Friday, 8 February 2019

Britain in a tailspin

Beneath a lot of sound and fury, the main story of this week is that Britain continues to go round in circles over Brexit.

The ludicrous ‘Malthouse’ group to identify ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish backstop met. Ludicrous because we already know that these arrangements don’t exist; that because of this we already know that the EU won’t agree to them; that if the EU did agree then we already know that many of the ERG would find another reason to object to the Withdrawal Agreement; and that, in any case, if they did exist then it is already in the Withdrawal Agreement that they would be used instead of the backstop. Unsurprisingly it was later reported that the group had “descended into acrimony”.

Meanwhile, Theresa May was in Northern Ireland, apparently already having accepted that the backstop will remain but hoping to time-limit it. But we already know that if it continues to exist in any form then the ERG and probably the DUP won’t accept it, whilst if it is time-limited then we already know that the EU won’t accept it. Unsurprisingly, her subsequent trip to Brussels yielded nothing new, not least because she proposed nothing new.

Detached from reality

All of these developments are detached from any kind of reality. What is real is the continuing damage being done to businesses (and individuals) as they contemplate the growing possibility of no deal, as discussed in my previous post. This week’s highest profile example came with Nissan’s announcement that they will not, after all, build the new X-Trail model in Sunderland. Nissan and Sunderland, of course, hold emblematic places in the Brexit saga.

The immediate reaction from some Brexiters was to say, at least, that the Nissan decision was only partly to do with Brexit and, at most, that it was nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit. The latter is plainly nonsense. The former is true, but misses the point. Such decisions will almost always be multi-factorial but Brexit weighs them against the UK and does nothing to weigh them in favour of the UK.

Hence, especially for industries like auto which involve huge long-term investments, the impact of Brexit is going to be a slow-burn of disinvestment, leading to long-run decline. The same looks set to happen with financial services and many other industries, almost regardless of what happens with Brexit now.

But Brexiters have created a hermetically sealed logic. Every warning is dismissed as Project Fear, with the jeer ‘you can’t prove Brexit will make that happen’; every time a warning comes true, it is dismissed as Project Fear Mark 2, with the jeer ‘you can’t prove it was Brexit that made that happen’.

The invariable reference point has become Y2K from which (even leaving aside the huge sums spent by firms and governments to deal with it) the perverse conclusion is that since one warning of something bad happening did not materialise this ‘proves’ that nothing bad can ever happen.  There’s now a sizeable part of the population, egged on by Brexiters in politics and the press, who have simply given up on rationality, evidence and argument.

What the hell does Brexit mean?

Instead, at its core, Brexit is project predicated upon anger, self-pity and victimhood. It was thus inevitable that Donald Tusk’s ‘special place in hell’ comments provoked much manufactured outrage (strangely forgetting the far more vicious comments Brexiters have made about the EU). Thus Brexiters such as Peter Bone dishonestly claimed that leave voters had been insulted. But Tusk’s target was very explicitly those who had led the campaign for Brexit with no plan for how to deliver it, and although the theological language was rather peculiar the underlying point was correct. The Brexit leaders, in some cases with knowing recklessness, in other cases with casual irresponsibility, have inflicted incalculable damage on Britain.

That Tusk made the remark, clearly knowing that, as Leo Varadkar pointed out to him, the British press would have a field day is highly revealing. It is a demonstration of what I wrote in my previous post, that the EU leadership are simply no longer interested in trying to mollify Brexiters or tread carefully around British political sensibilities. On the other hand, Tusk was also clearly sending a message of solidarity to his Irish counterpart on the podium, and it is one which also has relevance for the UK: member states will be looked after, so far as possible; non-members will not be.

But Tusk’s remarks were revealing of something else, far more uncomfortable for remainers for all that they may agree with his diagnosis of Brexiter vandalism. His comment was clearly unhelpful to their cause – for example, if there were to be another referendum it would be quoted endlessly – but as his other remarks made clear, he now regards this cause as a lost one.

The dynamic of the relationship between the EU and the remain campaign has been shifting for a while, and changed decisively once the Withdrawal Agreement was completed. From then on, for the EU polity, Brexit was a done deal. Remainers may be pro-EU, but the EU is no longer pro-remain. I don’t mean, of course, that there are not plenty of individuals, including politicians, in the EU who still hope that Brexit might be reversed. But the institutional logic has now shifted, and Tusk’s remarks are a reflection of this.

Britain can neither leave nor remain

The dispiriting situation is that the UK has now reached a point where, in a sense, it can neither leave the EU nor stay in it. That is to say, there is currently no viable route to get to ‘remain’ but even if there were what kind of EU member would the UK then be? On the other hand, there is no way of delivering Brexit which any but a tiny minority of Brexiters regard as satisfactory. Ironically, a project cloaked in the sacred cloth of the ‘will of the people’ is going to end up being the will of almost no one.

That we have reached this point is, in part, because of the incompetence of May’s government. I have never disguised the fact that I think that Brexit in any form was going to be a disaster for this country, but even so, it needn’t have been the shambolic nation-shredding fiasco that has been enacted.

Yet however enacted, the fundamental flaw in Brexit, as I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, is precisely what Tusk so forthrightly said this week: it invited people to vote for something for which there was no realistic plan and promised things of which there was no realistic prospect. The fall out amongst the Malthouse group is itself indicative: even a small group of Tory MPs cannot agree on how to approach Brexit, let alone the country as a whole.

Tactics or paralysis?

Hence the circles continue, with it being rumoured that May could once again delay the vote on her deal, which is supposed to be held next week. If so, what is she waiting for? Presumably she hopes to extract some kind of document from the EU which she will claim has delivered what the House of Commons asked for in passing the Brady Amendment, and she may well get such  document.

In the meantime, there may well be talk of forming a cross-party consensus based on Labour’s emerging position. I could imagine May going through the motions of that in order to put pressure on the Brexiters, telling them that this somewhat softer Brexit will be the outcome if they don’t fall in line. But it is very hard indeed to envisage her actually following through on something that would involve her in multiple U-turns and, very likely, split the Tory Party permanently.

Some see all this as being a tactic to ‘run down the clock’, leaving MPs with no choice when the very last minute comes other than to accept the deal to avoid no-deal. Personally, I am not sure that May now has any tactic other than to just get through one day at a time and hope things work out. That has long been her modus operandi but now she appears completely out of her depth, and almost paralysed by the enormity of the mess she is in and has partly created.

However, if it is her tactic then I suspect that, yet again, she underestimates the extent to which at least a handful of the Brexit Ultras are simply beyond any kind of sanity when it comes to EU. And a handful is all it will take to ensure, at that last minute, that the deal falls. By then, it will be too late to do what a responsible Prime Minister would be doing now, which is to lay the ground to seek an extension to the Article 50 period which – even if she does get some kind of deal through – it now looks inevitable will be needed. She might be left with so little time that the only choices would be no-deal or rescindment.

For the circles we are going round are not a neat holding pattern, waiting patiently for a safe landing according to known procedures. Rather, Britain is in a vicious tailspin, almost out of fuel, and plummeting to the ground. The pilot is frozen in panic, the second pilot is present but not involved, the cabin crew are bickering and the noisiest of the passengers have convinced themselves that the theory of gravity is elitist fear mongering.

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