Thursday 9 April 2020

Brexit stasis

The delusion that the Brexit negotiations are ongoing, as discussed in my previous post, continues and in doing so becomes ever more surreal. Last Friday, spokespeople for both the UK and EU stated that each side was analysing and clarifying the other’s draft texts. David Frost apparently talked to Michel Barnier’s deputy this week, and Michael Gove wrote of ‘recognising the importance of negotiations’ (within the Joint Committee framework) over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Meanwhile, a still convalescing Michel Barnier said he’d be talking to David Frost next week to organise future negotiating rounds.  In short, nothing of significance is happening.

This is entirely unsurprising and has been evident for weeks: the coronavirus crisis is, rightly and necessarily, all-encompassing. So there are thin pickings for any analysis of Brexit, although of note is the launch of LSE’s new weekly Brexit news round up. Such analysis remains warranted, despite the gravity of other events precisely since, despite those events, Brexit continues to tick away in the background.

The extension debate

In substance, though, all that matters is the debate about if, whether, when, and how the transition period might be extended. In that regard, Professor Simon Usherwood of Surrey University has written a smart ‘devil’s advocate’ argument as to why it should not be, whilst Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government has provided an analysis of the EU perspective on extension.

From within the EU come reports that the idea of completing a deal before the end of the year are “fantasy”, although no official statement of this sort has been made. The UK government remains unequivocally committed to the existing timetable and the doctrinaire Brexiter position (£) is that any extension is unthinkable. A tiny sign that this position may be cracking came this week when Nick de Bois (described as a “leading Brexiter” although I must confess that, despite probably following Brexit more closely than most, I had never heard of him before) called for its abandonment (£). Leading figure or not, he is a former aide to Dominic Raab who most certainly is. De Bois’ argument, quite logically, is that the public would not forgive any diversion from dealing with the pandemic.

The key issue, picked up on by Peter Foster, now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times, is that pushing ahead on the existing timetable would not just be a diversion, but a self-inflicted one. I think this is insufficiently understood by those who anticipate the government using coronavirus as a cover for leaving with no deal (or some very limited deal), pretending that the adverse effects of the latter were just part of the fall out of the former. That’s a possibility, of course, but it would be a monumental political gamble to assume that, outside of a hard core of leave voters, the public would swallow it.

Imagine the situation if after – perhaps, for none of us know how coronavirus will play out – a series of intermittent lockdowns throughout 2020 the UK finally emerges from the casualties, sufferings, fears and privations of these to suddenly encounter new disruptions and a new crisis at the beginning of January. Reputable current forecasts suggest that GDP will have fallen by over 5%, the biggest recession in UK post-war history. And people are unlikely to be using the ‘that’s your bloody GDP, not ours’ line of the Referendum, given the likely impact on employment (though there are other views on this) quite apart from all the other thing they will have had to endure. Tell them then that to keep the true flame of Brexit alive another few per cent must be lopped off and I suspect the backlash would be huge.

Coronavirus and Brexit entwined

In that scenario, coronavirus and Brexit would have been decoupled, in that people would see their effects as separate. But, of course, for now the political reality (and in many ways the practical reality as well) is that the two are completely intertwined, as I have been arguing since the beginning of March. Paul Mason has suggested that Brexit calculations framed the government’s initial, flawed, coronavirus strategy. I am not sure that is quite true (it relies on a particular reading of both, and puts heavy weight on a couple of sentence in Johnson’s Greenwich speech) but as recorded on this blog some weeks ago and more recently confirmed in detail by a Reuters report it is clear that Brexit lay behind the government’s failure to participate in EU-wide ventilator procurement systems.

In any case it is certainly true, as Luke McGee of CNN writes, that coronavirus and Brexit are currently inseparable because of the transition period question. And that was written at the point when Johnson had been diagnosed with, but before he was hospitalised by, the virus.

This, by far the biggest development of the week, adds another very obvious layer of problems to the looming decision on extension, which needs to be made by the end of June. Hopefully, Boris Johnson will be fully recovered by then and his health, at least, won’t be a factor in the decision. But even if so, the issues of time and governmental bandwidth, and the possible illness of other politicians and officials on both UK and EU sides will remain. For example, Michael Gove, a key figure in the negotiations, is currently self-isolating, whilst of Dominic Cummings, the power behind the Johnson throne, who has the virus, nothing has been heard for days.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation in an intensive care unit has drawn attention to another of the connections between Brexit and coronavirus, in addition to those discussed in my recent post on the subject. There, I pointed out that one connection was that someone elected as a ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ had, perforce, to become a ‘coronavirus crisis Prime Minister’. With his illness, what has come into stark relief is how the entire cabinet – and indeed the entire parliamentary Conservative Party – has been remade for one purpose and with one, overweening test of political loyalty: enthusiastic embrace of Brexit and monocular determination to complete the process by the end of the year.

This means, on the one hand, that questions of competence are a very distant second to those of ideological conformity. Few looking at the current cabinet would regard it as self-evidently well-equipped with the skills needed to manage a major national crisis, or see in the Tory backbenches a reservoir of such talent. Nor does Dominic Raab, the stand in Prime Minister, necessarily impress as having many leadership credentials beyond his no doubt exemplary record as a Brexit Ultra, a record not undermined but cemented by his admitted ignorance of even the most basic facts about the project he so assiduously supports.

On the other hand, the New Model Tory Party makes it very hard for Johnson to backtrack on the extension. For him to do so would entail a major conflict with the ERG, whose numbers are more than enough to defeat him in the Commons. Yet, still, he might be able to bring it off given his long track record of about-turns and his freedom from the inconvenient shackles of principle or consistency. That would be much less true for Raab (or any other deputy), for whom extending would mean not just ‘betraying Brexit’ but betraying Johnson (whose principles would, in these circumstances, be seen as less plastic than if he, himself, were at the helm).

Either way, the decision on extension won’t go away, and it will have to be taken whilst the coronavirus crisis is ongoing and, possibly, whilst the Prime Minister is still unwell.

An adult in the room 

I mentioned earlier the likely backlash if the government doesn’t extend, and 2021 begins with ‘No deal 2.0’, to which can be added the political pressure, as the end of June 2020 approaches, to avert this. Both the pressure and the backlash are all the more likely given the other major political event of the week, the election of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader. As Tom McTague argues in The Atlantic, this represents a moment of “deep importance”. It offers the potential for a far more effective official Opposition than in recent years, including an opportunity to improve on Jeremy Corbyn’s woeful inadequacy with respect to Brexit – admittedly, a decidedly low bar to set - about which I have written many times on this blog.

Of course, the situation is different now in that Brexit as such is an accomplished fact. Starmer is clearly not going to make re-joining the EU Labour’s position and he is not going to make reliving the Brexit battles a priority. That is wise, since the former would be premature and the latter worse than pointless. I do not even expect him to make extending the transition period the centre piece of his first months as leader, not least since by definition those months are going to be dominated by coronavirus.

What can be expected is that he will stake out his obvious claim – and his most obvious political appeal – for responsibility, diligence and competence. Those are not only his natural political calling cards, they are also the way in which he can most effectively be seen as a foil to Johnson’s very different persona. And, especially in the context of crisis, that could well be extremely appealing in saying, in effect: at last, there is an adult in the room. Within that – not as the headline but as a sub-clause or at very least a footnote – the case for transition extension will sit comfortably. It’s not a stretch. His persona is one of being sensible; extension, self-evidently, is just that.

Time marches on

For all that we are living through strange and unprecedented events, as regards Brexit there has been at least one continuous theme since the “bleak and bitter day” when Article 50 was triggered just over three years ago. Time. Since then, everything that has happened has happened under time pressure. That needn’t have been so, since nothing in the Referendum vote specified a date by which it should be done. But the Brexiters’ impatience and paranoid fear of betrayal - and their accurate diagnosis that Brexit was only fleetingly and, then, only marginally the ‘will of the people’ - made it so.

The same is true now, as the clock ticks down to the government’s supposedly immutable deadline of 31 December 2020 via the procedural one of 30 June. In that respect, my comment in the opening paragraph that nothing of significance is happening with Brexit is wrong. With every day that passes we get closer to the point of decision on extension and, depending on that decision, closer to the point at which leaving with no future terms deal could happen.

We are about eleven weeks away from the extension decision. For comparison, it is now about eleven weeks since the first reported cases of coronavirus in the UK. The conclusion to be drawn is that there is almost no time left but that, within such a time, a great deal can change.

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