Friday, 22 October 2021

A government that has lost its way

When I was at school – it must have been about the time that Jim Callaghan was (not) saying “Crisis? What crisis?” – I once received a damning report on my term’s work. “He seems to have lost his way”, it read, before adding witheringly “and what is worse he does not appear to care”. It is a verdict which could very well apply to Boris Johnson and his government.

After the complexity and drama of last week, this has been a fairly quiet one for Brexit news, for all that the Brexit-related (£) supply and labour crisis persists, with fresh reports almost daily including those of a “tsunami of unmet [social] care needs”, and the evidence of damage to trade mounts. At the same time, soaring energy prices threaten the viability of businesses, whilst the domestic energy market is in disarray (£). And ominously, but all too predictably, there are the increasingly worrying Covid developments. Not so much a matter of ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ as ‘Crisis? Which crisis?’

Against that background, the process of ‘getting Brexit done’ continues. Negotiations about the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have resumed between officials and although we can expect them to be punctuated with leaks and, possibly, angry statements, the relative calm will probably endure for a week or two more as they continue. In the meantime, commentators have been trying to make sense of what happened last week and to predict what it may lead to.

A fair summary, at least of those things that I have read, is that no one really knows. And I think it’s also fair to say that anyone who does claim to know is deluding themselves. Clearly there are two main dimensions of uncertainty: will the UK continue to demand significantly more than the EU have offered on the NIP, especially as regards expunging any role for the ECJ, and, if so, how will the EU react?

Has the EU’s patience run out?

As regards the latter, Tony Connelly of RTE, almost always a reliable guide, suggests that the EU is not in a mood to compromise further, and that patience has pretty much run out both in terms of Brexit in general and in terms of anger at British bad faith. A similar sentiment can be found in an editorial in France’s Le Monde, which bemoans the fact that “the nightmare of Brexit” continues despite the agreements that have been signed. Unsurprisingly, Dominic Cummings’ remarks last week about how the government never intended to abide by what it agreed in the NIP are given as evidence of that bad faith. It would be wrong to say that they were decisive, in that this bad faith has long been recognized, but coming at this particular moment they have crystallised that recognition and made the EU even less likely to concede more to the UK.

Whilst France is widely understood to be especially resistant to further compromise, Connelly’s report suggests that plenty of smaller member states, such as Greece and Romania, are similarly disenchanted with the UK’s approach of – as I’ve argued many times on this blog is its hallmark – constantly coming back for more, whatever concessions are made. The German press, too, is scathing. Writing an opinion piece in Die Welt, Stefanie Bolzen, its long-term and Anglophile UK correspondent, also cites Cummings’ comments in her critique of Johnson’s dishonesty and use of “shock tactics”, and urges the EU to respond with its own “hardball” approach if the latest proposals are not accepted.

Bolzen and Connolly both refer to how the crisis over Poland’s challenging of the jurisdiction of the ECJ serves to make EU concessions on its role in Northern Ireland even less likely. It’s an important point, especially within the context of a British polity and media which have never taken much interest in the internal dynamics of the EU and now, more than ever, seem to imagine that “Brussels” is constrained only by lack of goodwill or desire to thwart Brexit from simply granting the UK whatever it wants.

Will the UK persist with the ECJ demand?

In fact, even without the Polish crisis, the UK’s latest demand betrays the perennial Brexiter failure to understand the nature of the EU (or any other) single market, in this case that it has to have an ultimate and sole arbiter of its laws. If it did not, then commercial activity would become impossible as economic actors would have no definitive means of redress when laws are broken. Thus given that for some purposes, notably goods trade, Northern Ireland remains in the single market some role for the ECJ is inevitable there. If for no other reason than this the NIP is, despite Frost’s insistence, different from a ‘normal’ trade treaty. Indeed, although it has trade implications, it is not really a trade treaty at all; it is part of, specifically, the Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement.

Whilst, as discussed by Gerhard Schnyder, various models have been touted to ‘fudge’ the governance issue, all ultimately entail some recourse to the ECJ. So if the UK really insists that this violates sovereignty then it is hard to see any room for compromise. Some, such as former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton (another long-term Anglophile, by the way), believe that Britain is intent on conflict with the EU not so much as a result of some principled stance on ‘sovereignty’ but to scapegoat the EU for all the problems of Brexit. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, as acute an observer of Brexit as any, argues something very similar. I’m actually not so sure, in that I think that Johnson (shallowly) and Frost (through belated but genuine conversion) actually believe the ‘sovereignty’ line, and certainly that many of the Brexit Ultras pushing behind them to ensure the purity of the revolution do, as an article of – literally – faith.

One small indicator of this is the apparently absurd report (£) that Brexit Ultras including Iain Duncan Smith are pushing to ensure that Northern Ireland be included in the proposal to make it legal to sell goods using imperial units only, rather than using both metric and imperial (or metric only) units as required by the EU. This of course is not possible under the NIP because of it still being subject to EU law in this matter. Yet whilst this is indeed absurd (as, for that matter, were the ‘Metric Martyrs’ cases brought against traders for using imperial units only), it’s a longstanding and iconic issue for a certain segment of Brexiters, as I discussed when the proposal first appeared in Smith’s TIGRR report. Some even regard it as having played a pivotal role in the process than led ultimately to Brexit, and a campaign for pardons of those convicted was launched just this summer, showing that it is still a live issue.

From outside this segment of the Brexitosphere this seems quite ludicrous. There’s almost no one who wants to sell or buy goods in imperial units only. By extension, the idea that it matters whether the right to do so is shared by Northern Ireland seems even more trivial. Strikingly, it is the exact opposite to the EU’s approach in its proposed changes to the implementation of the NIP, which focusses pragmatically on the real and pressing concerns of Northern Irish businesses. But from within that segment, it is a matter of genuine concern and grievance, and is a specific example of why the continuing role of the ECJ is anathema.

Of course, as explained in my previous post, it is wholly unjustifiable for Johnson and Frost to suddenly claim that the ECJ’s role is a paramount issue of principle, given that they long accepted it without demur, but it’s important to understand that it derives from things which do matter for a noisy part of their core constituency. I think one of the biggest mistakes that remainers, or erstwhile remainers, have made over the years is to have under-priced the potency, for others, of things that they think ludicrous.

Whatever the motivation of the new demand, the hardening opinion in the EU (£) - not just in the countries already named but also in the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, for Johnson’s Britain has few, if any, friends any more - will hardly be mollified by seeing some of the things being reported in the British press. In particular, the suggestion that “government insiders” believe that even if agreement is reached in the current NIP talks there will still need to be further re-negotiations (£) will surely dismay the entire EU, as well as British people with any sense and, perhaps especially, Northern Irish businesses. Not only was it precisely to avoid such instability that arrangements for Northern Ireland were agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it also underscores that the British approach of always asking for more is indeed firmly built in to government thinking.

Nor will the bellicose noises about the possibility and perhaps even desirability of Britain fighting a trade war with the EU from Matthew Lynn (£) and others have gone unnoticed in the EU’s attempt to work out whether anything will placate the Brexiters. It may be tempting to dismiss the reports cited as being in the rabidly pro-Brexit Telegraph and Express, but readers in the EU will no doubt be aware, and I have certainly observed, how over the last few years ludicrous propositions from the Brexiter fringes have very often gone on to become government policy.

The domestic risks of a fresh crisis

I’m still not persuaded by the idea that there is domestic advantage for Johnson in continued confrontation with the EU, let alone a trade war, if that is what it morphs into. At the very least it would be an approach fraught with risk.

Johnson may believe, as some commentators do, that his party’s popularity is unassailable, and it’s true that most opinion polls show a remarkable continuing level of support despite the ongoing supply and labour crisis which might have been expected to dent it. But there is quite a bit of variation in the polls, which might suggest that his support is fragile. In particular, an acute piece by Matthew Parris in The Times (£) is right, I think, to suggest that if voters “join the dots” of the wide variety of crises – not all to do with Brexit – they may suddenly flip to seeing a wider picture of a government which is incompetent and seriously out of its depth over everything from food shortages to energy supplies, and from NHS waiting lists to its handling of the pandemic.

Adding a political crisis over the NIP and, especially, an economic crisis of a trade war with the EU - and, make no mistake, it would be a significant crisis, with ramifications for business viability, consumer prices, investment and sterling - might stoke up the angry support of Johnson’s core vote, but the rest of it could peel away very suddenly. Even without such crises, their continuing possibility is damaging, particularly for investment, and it’s hard to see businesses, already battered by Brexit, the pandemic and global supply problems evincing much enthusiasm for Lynn’s suggestion that they should now start ‘wargaming’ for a trade war. How much more damage can the already bruised and bloodied body of the British economy soak up?

Nor is the issue just one of adding a new crisis on top of others. It matters that it would be a specifically Brexit-related crisis. For, again outside of the hard core of its supporters, the government is rapidly running out of excuses for why Brexit hasn’t, as promised, been done. That matters because getting Brexit done was, by a long way, the most important issue for those deciding to vote Tory in the last election. More generally, it is getting more and more difficult for leave voters, a quarter of whom now think that Brexit is having a negative impact on the country, to think that they got what they were promised in 2016. Even the long-planned ‘Festival of Brexit’ is, apparently, going to drop the word ‘Brexit’ from its title (£), to the anger of Brexit Ultras. The new name for the festival is, provisionally, ‘Unboxed’, although one feels it cannot be long before that is replaced with ‘Undone’ or perhaps just ‘Unhinged’.

The dangers arising from old promises being broken is the more acute because of the new promises being made. The ongoing and likely to be long-lasting HGV driver shortage is a key example. As discussed in a recent post, the government has switched from saying this is nothing to do with Brexit, to admitting that it is and hence doing a little – but nowhere near enough – to address the problem with temporary work visas, to saying that it is a benefit of Brexit as it will increase drivers’ wages. This might have the advantage of giving the government multiple ‘lines of defence’, but has the effect of making each of them less plausible.

Thus when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a temporary suspension of the post-Brexit ‘cabotage’ rules last weekend it was another acknowledgment that Brexit is a factor in the problems, yet was a puny response to the problems whilst immediately being attacked by domestic drivers as undercutting their pay and conditions so that they are now threatening strikes. Meanwhile, to the extent that HGV driver wages are now rising, it is causing new crises as bus drivers (£) and refuse vehicle drivers quit lower paid jobs to join the freight sector, whilst the system for testing new HGV drivers is in chaos. This is all happening because, rather than plan a serious policy for what would happen when freedom of movement ended, the government insisted all Brexit problems were ‘Project Fear’ and now makes responses based on gimmicks and temporary headlines.

A government trapped by its own dishonesty

The cabotage example illustrates that the government can’t claim Brexit is going well on either the ‘old’ criteria (it will be beneficial or at least cost-free), because otherwise why make the change, or the ‘new’ criteria (it will be tough but will be good for domestic workers) because the change undercuts domestic workers. More generally it can’t anymore say the supply and labour problems are nothing do with Brexit, because of the tiny steps it has taken in a few sectors, yet nor can it honestly admit that Brexit is going badly which would be necessary to take the substantive and substantial steps needed to address the problems across the entire economy.

This is not just about Brexit in the narrow sense of this or that practical consequence, but in the wider sense of it having bequeathed a government and a form of governing which are irredeemably dishonest, first and foremost about Brexit itself. The tangle of contradictory lies is now so dense that it is impossible for this government to escape it, even if it were minded to. It’s commonplace to talk of the government gaslighting the public, but perhaps where post-truth politics ends up is with a government that has gaslighted (gaslit?) itself.

So, again, to add a really serious new Brexit crisis over the NIP on to this would be politically risky. On the one hand, the swirl of lies and half-truths may be believed by some of the public, and confuse enough more people into concluding that it’s impossible to know what the truth of Brexit is. On the other hand opinion may crystallise into an angry recognition that the public has been comprehensively conned by Brexit. Since either is possible, it is a risk the government may take.

So what now?

As I said at the beginning of this post, neither I nor anyone else knows what is going to happen. And that, actually, is the nub of the problem. The UK is drifting, with no discernible strategy in any of the things it is doing. Worse, it is bereft of political leadership, with about the only thing that almost everyone - supporter or adversary, at home or abroad - agrees upon about the Prime Minister is that he, too, is irredeemably dishonest.

Thus it’s possible that Johnson is planning a trade war with the EU. It’s possible he will fall into such a trade war without planning to. It’s possible he will invoke Article 16 in the hope of getting more concessions from the EU but without matters escalating so far as a trade war. It’s possible he is planning to do a deal with the EU on more or less the terms offered. These are all possible within the ambit of the ‘madman theory’ strategy I discussed at length last week, but they are also all possible if there is no strategy at all.

So what if it’s not so much that Johnson is deliberately keeping the EU guessing as to his intentions, but that he doesn’t actually know himself? That he, too, does not know what is going to happen next? In some ways that is the most plausible possibility since, after all, the Brexiters have never had any facility for, or interest in, planning, with Johnson especially cavalier. As he flails around between incoherent speeches and painting holidays, apparently oblivious to all the crises surrounding him, it’s not hard to think that, as my schoolmaster once wrote of me, he has lost his way and what is worse does not appear to care.

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