Sunday, 7 July 2019

Enjoy the Brexit doldrums while they last

We are in the doldrums, Brexit-wise, as the dismal Tory leadership election proceeds. In the contest between those we might, since it’s Wimbledon fortnight, call the Buster Mottram and Tim Henman of politics neither candidate is saying much of substance.

Both are deceiving themselves and voters about the possibility of renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, and about the possibility of avoiding the Irish border backstop. Both are avoiding serious discussion of the realities of parliamentary arithmetic. Both are breaking the cardinal rule of politics by backing themselves into a cul–de-sac where they have no options, by embracing no-deal (even if, in Hunt’s case, it would be “with a heavy heart”).

It’s possible that, in office, they would seek to backtrack – Johnson would find that easier than Hunt – but their enemy will be time. U-turns are easier when there is a wide circle. For either man to renege on the promise to leave on October 31 (or, in Hunt’s case, with a few days latitude) within weeks of making it looks unlikely. What they have done is further to normalise no-deal Brexit as an outcome, something re-enforced by the now daily drip feed of hardcore Brexiter claims about how easy no-deal would be.

Equally unlikely, even if an extension is sought and granted, is any idea that the new EU leadership team will take a substantively different stance on Brexit to that which has obtained since 2016. Brexiters have always underestimated the extent to which the EU’s position is based upon a collective calculation of its best interests, both political and economic, rather than the foibles or preferences of individual leaders.

So for now we are stuck in an uneasy wait for the inevitable political crisis which will follow the appointment of the new Prime Minister, whether that comes in July or, more likely, September. There’s not much that ordinary people can do other than stockpile what they can or switch off (£) and hope for the best.

Why the Brexit Party’s antics matter

In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on the antics of the new Brexit Party – not that it is a political party in the normal sense of the word. Its MEPs have embarked upon a sustained campaign to trash the workings of the European Parliament, through articles and tweets supposedly showing its wastefulness and pointlessness.

Many of these have been widely mocked for their risibility, Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s outrage at receiving an iPad and David Bull’s surprise at having to travel to work being two examples. It’s possible, I suppose, that Idle Nigel’s example over many years led them to expect that the job was a sinecure. The most high profile stunt so far has been turning their backs when the ‘EU Anthem’ was played.

Of course, it is hardly a surprise that this pick’n’mix freak show is indulging in this kind of stuff and it has been widely remarked upon how embarrassing it is for all of us – including those who are pro-Brexit – to be associated by nationality with such childish petulance. But I think there is a more interesting and important point to be made about it than that.

Clearly their conduct is going to make no difference at all to Brexit. They got the outcome they wanted in the Referendum, and its implementation now is entirely a matter of domestic politics rather than anything that might happen in the European Parliament. But ever since the Referendum, the mood of the Brexiters has been sour, sullen and angry. Rather than celebrate their great victory and revel in the opportunities that ‘independence from Brussels’ would bring, they have been suspicious and hostile.

That framed the entire way the UK approached the negotiations, with resentment about the basic reality of there needing to be a financial settlement and paranoid imaginations that the EU were trying to ‘trap’ the UK into remaining. Moreover, throughout, there has been the drumbeat of fury that Brexit means no longer participating in the various projects and programmes of the EU. Often, as I’ve remarked before, they act as if Britain were being forced into leaving by the EU, rather than choosing to do so. Indeed, the ‘protest’ against the playing of the Anthem would make much more sense if that were the scenario than it does given that Brexit is happening.

What if Brexiters actually wanted Brexit?

By contrast, a bold, confident and happy Brexit movement would be behaving in an entirely different way. Since, to reprise one of their tritest slogans, ‘we are leaving the EU, not Europe’, such a movement would use its MEPs to build the relationships, good will and trust that might contribute to making Brexit work.

After all, it’s central to their case that Brexit should be followed by the most comprehensive trade agreement ever made. At the very least, those talking of a ‘managed no deal’ are anticipating an extensive web of ad hoc agreements on trade and non-trade matters to be created. So not only do these absurd protests do nothing to ensure Brexit is delivered, they also undermine the possibility of making Brexit ‘work’. Again, that might make sense if Britain was being forced to leave, but for those who advocate it also to undermine it is deeply peculiar.

No doubt their behaviour is to a large extent pandering to their base. But, if so, the way they are doing it is revealing of how what is being pandered to is not to do with delivering Brexit but is about expressing and giving focus to a sense of anger and grievance which is not really anything to do with the EU at all, or at least goes much wider than that. If Brexit goes ahead, they will still be angry – including anger at the way that Brexit is done, since no form can be ‘pure’ enough. But if Brexit does not go ahead then, in a certain way, they will be delighted, since it will provide a focus for sustained grievance and the comfort zone of victimhood.

The politics of anger

In this sense, the way the Brexit Party is behaving and will presumably continue to behave has a significance for the framing of British politics whatever happens with Brexit. Indeed, Farage has already virtually said as much (£). It has become the institutionalised vehicle for anger, an anger which is not simply economic (for all that economics may explain some of the leave vote) but cultural. The great mistake that some erstwhile remainer politicians are making – as May did, and perhaps Hunt is now – is to imagine that ‘delivering Brexit’ will assuage that anger or, even, that Brexit is what the Brexiters really want.

The Referendum was, at least in Cameron’s eyes, supposed to finally lance the boil of ‘the Europe question’. Instead, it released the poison into the entire body politic. So as we endure this “political nervous breakdown”, and as the economic damage deepens (£), there is not even the comfort of thinking that Brexit will purge us of its effects. We’d better make the most of the current doldrums, because the politics of anger are here to stay.

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