Tuesday 29 January 2019

Brexit: bewilderment, dismay and shame

It’s difficult to feel anything other than bewilderment and dismay at the events unfolding in Britain. My comment at the beginning of my previous post that this week would see some of the dust clear proved somewhat wide of the mark.

Instead, in a plot worthy of Yes Prime Minister, Theresa May instructed her MPs to support an amendment which rebelled against her previously stated policy that the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) could not be re-negotiated, to the effect that the Northern Ireland backstop should be renegotiated so as to be replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’. This, the ‘Brady Amendment’, was passed.

The ‘Malthouse Compromise’

In the meantime, a new, somewhat related, Brexit rabbit hole was opened up. The grandiosely named ‘Malthouse Compromise’, more prosaically called ‘Plan C’ (£), consists, confusingly, of a Plan A and a Plan B. There is nothing new about either of them. They are re-treads or amalgamations of various documents that have been circulated by the ERG and allied groups for several months*. But, significantly although surprisingly, this initiative has the support of non-ERGs from the more remain wing of the Tory Party, such as Nicky Morgan.

Plan A is effectively the existing WA with the backstop ripped out to be replaced by the miraculous ‘alternative arrangements’ proposed by the IEA’s Shanker Singham (formerly of the now defunct Legatum Institute) and others last December. These arrangements are, in the main, the technological solutions which the ERG and its allies insist exist but which no one else has found sufficient evidence of. In a sense, Plan A is a more developed version of the Brady amendment.

If Plan A fails then Plan B is effectively the ‘managed no deal’ canard, whereby there is no WA but, nevertheless, an agreed transition period and various side deals on security etc. Implicitly, as with Plan A, the envisaged future trade relationship is Canada +++ but Plan B also invokes the latest ERG factoid, concerning GATT Article XXIV which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean what they think it does.

These ideas have been endlessly debunked by a series of experts – they are the “junk ideas” I referred to in a recent post as “having no foundation in political reality”. They have already been advanced and rejected not just by the EU but by the UK Government. The latter is an important point to make, given the climate of accusations of EU punishment, and it was made by Sabine Weyand, the EU’s formidable deputy Brexit negotiator and trade specialist.

In a very rare public appearance this week Weyand pointed out that, as regards alternative arrangements and technological solutions for the Irish border, UK negotiators had tried and failed to identify these. But, she pithily observed, this was not their fault, since such solutions “do not exist”. She also pointed out what should be obvious, that the negotiations over the WA are now closed.

Back to Brussels

Yet it does need to be pointed out. Although Theresa May has not gone so far as to endorse the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ – really, I can hardly bring myself to use this terms which sounds like a trashy thriller – only calling it “a serious proposal which we are engaging with sincerely and positively”, she has committed to going back to Brussels to re-open the WA in order to amend the backstop. To that extent she has more or less embraced Malthouse Plan A. And there can be little doubt that what most of the Malthousers want from that is it to be removed altogether. Otherwise, presumably, most of them won’t support any amended deal when it comes to the ‘second meaningful vote’. Then, the pressure will be on May to adopt Malthouse Plan B as the pre-ordained direction of travel from Plan A.

The best way of thinking about this is to imagine the converse situation, in which the EU at this late stage announced that despite what has been agreed in the negotiations only by, say, increasing the financial settlement and changing the backstop back to being Northern Ireland only will it be possible to secure sufficient support from the European Council and Parliament. The outrage of Brexiters can easily be guessed at, and the UK response would almost certainly be a flat refusal.

That may be the EU response, as some early reports suggest. I hope not, because it will just feed the absurd punishment narrative and allow Brexiters to pretend that they had sought a deal in good faith and been rebuffed. Better, and perhaps more likely, for there to be some new declaration or form of words which will then put the responsibility that they so hate back in the hands of the Brexiters. On this, much may hinge for the future both in terms of UK politics and EU-UK relations.

The economic damage is mounting

Whilst all this is going on, there is some really serious damage being done. As has been planned for a while, the European Medicines Agency has moved from London to Amsterdam. With it will go not only 900 jobs but a central part of the ecosystem of the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries – which are strategically crucial for the UK and in which the UK has been a leading global player. It’s worth recalling that in April 2017 the first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, opined that there should be no reason why it couldn’t stay in Britain post-Brexit. Like so many other Brexiter claims, it was known to be nonsense by experts but their knowledge was dismissed and mocked.

We now have companies spending huge amounts of money on stockpiling goods in warehouses in case of there being no deal, and almost every day brings news of another company moving its Headquarters out of Britain. The entire P&O fleet is to be re-registered in Cyprus. A group of leading food retailers has written a letter to MPs warning in stark terms of the dangers of food shortages. In any other time that would be seen as extraordinary. Now, it barely survives one day of the news cycle. And, of course, as with every other warning it is immediately trashed as Project Fear or, with the cynicism of the unworldly, as an excuse by supermarkets to unnecessarily raise prices.

Every Brexiter MP and commentator is an instant expert on the food industry, just as they are on the car industry or aerospace, knowing far more than those who actually work in and run those businesses. Or, for those of such self-evident ignorance that any claim to expertise would cause instant laughter, a more boorish approach is taken. Hence one of the most shameful of recent events, when Mark Francois, Deputy Chair of the ERG, denounced the CEO of Airbus, one of the UK’s most important employers, for being German, tore up his letter warning of the consequences of no deal, and talked about his own father having stood up to German ‘bullying’ on D-Day. It would be hard to find a more compelling image of the silliness and sheer nastiness of the Brexit Ultras.

Britain’s shame

In fact, I was wrong to say that bewilderment and dismay are the only feelings to be had about what is happening. There is also shame. The shame not so much of being a member of a country where such political oafery exists – all countries have their share of that, after all – but of one whose entire political class has brought us to this. I don’t (just) mean Brexit, I mean a country made so weak and incompetent that it is reduced to begging the friends it has reviled for non-existent solutions to problems of its own making, for fear of fantasists, charlatans, numbskulls and thugs.

And, worse, since that unholy alliance is beyond appeasement and reason it is rather more likely tonight – despite the passing of a non-binding, and in itself rather meaningless as it is not a vote for anything, amendment that rejected a no deal outcome - than before that the UK will be leaving the EU with no deal. If so that will be the very worst outcome of Brexit, and nothing remotely like what voters were promised, leaving Britain facing a calamitous future.
*For fuller discussion of the Malthouse Compromise, see Ian Dunt’s piece. He summarises it as follows: “It would not get the support of the EU, it cannot be done in time, it does not solve the problems it claims to, it is legally and strategically unsound, grossly misleading and full of lies about WTO laws its authors have not fully understood”. Otherwise, pretty sound. See also this article by David Henig, former civil servant and trade expert.

Friday 25 January 2019

The poisonous politics of betrayal

I don’t have anything useful to add to the acres of comment about the increasingly Byzantine parliamentary manoeuvrings around Brexit. Some of the dust will clear next week but in the meantime the BBC has provided a clear guide to the various amendments that have been tabled. But as the political and public debate intensifies – last week, around the time of the ‘meaningful vote’, I kept overhearing people on trains and elsewhere talking about events in parliament, a very unusual occurrence – and several crunch points approach it is clear that we are paying an increasingly high price for Brexit.

I’m not referring, here, to the steeply mounting economic costs that are already being incurred, but rather to the costs in terms of the poisoning of our political culture. At the heart of that is the now commonplace use of the language of ‘betrayal’ and its associated lexicon of purity, treachery, sabotage and loyalty.

That began straight after the referendum with an almost immediate suspicion from Brexiters that they were going to be cheated of the result, even as they cheered it. Nigel Farage was threatening riots over Brexit betrayal at least as early as November 2016. It reached screaming point over the Gina Miller Article 50 case and the infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline to describe the judiciary, and continued when the Tory rebels who forced there to be a meaningful vote on the eventual deal were denounced as mutineers and saboteurs. Alongside these specific events there has been a sullen undertow of McCarthyite condemnation of, especially, civil servants and about remainers in general as betrayers of Brexit.

This, and the associated backwash of death threats and disgusting insults to those deemed to be ‘traitors’, is in itself deeply toxic and degrading of political culture. But it also sets up a series of absurdities, dead ends and, ultimately, ungovernability and political violence.

When is a betrayal not a betrayal?

First, some of the absurdities. Having fulminated against the betrayal of having a vote on triggering Article 50, it was in fact passed by a huge majority which is now used by Brexiters as an argument for continuing with Brexit, since to do otherwise would betray that vote. So what was a betrayal of Brexit became an endorsement of it.

Associated with that is the way that some Brexiters now bemoan that Article 50 was triggered prematurely, putting the UK into a weakened negotiating position because of time pressure and risking Brexit being betrayed, when at the time they called any talk of delay betrayal.

Similarly, the provision of a meaningful vote in parliament that led to some Brexiters calling for the ‘mutineers’ to be deselected is now being used by Brexiters as a way of ensuring that Brexit is not betrayed by the government. So what was a betrayal of Brexit became a way to save it from betrayal. No talk now that those who rebel against Theresa May should be deselected but rather an insistence that she must listen to parliament.

And Brexiters still haven’t learnt – the latest example from Rees-Mogg and other ERG Ultras is the extraordinary suggestion that parliament should be suspended so as to prevent it voting to block no deal Brexit. It still seems not to have sunk in that allowing the government to sideline parliament also sidelines the ERG backbenchers. We can imagine their outrage were parliament to be suspended to force through, say, a rescindment of Article 50 or, just, May’s deal: it would, no doubt, be described as the ultimate betrayal.

The betrayals never end

These absurdities point to the political cul-de-sac created when every development is assiduously monitored for signs of betrayal. For, as in the more extreme case of political totalitarianism with its denunciations and show trials, once betrayal becomes the central motif it is found everywhere. Thus, at the present moment, voting for May’s deal or voting against it can both be, and are both, described by different groups of Brexiters as betraying Brexit.

That is evident amongst politicians but it is also found in the wider public. I had a conversation with a taxi driver the other day – and, I know, the most clichéd and discreditable form of anecdote, itself the least respectable form of data, is the ‘conversation with a taxi driver’ anecdote – who said two highly relevant things.

First, that he had never expected Leave would win the referendum, not because he doubted it was what the majority wanted but because he had expected remainers to rig the vote. In other words, he was already primed to see betrayal.

Second, regarding May’s deal, he said that those voting against it were traitors but when I asked if he supported her deal he said that he didn’t, because it betrayed Brexit. So I asked if those who voted for it were also traitors and he replied – yes, they are all traitors. I’m not, by the way, glossing to give the meaning: he used the words “betrayal”, “traitor”, and their cognates several times.

Anecdote as it is, I think that very neatly sums up the blind alley of configuring Brexit in terms of a narrative of betrayal. The point isn’t that the taxi driver was being ‘illogical’, it is that he precisely expressed where the logic of ‘betrayalism’ leads: nowhere. Or, perhaps more accurately, it leads to a never-ending circle of purism, suspicion and betrayal. Once the betrayals start, they never end.

That is evident in the way that many Brexiters have proved to be unappeasable in their demands. Thus the same people who a few years ago ‘just wanted to be like Norway or Switzerland’ came to say that only hard Brexit would be pure enough, and when offered hard Brexit have moved to saying that only no deal has the purity of true or ‘clean’ Brexit.

At one level this is just obtuse bloody-mindedness. But there is a more complex psychology in play. There’s an old joke that the most sadistic thing that can be done to masochists is not to hurt them. In a similar way, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the worst thing for Ultra Brexiters is to be given what they ask for, because what they actually want is, precisely, to be betrayed and in that way to have their sense of victimhood confirmed. Indeed it would have been much better from the outset to have ignored their cries of betrayal, recognizing that, whatever happened, they would still make them.

The poison has spread

The problem now is that whereas the betrayal narrative started from the political pathology of a very small minority it has now, like poison injected into the bloodstream, infected the entire body politic. It is no longer the language of fringe politics but is used by mainstream politicians up to and including the Prime Minister.

Nor is it any longer confined to Brexiters. For example, Andrew Adonis’s criticisms of civil servants working to deliver Brexit are the flipside of persistent Brexiter attacks on the civil service for supposedly undermining it, whilst his invocations of ‘the resistance’ are, perhaps unwittingly, the counterpart of Brexiter denunciations of saboteurs.

Meanwhile, in a mirror image of Brexiter claims that a second referendum would “be a preposterous act of betrayal” for remainers and leavers alike,  a newspaper article last Sunday by Labour MP and People’s Vote advocate David Lammy argued that a ‘Norway+’ Brexit would be “a betrayal” of both sides.

Ian Dunt has pointed out, in a heartfelt, almost despairing, article that this schism between Norway+ and People’s Vote factions is “insane”, and terrible tactics to boot. I agree with that, but would add that it illustrates the spread of the betrayal narrative across the Brexit debate – and notice that in both the examples just given the attempt is made to enrol remainers and leavers “alike” into a sense of being betrayed. Just as ‘betrayalism’ leads to everything being a suspected betrayal, so too does it lead to everyone being potentially betrayed.

Can we drain the poison?

The inescapable reality is that, whatever happens now, there are going to be a large number of people who are not going to get what they want or hope for. It is really vital not to compound that by re-purposing disappointment as betrayal. And this is, after all, in our collective hands. It is widely said that if there were to be another referendum it would be a brutal and bloody affair. But it need not be, if we, and especially the campaign leaders, do not conduct ourselves in a brutal and bloody way. Similarly, it is a choice, not an obligation, for newspapers to carry shrieking headlines about treachery and sabotage – whilst also bemoaning divisiveness.

It’s clear that the cultural and emotional meanings attached to be being pro- and anti- Brexit have now come to swamp or transcend the rather mundane and largely technical realities of EU membership – a set of legal and economic relationships with other countries is not really any longer what is at issue. For example, who would ever have thought that ‘trading on WTO terms’ – or, more precisely, “Get 2 Know WTO” - could become an ‘anti-elitist’ political rallying call to the ‘left-behind’? And who really believes that the meaning of this call is anything to do with the barely understood details of what these trade terms entail?

So perhaps to detoxify the politics of Brexit we would do well to try to decouple them from those wider cultural and emotional meanings, and to bring more technical light and less cultural heat to bear upon the debate, and in that way to drain some of the poison (perhaps, even, we need to hear more from experts). This is, of course, an entirely naïve hope; still it is an important one to articulate. Without it, we’re in danger of creating a really dangerous situation.

Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, has warned this week that the “febrile” atmosphere around Brexit has the danger of feeding far-right terrorism. Indeed we are told by some politicians that we had better not dare hold another referendum for fear of such extremists and of civil unrest more generally.  And, of course, this is not just about another referendum given that every single outcome has been described by someone or other as being a betrayal. This includes not just the cases already mentioned of May’s deal, Norway+, and a referendum but also extending Article 50 (according to Liam Fox) or leaving with no deal (according to Philip Hammond).

That is a pretty extraordinary state of affairs in a democratic country, and a dangerous one. It grows directly out of a political discourse configured in terms of betrayal and belief, purists and heretics, loyalists and saboteurs. That story only ends in one way, and it isn’t pretty.

Friday 18 January 2019

A dangerous political void

There is now a dangerous void of leadership and policy at the heart of British politics. Indeed it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that, as regards Brexit, the UK no longer has a functioning government. There are no obvious solutions in sight, and the outcome is completely unpredictable.

The House of Commons has decided that it has confidence in Theresa May’s government, but at the same time that it is opposed, on a massive scale, to the central and defining policy of that government: a truly bizarre situation. In rejecting May’s Brexit deal, the core underlying problem with Brexit itself was revealed: there is no consensus about what it means, even amongst those who support it.

Thus some voted for the deal because it ‘delivers Brexit’, whilst others opposed it because it ‘betrays Brexit’ whilst still others opposed it because it is ‘the wrong sort of Brexit’. The consequences of the failure of the Leave campaign to specify its meaning, and of May to build a durable consensus as to what it could mean, have now been brutally revealed, as has the vacuity of every proponent of Brexit claiming that their particular version is sanctified by 17.4 million votes.

Pointless politics and junk ideas

So May is now, far too late, in the process of ‘reaching out’ across parties to modify her deal. But, so far, it seems that the only aspect she is willing to modify relates to the Irish backstop provisions. Since there is no prospect of the EU re-negotiating the substantive parts of this, since changes which aren’t substantive will not placate those who oppose the deal on those grounds, and since much of the opposition isn’t simply or even at all to do with the backstop, this seems to be an utterly pointless exercise.

By, apparently, insisting that her main ‘red lines’ still define the true meaning of Brexit, May therefore begins this exercise by rejecting the main Labour demand, to remain in a customs union. But that demand is, in and of itself, also pointless. Being in a customs union (not, note, ‘the customs union’, which is only for EU members) in itself has little value. It certainly doesn’t solve the Irish border issue, nor does it deliver frictionless trade. Equally pointless is the reason given for not being in a customs union, an independent trade policy, since the economic benefits of this are, at best, nugatory and swamped by the wider costs of Brexit.

May also rejects the demand to ‘take no deal off the table’, made from any number of quarters, including Labour. But this demand is also pointless. No deal can only be avoided by agreeing to do something else. If nothing else is agreed, no deal happens by default. Equally pointless is the commonly given reason for not taking it off the table, that it gives the UK leverage in negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, since those negotiations are closed. There is no reason at all to think that the EU-27 would extend the Article 50 period to re-open those talks, or that a substantively different outcome would result.

This makes Labour’s idea that, if in power, it could negotiate a better deal as ludicrous as the ERG idea that May’s Withdrawal Agreement can be rewritten - or, even more ludicrous, dropped altogether as a prelude to miraculously negotiating a future trade deal having refused the preconditions for such a negotiation. These are junk ideas, with no foundation in political reality and at this very late stage in the day we shouldn’t have to suffer politicians and others propounding them.

Remote prospects for a solution

Where there is scope for renegotiation is in the Political Declaration on future terms. It is here that May’s red lines are plain and where they could, if she would agree, be dropped. The particular issue, of course, is the single market (and, hence, the freedom of movement and ECJ red lines). Yet not only is she adamant about these red lines, but Labour’s policy of seeking a “strong single market relationship” is so vapid as to be entirely meaningless. For that matter, it is not notably at odds with what May would claim she seeks.

The real issue is single market membership: what used to be described as soft Brexit until the goalposts changed so that it meant anything other than the kamikaze Brexit of no deal. If Labour were to pivot to supporting single market membership (as well as a form of customs union), and amending the Political Declaration accordingly, it seems highly likely that, with Tory rebels, that would command a majority in the Commons. It’s not even entirely inconceivable that the DUP would support it, in that it upholds their deepest red line of Northern Ireland and Great Britain leaving on the same terms. Alternatively, a cross-party coalition of backbenchers might conceivably be able to create a majority for amending the Political Declaration in defiance of both front benches.

This would only take things so far, though. For the point about the Political Declaration, of course, is that it is non-binding. So even if a cobbled together cross-parliamentary alliance were to get such an adjustment it would be immediately prone to unpicking, post-Brexit – for example by a Brexiter successor to Theresa May.

Alternatively, if Labour were to spearhead and succeed in this initiative, the likely fallout in terms of Tory splits could well be a successful no confidence vote, an election and, potentially, a Labour government to implement soft Brexit. If Labour hadn’t led the way then much more difficult, but not entirely impossible given these crisis times, would be some form of semi-permanent coalition based upon that which had forced the amendment of the Political Declaration. In effect, this would be a form of national government.

If a parliamentary majority for another referendum could be found, however, that would only need to endure long enough to frame the legislation and hold the vote (and, of course, seek the Article 50 extension that would be needed and, most think, would be granted). But May is resolutely opposed (even though it is actually the only route by which her deal might have a chance, possibly a good chance, of succeeding), as is Corbyn. Again, were Labour to change position then that would make it far easier both to create a parliamentary majority for a referendum and to sustain it to agree the vexed issues of the question and the franchise. What the outcome of a referendum would be is, of course, another matter.

All pathways are blocked

So every pathway is convoluted and currently blocked by one or more apparently immovable obstacle. The incoherent nature of the Brexit project was always likely to have brought us here, but it has been compounded by lamentable leadership. May seems to care about nothing but her monocular version of Brexit whilst Corbyn seems to care nothing about Brexit at all, to the extent that he apparently doesn’t understand even the most basic facts about it.

Despite their political differences, May and Corbyn are remarkably similar in their grotesque rigidity, and their slightly tetchy muleishness born of a mediocrity of character, intellect and judgment. Indeed the most notable thing about the closing speeches in the ‘no confidence’ debate was that they provided devastating critiques of both party leaders. Certainly neither seems remotely prepared or competent to create and lead the kind of temporary or semi-permanent cross-party parliamentary alliance that looks like the only route out of this mess.

A theme of many posts on this blog has been that various actors within the Brexit process need to face up to realities. Indeed, the central reason for the current fiasco is that so many have failed to do so. From that perspective, we all now need to face up to the reality of what is happening. The leaders of the two main parties are woefully inadequate and neither has a deliverable policy on Brexit (May’s is in tatters and Corbyn barely has a policy at all), the party system is completely inadequate to the situation, and parliament is spavined.

Unless something radical changes – and it may, precisely because of the desperate plight we are now in - then it seems highly likely that Britain will leave the EU with no deal. That will mean that in ten weeks’ time we will face severe economic and social dislocation, with the probability of food and medicine shortages, troops on the street, disruptions to travel and much else.

It would be an outcome desired by only a tiny minority of grossly irresponsible ideologues in parliament and amongst the public. The division, crisis and extremism it would unleash make that feared were there to be another referendum, or even a revocation of Article 50 without a vote, seem like a walk in the park.  

Friday 11 January 2019

The backstop is a symptom, not a cause, of the Brexit crisis

It is apposite that Sky News are now badging all of their Brexit coverage with the label ‘Brexit Crisis’. For the political crisis which has been incipient since, at least, the 2017 General Election is now well underway, and will almost certainly intensify.

At the moment, almost all attention is on the Parliamentary debate and delayed vote on May’s Brexit deal and, within it, much of the focus of complaint is on the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. But this fails to recognize that the backstop is an aspect of, and grows out of, a much deeper set of problems. It also fails to recognize the full significance of the relationship between the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Political Declaration on future terms (PD).

A two-stage process

Brexit was always going to be a two-stage process, because of the nature of Article 50. Thus criticising May’s deal for not including a binding future terms, and especially future trade terms, deal is misguided and, sometimes, opportunistic – although it is legitimate to point out that many Brexiters, and for a time May, said or implied that this would be possible. What can also fairly be said (and, notably, it was the main line of Sir Keir Starmer’s critique in this week’s resumed debate) is that the level of detail and precision of the PD is much lower than it might have been had any substantive phase 2 discussions taken place. And the reason they did not is, entirely, because until the Chequers’ Proposal in July 2018 the UK government advanced no plan for what should be discussed and, when it did, it promptly fell into massive, and still ongoing, infighting.

That reflects what remains the unavoidable, central fact about Brexit. The UK voted for it, and then embarked on enacting it, without having agreed what it meant in terms of a final destination. Even so, it is not the case, as is sometimes suggested (e.g. Starmer, again), that the PD leaves all destination options open. Of course, it is not legally binding. But it should not be dismissed or ignored to the extent that it is being, as if only the WA mattered.

For the PD does set a direction of travel, most significantly in terms of the reference – reportedly at May’s personal insistence – to ‘respecting the result of the 2016 Referendum’ by ending freedom of movement of people and allowing the UK to have an independent trade policy. In other words, it embodies the red lines of no single market membership and no form of customs union.

That this is in the PD is the core reason for the backstop being in the WA. As soon as those red lines were set, the necessary implication was a border around the UK. This is not for some arcane technical reason and still less due to EU or Irish chicanery. It flows from the basic fact that if the UK wishes to set its own tariffs and regulations there has to be a territory within which they apply and so there has to be a border. Indeed, who would want to do a trade deal with the UK if this were not so? This automatically means trade cannot be completely frictionless, and, since no technology exists (yet, and may never do so) to completely remove the need for any new physical infrastructure at the Irish border specifically, the backstop was devised.

However, even if – as the Norway+ advocates* are seeking – the PD were to be written without these red lines being incorporated, that would not make the backstop go away (and they do not claim otherwise). The non-binding nature of the PD is normally talked about as if the issue were simply that it is not a binding agreement between the UK and the EU, and as if the main danger were of the EU refusing to do a deal. More important is the corollary of that, which is that the UK might at any point re-adopt May’s red lines, or new ones; or the UK might continue to fail to agree what it wanted, making the danger that it could not agree to any deal.

Since there is clearly still no stable consensus in the UK about what Brexit should mean, then there is nothing to say that a new government, or a new Prime Minister, or both, would not overturn anything the Norway+ MPs might manage to insert in the PD before the end of March by dint of the crisis. This might have been different had, post-Referendum, a durable consensus around a Norway+ outcome been built, but it wasn’t and there isn’t time to do so before March.

An FTA +++ is an FTA

At all events, as things stand, the PD is as it is, and it reflects the UK red lines for future terms. Yet a bizarre feature of the present debate is that the Ultra Brexiters are in complete agreement these red lines, but they will not accept the consequence of them for the WA, and hence oppose it. It is this which has led to latest iteration of the ‘no deal’ deal fantasy, in a document produced this week by Global Britain and Labour Leave.

Aside from repeating many long-discredited claims or half-truths about trade on WTO terms, its core proposition is that the UK can leave with no WA (going straight to WTO or, as the report meaninglessly puts it, WTO +++ terms) but then seek to negotiate a future terms agreement which they designate as a Canada +++ Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

To call this naïve is to flatter it absurdly, and not just because of the backstop issue; it also embodies the persistent Brexiter misunderstanding that the financial settlement is a down payment for the future, rather than a settling of past accounts. The idea that a viable first step for a new relationship is to renege on what you agreed during the previous relationship doesn’t deserve serious scrutiny, and to present it as if it did is grossly irresponsible. May is right to argue that the WA, in something like the present form, is the necessary gateway to an FTA.

So whereas the Norway+ group try to downplay the two stages of WA and PD by over-claiming what the future terms statement can do, the Brexit Ultras try to circumvent the two stages altogether by imagining there can be future terms with no WA at all.

But, in any case, no amount of ‘+’ signs or ‘super-‘ prefixes can avoid the fact that, even if agreed, this would be a FTA which means a border. If it didn’t, the Brexiters would have nothing to fear from agreeing the backstop and the WA. It is presumably because they know it does mean a border that they object to the backstop as being something that would end up being permanent. But for the same reason, the EU could never agree an FTA without first agreeing the backstop and the WA. In short, the whole idea is ludicrous in every conceivable respect, but that is, or ought to be, well-known and is not really the key point.

The backstop is not the real problem with May’s deal

Rather, the key point is that it’s not the backstop in the WA that is the terrible problem with May’s deal, it is that the backstop is a consequence of the terrible problem of making an FTA the best available form of the future terms. And the main reason why that is a terrible problem is, in one word: services. The clear implication of the PD is that it will prioritise “comprehensive arrangements” for goods trade (although, even there, trade is not the only issue – the internal supply chains of goods manufacturers will still suffer) over services trade, where all that seems to be envisaged are more or less standard third country market access terms.

Indeed, this is an inevitable feature of any FTA end state. The latest Global Britain/ Labour Leave document again naively latches on to a sentence spoken by Donald Tusk – taking it out of context and without understanding its meaning - to the effect that an FTA would, like other FTAs, “address services”. But, of course, the reality is that “other FTAs” barely “address services” beyond the limited liberalisation of WTO terms, and certainly far less than occurs within the single market.

Of course, there are good reasons to argue that the UK economy is over-reliant on services, although that is the consequence of 30 or more years of UK policy, rather than of EU membership. But correcting that by yanking the country out of the most comprehensive services trade bloc in the world, and moreover the one closest to us, is not the way to do it. There are good reasons to argue that I should reduce my waistline, but self-surgery with a hacksaw is not a sensible method of going about it.

What is especially bizarre about the FTA model of Brexit is that pre-referendum all the talk was of the negotiating advantage of a trade deficit. But (even if that is an advantage) that deficit is in goods trade, not services trade where the UK has a surplus with the EU-27, so setting up a situation where the EU has much better access to the UK goods market than the UK has to the EU’s services market is, to say the least, perverse. But that is what the PD suggests.

These and other issues are discussed with great acuity in a recent article by Matt Ross – based in part on an interview with former Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell – on the Global Government Forum website. The key point made in that discussion is that almost none of the current UK political debate is really focussing on what would happen next if May’s deal were to be passed. There is an over-attention to the WA and an under-attention to the PD (or, as I have tried to suggest here, insufficient attention to how these are inextricably linked).

What will follow, the article suggests, are years of one-sided negotiation, with UK politics still in turmoil and – at best – a highly disadvantageous final deal, or even, after all that, no deal at all. In the meantime, inevitably, the existing process of business disinvestment and relocation – which is already dramatic and alarming – will continue.

What is Brexit? The still unanswered question

Of course it seems more likely than not that May’s deal will not pass next week. In that case, the Brexit crisis is going to become full-blown and the increasingly ugly public mood will turn uglier yet. The pro-Brexit demonstrators outside Parliament know what they want to happen. It is encapsulated in their monotonous, aggressive chant of “Out means Out”.

But that tells us nothing and simply begs the question that Brexiters, and the government that tried to implement their referendum victory, have never been able agree an answer to: what does ‘out’ mean? From which failure all that has happened since, and is happening now, has flowed.

So if May’s version of what Brexit means does fail, then, possibly after May has wasted even more time, MPs (and it will likely fall to MPs collectively, since there is scarcely a functioning government any more) are going to have to agree what ‘out’ does mean. That seems unlikely given the failure so far to do so. Or they must find a way of abandoning Brexit altogether. And they’ll have to do it quickly, because in less than 80 days these decisions will be made for them and, of course, for the rest of us.

*Norway+ now seems to have morphed – perhaps because people felt there were not enough Brexit models around - into being described as ‘Common Market 2.0’, but the central idea remains single market membership and a customs union, with the immediate route being the WA as currently written but with a “significantly reworked” PD to reflect this idea.
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