A dangerous void where government should be

It would be a silly season story, but Brexit is now a year round silly story so when Dominic Raab pronounced that the UK might withhold paying its outstanding debts to the EU if there was no trade deal agreement it has to be taken seriously. Raab, bear in mind, is a hardcore Brexiter who has just been made Brexit Secretary and this was one of his first public statements in the role.

Raab’s threat and the phase 1 agreement

The folly of it can hardly be overstated. This is a payment that Britain has already undertaken, in the phase 1 agreement, to make. Many commentators are pointing out that the Article 50 talks are sequenced, with phase 2 being about trade and the phase 1 agreement is not contingent on the second phase. But there is more to it than this. The Article 50 process will not and cannot yield a trade deal. It can yield a broad agreement about a future trade deal but that deal itself will take much longer and would be completed (if at all) under a different process.

Thus Raab’s threat is, in a sense, meaningless. But that does not mean it will have no effect. Its effect is to further undermine trust, just when it is most needed. Just as his predecessor David Davis’s airy dismissal of the phase 1 agreement on the Irish border backstop made it vital to the EU to nail that down in a legal text in the Withdrawal Agreement, so will Raab’s statement strengthen the case to make the agreement on the payment watertight.

After all, this payment will not be made in one lump sum but over many years into the future. It is absurd to think that the EU would leave any wriggle room on it, especially with all the noises off from the Ultras that, once over the March 2019 line, anything agreed is up for grabs again. Raab’s threat is all of a piece with this, and takes us back to the very early days after the Referendum when Brexiters were denying that any payment at all needed to be made, and that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for the money owed. It is a posture which damages not just negotiations with the EU but to Britain’s more general credibility as a reliable negotiating partner. And trust matters in international negotiations.

It’s worth recalling how the phase 1 agreement came about. At the time, the government were desperate for it to happen both in order to show progress and to indicate to businesses and individuals that there could be a transition period. It was for this reason that it agreed not just the financial settlement, but provisions for citizens’ rights and for the Northern Ireland backstop. Subsequently, ministers crowed that they had defied the nay-sayers who doubted a phase 1 deal was possible. Now, they have all but disowned what they agreed to.

Brexiter anger and aggression

This latest episode is illustrative of the entire way that Brexiters and the government have approached the process. Apart from some generous and emollient comments from Theresa May, especially in the Florence speech, the tone has been unrelentingly sour, grudging and, often, aggressive and hectoring; the ubiquitous references to the Brexit ‘war cabinet’ being one example. As I’ve remarked before, Brexiters often act as if the EU were forcing Britain to leave.

The irony is that Brexiters urge remainers to embrace the positive, even glorious, opportunities that they claim Brexit brings. Imagine if they had approached the exit process in that way. Then, it would have been open and generous-minded. We are entering a great and prosperous future: a few billion over many years to settle our liabilities is nothing by comparison. An immediate, unilateral guarantee to EU citizens would be no problem. A long-tapered role for the ECJ in relation to those citizens would be a minor matter. What can such trivialities matter now that we rejoice in being free! At the same time, a realistic proposal for the future could have been proposed, which either did not begin from rigid red lines or which accepted the implications of those red lines for what could be achieved.

But of course nothing remotely like that has happened. That is partly because the Brexit Ultras are so suffused with hatred of the EU that it has permeated the entire approach to leaving. Talks had barely started before some Ultras were calling for Britain to walk out of them. It’s also because of their anger at finding that – as they were warned – there was never going to be an agreement to allow Britain to effectively stay in the single market but without budget payments, ECJ and freedom of movement. Indeed it is that which has meant that although phase 1 was concluded last December, nothing has really happened since because the government still can’t seem to understand it.

So, now, the Brexiters are ramping up the anger levels and talking in ever wilder terms about leaving without any deal at all. This takes us from the realm of silliness to that of real danger. Apart from the many economic calamities, we now have a senior business leader talking of the possibility of civil disorder (£), and level-headed legal experts discussing as a genuine prospect the use of government emergency powers. This is a million miles from what leave campaigners told voters that Brexit would be like which makes a mockery of their perpetual, robotic grinding out of the absurd line that whatever happens now is the sacred and unchallengeable ‘will of the people’.

A void where government should be

A responsible government would not have allowed things to get to this point. But it is no exaggeration to say that, as regards Brexit policy, Britain doesn’t actually have a functioning government. It seems to be the omnipresent Rees-Mogg more than the cabinet which is determining that policy, to the extent that it is not even clear any more whether the Chequers’ proposal – hopeless as it is – is actually the government’s current negotiating position or not. Likewise with Raab’s threat: is this now government policy? Or is he speaking for himself? No one knows.

Similarly, a responsible government would have tried to lead and shape public discourse about the EU which has long been degraded, in the last couple of years been toxic, and is now in danger of becoming completely unhinged. Having refused to disown the tabloid assault on ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs’, the government itself now stands accused of ‘treachery’.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing EU punishment narrative is given succour not just by the out-and-out headbangers but by the new Foreign Secretary. His message that the British public would blame the EU for a no deal Brexit was only a diplomatic version of what in the social media swamp re-appears as undiluted hatred. A better and more leaderly message would have been to the British people, explaining why the punishment narrative is misplaced. But all roads lead back to the Tory Party’s civil war, and for Hunt (a remainer turned Breliever, who may well harbour leadership ambitions) to have done so would be to be open to attack for the heresy of what are now being putridly called 'remainer tendencies'.

The highly respected Brexit commentator, David Allen Green, wrote today about the need for those expressing alarm about the possibility of no deal to be calm (though not complacent) and gave several sound reasons for this. That is no doubt good advice, and could be extended across the spectrum to those ramping up the pressure for there to be no deal as well as those fearing it. But, again, it is really only the government which can fill the void here, by providing the calm leadership to do so, and that is not possible when there is a void at the heart of where government should be.

The summer may provide a breathing space for everyone, but once the silly season is over the government need to get serious. This farce could very soon turn into a tragedy. Just today, a reputable British newspaper, The Times, carried an opinion piece lauding the virtues of autocratic leadership over democracy. A straw in the wind, perhaps, of the kind of politics that the combination of Brexit chaos and Brexit McCarthyism could take us to.

We’ve seen that movie, and it doesn’t end at all well.

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