Friday, 29 July 2022

How might Labour’s Brexit policy be made to work?

In some ways these are golden weeks for Labour. The Johnson government is collapsing amid scandal, and the leadership contest has revealed how limited the talent within the Tory Party is and how riven it is by political divisions and personal animosities. Once the new Prime Minister is in place, that will pose new challenges and possibilities for Labour, not least as regards Brexit policy and positioning. In one way that may become easier. Johnson was the embodiment of the Vote Leave campaign which gave him a particular ability to jibe at Labour for being ‘anti-Brexit’. Such jibes will be much less potent coming from either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.

But the issue isn’t simply one of how to position the Labour opposition to the new Prime Minister’s administration. Just as important, if Labour are serious about winning, is how they would deal with the damage of Brexit if they come to power. For it is certain that, whoever leads it, a Tory government is not capable of doing anything remotely sensible about that damage in the meantime – if anything, it’s likely to make it worse – not least because neither candidate is able to even admit that it exists.  So Labour need to be ready to address Brexit damage if they win, and they have the opportunity to make it an advantage that they, unlike the Tories, are able to do so.

Labour’s current Brexit policy

In a recent post, I gave a limited, unenthusiastic and partial welcome to Sir Keir Starmer’s silence-breaking speech on Brexit in which he outlined Labour’s five steps to ‘Make Brexit Work’. Even that attracted some ire on Twitter, especially my statement that a referendum on re-joining the EU is not a realistic prospect for many years.

Of course, I know that view is anathema to many supportive and longstanding readers of this blog, and I obviously don’t like offending such readers. But I don’t write things according to whether I think readers will like or agree with them (whether those readers be Brexiters, leave voters, remain voters, or re-joiners), only according to what I think to be true, or probable, based on my interpretation of the available evidence. Needless to say, I am not always right in what I think, but I am always honest in saying what I think. Hopefully most readers, even when they believe I am wrong, or when I am subsequently proved to be wrong, appreciate that honesty.

Anyway, although I think his definitive, permanent, rejection of the single market and a customs union is a big mistake, I continue to think that Starmer’s Brexit stance does provide the basis of being better than that of either of Johnson’s successors because at least it acknowledges the need to seek to negotiate better terms than those of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Both Sunak and Truss are pretending that the TCA was fine and that there are illusory new opportunities that flow from it. So Starmer has a basis to critique their policy and to provide an alternative.

Additionally, of course, he is opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB) and Labour, including the then Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh, deserve credit for having been robust in their critique of the Bill. Here too, as well as having a critique, Labour have at least the basis of a viable alternative policy in the form of a veterinary agreement, although the details need to be clarified. The Protocol is going to be a central issue in the politics of Brexit in the next few months, with the EU having launched four infringement proceedings against the UK last Friday, and the NIPB set to be, in some form or other, the first Brexit crisis for the new Prime Minister.

The limitations of Labour’s policy

However, accepting it has some virtues, Starmer’s policy has several problems, even leaving aside its stance on the single market and customs union. The most fundamental is that it fails to address Labour’s own role in the way Brexit has corrupted politics. I discussed this corruption recently in terms of Johnson and the Conservatives (and, outside parliament, the Faragists). But Labour played a part too.

That goes right back to the decision to vote to trigger Article 50, a total abdication of responsibility and principle, and encompasses Jeremy Corbyn’s decision in May 2018 to whip Labour MPs to oppose an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which would have kept Britain in the single market. It is impossible to be certain but, given the very tight parliamentary arithmetic at the time, it is highly likely that this would have averted hard Brexit.

More generally, the endless ambiguities and contortions of Labour’s Brexit position since 2016 – including the failure under Starmer to challenge the government’s refusal to extend the transition period when that was possible, voting for the TCA, and then going mute for eighteen months – all made a contribution to the systemic dishonesty of Brexit politics. Starmer’s breaking of the silence was only a small first step, welcome but not sufficient, to redressing that.

Clearly the capacity of an opposition party to change a corrupted political culture is limited, but it can contribute by honesty in its own positioning, which includes a reckoning of its past errors. My sense is that whereas Starmer has, rightly, made considerable efforts to overtly address the rows over antisemitism during the Corbyn period, those about Brexit have largely been papered over.

This isn’t ‘just’ a moral point about the conduct of politics. It also has a direct practical impact. For although Starmer did break the silence, the way that Brexit still festers as an unresolved issue for Labour impacts upon both general electoral strategy and specific political tactics.

At the strategic level, there’s obviously much more at stake than Brexit, but I would suggest that Brexit is both an aspect of and a proxy for the wider re-alignment of politics in which the places and people that Labour should regard as its heartlands are changing, as is the nature of the electoral coalition it now needs to bring together. From that perspective, the continuing Labour pre-occupation with the ‘red Wall’ as being its ‘true’ heartland, and with placating leave voters in those areas, suggests an unwillingness to face up to this re-alignment and, within that, to face up to Brexit.

That aside, the continuing sensitivity about Brexit presumably explains why, at a tactical level, the follow-through on Starmer’s Brexit speech has been so limited. For example, in his speech this week on economic growth Brexit warranted only a single, vague sentence. Yet it is clear from all reputable economic forecasts, and is incorporated into official government figures, that Brexit is likely to be a major drag on economic growth in the coming years. That can’t be ignored or, worse, as Truss seems to suggest (£), be addressed by ‘reforming’ the Treasury so as avoid hearing about it. That suggestion isn’t confined to her but arises directly from the Brexiters’ longstanding, deeply-held but preposterous belief that, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, the Treasury ‘fiddles the figures’ because it is staffed by remainers. It’s not just denying reality but demanding a different reality that suits Brexiters. That is doomed to failure. No growth strategy, whether under Truss, Sunak or Starmer, can be credible if it doesn’t address the effects of Brexit.

Equally striking, in terms of immediate tactics for political opposition, is how muted Labour have been about the Dover holiday queues. As I noted in my last post, when these were at their height last weekend, the only public comment came from Anneliese Dodds, urging the government to ‘get a grip’ but without saying anything else about the causes and solutions to what was happening. Subsequently, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves – who in the past has been quite robust in her willingness to call out Brexit damage – avoided the question when asked about the role of Brexit in the delays. If that happens even in a case where the damage of Brexit is highly visible and beyond reasonable doubt it means that the taboo has not really been lifted.

Wanted: a less constipated, more confident approach 

To be absolutely clear, I am most emphatically not expecting or suggesting that – either in relation to future policy on growth or immediate Brexit problems like the Dover queues – Labour should be crowing ‘we told you so’ or ‘you asked for it’, or even framing such issues in terms of whether it was right to have left the EU. That would be unnecessary, and impolitic both in the sense of needlessly alienating some voters and in the sense of not befitting a mature government in waiting. Rather, the Labour approach should be one of pragmatic realism: ‘no matter how or why these problems arose, unlike the Tories we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist and we know how to fix them’.

That, as Labour are beginning to argue, means creating a friendly partnership with the EU and with France, which in turn allows a closer trading and regulatory relationship and the development of a better border infrastructure with an agreement on staffing. Of course the latter will take a while because of the government’s failure to act when it should have done. So the proposal could also include some temporary measures, perhaps in the form of incentives for holidaymakers at the next few peak periods to use other crossings. I’m just guessing here – this may not be a viable policy, but my point is to try to identify specific easements for this particular situation. The same logic could apply to other particular Brexit-related problems, such as NHS staff shortages, where part of the answer might be to create specific schemes to make it easier and more attractive for EU nationals to work in Britain. Again, that may not be the right policy, but, again, the point is that, whatever it might consist of, policies need to exist that openly acknowledge the specific effects of Brexit and propose specific solutions.

Similarly, a mature and pragmatic approach to regulation would be to acknowledge, for example, the spiralling cost of national regulation of the chemicals sector (£), and to seek, perhaps as part of the TCA review, re-accession to the EU systems and databases that Johnson and David Frost eschewed on the principle that ‘sovereignty’ meant eschewing ECJ involvement. Starmer has already implied that Labour would breach that principle in relation to security databases, so why not chemicals?

With the chemicals sector, and many other sectors, there is a strong business case to avoid the regulatory duplication that Johnson’s Brexit is creating, and which the Tories are set to continue. Or, again, with Rees-Mogg already having recognized the folly of a UK specific conformity assessment regime, and postponed it again, it would hardly need much daring from Labour to suggest an even longer, if not permanent, deferral. That, too, would be widely supported by business and in line with a proposal by none other than the Institute for Economic Affairs!

As with what he implied about the ECJ’s role, there are hints in what Starmer has said about ‘mutual recognition’ that this is what he has in mind for regulatory issues, but he must know that ‘mutual recognition’ in itself won’t fly with the EU, any more than it did when Theresa May tried to go down that path in 2018 or on the periodic occasions it has been aired since. Labour need to spell out, with more honesty and greater detail, what they mean, and will certainly have to do so eventually if the ‘Make Brexit Work’ slogan is to have any practical meaning at all.

What all this adds up to, then, is not an explicit wholesale denunciation of Brexit, but an acceptance that leaving the EU is having specific damaging consequences and taking responsibility for addressing them. Of course such an approach would alienate some voters, and be attacked by the Tories. Equally, it would not satisfy many erstwhile remainers and would yield, at best, only partial reductions to the damage of Brexit. But the same is true of the current Labour approach and of just about any conceivable Labour approach. This one would at least allow Labour to talk realistically not so much about Brexit in general as about the consequences of Brexit in any and every policy area where they are part of what is relevant.

The key point is that the nature and tone of Labour’s approach needs to shift from one of constipated embarrassment, and reluctance to go near Brexit except in the most marginal ways, to a free-and-easy comfort which unapologetically – indeed proudly and confidently – acknowledges problems and propounds solutions. That would be a clear contrast to the Tory approach and, I believe, one which would have considerable electoral appeal given opinion poll evidence about how many people now think that Brexit was a mistake (53%, compared with 25% who think it was right) and/or that it hasn’t been handled well (54% think it has been handled poorly, with 31% saying ‘very poorly’; 29% think it has been handled well, with just 5% saying ‘very well’). This is an open door for Labour, and it requires little courage to push.

Unwanted: pointless, damaging tribalism

However, even if all that came about, there is another problem with the Labour position in that, since his Brexit speech, Starmer has come out unequivocally against any post-electoral deal of any sort whatsoever with the LibDems (perhaps less surprisingly he had already done the same as regards the SNP). In my view this is foolish, unnecessary, and by far the most indefensible decision he has taken as Labour’s leader. At a general level, it continues the historic error that has split the liberal-left majority for over a century ensuring that, because of the first past the post system, that majority has so often been ruled by the Tory minority. It’s a fresh iteration of that pointless, damaging tribalism.

At the specific level of Brexit, and the next election, it makes the timidity of his policy (even in the more expansive version just discussed) all but untenable for remainers, who are once again treated with contempt. In my earlier post on Starmer’s Brexit speech, I argued that it gave a justification for remainers - who are a majority of Labour voters, a large majority of LibDem voters and a not insignificant minority of Tory voters - to vote tactically for Labour or the LibDems according to constituency, in the hope of a Lib-Lab partnership (of some sort) that would substantially soften Brexit. That argument has clearly been damaged by the rejection of post-electoral cooperation.

It means that whereas in 2019 many LibDem and Tory remainers were reluctant to vote tactically for fear of a Corbyn-led minority administration, those same voters will now have less incentive to do so in the hope of a Starmer-led minority administration. On the other hand, it means that Labour remain voters in seats the LibDems could take from Tories have less incentive to vote tactically for that outcome, at the very moment that their reluctance to do so because of memories of the Tory-LibDem Coalition is beginning to fade.

Obviously it’s conceivable, perhaps more than conceivable, that, if it came to it, Starmer would back-track after the election if the outcome demanded it, but if so then his government would already start under a shadow of dishonesty. Just as conceivable, because of what he has said, he simply won’t get the chance to backtrack because voters will cling to their party allegiances and, yet again, there will be a Tory government based on a minority of the vote share.

If that happens then, along with many other consequences, there will be no softening of Brexit. So as a result of the combination of an abstruse political system and a failure of political leadership, we’ll be in an even worse situation than we are now. It will be one in which, if present poll trends continue, a clear and confirmed majority think Brexit is a mistake whilst being stuck with it being embedded in its hardest form until, perhaps, 2030. By then it will be extremely difficult to unwind.

This may not happen; long-term political predictions are always a fool’s game, and there are lots of things that could happen to derail the scenario I have described. But if it does then Starmer’s foolishness about this will have been an error of historic proportions.

A coalition of competence?

There is still time for Labour to re-calibrate before the next election, both by deepening their post-Brexit policy and softening or reversing that on post-electoral co-operation with other parties, including not just the LibDems but the SNP. The arrival of the new Prime Minister could provide the rationale to do so (‘we had hoped that this would bring a new sense of responsibility from the government but, alas, we see the same old lies as from Boris Johnson, so in the national interest …’).

Naturally the Tories would attack this approach as subverting ‘the will of the people’, but given how clearly Starmer has indicated there will not be a re-join policy, and with the LibDems having deferred such a policy to an unspecified future date, that will only have traction amongst those for whom it would work against any Labour approach. The political mood is very different to 2016-2019. It would also be attacked for threatening a ‘coalition of chaos’ (presumably the attack Starmer is seeking to neuter) but, again, the political mood is very different to 2015. Even the composition of the electorate is different. It's easy to understand the desire to do so but, as Neal Lawson of Compass has argued this week, it’s just not enough for Starmer’s Labour simply to try, hedgehog-like, to block off every potential Tory attack line without offering any positive offer to voters.

Rather than look back fearfully to those old attacks, if Starmer is serious in his constantly repeated desire to ‘look forward’ it’s necessary to face the realities of the situation which, if Labour win the election, they will inherit. That unavoidably means dealing with the ongoing process of Brexit and with the legacy of what has already happened as a result of Brexit, which in turn means honesty and realism. At the same time, if Starmer is serious in his other refrain of wanting to end the divisions of Brexit that can’t be done by pretending that they don’t exist, or by acting as if the only way to do so is by asking erstwhile remainers to make all the compromises.

It would be better in every way – morally, practically, and even electorally – to be truthful about realities. That’s why I would think Labour should soften their line on single market and customs union membership, to at least keep them open as possibilities for the future. That would certainly be far more realistic in terms of the economic facts about Brexit. But part of what being truthful about realities means is to accept what is politically feasible at a particular time. Admittedly, that’s a judgement call but my judgement is that Labour under Starmer are not going to soften on the single market in terms of their own policy going into the next election.

If I’m wrong, good. If I’m right, the point, as I’ve argued before, is that Labour’s interests and anti-Brexit interests aren’t the same. From an anti-Brexit point of view, the best realistically available outcome is still a Labour-LibDem, or perhaps Labour-LibDem-SNP, government. A coalition of competence, so to speak (whether or not configured as a formal coalition). With the LibDems already having the basis for an incomparably more detailed and ambitious policy on a far closer UK-EU relationship than Labour, culminating in single market membership, and perhaps with SNP support*, such a government could be expected to at least go further in that direction than a purely Labour administration. Starmer’s current disavowal of such cooperation has made that more unlikely but it remains the only glimmer of hope.

 

 
*I confess that I don’t fully understand how the SNP would approach this scenario. Might they judge that, if a UK government did come to embrace the single market, it would decrease support for Scottish independence?

Sunday, 24 July 2022

How the queues at Dover show the corruption that pervades Brexit

In recent years, my pattern has been to post on this blog once a week. But occasionally, if an issue of particular importance comes up, I write an extra one, as today. I’m also doing so out of sheer frustration. The issue is that of the delays and queues at Dover and Folkestone. The frustration is at the speed with which patently nonsensical arguments about it have been spread, and the sheer bone-headed, brazen obtuseness with which they are clung to despite every effort to correct them. I know that there’s nothing new in this but, still, six years on, it has the capacity to depress and shock.

This isn’t, as the Express would have it, a matter of ‘remoaner gloating’. On the contrary, it is something like despair at the endless damage that Brexit is doing to our country, and the fact that there’s not even the remotest sign of any honesty or responsibility from the Brexiters who have created this situation.

Holiday queues

The damage of Brexit is probably at its most visible when holiday traffic builds up at ports, especially Dover and Folkestone, as happened this weekend. Apart from anything else, such events are disruptive enough to make the national news because of the scale of the misery caused. That has happened a couple of times since the end of the transition period, but this time it has led to a more extensive public debate about Brexit than the previous occasions.

One reason for that may be because the travel expert, Simon Calder, has been emphatic and unequivocal in saying, in a range of media interviews including on the BBC, that Brexit is the key factor. It is a diagnosis backed by the Chief Executive of Dover Port and most other experts. It is true that Tony Smith, the former head of the UK Border Force, wrote an article suggesting Brexit wasn’t to blame (£). But buried within it is a key sentence, acknowledging that post-Brexit checks do add small amounts of time to the processing of passengers.

And that is precisely the reason Brexit is so crucial. Now, passports have to be stamped, as they do for any third country national entering the EU’s Schengen area. This indeed adds only a small amount of time, perhaps as little as 30 seconds per car, perhaps as much as a minute, but that smallness is deceptive. In percentage terms, it is a big increase on the previous average of one minute, and at holiday periods adding even half a minute to the thousands of cars passing through the ports causes a backwards build up of traffic leading to many hours and miles of queues on the approach roads. This is especially true at Dover where volumes of both commercial and domestic traffic are high and infrastructure space is very limited.

Specious arguments

This isn’t a difficult concept to understand, but the backlash from Brexiters has been ferocious and immediate, taking the form of several specious arguments, or variations of the same arguments that sometimes contradict each other. These include the line taken by, for example, the influential presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer that such queues are not experienced when travelling to other, non-EU countries, where passport stamping is required. That’s specious partly because nowhere else are such large numbers of British travellers typically filtered through so tight a funnel.

A variant of this line, and, again, Julia Hartley-Brewer is a high-profile example, is that, pre-Brexit, British travellers still had to show passports because the UK was never in the Schengen area. That’s specious because in those days the passports didn’t have to be stamped (and often, in practice, were barely checked, if at all), which is what is adding the time. Yet another, contradictory, variant is that, since there are sometimes queues are other ports and airports around the world, this ‘proves’ that those in Dover are nothing to do with Brexit. This is specious – it hardly needs to be said, one would have thought – because to say that Brexit is a cause of some queues at some borders is not to say it is the cause of every queue at any border.

More commonly, and repeated by both would-be Prime Ministers Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the blame is being put on lack of French officials on duty, so that not all the passport booths are open. That very likely contributes to the problem, but doesn’t negate that the extra post-Brexit checks make it worse, and that even with full staffing there would still be a problem. Adjuncts to the core ‘blame the French’ argument are that, pre-Brexit, there were examples of long queues associated with lack of French staffing. However, these cases were due to temporary factors such as strikes or increased terrorist threat levels. Brexit is a permanent addition of border friction. In any case, as with so many other Brexit issues, such as trade depression, it is specious to suggest that if Brexit isn’t the sole cause of a problem this ‘proves’ it isn’t one of the causes.

A more pernicious version of French-blaming, this time from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (£), admits that the cause of the delays is passport stamping but claims that France does not need to do this. Similar claims are widespread from pro-Brexit accounts on social media, suggesting that France is acting out of spite to Britain, perhaps even as a ‘punishment’ for Brexit. It’s untrue: it is a legal requirement to “systematically” stamp the passports of third country nationals entering and exiting the Schengen area. Complaints about this have a depressing similarity to those the government sometimes makes about the Northern Ireland Protocol, to the effect that it had never expected it to actually be enforced to the letter. As if Brexit were just some sort of game, or a symbolic act, rather than having concrete legal consequences.

Denial of reality

All this specious nonsense isn’t a matter of stupidity. The issues are so simple that everyone can understand them from daily experience. For example, everyone can understand that if there is a busy road junction, that gets especially congested at rush hour or when the weather is bad, it will get worse if the road is dug up. For that matter, anyone who has stood on a garden hose and seen that doing so reduces the flow of water is capable of understanding the basic principle of what’s happening at the ports. It seems that the only way of explaining the refusal to do so is a psychological investment in Brexit so deep that perceptions of reality are actually distorted.

At all events, this denial of reality has roots reaching deep into the Brexit process. During the referendum, on the specific question of queues at Dover, Brexiters swore – in lofty, authoritative tones – that they would not happen. Perhaps it was a lie, or perhaps they really did not understand what they were doing. Either way, it was part of a much wider lie or misunderstanding that they sold to leave voters, which was that Brexit was crucial for the nation and yet ‘nothing would really change’ and, certainly, that there would be no costs. In relation to Freedom of Movement, in particular, it was often claimed or implied that whilst this was ‘vital’ to protect the UK from ‘uncontrolled immigration’, the rights of British people to move freely to the EU would scarcely change, if at all.

It would be easier to accept Brexit if, either then or at least now, Brexiters would admit that much is changed and that the costs are high; if they were to say that they accept the costs as a price which is, in their view, justified by what they call sovereignty. But they did not say it then, as they knew to do so would lose the referendum, and they will not say so now for a variety of reasons – including fear of public opinion, false pride and, indeed, psychological investment. And they expect the rest of us to collude in this fantasy world on pain of being denounced as ‘remoaners’, ‘whiners’ or ‘traitors’.

One of the ironies of this refusal to accept reality is that it also means that the damage of Brexit is even higher than it needed to have been. In relation to Dover infrastructure, in December 2020 the government refused to pay to increase passport booth capacity. That is an example of the wider way in which the UK was under-prepared for the end of the transition period, because the government would not admit for far too long that much preparation would be needed.

Astonishingly, the first time a Cabinet Minister publicly admitted there would be extensive new border checks was when Michael Gove did so in February 2020, after the UK had actually left the EU. And by that time the narrative that any talk of such a need was just ‘Project Fear’ meant that many individuals and businesses simply didn’t believe or expect there to be any significant changes at all.

The Dover problems illustrate something else. At a general level it is that ‘taking back control’, especially of borders, is a two-edged business. Borders have two sides. At a more specific level, it puts a premium on co-operation with neighbours. To the extent that the Dover queues would be somewhat eased by more French passport staff – a cost to France – it would be helpful to have good relations with France. Instead, in addition to the provocations to it as an EU member over, especially, implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK government has gone out of its way to be antagonistic, for example over cross-channel migrant crossings and fishing rights. Now Liz Truss calls on France to fix the Dover queues. It’s not just stupid, it’s embarrassing. And it’s not just embarrassing, it’s inept.

The existential corruption of Brexit

I’ve written recently about the inability of the leadership campaign, and of the Tory Party generally, to be honest about Brexit, and this is just one more example. But it’s also an illustration of the weakness of the Labour position. For, having so definitely ruled out any return to the single market (and, in relation to commercial traffic, a customs union) it has no basis to criticise what is happening at the ports. Indeed, so far as I can tell, almost the only comment from Labour has come from its Chair, Anneliese Dodds, bemoaning the “chaos” and the government’s failure “to get a grip”. That is meaningless unless Labour is also willing to at least consider addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Without doing so, no government is going to ‘get a grip’ on it, including any future Labour government. Politics, at least the politics of the two main parties, is simply unable to speak of the problem, and so is doomed to fail to find a solution. It has choked on dishonesty.

That is the cause and consequence of something even worse. If all that were at stake were periodic holiday queues at Dover it would be annoying, but it would hardly matter. But it isn’t. If the queues were the only aspect of Brexit about which politics is dishonest it would be troubling, but it wouldn’t be disabling. But they aren’t. Precisely because these queues are the most visible effect of the damage of Brexit they are also a vivid reminder of all the lies, of all the false arguments, and all the false logic, and all the false claims of Brexit.

Most of all, the queues illustrate the existential corruption of Brexit. For there they are, the visible embodiment of what the Brexiters demanded and what they inflicted. Yet we’re not even told that they are a price worth paying for Brexit. No. We are expected to accept, or to collude in the acceptance, that they betoken nothing, that there is nothing to see here, that we should deny what is patently real and before our eyes.

Friday, 22 July 2022

Suffocating unreality

An air of sticky and suffocating unreality has pervaded British politics this week, quite as much as it has the weather. The ongoing contest to replace Boris Johnson seems completely detached from the realities of a country enduring a sharp lesson in the what climate change is going to mean, still gripped by a pandemic that with “dangerous complacency” is treated as being over, suffering the misery of record NHS waiting lists, and facing multiple economic crises. And, as always, though no candidate to be Prime Minister can admit it, there is the ongoing, dragging undertow of Brexit, which has ripped up fifty years of economic and foreign policy strategy whilst its advocates are still unable to identify a viable alternative. Against this background, the leadership contest has come down to the absurdly narrow canvas of whether there should be tax cuts now or next year. It’s beyond pitiful.

Johnson’s squalid departure

That unreality is compounded by the fact that whilst Johnson’s shameful premiership is in one sense over, it still lingers on, like those apocryphal guillotined heads which continue to speak after being severed. In his case, that speech consists not of repentance for the crimes that led to his execution, but is more like a foul-mouthed reminder of why the court passed sentence. For, unsurprisingly, he is not passing his final weeks as a dignified caretaker of the nation. Rather, he skips vital meetings to host parties in his taxpayer-funded mansion, cadges outings in RAF fighter planes, makes spiteful boasts about his previous illegal actions, and hatches tawdry schemes to reward his cronies with seats in the House of Lords. Nothing so vividly illustrates the many reasons, at once banal and corrupt, that he was unfit to hold office as the squalid manner of his departure from it.

Perhaps most dangerous in the long-term, whilst bragging emptily of having ‘got Brexit done’, Johnson speaks, Trump-like, of plots by the “deep State” and Labour to undo Brexit. Having done so much to saddle the country with Brexit, and in a particularly damaging form, his words can only contribute to making it still harder for any future government even to ameliorate it. They set the stage for him to continue to exert a malign influence on British politics for, as Rafael Behr, consistently Britain’s best political columnist, perfectly puts it, “the role of former Prime Minister will suit his taste for elevated status without any burden of responsibility”.

At the same time, the very fact that Johnson and so many other Brexiters warn of the possibility of Brexit being ‘undone’ is a vivid testimony to their and its abject failure. Brexiters envisaged themselves as having ‘liberated the nation’ and they promised a great future, not at some distant time but immediately. Yet, over six years since the vote, the number of people who think Brexit was a mistake is now at a “record high”. Even so, audaciously, Brexiters like Reform Party leader Richard Tice implore them to “put their shoulder behind making [Brexit] a huge success”. That’s pretty rich given that not only have the advice and warnings of remainers been treated with contempt, but that Brexiters assured everyone that there would be no wheel to put any shoulders behind: the success was guaranteed.

Instead, Brexit has, on any reasonable reckoning of its effects and its popularity, failed as a project of national liberation and renewal. But, as outlined in last week’s post, it has been barely discussed in the leadership election. As Annette Dittert, the outstanding foreign correspondent who heads the London Bureau of German broadcaster ARD, observes in her fine, wide-ranging essay on the coming post-Johnson era, “none of the would-be successors has the courage to question the founding myth behind all this chaos: Brexit. None of them will admit that the latter is little more than a mirage”.

In that respect, there is little to choose between the final two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, but it is still (just about) worth considering each of them in relation to Brexit.

Rishi’s reheated Brexit

Sunak has produced a peculiar black and white video, in the style of an old-fashioned public information film entitled ‘Rishi and Brexit’. It introduces the slogan ‘keep Brexit safe’, which itself panders to the paranoid idea that it is under threat, without remotely acknowledging why it is so lacking in support. To the extent that he provides any detail on what his Brexit policy is, it has nothing to do with demonstrating its virtues to those who don’t support it, and is entirely to do with trying to satisfy the fantasies of those who do.

As a consequence, his plans are also startlingly unoriginal because, like Johnson’s government, he faces exactly the same constraints. The only things which might ‘improve’ Brexit would involve, at the very least, a wholesale renegotiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Since that is inadmissible within the Tory Party, all he can offer is to make the most of the new opportunities provided by Brexit. But, as the government has already found, Brexit provides no worthwhile new opportunities at all.

Thus in his Sunday Telegraph article Sunak propounds as ‘his’ Brexit policy the same old things that have been floating around since Johnson came to power. There are freeports (already under way, but as I’ve discussed before, they were possible without Brexit, albeit with different rules, and of dubious advantage). There’s reforming Solvency II regulation (already under way, but as I’ve discussed before there’s no consensus in the insurance industry that this is desirable and, anyway, the EU is considering similar plans). There’s removing GDPR (already under way, and likely to be extremely disadvantageous for British businesses). There’s speeding up clinical trials approvals (a policy announced in 2020, but the UK is now falling behind the EU in the approval of ‘novel medicines’ (£) because Brexit means the UK is too small a market for companies to bother with separate British approval processes, which is also indicative of the more general weakness of the case for bespoke national regulation. And last year the regulatory agency had budgets and staffing slashed, partly because of loss of EU funds following … Brexit).

Additionally, Sunak promises a ‘bonfire’ of retained EU laws and regulation, a promise already made by Jacob Rees-Mogg although Sunak proposes to act even more quickly (yet leaked documents show that just a few weeks ago, when Chancellor, he had warned against moving even at Rees-Mogg’s slower speed and also sought specific exemptions from it). More generally, as a recent National Audit Office report has shown, the moves to independent national regulation are fraught with problems of access to EU data and of staffing. Finally, Sunak proposes yet another “new Brexit delivery department” to be created, as if, somehow, this will achieve what the Brexit Opportunities Unit and Rees-Mogg, the Brexit Opportunities Minister have thus far failed to.

In short, this is all re-heated stuff, none of which constitutes benefits of Brexit, and most of which is founded on the delusion of sovereignty in regulation. The constant refrain that Brexit will allow red tape to be cut for businesses is simply nonsense. Just this week, the Cabinet Office was publicising its recent video showing exactly how difficult it now is to export to the EU as a result of the hard Brexit Johnson negotiated, whilst an all-party group of MPs called for the red tape for musicians touring the EU to be cut – but vainly, since that is not in Britain’s power having turned down an agreement with the EU that would allow it. Sunak isn’t a liar in the way that Johnson is, and he undoubtedly engages with and understands technical detail far better, but he is trapped by the lies of the Johnson Brexit that he proposes to keep safe.

Moreover, on what, as I said last week, will be the immediate Brexit issue facing the new PM, namely the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), Sunak has said he will persist with it without saying much more, including, crucially, how far he would push its demands. Allies of Johnson have warned that the former Chancellor would, in their terms, take a “soft line” over the Protocol, whilst some Northern Irish unionists have already called him “an appeaser”. It may indeed be that if he wins he will be minded to be more pragmatic than he has so far indicated. If so, he will face an immediate crisis within his party. If not, he will fairly soon face one with the EU.

Support for Truss

The most widely discussed thing about Liz Truss is – ought to be - the least important thing, namely that she campaigned for remain in the referendum but has now so fully embraced hard Brexit. Within that discussion, the idea that this is some sort of ‘gotcha’ moment demonstrating hypocrisy is na├»ve. Plenty of politicians have shifted in similar ways – old school Tories who became ardent Thatcherites, or those, sometimes very far to the left, who became enthusiastic New Labourites. Opportunistic? Maybe, but I doubt many experience any inner conflict or embarrassment. Such journeys are easily, and not necessarily dishonestly, rationalised as ‘pragmatism’.

It may even go deeper than that. I recently described Truss as a “born-again Ultra”, and there’s certainly no reason to assume that new or late converts to any cause are lacking in devotion to it; more often they are the most excessive in their zealotry. The people least likely to realise that will be the original Brexit Ultras who, like Alte Kameraden suspecting the motives of March Violets, will be especially attuned to seeing any sign of heresy. So for all that Truss is now their preferred candidate, with her ‘journey’ lauded by Steve Baker, that means that she will have very little room for manoeuvre if she is to avoid Theresa May’s fate of being first feted and then disowned by the Ultras. Indeed on the wilder fringes of Conservative opinion she is already regarded with suspicion and ominous comparisons are being drawn with May. Truss’s downfall will come, like May, not because she is a closet remainer but because she will try to turn their fantasies into realities.

For now, she owes her position as the darling of the Brexiters in parliament and the party to the sustenance she has given those fantasies. It wasn’t just by espousing Brexit and indulging in Thatcher-themed photo shoots. It began when, as International Trade Secretary, she began to oversee the development of an independent trade policy. That process had been started by Liam Fox, but she inherited and continued the programme of rolled over and new trade deals, earning breathless plaudits from both the tabloid and broadsheet (£) press.

For Brexiters, new trade deals are one of the few things that they can truthfully say would not have been possible without Brexit. Although they typically conflate the two, and over-state their value, rolled over trade deals are different, in that they wouldn’t have been necessary but for Brexit. But it’s also the case that this is one area that has proved many critics – including me – wrong, in that we doubted it would be possible to achieve the rollover of so many of the EU deals as happened (even if not always on quite such good terms, but sometimes, as in the case of Japan, on very slightly better ones). So whilst the rolled over deals weren’t a benefit of Brexit they were something about which ‘Project Fear’ could legitimately be said to have been largely discredited.

As for the new trade deals, that is a very different matter. No one doubted that it would be possible for the UK to reach some Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on its own, the question was always about their quality and their value. What Truss did, as is becoming clearer by the day, for example in relation to the much-trumpeted Australia deal which is now just about to be ratified, was to accept any terms, no matter how disadvantageous to British farmers and the environment or to animal welfare standards, and regardless of how small the benefit and how great the cost, out of desperation to achieve a quick deal. Even more dishonest was her pretence that straightforward commercial deals, such as that with India, of the sort that the UK could and did enter into whilst an EU member, were only possible because of Brexit with the implication that they were also FTAs.

So her approach was purely performative but, more than anyone or anything else, she and these trade deals have given Brexiters something to crow about when the rest of their project is so manifestly failing. In particular, despite their constant assertion that Brexit was ‘never about economics’, it has enabled them to fabricate an economic case for Brexit. This is the main reason why Truss is in the position she is, a position she is now building on with her tax-cutting mantra, and why she is the currently the favourite to win the grassroots vote.

Subsequently, as Foreign Secretary, she inherited responsibility from David Frost for managing post-Brexit relations with the EU, including the ongoing disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Initially, she seemed to offer a change of tone, but that was quickly abandoned and she became the architect of the NIPB. Some speculate this was because she was already preparing the ground for a leadership bid, or it may reflect a genuine shift in her position. Either way it means that, whilst the EU is likely to take a similarly firm line on the Protocol whoever becomes PM (£), it is already reported by knowledgeable experts such as Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group and Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute that a Truss premiership would face deep distrust from the EU. I imagine that the Irish Tea Sock would be similarly unenthusiastic.

I have not seen anything that Truss has said to suggest that her ideas about what to do with Brexit are any different to the boilerplate stuff that Sunak and others regurgitate about regulatory divergence and so on. It may be that, as her performative approach to trade deals shows, she would be (even) more likely than him to champion purely symbolic changes, regardless of their damage. Maybe that will be enough to sustain her support amongst Brexiters, even if it drags the country further into the economic mire.

There may also be no difference in practice in how Sunak and Truss approach the immediate test of the NIPB which has now passed through the Commons, despite the ongoing contest, although it won’t reach the Lords until after the Summer Recess, by which time the new leader will be chosen. Truss, of course, is the Bill’s sponsor, so she would seem even less likely to seek any kind of rapprochement with the EU than Sunak, and to have even less political leeway to do so. So if she wins she is unlikely to face an immediate crisis within her party, but seems certain to face one with the EU before the year is out. That, too, would endear her to the Brexiters, but there will be a high political price to pay in other ways.

Brexit is too big for either of them

Whilst the candidates chunter on about how soon to cut taxes, and vie with each other to persuade the airless echo chamber of the decrepit party membership which of them is the most ‘Thatcherite’, and as Johnson sees out his last few weeks of malevolent indolence, the realities of Brexit are ignored as if they are too boring, or simply settled. The truth is that Brexit is just too big for either of the would-be leaders, or the ones who they defeated in the earlier rounds, to face up to. Too big for the Labour leadership, for that matter (on which, more is planned to come in next week’s post). We’ve become a country which is too scared of itself to talk about what it’s doing to itself.

But Brexit won’t go away. It may indeed be tedious, it may be too frightening to discuss, but it is very far from settled. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will be doing so just as, to quote Rafael Behr again, but this time from his recent Prospect essay, “the peak of the [Brexit] illusion has faded” and “the great illusionist [Johnson] has been unmasked”. Yet observing the leadership contest, Annette Dittert, in her New Statesman essay, concludes that “after having banged their heads into the brick wall of Brexit reality, the new Tory strategy seems to be to just keep on banging, only this time with a longer run-up”. And, indeed, that is exactly what the Brexit Ultras are currently demanding.

If the new administration pursues that line, then more and more failure and damage will accrue. Or, if it takes an even slightly more ‘pragmatic’ approach, it will once again, this time with Johnson egging the fight on, be torn apart by the never-ending Tory war on Europe. We are in for a long, hot summer before we know which of Sunak and Truss will prevail. It probably won’t tell us much more about what will happen afterwards as regards Brexit, but a great deal of that is predictable. For unreal as the present political debate may be, the realities of Brexit are all too clear, and just as resistant to Brexiter fantasies as they have ever been.

Friday, 15 July 2022

The leadership campaign is mired in Brexit dishonesty

As the dust begins to settle on Boris Johnson’s downfall, it’s worth emphasizing that it was inextricably bound up with Brexit even though Brexit wasn’t its direct cause. Unusually and fittingly, it was his character and conduct rather than any particular policy which ended his premiership. Not, I think, because the Tory Party had some collective outbreak of moral rectitude – they all knew what Johnson was like from the outset – but more because the thumping loss of two by-elections demonstrated that the voters were finally starting to see through him, in large part because of ‘partygate’.

In some ways that’s a good thing. It arguably shows that, eventually and creakingly, the British polity still has some kind of moral compass. But it also means that, even though it ought to be, this is not a moment of reckoning for the Brexit he did so much to promote and shape. From abroad, things look different. Writing in the Washington Post, Stryker McGuire observes that “viewed from afar, Johnson’s greatest failing is liable to be what he hoped would be his glorious legacy: Brexit”. I’m sure that will eventually be the generally accepted view here, too, but it isn’t yet remotely sayable amongst Tory politicians and commentators, who invariably chalk Brexit up to his credit, perhaps as his only credit, and set against the debits of his conduct in office.

Brexit and Johnson’s character are inseparable

Yet in truth, Johnson’s deficiencies of character are inseparable from Brexit. He was far from the only liar in 2016, but the casual and brazen dishonesty with which he fronted Vote Leave certainly embodied and perhaps swung its campaign. He even embodied many of the particular hues of that dishonesty, in his insistence not just that facts don’t matter but that belief matters more, in his endless sense of his own victimhood, still on display in his resignation announcement and mirroring that of the Brexiters generally, in his refusal to take responsibility for his choices even to the extent of denying choices have to be made, and in his constant bogus and half-baked invocations of the Second World War.

Equally, the rank dishonesty of agreeing the Northern Ireland Protocol without intending to honour it, and of agreeing a limited trade agreement with the EU whilst pretending it lived up to his ‘cakeist’ promises, both contributed hugely to making the calamity of Brexit even worse than it was bound to be. And for all the pearl-clutching now amongst some Tory Brexiters about Johnson’s contempt for established rules and norms, they almost all supported his illegal Prorogation of parliament in 2019, as well as his threat of illegality in the Internal Market Bill (IMB) in 2020. So whilst Johnson’s immorality was built into his character, their support for him reflected their Jacobin-like frenzy whereby Brexit justified ripping up any law or convention that seemed to get in its way, including the very parliamentary sovereignty they claimed to be so central to their cause.

Small wonder, then, that the bludgeoning nonsense that they were enacting the ‘will of the people’ was squeakily echoed in Johnson’s last-ditch attempt to stay in post by invoking the constitutional gibberish that he had been bestowed a personal mandate by 14 million voters in the general election. Small wonder, too, that despite the fact that MPs on all wings of the party, including the ERG, turned him out, some pro-Brexit commentators are insisting he was the victim of a remainer, anti-Brexit plot. Brexit populism has been set back, but not destroyed, by Johnson’s demise.

It's now widely accepted, including, if only superficially, by most of the candidates to succeed him, that Johnson’s legacy is a constitution and political culture horribly damaged by dishonesty and immorality, with accompanying public distrust and cynicism. But simply laying this at the door of his own character, without recognizing its roots in Brexit, means it will not be addressed.

Why Brexit has never been discussed honestly

There’s actually an even wider point to be made. The referendum didn’t just result in leaving the EU. It also created a massive and ongoing destabilization of British politics. It is not coincidence that we have had two general elections and are about to have the fourth Prime Minister in the space of just six years. That is astonishing in itself, but what is far more astonishing is that at each of the pivotal moments – the general elections and the leadership elections – Brexit itself was only discussed in the most cursory of ways.

This may seem a strange thing to say given how dominant an issue Brexit has been since 2016, but my point is that it has rarely, if ever, been talked about in depth, spelling out its actual practical implications and the choices and trade-offs involved. Thus Theresa May was installed following a truncated campaign after which we still, famously or infamously, only knew that ‘Brexit meant Brexit’. That stasis lasted for months until she simply announced in early 2017 that it meant hard Brexit. Then, as I catalogued at the time of the 2017 election and again during that of 2019, the two main parties, at least, refused, in different ways and for different reasons, to set out in detailed ways what their Brexit plans would mean. In-between, the leadership campaign which brought Johnson to power was conducted as a virility test over who would most readily embrace ‘no-deal Brexit’ rather than accept ‘the hated backstop’, but with no substance whatsoever on what lay behind these slogans.

So neither at these decisive points nor in the periods between them has there ever been any sustained, honest, realistic political conversation about the practical realities of Brexit. Instead, throughout the May years there were suggestions of securing ‘frictionless trade’ and the ‘exact same benefits’ of membership and in the Johnson years the claim of cakeism and denial of the coming costs, with Labour all the while just talking vaguely of the ‘better deal’ they would achieve. Equally, throughout these years there was virtually no honesty about the actual choices and problems posed by and for Northern Ireland. Instead there was endless nonsense about non-existent ‘alternative arrangements’ and, ultimately, the creation of an Irish Sea border whilst denying that that was what had been agreed. Thereafter, since the end of the transition the political silence about the damaging effects of Brexit has been deafening, whilst all the denial and dishonesty about Northern Ireland has been re-activated.

The fundamental reason for this, I think, lies precisely with the deadening effect of the ‘will of the people’ bullying, and attendant obscenities about ‘enemies of the people’. Whilst this hasn’t stopped continuing, vociferous opposition to Brexit, it has meant that, especially in the governing Tory Party, realism and honesty about the practicalities, and not just the principle, of Brexit is deemed as betrayal. This is why the civil service, which is bound to be realistic and honest in the sense that it has to deliver Brexit as a policy, rather than simply sell it to voters as an idea, has been so traduced as sabotaging Brexit.

It’s this which marks Brexit out as different to any other political issue, at least in my lifetime. There are plenty of examples of divisive policies but they’ve always been deliverable even when they have been undesirable, and they’ve always been discussable in more or less rational ways. Brexit isn’t like this because it promised impossible or contradictory things, which by definition can’t be delivered. But since even saying this is (still) deemed offensive to the ‘will of the people’, no honest or realistic political conversation has ever been possible within or between the two main parties. That extends from the most general level of Brexit having been enacted as hard Brexit, right down to the multiple and complex trade-offs in decisions about regulatory alignment or divergence in particular sectors. This evisceration of honesty and realism is the “radioactive pollution” that has poisoned the political ground, as I expressed it in last week’s post, and until it is cleansed the instability of the last six years will continue.

Who is a true Brexiter now?

In principle, the Tories now have a chance to change that with their change of leader. Whilst Johnson isn’t the sole or even main cause of the dishonesty of Brexit, he is so entwined with it that replacing him offered the possibility of facing up to that dishonesty. I don’t mean that there was ever the remotest possibility that Johnson’s departure would herald the end of Brexit. It won’t. That fantasy is the province of paranoid Brexiters (£) and, to put it charitably, over-optimistic remainers.

On the contrary, and entirely predictably, only those fully committed to Brexit have even attempted to be candidates. Yet there are now curious contortions in this. Some Brexit Ultras have insisted that Johnson must be replaced by a Brexiter, but this category includes Liz Truss who voted remain but is now deemed by Jacob Rees-Mogg to be a full convert. Indeed David Campbell Bannerman, the Conservative ex-MEP who once called for British people with “extreme EU loyalty” to be tried for treason, insists “only Liz Truss can save Brexit now” (£).

Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, who always supported Brexit, is now treated as not of the faith and even, bizarrely, denounced as a “socialist” by Rees-Mogg. Indeed according to arch-Brexiter Daniel Moylan, not only does Sunak not “care about” Brexit, but the other current front runner, Penny Mordaunt, who was an ERG member before becoming a minister, “doesn’t understand it”. Meanwhile, in a separate and stinging attack on Mordaunt (£), another of Johnson’s placemen in the House of Lords, the self-important would-be kingmaker David Frost, has questioned whether Brexit would be “safe” in her hands.

Yet Mordaunt’s credentials as a Brexiter seem real enough to the extent that, when challenged about her notorious referendum campaign lie that the UK did not have a veto on Turkish accession, opted to double-down on it (note her tone at the end of the clip, which has the muleish obstinacy of one who knows her argument has no logic, but takes perverse pride in clinging to it). Such unrepentant dishonesty is surely the hallmark of a true Brexiter, for all that ERG ‘hard man’ Steve Baker denies that this is what she is, whilst an article on the reliably peculiar Conservative Woman site goes further and denies she’s even a real Conservative.

Until she was knocked out of the contest, the ‘hard man’s’ preference, by the way, was for Suella Braverman, the scourge of ‘cultural marxism’ who wants to take the UK out of the ECHR and apparently believes that the vote for Brexit was also a vote against the expansion of university education and rights litigation (£). Kemi Badenoch, too, seems to think there’s a link between the ‘change’ people voted for in 2016 and her brand of small-state, war on woke conservatism. Perhaps it should be no surprise that it’s so hard to pin down who is a true Brexiter when so much of what has subsequently been claimed to flow the referendum result was unaccountably not written on the ballot paper.

The leadership contest continues to avoid the realities of Brexit

The most striking thing about the struggle between these latter-day Girondins and Montagnards for control of the Committee of Brexit Safety, at least to those who were assured that voting Tory in 2019 would ‘get Brexit done’, is how many are warning that it has not, after all, been done but is still a work in progress, and a fragile one at that. That being so, it might be thought that the candidates would at least have an honest conversation about how Brexit is going, if only because the recent by-election losses suggest that the voter coalition of the 2019 ‘get Brexit done’ election is fraying at both ends.

However, yet again, the chance for such honesty has been squandered. All the candidates have been setting out economic plans which barely, if at all, mention Brexit and certainly don’t acknowledge the chilling effects of Brexit on economic growth, trade, sterling and investment, which are now beyond sensible dispute, and are baked into official figures. For even to hint at any negative consequences of Brexit, economic or otherwise, is taboo in this election (the fact that Sunak has done so, even mildly, in the past may partly explain why the Brexiters have turned against him).

Similarly, all the candidates speak airily of capitalising on the ‘opportunities of Brexit’ without any meaningful or serious detail. Even the effects of Brexit and the new trade deals on farmers, a community that used to be close to the heart of Tories, go unmentioned. And even the Express has spotted the Brexit silence, though mistakenly thinking that it’s a failure to foreground Brexit benefits rather than a failure to acknowledge its damage. The consequence is that whoever leads the party will not have a viable plan to lead the country, for they will still be refusing the face the post-Brexit realities the country faces.

The most immediate acid test of whether a more honest and realistic approach to Brexit is in prospect is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), which continues to work its way through parliament, with all attempts to amend it being rejected this week. For the NIPB arises from a tangle of dishonesties: dishonesty towards the EU with whom the Protocol was signed, towards the MPs who were told the Protocol was temporary, towards the voters who were told it was part of an oven-ready deal, and towards the Northern Ireland peace process which is at the sharp end of it all.

That test has so far been failed. None of the candidates has indicated opposition to the Bill, and the front runners have all said they will continue with it although Sunak apparently had reservations about it in Cabinet (and Braverman, astoundingly, wanted to pursue an even harder set of demands). Whether this commitment comes from conviction or from the realization that to say otherwise would torpedo their chances of winning is irrelevant; either way they are endorsing the dishonesties associated with it.

What isn’t clear is how far the next leader will take the NIPB once in power, and, so far as I know, none of them has been challenged to answer this. The reason it isn’t clear is partly because of the dishonesty of the proposed legislation itself, which has been presented to ‘one nation’ Tories as merely a negotiating tactic rather than something that would be used, and to ERG-types as a non-negotiable set of demands which, if not agreed to by the EU, will be unilaterally implemented. Therefore, the candidates simply saying they will pursue the Bill doesn’t tell us what doing so means.

However, since there’s no way the EU will agree to it in full, the new leader will in fairly short order have to end this ambiguity. This could herald an early crisis, though It’s possible that neither wing would dare rebel at the very start of a new leader’s tenure. But the wider point is what would it say for honesty in politics if the first act of the new leader were to reveal as a key policy – whether that be abandoning the NIPB, making a deal with the EU that fell short of the Bill’s demands, or disapplying the Protocol - something they had not explicitly mentioned in the campaign?

The Brexit cuckoos

It’s depressing that not a single candidate, for all the talk of integrity from all of them, has had the courage to point to any of the problems Brexit has created, even without necessarily disowning Brexit. That could have been the drum that Tom Tugendhat – who I gather used to be a soldier – might have marched to. But apparently there isn’t a single Tory MP who, even knowing they would have had no chance of winning, was willing to at least set down a marker for any kind of honesty or pragmatism about Brexit. That is shaming on those of them, and some still exist, who know the damage Brexit is doing.  But the fundamental responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the Brexiters inside and beyond the Tory Party. They have made honesty all but impossible.

Inside the party, the ERG’s journey from ginger group to virtual control – a partly taxpayer-funded cuckoo party within a party, but which has never stood for election as a party, on its own manifesto – is perhaps the biggest factor. An index of its strength is that in the current leadership contest at least three of the original candidates – Braverman, Javid and Mordaunt - have in the past been reported to be members. The group also insists on having its own one-to-one meetings with all candidates to assess their Brexit credentials (Sunak reportedly ‘stormed out’ of his). This strength, along with the UKIPification of the party membership (£), ensures that no even half-way ‘moderate’ candidate, by any standard but their own, has a chance and, in any case, most such moderate Tory MPs were purged by Johnson in 2019.

However, the current election also reveals that, as so often happens with extremist groups, the ERG is now riven by infighting over ‘purity’. That has been incipient since at least the split between ‘the Spartans’, who voted against Theresa May in all three of the ‘meaningful votes’ on her Withdrawal Agreement in 2018, and the rest of them. Now it has become manifest in the contortions, discussed above, about who is a ‘true Brexiter’, and just last night the group endorsed former remainer Truss as its preferred candidate (although it’s not clear that its members are obliged to vote en bloc). Even so it’s quite possible, because of those contortions, that the ERG will end up with a situation where neither of the final two is “a Brexit purist” (£). To spell it out, that is how some pro-Brexit commentators are describing the scenario if the last two are pro-Brexit Sunak and Mordaunt!

The endless Tory Brexit psycho-drama is set to continue

We are therefore in a potentially extraordinary situation. The dominance of the ERG means that this leadership contest to replace Johnson has continued with his dishonesty about Brexit. That in turn will ensure that for the immediate future British politics will continue to be corrupted by the dishonesty inherent within Brexit. Yet the outcome of that contest may very well leave the ERG still unhappy. And even if that is not true from the start of the new leader’s tenure, it soon will be.

The Times columnist Danny Finkelstein this week made a point (£) very much in keeping with an argument I’ve been making on this blog for years, namely that whoever is elected the Brexiters will end up saying that person has betrayed Brexit because reality always gets the better of their dishonest beliefs. Thus once they embraced May with, it’s easy now to forget, huge enthusiasm but ended up bitterly despising her as ‘Theresa the Remainer’. Johnson, who was never one of their own, they came to see as having lost interest in, and stomach for, ‘unleashing Brexit benefits’. The same will happen to his successor.

Since Finkelstein wrote his article things have already moved on. It has now become abundantly clear that if Sunak wins the Brexiters will disown him from the outset, and the same is very possibly true of Mordaunt. But whoever wins will go the same way, possibly quite soon, as I suggest above in relation to the NIPB, but if not later when, once again, the benefits of Brexit prove imaginary or unsatisfying. Nigel Farage has already said that unless Braverman, who is now out, won it would mean that Brexit would be betrayed. But the reality is that, if she had won, it would not have been long before Farage and other Brexit Ultras were denouncing her as well.

What I would add to Finkelstein’s analysis is that the reason for this isn’t just because the gap between reality and Brexiter fantasy means that Brexit always gets betrayed, it’s that deep in the psychology of Brexit is a desire to be betrayed so as to maintain the purity of insurgency and to preserve the comfort blanket of victimhood. Indeed, the ERG’s endorsement of Truss, given its view of what happened with May, seems almost masochistic. Of course the real victims are those of us who, in the present leadership campaign, are merely onlookers as the tragedy of this perverse political psychology continues to play out before our bruised and bleeding eyes.

 

 

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Thursday, 7 July 2022

Making Brexit boring

The dramatic collapse of Boris Johnson’s premiership is inseparable from Brexit. His rise to power was built on Brexit, whilst the spectacular immorality and mendacity that caused his eventual downfall were at the heart of the tawdry campaign he fronted that yielded Brexit. There’s much more to say about that, and I will do so in a future post. But when the dust settles, and Johnson has been replaced by a new Tory leader, there will still be the never-ending consequences of Brexit to deal with. It’s certainly nonsense for anyone, whether pro- or anti-Brexit, to suggest that “if Boris goes, Brexit goes”.

So although it has almost been lost in this week’s political turmoil, I want to focus on an important Brexit development which occurred on Monday, when Sir Keir Starmer finally gave a single, dedicated speech on Labour’s Brexit policy. It may very well be that this policy will be re-calibrated according to who replaces Johnson, as many of the dynamics of politics will change as a result. But, even so, other dynamics will remain the same.

For example, it’s impossible to imagine the replacement resiling from hard Brexit, and quite likely that in the coming leadership campaign ‘getting rid of the Protocol’ will be a similar virility test to those of ‘getting rid of the hated backstop’ and ‘being prepared for a no-deal Brexit’ during that of 2019 which brought Johnson to power. Equally, the issues for Labour arising from the extent of leave support within its traditional heartlands, along with the extent of remain support amongst its voters overall, will still exist. In any case, whatever happens, any re-calibration of Labour policy on Brexit will now have to occur against the base line of what Starmer said in Monday’s speech. So it’s worth paying attention to it.

Breaking the loud silence

It was an encouraging speech whilst also being hugely disappointing, a paradox which, unsurprisingly, led to it having a distinctly mixed reception.

It was encouraging in marking an important change, that change being the simple fact of having given such a speech. Most of its content had already appeared in bits and pieces from various Labour politicians, but, for the first time, the Labour leader has drawn these together and devoted a whole speech to Brexit. The near silence is over. That is an important moment for Starmer and Labour – whose refusal to talk about Brexit has been criticised for well over a year now, and had become almost absurd in recent weeks as so much of the damage of Brexit has become undeniable.

It is also important for the wider polity because the Tories, too, have had little to say about Brexit other than the hollow boast to have ‘got it done’, overblown claims about post-Brexit trade deals, silly gimmicks like consulting on imperial measures, and the downright lie that the vaccine rollout was a Brexit benefit (on which Jacob Rees-Mogg was neatly skewered by Kirsty Wark this week). So it brings some – some – honesty to the polity because it acknowledges that Brexit is an ongoing and contested process. And it means that, now, Labour can attack the government for its handling of that process whilst having an answer of sorts to the question of what it would do differently.

Yet that answer is a disappointing one, and in some key respects an ambiguous one. It could hardly have given less to erstwhile remainers without being indistinguishable from the government’s policy. It offered the bare minimum of an alternative, and no one could call it an inspiring vision for Britain’s future. But it wasn’t altogether empty, and its critics should be careful not to fall into the age-old political trap of ‘making the perfect the enemy of the good’.

For it’s clear that Labour would adopt a far less confrontational and untrustworthy approach to relationships with the EU than Johnson did. Doing so isn’t a solution to anything in itself, though it would at least offer a respite from the endless, exhausting, shameful drama of this government’s conduct. More importantly, it is a vital pre-requisite to finding some solutions, and its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. It ought to enable a resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol row, if that is still unresolved by the next election, and thereby unlock access to Horizon, another of Starmer’s goals (though much damage will already have been done if that, too, has not happened before the election).

That is likely to continue to be true if Johnson is replaced by someone like Liz Truss or Suella Braverman. On the other hand it is conceivable, though not very likely, that Johnson’s replacement will seek to re-set relations with the EU, perhaps even to the extent of dropping the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (which, for now, seems set to continue its legislative passage, but, given expected House of Lords opposition, surely won’t make it through to the statute book before the new Prime Minister is in place).

If so, then Starmer’s promise of a change in tone would lose its distinctiveness. That in turn might prod him towards a more ambitious stance so as to differentiate Labour from the government. I suppose the biggest danger is that if the Tories did elect a ‘pragmatist’ who more or less took the line Starmer has put forward, then Labour might settle for parking Brexit as an issue altogether and a low-grade fudge on UK-EU relations would become the consensus of the two main parties. But it’s highly unlikely that the Tory Party, and especially the ERG, are about to go down such a route, and likely that many in the Labour Party, and outside, will continue to push Starmer towards a stronger position.

Ambiguities and implications

On the substance of his proposals, Starmer’s promise of a veterinary, or sanitary and phyto-sanitary, agreement would, in principle, smooth some of the frictions for British trade generally and would make the Irish Sea border considerably thinner. But here there is an ambiguity, as it’s only workable if it means the Swiss-style ‘dynamic alignment’ agreement that the EU has offered. Last month, Rachel Reeves spoke of having a veterinary agreement but compared it to that between the EU and New Zealand. If that’s really the model Labour have in mind then it is an ‘equivalence’ agreement and was originally sought by the government and rejected by the EU. It’s a non-starter (the differences between regulatory ‘equivalence’ and ‘dynamic alignment’ in relation to a veterinary agreement are explained in a House of Commons Library briefing).

In his speech, Starmer only referred to the veterinary agreements the EU has with “other countries”. However, in an interview, he, too, mentioned New Zealand as an example, but also made reference to how an agreement would reduce checks on the Irish Sea border by 80%. That figure (which some dispute) is the one first provided by Maros Sefcovic when offering the Swiss-style dynamic alignment deal, so using it implied that this was what Starmer meant, although he dodged the key question about what would happen if EU standards change.

It is, to say the least, infuriating that even now, when proposing a very modest measure, Starmer feels it necessary to describe it in such strangulated terms that it’s impossible to be sure what he means. Are we really back to the nods and winks about a vaguely-specified ‘closer relationship’ of the Corbyn years? Nevertheless, given his grasp of Brexit detail, I assume Starmer knows that an equivalence agreement isn’t going to happen and that his proposal is for dynamic alignment.

If that is the idea, then implicit (but, still, only implicit) in it is that Labour will not be doctrinaire in refusing any role for the ECJ. That does seem to be the case, because it is also implicit in what was said about the Protocol and, even more so, in the proposal to create a security pact with the EU, which included a reference to data-sharing. Such data-sharing entails ECJ involvement, and it was Frost-Johnson’s aversion to this that led to the security part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) being so thin.

So even if Starmer still isn’t willing to spell it out in terms, this does seem to code a real shift away from the red line that Theresa May originally drew (though later softened) on the ECJ, and away from the Frost-Johnson ‘scorched earth’ approach. If that shift is made in the areas he mentioned then that opens the door to deeper cooperation in multiple areas, and perhaps ultimately to something like an Association Agreement or an even more extensive arrangement than that, as was once mooted but swept away in the scorched earth frenzy of Johnson’s administration. For that matter, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Johnson’s own non-binding Political Declaration which accompanied his Withdrawal Agreement promised a far closer future relationship than eventuated in the TCA. Johnson reneged on that, but it could potentially be resurrected and might still appeal to the EU which, of course, also signed up to it.

That’s for the future. For now, clearly Starmer’s current proposals, including his other ideas such as enhanced mutual recognition of professional qualifications, barely touch the surface of repairing the damage of Brexit. That was acknowledged in the speech when he said that “complete frictionless trade” was impossible outside the single market and customs union, though it was implied that the proposed mitigations are much more substantial than they really are. The proposals do, however, suggest avoiding adding to the damage, for example in signalling a desire not to diverge on data protection rules, as the government currently plans to, and, by implication, to minimise regulatory divergence generally.

It remains to be seen if the next Tory leader will outflank Starmer’s proposals, but I think it is highly unlikely. I simply can’t imagine the ERG, or the Tory party membership, allowing the installation of anyone who would accept a dynamically aligned veterinary agreement, more role for the ECJ, or a softer line on regulatory divergence. Indeed I’d expect all the candidates to make a strong pitch on ‘maximising the benefits of Brexit’ (sic) through divergence, and most to take a ‘tough’ line on the Protocol.

Infuriating but astute

Unsurprisingly, the speech has infuriated many, possibly most, erstwhile remainers, many of whom would like Labour to adopt a ‘single market’ policy and some of whom want a ‘rejoin’ policy. Others, equally opposed to Brexit, recognized it as at least the basis for a new and better approach.  There’s no easy or perfect answer for Labour, whose calculation will be that when push comes to shove many or most of those who are infuriated will stick with Labour even so, whilst hoping that this new approach will not alienate and may even appeal to some leave voters. The danger is that it loses swathes of remain voters and is either ignored or disliked by leavers. That’s a risk, just as any way Labour positions itself on Brexit would be a risk, and it remains to be seen if it has been calculated correctly.

The flip side is that, just because it is so limited in its appeal to remainers, it is very hard for the Tories to attack. Of course, they will try to do so, and to depict Starmer as an unrepentant remainer. That’s already started and it would happen whatever he did or didn’t say. It says much for Brexiters’ disingenuity in constantly demanding that remainers should accept and get behind Brexit that they immediately greeted his acceptance of it as a dishonest ruse (£).

Some argue that, therefore, Labour might as well have a maximalist anti-Brexit policy since it is going to get attacked in that way anyway. But that is flawed reasoning: the capacity for an attack to gain traction is at least partly reliant on it being accurate, and whilst the pro-Brexit press don’t care about accuracy there will be enough commentators in the media and enough voters able to see through any attempt to depict Starmer as somehow trying to reverse Brexit on the basis of these slender proposals. Only those whose votes are already lost to Labour are likely to buy such an attack.

In one particular way, Starmer’s approach is quite astute. For once I agree with Nigel Farage, whose observation this week that it is a proposal to “make Brexit boring” was an accurate one. In suggesting some limited technical fixes Starmer’s approach neither excites nor repels anyone. And this is exactly the kind of detoxification of Brexit which is needed, because in some ways the entire Brexit saga has been about treating a technocratic question of institutions as a cultural and emotional one of identity. It also enfolds Brexit into the wider critique of Tory incompetence, which, apart from being a potent political tactic, serves to normalise it as part of ongoing political debate rather than treating it as the sacred relic of populist imaginations.

Certainly, whatever the Brexit Ultras may think, very few voters care about ECJ oversight of database sharing or even about the ECJ at all. During the referendum, whenever those planning to vote leave because they objected to the role of ‘European courts’ were asked for examples the things they mentioned were always to do with the ECHR not the ECJ. And I doubt that one in a million people both know and care about the difference between regulatory equivalence and regulatory alignment of sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards. So it’s no criticism of Starmer’s approach to call it dull. Brexit is dull, just as EU membership was dull. The tragedy is that it was made interesting. Making Brexit boring is perhaps the best thing that could happen.

Realistic but over-cautious

It’s also misguided to suggest, as some claimed following the speech, that Starmer’s proposals are ‘cakeist’ (i.e. calling for the benefits of EU membership without belonging). The main ideas of a veterinary agreement (if dynamically aligned) and a security pact have already been offered in principle by the EU, and mutual recognition of professional qualifications is within the scope of the TCA, although in practice may not be so easy to achieve. Other easements are also possible within the five-year review of the TCA. So long as Starmer has understood – and, again, given his immersion in the detail of Brexit, he surely must have done – the implications of what he said for ECJ involvement then it’s simply absurd to call these ideas cakeism. It is in any case odd to do so whilst at the same time decrying them for being so unambitious.

Speaking personally, what Starmer said mostly accorded with what I’ve been arguing recently Labour should be saying, and indeed a year ago I suggested that the pragmatic path for Labour would be to propose “a better Brexit deal for Britain”, so I’d be churlish to criticise it (although I still think my slogan is better than that of ‘make Brexit work’). I certainly agree that he is right to rule out re-joining the EU. For all the passion of the advocates of re-joining, such a policy would be wholly unrealistic for Labour electorally and also unrealistic for the country and for the EU.

For one thing, it would unquestionably involve another referendum. That was conceivable as a confirmatory vote during the leaving process. But does anyone really have the stomach for a whole new referendum in the foreseeable future, or seriously think proposing one could be an election-winning policy? And if such a referendum was held then, unless (unlike that of 2016) it was set up to require a super-majority, and achieved it – and perhaps even in those circumstances – it would be a huge ask of the EU to re-admit the UK after all the pain of the last six years and with the risk of yet another change of heart. Imagine a simple majority vote yielded, say, 52-48 to re-join. It would hardly be a robust basis for the UK to embark on an application, or for the EU to welcome it.

Some argue that ruling out ‘re-join’ as unrealistic becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures it never gets achieved. That’s true as a matter of logic of any policy about anything. But it does not follow that by deeming a policy realistic, and pursuing it on that basis, it then becomes realistic. There may come a time when re-joining becomes a viable strategy, but it is not going to be in the next parliament. It would probably need years of strong and sustained public support for it to be a realistic option for both the UK and the EU. That could happen, given the generational profile of support for re-joining, but it may never happen. Either way the real question is what happens in the immediate future?

In that respect, I think that Starmer is wrong in closing the door so hard against membership of the single market and a customs union. I don’t think he necessarily needs to makes these things Labour policy – though clearly many in his party do (£) – but instead of ruling such memberships out he should propose the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies, and perhaps other consultations, to discuss the possibility of them in the future. Whereas re-joining isn’t realistic for a very long time, single market membership and/or a customs treaty could become so much more quickly. Both would present challenges for the EU – and it shouldn’t be assumed that they are simply there for the taking if and when Britain wants them – but these aren’t insurmountable and there’s no reason why a fresh referendum would be needed to pursue this path. After all, the Tories insisted no referendum was needed to endorse hard Brexit.

Certainly opinion poll evidence suggests there could be domestic support for a softer Brexit, and an interesting article about this evidence by Sam Bright in Byline Times concludes that:

“Labour’s decision to criticise the outcomes of Johnson’s Brexit, while supporting the thawing of tensions with the EU, therefore seems to be a politically sound one – for now. In the medium term, however, if and when the benefits of Brexit firmly fail to materialise, Labour may be able to offer a stronger policy.”

Labour's interests and anti-Brexit interests are different

I would add two points to this assessment. One is that the ‘medium-term’ is quite elastic, and could be with us sooner than expected. The danger of Starmer’s caution is that Labour could quite quickly find itself well behind the curve of public opinion, especially in the unpredictable post-Johnson climate. The other point is a deeper one. The interests of anti-Brexiters and of Labour strategists are by no means identical, although they overlap at points. The pre-condition of softening Brexit is the removal of the Tory government, which will certainly continue to be led by someone pro-hard Brexit. That’s clear enough, and here the interests overlap. But whereas Labour would, entirely reasonably, like to form a majority government, anti-Brexiters’ best (realistic) hope is for a Labour minority government, supported by the LibDems and perhaps the SNP.

This prospect, perhaps the most likely outcome of the next election, is already being attacked by the Tories using the ‘coalition of chaos’ line of 2015, though I doubt it will have so much purchase next time, given the utter chaos of the present government which, even if it stabilises, won’t be quickly forgotten. For anti-Brexiters, the bigger the LibDem presence, in particular, the better (clearly there is a ceiling on what the SNP can achieve given it only stands in Scotland, and a big question as to whether they and Labour could strike a deal). Indeed from that point of view, Labour’s rather minimalist policy is actually helpful if it pushes some anti-Brexit voters to the LibDems, so long as they also vote tactically with regard to the constituency they happen to live in.

A large LibDem presence should be able to pressure a Labour minority administration to a far more ambitious anti-hard Brexit stance than Starmer has outlined, perhaps even so far as seeking single market membership and/or a customs union. And since, I assume, Starmer would not in those circumstances want to lose the opportunity of leading an administration he is foolish to have so definitively ruled out these possibilities as he may have to backtrack. That’s especially so as it seems probable that he, personally, would welcome this policy. But the key point is that anti-Brexiters shouldn’t get hung up on whether Labour has the policy they want; what matters is getting a coalition (or other arrangement) that will do what they want, or at least the nearest thing to what they want that is in realistic prospect.

Facing the toxic legacy of Brexit

None of this is remotely perfect or gives any reason for pleasure, and I certainly feel no pleasure about it. That it’s not politically viable to simply face the truth that Brexit was a terrible mistake, and has already been proven to be, is part of the price we are paying for Brexit. The frustrations of anti-Brexiters are entirely understandable, but Starmer is the wrong target for their ire.

The 2016 referendum was like a political atom bomb which didn’t just cause immediate destruction but has also poisoned the ground for years to come. Poisoned not just in the sense of the direct effects of Brexit itself but in terms of the corruption of honest and rational politics (or perhaps we should say the further corruption, for Brexit did not come from nowhere, and pre-Brexit politics was not an idyllic rose garden). Johnson’s fall may extract a little of that poison, but it goes far, far deeper than him. He was as much its symptom as its cause, the depraved salesman not the adulterated product (though his ego allowed him to believe otherwise).

So it will be a very, very long and slow process to reclaim that political ground for cultivation, re-seed it, and harvest the first, no doubt feeble, crop. The blame for that lies solely with the Brexiters, both in 2016 but also now as they attack any and every attempt to cleanse the soil of their radioactive pollution. Taking some of the toxicity out of the Brexit debate by rendering it boring is a step in the right direction.

But I am not even sure that the solution lies in anything that is done about Brexit per se. Rather, as argued by Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman this week, what first needs to happen is a thoroughgoing overhaul of the “broken and discredited” political system of which Brexit is in part the cause and in part the consequence.

Like Starmer’s Brexit proposals, such a programme of institutional reform sounds boring and technical, and would require painstaking attention to detail and follow-through to deliver. That, in itself, would be a welcome contrast to the emotionally exhausting rollercoaster of Johnson’s government recently discussed by Rafael Behr and so plainly in evidence this week. Boring can sometimes be good and, right now, it’s better than good. It’s necessary.