Friday, 15 March 2019

This is what a politics based on lies looks like

When I was about nine or ten years old, I became fascinated by the idea of building a perpetual motion machine. My father, who had been an army mechanic, understood the fascination but patiently explained the impossibility. I refused to believe him, but after several fruitless hours with my Meccano set had to concede that he was right. It was a salutary lesson. Just because you want, believe and insist something to be true you cannot make it so. It’s a lesson that is currently ongoing in Brexit Britain (“the painful intrusion of reality” as German newspaper Die Zeit witheringly put it yesterday).

For underlying all the chaos and confusion of this week’s Parliamentary events, what is being tested to destruction is a set of propositions made in the Vote Leave campaign about how Brexit would be quick, simple, easy, would cause no damage (either economically or politically) and indeed would be beneficial in every respect. The result of the Referendum did not mark the end of anything, rather it was the beginning of an ongoing process which is what we are now living through.

May’s self-inflicted tragedy

For almost three years now Theresa May has sought to put those propositions into practice: accepting the hard Brexiters’ interpretation on the single market, customs union, and ECJ whilst trying to fashion something which, although certainly highly damaging, at least tries to contain the very worst of the damage. Insofar as there is a workable version of hard Brexit, her deal delivers it. Part of what makes it workable is the backstop, by recognizing the contradiction between hard Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement.

The Brexit Ultras’ main objections to this is, even within its own terms, nonsensical. They claim to fear being ‘trapped in the backstop’. They also claim, not just as a future possibility but as a current reality, that the technological and administrative means (“alternative arrangements”) exist which make the backstop unnecessary in the first place. Those claims cannot both be true. And what certainly isn’t true is the claim made by Boris Johnson and others that the Irish border issue is simply a confection cooked up by Brussels and Dublin.

Because what the Brexiters want is a fantasy, no deliverable version of it will ever satisfy them, and they will always seek a pretext to oppose it. Hence most of them refused again to back her deal on Tuesday. May’s tragedy is that in seeking to operationalise their impossibilities she has also lost the support of those who wanted or would have accepted a soft Brexit.

Hence the bizarre spectacle of her this week stridently proclaiming (so far as her voice would allow) the full, uncompromising hard Brexit mantra – the “voice of the country” has “instructed” us to end freedom of movement, take control of our trade policy, and have our laws made and judged in our own country – even as the hard Brexiters gave her yet another kicking. She has only herself to blame: she pretended their lies were true and vilified those who said otherwise.

The fantasies and lies continue

It’s important to keep remembering the origins of this mess in the 2016 Referendum not in order to re-run it but because of the constant, sanctimonious, self-righteous invocation of the ‘17.4 million’ who are claimed to have given unanimous support to things that they were never asked about and mysteriously endorse things they were never told about. Given that is the Brexiters’ claim, it remains necessary to remind them of the documented promises they made during that travesty of a campaign. Indeed, even the endless vox pops of voters angrily demanding to ‘just get on with it’ are a direct consequence of the campaign lies that it would be quick and easy. Brexiters say we mustn’t betray these voters, but they have already been betrayed by the Brexiters who told them those lies.

It is also important to recall the fantasies and lies of that campaign because Brexiters continue to peddle fantasies and lies even now. The details differ but they all have exactly the same character of pretending that there is a quick, easy route to successful Brexit if only ‘elitist remainers’ would stop creating unnecessary problems. Before the referendum it was the ‘German car makers’ myth. That is no longer heard but in its place are bogus invocations of half-understood quasi-legalities (e.g. the GATT Article 24 nonsense), the ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border, or the ‘managed no-deal’ oxymoron.

No doubt it will be quickly forgotten, but the Damian Green amendment to Wednesday’s no-deal vote based on that latter fantasy got the support of 164 MPs including at least four cabinet ministers. Reflect on that for a moment: something literally impossible was voted for by about a quarter of the House of Commons, by no means all of them Brexiters.

Parliamentary wheels within wheels

However, whilst much of what is happening grows out of the false claims of Brexiters, somehow this hapless government manages to make things even worse than they need be. That has been true in a myriad of ways over the years, as chronicled on this blog, but was especially evident in the sometimes farcical events of this week.

In particular, it was only because of substituting a tricksily worded motion for what had been promised for Wednesday’s ‘no-deal’ vote that the government had to suddenly whip to vote against ruling out no-deal having spent the whole afternoon explaining how awful it would be. And losing anyway.  And then promptly pulling a similar trick for the ‘extension’ motion, by tagging it together with the re-presentation of May’s deal – although very narrowly getting away with it this time, defeating the Benn amendment by just two votes. Even then, on the main motion, there was the bizarre spectacle of the Brexit Secretary winding up the debate proposing the motion, and then voting against it!

I must admit that I find the procedural intricacies of all this quite fascinating. But as a response to the crisis engulfing us it was pretty pitiful, and typical of the endless shabby, counter-productive tactics that are May’s hallmark. But her conduct, irritating as it is, and her overall position, ill-judged as it is, do at least possess a kind of gimcrack sincerity and a degree of clarity. Corbyn’s position and conduct, by contrast, were yet again shown this week to be utterly feeble. As ever, he had little to say and what little there was was incoherent. Notably, it is Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn who have been providing all the effective leadership from the Labour benches.

Labour’s continuing flakiness over a second referendum was again on display. It’s true that there is a genuinely difficult tactical dilemma about when is the best moment to push for it in Parliament. It’s true that even with Labour support the vote on the Wollaston amendment that called for a referendum would probably have failed. It’s also true that the People’s Vote (PV) campaign made a statement saying they didn’t want MPs to support it anyway.

Despite that I think that if Labour are ever going to make good on the policy of actively supporting another referendum, now is surely the time to at least begin to do it. The argument put forward by Keir Starmer was that Thursday’s vote was about extension rather than anything else, and the question of a referendum is for later. But extension cannot really be separated from its purposes, for these determine both what length of extension is needed and how persuasive that would be to the EU.

Starmer and the PV campaign may be proved right, but in one combination of events, in which May’s deal finally passes next week, any call for another referendum will be redundant. Thus Labour may not pursue its policy of last resort until it’s too late.

What now?

At all events, as the dust of this week settles two things are clear. There will be an application for extension of Article 50 and we do indeed now face the third meaningful vote (MV3) early next week (as trailed in my previous post at the end of last week).

As regards extension, the admission that Brexit will not happen on 29 March (unless the EU-27 decide it will), even though every informed person has realised this for weeks now, is a big ‘political-psychological’ moment given May’s dogmatic, repetitive insistence that that was ‘the date’. But it will not have a huge impact if MV3 passes and she gets (as she surely would) a brief ‘technical extension’.

So what of MV3? Like PV campaigners, the ERG face a tactical dilemma, though of a different sort: back the deal or perhaps lose Brexit.  They may already have made the wrong call by not backing May in MV2. That was my immediate sense after Tuesday’s vote, if only because it may galvanize Tory ‘pragmatists’ to take the gloves off as some threatened. In other words, it may be that more ‘pragmatists’ vote against MV3 than did against MV2, having finally tired of showing the party loyalty that the Ultras disdain. In any case, with party discipline in free fall all round, those pragmatists may realise this is their last chance to avoid the disaster of Brexit and grab it.

There is a general expectation of the ERG softening, but amongst the real hard core there is already evidence of a determination to dig in (the piece linked to, by their researcher, was, be it noted, tweeted by Steve Baker who is an influential member of the group). Some will undoubtedly do so. Ironically remainers’ best hope now is that large numbers of the ERG prove to be fanatical dogmatists, which isn’t an entirely unrealistic hope to have. That number, along of course with how the DUP and Labour Brexiters vote, will determine what happens. It looks like being very close this time.

If it squeaks through, despite being something that nobody really wants, it will set up years of acrimony, slow-burn economic decline and rumbling political crisis. If it is defeated again, all bets are off (including, if it is only narrowly defeated, the tear-your-hair-out possibility of MV4). Very likely that will bring a long extension and if so then at that point the loss of the 29 March ‘independence day’ will become a huge development.

My childhood perpetual motion machine was a rickety Heath-Robinson structure, consisting of a complex interplay of pulleys, strings, cog wheels and axles. Built on a flawed premise, it was doomed to failure. The politics of Brexit has a similar crazy array of moving parts and suffers from a similar basic flaw.

You can’t turn lies into policy.

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