Friday, 20 January 2023

Strange days

Despite the two-week gap since my last post, Brexit developments have been relatively sparse. There is, as always, the endless drip of bad news stories and of new data on the damage of Brexit. In the former category is the final grisly demise of Britishvolt, once lauded as the shiny example of post-Brexit industrial strategy. It is now more readily understood as illustrating the total absence of such a strategy which, the CBI warned this week (£), is causing global investors to ‘shun’ Britain. The week before, Make UK gave a similar warning (£), blaming post-Brexit political instability.

In the latter category is a new report from the Centre for European Reform on the extent of the labour shortages Brexit has caused. Not only does this contribute to the now everyday experience of businesses being unable to provide services, for example in the hospitality sector, it also has adverse implications for economic growth and inflation. There’s also no doubt that this, and Brexit generally, is contributing to the burgeoning NHS crisis, according to a Nuffield Trust report (actually published just before Christmas, but I’ve only just become aware of it).

Meanwhile, the two main strands of Brexit politics, those of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the EU Retained Law Bill, drag on undramatically, yet with the capacity to unleash crisis and chaos in the near future. Both are dominated by the never-ending toxicity of the internal dynamics of the Tory Party.

Northern Ireland Protocol: will the ‘Brexit purity cult’ swallow a deal?

Thus talks about the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have continued, and the tone of very cautious optimism continues, most recently in a joint statement following Monday’s meeting between James Cleverley and Maros Sefcovic. It is reported in The Times (£) that the creation of a UK database giving the EU real-time information on goods moving to Northern Ireland has made the possibility of green and red trade traffic channels viable. But, although described as a “breakthrough” (£), assiduous readers of this blog will have known that this was in the offing over a month ago.

The same report explains that the UK has now given the go ahead to building permanent border facilities in Northern Ireland, but, again, that was covered on this blog two weeks ago. The report does, though, contain the amusing detail that these facilities may be called ‘huts’ rather than ‘border posts’ as a way of downplaying their significance to unionists and Brexiters. It’s true that within both these groups there are some who might, not entirely uncharitably, be described as intellectually challenged, but it seems somewhat unlikely that such semantics will fool even them.

Indeed, the core political question remains whether the unionists and, especially, the Tory Brexiters will accept any deal that may be done, especially on the issue of the role of the ECJ, and the answer to it is as uncertain as ever (£). One development has been Keir Starmer’s offer to provide the parliamentary support to get a deal agreed in the face of what he called the “Brexit purity cult which can never be satisfied”, though it seems almost inconceivable that Rishi Sunak would accept such an offer, or that doing so would overcome rather than exacerbate the divisions in his party, even though it could resolve the immediate issue of the NIP.

Starmer, no doubt, knows this and it’s fair to call his intervention “political mischief”. Yet it does also point to the way that the best long-term way of repairing the damage of Brexit lies with the side-lining of the small, but powerful and toxic, coterie of what is, indeed, the Brexit Ultra cult. Indeed, it is a very mild and minimalist version of the strategy which I recently suggested Labour might adopt on Brexit more generally.

Whilst current attention is on the prospects of a deal over the NIP, it’s important not to forget the origins of this mess in the entire Brexit project and process in general, as well as the specific mendacity of Boris Johnson in agreeing the Protocol in the first place. A significant reminder of that will come with the publication next week of Stefaan De Rynck’s book Inside the Deal. De Rynck was a senior aide to Michel Barnier throughout the negotiations and his account of the events leading to the NIP has been previewed by RTE’s Tony Connelly. Amongst much else, this shows that Johnson knowingly and explicitly accepted all of the provisions which he, and Brexiters who voted for it, now regard as unacceptable, including the role of the ECJ. As ever, dishonesty lies at the rotten core of Brexit.

Retained EU Law Bill: a prize for the ‘Brexit purity cult’?

The baleful influence of the ‘Brexit purity cult’ also lies behind the ongoing passage of the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, which passed unamended through the Commons this week, although is likely to face extensive opposition in the House of Lords. Widely regarded as an abomination, both in principle and in the grave practical dangers it poses, it has even been ‘red-rated’ by the government’s independent Regulatory Policy Committee because of the inadequacy of its Impact Assessment process. But it has become totemic to many of the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who, quite illegitimately, seeks to tie its passage to the outcome of the referendum (£) using all the tired old tropes of the obstructiveness of the ‘remainer Establishment’ to do so.

Yet, more interestingly, the REUL debate shows once again, and even now, that the Brexiters have no settled idea about what Brexit actually means. As I mentioned in my previous post, those who insisted it was all about parliamentary sovereignty ought to be alarmed by the REUL Bill which so blatantly undermines it. And so it has proved, with David Davis, no less, spearheading an unsuccessful rebellion against it on just those grounds. That may be remarkable in being the first time Davis has ever been right about anything to do with Brexit, but it shows the incoherence of the Brexit project, as well as the sheer extremism of Rees-Mogg and similar ‘Brexit Spartans’*.

Although the Davis rebellion failed, the REUL Bill also illustrates the ongoing unleadability of the Tory Party and Sunak’s vulnerability to its now numerous flanks and factions in almost every policy area. In this sense, his administration is the latest manifestation of the rolling political crisis the Brexit referendum unleashed. Indeed one of the reasons why so much in modern Britain seems not to ‘work’ properly must surely be the way that the administrative demands of Brexit, on the one hand, and the political chaos it has engendered, on the other, mean that much of the basic work of a functioning government has been neglected for seven years. The anticipated chaos the REUL Bill will cause when enacted can only prolong that.

This dysfunctionality was not diminished by the size of the Tory majority since 2019, since from the start, with the exception of the vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal, it proved to be highly brittle and fractious. In fact, both the majority and its brittleness are inextricably linked: the ‘get Brexit done’ coalition of voters and MPs which created the 2019 majority is inherently incoherent. This makes it impossible for any Tory Prime Minister to stick to their principles, a situation compounded by Sunak’s lack of any evident principles to stick to, since he displays neither Johnson’s blatant commitment to his own self-interest nor Truss’s naked ideological fervour.  

No doubt Sunak has a modest share of both those characteristics, but far more obvious is his plasticity – not in the sense of being malleable, but of being lacking in solidity or substance which, in turn, does make him plastic in the sense of being malleable in his decisions. Even his pitch of ‘pragmatism’ is shown to be bogus given the manifest lack of pragmatism of REUL. Thus, exactly as was the case under Johnson and Truss, it is simply impossible to be sure which way Sunak will bend both on the NIP and on what becomes of the REUL Bill, including what use is made of its powers when it passes. It may even be, as I’ve suggested before, that the one depends on the other – in other words that his decision to plough on with REUL is to soften the pill he knows he is going to have to try to get the Brexit Ultras to swallow over the NIP. Then again, it is equally possible that he may give in to them on both.

The death of Brexit?

One curious feature of the present political landscape is that, despite the Brexiters’ continuing throat grip on the government, self-confidence amongst their wider camp-followers in the media seems to have collapsed. That has been underway for a while, but was dramatically illustrated by Sherelle Jacobs’ recent Telegraph column (£), bemoaning that Brexit has become “unsalvageable” because of “the hash” the Tories have made of this.

At one level, this is boilerplate stuff about how true Brexit has been ‘betrayed’, and all would have been well if only it had been done ‘properly’. But the language is especially spicy, for example in saying that “Brexit has become the madwoman in the country’s attic”, and it comes from one of the most dogmatic of Brexit flag wavers. Indeed Jacobs even castigates “the Spartans” for fighting their “last heroic battle” over the REUL, saying that in doing so they fail to see “the big picture” and are pursuing divergence for its own sake in a way that will seem pointless to many voters. Similarly, since Jacobs sees delaying an NIP agreement as being useful to the EU who, she suggests, want to wait for a Labour government to get a ‘softer’ deal, then what does this say about the Spartans’ anticipated opposition to whatever deal Sunak may do?

The headline of Jacobs’ piece (‘Britain is going to rejoin the EU far sooner than anyone now imagines’) prompted some excitement, as it seemed to be a case of the devil quoting scripture, but there was actually little in the article to justify it. And, in fact, the most obvious significance of the REUL battle is that the Brexiters are using what may their last months in power to leave a ‘scorched earth’ of entrenched divergence from EU law so as to make future alignment, let alone re-joining either the single market or the EU, more difficult for a future government.

So Jacobs may be right in saying of the present situation that “this is how Brexit dies”, but Brexiter MPs are doing all they can to prolong its life even if they, like Jacobs, recognize its failure. If so, that makes their actions even more despicable.

So is re-joining in prospect?

Of course Brexit, in the literal sense of the UK not being a member of the EU, will not simply die. It will continue unless it is reversed, and as I argued at the end of last year that will be a marathon not a sprint. In brief, it would require a government to be elected with a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum, which almost certainly isn’t going to happen in 2024, so would be 2029 at the very earliest. Personally, I think that the entire British polity has been so scarred and traumatised by the 2016 referendum that it will be much longer than that before any government contemplates repeating it. Either way, if and when it happens, that referendum would have to be not just held but won by re-joiners.

Additionally the EU and all its members would need to have confidence that both the size of that win, and a changed political culture of the UK, indicated that a subsequent change of mind would not happen. And by a changed political culture I mean not just the marginalization of Brexiters, but a sustained and wholehearted commitment to the EU as an ideal. It couldn’t simply be, as it was for many who voted to stay in the EEC in 1975, based on some grudging, transactional acceptance of the evident economic costs of not belonging. A re-joining UK would need to clear a much higher bar in that respect than a new entrant, precisely because of Brexit having happened, which has been traumatic for the EU, too.

How (not) to win friends and influence people

If all this is to come to pass, it will require the creation and maintenance of a ‘big tent’ re-join movement over many years, perhaps even decades. From that point of view, it will be important not to alienate sympathetic allies. In my previous post I discussed an article by Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman which I felt had been unfairly treated by anti-Brexiters, especially given Fletcher’s long track record of critiquing Brexit, a treatment he subsequently described as “a ton of slurry [landing] on my head”.

To summarise very briefly, he argued ‘remainers’ should recognize that re-joining wasn’t on the agenda for a generation and in the meanwhile seek to contribute to a post-Brexit consensus. My criticism was that, whilst I agreed about re-join being a generation away, his consensus proposals were totally unrealistic. It’s relevant to what I’m about to write that he described this criticism as “well taken” and expressed with “civility”, showing that it is possible for like-minded people to disagree without rancour.

Without reprising the discussion, my point here is about the “ton of slurry” Fletcher received. It accords with my own observation and, to an extent, experience in recent months, in that there seems to be a seam of anti-Brexit sentiment which is every bit as judgemental and even vicious as some of the nastiest elements of the Brexit camp. No doubt there are earlier examples, but it first really caught my attention at the time of the P&O sackings last March, when I recorded on this blog that “it has been depressing to see so much disinformation about this coming from the ‘remain’ side, and the virulence with which some have responded to corrections to the false claim that Brexit is what made it possible for the P&O workers to be sacked in the manner that they were”.

I’ve subsequently experienced some of that virulence first-hand, especially from those who took umbrage at my explanation of why Freeports are not ‘Charter Cities’. Perhaps I have been lucky, or naïve, not to have come across this before. In 2018, Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times wrote that (£):

“Not being a Leaver, I had never really experienced the venom [of remainers] — until last week when I wrote a piece, which I won’t rehash here, doubting the case for a second referendum. As a liberal metropolitan media Remainer, I have got used to being regarded as an enemy of the people by Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail. But it came as a shock to find I am also an enemy of the people to people I would until recently have regarded as friends. My enemy’s enemy has turned out to be my enemy too. By not supporting a second referendum, I am apparently transformed into Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

It may be understandable that, in the highly charged atmosphere of 2018, Shrimsley got this reaction. But the political situation facing re-joiners now is very different to that facing remainers then. Then, there was the immediate possibility of avoiding Brexit, and a one-shot route to doing so, making dissent from it hard to stomach. Now, there is a long haul towards reversing it, requiring a different political approach.

A very minor illustration of the implications of that is provided by the way my agreement with Fletcher about re-joining the EU not being on the agenda for a generation attracted a series of snide and increasingly unpleasant tweets from the Oxford for Europe group (or, more accurately, whoever operates its Twitter account) which led me to block their account, something I would never have expected to find myself doing. At a personal level, it was hurtful, and cost me some lost sleep. That wasn’t because it was abusive or especially insulting – I’ve had much worse over the years, though almost invariably from leavers. But, just as Shrimsley described, that’s the nub of it: it was hurtful because it came from a group to which, in principle, I’m sympathetic and, indeed, to which I have given an invited talk in the past.

But my point isn’t to solicit sympathy (perhaps I am too thin-skinned) or to elicit support for my view of the likely timescale for re-joining (which may, of course, be wrong). Rather, it is that if a re-join campaign is to gain traction, whatever the timescale may be, it will need to come to encompass those who are currently hostile to it. That is unlikely to happen if its proponents conduct themselves in so vexatious a way as to alienate even those who are already receptive to it. In a similar way, little good can come of heaping “slurry” on the head of someone like Martin Fletcher or aiming “venom” at someone like Robert Shrimsley.

Strange days

It’s difficult at the moment to capture the Brexit developments in a single narrative arc. The quote from Antonio Gramsci that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” has become so over-used as to be clichéd, as well as ripped from its original context. But it captures something about the strange days we are living through, with Brexiters like Sherelle Jacobs talking of the death of Brexit, and public opinion clearly showing that Brexit is regarded as a mistake, yet no solution in prospect.

It has actually now also become clichéd to observe, invariably using, as Jacobs does, yet another cliché, that the failure of Brexit is ‘the elephant in the room’ of the vast majority of political and economic discussion. So, paradoxically, Brexit is both unsayable and yet its unsayability is constantly spoken of. It seems likely that these strange days will continue for quite some time to come. That, at least, seems to be the consensus of political experts and, as Brexit has shown us, we ignore experts at our peril. But Brexit has also taught us just how unpredictable politics can be.

Strange days, indeed.

 

*Rees-Mogg wasn’t, in fact, one of the original Brexit Spartans, defined as those who voted against May’s deal all three times (he voted for it the third time). In other Spartan news, Andrew Bridgen has lost the Tory whip for comparing the Covid vaccination programme (puzzlingly, something which usually, though dishonestly, Brexiters regard as a benefit of Brexit) to the Holocaust, whilst fellow-Spartan Suella Braverman refused to apologise to a Holocaust survivor for the ‘dehumanising language’ she uses to describe migrants. Other alumni include Andrew Rosindell, whose claims to fame include his failed attempt to get the Union flag on all new car number plates, and Owen Paterson, the disgraced and now former MP currently seeking redress for his downfall in the ECHR he once said the UK should “break free” from. Always a pleasure to see what the class of 2019 is up to.

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