Friday, 28 August 2020

A preview of the blame games

No one knows if there is going to be a UK-EU trade and other future terms deal, and nothing has happened this week to make that clearer. The last two months’ talks, despite Johnson’s call to put some “oomph” into them, have shown that no more progress can be made at a ‘technical’ as opposed to a political level. Hence it was announced this week that Brexit will be taken off the agenda of next week’s EU Ambassadors’ summit due to a “completely wasted” summer. In this relatively quiet limbo-period we are seeing the outlines of a series of blame games and recriminations in the UK which are only likely to intensify in the coming months.

Brexit matters more to Britain than to the EU

Ending this limbo is primarily dependent on political decisions in the UK, in particular about disclosing what its post-Brexit state aid policy is to be. The EU has already shifted from seeking direct application of its state aid rules to accepting something like equivalence between the two regimes – which needs the UK spells out what its regime is to be. It seems very unlikely the EU could soften further on this key issue.

The reality is that Brexit simply doesn’t matter that much anymore for the EU - there’s clearly a preference for some sort of deal, but, as Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government wrote this week, a no deal scenario has long been planned for. It also seems increasingly to be expected. Nor does Brexit have anything like the same political saliency for any EU country – not even Ireland, which will be most affected but is not split over it – that it does for the UK where it is still potential political dynamite.

That dynamite is – obviously – because of the continuing deep divisions over Brexit, but also because of the very practical consequences of no deal for the UK. Without rehearsing all these again, a leaked report this week of government preparations was a reminder of what is potentially at stake, including troops on the streets to keep order, water rationing and major food shortages. This is not ‘Project Fear’, it is planning by a pro-Brexit government, and there is nothing remotely like it in prospect for any EU country.

That difference of priority is insufficiently appreciated in the British polity and media, which, because in general it sees the EU entirely through the lens of Brexit, assumes that Brexit is central to the EU. But although when the UK was a member state, including during the Article 50 negotiations, its internal politics were of interest to, and often accommodated by, the EU all that changed once the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was signed. At that point, the most crucial EU concerns about Brexit were dealt with, to be replaced with bewilderment and irritation that the UK seems to have decided that the Political Declaration that accompanied it is an irrelevance.

Who would get the blame for no deal?

This is the background to an interesting and widely-discussed report in the Sunday Times (£) by Tim Shipman, a journalist with strong sources in the government and the author of excellent books on the politics of Brexit. The thrust of the report is that the government thinks the EU is dangerously failing to understand that Johnson’s government, unlike – supposedly - May’s, is fully committed to Brexit and willing to entertain no deal. Yet such an analysis itself shows precisely a failure to understand that the whole show has moved on: no deal under May meant no WA, but the WA is now signed and Britain has already left the EU.

Beyond that, the government’s position as reported – I would think accurately – by Shipman remains hopelessly stuck in the same mire as May’s government, itself a result of the impossible promises made by Vote Leave. For although the report presents the UK as humbly seeking a ‘bare bones’ deal because it, unlike May’s administration, embraces and accepts Brexit as a change from membership to third country status that simply isn’t true at all.  Instead, as Jennifer Rankin, the Guardian’s Brussels correspondent, pointed out, over a huge swathe of things the UK is still seeking continuity with what it enjoyed as a member state.

That, of course, does still matter to the EU. Not in order to ‘punish’ an ex-member but for the obvious reason that if non-members have the same things as members then membership becomes meaningless. In that respect, far from Johnson’s government having accepted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and moved on to a new phase, it is still wedded to at least a version of his familiar ‘cakeist’ fantasy. Unsurprisingly, the EU continues to bat back attempts by the government to turn these fantasies into ‘legal texts’ without any agreement to them having been negotiated.

It obviously doesn’t take a genius to work out what is going on here, not least since it has been in prospect for months, indeed years: the ground is being prepared to blame the EU for no deal because it failed to understand that it was dealing with a British government fully prepared to go down that route if necessary. This was made explicit in a typically bullish editorial in the Sun this week.

That isn’t to say that no deal is inevitable, or that the government has decided on that course. In fact, I suspect the truth is as simple as that the government genuinely believes the dogma of the Brexit echo chamber it now entirely inhabits which insists that ‘the EU always blinks at the last minute’. So on the one hand we’re seeing that strategy repeated and, on the other, getting a taste of how the government and media will present things if no deal turns out to be the consequence: ‘we tried to warn the EU what would happen if it didn’t meet our perfectly reasonable requests but they wouldn’t believe us’.

The logic of this is circular in that the more the EU makes it clear that it will countenance no deal if necessary, the more it confirms the Brexiter view that nothing will change until the very last moment. At the same time, it’s a highly peculiar strategy given that the adverse effects of no deal will be felt much more heavily by the UK than the EU. In effect, it’s a game of chicken which has strapped every man, woman and child in the UK in the path of an oncoming train, and the closer a collision comes the more it justifies staying there. The fallback plan, apparently, is to tell the maimed victims that it was the train driver’s fault.

So that’s the first and, clearly, the foremost blame game on display, that between the UK and the EU. Again, it’s a purely domestic game, because the EU itself won’t be that interested in it, and the member states even less so.

Would the Brexiters be blamed for making false promises?

There are alternatives to blaming the EU. The most obvious – ongoing since the referendum, but which has new zest as the end of the transition approaches – is the disjuncture between what is happening and what was promised by Brexiters. That disjuncture will exist almost as much if there is a deal as if there isn’t, since it is clear that any deal will be far less commodious than was proposed to leave voters in 2016.

We had a small taste of this when former cabinet minister David Gauke pointed out this week (in response to the Shipman article) that Brexiters have long-promised that “the EU will give us whatever we want as long as they believe we’re prepared to walk away” and – in line with my analysis above - are lining up the excuse that “the EU underestimated our determination”. This engendered a huge and furious reaction and what was interesting about that was how precisely it exposed the central flaw of Brexit.

On the one hand, Iain Dale said that Gauke was talking “utter bollocks. Literally no one argued that the EU would give us all we wanted” and Julia Hartley-Brewer said simply “no it isn’t” (i.e. that what Gauke had said was the Brexiters’ position was not). But only a couple of days before during a (separate) discussion of the issue of what Brexiters had promised Hartley-Brewer had re-affirmed that “we do hold all the cards because we will do just fine with or without a deal and the EU knows it” (emphasis in original, but denoted with the symbol “*”).

Since some of the debate about Gauke’s tweet has descended into who has used the literal words “whatever we want”, let me spell out that if one side ‘holds all the cards’ it must follow that it could get whatever it wants since the other side would have no cards, and if those cards consist of being able to do fine without a deal then the leverage consists of being able to walk away. So in all substantive senses, Hartley-Brewer is still making the same claim that Gauke says Brexiters made all along but which both she and Iain Dale say was never made by Brexiters.

I’ve deliberately focused on this micro-fragment of what is in itself a relatively minor discussion because in the welter of all that has been said over the last four years it has become easier and easier for Brexiters to muddy, disown or misrepresent the claims they made. As it would now be an impossible task to subject the entirety of the Brexit debate to the same level of detailed reconstruction, it’s useful to give an illustration of how it works.

What’s especially difficult is that Brexiters often conveyed their message by means of an overall upbeat tone (e.g. that there would be a deal, and a good one) even if sometimes adding in, as it were, the small print some qualification to this message (e.g. but if not we can fall back on WTO terms and that will be fine too). Thus when, now, faced with the overall message, they are able to quote the small print as a ‘get out’ so as to deny they made any promises at all. It is a tactic familiar to dodgy salespeople the world over. Although in this case, in fact, the ‘we hold all the cards’ line was widely used, most famously by Michael Gove, and that is so well-documented as to be beyond reasonable dispute.

That such claims and promise were made matters, and it is important not to allow history to be re-written. But the present point is that, even now, two leading pro-Brexit broadcasters, each with large audiences and presumably significant influence, are able to make diametrically opposite statements – I assume in good faith, and I am not casting aspersions on either of them - about the nature of the Brexit negotiations and what was promised for them. And Dale and Hartley-Brewer are just two examples – the same story could be told using any number of Brexiters in politics or the media. This is not, by the way, an example of the familiar theme of ‘history being written by the victors’, in that what it shows is that the victors give as varied an account of that history as, at the time, they made promises about the future.

This is central to how the Brexit vote was won, because quite contradictory claims and promises were made as a deliberate campaign technique. It is also why the process of actually delivering Brexit has been so fraught, because what those claims meant and how those promises would be delivered was not defined or agreed. This in turn sets up what will inevitably be years of recrimination, denial and counter-attack.

So that is the second of the main emerging blame games: what Brexiters said and promised versus what actually happened or will happen, and of course this goes well beyond the specific example given by Gauke this week.

Would it be blamed on those who didn’t back May’s deal?

Also rumbling away in the background are assessments of what happened during the convoluted and complex political events of 2019. These include, in particular, the idea that politicians (and others) who favoured remain, or at least a soft Brexit, are at fault for not having backed May’s Withdrawal Agreement. On this account, especially if there is no deal, but even if there is a hard Brexit deal, the blame lies with those who were too recalcitrant to back May.

This involves several highly dubious propositions and, again, a certain amount of re-writing of history. It forgets, or downplays, how the hard core of opposition to May’s deal came from the ERG and, especially, the self-styled Spartans amongst them. It forgets that throughout much of 2019 every Brexit outcome was conceivably possible (or, as it often seemed, impossible) and so all shades of opinion opposed to May’s deal had reason to hold out against it in the greater or lesser hope that their preferred outcome would triumph.

Crucially, it neglects the fact that May’s deal was itself ‘hard Brexit’ – out of the single market and customs union - pointing to the eventual Canada-style outcome that remains Johnson’s stated aim – the only real difference being the extent to which she seemed to accept the realities of what that would mean, especially as regards the Level Playing Field. It also neglects that May, too, was not averse to threatening no deal. So hers was by no means the ‘compromise’ approach it is now spoken of as being. And, related to that, it neglects the fact that as the Brexit Ultras now say, as quoted in the Shipman report for example, Johnson’s WA is “basically the same as May’s deal. It’s more than 99% the same”.

Given that the major difference between the two was the substitution of the Irish Sea border for the Irish backstop arrangements, about the only group who can really be criticized for not supporting May’s deal are the DUP – and of them a better critique would be that from the outset, long before the WA or even the triggering of Article 50, their entire support for Brexit was a massive mistake given their core political priority of preserving the union.

Would it be blamed on those who enabled the 2019 election?

A somewhat related revisionism is that those opposed to Brexit were guilty of a terrible error in enabling the 2019 General Election. This charge is aimed especially at the LibDems and also at remainers within the Labour Party. Perhaps it could apply to the SNP, too, but that is less likely to stick since it’s easy to argue that the SNP’s central goal of Scottish independence is well-served by Brexit and, for wider reasons, by a Johnson government – indeed developments since the election seem to bear that out.

This criticism of remainers neglects the fact that there was no prospect of a parliamentary majority for a referendum (and still less for a revocation of Article 50) in the 2019 parliament. Moreover, Johnson had already passed his (then) Withdrawal Agreement Bill at second reading by some 30 votes. So there was a strong argument – and I made it at the time, as did others including Ian Dunt – that, highly risky as it was, a general election was the best and possibly only way to head off the eventual passage of the Bill and to re-constitute parliament in ways more propitious to remain.

None of that is to defend the way that Labour and the LibDems fought the election as regards Brexit, and the LibDem Article 50 revocation policy was – as again I argued that at the time – a total fiasco both in principle and practice. But the fact that agreeing to an election turned out to put a definitive end to the remain cause does not mean that it was a mistake to take that risk, though it is obviously true that taking it did not pay off.

Nor is any of this to deny that the internal state of the People’s Vote movement was – as we now know in more detail (£) – shambolic or that remainers made plenty of mistakes in 2019, including a failure to work together with soft Brexiters (and vice versa). But the calculated risk of the election was not one of them, and can only be presented as such by ignoring what was actually happening in parliamentary votes at that time.

Why does any of this matter?

It may seem pointless to revisit the, often, arcane details of the last four years of Brexit. But doing so is not a scholastic exercise: it is still very much live politics. Brexit was never going to be – and surely everyone can now see this? – a single, quick, or simple event. It is a long, complex, ongoing process which we are still living through. In that context it is vital to retain an accurate record of what was said, by whom, and of who did what, when, and why. The purpose being not, in fact, to assign blame but, rather, responsibility and also, perhaps, to hold on to a sense of reality in the face of the Zersetzung-style techniques that increasingly characterize Brexit.

Much of what is now happening  –  and Johnson’s whole strategy, most obviously in his ban on the use of the word ‘Brexit’  –  can be thought of as a battle between remembering and forgetting. The coming months are going to be crucial ones for defining what Brexit is going to mean for Britain and that is now certain to be very different to what those who voted leave were told it would be. So it’s going to be important to recall how we got to this juncture. After all, if, to reprise an earlier metaphor, a massive national train wreck is in prospect, it’s not unreasonable to ask what led to it - even if it’s small comfort to know the answers.

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