Wednesday 18 July 2018

This theatre of the absurd is making another referendum more likely

In the history of political speeches, there can be few which provoke such ironic, if painful, laughter as David Cameron’s first address as leader to the Conservative Party Conference in 2006. Then, he warned his party of the dangers of “banging on about Europe”. Little over a decade later, not least because of decisions that Cameron himself took, the entire country has been sucked into the vortex of what is no less than a political civil war within the party being played out daily in the House of Commons. And it is dragging the entire country to the brink of an unprecedented disaster.

The theatre of the absurd

It is difficult to keep up with unfolding events, which have in any case been widely discussed elsewhere. But it is worth pondering their increasing absurdity. First the government produced a White Paper with a plan for Brexit - which few think could be agreed with the EU, and everyone knew would be anathema to the Ultras - but then supported ERG amendments to the Customs Bill which directly, if not fatally, undermine it.

This provoked ‘remainer rebels’ to oppose those amendments precisely on the grounds that they undermine the government’s plan – one of them actually resigning from it to do so, prompting wags to point out that it may be the first case of a member of the government resigning in order to show support for government policy. The rebels then tabled amendments to the Trade Bill which are broadly in line with the thrust of the White Paper, only to lose on the crucial one because the government applied thumbscrews to block it. In which they might not have succeeded had it not been for a few Labour MPs voting with the most antediluvian elements of the Tory Party, thus preventing, conceivably (at least according to the Tory Whips), the collapse of the government and an election which, again conceivably according to the Tory Whips, Labour might win.

So we now have an open, furious conflict between at least three factions – government, ERG, and remainer rebels – the first of which has an unworkable policy, the second of which has no policy, and the third of which has a policy which it is too scared to actually mention. Brexit, which started as a kind of Ealing comedy, along the lines of Passport to Pimlico, has become the theatre of the absurd, along the lines of Marat/Sade. Unfortunately we, who might otherwise be the audience to this spectacle, have been forced to become participants in this weird psychodrama, strapped unwillingly to it like hostages in a plane taken over by criminally insane.

The changing world order

Meanwhile, as Donald Trump’s various visits this week have underscored, the tectonic plates of the world order are shifting at pace. All the relationships within which Britain has been embedded for two generations are being reconfigured. The ‘special relationship’ may have been – apart from intelligence cooperation – a polite fiction for many decades now. But this is the first time that a US President has treated the UK, and our Prime Minister, with open contempt, sneered at NATO, and cosied up to a country likely to have been responsible for using biological weapons to commit murder on British soil (something our closest ally apparently felt no need to mention to his new chum). Brexiters who swoon at the thought of 'regaining our seat on the WTO' might also want to ponder Trump's attitude to that body.

So Brexit now looks as geo-politically reckless as it is economically reckless. There is a serious and growing case against Brexit on national security grounds as well as economic ones. And the economic tectonic plates are shifting, too. Who, observing the new EU-Japan deal, would give much chance for the future of the UK car industry? For that matter, who, observing the febrile British political scene, would think that this made the UK a better rather than a worse place to invest in?

Future scenarios

It remains the case that all kinds of future scenarios are now possible, and these are set out with great clarity in an excellent analysis by Kirsty Hughes of the Scottish Centre for European Relations on the Federal Trust site. But as Federal Trust’s Director, Brendan Donnelly, argues “a brutal and chaotic Brexit in March is becoming more likely”. This is so not least because, as one of the ERG amendments suggests, the Ultras are shaping up to make it impossible for the government to agree the backstop arrangements for the Irish border which, without any doubt whatsoever, will be the precondition of any Withdrawal Agreement and, therefore, any transition period (and, don't forget, was signed up to by the UK government in the phase 1 agreement).

It’s notable that the Ultras have always denied – and Boris Johnson did the same thing in his predictably fact-free resignation speech – that the Irish border issue is a real one, regarding it instead as having been confected by Brussels or by Dublin. That is manifest nonsense: as soon as the UK decided to leave both the single market and a customs union it had to be an issue. Not least because of the Brexiter desire to strike independent trade deals with potentially different tariffs and regulatory standards from the EU. If there were not to be such differences, what would be the point of making such deals? If there are to be such differences, how could they be policed without policing borders? Neither the EU nor the UK - nor for that matter the WTO – could allow such borders to be ignored.

So we are heading in the direction of no deal, and therefore no transition period. That would mean major disruption to travel and to trade including, most immediately and most damagingly, to food imports, and much more besides. Leading Brexiters – David Davis and Bernard Jenkin being examples this week – play this down as, of course, more Project Fear and suggest that, in any case, it would be a consequence of EU decisions and, by implication, punishment. Again, that is manifest nonsense. It would flow directly from the decisions of the UK government and, if it does, it will happen in just eight months’ time.

Another referendum is becoming more likely

It is possible, I suppose, that the government could go ahead and make a deal anyway, but in practical political terms I am not sure that any government could survive doing so without parliamentary approval (the defeat of the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment earlier this year notwithstanding). In fact, for what it is worth, I don’t think that things will get to that point. If no deal comes more closely into view the political crisis would almost certainly result in a further referendum. If the House of Commons as currently constituted could not agree on the necessary legislation for that, then there would be an election. The routes to all this are unclear – and would almost certainly, just because of the time frames involved, entail getting EU-27 agreement to extend the Article 50 period. In the context of a crisis of this sort, such agreement is not inconceivable for all the difficulties (EU Parliamentary elections, EU budget cycle) it would create.

I’m very well aware of all the problems with and arguments against another referendum – the timing, the question, the franchise, and many other things – and I’ve discussed these before. But it can’t be stressed enough that there is no course of action or scenario available now which does not have huge problems. The one thing which another referendum does have going for it is that it if it yielded a vote to remain in the EU (which is very far from certain) it is the only way such a scenario would have any hope of being regarded as legitimate.

At all events, it looks a more likely possibility than a week ago now that for the first time (I think) a senior Tory MP has proposed it, with the result that it is now being reported as, at least, a possibility by the BBC. Moreover, with the Vote Leave campaign now having been fined by the Electoral Commission for financial irregularities and referred to the police, not to mention growing unease about Russian interference, a public sense that the original vote was flawed can only grow. I think it is a racing certainty that the Labour Party will come out in favour of another referendum, probably very soon, meaning probably this Autumn. The logic of internal party management and of party politics itself points ineluctably in that direction, and if it happens it would be a game changer.

A crisis rooted in lies

It is at all times vital to recall – as, surely, at least some leave voters are – that none of what is happening is remotely like what was promised by the Vote Leave campaign. Then, it would all be quick and easy: the fifth largest economy in the world, German car makers, they need us more than we need them. It was promised that we would be “part of a free trade zone stretching from Iceland to the Russian border”. It was promised that Brexit had no implications for the Irish border. It was even promised that the negotiations would be undertaken before the Article 50 process started.

It was all lies. And from those lies the present, parlous situation – fast turning into a national crisis – has followed.

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