Friday, 7 June 2019

The fog of war

A strange air of unreality pervades Brexit Britain. Like one of the pea-soupers for which, along with pragmatism, we were once known abroad, the country is currently cloaked in a fog of inertia and delusion which has left it in limbo.

Leadership lies

Much of that is down to the Tory leadership contest within which, despite its being conducted behind closed doors, much absurdity can be glimpsed, but which is also curiously muffled. Amongst the absurdities of the different candidates’ positions on Brexit are the familiar non-starters of a re-negotiated Withdrawal Agreement (WA), primarily seeking to ditch the Irish backstop, as well as the oxymoron of the ‘managed no deal’.

The latter has been given a particularly egregious twist by Andrea Leadsom, who accepts that the WA is not going to be renegotiated and is dead, but amongst other impossibilities, proposes to enshrine in UK law those parts of what has been agreed which are acceptable to the UK, for example security and intelligence-sharing relationships. The gaping hole in that ‘plan’ is that without the WA there is no agreement with the EU on those selected parts, and UK law has no power over the EU or EU states.

Even the supposedly more ‘pragmatic’ candidates such as Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart are proposing, in essence, to continue with May’s deal (Hancock makes some half-hearted gestures towards renegotiation) but with no suggestion as to how this will be passed by parliament just because there is a new Prime Minister.

Many of the candidates seem to want to avoid talking about Brexit much at all and as for the front-runner, Boris Johnson, almost nothing is heard from him – reportedly he is “being kept under virtual house arrest” (£) because his campaign team fear that any public statement may cause embarrassment. That may well be an astute decision on their part but it is hardly a ringing endorsement of a man who would be Prime Minister.

Reheated rubbish

Meanwhile, there is plenty of noise from the foot soldiers of the no-deal Brexit cause. Yet another ERG report was wheeled out this week – this one entitled A Clean Managed Brexit – reheating all the same old half-truths, fantasies, misunderstandings and falsehoods. It was instantly taken apart by the combined expertise of trade expert David Henig and EU Law expert Steve Peers. As Henig pithily concluded, it exhibited “a total refusal to face up to the real world”, whilst Peter Foster, the Daily Telegraph’s Europe Editor, pronounced it “completely ludicrous”.

I’m grateful that there are people willing to put the time and effort in to debunking this endless stream of nonsense but, whilst it is definitely a worthwhile thing to do, it has limited traction. Its proponents will certainly never admit they are wrong – hence they recycle the same stuff, ignoring all criticism and correction – and they have a different purpose in mind. That purpose is, with the help of a compliant media, just to keep constantly in the political air the idea that there are workable, straightforward solutions to the Brexit mess they have created. It’s a non-stop PR exercise, rather than an attempt to provide realistic policy proposals.

Of course, these self-same people were the ones who used to say that making a deal with the EU would be quick, easy and advantageous. They have no shame in now making the same claim for no-deal and, inevitably, blame the failure of their earlier claim solely on the machinations of “remainers and the Establishment”, as that well-known anti-establishment figure Lord Digby Jones put it.

Trump and trade

This low-level background rumble from the Brexit ideologues is an important part of their propaganda war, but they had a far louder voice, that few will not have heard, in Donald Trump this week. Here, too, realism was in short supply – for example in the repetition of his previous advice to the UK to sue the EU (the grounds and the court for such an action stubbornly unspecified) and the idea that his swaggering bellicosity offers a template for how Britain should approach Brexit.

Of particular delight to the Brexiters – whose erstwhile fury at US Presidents interfering in Brexit has now entirely disappeared – was his promise of a “phenomenal” UK-US trade deal. Yet, even leaving aside relying on the caprice of a President who changes his mind hour by hour, and even leaving aside the fact that a trade deal isn’t simply in Trump’s gift, there’s no realism here, either. As David Henig, again, pointed out, the UK would gain little benefit from such a deal and, as another trade expert, Sam Lowe, warned, would have much to fear from it.

Indeed, government estimates suggest a UK-US deal would be worth at best 0.3% GDP in the long-run (£), nowhere near enough to offset the damage of any form of Brexit, let alone no-deal Brexit. A UK-US Free Trade Agreement – like the entire notion of an independent trade policy - has a purely symbolic rather than an economic value because it connotes ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’. But that too is illusory in that what is most at stake in modern trade negotiations is regulatory alignment and for the UK the choice is alignment with the EU or with the US. To the extent that there is ‘more sovereignty’ in one or other of these alignments it lies with EU membership, which gives the UK a greater voice.

Taking back control?

Taking back control seems, in any case, to be morphing into something extremely peculiar. In a recent post, I speculated that what I described as the insane idea of the prorogation of Parliament might come to the fore under a no-deal Prime Minister. I didn’t expect it to get so early an outing, though, first from the senior backbencher Sir Edward Leigh and then from leadership contestant Dominic Raab.

Forget the quaint and arcane language: the prorogation of parliament means the suspension of democracy. That it comes from those who regard holding another referendum vote as a ‘betrayal of democracy’ is perverse; that it should even be being talked about, especially by an aspiring Prime Minister, is a disgrace.

But, apart from being odious, it is again (probably) completely unrealistic. For one thing, as Speaker John Bercow has suggested, parliament would find a way to prevent it. For another, even attempting it would almost certainly blow the Tory Party apart and lead to a rapid end to the new Prime Minister.

Do mention the war

It seems doubtful if, coming to this week’s other unmissable story, suspending parliamentary democracy was the freedom that was fought for on D-Day. Those commemorations do not in themselves have a Brexit connection except that, as I’ve remarked before, there is a strand in Brexit thinking and imagery that relates to Britain’s fixation with the Second World War. It is a fine and necessary thing to commemorate such events and to recall Britain’s wartime efforts (indeed, I myself have written a book about the codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park).

Yet seeing the wall-to-wall media coverage given to the anniversary I was struck by the extent to which we seem so much more pre-occupied with the past – and that particular part of the past - than with the future. Just in the snippets that I caught, minute details of, for example, how fuel was piped across the channel and how tides and weather were calculated were all meticulously explained.

No doubt programmes about non-tariff barriers to trade or cumulative rules of origin would be considerably less entertaining. Still, given that Britain is embarking on an epochal shift in both economic and geo-political positioning, shouldn’t we also be being provided with intense, deep information about what that entails?

Somehow, both with the commemorations and with all the pageantry for Trump’s state visit there is a sense at the moment of a country no longer willing or able to live in present realities, still less to grapple with what the future might hold. Yet all around us, completely ignored by the long list of would-be Prime Ministers, we are seeing the real, concrete effects of Brexit.

Don’t mention the costs

The Ford factory closure announcement may, as they claimed, be nothing to do with Brexit. However, that needs to be treated with some caution given the long history of warnings from Ford, and given that the company would hardly want to alienate some customers, and the government, by blaming Brexit. At all events, in decisions like these, which are always multi-factorial, Brexit is never going to weigh on the positive side of the equation, and whatever the truth about the Bridgend plant, Ford are clearly warning that Brexit is a threat to the rest of its UK operations.

What is unquestionable is that the scarcely reported departure from London of the European Banking Authority (EBA), which moved to Paris last Monday, is solely due to Brexit. As with the recent loss, for the same reason, of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) what is at stake is not so much the loss of jobs (and taxes, and knock on spending) but the erosion of the UK as a regulatory hub and as an influencer. It is not dramatic in itself but, like a slow puncture in a tyre, the accumulation of Brexit effects is to damage the long-term economic viability of the country, especially in its most strategically important business sectors.

It should be recalled that as recently as May 2017 the then Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed (£) that both the EBA and the EMA could be kept in London despite Brexit. Again, it was a wholly unrealistic idea. And this has been, and will continue to be, the repeated pattern: Brexiters making obviously false or at least highly questionable claims and promises, each of which is warned about at the time but the warnings are ignored or derided.

When the warnings come true, the false and questionable claims are forgotten, or the consequences are said to be nothing to do with Brexit and are just a ‘coincidence’. And a new set of claims, promises - and fresh warnings - are made, or the old ones repackaged.

So we are building lies upon lies in a vertiginous spiral which each week takes us further away from anything which bears any resemblance whatsoever to reality. The first casualty of war, as the saying has it, is truth.

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