Friday, 14 June 2019

The race to wield the no-deal scalpel

One notable feature of the current Brexit debate is the extent to which no-deal Brexit – pungently described by Martin Wolf this week as “a lunacy wrapped up in a stupidity” (£) - has come to occupy centre stage, whereas it scarcely featured at all during the referendum campaign and is completely different to what leave voters were promised.

That shift has been underway for a long while, of course, but it has become pivotal to the Tory leadership contest where being willing to countenance, if not actually advocate, no deal has become the crucial test of viable candidacy (unless Rory Stewart confounds all predictions). Indeed, bizarrely, that is all that matters, for as seasoned political pundit Philip Cowley points out there is barely any consideration or scrutiny of their actual Brexit plans.

The reasons for this shift are many, including the way the Brexit Ultras have consistently pushed to ever more extreme positions – soft Brexit became redefined as no Brexit, hard Brexit as soft Brexit and, eventually, no-deal Brexit as true Brexit. In this way, no deal became normalised and even mainstream.

Beneath that is the central lie of Brexit itself – far deeper than the £350M, although that was one manifestation of it. It is the proposition that it would be possible to leave the EU and yet largely continue to act as if still a member. The issue here isn’t, simply, the familiar absurd doctrine of ‘cakeism’; it’s more some idea that there is a kind of special ‘alumni’ status for ex-members.

With respect to business and trade, this was encapsulated in the nonsense term ‘market access’, suggesting – or at least readable as meaning - something the same as now but without EU membership. This proposition was often implicit, but David Davis’ ‘exact same benefits’ promise is one explicit example.

That was always a logical and practical impossibility, and it did not survive contact with the reality of the negotiations. The ‘Barnier staircase’ diagram neatly captured this: each form of being ‘out’ was different from being in, each UK condition or red line determined what form being out would take.

New lies for old

From the original lie two things have flowed which now frame the leadership debate.

The first is to continue to deny it was an impossibility, and ascribe the failure to deliver it to May’s (and perhaps civil servants’) lack of skill, toughness and commitment to the cause. Hence the remaining candidates (Stewart, again, excepted) make the pitch that they can deliver what previously eluded the government: Johnson and Gove on the basis of true belief, Raab on the basis of his previous failure to do so when Brexit Secretary, Hunt because he once set up a business, and Javid because, well, he’s the ‘change candidate’.

No deal figures in all this as the supposedly necessary leverage to the EU to make them concede what, for the most part, isn’t in their gift to concede. But even if that were not so, this tactic – ‘no deal is better than a bad deal - was long deployed by May to no avail, not least because a threat to shoot the UK’s economy and global reputation in the head was never likely to be persuasive, especially as the damage as compared with the EU is asymmetric. It's all nonsense anyway, since the negotiations with the EU are closed.

The second consequence of the original lie is to add a new lie to it. Since the original proposition was to leave the EU then, even though it now turns out that keeping the benefits is impossible, the Brexiters insist that just the first part is what ‘the people’ voted for. The original claims are denied where they had been implied, or glossed over when they had been explicit: ‘of course there was never any suggestion of anything else – everyone who voted leave knew full well that there would be no deal at the end of it. So forget all this complicated EU trickery about a Withdrawal Agreement, and a financial settlement, and the Irish border, and get the true Brexit we voted for. Out means out’.

So the original dishonest and contradictory claim – we can leave but still have the benefits – has morphed into two dishonest and contradictory claims: that a true Brexiter can deliver this deal by threatening no deal, but that if they can’t it doesn’t matter because true Brexit means no deal anyway.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

It is perhaps fitting that one of the principal authors of the first lie should also be the standard bearer for the second, and that he – for it is, of course, Boris Johnson – looks likely (though not, I still think, certain) to use it to trick his way into Downing Street. It is also fitting that Brexit has now come back full circle to where it started: in the horror show of the Tory Party’s civil war and its fear of Farage.

Thus Steve Baker, perhaps the most hardline of the ERG, has decided to “put [his] complete faith” in Johnson, as, it seems, have Rees-Mogg, Duncan Smith and most of the other Ultras (though not, interestingly, Fox or Mordaunt). This may suggest a degree of naivety, since Johnson is not, to say the least, known for being principled or trustworthy, and his commitment to Brexit has never seemed more than opportunistic. Nor is it exactly a well-kept secret that his sole commitment is to his own ambition.

So if he came to think, and this is by no means unlikely, that this ambition was best served by a pivot to some superficially changed version of May’s deal – or, imaginably, to another referendum (‘my friends, we must heal our great country!’) or even a revocation (‘pulling back, to regroup, as we did at Dunkirk, then to triumph in Normandy!’) - then he would surely do so. In that case, it might not be long before the trusting faithful of the ERG come to revile ‘Boris the Betrayer’. For that matter, if he pushes ahead with no deal and gets away with it then he will immediately have to start on the ‘side deals’ that will be necessary and doing so will also be seen as betrayal.

What he actually intends is unclear, probably even to himself. Certainly there were no clues in his campaign launch on Wednesday, which was predictably – and so it’s easy to forget disgracefully - free of substantive content. Less predictably, in response to the last of the few questions allowed, he made some very peculiar comments about intensifying trade and other relationships with the EU after Brexit, and pursuing a strong partnership with the EU. This is a long way from Farage’s position (and, one would think, that of the Tory members who voted for him in the European elections), and sounds very much like May’s Florence speech.

Of course, it may just have been meaningless drivel – one of the biggest problems with Johnson is it’s impossible to know whether he means, or even understands, what he says - but if I had been an ERG-type hearing it alarm bells would have rung. I was also struck by the near complete absence in his speech of any sense that Brexit was a good thing rather than just something that had to be delivered: “let’s get this done”! That, too, was a May trope and although their modes of speech contrast sharply the message in that respect was not so very different.

Yesterday’s man?

Which is not to imply that Johnson’s speech was the barnstorming triumph one might have thought from the sycophantic reaction of his acolytes in the hall. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, but what even I used to be able to see was a degree of charisma seemed entirely absent. The phrases were wooden, the jokes feeble and the repeated finger-jabbing looked forced - and perhaps a (coached?) attempt to ape Trump’s peculiar ‘finger and thumb’ gesture. It was more a tired am-dram performance of ‘a leader’ than the Churchillian oratory that its reception suggested. His much vaunted ‘character’ shtick seems as dated as the comedy of the once cutting-edge Have I Got News for You, where that character got its first big public platform.

At his own campaign launch, Sajid Javid jibed that Johnson is “yesterday’s news”, and whilst that probably won’t prevent him getting the leadership I half-suspect it would be exposed if, as is quite possible, there is a snap election. It’s well-known that he has no capacity or interest in mastering the detailed intricacies of policy, but the assumption, not least his own, is that he is a great campaigner. Indeed it seems that at least some of his support from Tory MPs who would otherwise not give it derives from the belief that only he can keep Corbyn from power.

Maybe he was such a campaigner, once, but whether he would stand up to the scrutiny of leading a national party into an election at a time of, very likely, crisis is not at all clear. For very different reasons he, like May before him, might be found out. For example, how well would be stand up to forensic questioning from a tough, well-briefed interviewer, such as Andrew Neil, who would not let him get away with bluster? He’s rarely faced such examination and when he has – for example from Eddie Mair in 2017 - he has performed disastrously.

A poll this week suggesting he would be far more likely to defeat Labour than his rivals is probably misleading because, as Philip Cowley, again, points out, the differences are largely down to differential rates of ‘don’t knows’. So Tory MPs who are alarmed by no-deal Brexit but even more alarmed by a Corbyn government may, in Boris Johnson, be falling for what marketers used to call ‘a mug’s eyeful’. If so, they could end up with both a no-deal Brexit and a Corbyn government.

Britain on the operating table

Whatever Johnson’s campaigning abilities, the fact that campaigning is his preferred mode (and, in this, if nothing else, he resembles Corbyn) is highly appropriate. For there is a sense in which Britain since 2016 has been in a continuous Brexit campaign. We’re still engaged in an unresolved battle about the meaning and desirability of Brexit, even as we are engaged in doing it.

Baker’s statement of faith in ‘Boris’ (and, a small plea, could the media, at least, drop this chummy, boys-will-be-boys usage?) is revealing of why there is no resolution and is never likely to be. Delivering Brexit is a highly technical exercise, full of complexity and trade-offs. But these are of no interest to those, including Johnson, for whom Brexit is entirely a matter of faith and feeling. Thus they accuse those who say otherwise of ‘Project Fear’, a phrase which more than any other has destroyed any vestige of rationality in how Brexit has been approached. So, having armed themselves with a few semi-understood facts (‘WTO terms’) and pure fantasies (‘German car makers’), they set off on a journey with no idea of where to go or how to get there and are now hopelessly lost.

It is as if someone started performing open heart surgery and only then thought it might be necessary to have a quick flick through a first-year medical textbook. Others looked on, impatient that it was taking far too long and proving far too complex. Now, they are fighting as to who should be the next amateur surgeon to wield the rusty and unsterilised scalpel. The best proposal they can come up with is to have one last go in the chest cavity and, if that fails, simply to amputate the patient’s head. After all, an operation is an operation and so that’s delivering what was promised.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. The defeat of the Labour motion that could have paved the way to preventing no deal may have been the last chance the House of Commons had to do so. Even if another opportunity arises, arguably that vote showed that there are simply too few Conservative MPs willing to defy their party whip and too many Labour MPs willing to defy theirs to prevent the making of that final, irrevocable, incision.

Which leaves the rest of us in a rather dismal situation. For our role in this analogy, of course, is that of the patient, gowned-up and strapped down to the operating table. Worse, we’ve always been in two minds about whether the whole thing is a good idea anyway, and now we’re pretty sure it isn’t. Still, we’re soon going to find out. And, which is the really unfortunate part, this operation is taking place without an anaesthetic.

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