Friday, 22 November 2019

The non-debate of the non-leaders

As regards Brexit, at least, this week’s televised Leaders’ Debate lived up to its billing in every respect apart from the lack of any meaningful debate and the total absence of anything resembling leadership.

As regards the former, some blame can be laid with the widely-criticised staging and format, which was lifeless and wooden, and encouraged – even forced – the participants to be confined to brief and largely unexamined slogans. Even so, the awful truth is that, whatever the format, we did actually hear all that they have to say about Brexit.

It will be very surprising if much more gets revealed in any other debate or interview that occurs during the campaign. The Labour manifesto, published since the debates, certainly says no more than Corbyn did and it is very unlikely that the Conservative manifesto, whenever it appears, will provide more than we have had from Johnson.

To that extent, it’s worth analysing what little they did say in the debate for what it shows about Brexit, about the state of the election campaign, and about what may lie ahead.

Brexit won’t ‘get done’

Boris Johnson – apart from a brief lie denying that his deal entailed an Irish sea border - for the most part confined himself to repeating variants of his stock line about ‘getting Brexit done’ by the end of January. The audience laughter that greeted some of these assertions – and especially the crack from the moderator, Julie Etchingham, about whether there would be another Brexit Day coin – suggested a degree of public scepticism about this. It perhaps also reflected that, as with May’s ‘strong and stable’ auto-line, scripted slogans grate horribly when endlessly repeated at the same event.

Such scepticism is well-founded but needs to be unpacked. One aspect of it is the crucial fact that, as all informed people know, if Brexit happens at the end of January it will be just the beginning, not the end, of the more complex and difficult negotiations that will need to happen. So the honest answer to the questioner who wanted an assurance that ‘we won’t be talking about Brexit forever’ would have been that, come what may, we will be.

That is a fact most recently underlined by an excellent overview in Prospect by Alex Dean this week of how Johnson’s deal leaves open the possibility of a new kind of no-deal cliff edge, by Philip Stephens’ analysis in the FT (£) that it will lead to Britain “spending the next several years deciding what that [doing Brexit] means”, and by RTE’s Tony Connelly’s detailed explanation of what would follow just in terms of negotiations about fisheries.

Meanwhile, a run-through of the fixed menu of trade options and their trade-offs for post-Brexit Britain was provided by Alan Beattie, also in the FT (£). As soon as these trade-offs have to be confronted, the Tory Party will resume the civil war between the economic pragmatism of closer ties versus the ERG purism of cutting all ties.

A further reminder of the tangles that Britain is going to face if Johnson’s deal goes ahead came with the report that several countries, including the US, Australia and Brazil, are raising several issues – including possible compensation and possible challenges to the Northern Ireland arrangements – with the WTO. That should not be a surprise, and is just one aspect of the never-ending process that Brexit involves. And although the focus is most often on trade, there are a myriad of other issues, perhaps especially security co-operation. These issues are going to dominate British politics post-Brexit, yet Johnson has nothing whatsoever to say about them in this election.

In the TV debate, Jeremy Corbyn did make the point that Johnson’s deal would not mark the end of Brexit, but muffed it by conflating the ongoing negotiations with the EU and those which would be taking place to secure a US trade deal and the possible consequences of that in terms of NHS privatization. The latter may be a politically potent point line, but it confuses two different arguments: one is about the never-ending nature of the Brexit process, the other is about one of things that Brexit may lead to. Corbyn clearly wanted to get on to his comfort zone of the NHS but in the process let Johnson off the hook on his central campaign pledge of getting Brexit done.

Johnson isn’t just dishonest, he’s unrealistic

But scepticism about Johnson’s promise to get Brexit done is not just about the obvious fact that it won’t be achieved simply by ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. It is also about his ill-judged and unambiguous promise to have done so by 31 October. That intersects with concerns about his pathological dishonesty (which audience laughter also implicitly recognized) but it is also about the slightly different matter of his realism and judgment. For although he again repeated his line that parliament had stymied Brexit he must have known when he made all his ‘do or die’ promises what the nature and arithmetic of that parliament was – not least since he, himself, had twice voted against May’s deal, thus scuppering Brexit back in March.

So the issue isn’t just about the lies he tells the public, it is about his own inability to know the realities of what is and is not possible (or, perhaps, he just lies to himself as much as he does to others). After all, just as he again said during the debate that the end of 2020 is ample time to conclude a trade deal with the EU so, in December 2016, when he like many others was under the illusion that a trade deal as a well as the Withdrawal Agreement could be done as part of the Article 50 process, he claimed that eighteen months “absolutely ample” to get a “great deal”. Having apparently learned nothing from the last three years,  his current stance is setting himself up for an enormous fall – and his supporters for a horrible disappointment - if he wins and then, come 2020, he has to be talking about Brexit day in and day out.

This lack of realism or honesty, or both, was also evident in a passing and perhaps inadvertent comment from Johnson during the debate about the need to “end this national misery” of the Brexit process. That shows quite some neck. It was, after all, Johnson who played the leading role in inflicting on the country a process for which he and his fellow-campaigners had deliberately made no plan, and which he and they were warned would be horribly protracted and complex, and which he himself contributed to prolonging. It is, in any case, quite a walk from doing Brexit to enter the sunny uplands and doing so to (supposedly) ‘end the misery’!

Corbyn is equally unrealistic

Nor can Jeremy Corbyn be exempt from the charge of lack of realism. Thus at one stage in the debate he, too, spoke of doing a trade deal with Europe and then holding a referendum. But even if he were to come to power and complete a renegotiation that, too, would only be of the Withdrawal Agreement (and Political Declaration). If a referendum then endorsed it he, too, would still then have to undertake the actual trade negotiation. If the referendum went the other way, there would be the political backlash of that for a long time to come.

So even if Labour’s three months to renegotiate, then another three months for a referendum timetable were feasible – and there are considerable doubts about that, as Jess Sargeant of the Institute for Government has explained – it would not mark the end of Brexit.

Moreover, even now, in this week’s debate he (like the subsequent Labour manifesto) was still touting the line that the ultimate aim is close relationship with the single market, but refusing to specify whether this takes the form of membership of the single market or whether he, too, wants a form of free trade agreement. These are two fundamentally different ways of conducting trade, with very different consequences.

If it is to be the former, then what about freedom of movement? And if it is the latter, how can that fail to be anything other than economically damaging compared with single market membership? As a formulation, a ‘close relationship’ is meaningless, taking us right back to the basic ambiguity that has permeated the Brexit debate from the very outset. Worse still, it simply defers and ignores the actual decisions he would have to make within hours of winning an election in just three weeks’ time.

The other obvious failure in Corbyn’s position – which Johnson repeatedly jabbed at, and the audience also jeered about – was his refusal to say whether or not he would campaign for his hypothetical deal or for remain in the future referendum he proposes. He continued to do so at the manifesto launch. What is especially irritating about this is that, actually, Corbyn has at least two perfectly good answers he could have given.

One would be to say, as Cameron did of his pre-referendum ‘renegotiation’, that it would depend on the outcome of that. A second, strategically better, answer would be to say that he would at that point remain neutral. Such a response now would enable him to say what he is trying, ineffectively, to say already: that he, unlike Johnson, proposes to govern for both remainers and leavers and not be a partisan for just one side.

That could be a powerful message to a country fed up with, and frightened by, division. And, strategically, it would mean that if and when it comes to a referendum, the result of which would be highly uncertain, he would not be tainted by the result as he would be if it went against whatever he had campaigned for.

The failure of leadership

According to YouGov polling, viewer opinion as to who performed best was evenly split, but a clear majority (63%) thought Johnson was stronger on Brexit. My own view is that they were equally poor and that we learned nothing at all about what the two leaders think about Brexit. The reason for that is simple: there is nothing to learn.

Perhaps that is fitting, since neither of them has ever been much interested in Brexit, Corbyn because he sees it as a distraction from his political project and Johnson because he sees it as a vehicle for his personal career. Certainly neither has ever shown any interest whatsoever in the complex details of what Brexit entails. The result is that we are about to vote in an election defined by Brexit, with all the consequences it will have, when the person who will be Prime Minister has nothing of substance to say about what we will be voting for.

Real leadership would include an honest explanation to the public that, whatever happens, Brexit is going to frame political events for years, whether Tories or Labour win. For that matter, it would be true if there were to be LibDem government which revoked Article 50, for in those (admittedly unlikely) circumstances Brexiters are certainly not just going to disappear quietly. Yet Swinson – shamefully excluded from the ITV debate – has never discussed how her revocation policy is going to address the outcry that would inevitably follow.

That scenario aside, it is all but certain that either Johnson or Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister. It is now eight months since the CBI and the TUC issued an unprecedented joint statement describing Brexit as a “national emergency”. Since then, it has continued to exact its toll on the social, political and economic fabric.

Yet there is no sign at all that either man has the ability or willingness to spell out, in precise and pragmatic terms, how to deal with this emergency. There is no sign from either of the kind of leadership which would be needed either to deliver Brexit or to avert Brexit There is not even any sign that either of them recognizes that it is an emergency. And there is no sign that either understands what they will be dealing with the moment one or other takes office.

We know all this, because it was played out in what they said – and did not say – in their non-debate this week. We won’t be able to say that we had no warning.

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