Tuesday 10 July 2018

May's pain with no gain crisis leaves Brexit snookered

Towards the end of my previous post, I wrote that it was still perfectly possible that the Tory Party would implode into civil war over the Chequers proposal. Now it has. This has obviously always been on the cards throughout the Brexit process, and not simply because the party has been split for 30 years over the EU.

More, it reflects the structural paradox I have been writing about for months now: the irreconcilability of declaring that hard Brexit is the inviolable will of the people with the general political imperative of not following policies that do major damage to the country. This entails, as has been clear since the February 2017 White Paper, that Brexit must be done and yet must not be done: an impossibility.

May’s ill-judged decision that Brexit meant the hard Brexit of the Lancaster House speech (which may have been at the behest of her then advisors, but she, as PM, has to take the responsibility) meant she was always likely to have to dial back towards a softer Brexit. In the process, she gave those who would always have cried betrayal anyway a semi-legitimate reason to feel betrayed.

After all, she had promised them that hard Brexit was both deliverable and would be delivered. She could never quite bring herself to say it was desirable, of course, but that isn’t the reason she has diluted her stance. The reason is a combination of the realpolitik of what it would mean economically and of what the parliamentary arithmetic allows.

Hence the Chequers proposal and hence, to an extent, the resignations. I say to an extent because there is more to them than purist Brexit principle. Such principle may have been behind the resignations of Steve Baker and Chris Green (who he?), but Davis and Johnson are more complicated.

The resignations

Davis, it has been clear from the outset, was too vain, lazy and incompetent to do the job and was completely out of his depth (see Ian Dunt’s excoriating profile for more detail). He’s been looking for a chance to jump for a long time. Now he can claim that he was undermined, rather than having to accept that he failed to understand the most basic things about Brexit. It was he, amongst many other Brexiters, who claimed that “within minutes” of a vote to leave German car makers would be busy insisting on a great deal for Britain.  More charitably, it’s fair to say that the governmental machinery of DExEU vis a vis the Cabinet Office was never properly designed nor viable (it is surprising that May hasn’t taken this opportunity to address it).

Johnson, of course, has never had any principled attachment to Brexit. The issue for him is, obviously, just personal ambition and, I also think, the fact that he revels in making a drama just because he can. It’s the lazy politics of ego and entitlement. I doubt, by the way, that he will ever become PM so shop-soiled is his reputation, and my sense is that even Brexiters regard him with contempt. But he has his uses to them as a figurehead for the ‘betrayal’ narrative.

It is telling what that consists of. As per his resignation letter, it is that the “Brexit dream is dying through unnecessary self-doubt”. Note the complete absence of any concrete alternatives or practical plans. It’s all about dreams and beliefs. As with his ‘road to Brexit’ speech in February it shows that whilst he can campaign for Brexit he has not the glimmerings of an idea about, or any interest in, how to deliver it. That is singularly useless in the present circumstances.

Whatever the reasons, the resignations were triggered by May taking just a small step away from hard Brexit. This can be read as showing that the Brexiters were always on a hair trigger, ready to jump. This is an illustration of a point I’ve made before – the Brexiters are far more ready that the remain or soft Brexit ‘rebels’ to act forcibly and ruthlessly (witness the ‘meaningful vote’ climb down). It can also be read as indicative of how narrow is the tightrope that May must walk – although, again, note that she created a rod for her own back in her early embrace of the Ultras. She should have known that whatever they were given they would want more, so to offer them what they wanted and then take some of it away was always going to be a problem. Maybe she thought she could boil the frog. If so, it has jumped before the water has boiled.

May is taking the pain without making the gain

The crucial consequence of this is that May is now experiencing the ‘pain’ of resignations and party civil war without having got the ‘gain’ of a pragmatic, workable, soft Brexit policy. For the Chequers proposal is most certainly not workable for reasons pointed out it in one of my recent posts. In brief, the split of goods and services is a nonsense (and highly unlikely to be negotiable with the EU-27), and the role of the ECJ and the issue of freedom of movement of people would almost certainly need to soften further. As, indeed, the Brexiters suspect.

So Chequers now looks like a big mis-step. It would have been better to have got all the softening out of the way – in other words, to go full on to proposing soft Brexit – and get all the resignations and rebellions out of the way as well. Then May would have got the gain of something workable – and eminently acceptable to the EU – and paid the price. Instead, she’s just paid the price.

Further softening remains quite likely, but what then? Dominic Raab, for a start, would surely walk. Presumably in taking the job he has accepted Chequers, but it’s inconceivable (to me) that he would accept the next logical step of softening it further. How many Brexit Secretaries can be shed? And others – Fox, Leadsom, Mordaunt – might well go with him in this scenario, extending and deepening the crisis.

The Brexit that no one wants

The other main consequence of what has happened is that, rather extraordinarily, pretty much every one, regardless of where they are on the Brexit spectrum, is now unhappy. The hard Brexiters see it slipping away, the soft (EEA/EFTA) Brexiters are not getting their version of it, the remainers are still stuck with it, and those that might be called ‘pragmatists’, who just want some kind of workable solution, haven’t been offered it. Brexit in its nature is divisive, but it’s quite an achievement to have alienated every shade of opinion.

Worse than that, wherever people are on the spectrum, there’s no obvious route to achieving what they want. For various reasons – time, political numbers, party political structures – there are almost insuperable barriers to getting to hard Brexit, to soft Brexit or to remain. All of these outcomes are still possible, but each of them is currently snookered. That makes the possibility of an application to extend the Article 50 period slightly more likely, as David Allen Green argues in the FT today (£), but of course there are many barriers to that as well. Ultimately, it will not be until there is an even greater political crisis, which throws all the pieces into the air again, that one or more of the outcomes will become possible. But no one knows where the pieces would land and whether their preferred outcome would be the one that the new configuration would favour.

In the absence of the logjam being broken, of course, there will be an outcome simply by virtue of the Article 50 process: no deal. Which is, indeed, the outcome that some of the Ultras want. For almost everyone else this would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale: massive economic and social dislocation leading to goodness knows what political calamity. This now seems more likely than it ever has done before, simply because it is the default if all other outcomes are rendered impossible (and the prospect of it is what increases the chances of an extension to the Article 50 period).

We are not there yet, but we are getting close. Standing back from the detail of the domestic political drama it is simply extraordinary that just a couple of working months before the Withdrawal Agreement is meant to be ready for ratification Britain has an entirely new (and yet still unworkable) model of what Brexit looks like and a new person in charge of negotiating it (and one, moreover, who almost certainly doesn’t really agree with that model). Some of that might have been avoided. Most of it stems from having elevated to the status of the sacred ‘will of the people’ a narrow vote for something unspecified, which then became interpreted as something impossible. The end game is fast approaching.

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