Friday 29 May 2020

Not moving on, not going away

The Brexit process is in another of its periodic ‘lull before the storm’ moments. So this will be quite a boring post, but at least it's fairly short. There were no talks scheduled this week but next week, when they resume, will be the last negotiations before a decision on whether to extend the Transition Period (TP) or not will have to made. Nothing of substance has shifted on this.

Nothing has changed

Michael Gove and David Frost appeared before the EU Future Relationship Select Committee and made it clear that no extension remains the government position and, also, that whether or not a deal is done there will be no separate implementation period for businesses to adjust (thus, closing down the idea of a TP extension by the back door). As for the prospects of a deal being done, this again was discussed in terms of the need for the EU to shift its position, and to recognize the ‘precedents’ set in its relationships with Canada, Japan, Norway and so on as applying to the UK. All this was just a reiteration of the UK position since the February ‘Negotiations Approach’ document (as discussed and critiqued in a previous post).

So there was nothing new here and no sense of realism in what was said – at one stage David Frost even suggested that “we are still at a relatively early stage of the negotiations” which seems rather bizarre. Nevertheless, it was recognized that a fisheries deal, meant to be completed by the end of June, may not meet this (soft) deadline which might, at a pinch, suggest some realization that the timeframes overall are unrealistic. On the other hand, Frost reiterated the suggestion that not only would the UK not agree an extension period by the end of June, but that Boris Johnson might even walk out of the talks altogether at that point.

On the EU side, a letter from Michel Barnier to opposition party leaders in the UK Parliament re-iterated an openness to a one or two-year extension. No real news there, either, since it says no more than is contained within the Withdrawal Agreement. But it flagged up an important domestic political issue in that the leaders in question did not include Keir Starmer. This was not an oversight on Barnier’s part – his letter was a reply to those opposition leaders who had written to him, and Starmer was not amongst them.

Starmer’s stance on extension

This reflects the fact that he continues to reject demands to call for an extension, saying instead that the government has promised to negotiate a deal by the end of the year and should be held to account on this. This is smart politics, for now, because it prevents Johnson presenting extension as a Labour demand and a remainer trick – and in the process reactivating the Brexit culture war as a party political divide – rather than a rational response to the force majeure of the coronavirus crisis.

But it is now reaching its limits, for several reasons. First, just as a matter of principle, it would be wrong to treat something as crucial as extension as a taboo topic simply for fear of being dubbed a ‘remainer party’. Second, there is a large constituency, by no means confined to erstwhile remainers, who want extension and whose voice Labour should represent. Third, for this reason there are also political advantages in calling for extension because it will appeal to many voters and, also, could position Labour as more business-friendly than the Tories. At the very least it would consolidate Starmer's credentials as a serious-minded pragmatist. And, finally, because it would set down a marker for the future – if Starmer fails to call for an extension in the coming month he will have made Labour to a degree complicit in the consequences of non-extension in a not dissimilar way to how its support for triggering Article 50 made it complicit in Brexit itself.

So, if Starmer continues to be as sure-footed an opposition leader as he has been so far, there are good reasons of principle and tactics to call for extension soon. He would be aided in this if some loud business and civil society voices prepared the ground by doing the same – providing some juicy quotes for use at PMQs in much the same way as he has so effectively used those from medical experts to puncture Johnson’s coronavirus bluster - just as they would be aided in speaking out were he to do so. There really is very little time to be lost in this, and the ongoing coronavirus crisis should not blind Labour, or anyone else, to the fact that what happens in the next month as regards TP extension is going to shape what happens to Britain for years.

Extension and the Cummings affair

Of course, no matter how vociferously an extension is demanded it looks highly unlikely that the government will budge. I wrote in detail about the wider significance of the Cummings affair in an ‘extra’ post on this blog earlier this week. But on the narrow issue of TP extension it is also important, in quite intricate ways.

One of the arguments with which Cummings’ supporters have tried to close down criticism of him from Tory MPs is to suggest that, were he forced to resign, the Brexit project itself would be under threat, and extension would become more likely. This message has a particular salience given that high profile Brexiter MPs including Steve Baker and Peter Bone have been amongst those calling for Cummings’ resignation.

To the extent that he is reportedly adamantly opposed to extension there might be some truth in this but, overall, it seems like a false hare. Is Brexit policy really dependent on just one advisor? This was presumably the thrust behind Bone’s questioning of David Frost at the Select Committee, as to whether he, Frost, operated under orders from Cummings, and whether Brexit policy would collapse without Cummings. The answer was that he does not and that it would not.

What is more important about the Cummings affair is that whether he stays or goes – which still remains an open question - it has made it even less likely that the UK will seek or accept an extension to the TP. On the one hand, with so much internal dissent already in the Tory Party over Cummings, the chances of Johnson now facing down the ERG Ultras is even smaller than before. On the other hand, the discomfort of the affair, coupled with its wider context of the government’s incompetent handling of coronavirus, makes the comfort and relative safety of  his core ‘get Brexit done’ message all the more appealing to Johnson.

One might, of course, hope that the small matter of the national interest would be a factor here but to do so would be to invest Johnson with qualities he self-evidently lacks. It would in any case entail that he broke with recent history by framing Tory policy on Europe in terms of national, rather than party, interest. After the election, I wrote that the fundamental dynamics of Brexit remained unchanged and that the third of them was that any government was constrained by the need to avoid massive economic dislocation, which put a break on the second of them, namely internal Tory Party politics.

That has changed, partly because I hadn’t anticipated quite how much “f*** business” was to become actual government policy, but mainly because of the impact coronavirus crisis. Amongst Brexiters, this is interpreted to make it even more likely that the EU will ‘blink’ and do a deal on UK terms by the end of the year and to strengthen the UK’s ‘hand’ (£), but also to mean that, if it doesn’t, the economic damage of no deal will be concealed by or subsumed within that of the virus. So with the dynamic of economic realism more muted, the constraints upon a policy framed purely in terms of the internal interests of the Tory Party are even fewer than before.

Moving on

Yet it is this which, going back to Labour, gives Starmer an opening. As suggested in my previous post, the Cummings episode makes a mockery of the populist claim of anti-elitism, and this can be married together with the idea of a government turning its back on the public interest to good effect. Just as ‘we can now see that they only care for themselves when it comes to lockdown’ so, Labour can argue, ‘we can see that they don’t care about damaging your jobs and livelihoods’.

And, yes, no doubt Johnson will try to twist that round to mean ‘you never accepted Brexit’ but, like much else about Brexit, that will be so 2019. Coronavirus has not only reshaped the arguments for TP extension, it is also, and at speed, reshaping the entire political landscape. Johnson and the Brexiters would love to pull things back to the heady ‘will of the people days’ but ‘the people’ have, to coin the phrase du jour, ‘moved on”. There’s a tide there that Starmer can catch to Labour Party advantage but, much more importantly, to the benefit of us all. For the idea that a country, battered by coronavirus, should be led into the calamity of no deal in just six months’ time, or even just to the shocks of moving from single market membership to a limited trade agreement, is plain crazy.

And, please, let’s have no nonsense about this being to do with thwarting Brexit. Not only has Brexit happened, in the precise sense of having left the EU, but absolutely nothing in what the government now envisages is remotely – remotely – like what leave voters were promised in 2016, or indeed for years afterwards, including at the last election (when, in fact, its details were barely discussed). Not only was an economically advantageous deal promised, but it would be negotiated before the formal process to leave was even begun.

The magnitude of these lies still has the power to shock. The idea that they now mandate a Prime Minister who is daily exposed as being completely out of his depth in every respect, heading a government which already looks exhausted and incompetent (£), and acting solely in the interests of a small faction of fanatical nihilists, to drag us into even greater disaster is grotesque. Grotesque in every conceivable way: democratically, intellectually, economically, and morally.

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