Friday 14 January 2022

Will Truss press the re-set button?

The Brexit process has been going on for so long now that its recurrent phases have taken on the predictability of seasons. Currently, we’re in one of the ‘will there, won’t there be a deal?’ periods, marked as always by windy rhetoric from the UK and strained patience from the EU. Also not for the first time, this is taking place against a background of political turmoil and questions about whether the Prime Minister can survive.

This time, these are not directly connected to Brexit yet they do relate to it. For one thing, it was Brexit which provided the route for Boris Johnson to come to power at all, so his premiership can be counted as one of its many costs. For another, the ‘partygate’ fiasco is a product of his endless dishonesty as well as ‘anti-ruleism’ both of which are the skeins linking his scandal-ridden administration and Brexit. And, for a third, at least some Brexiters are ludicrously suggesting that it is a ‘remainer’ plot, partly because some remainers are ludicrously suggesting it could put an end to Brexit.

Truss’s contradictory signals

Against this increasingly baroque and unstable background, Liz Truss has taken over (£) the now hardy perennial of a threat to “invoke Article 16” if the EU doesn’t accede to her demands in the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Even if this was designed for domestic consumption, it undermined reports that she is adopting a “warmer tone” (£) to the negotiations than Frost. Perhaps British politicians still haven’t cottoned on that the UK press is read abroad.

Yesterday evening, following talks during the day, she hosted Maros Sefcovic for dinner at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s stately home, although if that is the first prize offered in her charm offensive one wonders what the second is – two dinners with her, perhaps? Joking aside, this invitation does mark a departure from Frost’s approach and briefings beforehand suggested that a ‘re-set’ was in prospect, but that is hard to square that with the continuation of the Article 16 threat. At the very least, there’s no realistic way to re-set relations with the EU without also re-setting the promises to the ERG, which at her first chance Truss has failed to do.

The talks continue today so presumably there will be some statements later, although they are unlikely to be dramatic. It will, though, be significant if Article 16 is or isn’t mentioned. Maintaining the Article 16 threat is strange for three reasons. First, because, no matter what the more unlettered Brexiters seem to think, it doesn’t open the door to anything much except further talks with the EU and certainly doesn’t allow the UK to scrap or unilaterally rewrite the Protocol. Second, because acting on the threat would be likely, if not immediately then fairly soon, to entail some degree of trade war with the EU and some degree of diplomatic and economic pushback from the US, so as a threat it’s either self-defeating or unconvincing. And, third, because, unless all the reports to this effect are wrong, Boris Johnson had already decided not to act on this threat, thus provoking David Frost’s resignation.

Stick or twist?

Decoding what is going on in this ongoing Pontoon game is difficult and probably pointless. It could be that, perhaps because of Frost’s resignation, Johnson has changed his mind again. It could be that Truss is freelancing, perhaps with a view to cementing her own leadership chances if Johnson prevents her from following through on the threat. It could be a continuation of the persistent myth that ‘hard ball’ tactics will extract concessions from the EU at which point the UK climbs down on its most extreme demands – in this case an end to any role for the ECJ in Northern Ireland. It could be Truss playing to the ERG gallery. It could be that neither Truss nor Johnson really knows what they are doing, and just keep repeating the old familiar lines as if eventually they will make sense, or that ‘something will turn up’. It could be some combination of any or all of these.

At one level, all this can be viewed as part of the seemingly endless clown-show politics of Brexit and, certainly, as I argued in a recent post, part of the interminable internal fractiousness and factionalism of the Tory Party. But this is not a cost-free spectacle, and I see real difficulties ahead whatever the outcome, an outcome that must come soon – in weeks, if not days – whatever other political dramas are happening.

If, as common sense would suggest, the UK accepts a deal which involves, perhaps, a fudge on the ECJ – as implied in some recent reports (£) - as well as the already substantial accommodations on border checks and formalities offered by the EU, then I don’t think that the ERG and other hardline Brexiters are likely to sit back and take it. That is especially so given that Truss’s recent noises about Article 16 have suggested that the fundamental tenet of the NIP, Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods, is unacceptable, thus raising their expectations high.

The ERG already despise Johnson, and if he presides over any kind of ‘climbdown’ they will very likely move to finish him off, something not difficult in his weakened state. If that happens, there will be no need to shed tears except for the fact that if they succeed it is all but inevitable that his replacement will be elected on a more hardline prospectus, and so the whole saga over the NIP and Article 16 will start anew.

On the other hand, if Johnson (perhaps in anticipation of just such a scenario, or for other possible reasons discussed below) does now push things to a crisis with the EU, it will be by far the worst of the Brexit process to date, eclipsing the rows over the Internal Market Bill and the unilateral extension of NIP grace periods (with one immediate consequence being the resumption of the EU’s legal action over the latter).

How high a price are we going to pay for Brexit?

Whilst the hard line Brexiters are unlikely to care, it’s not clear how much more Brexit-induced damage Britain can soak up on top of all the problems of the pandemic and the growing energy and cost of living crisis. New analysis shows how, as EU trade recovers from the pandemic, the UK recovery lags behind. Manufacturers report and warn of the “soaring costs” of Brexit red tape, and an associated shortage of staff with the skills to deal with it, whilst industry is also bearing the costs of decoupling from the EU carbon market. The UK share of EU-funded science grants is slumping. The City of London is undergoing “a slow puncture” (£). And this is just a selection of this week’s damage reports.

It’s not, as is fatuously being discussed by Brexiters (£), that the government has ‘won the Brexit war but lost the peace’, it is that all the false claims made about the benefits of Brexit are gradually being found out. Brexit isn’t suffering from a failure to control the narrative. It’s simply suffering from failure. Do we really want to add the costs of a trade war with the EU? Nor would the costs be simply economic. If Article 16 is finally invoked, the reputational damage the UK has suffered as a result of Brexit and, especially, of the way it has been done, will be significantly added to, leaving the UK even more isolated from, and peripheral to, its natural friends and allies in the EU and the US at a time of growing tensions with, in particular, Russia and China*.

In her recent, and peculiarly hubristic, speech in the US, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt spoke as if with Brexit the UK had embarked on some world-leading, globally significant project to which the US and others needed to respond. Tellingly, embedded within it was a call to reject responses that, by implication, she realised were those most likely to be in her listeners’ minds:

“Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community. Or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished.”

For whilst, despite the paranoia of some Brexiters, there has been no interest in punishing the UK, the overwhelming view of its international friends is both to mourn Brexit and see it as self-harm. How could it be otherwise? As Michael Cox, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE, put it last year:

“Going it alone while taking regular potshots at the EU … might appeal to the gallery. But this does not change the simple fact that [the UK] now confronts an increasingly challenging international environment made up of an America in whose eyes it is now much less of an asset … a European Union which no longer trusts it … and a China too powerful to be pushed around or lectured … [A]s critics have been quick to point out … if the English were misguided enough to leave the biggest democratic and economic club in the world in which the UK had played a key role, whose members quite literally begged for it to remain, and through which it had amplified its voice in Washington, there would, in the end, be a price to pay. The only question remaining is how high will that price be and for how long will the UK be paying it?”

So could there be a Brexit re-set?

That last question, both as regards international relations and economics, is the crucial one now. We are where we are, as the political cliché has it, and what matters now is not so much to bemoan the past as to start trying to put matters right, the prerequisite of which has to be honesty. In an ideal world we would have a leader with the wisdom, insight and integrity to do this but instead we have the “unfathomably inadequate” Johnson who, reportedly, is “only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”. It’s hardly an auspicious basis to meet the needs of the nation. Cometh the hour, cometh the man isn’t usually thought of in the terms which, on that account, Johnson would rise to the challenge.

That challenge isn’t just one for Johnson, but for Brexiters more generally. In a sense, it is no different to when a person makes a series of catastrophic decisions against the advice of friends and family. It may be too much to expect such a person to admit all of their follies and recant them. Most people are too proud to do that, at least until they reach the proverbial ‘rock bottom’, and, for all the damage done, Brexit Britain has some way to go before that. Perhaps until then nothing can change for the better, but perhaps at least some Brexiters can be led to draw fresh conclusions from their apparent recent realization, discussed in my previous post, that their project has not worked out as they expected. It may be that they continue to ascribe that to Brexit ‘not having been done right’ but, even if so, they, too, need to recognize that ‘we are where we are’.

This is obviously an easier ask of the softer parts of the leave voting public than it is of the Brexiters, but it does need to include at least some of the latter, even if not the ‘Ultra Ultras’ I discussed in that previous post. At a minimum, it means them acknowledging that Brexit has significantly undermined UK trade and UK business generally, and that extensive regulatory alignment is necessary. It means accepting that the NIP has been signed and that the EU proposals for its reform are reasonable, and could be augmented by Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary alignment (which would also be helpful for GB-EU trade). It means seeking to deepen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes up for its five-year review.

All of this seems to be where Labour Party policy is heading, and whilst it is nowhere near enough to satisfy, let alone delight, many erstwhile remainers, it’s a lot better than what we currently have. So Keir Starmer might be, or become, someone to tell the nation some home truths about Brexit, but we are probably a long way from an election which it’s not clear that Labour would win anyway. And much damage will be done before then if the Conservative government refuses to undertake a ‘re-set’ over Brexit.

Perhaps it is simply impossible for it to do so given the intransigence of the ERG and others, and the lurking influence of Nigel Farage. It’s certainly impossible to over-state the rabidity of the core pro-Brexit vote as shown, for example, by the extraordinary articles on the Brexit Watch section of the Conservative Woman website, reading which would make you think you had plumbed the depths of madness – until you read the comments beneath them. Of particular note is the almost messianic appeal of David Frost, apparently betrayed “at the very moment of his triumph”, whilst Truss is regarded as suspiciously “malleable”.

Yet, for all that, there are still considerable numbers of Conservative MPs and voters, represented most notably in cabinet by Rishi Sunak, who, whilst certainly pro-Brexit, would just like to see an end to the endless aggravation it has caused. In particular, those whose support for Johnson was predicated on his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ are likely to push for, or reward, a re-set, of which the most tangible outcome would be a settlement of the NIP row. It is, admittedly, the puniest of pegs on which to hang any hope for common sense to prevail.

Less optimistic scenarios

If such a re-set is the most optimistic – or over-optimistic – scenario, then a full-on crisis over the NIP would actually be the second best. For all the damage it would do, it might conceivably be a route to that ‘rock-bottom’ moment when, after these five long years and more, the Brexiters might, perhaps, be forced to face up to some truth.

Some may think that the intense political crisis currently engulfing Johnson make it more likely that this is the route he will go down, as a distraction. I think such ‘dead cat’ diagnoses are very rarely realistic and, in this case, would be more like to add to his problems than distract from them, compounding the sense that he is beleaguered at home and abroad. Even if it delighted one wing of his party it would alienate others, and even those in the first camp would quickly be disillusioned when they saw that nothing had been resolved by using Article 16 (if this does come to pass, by the way, they will then demand an even more extreme act e.g. completely reneging on the NIP: remember, the Ultras have never accepted it in its entirety).

Instead, the most likely scenario, which is actually the worst, is one in which Johnson seeks to keep his leadership afloat, and his party more or less together, by a partial climbdown so as to do a deal over the NIP, whilst not really accepting it as a final resolution and almost immediately re-commencing complaints and demands for fresh changes. So neither crisis nor re-set, but his usual approach of getting through the moment to see what turns up (the approach, pretty much, that led to the NIP in the first place). In this way he would seek to partially satisfy the ERG wing and partially satisfy the ‘pragmatic’ wing.

It would be opportunistic, dishonest, destabilizing for Northern Ireland, and damaging to the UK’s interests, of course, but these would hardly occur to Johnson as being problems if they enable him to prolong his grip on power.

The lies that bind us

Indeed, if I am right that that the pre-requisite for dealing with the damage of Brexit is honesty, we could hardly have a worse Prime Minister than Johnson, who is not so much pathologically dishonest as apparently unaware that honesty is even a thing. Yet it is important not to over-state the significance of single individuals, both in general and in relation to Brexit. If, or – as seems increasingly likely – when, Johnson is replaced, his successor will be bound by the same, structural, constraints. Most obviously, these are to do with the nature of the Conservative Party and the power of the Brexit Ultras. More fundamentally they arise from the dishonesty built in to the entire Brexit project.


*For a more detailed discussion of post-Brexit Britain’s international standing, and especially its current relationship with the US, as well as many other aspects of the current Brexit situation, see this week’s excellent post on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker blog.

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