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 But when the dust settles, and Johnson has been replaced by a new Tory leader, there will still be the never-ending consequences of Brexit to deal with.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.

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