Friday 30 August 2019

Brexit has failed, but the Brexiters have already won

The events surrounding Brexit are now whirling out of control, and taking Britain to an unknown, but certainly dangerous, destination. It’s worth briefly summarising how shocking the current situation is. A narrow vote to leave the EU on unspecified, but beneficial, terms is being used by a minority government with a Prime Minister who has not faced the electorate to mandate leaving without agreed terms, and he is suspending parliamentary democracy to enable this.

Shocking as it is the root causes remain the same as they have been since the beginning – and they have been chronicled week in and week out in this blog - a series of lies and (to be charitable) misunderstandings that have been comprehensively falsified by reality. The intensifying crisis results from a government which refuses to accept that reality and is intent on shredding the country rather than doing so.

Deal or no deal?

It’s still not entirely clear whether Johnson has any genuine belief in his continued insistence that he is going to obtain a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement (WA) or whether he is fully intent upon no deal as his expected and desired outcome. If it is the former, and the threat of no deal is just a negotiating tactic, it is doomed to failure. It is predicated on the familiar Brexiter canard that EU negotiations ‘always go to the wire’ and that the EU will ‘blink’ and offer a better deal.

Leaving aside the fact that, by the letter of the Article 50 extension agreement, the WA negotiations are over, this is not the ‘standard’ negotiation amongst ongoing member states. And, anyway, the existing withdrawal agreement is neither a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ deal: it’s just the technocratic reality of what a deal based upon the UK red lines looks like. Proposals for ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border won’t make a difference: if they come to exist then the present backstop becomes unnecessary anyway; until they exist, they can’t themselves constitute the backstop.

It certainly isn’t the case that suspending (let’s not use the anodyne obscurantism of ‘prorogation’) parliament is going to make a difference – it just makes the UK look even more deranged and unreliable – as an excellent article by Helene von Bismarck in Foreign Policy makes clear. (And, as an aside, the Brexiter claim that suspending parliament will persuade the EU that MPs can’t stop no-deal Brexit is completely at odds with their claim that the suspension makes no difference to MPs’ ability to stop no-deal Brexit, and it’s just a ‘business and usual’ move).

No deal: the failure of Brexit

Whether as negotiation ploy or desired outcome, even the prospect of no deal reflects the failure of Brexit. It was, after all, sold to the public on the basis that a deal would be quick, easy, and advantageous. Every leading Brexiter claimed that in 2016. That claim has now been comprehensively discredited and that, in itself, means that no deal has no mandate whatsoever.

Beyond that headline failure, once Brexit got defined as hard Brexit, all the subsidiary lies about ongoing ‘full, free market access’ and about how the Irish border would be unaffected became exposed. May’s deal, which the Brexiters reviled, was the hard Brexit they said they wanted. But as soon as they saw what it meant in practical terms they disowned it. No-deal Brexit as a policy goal arises solely from the fact that there is no deal that could deliver the Brexit they claimed was possible – just as they were always told.

But rather than accept that they lie anew, claiming that no deal was always what they wanted (which may be true of some) and that it was voted for by 17.4 million people (which it certainly wasn’t). This is what a politics based on lies looks like, and with each turn of events those lies are exposed even more.

Johnson: fast-forwarding May

Hence none of what is happening under Johnson is new, it is just, as predicted in my post when he came to office, a fast-forward replay of what happened under May. With the suspension of parliament, we see the intensification of the contempt, both literal and metaphorical, which May displayed. With the possibility of a ‘people versus parliament’ General Election we see the intensification of the attempt to ‘crush the saboteurs’ through May’s ill-fated 2017 ballot.

Crucially, as set out in that earlier post, Johnson is now trapped in exactly the same dynamic as his predecessors and for the same reasons. Having come out all guns blazing for a new deal or no deal and leave ‘do or die’, exactly as the Brexit Ultras within and outside his party demanded, he now finds that they have once again moved the goalposts. So even if he is serious about seeking a revised deal then they will not support it (thus it is hardly worth bothering to consider the nonsense of what he might demand and how he imagines the EU could accept it).

Most ominously for Johnson, Farage has now set the bar as being that nothing but no deal is good enough. So we have gone from a Brexit deal being easy and quick to any deal at all being a betrayal of true Brexit; and from Brexit being what the majority want to Brexit in a form supported by a small minority. It was not inevitable that this was how things would develop, but it was always a logical possibility unless someone or something intervened. May might have done; she didn’t. Johnson was never going to try.

No damage is too much for the Brexit Jacobins

In saying that what is happening now is a repeat of, and grows out of, what happened before I do not mean that nothing has changed. On the contrary, the fast-forward version is also injecting amphetamines into the damage that Brexiters are inflicting on our country. Suspending parliament was once the idea of a mad fringe; now it is in prospect. The possibilities of Northern Ireland and Scotland leaving the United Kingdom are now becoming probabilities. As sober a figure as Chris Patten is speculating that Britain is in danger of becoming a failed State.

Perhaps more to the point, what were once dangers, dismissed by Brexiters, are now becoming accepted as irrelevant collateral damage to the overweening objective of Brexit. Sterling doesn’t matter, the constitution doesn’t matter, the economy doesn’t matter, business in general doesn’t matter and small businesses in particular can be sacrificed, Britain’s global reputation doesn’t matter, societal cohesion doesn’t matter.

That latter point is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. It used to be a cliché of history exam papers that any answer could correctly make mention of ‘the rising middle classes gaining power and influence’. It would be true of virtually any period and relevant to almost any question. In Brexit Britain, however, it is not. The demographics of the referendum vote, as well as the lobbying activities since then, suggest that the majority of business people, professionals, civil society bodies, economically active people and young people opposed Brexit and, especially, oppose no-deal Brexit. Yet these people are now treated as dirt and sneered at as ‘the elite’ even as they are charged with making preparations to survive no-deal Brexit and urged to evince positivity about it.

What do the Brexiters hope for?

It is therefore becoming very unclear what kind of country Johnson and the Brexiters think they will have left if they get their way. It’s likely to be smaller in territory and alienating to those individuals and businesses who can leave. They seem just to want to ‘win’ Brexit – any Brexit, at any cost – and even the supposedly more positive approach of Johnson (compared with May) hardly bothers to pretend that Brexit will bring any real benefits.

Of course it is possible that no deal will still be stopped by parliament, either with or without a successful legal challenge to the suspension. It’s even possible that the outrageousness of what Johnson’s government are doing will solidify and unite opposition to it. But it has to be said that MPs are themselves reaping the consequences of their earlier failures. In particular, the supine way in which they (mostly) voted to trigger Article 50, having only had the vote because of the heroic efforts of the Gina Miller case is, along with the lies of the Brexiters, one of the main reasons we are in the current situation.

Even if they stop no-deal Brexit now, it is far too late to stop most of the damage. It might do no more than lead to a General Election which, quite conceivably, Johnson would win on a no-deal ticket. It certainly won’t put an end to the bitter divisions, the viciousness and the incipient and actual violence. Because Brexit is no longer – if indeed it ever was – about the narrow, institutional question of membership of the EU. It is about the entire basis of the UK as a country and as a society. For the hard core Brexit ideologues it always was. Which means that, whether or not Britain stays in the EU, the Brexiters have already won.

Friday 9 August 2019

The August serious season before the September crisis

Considering the fact that August is usually a quiet month for politics, there’s still plenty going on and although it’s normally considered ‘silly season’ much of it has deadly serious implications.

Whilst there was never any real likelihood of substantive new negotiations taking place during the summer, we are seeing a war of words which makes it unlikely that they will ever occur. Johnson is simultaneously claiming to be ready to negotiate and insisting as a precondition that the negotiated agreement be torn up. Meanwhile, predictably but dishonestly, members of his government are pretending that the problem is that the EU are ‘refusing to negotiate’.

As ever, an easy way to see how unreasonable the Brexiters’ demands are is to envisage their reaction to the obverse scenario. In this case, that would be the EU saying that it repudiated key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and would not negotiate anything until the UK accepted that. If the UK refused then the EU would not ratify the agreement and the UK would have to put up with not having a deal. It’s not hard to imagine the howls of outrage from Brexiters and the screaming, accusatory headlines in their newspapers.

Madman theory becomes madman practice

In a recent post, before he came to office, I speculated as to what ‘variety of Nixon’ Johnson would be - meaning, in brief, whether he would use his position as a leading leaver to reach a rapprochement with the EU in the form of a superficially revised deal, or push uncompromisingly towards no deal in order to bluff or scare the EU into a totally revised deal with no backstop at all.

It’s clear that it will not be the former. If that was ever his intention, he has now backed himself too far into a corner ever to compromise without destroying himself politically. So it seems to be the latter. But there is to my mind no prospect that the EU will, or even could, acquiesce to removing the backstop.

This is not simply to do with protecting the interests of Ireland and the Northern Ireland peace process, important as both of those things are. Additionally, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, it is basic to protecting the operations of the single market. That cannot be done, as some Brexiters seem to imagine, by just saying ‘no one wants to put up a border’: a border is entailed by the UK’s red lines on the single market and customs union. In this sense, whilst the EU position is sometimes described as if it were ‘political’ rather than ‘economic’ it is, in fact, both.

Thus if Johnson continues to push the EU to make ‘concessions’ which they can’t make then no-deal Brexit becomes inevitable. If, as described in that previous post, Johnson is operating a version of Nixon’s ‘Madman theory’ then he, and we, are in trouble. That theory is meant to prevent the ‘nuclear button’ being pressed – which only a ‘madman’ would do – but if it results in pushing the other side into a corner they can’t get out of it also pushes your own side into the same corner, leaving no option other than to press the button.

The stakes here are not, of course, on anything like the scale of nuclear war but they are very high indeed and, economically, the more so for the UK by some margin. It remains to be seen, but at the moment it looks as if Johnson has miscalculated or, equally likely, that he never expected or sought anything other than no deal, despite his promises to the contrary.

To put it another way, whereas madman theory is premised on the idea that the other side is not sure if you are sane but you really are, it may be that with Johnson he really is, figuratively speaking, a ‘madman’. If so, we are in the terrain not of madman theory but madman practice – a very different matter. (A BBC World Service programme, discussing this and featuring me, was broadcast today).

The SpAd revolution

This reading is underscored by way that government seems to have been taken over by a legion of Special Advisers (SpAds) under Dominic Cummings, variously described as a “career psychopath” (by David Cameron) and as having “anger management problems” (by Nick Clegg). Many of these SpAds have a background in the Vote Leave campaign and/or the plethora of shadowy think tanks associated with extreme libertarianism and disaster capitalism. It seems highly probable, therefore, that many of them actually want no-deal Brexit or, if not, are more than happy to countenance it.

There is nothing new about SpAds having influence, but reports seem to suggest that they are being organized to ruthlessly enforce the push to no deal (£), and are exerting far more control over ministers and officials than is the norm. I’m not aware of any precedent for this, although it is the culmination of a long history of events going back, at least, to Sir Alan Walters’ role as an economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher. The conflicts that resulted led to the resignation of both him and the then Chancellor Nigel Lawson (interestingly, Walters went on to be a Referendum Party candidate whilst Lawson, of course, is now an arch-Brexiter).

The power of SpAds gradually increased under successive administrations but they have not been invulnerable. Cummings himself did not survive as SpAd to Michael Gove in the Department of Education, whilst Theresa May’s once all-powerful advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the former of whom is said to be the architect of her red lines that have caused so much damage, were ousted after their role in the ill-fated 2017 election. Now, however, it seems that the SpAds, more than ministers, are running government. If this is so, it raises fundamental and highly alarming questions about democratic legitimacy and accountability and also contributes to what I described in my most recent post as ‘government by cult’.

Parliamentary possibilities

Against this background, discussions about the scope that parliament has to prevent no-deal Brexit are taking centre-stage. I am sure that I am not alone amongst laypeople in finding these quite confusing and abstruse. Indeed, my impression is that there is a degree of confusion even amongst experts in constitutional law and parliamentary procedure.

No doubt this is in part because the current situation is in so many ways unprecedented. It also seems to be because the patchwork of law and convention that make up our uncodified constitution makes some of the issues inherently opaque, the more so when faced with an administration that seems to have little regard for established convention anyway.

My very limited understanding of these issues is based primarily upon articles by David Howarth, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Cambridge University, Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at Cambridge University, and Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at King’s College, London. All are senior, leading experts and I do suggest reading their articles rather than relying on my brief and inexpert commentary.

With this important caveat, the issues seem to fall into two categories. One is whether parliament could ‘take control of business’, as happened earlier this year, and enact legislation to seek an Article 50 extension, a referendum or even a revocation. The other is whether through a Vote of No Confidence (VONC) parliament can force a General Election and, if so, whether this could be forced to occur before the UK leaves the EU. However, these categories are not watertight, as the former process might also be used to amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act so as to ensure that if a VONC were passed an election could not be delayed until after Brexit.

A temporary Government of National Unity?

The latter consideration arises from the statement, or threat, from Dominic Cummings (£) that even if a VONC passed then Boris Johnson would simply remain as PM and not hold an election until after the scheduled Brexit day on 31 October. From this arises a further discussion: could parliament immediately install a temporary government of national unity for the purpose simply of holding an election prior to Brexit (if necessary seeking an extension from the EU for this)? Indeed might it be possible to word a VONC to actually specify the name of a PM who would command the confidence of the Commons (see this Twitter thread by George Peretz QC)?

Whether named in a VONC or not, who would lead such a temporary government? This has presented an immediate impasse. Initially, the talk was of a figure who MPs of all parties could support - perhaps someone known to be nearing the end of their career and/or with no further political ambitions. Names including Ken Clarke, Margaret Beckett, Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve have been canvassed.

However, Labour are adamant that it must be Jeremy Corbyn, and it is difficult to see how enough Labour MPs would defy him to make a temporary government viable. Yet, equally, most discussions assume that Conservative rebel MPs would not countenance him, and the LibDems are also reported to have ruled it out (£). It’s conceivable that they might shift ground on that, if it seemed that it was the only way to prevent no deal – for, after all, this would only be a very temporary government for one purpose - and, more remotely conceivable, that Corbyn might change or be forced to change his position. But already the whole idea has become mired in party tribalism and may well stay there.

All scenarios have massive difficulties

There are clearly massive difficulties and complexities associated with all of the various scenarios being discussed. All of them would depend upon parliamentary numbers, which might play out in different ways according to the different permutations. Any control of business to avert no deal would require a substantial number of Tory rebels to succeed, the exact number needed depending upon how many Labour leaver MPs would support the government. I’m not convinced that enough of the potential Tory rebels have the backbone and, as we’ve seen before, any such votes are likely to be nail-bitingly close.

As for a temporary government of national unity, despite its name, what would ‘unity’ really mean for the many millions who, undoubtedly, support no-deal Brexit even if they are not the majority? Were it to come about many would be outraged and the Brexit press would whip that up, giving fresh impetus to the Brexit Party.

But, actually, far more outrageous would be the scenario in which a minority government, having changed PM mid-term and lost a VONC, simply squats in power, delaying an election, to preside over a no-deal Brexit which is completely at odds with what voters were promised in the Referendum, has never been endorsed by any vote of any kind, and is against the wishes of the majority of MPs. And it’s no good Brexiters saying to that that the Referendum gave a mandate to leave on any terms. For, if it did, then it gave a mandate to leave on May’s terms – or, for that matter, on soft Brexit terms - both of which Brexiters repudiate.

The coming crisis

Whatever happens, it seems all but certain that the UK will experience an intensified political crisis and perhaps a full-blown constitutional crisis in September (or, conceivably, earlier if parliament were recalled, as discussed in this UCL Constitution Unit blog, though I doubt it) and it’s likely to be accompanied by a severe sterling crisis which is already incipient. That’s an alarming prospect in itself, but what is even more worrying is what comes afterwards, and I don’t think many commentators are giving enough attention to that.

There are several strands to consider. If no-deal Brexit goes ahead then, of course, there will be whatever economic disruptions and deprivations that will bring. But there will also, and partly because of that, be immediate and long-term issues about how the UK does settle its relationship with its nearest neighbour, biggest trading partner, and key international ally.

They won’t go away by virtue of no-deal Brexit, and will be made far more difficult to address by the acrimony of it. (I’ve seen a report, which unfortunately I did not keep a record of, and now can’t find to link to*, that the UK has already asked the EU how quickly post-no-deal talks could begin, and received a very frosty response).

Political and cultural dislocation

Even more important, perhaps, will be the domestic political and cultural dislocation. Johnson talks of getting Brexit done and bringing the county together. But there is not the remotest prospect of the latter happening after no-deal Brexit. The impacts on the Union will be huge, for a start. And at least half the country, who do not want Brexit in any form but might have accepted it in a soft form, will have had Brexit in this most extreme form inflicted upon them. All the divisions we already see will be exacerbated and inflamed.

Nor are the prospects much better if no deal is averted. It’s true that this would avoid the economic shock (though don’t think that the UK would immediately be regarded as a stable place to invest) but the cultural divisions would remain and be ramped up. Another referendum would be unlikely to help, unless perhaps it yielded a decisive (say 60-40, one way or the other) result which is a very remote possibility.

This isn’t at all to say that there is a moral equivalence between these two scenarios. On the contrary, the attempt to push through no-deal Brexit represents an undemocratic political fraud without any precedent I can think of. It has no mandate from either the Referendum or any election and every claim to the contrary by Brexiters is grotesquely dishonest. By contrast, attempts to hold another referendum are highly principled. They do not seek to prevent the electorate deciding their fate, but to enable it to do so.

Where there is an equivalence, it is not moral but socio-cultural. Both scenarios will be equally divisive and equally viciously contested for many years to come. I’ve said a few times on this blog that, for some time now, there have been no good solutions available. I now think that there aren’t any bad solutions either. Indeed, increasingly, I think there are no solutions at all.

The complexities, contradictions, fantasies and sheer lies of Brexit have simply overwhelmed the capacity of our political system to cope with them.

 *Source here, courtesy of Steen Carndorf @Carndorf
I will be taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and will start posting again in the first week of September.