Friday, 26 June 2020

Four years on, we need a whole new Brexit debate

It is now four years since the Referendum result which convulsed British politics and set the country on a path whose destination remains unknown. In this post I’m not going to review what has happened during those years but instead will suggest that we now need a whole new Brexit debate. No doubt many, probably most, people are heartily sick of hearing about Brexit, so that idea will seem perverse if not downright masochistic. But such a debate is now possible, necessary, and, arguably, inevitable.

Back in October 2018, the leading law and policy commentator David Allen Green made an intriguing and typically elegant argument. It was that – notwithstanding remainers’ disputes about its legitimacy – the 2016 Referendum had created a mandate for Britain to leave the EU. This could only be discharged by doing so, but once Britain had left it would, indeed, have been fully discharged and would (or should) have no further purchase. Then, it would be possible for debate to shift to what kind of relationship Britain should have with the EU.

The Referendum mandate has been discharged in full

On 31 January 2020 we arrived at that point. It is no more, or less, than a truism to say that Britain is no longer a member of the EU. Yet it seems fair to say that political debate has not fully caught up with that fact (perhaps because, almost immediately afterwards, all attention shifted to coronavirus). For example, just a few days ago an opinion poll showed that a clear majority – 56% - would vote to remain in the EU if another referendum were held now. That is an important result, in that it suggests that Brexit is not what the majority want, but it is also strictly speaking a meaningless one. There could be no such referendum because there is no such thing as ‘remaining’ any more. Likewise, there is no such thing as ‘leaving’ any more. Both of those policies ceased to be possible at the end of January. The only thing that could meaningfully be asked is whether to ‘stay out’ or ‘re-join’ – a very different question (and one which would not necessarily yield the same result).

By the same token, as per Green’s original argument, the fact of Britain having left the EU means that it is no longer meaningful for the 2016 Referendum to be invoked as an argument for how the ongoing process of ‘doing Brexit’ should be undertaken. I’d actually go further than that, because since that referendum didn’t specify a form of Brexit it never had any relevance to how Brexit was done. But, even without accepting that, there is now certainly no basis on which ‘the 17.4 million’ have any more say in what happens than the rest of the population or on which that number can be invoked in discussions about what happens.

That includes the question of whether to extend the Transition Period. Recently, the pro-Brexit Bruges Group tweeted, correctly, that it now seems clear that there will be no extension but went on to say, incorrectly, that this will be “a victory for Brexit voters”. That cannot be so, since Brexit voters voted for one thing only, and it has now been done. There can be no further victories or further demands based upon that original vote.

17.4 million is no longer a relevant number

This matters, hugely, because it means that the ‘will of the people’ and the sanctification of the 17.4 million which since 2016 have been used as a cudgel not just to stifle but to stigmatize as undemocratic any debate about Brexit has now gone from being entirely bogus to being entirely redundant. There’s no doubt that, for particular example, the vote to trigger Article 50 was only supported in such numbers, or even passed at all, because of the force with which that cudgel was wielded. But it is now possible, and right, and necessary, to debate and question every single way in which Brexit is being enacted without any reference at all to the Referendum result.

This includes, of course, the terms of any deal which may be done with the EU as well as the possibility of no deal being done at all. It also includes challenging decisions such as refusing to participate in the EU scheme to revive tourism in the wake of the coronavirus or in the EU’s fast track vaccine scheme. Or the idea of setting up a supposed global rival to the Erasmus scheme (mirroring the now failed approach to the Galileo project). Or refusing to create any formal institutional framework for foreign policy cooperation. On all of these, and many other, Brexit issues there is, or should be, an entirely new debate framed not in terms of the referendum result but in terms of what, given that Britain has left, its relationship with the EU should be like.

What about the election?

A potential objection to this argument is that the present scenario is different to that envisaged by Green in that, prior to leaving the EU, a General Election was held. Since the Conservatives won, this gives them a mandate, separate to that of the Referendum, as to how to undertake the Brexit process. Their manifesto stated that this would mean leaving the single market and customs union, ending “the role of the European Court of Justice”, and not extending the implementation period (sic) beyond the end of December 2020. Therefore, all of these are settled matters.

Against that there are several counter-arguments. Unlike a referendum on a single question, a General Election victory does not imply voters endorsed every line of the winning party’s manifesto. In a first past the post system it doesn’t mean majority support. And in a democratic system it certainly doesn’t imply that the enactment of their policies can no longer be discussed and debated. This includes recognizing that changing circumstances mean that governments necessarily do things that run counter to party manifestos, which in this case might mean, in particular, that the force majeure of coronavirus entails a revision of the transition extension policy. On the other hand, if the manifesto is taken to be a rigid and immutable set of commitments, then there is no mandate for no deal, because it makes no mention of that possibility and, instead, states unequivocally that “we will negotiate a trade deal next year”.

Beyond all that, as I discussed at the time, the election campaign was remarkable for the lack of discussion of any detail at all of how Brexit would be done, including and especially any discussion of what the future relationship with the EU would be like. Indeed, the whole message from the Conservatives was that Brexit would simply be “done” by the end of January, obscuring the entire issue of the future terms negotiations. Even the manifesto line quoted above about the ECJ carries no precise meaning as regards, for example, participation in various EU projects. So all the myriad of details about things like, for example, Erasmus lie outside of any mandate that may be claimed from the election. And this goes wider than such details in that it is also legitimate to question the entire tenor in which the government is conducting its relations with the EU.

A new set of issues

In short, it is now entirely reasonable for a new debate to be held, and an ongoing one, too, as circumstances change because of coronavirus or because of emerging global issues such as the evolving/ deteriorating UK-China relationship or the outcome of the US Presidential election. It is entirely reasonable to discuss the clear evidence of the rising costs of Brexit to date (all the more so given the costs of coronavirus). It is entirely reasonable for voters and politicians to demand of the government that it approaches the EU in a positive and cooperative manner rather than with the truculence that has prevailed so far. And it is entirely reasonable to expect that approach to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic.

When Green made his argument, I suggested that, whatever its logic, one flaw in it was that it was highly unlikely that the Brexiters would drop the idea that the Referendum mandated their preferred form(s) of Brexit. And it is, indeed, far too much to expect this ERG-dominated, continuity Vote Leave government to do so, or to heed any of these entirely reasonable requests.

Yet, on the other hand, it could be argued that Boris Johnson has a duty to do so. As Dan Hodges recently pointed out in The Mail, Johnson won the election by pledging to end the culture war of Brexit, not to continue it. The statesmanlike thing to do after all the divisions of the last few years would be to seek to heal rather than inflame them, the more so given that Brexit now only has minority support.

Labour has a key role to play

If – and, really, it’s not in doubt -  such hopes are a pipe dream, then it is still the case that the Labour Party (and others of course, but Labour is the official opposition) can and should be vocal in insisting on this new debate about how to create pragmatic and amicable relations with the EU. It is disappointing and, I think, misguided that Keir Starmer has not called for an extension to the Transition Period (though for a counter-argument, see Professor Tim Bale’s article in the New Statesman). It may well come back to haunt Labour to have been – through silence – complicit in non-extension.

But whether or not that proves true, it will be an even more serious error if he does not start to articulate a new approach to the EU. It is not enough just to ‘hold the government to account’. It’s also necessary, as Andrew Rawnsley argued in last Sunday’s Observer, to show what Labour would do differently. Of course there are many aspects to that, but one would be to show how it champions a better and – Starmer’s calling card – ‘more adult’ approach to the EU. It would be entirely consistent with the growing critique of the government for lacking basic competence (£). Yes, Brexit is happening, but it doesn’t have to be done in this scorched earth fashion which is so reckless of British national interests and international reputation, and which threatens to rip up the cultural fabric and the union itself.

The key to that is, precisely, the recognition that the Referendum mandate has now been discharged. Johnson would no doubt respond to Labour by trying to reprise the ‘will of the people’ line, but it will have less and less traction. And, just from a tactical point of view, those amongst whom it will have traction are voters who are almost certainly already a lost cause for Labour. Whereas, by contrast, there is a large and probably growing constituency of voters, which transcends the leaver-remain distinction, who are appalled at the prospect of no deal and, probably, are out of sympathy with the relentless pathological hatred of all things European that the ERG exhibit.

It is now open to Starmer to find a new kind of ‘centre ground’ encompassing erstwhile leavers and remainers who would welcome a fresh approach, and more specifically a competent approach. At the very least, given that the most important foreign policy question of the moment is relations with the EU it simply can’t be treated as a taboo subject by Labour. With the Referendum mandate now discharged, Brexit should be treated as a political issue just like any other rather than as a culture war shibboleth.

A new approach is needed with or without a deal

This will be true even if, as some well-informed reports this week suggest to be the case (£), a trade deal with the EU is becoming slightly more likely (though, on my reading of Michel Barnier’s comments this week and given those of David Sassoli and David Frost this seems optimistic). On the one hand, it would require intense scrutiny for the damage it is likely to do to manufacturing industry and perhaps particularly to services trade and the wider implications of that for investment generally. On the other hand, any such deal is unlikely to resolve all the many non-trade issues, and even on trade there are likely to be many future, or ongoing, matters to settle. Also in doubt is the extent to which new customs facilities and regulatory systems (for example for chemicals) will be up and running  in time.

For what seems to be in prospect if there’s a deal is, all but inevitably given the time frames, precisely the kind of rushed, can-kicking bodge that happened in January, with numerous, complex, loose ends left to be resolved or disputed later. Moreover, the measures currently being touted as the basis for a deal, whereby a zero tariff regime is adjusted (only) if and when the UK diverges from level playing field provisions, are predicated on a constructive and trusting partnership (£).

So even with such a deal, and certainly in the absence of one, there will be many more years in which the relationship will be under negotiation and, in any case, that relationship will itself evolve, if only through the ongoing operation of the Joint Committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement. Even though it has been restricted by what has happened over the last four years, there is still a spectrum of possibilities of what that relationship might evolve into over the coming years, ranging from the minimalist, hostile one to which the ERG is dragging us through to an extensive, cooperative one perhaps along the lines of an Association Agreement.

And to re-emphasize, the issue is as much about the tone as the institutional form of the relationship. With the referendum mandate done and dusted why should we accept that future relations with the EU be conducted in the unremittingly negative, suspicious, accusatory manner of the Vote Leave campaign? They won the right to leave, not to permanently poison and pollute UK-EU relations.

Reframing the debate

To put all this a different way, under the influence of Tory Eurosceptics, UKIP, and their media supporters the entire debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU has for at least 30 years been dominated by a single question: stay or leave? That is a testament to the indefatigability of the Brexiters but also, it should be admitted, due to the supine attitude of pro-EU politicians. They rarely, if ever, made a positive case for membership and when they did it was almost invariably in entirely transactional terms. But all that is past history now and, in particular, that single question has been asked and answered. It can no longer serve as the frame through which UK-EU relations are viewed and it mustn’t be allowed to.

The challenge of ensuring that doesn’t just lie with politicians. It also lies with journalists, academics, business and civic society leaders and perhaps especially grass roots organizations and activists. Those who used to be remainers, when remaining was a possibility, mobilized to a remarkable extent after the Referendum was lost and very nearly pulled off a reversal of the result. In the aftermath of that first, emotionally crushing, loss four years ago (my feelings at the time were recorded on a different blog site, if of interest) and the perhaps even more exhausting tension of last year’s long drawn out battles and hopes it’s not surprising that they are drained and demoralized.

Some continue to revisit the rights and wrongs of the 2016 vote and to re-litigate the Referendum. Others have retreated from the fray, seeing any chance to salvage anything as having gone. Still others have flipped to campaigning to re-join the EU. These three responses are all understandable but they are also all unrealistic. The first is hopeless – and actually panders to Brexiters’ attempts to keep the focus on the Referendum result. The second has too little hope. The third has too much. Rejoining the EU may happen, but if so it is years, very likely decades, away.

But there are still things to argue for, and to do so is both worthwhile in itself and necessary if the ground is to be laid for rejoining in the future or even simply creating an amicable partnership. That has at least three aspects. The first lies at the political level of attempting to influence the evolving shape and tenor of UK-EU relations, as discussed above. The second is to nurture all those remaining ties – be they cultural, academic, familial, or whatever – which will persist despite the wreckage of Brexit. It’s still possible to remind our counterparts in the EU that, despite the noisy voices of the Brexiters, plenty of British people never wanted this and are still their friends and allies. And, third, it means re-engaging in the domestic debate in this new post-referendum mandate world.

In that regard, whereas Johnson’s huge election victory in December seemed like a terminal moment – and was, as regards any hope of stopping Brexit – only a few months later things look different. To a remarkable extent for a new government with a large majority it already feels tired and crisis-ridden. That’s largely because of coronavirus, of course, but also because the virus has only speeded up and made more visible its underlying weakness and ineptitude (as per my last post). The Cummings affair wrecked its dominance of the polls. It almost weekly gets into unnecessary tangles that lead to U-turns and, despite its majority, routinely faces backbench rebellions on everything from Huawei to food standards to Sunday trading. Having reshuffled his cabinet in February, only three months after winning, and losing his Chancellor in the process, it’s reported that Johnson is going to do so again in September.

The point isn’t that government is about to fall. It’s that it isn’t the hegemon it seemed to be in December. It doesn’t control the terms of debate, including debate about Europe. A different debate is now, for the first time since 2016, at least possible. And, since January, the lashing, quasi-fascist whip of the ‘will of the people’ has lost all of its force as their will has now been done. The question is no longer ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ and indeed in that sense is no longer even about Brexit, but about Britain’s relationship with Europe. Which actually makes a different debate not just possible but, sooner or later, inevitable.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Nothing to see here

The much-hyped meeting between Boris Johnson, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Charles Michel did not, apparently, see Johnson “banging the table” or even “warning” the EU that Britain would be a “fully independent” country next January “whatever happens” (£). If he did issue such a warning, it would have been interesting to know what the response was. Apart from incredulous laughter, the obvious retort would be that Britain, like all EU countries, had been independent whilst a member state. Were that not so, Brexit would not have been possible in the first place.

For as the very first Brexit White Paper helpfully – but, alas, too late - explained, Britain had always been a “sovereign country”, it just “has not always felt like that” (para 2.1 of link). The noble project of ‘national liberation’ turned out to have been based upon a massive misapprehension, akin to decapitating yourself because of having a bad hair day. As for ending the transition period regardless of the consequences, if that is a warning it would be better made to the people of the UK, who will have to suffer the most serious of them. Then again, since the Brexiters insist that no deal would be just fine for Britain, it could be asked how, exactly, it functions as a “warning” to the EU?

Whatever went on inside the (virtual) room, the joint communique issued afterwards was a masterpiece of anodyne diplo-speak (constructive …. challenges … new momentum …. work hard … blah blah blah). Since the undiplomatic alternative would be to say that the whole thing is a godawful mess and no one knows what to do about it, perhaps such blandness was predictable.

The only line which might have brought a sardonic smile to the face of anyone reading that far was the hope that the July talks would include “if possible, finding an early understanding on the principles underlying the agreement”. Given that this understanding was, supposedly, what the Political Declaration provided and given that there are only six months to go until the end of transition, it might be thought that this aim achieves the unlikely feat of being simultaneously wildly optimistic and woefully inadequate.

A glimmer of realism?

Even so, the very dullness of the statement had a significance of its own. Since last February, the British government’s stance has repeatedly been that it would walk away from the talks unless there was the “broad outline” of a deal. There is manifestly no such outline, but it hasn’t walked away. That could be interpreted as a ‘mini-blink’ on the UK’s part and a recognition that, for all the rhetoric, there is somewhere still left a tiny shred of realism about the damage that no deal would mean.

That’s a viable interpretation for two reasons. First, because it emerged at the end of the last week that the government realises it is not, in fact, ready for the UK to be ‘independent’ in January to the extent of announcing that it will not enforce border controls on goods coming from the EU, at least in the short-term. Eventually the plan, wouldn’t you just know (and if not, see Jill Rutter’s sharp discussion of the government’s ‘world-beating’ rhetoric), is for the ‘best border in the world’, mere competence being anathema to the government and, indeed, something it has successfully avoided thus far.

This announcement comes just four months since that insisting that there would be such controls in place by the end of the year. It won’t, of course, do anything to ease the outbound flow of goods (£) and since, in practice, the vehicles going one way also do the return trip then this decision will have only limited impact. Still, it does show some recognition of practical realities and that is not exactly something that can be taken for granted in relation to Brexit.

The other reason to think the government may be becoming less gung-ho about no deal is the polling evidence that it would be unpopular – and if the idea of it is unpopular, how much more so would be the reality. Of particular interest this week was a poll (conducted for Best for Britain) of the Tories’ newly acquired ‘Red Wall’ seats. Voters here, including those who switched to the Tories at the last election, and including those who voted leave, are overwhelmingly in favour of a deal being done.

And, indeed, they are quite entitled to that view given the promises made both by Vote Leave in 2016 and by the Conservatives in 2019. Oddly, despite their frequent complaints that remainers sneer at the intelligence of leave voters, it is Brexiters who seem to imagine that such voters will be satisfied with sops like blue passports (it emerged this week that the former aren’t satisfied and the latter aren’t blue, and they’re made by a Franco-Dutch firm in Poland; really, the perfect metaphor for the disappointments and delusions of Brexit) or, the latest risible stunt,  a red, white and blue repaint of the Prime Minister’s aeroplane.

So the polls and focus groups may be telling the government that this is not so and – horror of horrors – leave voters actually believed all the promises that were made to them. It’s perhaps also of note that the latest polling shows a 56-44 preference for the UK to remain in the EU. If Brexit is now very clearly not the will of the people, how much less so is Brexit with no deal?

Thus faced with declining popularity due mainly to its inept handling of coronavirus, low electoral calculation as much as anything else might drive the government to making some kind of a deal with the EU in the coming months. But time is vanishingly tight given that any deal would need to be not just struck but ratified by the end of the year.

There really is no plan

But the reality is that no one knows what is going to happen, and its notable that the most astute and well-informed Brexit watchers assessing the current situation – RTE’s Tony Connelly being a prime example – wisely avoid making predictions.

There’s no such restraint amongst the legions of commentators on social media who proclaim, with equal certainty, that no deal is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’ and that the UK ‘caving in’ to the EU is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’. The ‘no deal’ predictions often rest upon repeatedly discredited ideas that Brexit was all about avoiding EU regulations on offshore taxation or hedge fund plans to short the pound. These myths are the mirror image of leavers’ absurd jibes about remainers being in the ‘pay of the EU’ or ‘wanting to keep their cheap Bulgarian nannies’. The ‘cave in’ predictions often rest upon the belief that, ultimately, economic rationality will hold sway. That’s not unreasonable, but, as per my last post, ignores or least downplays the cult-like nature of the Brexit government.

I understand the motivations for these confident claims, because in their different ways they suggest a logic and coherence to what is happening. That would be if not nice then, at least, a nice idea. But it’s wholly mistaken. There is no inevitability, there is no ‘they’, and there is, most certainly, no plan. The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.

A government of all the talentless

It’s this which makes the present political situation truly alarming. We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.

This has its roots in Brexit, as I’ve argued before, but that doesn’t mean we have a government competent to deliver Brexit but not to do anything else. Rather, we have what might be called a government of all the talentless, incapable of competence in any domain and almost ludicrously inadequate to any challenge it is set or sets itself.

So even if they have a plan for Brexit it doesn’t follow that they will stick to it, and even if they stick to it then it doesn’t follow that they will deliver it, and even if they deliver it then it doesn’t follow it will have the effects they expect. This dire situation is made all the worse because, as, again, I’ve argued before, the Brexiters’ plan for Brexit was that no plan was needed anyway. Indeed, this was a virtue born of a necessity since were a plan needed it could never be formulated given that no two Brexiters chosen at random are likely to agree what Brexit means.

Trading ironies

The many fissures and fault lines that lack of clear purpose creates are becoming ever clearer by the day. The most fundamental of them lies in the way that what was sold to voters as a largely nationalist project is being pursued as a globalist one. Those who will be most centrally and most symbolically caught in the middle of that are farmers, for it is clear that any meaningful trade deal with the US (£) – or for that matter Australia and New Zealand – will almost certainly bring with it a massive opening up of the UK to food imports from those countries and with that will come issues of consumer and animal welfare standards. But this will be only the most high-profile example – or perhaps not even that if healthcare gets thrown into the mix.

The ironies of these developments abound. The most obvious is that in pursuit of reducing barriers to trade with smaller and more distant markets substantial new ones will be erected with the UK’s closest and largest market, something understood by the US trade negotiators if not the Brexit government. Plus, just as in the case of Japan discussed in last week’s post, the US negotiators recognize that the shape of any deal with the UK is inseparable from what the UK agrees with the EU and, moreover, will be contingent on the absence of an Irish land border. So any idea Johnson and other Brexiters may have of reneging on the NI Protocol agreed with the EU  will scupper their idea of a US trade deal (this shouldn’t be news, as per my post of April 2019).

Another, emergent, irony is that the proposals for a deal with New Zealand seem to entail level playing field commitments that are (arguably) not so very different to those deemed unthinkable in relation to any EU deal. And deals with Australia and New Zealand are, according to Trade Secretary Liz Truss (£), staging posts towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in a move which she says will show that Britain is “back as a proud independent nation again”. This in turn is also potentially linked to US trade in that, if Trump loses the election, a Biden administration might well revive US CPTPP membership (Obama had been set to be part of TPP, its abandoned predecessor). If so, and the UK was a member, that could amount to a US-UK deal by the backdoor.

But what’s this? Read the New Zealand press and you find that their government is preparing to veto the UK joining CPTPP if their country does not get the access it wants to British agricultural markets. So New Zealand, which currently accounts for about 0.2% of UK trade, holds a powerful lever in negotiations which could become a spanner in the works for British trade policy. It turns out that ‘independence’ is a bit more complicated than Brexiters thought.

A third irony is that the Brexiters used to say that having an independent trade policy meant that British voters could decide whether or not they approved of what was being done. Lexiters, in particular, made much of the argument that the EU was “negotiating secret trade deals”, especially the TTIP deal with the US. This was linked to the at best dubious proposition that TTIP could lead to the privatization of the NHS, in which they made common cause with arch free-marketeer Peter Lilley.

Yet the government has now agreed that documents relating to the current US-UK negotiations will be kept secret until five years after any deal is struck. And despite assurances that any such deal will not involve the NHS or drug prices, these, along with agriculture, are key US demands regardless of the administration, Trump certainly wants them, and it is known that they have already been discussed – because some of these secret documents have been leaked!

However, there’s no need to consider perhaps obscure details of trade policy to understand that first and fundamental Brexit fissure between nationalism and globalism. It’s enough to see the images of the violent far-right protests in London last weekend. These were not about Brexit, of course, but I don’t think it is a hugely controversial leap of the imagination to think that most of them were enthusiastic supporters of it. And nor is it a great leap to think that they will have been voting for an essentially nationalist project rather than, as Liam Fox claimed when Trade Secretary, a “glorious opportunity” to place themselves “in the centre of an increasingly interconnected world”.

In practice that might mean that in order to do a trade deal with, for (particular) example, India the UK agrees to relaxations of immigration controls. And whilst Brexiters’ political correctness means ‘we’re not allowed to say’ that the leave vote had anything to do with immigration – apparently, it was all based on a close reading of Edmund Burke’s theory of sovereignty -  it’s perhaps not immediately clear that this would find favour with those protestors or others with similar viewpoints. Indeed, it may not be too long before we hear what would be the final irony of them saying that immigration ‘used to be alright’ in the good old days of EU membership but now ‘it’s gone too far’.

We didn’t know what we were voting for

But, to coin a phrase, they will just have to ‘get over it’ (£). Untrammelled by anything as inconvenient as a plan, or even a definition, Brexit can now mean whatever this government of all the talentless decides it to mean.

The very first thing I wrote about Brexit was an article in The Conversation, in October 2015, before a date for the referendum had even been set, laying out the main variants of what Brexit could mean (see also the follow up piece warning of the complexity and uncertainty of post-Brexit trade deals). There are parts of it I would change today but its conclusion was depressingly prescient:

“We must be absolutely clear which of the different Brexit scenarios is envisaged, and not to confuse or conflate them. If not, and the vote is to exit, it will be no good saying afterwards that ‘we didn’t understand what we were voting for’, the repeated complaint made by Eurosceptics about the 1975 Referendum. By then it will be too late”.

Well, here we are, and so it is.

If readers detect a certain weary despair in this post, then they are not entirely wrong.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Brexit Britain risks heading to international pariahdom

The irritation in Michel Barnier’s press statement at the end of last week’s negotiations was palpable. “Things cannot go on like this”, he despairingly warned, and his particular concern was the UK “backtracking on the Political Declaration”. It was a strong indication that any remaining trust in the negotiations has all but disappeared, and that hasn’t just happened in the last few weeks. Rather, it has been in the making for years.

If not earlier, it perhaps began when the Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, denied the legitimacy of any financial settlement – something I will come back to. It became entrenched when David Davis and Theresa May immediately disowned the backstop they had agreed to end of the phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations in December 2017. Many other examples could be given.

Distrust is now endemic

Under Johnson’s premiership that lack of trust has become endemic. That’s partly because EU leaders recall the long years of lies he told whilst a Telegraph columnist, and have disdain for his role in the Referendum. It’s not difficult to imagine that he is one of those whom Donald Tusk was referring to as warranting a “special place in hell” for having advocated Brexit with no plan. But it is more because of the way in which, since coming to power, Johnson has seemed to resile from what he agreed, especially as regards Northern Ireland.

In a post last month, following the Frost letter, I lamented that the bitter truth is that the UK can no longer be trusted. Yet the Brexit ‘patriots’ feel no shame and, worse, no realism. Their response to Barnier’s press statement was to crow that he was ‘rattled’ by Britain’s ‘tough stance’ – yet apparently not so cowed as to stop him being ‘rude’ and ‘insulting’! The more ‘cerebral’ and, indeed, the official response was to point out, echoing Davis’ comments about the phase 1 agreement, that the Political Declaration (PD) is not legally binding.

The Political Declaration isn’t irrelevant

That is perfectly true, but it is a very long and dangerous jump from that to treating it as totally irrelevant. It was signed by Boris Johnson as a commitment of ‘good faith’ to the agreed framework for the future. As Simon Usherwood, Professor of Politics at Surrey University, points out reneging on it has damaging reputational consequences. It’s not just dishonest but, perhaps worse, naïve, for Johnson to treat as if it were one of his throwaway newspaper columns. You simply can’t conduct international relations that way and expect it just to be laughed off, or forgiven and forgotten, by other countries.

It’s clearly the case that, as a framework, it does not address the detailed provisions of the future agreement. Equally clearly, within negotiation there will legitimately be ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ interpretations of how to operationalize the framework. But that is not at all the same as simply treating it as totally irrelevant (as, indeed, Brexiters used to realise).

For example, on one of the key areas of contention referred to by Barnier, Level Playing Field (LPF) provisions, paragraph 77 of the PD is very explicit about how economic interdependence and geographical proximity mean there must be robust commitments on state aid, competition law and so on. So, yes, there is legitimate negotiation space around what ‘robust’ means in practical terms, but it is simply dishonest for Brexiters, including Johnson, to pretend that these issues have been newly introduced by the EU (£)*. If Johnson objected, the time to do so was before signing the document off.

Ominous signs

But more ominous than the ongoing disavowal of the PD was a report in the Brexiters’ house journal, The Express, that the government regards the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) as having “unfair defects” that must be remedied. That marks a significant escalation because it is not based on any claim that it is legally non-binding: there is no dispute that the WA was signed as a legally binding international treaty. Reneging on it would go beyond reputational damage.

The justification for this stance is telling. On the one hand, the report refers to an unnamed ‘government source’ (does that mean Dominic Cummings?) as linking the ‘defects’ to what was agreed by Theresa May and Olly Robbins, and the constraints of the May parliament. This reflects something which has been swirling around Brexiter circles for months now – a sense that, despite Johnson signing it, it was in some way not legitimate because of those antecedents including what they regard as a ‘remainer’ parliament. It is dangerous nonsense for whilst, as they are wont to say, no parliament can bind its successor, that does not mean that international treaties negotiated during one parliament become irrelevant afterwards. International relations would scarcely be possible if that were so. And, in any case, it’s an absurdity as Johnson didn’t sign the WA and PD until January 2020 - after the election. He owns them.

This relates to the other aspect of the supposed justification for re-opening the WA, namely that the government did not have time to deal with all the “defects” of May’s deal, just to replace the Northern Ireland backstop. But not only is the government now resiling from the frontstop that replaced it, it was the government that insisted – against much warning – that the whole thing had to be rushed through with scarcely any scrutiny to meet the deadline of 31 January. Moreover, we now know – courtesy of Steve Baker – that the ERG hardliners were persuaded by Dominic Cummings to support the WA, without needing to read it, on the basis that Michael Gove said it could be changed later.

As with Brexit in general, the easiest way to understand the outrageousness of this is to think about it the other way round, and imagine how the UK, and Brexiters especially, would react if the EU said that with Juncker, Tusk et al now gone, the EU no longer felt bound by the WA and PD. Or if the states and MEPs who had voted to ratify the WA now said that they had done so without bothering to read it as they had been told it could all be re-written afterwards. The shrieks of anger would be deafening, and the opprobrium heaped on the EU vitriolic.

The deal formerly known as ‘oven-ready’

Of course it’s not just the trust of the EU which is being betrayed by this deepening farrago of lies. It’s also the British electorate. For don’t forget that this near-discarded PD and this ‘defective’ WA used to go under a very different name: together, they were the “oven-ready deal” that Johnson promised would “get Brexit done” during the 2019 General Election campaign. This was “the great new deal”, not in any way to be confused with May’s despised efforts. In vain did I and countless others warn that it would just be the beginning of a new process of negotiation. Still, at least it might have been assumed that those negotiations would go forward on the basis of the WA and PD, not backwards to try to re-write them.

Such an assumption was always going to be naïve, though. And this goes to the heart of why the EU is right to distrust Johnson. Again and again as Prime Minister (never mind about beforehand) he has shown not just dishonesty but a palpable scorn for law and the normal political process. The doyen of law and policy commentators, David Allen Green, who invariably uses words with great precision, last year wrote of Johnson “going rogue” (£) over the question of whether he would obey the law requiring him to seek an extension to the Article 50 period. It was, Green said, “unprecedented” for a Prime Minister even to be contemplating not doing so. This was also in the context of the illegal prorogation of parliament and these and other examples provide ample evidence of the subfusc authoritarianism that Johnson’s jokey persona increasingly fails to cloak. No doubt it is echoed, amplified, and incited by Cummings’ infamous contempt for ‘playing by the rules’.

This makes Johnson a difficult character for the EU to deal with, but that character is only one manifestation of the problem. As noted above, the UK government’s behaviour since Brexit has been repeatedly untrustworthy, even under the leadership of May, whose character was very different. The underlying issue is neither of them, but the now near comprehensive ‘ERG-ification’ of the Tory Party and, hence, government. Perhaps because the old familiar trappings of the political spectacle persist, it’s easy to miss how hollowed-out Britain’s political institutions have become during these Brexit years.

Government by cult

Indeed, the EU’s bewilderment – like that of many commentators including, at times, myself – stems from a failure to appreciate quite how far and deep that process has gone. The ERG is rather like the Terminator which “can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop ever …”. So the hope that, at some point, rationality will assert itself – for example over the damage of no deal or extending the transition period – keeps being dashed. Similarly, the idea that some ‘compromise’ from the EU would unlock things, even if such compromise was possible, is flawed. Really, one could imagine that if the EU conceded on every single UK demand the Brexit Ultras would still denounce it as insultingly inadequate.

We’ve arrived here step by step because every demand made by the Ultras has been conceded – the Referendum, then the row about the question to be asked, then the franchise. And each demand met has led to a still harder one, from ‘we just want to be like Norway’ right up to the point that we are just about at which is that any deal and any form of relationship with the EU is intolerable. That’s totally unrealistic, of course, since the EU will still be there (although the hardcore of the Ultras always believes it will collapse) but realism isn’t part of the story here. Indeed, realistically, it’s far more likely that Brexit will lead to the break up of the United Kingdom.

That an entire government should be in hock to an effectively nihilistic cult is partly to do with the internal history of the modern Conservative Party, the ruthlessness of the ERG, and their parliamentary numbers which are enough to pose a threat even when the government has a large majority. But it requires that those who are far from membership of the cult – and, still, there are plenty of Tory MPs in that category – for one reason or another go along with it. At the present moment, that means buying into the narrative that all that is happening is a tough negotiating stance which will yield an eleventh hour ‘blink’ from the EU and, for this reason, no transition extension should be sought.

Beyond that, it requires a much larger number of people within the electorate to accept the situation – either being themselves cultists, or buying in to the strategy as described or, and here the numbers are probably very large, thinking that it is all a lot of noise and that in the end ‘they’ (whoever that might be) will ‘sort things out’. There is much danger in that. It rests upon the complacent assumption that ‘things are bound to go on much as always’. Yet few realise the complex web of systems and regulations that create what they take for granted, and they may very well not forgive the ‘disruptors’ for ripping those systems up.

The idea floating around that any damage from there being no trade deal will be ascribed to the wider coronavirus crisis is unlikely to be correct when specific consequences – food shortages being the most obvious, but Bloomberg have compiled an extensive and alarming list – kick in overnight, making causation very obvious. If anything, coming on top of all the pain of coronavirus, public tolerance is likely to be less forthcoming, and much of the disruption will occur even with a trade deal.

So far, with the exception of the immediate sharp fall in sterling after the Referendum, Brexiters have been able to provide alibis for the damaging effects of Brexit (what one might call the ‘diesel decoy’). I’m not sure that will be so as people begin to experience what Tom Hayes calls ‘the Brexit of small things’, the things that affect their daily lives. On the other hand, that currency collapse of 2016, which would in any other context have led to a political crisis, was almost shrugged off - so who knows?

The road to pariahdom

But even if the government ride out the domestic economic and political consequences of no deal, the damage to Britain’s international reputation will be substantial. That will matter in relation to the EU and also in relation to other countries, who will see Britain as untrustworthy and irrational but also as desperate to do trade deals on any terms it is given.

For example, it’s already the case that Japan regards Brexit as a betrayal of the trust upon which basis its companies invested so heavily in the UK, and already the case that it is set to make tough demands in trade talks, which have just begun. Their outcome, says Michito Tsuruoka of Keio University writing in the Japan Times, is crucially bound up with the progress and outcome of the UK-EU talks. Indeed, he says, “no country wants to conclude a definitive trade deal with the UK without knowing the final shape of the EU-UK partnership”.

More generally, writing about the ‘original’ no deal scenario, Dr Nicholas Westcott of SOAS argued starkly that it would be “a heavy international defeat for Britain … we would have proven unable to negotiate – with our nearest friends – a deal that protected our economic interests. And the world will see this. They – the US, China, India, Russia, the Gulf States, African and Latin American countries, Spain, Mauritius, Argentina - all will say to themselves that Britain is now weak, it needs our support, and we can ask for whatever we want”. In short, no deal with the EU has a much wider import: it, or any other outcome of the negotiations, will directly impact upon the UK’s global standing and upon global relationships as well as those with our nearest neighbours.

And the thing about no deal is that that won’t be an end to the matter. That’s not simply because – as Tom Hayes, again, points out and as I did , in a different way, last week – all the unresolved issues will still be in need of resolution. It’s also because of the implications of the analysis of the ERG, above. For if it is correct that whatever they get they always want more, then what ‘more’ would they ask for having achieved the no trade deal scenario that many of them advocate?

The answer to that is already clear, even before it has happened, in what is already being said about the defects in the WA. That claim will intensify, because the Ultras have never accepted the idea of a financial settlement being made in the absence of a trade deal, and have always argued that any such settlement should be contingent upon a trade deal. Indeed Johnson, during his leadership campaign, threatened just that, whether in order to pander them or from conviction hardly matters.

So if there is no trade deal come next January they will unquestionably try to force the government to break the WA by reneging on the financial settlement and, very likely, as the signs are already there, the Northern Ireland Protocol, with all that will mean for relations with both Ireland and the US, though probably not, I think and hope, the Citizens’ Rights agreement. We will then be well beyond the current damage to trust and reputation, and headed down the road to pariahdom. We’re not quite on that road yet, but we’ve had glimpses recently of the signposts to it and if, as seems increasingly likely, there is no deal it’s the one the Ultras will be urging us down.

If so, it’s worth recalling that they haven’t, so far, failed to get their own way.

*Actually, on social media at least, it is more common to see Brexiters claim that the EU has reneged not so much on the PD but on the Barnier staircase. On this account, that staircase promised a Canada deal, denoted by the Canadian flag. However, apart from the ludicrousness of regarding a signed agreement as non-binding but a PowerPoint slide as a promise, and as a promise of a deal on the same terms as Canada (when more stringent LPF conditions had been set in more formal documents), it is a misreading of that slide. What actually appears are the Canadian and South Korean flags – an indication of the general category of such a deal (FTA) and also of the fact that within that category there are different variants: not all FTAs are the same.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Extension is the Brexiters’ chance to show they accept that they won

With the last week of talks prior to the end of June cut-off for agreeing an extension finishing today, there is no sign (£) of progress towards a deal and no sign of UK willingness to extend the Transition Period. At the end of the first week of talks, just as coronavirus was beginning to bite in Europe, I speculated that we might see a less bellicose and more flexible approach adopted by the UK, including on transition period extension. I was wrong. Indeed since then, as the rational case for extension has grown because of the deepening coronavirus crisis, the government’s refusal to even acknowledge that case has hardened. Is that likely to change?

Business voices

There is strong public support for an extension. But it probably isn’t the kind of issue that has individual voters writing in huge numbers to their MPs (for whatever effect that would have) and so any pressure to extend will come from elsewhere. I remarked in passing in my last post that it would be easier for Keir Starmer to call for an extension were business and civil society institutions to do so, and a couple of weeks back that businesses might be wary about this given their present dependence on government. That latter analysis was supported by Delphine Strauss writing in the FT this week (£) and Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, reports that business leaders aren’t willing to speak out “for fear of punishment by Number 10”.

Such fears are no doubt well justified. Long before Brexit, and before even the decision to hold a referendum, arch-Brexiter John Redwood threatened (£) “to punish businesses that speak out in favour of Britain remaining in the EU”. Subsequent to the referendum, companies bidding for government contracts were asked if they backed Brexit. And at the present time we can see government contracts being awarded to firms which had prior connections to the Vote Leave campaign. In a landscape where fealty to the true cause of Brexit is the sole qualification for political office, it hardly strains credulity that the same criterion might be applied in other contexts.

As the deadline for extension gets closer, there are the beginnings of some rumblings, for example from the CBI, of real alarm. Carolyn Fairbairn, its Director-General, wrote this week that many businesses “are not remotely prepared” for “a chaotic change in EU trading relations in seven months”. She was apparently referring to a no deal scenario but, actually, the chaos would hardly be less in the event of a deal being done, for this would still represent a sea-change from the current situation of single market and customs union membership. And Nissan – whose Sunderland factory plays an iconic role within the Brexit saga – warned in perhaps its starkest public terms yet that if tariffs are introduced the plant will be unsustainable.

Why hasn’t business had more influence?

Such statements may become more common if, as Brendan Donnelly of Federal Trust cogently argued this week, people are belatedly waking up to the strong possibility of there being no deal at the end of transition.  Yet even if the business community becomes more vocal there are doubts as to whether it can make much difference to how the government proceeds. Indeed the lack of influence it has had on Brexit throughout is remarkable, and a marked contrast to its role in the 1975 Referendum. That is all the more extraordinary given the way that, in the intervening decades, the priorities of business have had such political prominence.

There are several, quite complex, strands which explain this relative lack of impact. Perhaps one was that, indeed, people had got fed up with being told for so long that business interests were paramount.  Another is the extent to which British businesses have over those decades been sold off to overseas conglomerates. For them, whilst Brexit may be undesirable because of the disruption, it is not existential. Their opposition is driven, perfectly understandably, by considerations of cost not of principle (though Japanese firms also see Brexit as a betrayal of trust). They can and will decamp or divest if it becomes necessary. It is an irony that some Brexiters imagine that big business does not support Brexit because it does not care about what is good for Britain when the reality is that its lack of such care is one reason why Brexit is bad for Britain.

Not only did such global businesses lack genuine passion in their opposition to Brexit they also, for the same reason, did not place it at the top of their list of priorities. In particular, come 2019, they saw a Corbyn government as more of a threat to them than Brexit. They also saw the possibilities of government contracts – or exclusion from them – as a counterweight to the disruption of Brexit. The alliance between politically committed remainers and big business opponents of Brexit was always one of convenience and, ultimately, transitory.

The same is not neccessarily true of the thousands of small, domestic businesses who are opposed to Brexit – yes, on economic grounds, but with neither the escape hatch of relocation nor the detachment from British society of the big firms. But, by definition, it is harder for smaller businesses to have a loud voice. Representative bodies like the CBI have sought to be that voice, but in the process have become the target of massive hostility from both Conservative Brexiters and their cultural attack dogs in the media. Sometimes the two join hands, as when Priti Patel viciously attacked the award of a Damehood to Fairbairn as rewarding “her role in the Brexit betrayal” (as so often, reading this one might have thought that the Brexiters had lost).

There is a wider story here about how the modern Tory Party has become detached from almost all parts of the business community – except, perhaps, the hedge funds which are one segment that benefits from Brexit and which generously fund the party. The days when the Conservative benches would have plenty of people with intimate knowledge of business are long gone. It’s a similar story with its membership, perhaps because of its ageing profile. I had several conversations with some of them during the Referendum campaign, and they often spoke of their business experience but, invariably, it was decades out of date and showed no understanding of contemporary supply chains or international regulation. It is also strange how confident Brexiters have been in the lobbying power of ‘the German car industry’ at precisely the time they have been so dismissive of the concerns of its British counterpart.

The pernicious success of the ’Project Fear’ rebuttal

Be that as it may, business opposition to Brexit was also blunted by the extraordinary success of the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal line (which, of course, was not just deployed against business). That success, which endures to this day, is difficult to explain. It seems to rely on the idea that any warning of any danger should be discounted, yet this is hardly how most people approach their daily lives.

It perhaps gained traction partly because the Remain campaign failed to articulate much in the way of a positive case for EU membership. It certainly relied on a constant argument ad absurdum, with warnings of, for example, damage to trade being rendered (and thus dismissed) as claims that all trade would cease. At all events, however successful it may have been as a campaign tactic, it has permanently crippled rational debate about Brexit, with any and every attempt to discuss, let alone address, practical difficulties being blasted away by its ovine repetition.

Additionally, at least during the Referendum campaign itself, and, I think, thereafter, the business voice against Brexit was muffled by media coverage. More than any other area, it suffered from the application of the ‘balance’ formula by the BBC and others. For, invariably, whenever business leaders spoke against Brexit they were then counterposed with a pro-Brexit business person. That may have ‘balanced’ the arguments, but it presented a seriously unbalanced picture of where the business community, overall, stood on Brexit.

Apart from the evidence of numerous surveys, the clue to that being so is that the pro-Brexit business people were always drawn from the same handful or so: Tim Martin, Anthony Bamford, James Dyson, Digby Jones, Rocco Forte and a few others. It happened precisely because there were so few of them.

The paucity of business support for Brexit is underscored by the failure to create a significant pro-Brexit business organization. Despite being boosted as the voice of business by the likes of ERG self-styled ‘hardman’ Steve Baker, the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs – the creation of an intellectual property lawyer and someone invariably just described as ‘a veteran and businessman’ – has never really taken off and does “not offer formal ‘membership’”. There’s something rather telling about the speech marks around membership, as if to imply that lack of members is a principled choice to avoid something disreputable. One might also wonder what ‘informal’ membership entails. These are hardly picky points to raise about an organization that aspires to be representative.

In any case, the Project Fear line was fundamentally dishonest both in itself and in what it became an alibi for. It was dishonest in itself because it ignored or distorted the factual basis of the warnings. It is dishonest in what it became because it morphed into the claim that, by ignoring those warnings, leave voters had chosen economic damage in favour of ‘sovereignty’. Yet, clearly, the entire Project Fear narrative was about discrediting those warnings; that there was nothing to ‘fear’. And why? Because the Vote Leave campaigners knew full well that if voters realized the economic damage Brexit would cause then they would never have voted for it simply on grounds of sovereignty. Otherwise, they would have simply agreed that there would be that damage and invited voters to support the policy anyway.

Whilst Project Fear was a potent way of neutering business opposition to Brexit before the Referendum, afterwards the populist neck-hold of ‘the will of the people’ was the main way of choking the business voice. If the judiciary and civil service could be traduced in that way, how much more difficult would it be for businesses reliant not just, possibly, on government favours but, almost certainly, on customers who might punish them as ‘saboteurs’? Safer to keep quiet. And of course the same situation obtains for other civil society institutions such as trade unions, charities, universities, professional bodies and so on. All are vulnerable to economic punishment, cultural punishment, or both. And all will suspect that speaking out is likely to be in vain as they will automatically be dismissed as ‘the Establishment’. So why take the pain for little or no gain?

That same logic now carries over to voicing concerns about not extending the Transition Period. Since Brexiters have managed – illogically, because Brexit has, in a legal sense, happened – to depict such an extension as ‘thwarting’ Brexit they can also run all their old attack lines about Project Fear and the will of the people.

The post-Brexit landscape

Yet voices are being raised over extension, and not just those of business. This week the Social Market Foundation published a report undertaken for the Best for Britain campaign group showing the economic implications of ending the Transition Period without a deal in the context of the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, a House of Lords Committee catalogued the extensive problems in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol by the end of the year and business groups there are expressing desperation about the lack of clarity about how the sea border is to work.

The Northern Ireland Assembly itself voted this week in favour of an extension until the coronavirus crisis is over, and Nicola Sturgeon has repeated her longstanding demand for extension. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, did so several weeks ago and was joined this week by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. The latter is significant in being the first major Labour figure to make this argument and, as discussed in my previous post, there are good reasons why Keir Starmer should follow suit.

These and other bodies and leaders are likely to become more vociferous this month as the window for agreeing an extension closes. If so, I think that despite their fears they might find that the landscape is rather different to that of even a few months ago, especially if they find a way to speak in concert (as the TUC and CBI did when warning of the national emergency of a no-deal Brexit in March 2019) rather than individually.

Of course those familiar Brexiter attack lines will continue to appeal to a significant segment of the public and the media. But the coronavirus crisis, the government’s inept handling of it, and its falling popularity as a result all serve to change the environment. Brexit just doesn’t dominate in the way that it did and it’s all but certain that a vote held today would reverse it. Outside of the minority who will always care about it, it’s yesterday’s issue. The Referendum mandate to leave the EU has been discharged and is now expired. That mandate had nothing to do with the length of the transition period and it most certainly wasn’t a licence not make a deal with the EU – as Michael Gove effectively admitted this week.

Extension isn’t remainers’ last stand, it’s Brexiters’ first challenge

Indeed, for this reason, even had the pandemic not struck we would still be in a new situation. For what Brexiters and, I suspect, some remainers seem not to have grasped is that the debate over extension is not the last, desperate gasp of the battle against Brexit. That battle was lost and is over. Rather, it is the first of what will be many post-Brexit rows about how to implement it.

These will be over all the myriad of issues relating to the future relationship with Europe – not just trade, but education, science, data, security and so on – which will still need to be implemented in detail if there is a deal, and which won’t simply go away if there isn’t. They will be over the impact of whatever trade deals may be negotiated with the US (£) and other countries. And they will be over the big picture issue of what the UK’s place in the world is post-Brexit, which is already being played out as we navigate the complex power-plays between the US, China and the EU, for example over Huawei.

The Brexiters have already found that winning the Referendum was just the beginning of a long and arduous journey – the more so for having no defined destination. They are now about to find that the act of leaving the EU, whilst marking the end of one phase of Brexit, was itself only the easiest part of the process. The first challenge has now arisen in the form of whether they will be pragmatic in finding a way to secure more time given the impact of coronavirus or whether they will remain forever in thrall to paranoid fears of ‘betrayal’.

It is a chance for them to show that, finally, they accept that they have won and that Brexit is happening. In the end it is their ability to do that, rather than any lobbying from business or opposition parties, which will determine what happens on extension. Now comprehensively in charge of government it is a chance for them, and especially Boris Johnson, to show that they have moved on from the culture war slogans that got them this far. But there is very little basis for optimism and, alas, it is far more likely that they will show that those slogans were all they ever had.