Thursday 4 October 2018

Conference without Brexit

In the next few months, starting in the next few days, a series of decisions are going to be made which will shape Britain’s future for the next few decades. Yet you would hardly have thought that from the Conservative – or for that matter the Labour – conference. For, rather like the 2017 General Election, whilst Brexit dominated the event almost nothing of substance was actually said about it. In particular, no compelling, strategic reason was given for why it’s being done, why it’s a good thing to do, and what Britain will look like as a result.

Tactics without strategy

That’s partly because of Theresa May’s familiar preference for the tactical rather than the strategic. It’s just a matter of ‘getting through’ the next few days, in the case of the conference, without disaster. Apart from vague talk about the country’s best days being ahead of it, for May the purpose of the exercise seems to be simply ‘delivering what the people voted for’, which is really only to say that the purpose of Brexit is Brexit rather than saying it has anything to commend it. It’s rather like the way soldiers used to sing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, ‘we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here’.  The only time the Prime Minister has ever talked in strategic terms about Brexit was in her Florence speech – and that, as I remarked at the time, sounded far more like a case for joining the EU than for leaving it.

Her defenders might say that the promise to end freedom of movement was one of the prizes she held up. But for many voters – including many Conservative voters – that is an announcement of a right they will lose, not a benefit they will gain. In any case, the key strategic demographic challenge facing Britain isn’t immigration, it’s our ageing population, with all its economic and cultural implications. About that neither May – nor, to be fair, any other leading politician – has much to say at all.

As for ending austerity, there’s no form of Brexit that will make that more likely and research from the Centre for European Reform published this week showed that even before Brexit has occurred it is costing the public finances £26 billion per annum. That might have been in Philip Hammond’s mind when, in one of the few pragmatic comments about Brexit, he reminded his colleagues that geography could not be bucked when it comes to trade and that this made the economic relationship with the EU of paramount importance. An argument for damage limitation, not for Brexit.

Those looking for something more ebullient might have listened to Liam Fox setting out the stall for global trade post-Brexit. Within it, he highlighted Mexico, South Korea and Canada as three countries to be singled out for especially intensive effort to secure trade deals. But this was just another argument for damage limitation since Britain already has, via the EU, comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with these countries. So, even assuming these could be replicated – something highly questionable according to analysis by LSE experts of, for example, the South Korea case – all that is promised is that at some unspecified point in the future we might undo the damage done to trade with those countries by Brexit.

Power without responsibility

Of course it is precisely the failure by May and others to provide a compelling, positive narrative for Brexit that Boris Johnson rails against. But for all the adulation he received at the conference for his speech he, too, only articulates this narrative in the vaguest of terms about future greatness. For all his pretensions, it’s actually a remarkably thin vision, which is perhaps not noticed given the more obvious fact that it's even thinner on the practicalities of how to achieve it. If May eschews strategy for tactics, Johnson does so in favour of campaigning.

What he is campaigning for now (apart from his own ever-present ambitions) is for the Ultras to vote down any deal that the government strike with the EU; to ‘chuck Chequers’ or anything like it. The most significant part of his speech was to encourage them to ignore Michael Gove’s ‘get over the line and then change direction’ message. But Johnson seems to have no idea as to what would actually happen if his version of events plays out. So his is not a strategy but a kind of anarchy. Often with Johnson there is the sense that what drives him is the thrill of being able to wreck things just to see what happens. As with many bullies, the ultimate answer to why he does what he does is ‘because I can’.

Victory without pleasure

In Johnson’s case, his flip of a coin decision to campaign for Brexit has contributed a great deal to the polarisation that has followed. Another of May’s speech lines was on the need for “a politics that unites us not divides us”. It is too late for that, not least because of the way that she has chosen to interpret the referendum vote. But even if it is now her sincere desire that message has not reached parts of her party. In a fringe meeting entitled ‘Brexit means Brexit’, MPs, former ministers and other members held what sounds almost like a faith rally in which the name of Olly Robbins, the Civil Servant leading the Brexit process, was repeatedly booed, a list of European treaties was read out and booed, and remainers were traduced as traitors.

These are, supposedly, responsible politicians – some of the them senior figures in their party. What’s even more striking, though, is that this is how they behave having won the Brexit vote. You might expect from them, at least, much excited talk of the wonderful prospects awaiting us, rather than so graceless a display. But Brexiters have always been happiest when denouncing their enemies. Indeed much of the story of what has happened since 2016 is captured by the way that they would have been much happier had they lost the vote.

In some perverse way, secret even from themselves, their unacknowledged dream may be that those at another fringe meeting at the conference, calling for a second referendum, are successful. For this would return Brexiters to the comfort zone of protest. May in her speech warned that those who pursue their own visions of a pure Brexit may end up with no Brexit. What she meant was that if they follow Johnson’s call to vote down any deal that she strikes then what could follow, at least in one permutation of events, is just that. Maybe they will care less than she thinks.

The other way May sought to counter Johnson’s call to ‘chuck Chequers’ was to simply not mention Chequers at all and instead to just talk vaguely of a ‘trade deal’. That seemed to be enough to persuade some Brexiters, such as Iain Duncan Smith in a Channel 4 news interview, that she had come round to a Canada (or ’super-Canada’) model. Given that Chequers, or any future trade terms, will be subject only to a political declaration that might suggest that we will see the Withdrawal Agreement go through, perhaps with a fudged formulation about the Irish border, with only the vaguest of statements about future terms, allowing all sides to think it means what they want.

Brexit without end

If – and it’s a big if – that is what happens, it will be both an irony and a tragedy that the long-term strategic future of the country will be set, first, by a referendum in which the meaning of Brexit was not specified and, then, by a parliamentary vote on an equally unclear agreement. It will also come as a desperate and astonishing disappointment to those who ‘just want to get on with it’ that the meaning of Brexit continues to be a matter of both dispute and continuing negotiation for years to come.

For in such a scenario, within moments of the Withdrawal Agreement being ratified – which, something to which little British attention has been paid, will also require approval by the European Council and the Parliament – all the talk of different models, no deal, extending transition, and cliff edges will resume. And with it the on-going haemorrhage of companies and investment.

In other words, even if having ‘got through’ the conference, May’s government find the tactics to ‘get through’ the vote, there will still be no meaningful Brexit strategy. That will be a consequence of a governing party which, even now, is unable to decide what Brexit means or to explain why Britain is doing it.

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