Thursday, 20 June 2019

Tantric Brexit

It is now three years since the UK embarked on its extraordinary act of self-immolation. We have already seen the early consequences in terms of lost economic growth, business damage, international reputation, political toxicity and some of the human cost, especially to the EU-27 nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU-27 who are still, shamefully, left in limbo.  There’s much more to come.

This time last year I wrote an outline of how we got into this mess, most of which still stands and I won’t repeat it here. Since then, much has happened. Most obviously, another year has passed. That is not a trite observation, because ever since the invocation of Article 50 the passage and press of time has been the defining reality of Brexit.

Equally obviously, Britain has not left the EU, with the deadline now twice extended. That too is not a trite observation, given both the Brexiter promises of how easy leaving would be – remember Boris Johnson, in December 2016, saying that 18 months would be “absolutely ample” for a “great deal” -  and Theresa May’s adamantine insistence that 29 March 2019 would, incontrovertibly, be Brexit day.

The clock is still ticking, which continues to matter and is soon going to be what matters most again. The current hiatus of the leadership contest perhaps makes politics seem more normal than it is. For although such contests are not an everyday event they do have a familiar shape, allowing the media to obsess about the odds of the ‘runners and riders’ and to revel in the skulduggery of the candidates’ tactics.

Normality masks crisis

That apparent normality obscures the extent to which Britain is in a very deep crisis, completely scrambled by Brexit. That is doubly unfortunate because apart from being misleading it is also a missed opportunity. Arguably, for all that the contest is a squandering of the Article 50 extension, it could, just conceivably, have been a chance to finally begin to get real about what Brexit means. When Rory Stewart, the only candidate for the leadership who even partially tried to do this, was knocked out earlier this week any such realism departed.

Stewart’s realism was only partial in that, in effect, he was seeking to resurrect May’s deal without properly addressing how that would get through parliament in the absence of another election or another referendum. But at least he was raising the important point that the idea of a substantive renegotiation of the Irish backstop is a fantasy, as well as important questions about what no-deal Brexit actually means in practice.

With him gone, and the candidates now whittled down to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, even that small sliver of sense has departed. Their Brexit policies are not remotely realistic and differ only in that Johnson probably (though he has left himself the tiniest piece of wriggle room [£]) wants to leave the EU on 31 October come what may, whereas Hunt would be willing to countenance a short delay. Even that is enough to enrage the most extreme Brexiters, as Michael Gove found out on a radio phone-in today, when a caller (responding to his analogy for such a delay) said she would rather rip out her new kitchen, for want of the hob being delivered, than wait an extra couple of days.

But even if Hunt were to take the hardest of lines he would, in the new McCarthyism of Brexit, be forever damned for having once been a remainer. His ill-judged and distasteful ‘Soviet Union’ jibe at last year’s party conference did as little for his reputation amongst Brexiters as it did for his reputation full stop. Unless Johnson commits some massive gaffe – not impossible, by any means – Hunt has virtually no chance of being chosen by the Tory Party membership.

For a poll this week of that membership showed just how extreme a body it has become, with a majority willing to accept Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK, significant damage to the economy, and even their party being destroyed so long as Brexit is delivered – and 46% of whom would be happy if Nigel Farage became their leader. There’s a need for caution in interpreting this – such responses could just be a way of signalling strength of feeling about Brexit rather than the actuality of what those responding would accept – but, even so, it is remarkable.

The revolution continues to devour its children

But what is actually even more remarkable is the fact that the state of the Tory Party precludes Hunt (or for that matter Stewart, Javid and Hancock, had they made it this far) becoming its leader. For, recall, even the ‘softest’ of them, Stewart, advocates a deal in which the UK leaves the single market and customs union without further negotiation (whilst the others, including Hunt, seek re-negotiation with no deal as a possibility).

At the time of the Referendum Stewart’s would have been described as a hard Brexit position. Yet, now, he is described as an “ultra remainer”. Even more remarkably, Michael Gove, one of the leading figures of the Vote Leave campaign, is regarded by the true believers as not being a true ‘Brexiteer’ at all. The obvious consequence of that claim, as Danny Finkelstein has pointed out, is that it means the referendum didn’t give a mandate for the Brexit of the true believers.

All of this is a further indication of the shift, discussed in my previous post, which has normalised no-deal Brexit as if it grew directly from the referendum result. Another version of the same claim is that because MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 this means that they voted for no-deal, because that is what happens at the end of the Article 50 period if there is no deal.

That is pure nonsense, not just because a deal was promised but because there are other possible outcomes (extension, revocation), and it was the previous parliament anyway. So it is quite dishonest to pretend there is either a popular or a parliamentary mandate for no-deal Brexit (and if Johnson or anyone else pursues it, there will be a major question of political legitimacy).

Same old lie, part 24

Honesty is in any case, as usual, in short supply. For the advocates of no deal have now brought to centre-stage the claim they have been kicking around for months, that GATT Article XXIV offers a pain-free way of doing no-deal Brexit. It is a new version of the original referendum lie, which has dogged the entire process, that Brexit can be easy and costless. Johnson made a blustering reference to it in the woeful TV debate last Tuesday, and the Ultras are pushing it as hard as they can. The claim is that Article XXIV would allow the UK to continue with tariff- and quota-free trade with the EU for up to ten years if there is an agreement that that is the ultimate goal, even if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Yet the logical flaw is so obvious that a not especially intelligent child could see it: Article XXIV relates to the implementation of an agreement in principle. If there is no such agreement, it is irrelevant. If there is a no-deal Brexit, there will be no such agreement. Therefore it is irrelevant. It’s also worth noting that, in any case, it would only relate to trade in goods, not services, and – which seems hardly remarked upon at all – it has nothing whatsoever to do with all the non-trade aspects of Brexit. Those, of course, are the subject of another logic-free proposition, based on the same flaw, that of the ‘managed no-deal’.

Taking a stand

None of this is going to make any difference at all to Johnson’s near certain victory. So he is going to have to find out for himself what is and is not possible and, having done so, to decide whether he pushes on to no-deal Brexit. There are already signs that the ERG are wising up to the fact that he either does not understand, or is not committed to, that. It’s probably both, as trailed in my previous post. If so, once in office, he’ll lose ERG support. If not, he’ll lose the other wing (which perhaps can now be called the Stewarts?) of his party.
Either way, he won’t be able to command a parliamentary majority for any Brexit position he ends up taking without risking a General Election that might see him out of Number 10 before he has unpacked. Or he’ll have to pivot to another referendum and split his party that way.
Whatever happens, it’s very hard to see anything other than a major political crisis ahead because the one certainty – dictated by the time imperative if nothing else – is that he will have to take a position. Jokes and bluster will not be enough nor will saying, or allowing them to think he’s said, different things to different people.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that, deal or no deal, taking that position will only be the beginning of months and years of negotiations for the leader of a fractured party which, as Simon Wren-Lewis put it this week, has “lost its battle with reality”. The talk by Johnson (and others) of “getting Brexit over the line” as if one way or another it will be over by November is entirely fatuous.
In the meantime, the Tory slide towards no deal makes it easier for Labour to shift towards a pro-referendum policy. It shouldn’t, in principle, be a difficult shift precisely because no deal was never what was promised. The difficulty is a mixture of the pro-Brexit inclination of Corbyn and some of his closest allies, along with a flawed reading of what the referendum result means for Labour heartland and target constituencies.
There was talk of definitive shift this week but in fact all that happened was another constipated statement which largely continues the ambiguity, although it is at least arguable that Labour are inching towards what was always their politically logical position (which doesn’t mean it’s cost-free, perhaps especially now, after such long prevarication). Still, it’s painfully, excruciatingly slow.
Strange days indeed
That slowness and, even more, the lingering weeks we are now going to have in which we both know but don’t know the outcome of the leadership contest shouldn’t blind us to the seriousness of the situation or to its outrageousness. It may be repetitious, but it’s important not to take as normal just how grotesque that situation is.
A small majority secured on the back of a flawed campaign in 2016, in which electoral law was broken, interpreted in an extreme form that was not endorsed by the General Election of 2017, is now being used as a mandate for an even more extreme and damaging version of Brexit. Our future will now be in the hands of a man chosen by a tiny and extremist fragment of the population in 2019. He – whoever of them it is - will have come to office claiming the right to do something that was never put to the electorate – and indeed is the opposite of what they were promised – and which is almost certainly against the wishes of the majority.
These are strange days, because they are both crisis-ridden and anticlimactic. Things constantly happen, but nothing really changes. There’s an expectation of something unlocking events, but it never happens. A kind of tantric Brexit, perhaps, but with no expectation of pleasure to come.

Friday, 14 June 2019

The race to wield the no-deal scalpel

One notable feature of the current Brexit debate is the extent to which no-deal Brexit – pungently described by Martin Wolf this week as “a lunacy wrapped up in a stupidity” (£) - has come to occupy centre stage, whereas it scarcely featured at all during the referendum campaign and is completely different to what leave voters were promised.

That shift has been underway for a long while, of course, but it has become pivotal to the Tory leadership contest where being willing to countenance, if not actually advocate, no deal has become the crucial test of viable candidacy (unless Rory Stewart confounds all predictions). Indeed, bizarrely, that is all that matters, for as seasoned political pundit Philip Cowley points out there is barely any consideration or scrutiny of their actual Brexit plans.

The reasons for this shift are many, including the way the Brexit Ultras have consistently pushed to ever more extreme positions – soft Brexit became redefined as no Brexit, hard Brexit as soft Brexit and, eventually, no-deal Brexit as true Brexit. In this way, no deal became normalised and even mainstream.

Beneath that is the central lie of Brexit itself – far deeper than the £350M, although that was one manifestation of it. It is the proposition that it would be possible to leave the EU and yet largely continue to act as if still a member. The issue here isn’t, simply, the familiar absurd doctrine of ‘cakeism’; it’s more some idea that there is a kind of special ‘alumni’ status for ex-members.

With respect to business and trade, this was encapsulated in the nonsense term ‘market access’, suggesting – or at least readable as meaning - something the same as now but without EU membership. This proposition was often implicit, but David Davis’ ‘exact same benefits’ promise is one explicit example.

That was always a logical and practical impossibility, and it did not survive contact with the reality of the negotiations. The ‘Barnier staircase’ diagram neatly captured this: each form of being ‘out’ was different from being in, each UK condition or red line determined what form being out would take.

New lies for old

From the original lie two things have flowed which now frame the leadership debate.

The first is to continue to deny it was an impossibility, and ascribe the failure to deliver it to May’s (and perhaps civil servants’) lack of skill, toughness and commitment to the cause. Hence the remaining candidates (Stewart, again, excepted) make the pitch that they can deliver what previously eluded the government: Johnson and Gove on the basis of true belief, Raab on the basis of his previous failure to do so when Brexit Secretary, Hunt because he once set up a business, and Javid because, well, he’s the ‘change candidate’.

No deal figures in all this as the supposedly necessary leverage to the EU to make them concede what, for the most part, isn’t in their gift to concede. But even if that were not so, this tactic – ‘no deal is better than a bad deal - was long deployed by May to no avail, not least because a threat to shoot the UK’s economy and global reputation in the head was never likely to be persuasive, especially as the damage as compared with the EU is asymmetric. It's all nonsense anyway, since the negotiations with the EU are closed.

The second consequence of the original lie is to add a new lie to it. Since the original proposition was to leave the EU then, even though it now turns out that keeping the benefits is impossible, the Brexiters insist that just the first part is what ‘the people’ voted for. The original claims are denied where they had been implied, or glossed over when they had been explicit: ‘of course there was never any suggestion of anything else – everyone who voted leave knew full well that there would be no deal at the end of it. So forget all this complicated EU trickery about a Withdrawal Agreement, and a financial settlement, and the Irish border, and get the true Brexit we voted for. Out means out’.

So the original dishonest and contradictory claim – we can leave but still have the benefits – has morphed into two dishonest and contradictory claims: that a true Brexiter can deliver this deal by threatening no deal, but that if they can’t it doesn’t matter because true Brexit means no deal anyway.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

It is perhaps fitting that one of the principal authors of the first lie should also be the standard bearer for the second, and that he – for it is, of course, Boris Johnson – looks likely (though not, I still think, certain) to use it to trick his way into Downing Street. It is also fitting that Brexit has now come back full circle to where it started: in the horror show of the Tory Party’s civil war and its fear of Farage.

Thus Steve Baker, perhaps the most hardline of the ERG, has decided to “put [his] complete faith” in Johnson, as, it seems, have Rees-Mogg, Duncan Smith and most of the other Ultras (though not, interestingly, Fox or Mordaunt). This may suggest a degree of naivety, since Johnson is not, to say the least, known for being principled or trustworthy, and his commitment to Brexit has never seemed more than opportunistic. Nor is it exactly a well-kept secret that his sole commitment is to his own ambition.

So if he came to think, and this is by no means unlikely, that this ambition was best served by a pivot to some superficially changed version of May’s deal – or, imaginably, to another referendum (‘my friends, we must heal our great country!’) or even a revocation (‘pulling back, to regroup, as we did at Dunkirk, then to triumph in Normandy!’) - then he would surely do so. In that case, it might not be long before the trusting faithful of the ERG come to revile ‘Boris the Betrayer’. For that matter, if he pushes ahead with no deal and gets away with it then he will immediately have to start on the ‘side deals’ that will be necessary and doing so will also be seen as betrayal.

What he actually intends is unclear, probably even to himself. Certainly there were no clues in his campaign launch on Wednesday, which was predictably – and so it’s easy to forget disgracefully - free of substantive content. Less predictably, in response to the last of the few questions allowed, he made some very peculiar comments about intensifying trade and other relationships with the EU after Brexit, and pursuing a strong partnership with the EU. This is a long way from Farage’s position (and, one would think, that of the Tory members who voted for him in the European elections), and sounds very much like May’s Florence speech.

Of course, it may just have been meaningless drivel – one of the biggest problems with Johnson is it’s impossible to know whether he means, or even understands, what he says - but if I had been an ERG-type hearing it alarm bells would have rung. I was also struck by the near complete absence in his speech of any sense that Brexit was a good thing rather than just something that had to be delivered: “let’s get this done”! That, too, was a May trope and although their modes of speech contrast sharply the message in that respect was not so very different.

Yesterday’s man?

Which is not to imply that Johnson’s speech was the barnstorming triumph one might have thought from the sycophantic reaction of his acolytes in the hall. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, but what even I used to be able to see was a degree of charisma seemed entirely absent. The phrases were wooden, the jokes feeble and the repeated finger-jabbing looked forced - and perhaps a (coached?) attempt to ape Trump’s peculiar ‘finger and thumb’ gesture. It was more a tired am-dram performance of ‘a leader’ than the Churchillian oratory that its reception suggested. His much vaunted ‘character’ shtick seems as dated as the comedy of the once cutting-edge Have I Got News for You, where that character got its first big public platform.

At his own campaign launch, Sajid Javid jibed that Johnson is “yesterday’s news”, and whilst that probably won’t prevent him getting the leadership I half-suspect it would be exposed if, as is quite possible, there is a snap election. It’s well-known that he has no capacity or interest in mastering the detailed intricacies of policy, but the assumption, not least his own, is that he is a great campaigner. Indeed it seems that at least some of his support from Tory MPs who would otherwise not give it derives from the belief that only he can keep Corbyn from power.

Maybe he was such a campaigner, once, but whether he would stand up to the scrutiny of leading a national party into an election at a time of, very likely, crisis is not at all clear. For very different reasons he, like May before him, might be found out. For example, how well would be stand up to forensic questioning from a tough, well-briefed interviewer, such as Andrew Neil, who would not let him get away with bluster? He’s rarely faced such examination and when he has – for example from Eddie Mair in 2017 - he has performed disastrously.

A poll this week suggesting he would be far more likely to defeat Labour than his rivals is probably misleading because, as Philip Cowley, again, points out, the differences are largely down to differential rates of ‘don’t knows’. So Tory MPs who are alarmed by no-deal Brexit but even more alarmed by a Corbyn government may, in Boris Johnson, be falling for what marketers used to call ‘a mug’s eyeful’. If so, they could end up with both a no-deal Brexit and a Corbyn government.

Britain on the operating table

Whatever Johnson’s campaigning abilities, the fact that campaigning is his preferred mode (and, in this, if nothing else, he resembles Corbyn) is highly appropriate. For there is a sense in which Britain since 2016 has been in a continuous Brexit campaign. We’re still engaged in an unresolved battle about the meaning and desirability of Brexit, even as we are engaged in doing it.

Baker’s statement of faith in ‘Boris’ (and, a small plea, could the media, at least, drop this chummy, boys-will-be-boys usage?) is revealing of why there is no resolution and is never likely to be. Delivering Brexit is a highly technical exercise, full of complexity and trade-offs. But these are of no interest to those, including Johnson, for whom Brexit is entirely a matter of faith and feeling. Thus they accuse those who say otherwise of ‘Project Fear’, a phrase which more than any other has destroyed any vestige of rationality in how Brexit has been approached. So, having armed themselves with a few semi-understood facts (‘WTO terms’) and pure fantasies (‘German car makers’), they set off on a journey with no idea of where to go or how to get there and are now hopelessly lost.

It is as if someone started performing open heart surgery and only then thought it might be necessary to have a quick flick through a first-year medical textbook. Others looked on, impatient that it was taking far too long and proving far too complex. Now, they are fighting as to who should be the next amateur surgeon to wield the rusty and unsterilised scalpel. The best proposal they can come up with is to have one last go in the chest cavity and, if that fails, simply to amputate the patient’s head. After all, an operation is an operation and so that’s delivering what was promised.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. The defeat of the Labour motion that could have paved the way to preventing no deal may have been the last chance the House of Commons had to do so. Even if another opportunity arises, arguably that vote showed that there are simply too few Conservative MPs willing to defy their party whip and too many Labour MPs willing to defy theirs to prevent the making of that final, irrevocable, incision.

Which leaves the rest of us in a rather dismal situation. For our role in this analogy, of course, is that of the patient, gowned-up and strapped down to the operating table. Worse, we’ve always been in two minds about whether the whole thing is a good idea anyway, and now we’re pretty sure it isn’t. Still, we’re soon going to find out. And, which is the really unfortunate part, this operation is taking place without an anaesthetic.