Friday, 13 December 2019

The Brexit dystopia bequeathed by this election

Today is a bitter moment for those of us who think that Brexit is an unmitigated disaster. Even if it were not for Brexit, the prospect of a country run by a compulsive liar whose fake bonhomie scarcely conceals a priapic, vicious, moral void would be a woeful one.

That he won on the basis of a campaign characterised by mendacity, cowardice and divisiveness says something about what plenty of voters find appealing, quite as much as it does about Johnson and his strategists. It leaves others of us, as Rafael Behr eloquently wrote in anticipation of this result, “with the undertow of sadness and dread … like seeing callous hands rummaging in a private drawer where a delicate, tangled identity is stored and pulling at the threads. It feels like exile”.

There will be endless inquests into how and why this result came about, indeed they have already begun. But its consequence so far as Brexit is concerned is clear. It marks the end of any lingering hope that it might be avoided. Ever since the Referendum that hope has waxed and waned. As of today it is stone cold dead.

The UK will leave the EU at the end of January 2020.

The underlying dynamics of Brexit are unchanged

Yet, as I and many others have stressed since the outset, Brexit is not an event but a process, and neither this election result nor the departure in January mark an end to that process. On the contrary, we will see a continuation of the core dynamics which have characterised it from the beginning. These dynamics, which have featured in some way in almost every post on this blog, are threefold. They bear repeating because although some commentators are already beginning to talk of a new political landscape some, at least, of its topography is going to be wearily familiar.

The first and most central is the basic fact that the Referendum vote was to leave the EU but it was not a vote for what should come afterwards or for what form Brexit should take. Nothing which has happened in the last three years has come anywhere close to answering that unasked question. And opportunities to do so in this election campaign (like that of 2017) have been deliberately squandered. Johnson said nothing of substance about Brexit other than that it would be done.

From this derive the second and third dynamics. The second is to do with the internal politics of the Tory Party and its three decades of civil war about Europe. This is characterised by a group of hardliners, who we nowadays identify as being the ERG but probably includes others, who will never be satisfied with any form of Brexit and will always push for a still harder version. Whenever that is conceded – in the vain hope of gaining their support – they make a new and harder demand. They are still present, many of them are likely to be in the cabinet, and they will still follow this pattern.

The third dynamic is to do with how the government – any government seeking to undertake Brexit, regardless of the size of its majority – must deliver something which is inherently damaging to the national interest in a way which is not totally disastrous to the extent, potentially, of causing serious economic dislocation and civil disorder. As the first Blair government found with the much less extensive chaos caused by the fuel protests in 2000, even a large parliamentary majority does not shield a government from political crisis in such circumstances.

Because of the first dynamic, this entails turning the vague and contradictory promises of the Brexiters into concrete policy. Because of the second dynamic, this immediately brings the government into conflict with the Brexit Ultras who denounce the policy as not being ‘real Brexit’.

Almost everything that has happened since June 2016 grows out of these three things, and they will all continue to be in play now because they present an insoluble conundrum. Alongside them is another factor – time pressure – which has also been present in the process since the point that Article 50 was triggered and which is going to be a constant feature in what is to come, not least because of Johnson’s own promises.

Passing the WAB

Concretely, Johnson’s first task is going to be to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) passed in time for a January exit, alongside the other necessary legislation. That is a very tight timetable, and having failed to die in his self-imposed ditch in October it is not a date that Johnson will now let slip. And whilst he will face little opposition from Labour and the LibDems, who are in total disarray, he could be vulnerable to Tory MPs seeking changes.

This time, the potential rebels will not be from the remainer and anti-no dealer wing of Tory Party – that has been all but expunged – but from the ERG who scuppered May’s Brexit. Since there is no public membership list we don’t know their number, but it is usually estimated at around 60 and so enough to do serious harm even to a government with a majority nearing 80.

Although they voted for the first reading of Johnson’s WAB in the last parliament, they did so in part because that parliament had shown – with the Benn Act – that it could and would block a no-deal Brexit. That meant that the Ultras risked losing Brexit altogether if they did not back Johnson’s deal. So even the self-styled ‘Spartans’ fell into line, despite their earlier threats not to. But many, if not all, of them are hostile to it. Some would be hostile to any Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and believe, as Johnson used to, that no financial settlement should have been agreed. Others are opposed to the Northern Ireland-only ‘frontstop’ that is the principal difference between May’s and Johnson’s deals, and which Johnson used to denounce as a betrayal of the Union.

I suspect that many in the ERG will now be thinking that Johnson’s deal was only the bastard offspring of May’s ill-fated premiership and the ‘remainer parliament’, and feel no allegiance to it. They kept quiet during the election campaign, which required them to pledge support for Johnson’s deal, but that won’t necessarily last.

For one thing, many of them are rebels by temperament, with a track record going back in some cases to John Major’s premiership, and ruthlessly indifferent to party loyalty or discipline. For another, it became slightly clearer during the campaign just what Johnson’s WA means in terms of checks on goods moving in both directions across the sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. His blustering denial of this during the campaign will not survive a moment’s scrutiny of the WAB, and the ERG might decide to pounce on it.

With all that said, in the aftermath of his fresh election victory and on a scale that was so unexpected, it is far more likely that the ERG will keep their powder dry. But all that means is that even as Brexit ‘gets done’ they will hold on to the belief that the WA meant that ‘this was not really Brexit’ and will be watching keenly – in both senses of the word – for further ‘betrayals’.

After the WAB

So Johnson will get his WAB passed more or less intact and the transition period will begin. But then a new set of problems will immediately arise. All of the detailed issues about Brexit which the election campaign failed to discuss will come to the fore, and with them the ERG will certainly come back to life.

Overall, the question will be how close a relationship to seek with the EU, but it’s crucial to understand that this won’t be a matter of a single decision taken at a single moment. Rather, it will have to be made for almost every sector of the British economy, with most business and other lobbies fighting hard for their sector to keep a closer relationship. The same will apply to non-trade areas, such as security and science.

Each one of these decisions will re-open the split in the Tory Party between those who want a very distant relationship and those who want a closer one. Those splits will potentially include the new dimension brought by Tory MPs representing former Labour seats in the North of England. They are likely to want closer links to the EU to reduce damage to jobs and public services in those constituencies.

Nor will the future relationship just be about domestic politics. What happens will also depend upon what kind of relationship the EU wants to have with the UK – something almost entirely ignored in the domestic UK debate - which itself is likely to involve accommodating the different priorities of different member states. And all the time there will be the lurking issue of a possible trade deal with the US – seen, quite wrongly, as a great prize by the Brexiters – and the extent to which this conflicts with whatever is being negotiated with the EU.

What all this will reflect is the underlying fact that there is still no agreement within the UK, or within the Tory Party, about what future terms it is seeking or, in other words, what Brexit means. This was exactly the reason why, after the end of phase 1 of the Article 50 talks, no substantive progress was made in phase 2. In that respect, nothing has been changed by the election because it was barely discussed.

The transition period crisis

The immediate crisis which this will provoke will come quite soon after ‘Brexit day’ because, as with the Article 50 process, there will be a tight and looming deadline. This time, it will be the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. But the more immediate deadline will be 1 July by when the UK will have needed to make an application to extend the transition period, if it is going to. Johnson has sworn not to do so, committed not to in the manifesto, and insisted that every Tory candidate also explicitly commit to that. If he tries to renege on this self-inflicted constraint then he will open a major conflict with the ERG and within his government.

But if he does not, then there will be an acceleration of business relocations, continuing deferred or diverted business investment, and significant downward pressure on the pound. For no one serious believes that a trade deal can be completed by the end of the transition period, a point underscored this week by Michel Barnier. The alternative will be a ‘WTO Brexit’ and a major economic crisis. Moreover, it is already clear that, even if a ‘bare bones’ trade deal - whatever that really means in practice – could be done, the new customs arrangements and systems needed are highly unlikely to be ready by December 2020 and possibly not for quite a while thereafter.

Some, though not all, observers believe that even if no extension had been sought by July then as the end of 2020 approached the EU would still be amenable to doing so (just to avoid the disruption). Domestically, it might perhaps be dressed up in some face-saving language rather than being called a transition period extension. But it would certainly involve continued budget payments and, of course, continued adherence to EU rules and ECJ judgments but with very limited involvement or input from the UK. It is hard to see how such ‘vassal statehood’, to use Johnson’s term, could provoke anything but a major political crisis in the Tory Party.

A dystopian future

Yet, even assuming that an extension were agreed and the political crisis weathered, that would not solve anything. All of the same dilemmas and disputes would exist, just with a new deadline of whatever that might be. It’s perfectly possible that, by the time that next deadline got reached, some or most of them would still be unresolved and it would be extended yet again.

At this distance in time it is impossible to predict what such a scenario would look like, but a reasonable guess is that by then the opposition parties will have re-grouped, and that there will be a vibrant campaign movement to re-join the EU. But the civil service will be in meltdown after years of having been asked to deliver an undeliverable policy. Many EU nationals will have left, along with many of those UK nationals with the skills and mobility to do so.  There will be (at very best) a stagnant economy, with a declining fiscal position and major labour shortages, especially in the NHS and social care.

As for leavers, by the time we get to this point I think they will have divided into three groups. One will vociferously insist that it would have been fine if only their various versions of ‘true Brexit’ had been followed. The second will be denying that they had ever supported Brexit at all. The third group will probably be supporting a new, more or less openly fascist, party.

This is the best case scenario, in that it’s based on the assumption of continued extension(s) of the transition period, and says nothing about whatever non-Brexit horrors lie in wait in terms of, for example, human rights legislation. Nor does it say anything about the other huge consequences of the election result in terms of the likely impetus to Scottish independence and Irish reunification. Both of those, whatever merits they may have for their advocates, imply ending up with an English nationalist fragment of what was once the United Kingdom.

This is the grim dystopia that the British electorate, as distilled by the absurdities of the British electoral system, has just voted for. The coming years are going to be very ugly indeed.

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