Friday, 10 May 2019

Brexit: stuck

Predictable as it was, it’s difficult to feel anything other than astonishment and despair at what is – or more accurately isn’t – happening with Brexit. It is now six weeks since the UK was due to leave the EU, and there is still not the remotest sign of any realistic thinking about the predicament that our country is in.

The government’s talks with Labour are ‘ongoing’, supposedly given new impetus by the local election results which both May and Corbyn, apparently, think were a message to ‘get on and deliver Brexit’. That’s absurd, given that the main gainers were remain parties but, even if we indulge the absurdity, it seems clear that it is only a matter of when, not if, it is announced that the talks have failed. They were probably doomed from the start.

The trap of betrayal

Even if that is not so, it is abundantly plain that if they did yield anything then the hard core Brexiters would say it is a betrayal. Farage has already warned as much – in fact, he calls it the ‘final betrayal’ (though, with Farage, you can be sure that there is always another one in his back pocket). And that is the crux of the trap that May’s Brexit premiership has created for itself: if she gets a deal through it will be seen by Brexiters as a betrayal; if she doesn’t then that too will be seen as a betrayal. But still she presses on because – having imbibed their language without gaining their support – she thinks that to do otherwise would be … betrayal.

Were there to be, as Labour hope, a General Election bringing Jeremy Corbyn into power he would face the same situation. It was clear in his launch of Labour’s European elections campaign yesterday that he is committed to delivering Brexit (but the Labour version, which is still based on the ‘single market access’ fantasy). If that happens it, like a ‘Tory Brexit’, will be seen as betrayal by the Faragists and also opposed by the bulk of his own party, in a mirror image of May’s dilemma.

Small wonder that Corbyn doesn’t want to talk about Brexit much at all during the European elections and in that, too, there’s a mirror with the Tory Party. It has already become obvious that they can hardly campaign on May’s Brexit policy because it so bitterly divides them. But nor can they campaign on any other Brexit policy whilst May is their leader. Thus their line seems likely to be that the elections don’t matter because the MEPs elected will not take their seats because something will turn up and they are reportedly resigned to a disastrous, perhaps even sixth place, result (£).  So from the two main parties on the biggest defining issue for decades, which dominates the political landscape, there is a total void.

The Brexit black hole

Into this political black hole step the Brexit fantasists who, untrammelled by any need to take responsibility, can continue to promote an imaginary ‘true Brexit’ that could never be delivered. Still struggling with the concept that leaving the institutions that make borders unnecessary has the consequence of making borders necessary (the political equivalent of 2 + 2 = 4), they continue to promote ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border that don’t exist.

Sometimes, ludicrously, as when proposed by David Davis who as former Brexit Secretary had ample opportunity to learn it was nonsense, the proposal is that this is something that May might negotiate. More commonly, it is proposed as something that her replacement as Tory leader could do and it seems certain that most candidates for the job will make this their pitch. It is pure hokum as has been pointed out endlessly, not least on this blog.

Almost invariably, those proposing these dead-in-the-water ideas claim that they have ‘had conversations in Brussels’ revealing that the EU have made it clear that they are completely open to them, if only the British government would formally propose them. Needless to say, no evidence is ever given. In a variant on the same theme, others claim to have met ‘senior WTO people’ (never named) and on that basis conclude that the Article 24 nonsense is a viable way forward. Yet even these proposals, gibberish as they are, are a masterpiece of statecraft compared with the entirely content-free offering of the Brexit Party. Extraordinarily, the plan is, apparently, to release their manifesto after the election whilst campaigning on a platform of – you really couldn’t make this up – defending democracy.

Alongside the pretence of a miraculous way of doing Brexit if only ‘they’ would do it, one of the most notable things about Brexiters now is that they have ceased to make any pretence at all that Brexit is desirable in and of itself. The latest example is the bathetic comparison made by Ann Widdecombe, now a Brexit Party MEP candidate, between Brexit and – inevitably – the Second World War. Apart from the notion, at once ludicrous and offensive, that voluntary membership of an international body is equivalent to fascist domination, she was reduced to saying that whilst no-deal would produce some bumps in the road, it wouldn’t be anything like as bad as what people had suffered during the war. Goodbye ‘sunny uplands’, hello ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Truly inspirational.

The betrayal trap contains the seeds of a solution

Eventually we need to face up to some unpleasant truths. Any conceivable government delivering any conceivable Brexit is now going to be accused of betrayal. This would apply even to a no-deal Brexit under a new Tory leader since the disastrous consequences would inevitably be ascribed by those Brexiters now calling for just that to its having been ‘done the wrong way’. The betrayal accusation is probably going to be believed by something like a quarter to a third of the electorate. Sky News’ political correspondent Lewis Goodall summed this up very well in an article this week, arguing that Brexit is just the beginning of a much bigger populist revolt.

If that’s right, and I think it probably is, then the conclusion is that it doesn’t much matter what we do about Brexit – even, that Brexit isn’t really the issue. However it is delivered, and whether it is delivered or not, the same anger, the same sense of betrayal, the same sense that an amorphous ‘they’ always get their way will exist. But if that is so, then why not abandon Brexit, since there will be that sentiment anyway? It is rather like the old joke of the man who goes to the doctor and is offered some tablets with the warning that they may cause impotence, halitosis and baldness. I’ve already got the side-effects, he replies, so I might as well start taking the medicine.

Drifting to a referendum?

Parliamentary revocation has never in my view been a politically realistic route, except in extremis if there was no other option, but another referendum looks increasingly likely (although, of course, there’s no guarantee that the result would be to abandon Brexit). It’s true that the Tories are still steadfastly opposed to it, and Labour is so equivocal as to be unsupportive of it in all but name. For them, as re-iterated by Corbyn yesterday, the dodge is to keep it as an ‘option’ if a General Election cannot be achieved. That is a formula for potentially endless deferral since it will always be possible to say that wait another day and the government will fall.

Even so, since endless deferral isn’t really an option given the Article 50 process, and since neither party looks like coming up with anything else, it seems quite likely that one or even both of them will get to a referendum policy in the end (clearly it would be an easier pivot for Labour to make than for the Tories). I’ve thought that this was the direction we were going in since last February (and in that post accurately predicted that there would be European elections and the shape the campaign would take).

The longer things drift on and the further the 2016 vote recedes into the past the more likely it becomes. We’re clearly not there yet but there are currently rumours that May is at least considering the possibility of a parliamentary vote on the idea and amid his restatement of Labour’s non-policy yesterday Corbyn made some positive remarks about the healing possibilities of a referendum.

If for no other reason than getting off the hook on which Brexit has impaled their parties they might not be that far from realising it is the only way out. Few will think it a good solution, just the only thing left. A strong showing by remain parties in the EP elections would give impetus to that. Na├»ve as it might be to say so, one might even think that the fact that opinion polls have for some months now shown that the majority no longer wish to leave the EU might make a difference.

For now, though, Brexit – and with it Britain - is stuck on the same endless loop of nonsense we have been going round for years.

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