Friday, 8 November 2019

All quiet on the Brexit front

As prefigured in my previous post, this election campaign looks set to avoid any serious discussion of Brexit. That is actually quite extraordinary. We have a country whose politics and culture have been convulsed by Brexit for the last three years, and will be for years to come. A country whose entire future and place in the world will be shaped by what happens with Brexit. A country where there is not a single area of policy that Brexit does not affect. Nothing sensible can be said about government spending or taxation without reference to the impact of Brexit but, equally, environmental, security, foreign, diplomatic and defence policies are all intertwined with Brexit, as are debates about Irish reunification, Scottish independence and even, if perhaps less audibly, Welsh independence.

Moreover, the election itself was called solely because of the parliamentary impasse over Brexit. Many former MPs, especially though not exclusively women, are not standing for election because of abuse they have received – from both sides; remainer piety is quite misplaced here - over Brexit. And the conduct of the campaign, with police warnings to MPs not to canvass alone after dark, is also shaped by Brexit.

The last two things in particular are a democratic disgrace. We hear plenty about how, if Brexit is not done, there will be riots on the streets (though there is little evidence for this), but far too little about how women who have the temerity to stand for public office, and their families, are subjected to graphic threats of rape, mutilation, and murder because of their views about Brexit. This should be front and centre of the national debate during the campaign by asking: what kind of political culture has the Brexit convulsion encouraged, if not created?

So Brexit isn’t just ‘an issue’ in this election. It is the beginning and the end of it. And if people are fed up with hearing about it, well, that’s just tough luck. It flows directly from how people voted in the 2016 Referendum that they would be hearing about it for years thereafter and, as we have been endlessly told, it is outrageous elitism to say that they didn’t know what they were voting for.

The Brexit Party

It’s true that the Brexit Party are talking about Brexit, but certainly not in a serious way. A big development since my last post is that Farage has come out in clear opposition to Johnson’s deal, describing it as not being ‘real Brexit’ and not what people (the whole 17.4 million, of course) had voted for. He threatens to stand a candidate – though not, notably, himself, perhaps indicating what he thinks of the prospects of election – in every seat unless Johnson eschews his deal and embraces ‘clean Brexit’ (although it’s worth paying very careful attention to how Farage has subsequently started to slightly soften the terms of his demands).

But this clean Brexit is a total nonsense. As outlined in his campaign launch speech, it rests on the endlessly discredited proposition that it is possible to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement and ‘invoke’ GATT Article XXIV (Brexiters seem to have persuaded themselves that anything called ‘an article’ can, like Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, be unilaterally triggered). Even ERG leader Steve Baker has now cottoned on to the falsity of that (compare with last June). It is a nonsense in the strictest sense of the word because, stripped to its core, it is saying “we don’t need a deal because we can have a deal”. (My blog post from last June provides a more detailed summary, with links to underlying analysis). Farage also seems to have the peculiar idea that any deal to leave, because it would entail a treaty, would necessarily betray Brexit just by virtue of being a treaty (perhaps they also think that all treaties are the Lisbon Treaty).

A particular twist on this idiocy is that Farage and others have convinced themselves that what GATT XXIV means is that there would be years in which nothing would change whilst their new ‘Canada-style’ FTA was negotiated. This is based on a complete fallacy anyway, but even if it were not then it what it would mean would be the UK remaining in the single market and customs union, in a kind of extended transition period – a rule-taker, subject to EU Law and ECJ jurisdiction. Yet one of Farage’s key complaints about the Withdrawal Agreement is that it entails a transition period in which the UK is, in Brexiter terms, a ‘vassal state’. So even in its own wholly mistaken terms the Brexit Party policy is completely incoherent.

Farage’s (first?) offer

Of course, it wasn’t very long ago, during the Tory leadership campaign, that Johnson himself was blustering on about GATT XXIV but he no longer does so. The assumption must be that his civil servants have managed to explain to him its utter fatuity. But, even if that were not so, there is no way that he will accept the (initial) Farage ‘offer’, for two reasons.

One is the deep antagonism between Farage and Dominic Cummings. In a way, what we are seeing now is the final playing out of the hostility between Vote Leave and Leave.EU in 2016. The other is that Johnson’s entire raison d’etre is – like Cameron’s in calling the Referendum – to remove Farage (whether as UKIP or BXP) from the board. That can’t be done by forming a pact with him. So, unless Farage shifts ground – and that is possible, as it is notable that senior people in his camp including Arron Banks are urging it, and as noted above there are some signs of softening – he is set to split the Brexit vote and, conceivably, to put paid to Brexit altogether.

If that were to happen, then it would be the ultimate consequence of one of the central dynamics of the entire Brexit process. For, over and over again, whenever any form of Brexit gets defined, the Ultra Brexiters reject it as not being real Brexit, and insist that only a harder form will do. Thus, immediately after the Referendum, the soft Brexit of single market membership was disowned as being no different to EU membership – even though many Brexiters had campaigned for just that for years. Then May’s hard Brexit deal was trashed as BRINO (Brexit in Name Only). And now Johnson’s deal, harder still, is ludicrously dismissed by Farage as ‘virtually the same’ as staying in the EU.

It is a story of grotesque political and intellectual dishonesty and if it ends up with Brexiters losing Brexit altogether then their fate will be richly deserved. It is deeply ironic – and, from the outside, rather delicious – to see diehards like Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker pleading with Farage to be reasonable (£). That irony might appeal to Theresa May, although had she had any sense she would have realised that the Ultras were unappeasable rather than manacling herself to them, only to find out just how unappeasable they are. I don’t know who first coined the line that the Brexiters refuse to take yes for an answer, but it’s an apt one.

The core explanation for that, as I have droned on about endlessly on the blog, is that the hard core Brexiters don’t want Brexit at all: they want to be perpetual victims, perpetual campaigners, perpetually betrayed. Winning the referendum was their nightmare, not their triumph. And this goes to the heart of present conflict between Farage and Johnson. For whilst Farage, as a ‘true’ Brexiter, wants to be a perpetual campaigner, Johnson, who was always a Brexit fellow-traveller, wants power.

Don’t mention Brexit

But at least the Brexit Party are talking about Brexit, however wrongheadedly. Neither Johnson nor any other Tory politician is saying much about it at all, still less explaining what is good about Johnson’s deal. There are just glib assertions that it is a ‘good deal’ which ‘will get Brexit done’. Not only is no reason given why it is good but, bizarrely, neither Johnson nor anyone else any longer pretends that Brexit itself is good. It just has to be done because … it has to be done.

Yet even ‘getting it done’ is a misnomer. Even if Johnson wins the election and passes the Withdrawal Agreement, we will enter a new process (under different rules) in which all the trade-offs and complexities that have so far been ignored will be in the headlines night after night, along with new deadlines and cliff edges. As for that, in the past Johnson has said he would not extend the transition period to complete future terms negotiations. Then, last weekend, he hedged about it. Since then, a ‘Number 10 spokesperson’ and other Tories have since said he definitely won’t. But the reality is that he almost certainly will, given the economic cost of not doing so.

There are layers and layers of confusion and dishonesty to peel away in all this. Farage’s recently softened position calls for Johnson to eschew an extended transition, and regulatory alignment, and go for a ‘Canada-style’ deal. But this is, effectively, what Johnson, or at least his spokespeople, has already committed to. So if the opinion polls worsen for the Conservatives we might yet, conceivably, see a Johnson-Farage pact, despite all the arguments against that, as given above.

Yet it is a position based on a lie, given that the transition period very likely will be extended, as Johnson says from the other side of his mouth, and even a Canada style FTA will entail a greater degree of alignment than either Johnson or Farage recognize, or admit. It’s all but impossible to assess what either of them will do because both are so semi-detached from the truth and neither seems really to understand any of the terms that they use. The consequence is that the entire debate between the two of them (or their acolytes) has become so convoluted as to be meaningless.

A gift for Labour?

All this should be a gift for Labour. Brexit is the most comprehensively disastrous economic policy and the most anti-business policy any political party has pursued in modern British history. Johnson’s deal should be being pulled apart for the wanton destruction it will wreak on the service sector and on significant parts of manufacturing – significant also for being those parts where the high-skill, high-wage jobs, that any Labour Party worthy of the name should want to defend, predominate. It’s being done without, even, an economic impact assessment. And Brexit has already had a major impact on business investment and caused a significant currency devaluation. In these circumstances, Labour should have shredded any Tory pretensions to being the party of economic competence, or of business.

But Labour don’t want to talk much about Brexit, either. Their line that Johnson has “hijacked Brexit” is a tactically astute one because it gives Labour leave voters a ladder to climb down (i.e. that they are not going to get what they voted for in good faith in the Referendum). Yet they say little about why Johnson’s deal is a terrible one. Their main line of attack is that it will usher in a UK-US trade deal which will sell off the NHS. Again, that may be good tactics, by linking to a core Labour campaign strength, but a serious critique of Johnson’s EU deal would demolish its entire economic basis, and also drill down into the fact that no one knows how any of this is going to work, especially as regards Northern Ireland – for example, in terms of the operation of the Joint Committee that will oversee GB-NI trade.

On the other hand, even now, Labour are not clear about what Brexit deal they would aim for, and why that would be good. A customs union, yes, but their position on the single market remains as ambiguous as ever. To still be talking, as Jeremy Corbyn did in his launch speech, about a “close single market relationship” three years after the Referendum is worse than pitiful. Is the policy single market membership, or not?

I don’t join with those who castigate the Labour ‘renegotiation then referendum’ position for being too prolix. It’s actually not much different to Cameron’s position at the 2015 election and no one said that that was too difficult to understand. Nor would the scenario – which would presumably emerge, although it hasn’t yet been confirmed - of Labour politicians then campaigning both for and against the deal in a further referendum be any different to what the Tories did in 2016 (or Labour, in 1975). But they need to spell out what it is they would seek to negotiate, and what the costs would be of their deal if they achieved it (bearing in mind that even soft Brexit has costs), and to talk in detail about time frames for this and for another referendum.

I said in my previous post that it would be important not just for politicians to focus on the realities of Brexit but for journalists to try to force them to do so and, actually, there are plenty of good examples of this. For example, at the campaign launch the BBC’s Norman Smith did ask both about single market membership (and, hence what this would mean for freedom of movement) and timeframes, although Corbyn did not give straight answers. Even so the questions are being asked, and that is a start.

It will be interesting to see both Corbyn and Johnson come under forensic scrutiny in long, set-piece interviews with tough inquisitors. Corbyn is, to an extent, a known quantity and he performed well (at least compared with Theresa May – admittedly not an extravagantly high bar) in such interviews in 2017. Johnson, I think, might crumble. He certainly didn’t do well in that format during the leadership campaign.

Other parties: what if parliament is hung?

Beyond the main parties, it is perhaps unfair to say that the LibDems don’t talk about Brexit, since remaining in the EU is their central policy. Their commitment to revoke Article 50 without a referendum if they form a majority government is crystal clear (though, in my view, seriously misguided), and their talk of a ‘remain dividend’ is, like Labour’s ‘hijacking Brexit’, a good tactical line. But, even in these strange times, we know that there will not be a LibDem majority.

So from them we need to know precisely what stance they would take in the scenario of a Labour minority administration. It is clear enough they would not enter into a coalition. But to what extent would they provide the support needed to get to a referendum and, in particular, a referendum on Labour’s terms of ‘Labour deal versus remain’?

Jo Swinson’s recent comments seemed to make it clear that they would not, which seems extraordinarily misguided but needs to be clarified, either way. We really need to know whether the LibDems are going to play the mirror-image role of the Brexit Ultras – insisting on the  ‘purity’ of revoke – or be pragmatic enough to say that any referendum with ‘remain’ on the ballot paper is good enough.

To an extent, similar questions apply to the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, the various Independents, and perhaps even the DUP. How the SNP (in particular, given their likely numerical strength) would act in relation to a minority Labour administration needs to be spelt out in words of one syllable, beyond the obvious, and entirely reasonable, expectation that an independence referendum would be a requirement for any cooperation. That could be highly relevant to how remainers vote in Scottish marginals.

Such questions are always asked in elections but, this time, with another hung parliament a real prospect and so much hanging on the outcome, they have become absolutely crucial.

What does this add up to?

I’m not going to use this blog to give a blow by blow account of the campaign – there’s more than enough commentary on that available – but solely to focus on what it means for Brexit. From that point of view, the issues remain as stated in my last post: everything depends on what the Brexit Party does and upon the extent to which the remain vote consolidates.

If the Brexit Party stick to their original line, the chances of Brexit are now slightly reduced. The evidence suggests that they will take far more votes from previous Tory voters than from previous Labour voters. On the other hand, even if they don’t depart from that line, it would not be a huge surprise if Farage refrains from running against hard core Brexiter candidates, mainly Tories, in marginal seats. It seems plausible that his claim that many such candidates have approached him to do that is true.

On the remain side, the pact between the LibDems, Greens and Plaid Cymru – as well as individual deals with independents such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry – may make a crucial difference to the result in perhaps a quarter of the 60 or so seats where it applies. It would be far more sensible, from a remain point of view, for there to be a formal Lib-Lab agreement, but that clearly isn’t going to happen.

As for tactical voting, the jury is out as to what remainers will do will do. What they need to do is clear. As Simon Wren-Lewis argues in detail, LibDem voters need to vote Labour in Labour marginals; the converse will be true for Labour remainer voters in some Tory-held marginals, especially in and around London. Indeed, even some nominally safe Tory seats, such as John Redwood’s, could be vulnerable to tactical voting.

The key dynamic of what those who prioritise remaining in the EU above everything else will do may not be hugely affected by the campaign. For them (although in some constituencies it may be difficult to work out what this leads to), all they can do is to cast their vote in the way most likely to see a Tory defeat, even if it means voting for a party they detest. Their numbers might, of course, be diminished if one or other of the parties did something during the campaign that was too detestable to bear.

On the other hand, their numbers might be swelled if the campaign ever does focus with intense practicality on Brexit. Although one might think that, surely, everyone now knows what they think about Brexit, a recent Sky/ YouGov poll shows that 10% still ‘don’t know’ and, perhaps much more importantly, that 33% don’t know what they think of Johnson’s deal. In fact, that seam is being most effectively mined by Farage at the moment, with his talk of Johnson having concealed the truth of his deal and having tried to rush it through parliament to avoid that truth becoming known.

Of course, Farage’s account is entirely topsy-turvy: the truth Johnson’s deal conceals is not that it ‘isn’t Brexit’, but that it is Brexit in its hardest form apart from no-deal. And if parliament prevented it being rushed through then, if it was really not Brexit, that hardly squares with a ‘remainer parliament’ thwarting Brexit. So it is all gibberish. Even so, remain parties could learn at least this from Farage: getting voters to focus on what is coming down the track if Johnson wins and gets his deal through is critical. Even more critical is for those parties, unlike Farage, to get them to do so with honesty and factual accuracy.

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