Thursday, 20 June 2019

Tantric Brexit

It is now three years since the UK embarked on its extraordinary act of self-immolation. We have already seen the early consequences in terms of lost economic growth, business damage, international reputation, political toxicity and some of the human cost, especially to the EU-27 nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU-27 who are still, shamefully, left in limbo.  There’s much more to come.

This time last year I wrote an outline of how we got into this mess, most of which still stands and I won’t repeat it here. Since then, much has happened. Most obviously, another year has passed. That is not a trite observation, because ever since the invocation of Article 50 the passage and press of time has been the defining reality of Brexit.

Equally obviously, Britain has not left the EU, with the deadline now twice extended. That too is not a trite observation, given both the Brexiter promises of how easy leaving would be – remember Boris Johnson, in December 2016, saying that 18 months would be “absolutely ample” for a “great deal” -  and Theresa May’s adamantine insistence that 29 March 2019 would, incontrovertibly, be Brexit day.

The clock is still ticking, which continues to matter and is soon going to be what matters most again. The current hiatus of the leadership contest perhaps makes politics seem more normal than it is. For although such contests are not an everyday event they do have a familiar shape, allowing the media to obsess about the odds of the ‘runners and riders’ and to revel in the skulduggery of the candidates’ tactics.

Normality masks crisis

That apparent normality obscures the extent to which Britain is in a very deep crisis, completely scrambled by Brexit. That is doubly unfortunate because apart from being misleading it is also a missed opportunity. Arguably, for all that the contest is a squandering of the Article 50 extension, it could, just conceivably, have been a chance to finally begin to get real about what Brexit means. When Rory Stewart, the only candidate for the leadership who even partially tried to do this, was knocked out earlier this week any such realism departed.

Stewart’s realism was only partial in that, in effect, he was seeking to resurrect May’s deal without properly addressing how that would get through parliament in the absence of another election or another referendum. But at least he was raising the important point that the idea of a substantive renegotiation of the Irish backstop is a fantasy, as well as important questions about what no-deal Brexit actually means in practice.

With him gone, and the candidates now whittled down to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, even that small sliver of sense has departed. Their Brexit policies are not remotely realistic and differ only in that Johnson probably (though he has left himself the tiniest piece of wriggle room [£]) wants to leave the EU on 31 October come what may, whereas Hunt would be willing to countenance a short delay. Even that is enough to enrage the most extreme Brexiters, as Michael Gove found out on a radio phone-in today, when a caller (responding to his analogy for such a delay) said she would rather rip out her new kitchen, for want of the hob being delivered, than wait an extra couple of days.

But even if Hunt were to take the hardest of lines he would, in the new McCarthyism of Brexit, be forever damned for having once been a remainer. His ill-judged and distasteful ‘Soviet Union’ jibe at last year’s party conference did as little for his reputation amongst Brexiters as it did for his reputation full stop. Unless Johnson commits some massive gaffe – not impossible, by any means – Hunt has virtually no chance of being chosen by the Tory Party membership.

For a poll this week of that membership showed just how extreme a body it has become, with a majority willing to accept Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK, significant damage to the economy, and even their party being destroyed so long as Brexit is delivered – and 46% of whom would be happy if Nigel Farage became their leader. There’s a need for caution in interpreting this – such responses could just be a way of signalling strength of feeling about Brexit rather than the actuality of what those responding would accept – but, even so, it is remarkable.

The revolution continues to devour its children

But what is actually even more remarkable is the fact that the state of the Tory Party precludes Hunt (or for that matter Stewart, Javid and Hancock, had they made it this far) becoming its leader. For, recall, even the ‘softest’ of them, Stewart, advocates a deal in which the UK leaves the single market and customs union without further negotiation (whilst the others, including Hunt, seek re-negotiation with no deal as a possibility).

At the time of the Referendum Stewart’s would have been described as a hard Brexit position. Yet, now, he is described as an “ultra remainer”. Even more remarkably, Michael Gove, one of the leading figures of the Vote Leave campaign, is regarded by the true believers as not being a true ‘Brexiteer’ at all. The obvious consequence of that claim, as Danny Finkelstein has pointed out, is that it means the referendum didn’t give a mandate for the Brexit of the true believers.

All of this is a further indication of the shift, discussed in my previous post, which has normalised no-deal Brexit as if it grew directly from the referendum result. Another version of the same claim is that because MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 this means that they voted for no-deal, because that is what happens at the end of the Article 50 period if there is no deal.

That is pure nonsense, not just because a deal was promised but because there are other possible outcomes (extension, revocation), and it was the previous parliament anyway. So it is quite dishonest to pretend there is either a popular or a parliamentary mandate for no-deal Brexit (and if Johnson or anyone else pursues it, there will be a major question of political legitimacy).

Same old lie, part 24

Honesty is in any case, as usual, in short supply. For the advocates of no deal have now brought to centre-stage the claim they have been kicking around for months, that GATT Article XXIV offers a pain-free way of doing no-deal Brexit. It is a new version of the original referendum lie, which has dogged the entire process, that Brexit can be easy and costless. Johnson made a blustering reference to it in the woeful TV debate last Tuesday, and the Ultras are pushing it as hard as they can. The claim is that Article XXIV would allow the UK to continue with tariff- and quota-free trade with the EU for up to ten years if there is an agreement that that is the ultimate goal, even if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Yet the logical flaw is so obvious that a not especially intelligent child could see it: Article XXIV relates to the implementation of an agreement in principle. If there is no such agreement, it is irrelevant. If there is a no-deal Brexit, there will be no such agreement. Therefore it is irrelevant. It’s also worth noting that, in any case, it would only relate to trade in goods, not services, and – which seems hardly remarked upon at all – it has nothing whatsoever to do with all the non-trade aspects of Brexit. Those, of course, are the subject of another logic-free proposition, based on the same flaw, that of the ‘managed no-deal’.

Taking a stand

None of this is going to make any difference at all to Johnson’s near certain victory. So he is going to have to find out for himself what is and is not possible and, having done so, to decide whether he pushes on to no-deal Brexit. There are already signs that the ERG are wising up to the fact that he either does not understand, or is not committed to, that. It’s probably both, as trailed in my previous post. If so, once in office, he’ll lose ERG support. If not, he’ll lose the other wing (which perhaps can now be called the Stewarts?) of his party.
Either way, he won’t be able to command a parliamentary majority for any Brexit position he ends up taking without risking a General Election that might see him out of Number 10 before he has unpacked. Or he’ll have to pivot to another referendum and split his party that way.
Whatever happens, it’s very hard to see anything other than a major political crisis ahead because the one certainty – dictated by the time imperative if nothing else – is that he will have to take a position. Jokes and bluster will not be enough nor will saying, or allowing them to think he’s said, different things to different people.
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that, deal or no deal, taking that position will only be the beginning of months and years of negotiations for the leader of a fractured party which, as Simon Wren-Lewis put it this week, has “lost its battle with reality”. The talk by Johnson (and others) of “getting Brexit over the line” as if one way or another it will be over by November is entirely fatuous.
In the meantime, the Tory slide towards no deal makes it easier for Labour to shift towards a pro-referendum policy. It shouldn’t, in principle, be a difficult shift precisely because no deal was never what was promised. The difficulty is a mixture of the pro-Brexit inclination of Corbyn and some of his closest allies, along with a flawed reading of what the referendum result means for Labour heartland and target constituencies.
There was talk of definitive shift this week but in fact all that happened was another constipated statement which largely continues the ambiguity, although it is at least arguable that Labour are inching towards what was always their politically logical position (which doesn’t mean it’s cost-free, perhaps especially now, after such long prevarication). Still, it’s painfully, excruciatingly slow.
Strange days indeed
That slowness and, even more, the lingering weeks we are now going to have in which we both know but don’t know the outcome of the leadership contest shouldn’t blind us to the seriousness of the situation or to its outrageousness. It may be repetitious, but it’s important not to take as normal just how grotesque that situation is.
A small majority secured on the back of a flawed campaign in 2016, in which electoral law was broken, interpreted in an extreme form that was not endorsed by the General Election of 2017, is now being used as a mandate for an even more extreme and damaging version of Brexit. Our future will now be in the hands of a man chosen by a tiny and extremist fragment of the population in 2019. He – whoever of them it is - will have come to office claiming the right to do something that was never put to the electorate – and indeed is the opposite of what they were promised – and which is almost certainly against the wishes of the majority.
These are strange days, because they are both crisis-ridden and anticlimactic. Things constantly happen, but nothing really changes. There’s an expectation of something unlocking events, but it never happens. A kind of tantric Brexit, perhaps, but with no expectation of pleasure to come.

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