Monday 17 September 2018

If Michael Gove is right, we face a neverending Brexit

Michael Gove’s widely reported remark that the Chequers Proposal could be undone once Britain has left the EU with a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in place reflects a view that has been swirling around Brexit circles ever since that proposal was made. It is significant, though, for being the first time that a senior, pro-Brexit politician has stated it in such clear terms.

In one way, it is no more than a statement of an obvious fact. Wider public debate has often obscured the procedural reality that by definition Brexit was always going to have (at least) two stages. The first, Article 50, stage would, if successful, give rise to a binding agreement on withdrawal terms and a non-binding political declaration on the future, especially, trade relationship with which the Chequers Proposal is concerned. The period between the two would be one of transition, currently envisaged as lasting until the end of 2020.

Since the political declaration is non-binding, it follows inevitably that whatever it says may not be adhered to, with one reason being the scenario Gove outlines of a future British PM adopting a different approach.

It’s actually for this reason that Brexiters have often tried – and still try – to claim, unjustifiably, that the financial settlement for past obligations should be contingent on the future terms agreement. It’s also the reason that at the outset of the negotiations the government was keen to have as detailed an outline of future terms as possible, and was also so keen to move from the phase 1 talks on the WA to the phase 2 talks on the future terms (indeed, originally, an attempt was made to run these in parallel rather than in sequence, which was to have been the row of the summer of 2017 although it came to nothing).

Deferring what Brexit means - again

The reason things have changed is that, having got the phase 1 agreement completed in principle in December, the government could not agree what it wanted the future terms to be. Hence there has been virtually no progress at all on the phase 2 talks since then (and, instead, numerous arguments around the unpicking of what was agreed about the Irish border backstop in phase 1). Then we got Chequers – far too late for any substantive negotiations – which supposedly nailed down the government’s position but which significant numbers of Brexit Ultras won’t accept.

In this light, Gove’s suggestion can be seen as a way of deferring yet again this fundamental decision about what sort of relationship Britain should have with the EU. So even if the political declaration contains some version of the Chequers Proposal (and, if so, it will certainly be much modified from the present version) or for that matter, as seems quite likely, something much vaguer, all the battles and divisions which have hamstrung phase 2 will get deferred until the transition period. On this basis, the ERG Ultras might well support the deal in the knowledge they can re-open everything afterwards, whilst the generally rather reluctant potential Tory ‘remainer rebels’ could be persuaded that revolt is unnecessary.

The consequences of deferring the decision

It’s a plausible route to the government winning the ‘meaningful vote’ on the WA. And it might have the benefit of at least reducing the uncertainties over citizens’ rights. But it would also be a disaster for Britain, in a number of ways.

First, it would make an absolute mockery of parliamentary democracy. It makes the meaningful vote entirely meaningless by being a ‘choice’ between a catastrophic ‘no deal’ and a future scenario to which it is openly understood the British government has no commitment to at all. That isn’t even a choice between the unpalatable and the disastrous; it’s a choice between the disastrous and the unknown. It’s no choice at all. (In passing, it is pretty rich for the Ultras to now be objecting about the polarity that Theresa May is offering given that most of them objected to there being a ‘meaningful vote’ at all, on the grounds that this was a remainer trick, which would ‘tie the Prime Minister’s hands'. No such qualms now, apparently).

Second, it would do real damage to any belief that Britain is negotiating in good faith. That will certainly mean that the EU will ensure that the WA is absolutely watertight, since that is the binding part of the agreement. That was already in prospect, not least because of David Davis’ ill-judged remarks after the phase 1 agreement to the effect that Britain wasn’t bound even by that, the genuinely binding part of the agreement. Why regard Britain as trustworthy when it is now openly being said that the formally non-binding political declaration it signs up to can be jettisoned? Not so long ago it was being said that the government must not ‘reveal its negotiating hand’ to the EU; now the idea is to reveal that it has no intention of being bound by whatever it negotiates.

Third, it would prolong and exacerbate the very high levels of business uncertainty that have already been caused. There would not be even a rough sense of where terms of trade were heading, and everything would depend on yet another round of political infighting. Just as the Tory Party have failed so far to be able to agree on what they want future terms to be, there is absolutely no reason to expect that once we pass March 2019 they will miraculously come to a resolution. Inevitably, there will be just more trips around the loop of different Brexit models.

Which means that almost immediately a new no deal scenario will loom, this time for December 2020. Almost all trade experts agree that this, itself, is far too short a time to actually put together a trade deal (see, for example, today’s report from the Institute for Government). If much or most of it is taken up with the continuation of the endless Tory civil war on Europe it becomes an even more unrealistic timescale. This may mean (if there is scope for it in the WA) an extension of the transition period, or it may mean that December 2020 becomes the unpostponable cliff edge. So relocations, disinvestment and deferred investment will become the chronic condition of the British economy for the foreseeable future. The economic damage of Brexit is no longer a matter of predictions, it is already well underway as illustrated, for example, by the food industry.

Fourth, and for the same reasons, it means an interminable prolongation of all of the toxic debates which have proved so damaging and divisive for the country as whole: what Chris Johns in the Irish Times yesterday described as an “odd civil war”. These divisions, too, will become chronically embedded in our political culture (as will the governmental paralysis caused by lack of administrative bandwidth for anything other than Brexit).

In fact, the divisions would become worse. Those who are pro-Brexit will be even more fed up that nothing much really seems to have changed, and suspicious that they are being sold out. Meanwhile, what is now a clear, and likely to to grow, majority do not want Brexit at all and will be having it done to them against their wishes.

For the latter group, one important consequence of this scenario is that it will, of course, become impossible to argue for a People’s Vote with an option to remain in the EU: we would have left. Thus, no doubt, a movement would emerge to seek re-admission to the EU, but that would be a long and arduous process, at the end of which, at most, would be membership on worse terms than Britain currently has. Clearly it is this, in part, which might make the Brexit Ultras support any version of the WA: for them, it removes EU membership semi-permanently from the table.

The prospects for a neverending Brexit

It is obviously unknowable at the moment whether the argument Gove made will win over the ERG Ultras. Ironically, one reason for that is the way so many of them seem to be ignorant of quite basic facts about Brexit. That ignorance – which also leads them to facile or impossible proposals – along with a baked-in paranoia means that some may not comprehend the point that Gove is making.

Thus a detailed recent report on current ERG thinking quotes an anonymous ex-minister opining that May had done a ‘secret deal’ with Angela Merkel to “get Chequers over the line, which suits the EU down to the ground”. Clearly, that means at least one of the Ultras does not grasp that Chequers is about the future terms, not the withdrawal terms, and so the line will not be crossed in March 2019. Similarly, even if Gove’s argument holds sway with the ERG for now that may not survive the almost inevitable compromises on any version of Chequers that makes it into the political declaration even though these, too, could be disowned later.

The term ‘blind Brexit’ has recently entered the political lexicon to denote the scenario I’ve discussed here. In a way, that is misleading to the extent that, as noted, it was never going to be the case that we would know the full future terms at the time of exit. But there are degrees of blindness, and it is being used now because it seems likely that we won’t have more than the vaguest sense of what the terms might be. Or, worse, that any sense we do have of them from the political declaration will be immediately ripped up by a British government in thrall, as it has been for years, to a group of Brexit extremists who will neither accept any proposal made by others nor make any proposal of their own.

What that will create is not so much blind Brexit as ‘neverending’ Brexit. It is a prospect few, on any side of the argument, will relish.

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