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.  

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