Saturday, 21 September 2019

Clueless or delusional. Who can say?


I really struggle to work out what is going on. It's one of two possibilities. Either this administration is just giving the EU the runaround having always intended to leave without a deal, or it is as we are led to believe; that Boris Johnson does want a deal and believes this inept posturing will somehow lead the EU to offer us a deal more to our liking.

To be it seems more like the former in that opposition to the backstop is entirely confected. If they are so confident that alternate possibilities are available then they should have no problem signing up to a backstop. It feels more like there is a hidden agenda based on more fundamental opposition to a withdrawal agreement of any kind.

This is largely to do with the knee-jerk reaction to provisions within the withdrawal agreement. We are subject to a number of competition rules and rules on procurement and the likes. What is less understood is that the provisions are there for the purposes of the transition or for business started inside the existing framework to conclude. This is all with a view to these provisions being replaced by measured outlined in the future relationship. In effect, the withdrawal agreement is scaffolding for a gradual dismantling of EU membership over a period of time as opposed to a bulldozer demolition as favoured by Brexit radicals.

That is not to say there aren't nasties in the WA that would make any Brexiter wince, and the single customs territory defined in the backstop is a customs union in all but name - largely as a consequence of Theresa May's botched general election. This could be dialled back to the original proposal but still the government seems to want to sabotage it entirely.

What we are seeing here is an attempt to resequence Article 50 talks once again, shunting the NI issue into talks on the future relationship whereupon any NI protocols cease to be a backstop. Theresa May tried this stunt a number of times and Johnson is no more likely to pull it off. Ireland wants an insurance policy therefore the EU does.

What the Brexiters can't cope with is the fact that any agreement on regulatory harmonisation for Northern Ireland will lead to the tail wagging the dog, stymying Brexiteer ambitions of total regulatory independence. Itis still an article of faith in the Brexit mind that such a thing is desirable and beneficial, having never understood the trade utility of common regulations. Three years of intensive trade debate has made no impact on their collective understanding.

This morning, though, we are reminded by UNECE that the origin of flagship "EU rules" is not in fact the EU. Vehicle regulations and emissions standards are very much the product of global regulatory efforts, along with much else that renders redundant the notion of regulatory independence. We are, therefore, making a colossal pig's ear of Brexit in order to chase a mirage - an unobtainable and largely useless version of sovereignty that exists only in the imagination of Brexiters.

This is ultimately why the Brexit radicals are calling for no deal. It's escapism. The real world cannot bend to the Brexiter sovereignty delusion (a pillar of eurosceptic thinking) so they retreat from reality altogether. And this is the reason I dislike prominent leavers. They're lazy. Anyone can construct a crowd pleasing argument against the EU which they'll do ad nauseam for popularity, but it takes intellect to come up with a viable destination. When you ask them, the cupboard is bare.

Instead of concrete plans we get the usual blether about independence, supremacy of our courts, parliamentary sovereignty and freedom to make our own trade deals without asking Brussels - but the fact of the matter is that the EU is a global regulatory superpower capable of exerting considerable power. If we want a comprehensive trade relationship with the EU then it necessarily requires a high degree of legal and regulatory alignment where every subsequent deal with a third party must take into account binding commitments we have already made.

If though, we are saying that the price is too high and that we value agility and sovereignty over a comprehensive relationship with the EU then that largely implies we will exclude ourselves from lucrative European markets - which is a wholly respectable point of view, but not without credible ideas to mitigate the massive losses that go with terminating our involvement in the single market. This is where we really see the intellectual paucity of the Brexit blob as it recycles the same tired ideas such as free ports and deregulation - none of which can be construed as a credible strategy for this century.

It now looks like we are steamrollering toward a no deal Brexit largely because two administrations now have proven themselves completely incapable of comprehending the nature of the EU's red lines. They simply do not understand the EU - what it is, how it functions and why it cannot show the flexibility demanded of it. 

Just recently an IEA wonk tweeted "Are the EU going to risk future trade with Europe’s 2nd biggest economy, UK, in order to safeguard a border which sees just 1.6% of Irish exports & imports...and risk the construction of border infrastructure & the bona fides of the GFA?' As it happens, you're not a proper eurosceptic unless and until you understand why the answer to this question is yes. And that really is telling. It tells us that the Tory version of Brexit is not rooted in classic euroscepticism. Classic eurosceptics instinctively get why the EU won't bend. Rather it is now a radical right wing economic experiment based on some loony tunes idea of how modern trade functions.

Unfortunately for all of us, there is no running away from reality. For sure we can refuse to ratify a withdrawal agreement and even make it look like the EU's fault (which is probably the objective of the Johnson administration) but soon after we bump into the cold reality that we do need a comprehensive relationship with the EU not only as our neighbour but also as the global trade and regulatory superpower. At that point we have to confront all the same uncomfortable dilemmas - only from a position of desperation where the balance of leverage is entirely in the hands of the EU.

Again we see the main conceptual error on the part of the Brexiters in viewing Brexit as an event we can soon after move on from as opposed to a long and detailed process. That, fundamentally, is what motivates their opposition to a negotiated exit. They want it done and dusted, failing to recognise that our bilateral relationship with the EU is an evolving continuum and that membership needs to be replaced with something. If they refuse to confront that reality then others will - and they are going to like it a lot less than the withdrawal agreement. 

This week it seemed like the penny had dropped, but we still see no sign of a sincere effort to secure a deal. We can only really conclude that this "negotiation" is a sham or the the prime minister really doesn't have the first clue what he's doing. In the fullness of time that will become clearer, but it scarcely matters when the effect is much the same. 

    

Additional: You may have noticed that productivity on this blog is not what it was but then there is so little original to say at this point. This, though, is the calm before the storm. There will soon be much to say. All the while this blog still requires considerable effort to maintain, and at cost to myself. It is supported entirely through your donations and I haven't asked in a while. Please give if you can.

Friday, 20 September 2019

No change.

While the Telegraph and others continue to indulge the myth that we are edging closer toward a deal, the UK position remains the same as does the EU position and there is no meeting of minds. Steve Barclay has once again reiterated the UK's impossible demands. This is going nowhere.

This brings us to the question of an extension. Methinks that Boris Johnson will have to go through the motions under the Benn Act, though at this point I wouldn't be at all surprised if he didn't. The bigger question is whether the EU would even grant an extension.

As much as there is no sign of serious engagement from the Johnson administration, the only reason to delay further is to wait out a general election to see what happens then. But would talking to a new administration produce different results? After all they'd be dealing with Comrade Corbyn whose own command of the issues is not in any way an improvement. He wants a customs union where the UK would have a say in future EU trade deals and a "close relationship with the single market". Neither of these demands can be accommodated. They are not on this planet. 

In the event of a Corbyn government, EU negotiators would yet again have to spell out the Janet and John basics to a clueless British government that has no idea what it wants to accomplish or even what the basic components do. More likely, though, they would yet again be dealing with Boris Johnson where the outcome is much the same. The only reason to give an extension is so to absolve itself of any blame.

Beyond that there doesn't seem any reason to extend. Even if Johnson's demands were met there is no sign of coherence from the commons and no guarantee a deal would be ratified. There is nothing in it for them. There is only an outside chance of Brexit being reversed and if that happens the EU is stuck with a politically dysfunctional member which at heart is not on board with the project. There is also the small matter of the EU being as bored and frustrated with this as the British public are. They have better - or certainly more productive things to be getting on with.

My hunch is that they will extend but with a sense of weary exasperation but there is no chance the time will be used productively either by parliament or the executive. Number Ten is never going to get to grips with the issues and nor is parliament. That Labour still doesn't have a coherent Brexit position tells you all you need to know. Nothing has been learned.

That is ultimately why failure is inevitable. Public debate doesn't take on board anything nor does it reach any settled conclusions. Somebody high profile will yet again suggest emulating the Swiss border and we'll go all around the houses yet again debunking it, for something like the ninth time. The media will run with it simply to fill airtime - adding further confusion in the process. If there is an argument for "clean break" it is only that we lack the talent and coherence to do anything else.   

Meanwhile there is a belated realisation in the wake of Cameron's memoirs that the EEA Efta option was always the most sensible way to do it but that realisation has come far too late to be of any use. Ultimately MPs were too invested in stopping Brexit to turn their attentions to viable outcomes. When we do crash and burn it will most certainly be a collective failure. Both the media and politics can take equal share of the blame.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Course Oblivion.

I always said that history would be kinder to Theresa May than her party. The Brexiters assumed that the problem was that Theresa May just didn't believe hard enough - so they replaced her with someone who did - or at least enough to suit their career ambitions.

Now, though, it seems the penny has dropped that things are not as simple as assumed and you can believe in Brexit as hard as you like but it just doesn't change the facts on the ground. For all that Mrs May made her own unforced errors, when you crunch the same set of variables with the same red lines then you come out with much the same result.

This much has been painfully obvious to anyone who follows the technical side of the debate and the only real room for manoeuvre now (assuming it's not too late) is to wind back the quasi-customs union to an NI specific territory. A dogs dinner of an idea necessitated by May's botched general election forcing an alliance with the DUP. But now the DUP seems to be softening their message as even they've probably realised that no deal is a supremely bad idea.

Whether this shift in attitude can be translated into a meaningful change to the withdrawal accords remains to be seen. Though the mood on the EU side is one of exasperation, I get the feeling that they would grant a further extension but Johnson will have to convince them that there is a point to it and that he is sincere about a deal when presently there is no outward sign that he is.

Then there's the question of whether Johnson can get away with it having promised Brexiters that we will leave come what may. Johnson has painted himself into the corner. There is just no possible way to know what will happen when Johnson himself does not know and wings every major decision at the last minute. He's made all kinds of promises but we know that promises are meaningless to this man and  he still has o face down parliament. Christ alone knows what MPs have in mind.

Meanwhile, the trench warfare on social media continues unabated, recycling the same tired bickering now that Labour has clarified a policy of sorts on a second referendum. Ordinarily, being so desperate for anything newsworthy, it would have warranted a post of its own but it's barely worth speaking of.

Corbyn, as before, seeks a customs union and a "close relationship with the single market". This is on account of him having no idea what a customs union does, believing it to accomplish more than it does. As to a close relationship with the single market, this is for the birds. You are either in it or you are not.  There is nothing about this position that stacks up. It's issue illiterate and ultimately gutless - especially since Corbyn has declared neutrality in a second referendum on his deal.

Beyond that I am not going to rehearse the arguments about second referendums. Not least because it's all contingent on variable such as a general election which aren't even in play yet. There's plenty of time to go over all that again later. My brain my capsize if it comes to that. Suffice to say there is nothing new in the remainer arguments that necessities such a vote and no concrete reason to overthrow the first vote.

One would have hoped by now that there would be at least some clarity on which way this is going but without more encouraging signals we have to stick to our assumption that this can only end in failure. Today is just another breadcrumb on the yellow brick road to oblivion.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The sound of pennies dropping


Though the Guardian is more famous for its madcap social justice editorials and its wonderfully out of touch middle class forelock tugging, as far as Brexit coverage goes, it's the last remotely credible news outlet. There isn't much to add to this latest piece in respect of events in Luxembourg yesterday.
Johnson has talked, repeatedly, of “real signs of movement” in Berlin, Paris and Dublin on getting rid of the backstop, the perennial obstacle to a Brexit agreement. “A huge amount of progress is being made” in the negotiations, he insists.
For EU officials, the regular meetings with Johnson’s special envoy do not even qualify as “negotiations”. There are grave doubts, after his suspension of parliament and failure to advance any concrete proposals, that the prime minister wants a deal at all – and, should one be achieved, that he could get it through parliament.
Ideas for an all-Ireland regulatory regime for food and agriculture, which No 10 thinks would go a long way to replacing the backstop, fall far short of the requirement to protect EU markets from dangerous goods, fraud or unfair competition.
And as Bettel’s exasperation made clear, officials in Brussels, and leaders in national capitals, are running out of patience. Hopes that Britain might eventually give Brexit up as a bad job and remain in the EU are giving way to prayers that it won’t.
Many now dread the prospect, remote as it may seem, of a second referendum. “Why on earth would you want a country so bitterly and hopelessly divided to stay?” asked one diplomat. “The wounds are going to last generations. How damaging would that be to Europe? Come back, maybe – but leave and sort things out first.” 
The EU27 members do not trust Johnson, but many have little confidence in Jeremy Corbyn or in the quarrelsome tribes of remainers either. Certainly, they would rather have a deal: no one wants the chaos and economic pain of no deal, or to be seen to be giving Britain a helping hand over the cliff.
But that deal clearly cannot come at any cost. Twenty-six member states will, first, never abandon Ireland when it insists on the need for an operable backstop because, despite the clout of Germany and France, the EU remains a club of small countries, most with populations smaller than 10 million. 
Equally important, the European priority remains – as it has since June 2016 – the integrity of the EU single market. EU businesses are lobbying their governments, but not in order to persuade them to offer the UK a favourable deal so that sales of BMW cars and prosecco are not hit too hard. 
No, European businesses want their governments to avoid any risk of British companies retaining privileged access to the single market while undercutting them by disobeying its rules: a weakened single market is a far more damaging prospect than even a no-deal Brexit. 
For all those reasons, the EU would, on the whole, prefer Britain to leave now, if possible quite soon. And as Bettel’s irritation showed, it is fast tiring of a psychodrama that is costing it time, money and anxiety, and that is none of its making.
With the Tory press buying the notion that we are "edging closer toward a deal" the Guardian is right to point out that no such negotiations are underway. The situation has not changed. The EU has always said ti will consider legally operable alternatives to the backstop but at no time has the UK submitted anything to meet that criteria.

There is, though, good reason for that. There isn't a viable alternative to the backstop and Number Ten knows it. The backstop represents the bare minimum required for the EU to relax its frontier controls. Though conceivably there are ways of cracking the nut through a mixture of instruments, nothing presents itself as immediately operable and not without cumbersome bureaucracy and complex overlapping systems that would not be ready to deploy in time. Certainly the UK is unable to present a more practical solution.

But the main thrust here is that the EU has all but run out of patience. Brexit is absorbing more of their runtime than they would prefer, proving to be a major and unwelcome distraction to which there is no satisfactory outcome on the horizon. As much as they do not welcome Brexit, they're now doing the thinking that the ultra-remain Lib Dems have not in asking whether the UK could any longer be a viable member of the EU. There is no way the EU agenda can progress when the UK is in a state of perpetual deadlock of the issue. Calling off Article 50 does not make Brexit go away.

The BBC report on events, though, is telling when it remarks that "it's important to remember that Mr Juncker and European Commission negotiators don't have the legal power to change the Brexit deal, even if they wanted to. That power lies with the EU national leaders".

Were we charitable we could say that the Guardian is dumbing it down for the benefit of their readers, but the power lies with the European Council, an institution of the EU. There is an essential failure to understand the nature of the EU. They think of the European Council as a "summit" of Member State leaders. They do not understand that it is a formal institution of the EU, subject to its laws and bound by its objectives.

If there has been one constant throughout Brexit it is a deep rooted failure to understand the functioning of it on the British side. It starts with our media extending all the way into the executive. We saw this with repeated attempts by Theresa May to subvert the already agreed sequencing of talks - particularly with her Florence proposal, believing the EU capable of abandoning its process and procedure.

This flaw seems to be presenting in Boris Johnson who is seemingly operating under the illusion that the EU can throw process under the bus to conclude a deal a the last minute - believing no deal to be a credible instrument of leverage. With that assumption baked in there is no possibility of successfully concluding the Article 50 process. "German carmakers" are not clamouring for a deal and will not ride to the rescue. 

This has been a conceptual misapprehension throughout starting from the man in the street going all the way up to the prime minister. The British political mind simply does not grasp what we are dealing with. The EU is not a nation state capable of agreeing an outcome and instructing its civil service to implement it. The EU fundamentally is an operating system of rules and processes where compromising that system of rules raises an existential question. For that reason it will place the principle before the commercial pragmatism that Britain expects of it.

It is perhaps that one fundamental clash of approaches that alone makes British membership of the EU untenable. As "part time Europeans", not at all on board with the underlying destination of the project, we have hit a roadblock where neither the UK nor the EU can progress until there is a final resolution to it.

The only remaining question is how we get there. It would seem that with a PM who doesn't have the first clue what he is doing, and an opposition incapable of arriving at a coherent direction, promising to be equally problematic should we remain, the penny has dropped that Britain is not psychologically equipped to be an EU member. The blame for this mess, therefore, is not those who conspired to get us out. Rather it rests with those who attempted to push the British square peg through the EU round hole. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Treading water


Blogging is hard at the moment. There is no shortage of noise but very little to say unless you want to join in with the ideological trench warfare that has broken out between the two Brexit camps. With the Lib Dems having declared war on Brexit they've become the home for the archetypal Waitrose warrior remoaner so we could have enormous fun at their expense but it doesn't actually add value and it's pretty much covered by Twitter.

Course we could follow the theatricals of Brexit negotiations, but as EUreferndum points out, there are no negotiations to speak of. A deal is not in the offing and despite media speculation to the contrary, circumstances have not changed nor has the EU's position. Noises have been made about reconsidering the backstop if the UK comes up with a workable proposal but that isn't going to happen.

Initially I had thought that the Johnson administration was going all out for no deal but it seems they are instead playing chicken with an oncoming reality juggernaut. Johnson thinks he can "handbag" the EU at the last minute and come home victorious. But procedurally, or by any other measure, that's just not how this works. Johnson will come away with nothing so we now wait to see what the situation is regarding an extension and an election.

There is plenty of speculation to be had there - especially so since general elections are the comfort zone of pundits. I'm happy to indulge as and when we get to that point, but I'm not going to sit here dreaming up phantom scenarios that may never happen. But what now can be usefully said when it has all been said and the nation is bored rigid with it all?

There is something to be said about the deterioration of both politics and the media - with politics now polarised to the point of self-destruction while the media indulges in its own set of fantasies. But this is hardly new either.

So what about conference season? Conferences have long been the domain of anoraks and social climbers and have very little to say worth hearing. Whatever policies they might dream up have only a limited shelf life in that Brexit will choke up the machine and divert funds they would otherwise use. As to the Lib Dems, they have to convincingly explain how you put the country back together after nullifying the 2016 referendum. They appear not to have thought about that.

As it happens, I still think we are odds on for no deal. The closer we get to Brexit day the more ghastly theremainer bunch get; oozing self-righteousness, snobbery and entitlement with zero self-awareness. I don't see any scenario where they could hold the balance of power.

One thing that did catch my eye today, though, was a clip from an interview with Harriet Harman following noises about her replacing John Bercow. She says "It would show parliament has changed if a woman was Speaker." - She asserts that if parliament decides on a man to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons 'it will render women in politics invisible'.

Leaving aside that we've had Betty Boothroyd who was admired and respected, this is absolutely quintessential Westminster bubble stuff. Self-absorbed, narcissistic, issue illiterate and breathtakingly banal. This is ultimately why so many seek to use Brexit to punish the establishment. This is what we are all sick of.

And then there's Labour's muddle on Brexit. Corbyn is under pressure from the London metropolitan wing of Labour to come out as an all out remain party, but Corbyn is acutely aware (or should be) that if he does so, he'll be alienating the northern leave voting working class base. Since there is no outright position that allows him to ride both horses, Labour has to keep it deliberately vague. 

In many ways Labour's identity crisis represents the wider identity crisis in the country and since one side has to lose, politicians simply duck the issue. The only reason we have remained in the EU this long is because politicians have fought to keep the issue at bay, never allowing it to become a primary issue. Our EU membership has a certain Dorian Gray dynamic where our EU membership presents as a glossy young facade while the real portrait in the attic is a snarling, decaying ogre.

This to a large extent explains why things are such a giant mess. We are finally having the national debate we should have had at least a decade sooner but at a time when our politics is the least equipped for it. Two decades of rolling and cameras in parliament has debased politics to the point where Westminster antics resemble those of a sixth form common room and more akin with the European Parliament - lacking legitimacy, gravitas and credibility.

As has become usual to say now, there is nothing for serious commentary to say until this phase reaches a conclusion. Both leaving and remaining have seismic consequences and one way or another, there will be a lot to say after the fact and either way we won't have heard the last of Brexit for some time to come. Between now and then, we are just treading water. 

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Yellowhammer: noise we didn't need


If you're doing any sort of contingency planning then you look at the worst case scenarios. And then you plan to mitigate them. I'm not full conversant in what has been done but it looks like we shouldn't have much of a problem with incoming goods and until such a time as mainland EU is fully prepared to impose full third country controls (and while the UK is policing access to the ports properly) then outgoing won't be too problematic.

Many of the headline scares exist from more than two years ago - before the announcement of the EU's own unilateral contingency measures which will be reciprocated. The scares, though plausible at the time without some acknowledgement from government, have been obsolete for a while now.

Moreover, anyone in business who wants to stay in business has already done the necessary work to ensure they can still export to the EU - whether it be setting up importer offices inside the EU or finding a freight forwarding company to assist. Production lines have built up stockpiles of components and rearranged their scheduling so as to avoid the ports on Brexit day until there is a clearer idea of what is happening. It's probable that just enough has been done to offset the worst of the immediate headline effects of no deal.

Course, that doesn't stop pundits and politicians alike hyperventilating over the Yellowhammer report - which is widely dismissed by Brexiters as "project fear", while inventing imaginative reasons why none of it can happen. But it's all noise. What we should be worried about, and what we are not even discussing is the secondary impacts which stand to have a greater overall impact on jobs and trade.

Yellowhammer might read like a bedtime horror story but it's the EU's Notices to Stakeholders (NTS)(published more than a year ago) that makes for the most gruesome reading and if you know what it is you're looking at then that's the stuff that should keep you awake at night.

The EU's unilateral contingency measures really only deal with the high end stuff to ensure basic transport connectivity and whatever else is necessary to look after its own interests, but the NTS details all the different sectors where the UK no longer enjoys the same market participation rights which sees commercial operations brought to a standstill. We take an immediate 20 percent hit when we lose mutual recognition, and our services will be slashed.

Much of this has been misreported or trivialised by the media, looking at stories in isolation from aircraft repair approvals to farm waste removal. the media has been unable to stitch together a clear picture of the kind of behind the border disruption not directly linked with import/exports that business will face in the event of no deal.

Then, of course, there is the longer term picture of what happens in the economy when all the third country controls are in oerationand we are subject the the EU's standard tariffs. In overselling Brexit doomsday, all the remainers have succeeded in doing is to harden opposition - resulting in the sort of trite, idiotic dribble we see from Spiked Online today.

Instead of a cool headed look at the issues all we have seen from politicians is hyperventilation over issues they haven't examined, don't understand and even after three years of debate still haven't noticed. The Yellowhammer report is just a stick to beat the government with - typically confusing activity with productivity.

Though the debate has long been highly polarised we have now reached a state of total polarisation with two camps largely talking only to themselves, with media output now having zero infomation value. All we have is noise where the most ignorant have the loudest voice. That more than anything is the main reason we are probably leaving without a deal.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

An abuse of the mandate - (or why Brexiters should get real)


I'm the last one to defend parliament - especially given its recent juvenile conduct but we need to separate the issues here. The public was handed the decision as to whether we leave the EU. It was a long running fundamental constitutional question that could only really be resolved by the public. The question of how we leave, though, was a matter that could only be resolved by a representative body.

In this, parliament has been obstructionist throughout - to the outrage of leavers. The extent to which MPs have simply been trying to kill off Brexit is a matter for some debate but the fact remains that Brexiters have not been playing an honest game. There are four basic models Brexit could follow but ever since the referendum Brexiters have insisted ever that the most extreme and the most damaging is the only model that honours the referendum result.

They have done so in a completely cavalier fashion. MPs have had good cause to ask serious and searching questions of the Brexiters and what they get in response if fact free flim-flam. Debunking Daniel Hannan has become a cottage industry. Not a single word from the lips of John Redwood is bankable. When it comes to prolific works of fiction Shakespeare's got nothing on advocates of the WTO option.

Then when it comes to the more technical debates we are told that anything from blockchain through to ANPR cameras will do the job - and can be implemented without a transition - completely ignoring the regulatory aspect of frictionless borders. There's just nothing these people say that can be taken seriously and that is rightly a cause for concern for MPs.

I've watched countless committee meetings watching inquisitive MPs like Rachel Reeves coming at it cold asking hard questions, wanting to be convinced but finding the answers wholly unsatisfactory. Had I not been passionately involved in the campaign to leave the EU the answers given by Brexiteers would have made a militant remainer of me. When these people aren't being spectacularly ignorant they're lying through their teeth.

I think it highly uncharitable to think that the majority of MPs are acting in open defiance of the referendum. A great many do respect the result but cannot in good conscience roll over and let the Brexiteers do as they please when their case stands in such a flimsy foundation. The stakes are too high.

And if there's one thing MPs know better than anyone, if there is a sustained campaign of lying then there is an unspoken agenda. And we now what that agenda is. To the ERG, Brexit is less about national sovereignty and democracy and more about a radical right wing economic adventure where the classic democratic arguments serve only as a smokescreen. Their intent is to embark upon aggressive deregulation and unilateral trade liberalisation using the 2016 vote as a mandate without seeking a new one for their agenda.

On that there has been extensive debate where again we find the Brexiteer arguments wanting. Deregulation is part of the libertarian right canon, long baked into Tory scriptures but has long been obsolete. Modern trade is all about regulatory harmonisation for the facilitation of speedier more profitable supply chains. Deregulation and divergence is a wholly false economy and involves painful and expensive change only to find goods have less export potential at the end of it.

As to unilateral trade liberalisation, we are talking about massive, sweeping, unplanned change with no risk assessment. There's no way that ends well. It's just another deep rooted Tory superstition that the current tariff regime is a "protectionist racket" - overlooking the labyrinth of free trade arrangements the EU has with just about every major economy.

So here there is nothing to enthuse Brexit sceptics. No reasons why they should green light this course of action when it is abundantly clear that the Brexiteers are playing fast and loose with the truth and quite simply do not know what the hell they are talking about.

As it happens, had there been the outright hostility to the referendum result that Brexiters now claim exists, we might perhaps be out of the EU already. Given the mood at the time they had no choice but to trigger Article 50 but they could well have united to insist on EEA Efta form the beginning but even Brexit sceptics reluctantly agreed that freedom of movement must completely end, mindful of northern Brexit voters whose votes they depend on. Had Labour ever investigated the possibilities of EEA Article 112, this might well have gone a different way.

It is something of a Brexiter conceit to say that MPs are wholly and unequivocally against Brexit. I have made that argument myself more than a few times but it's a bit of lazy shorthand. Plenty of MPs theoretically want to deliver Brexit but they just can't agree on a way forward. All that they can agree on is that they don't want a no deal Brexit because there's nothing much to be said for it and it is an abuse of the 2016 mandate.

Ok so many of the scares are increasingly risible. We're not going to impose additional customs measures on incoming goods so the likelihood of medicines shortages is minimal and the EU's own contingency measures, (which will be reciprocated) will ensure basic connectivity for the essentials, and planning will ensure the ports stay clear even if that means diverting trucks or stopping them setting off. That's all fine. We can ensure there isn't a Brexit day meltdown. But longer, term, taking into account all the secondary effects, there is nothing to be said for it.

As remarked almost every other day, no deal cannot stay no deal and we must have a comprehensive relationship with the EU. Crashing out puts us in a state of limbo, handing all the leverage to the EU, and it will take some years before we are even negotiating a new trade framework - with the precondition that we submit to an accord on NI that looks pretty much the same as the backstop. A self-defeating mess.

I have argued that no deal is essentially what it must be if MPs cannot agree and there is no other way to leave - but there is a deal on the table. For sure, Brexiters hate it but they're going to hate anything that doesn't deliver the great Brexit pipe dream. they tell us that "May's deal is not Brexit" but that's a wholly dishonest claim. It just doesn't deliver the Tory wet dream Brexit - which they are by no means owed on the back of the 2016 referendum.

The mistake of parliament was the failure to realise that the withdrawal agreement was pretty much the only option by the time they'd ruled out all the other avenues. It was their failure to get to grips with the issues early on that brought us to this point. Incompetence rather than outright malevolence. The Ultra remainers couldn't even muster double figures when they broke away to start their own party.

When It comes down to it, MPs are thinking about the harm a no deal Brexit will do. This is not a matter of crystal ball gazing. We are not talking about the economic guesswork that said there would be a recession immediately after the referendum. Here we are talking about cause and effect whee the EU's own Notices to stakeholders explicitly list all the areas where the UK is frozen out of lucrative markets. The absence of a data adequacy agreement alone is a serious dent for UK digital services providers. Even if we disregard the worst of the scare stories as "project fear" we are still looking at a deeply damaging, long lasting hammer blow to jobs and trade.

In respect of that, despite my involvement in euroscepticism since back when Alan Sked was leading Ukip, I think I would have joined Tory rebels in doing virtually anything to try and prevent, or at least delay a no deal Brexit. For as long as there is a chance of a deal we have to keep rolling the dice.

Of course Brexiteers will wail to the rafters about this but like all spoiled children in the midst of a tantrum, you ignore them. What they want is not a viable or desirable destination. At this point they just want a Brexit day for its own sake so they can put on their party hats and bunting just "own the libs". But that is not remotely in the national interest and celebrations will be short lived.

Ultimately Brexiteers may have won the vote but they certainly didn't win the argument for no deal and have utterly failed to persuade decision makers and likely never will because there has never been such a far reaching radical proposal built on such flimsy foundations. Brexiteers can't seriously expect MPs to roll over and let it happen. The mandate doesn't stretch to that.

Brexiteers could and should have anticipated maximum resistance to the path they have chosen. Had they set out a plan and a clear set of objectives and a credible pathway to accomplishing them then MPs might well have reluctantly gone along with it but instead they are being asked to green light a self-inflicted disaster that doesn't have majority support in the country or in parliament and the whole basis for doing so is a grunt of "democracy".

Well as it happens, we have representative democracy and that is not cancelled out by the referendum. We might perhaps wish it come other way but there is a line of delineation between the issues. The public had their say but parliament still has a role to play and if they did roll over to allow a minority of headcases to dictate the agenda then we would consider it negligence.

I am still of the view that if parliament can't get its act together then we still have to leave with or without a deal, but it looks like MPs have bought us a little more time. Whether they use the time intelligently remains to be seen but I'm happy if we tell the fat lady to hang on a while longer.

This perhaps does put Brexit at risk but in the end Brexiters should have appreciated that this one be a long process. Instead of building a consensus they have done everything possible to antagonise resistance, using a form of electoral judo to leverage public anger against remainers. As a strategy it could very well work - but there was also a high chance of it failing. They took that gamble with open eyes. It's their can to carry.   

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

A new proposition needs a new mandate.


Leave won the referendum by a slim but respectable majority. There was a mandate to leave the EU. Leaving without a deal was a fringe thing. Then Brexiters started to realise that any deal would be, according to their own red lines, a bad deal. They wouldn't compromise and didn't see the need to compromise.

Those at the top of the Brexit food chain then decided amongst themselves that not only could we cope with no deal, it was inherently desirable, preferable to a deal and from there on in no deal Brexit became the only One True Brexit.

To Brexiters, no deal had become the ultimate escapism - to hide from the truth that if we wanted to maintain a viable trade relationship, preserving open borders on the Irish frontier, a compromise was necessary that would dampen their post-Brexit deregulation and liberalisation ambitions.

This puts the Brexiters in full tantrum mode, branding Theresa May a remainer and Olly Robbins a traitor. A bile filled lash-out at the adults in the room trying to navigate their way through intractable dilemmas. It was easy for the Brexiters to paint this narrative by deyong these dilemmas even existed. They took to writing in The Telegraph, Times, Spectator and elsewhere to tell us that "WTO rules" allowed us to trade as normal and we have nothing to fear.

Previously we had seen parliament dragging its heels, reluctantly passing the necessary legislation to enact Brexit, but as it became apparent that no deal was the primary objective of leavers, that parliamentary reluctance turned to outright hostility to Brexit. Leavers shifted the goalposts and the process became ever more polarised. A fight to the death.

Here we must not forget that politics also played a large part in shaping parliament's view. They could and should have steered us toward a softer Brexit but Labour, conscious of offending its working class leaver voter base, would not commit to anything that would see us retain freedom of movement. Early on the most viable avenue (EEA Efta) was closed down by consensus, refusing to explore the possibilities of Article 112 as a means to reshape freedom of movement.

That avenue was never revisited as the debate was then absorbed by the withdrawal agreement where parliament would find virtually any excuse not to ratify it. The backstop looked too much like a customs union that would likely become the frontstop, and remainers claimed it didn't contain enough on workers rights and environmental protection. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Parliament was not going to ratify it even if their demands had been met. Both sides were playing double or quits. At that point it it as a winner takes all contests where the national interest didn't get a look in.

This brings us to where we are now. Theresa May hit a roadblock so she had to step aside. Leavers believed Johnson was the man to ram it home. That out Brexit in trouble. Johnson immediately set about a purge of the Tory party, making fresh enemies in the process, hardening parliamentary opposition. Johnson's critical error was behaving like a PM who'd won an election with a fresh mandate.

This is where I find myself conflicted. Parliament should have got its act together far sooner and worked toward facilitating a viable outcome. They neglected to do so. But at the same time nobody can reasonably expect them to roll over and simply let a no deal Brexit happen unopposed.

But then the Brexit blob have shifted the goalposts again labelling anyone who voted for the withdrawal agreement as a remainer. Tory rebels who are entirely sincere about respecting the 2016 vote but seeking to avoid no deal are just not Brexity enough for the Tory party. Now if you're opposed to no deal then you're opposed to Brexit. This is not an honest game.

Now it seems this can only be resolved by a general election. Parliament has fought itself to a standstill. I now assume we will go for another delay and an election where leavers will not only have to re-fight the referendum but also fight for a no deal Brexit - because that's essentially what you're getting if Johnson wins.

That, I suppose, is only fair and right. The Brexiters changed the proposition from leaving the EU to leaving the EU specifically without a deal. A new proposition needs a new mandate. Leavers could have caused in the 2016 win but instead went for another roll of the dice.

No doubt this will be an election fought on a people versus parliament narrative but ultimately the process has done its job. The deliberative process has (sort of) worked. It has stopped a wholly damaging no deal Brexit and allowed the public to have the final say through a general election. It's fairer than a second referendum which would either be a rigged question or a straight re-run which nullifies the first vote. A referendum wouldn't really solve anything, especially if leave won again. Which it could. A general election allows both sides to set out their stall and allows voters to decide if Brexit really is the central issue.

Brexiters will naturally wail and protest but this is a direct consequence of refusing to have a plan. Had there been a plan with specific proposals, Leavers would be able to say with greater authority what voters did or didn't vote for. They fought a deliberately vague campaign so it could be interpreted any which way. But that works both ways.

But then remainers are in equally dodgy territory. Their main hope now is a hung parliament where Labour and Lib Dems join forces which will likely lead to Article 50 revocation or a second referendum. More likely the latter. But the the duplicity, scheming and hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed. Moreover Labour still isn't an attractive proposition and I don't see the Lib Dems making the grade. They can perhaps recover their pre-wipeout status but it feels probably that Johnson will scrape a win.

At that point, there is nothing at all parliament can do to stop a no deal Brexit. Brexit will have cleared the final hurdle. Voters know who they are voting for and why and what happens if Johnson wins. Remainers then have to fight the election on the basis of no deal scares which didn't work in 2016 and probably won't work now. The full blown histrionics robs any scare of its credibility. They just don't learn.

If anything wins it for remain it will be Johnson's turnout problem. Many might well have concluded already that their vote isn't worth a damn. But if that's how remainers win then they need to look closely at what they'll have one - a bitter dispirited country, more divided than ever with a ruling class hated more viscerally than ever. Remaining is a non-solution that brings no closure. In either case we are looking at a long war for the final outcome. Both remaining and no deal are dead ends. The country is lost until we can agree on something.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Another roll of the dice.


A YouGov poll has it that "A majority of both Conservative (55%) and Leave (60%) voters, however, think a no-deal Brexit would result in a clean break from the EU, meaning the country could then focus on something else".

As one tweeter puts it "This isn't a matter of opinion. They are just actually wrong and misinformed. No deal Brexit will resolve nothing and we will still have to come to an arrangement with Europe, just with added chaos and economic dislocation".

This poll, though, perhaps explains why leavers are hell bent on leaving without a deal. The penny has not dropped that no deal cannot stay no deal. Those of us who have sought to inform the debate have failed. Not surprising when up against deliberate misinformation from the right wing press.

It seems, though, that the game is still in play. Parliament has lodged its bill to delay Brexit and resurrect the withdrawal agreement, and Johnson likely won't get his election without committing to an extension. Chances are MPs will trade another chance to ratify the withdrawal agreement for an all or nothing general election. Johnson has to. He has no deal of his own to present to the house. He's boxed in on all sides.

It looks like Johnson is desperately working on the idea that he can handbag the "colleagues" at the European Council and pull off a deal, which he can take home in triumph and put to parliament for a vote - a total fantasy, but that's all he's got. Even if he gets anything, parliament may reject it just to embarrass him - although there is an element here that if he does get a deal, he doesn't have to apply for an extension. Parliament could be hoist with its own petard.

None of this speculation adds value though. There's weeks more of this insanity and we won't know until we know. Between now and then we're just going to be refighting the referendum and having the same old tired arguments. Nothing is resolved until we have a new parliament with some of the dead wood cut away. We may yet leave the EU but there's a good chance we'll all be bored to death before the day comes. Perhaps that's Remain's way of killing off those older voters they despise so much?

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Wargaming Remain


I ask you to imagine the following. Imagine there's an election. There's no outright winner so it goes that Labour form a government under Corbyn in coalition with the Lib Dems - on the proviso that there is a new referendum. Let's forego any nuanced debate about what the real question would be and assume it would be the withdrawal agreement versus remain. John McDonnell has said no deal would not be on the ballot paper.

Leavers would call this remain versus BRINO. Many wouldn't even bother to vote, considering it a rigged referendum. As it happens, it is a rigged referendum in that the question conflates if we should leave with how we should leave. If such a referendum is held I reckon remain could win by a slender margin. Perhaps even by a larger majority than leave won in 2016.

We then see the coalition pull the plug on Article 50. What are the "optics"? A government with no outright mandate implementing the result of a rigged referendum. What then?

I can see it now. Jo Swinson, Caroline Lucas, Andrew Adonis and all the remainer deadbeats hailing it as a victory for democracy like an election in some African "democratic republic". It will ooze with self satisfaction and smarm. They will tell us how we need to "move on and reunite the country" and pretend the have the policies to do just that.

At this point the EU is mightily pissed off having been fucked around for so long, but also because no further business can advance in British MEPs keep blocking everything and there's no way any British government can consent to further integration when half the country still wants to leave.

Of course the "back to business" attitude of Westminster will soon hit the rocks when it becomes apparent that leavers refuse to accept the result. Why would they? Remain didn't and in this instance leavers have the betrayal narrative firmly on their side.

This is when remain MPs start complaining big time about the volumes of death threats and feeling vulnerable, having to double their home security, ensuring they don't go out alone. All the while the Brexit Party is surging, looking at about 20% of the vote where no Tory party of any kind can switch to a remain position without being wiped out. The flagship policy of HM Opposition will be to leave the EU. The debate will stay current and Brexit refuses to die.

At this point I don't rule out another Jo Cox style slaying. But there it will be a crucial difference this time. Nobody will be surprised and more than a small few will privately think that the establishment had it coming even if they don't say it. All the while violence kicks off in Northern Ireland demonstrating once and for all that the peace process has failed and cannot be attributed to Brexit, and we still hear noises from Scotland about independence. The future of the Union is still in question.

The incumbent government is then faced with the blowback from their own policies along with a visceral hatred from anyone who voted leave. The more sanctimonious the establishment gets the more hated they are. All the while investment in the UK does not return to normal as the political situation is still uncertain - anticipating hard left economic policies while a Brexit is still very much on the cards. Economic conditions worsen to the point where the coalition collapses, a general election is called and this time, the eurosceptics are in charge.

This time, there is no Article 50 talks. This time we simply rip up the treaties. No deal, no talks, no planning. Leavers won't give the saboteurs a chance to stop Brexit again. And then we're in a real mess. Again.

This is one possible scenario but in any scenario I imagine the genie does not go back in the bottle. We are looking at years of political instability, violent protest, fragile governments and a divided, fragmenting nation. Remaining brings no closure and is not a remotely sustainable answer to the current dilemma.

The essence of this problem is EU membership does not accommodate the diversity of ideas in the country. Continued membership ensures a large section of the public who have long felt disenfranchised and effectively have been by the social democratic consensus are told once again that their votes don't matter and if the establishment doesn't like the result of a vote then there are always workarounds. At that point you have no hope of a new consensus and the social contract lies in tatters.

Were MPs not blinded by their own respective dogma they would see that Britain needs a solution that brings about closure to this issue. That they have each fought each other to a standstill, each pushing for equally unavailable destinations, is a total failure of our political institutions for which there is no clear way back. Remainers want to remain because they think, or at least hope, everything goes back to the normal of 2010. But we are not that country anymore. That country was gone for good in 2016. Now we have to build a new one. And it can't be an EU member. 

Tories are paving the way for Corbyn's socialism


The latest wheeze from Labour is a right to buy policy that would allow tenants to buy their homes from private landlords. John McDonnell said he wanted to tackle the 'burgeoning buy-to-let market' by giving private renters the right to purchase at a discount.

It's a well meaning idea but in practise it's like all socialist meddling. It takes no account of the unintended consequences that do more harm than good. Moreover there is a moral dimension to this in that it is an attack on private property - the cornerstone of our society.

This is why the Tories end up being the natural party of government in that no matter how bad they are, at least they aren't socialists. There's a reason New Labour won elections when old Labour didn't. Blair might well have been a big state paternalist but he knew socialism doesn't work.

Ultimately a left wing Labour party is always based on the politics of envy. Rather than creating, it destroys. It makes the well off poorer but it doesn't make the poor any richer. All it succeeds in doing is chasing wealth away and deterring investment.

As bad as that is, Corbyn and Co see themselves as revolutionaries which is why they can always be found sucking up to terrorists from Ireland to Israel. In normal circumstances Corbyn' Labour wouldn't get anywhere near power. There is only now a danger of an accidental Corbyn government because the Tories have embraced right wing economic radicalism going far beyond anything Mrs Thatcher ever envisaged. In a real sense the Conservatives have abandoned conservatism. 

That is not to say that Brexit of itself is unconservative. As Sam Hooper Notes today:
There’s an insidious argument that it is automatically “un-conservative” to oppose anything that has been baked into the British political landscape for more than a couple of decades. Hence Brexit is supposedly a sign of the Tories being irresponsibly revolutionary.
Now, I’m the last one to disagree with the notion that this government has been (and continues to be) cavalier and irresponsible in flirting with a disruptive No Deal Brexit, which was certainly not the Brexit which I and many others campaigned and voted for. But the lazy idea being bandied around by journalists, commentators and others is that Brexit is inherently un-conservative. Which sounds pleasing until you actually stop and properly think about it.
The EU is at its core an attempt to transcend (others would say subvert) the nation state, the basic building block on which our democracy and prosperity rests. You can say the intentions are good, but it is also undeniably revolutionary - albeit a “boiling frog” revolution.
Recognizing that this experiment is a leap in the dark - one that has been undertaken with startlingly little public input or consent, despite occurring in the age of universal suffrage - and to counsel caution, or to stand athwart history yelling “stop”, is right and proper. Supranational (as opposed to intergovernmental) institutions and technocratic government may or may not be the future, and the best next step in human governance. But moving in that direction by stealth, overriding public objections when they arise, is deeply antidemocratic.
Nation state democracy has allowed a system of stable government with losers’ consent to flourish, benefiting us all. Moving toward a system of remote technocratic government upheld by an elite which accepts or ignores public opinion on a whim is FAR outside the current norm.
Now, since we are already well on our way to being deeply embedded in such a developing system, it would clearly be radical and inherently un-conservative to “rip off the bandaid” by seeking to depart the EU in an abrupt, unmanaged way. The critics are correct, to that extent. But to voice scepticism at the drift toward an untried, untested new mode of governance in the face of significant public opposition - and to demand a reversion to past norms when the experimenters refuse to slow down or change course - is both natural and deeply conservative.
This Tory revolution, though, uses Brexit as a trojan horse, casting all other concerns to the side in pursuit of a low tax, low regulation free for all economy. This has been brewing for years, stalking politics since the 2008 crash.

What we are witnessing is the collapse of the post-war settlement and the latter era political consensus. The nation has lost the institutional memory of whey socialism sucks and has forgotten the lessons of sell-your-own-granny Thatcherism. Politics is in the hands of a new generation who should know better but don't.

This is largely to do with tribalism. Most of us receive our politics by way of our surroundings. From an  early age we learn the scriptures of of left or right wing politics and become political cannon fodder in an age old battle over who is right. In respect of that we have a population geared to those central philosophical questions (markets versus the state) but we are left floundering over Brexit because we are not equipped for it. It interrupts and we don't know what to do with it so we retreat to the comfort zone of politics we do understand.

This means that the politics we need is not on offer. Brexit is poses complex questions to which there are no easy answers, where the off the shelf answers we are used to deploying are of little use. Free market dogma has limited value in a world of hyper-globalisation and international regulation. "Global Britain" as a buccaneering free trade nation might well be a pleasing slogan but translating that into reality proves somewhat when we're a minnow in shark infested waters.

With typical revolutionary zeal, the Tories have dispensed with realists and experts. We are into tribal winner-takes-all territory and because the opposition is playing the same game, the voice of sanity and reason is drowned out by the noise. Consequently the bad ideas currently in circulation have to be tried and tested.

If there is one argument in favour of the EU it is that regulated market based economics is baked into the "neoliberal" model which neuters the far extremes of national politics. The lack of democracy is a feature, not a bug. It stops this kind of hapless experimentation by ideologues. The problem, though, is that there is no such thing as a permanent political settlement. They all end. 

Now that it has come to an end in Britain, with the central questions having been in deep freeze for at least two decades, our politics lacks the experience and institutional knowledge most self-governing countries have acquired. We're coming at it cold. We have to re-learn the art of statecraft and rediscover first hand why our bad ideas don't work. In that respect, the new conservatives are now the remainers who see change as too disruptive and seek to avoid the turmoil that goes with political renewal.

They are not alone in their trepidation. Though I will forever be a leaver, the ruthless zeal of the new administration is more than a little disturbing. It demands ideological purity. Even long time Eurosceptic Liam Fox was shoved out of his job when, having learnt the ropes of trade, started to make noises that contradicted the free trade Brexit scriptures. Anyone casting doubt on the scriptures is, in the eyes of the puritans, not a true Brexiter and is failing to show the required level of untempered optimism.

In this current phase I have argued that we don't get near a new political settlement until one side comprehensively loses. No consensus is possible in the pre-exit stalemate. But then I'd go one further and say we don't get near a new settlement until the revolutionaries themselves have been deposed when their ideas fail. Which they will.

The Brexiters have convinced themselves that breaking free of the shackles of the EU, the UK is free to soar by being more agile and more competitive. They fail utterly to note that we live next door to a global trade superpower who has different ideas and is not going to the UK any favours whatsoever - especially when the UK has left a giant mess for the EU to clean up.

Sooner or later this is all going to come crashing down on the Tories. Boris Johnson may win the imminent general election but no government can survive the avalanche of bad news that goes with no deal especially when Johnson will be left to explain why promises he and the leave campaign made didn't come to pass. I seriously doubt Johnson will see out a full term. He doesn't have the stomach for it and it's too much work. He will slink off in disgrace.

It now looks like a radical left wing government is an inevitability. This is what happens when conservatives abandon conservatism and torch their own reputation for stability and continuity. By the time the free trade radicals have finished demolishing UK exports there will be fertile ground for hard left wing policies.

If there is to be a new settlement, not only must the free trade radicalism of the Tories be tested to destruction, it looks like we'll have to go through that same process with the radical left too. It's going to take a while but ultimately Britain can't pick up where we left off until we have destroyed the rotten old parties. Bizarrely, though, these days, it seems the best way to destroy a party is to give it what it wants. The bigger question, though, is what comes next? Our politics has not thought that far ahead.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

All over bar the shouting?


Some time ago, and I can't say when, Brexit stopped being anything at all to do with the EU or seeking a viable outcome to this process. It is instead a fight to the death over the soul of the country. Are we to exist under a benign technocracy while our domestic politics is demoted to soft issues or are we going to be a serious self governing country? But it's more than that. It's about which tribe calls the shots.

In this I feel like a foreigner. I don't really have a dog in the fight anymore and the whole thing seems alien. I'd like a managed departure from the EU but that's not on offer. Instead I'm being forced to choose between two fundamentalist factions I despise in more or less equal measure. I still find the remain camp the more obnoxious of the two given their sense of entitlement and total lack of self-awareness but there's nothing much to like about the Brexit blob either.

None of this is as cut and dry as either side would have us believe. Whether remainers like it or not, leave did win the referendum and there is a mandate to leave. And whether leavers like it or not, parliament also sits with a slender mandate to steer the process and and scrutinise the executive. One does not cancel the other out.

No doubt remain forces in parliament are hoping to stop Brexit but there's more than a handful who can be taken at their word when they say that they are simply trying to stop us leaving without a deal. After all, there is no clear demand for a no deal Brexit and one rather suspects if that had been the proposition in 2016 then leave would have lost.

My hope is that parliament can succeed in forcing a delay for one last roll of the dice. If the withdrawal agreement can be rammed through then we have the basis for a Brexit with a viable destination. Though parliament has done nothing to deserve the trust I'm lending it, one last vote now they realise the very real danger of no deal will be the true test of their sincerity. If they get one last chance to avoid no deal and the still don't pass the agreement then we can say unequivocally that this really is the people versus their parliament.

But then most leavers already see it that way having already lost patience with parliament and at this point will support virtually any move to ensure we do leave at the end of October. The only reason I'm prepared to have another spin of the wheel is that prior to the coronation of Johnson, the penny had not quite dropped. Now it has and now it looks like MPs are starting to assert themselves the way they should have three years ago.

Right now parliament has considerable leverage over the timing of the general election. Giving Johnson his election would be to give up that leverage. The question is now one of how they intend to use it. I suspect, though, that Johnson will find a way to out manoeuvre them. They've probably left it too late.

Ultimately until the central dispute between the factions is resolved (ie one side comprehensively loses) all other debates go into mothball. Since the factions have determined this likely only goes one of two ways, all that remains is the questions to put to them should they win. The remainers, should they stop Brexit have some serious questions to answer.

Firstly what happens when half the country feels like their vote has been nullified on the say so of a ruling class widely perceived to be out of touch and acting in defiance of their electorates? How do they go about rebuilding trust in democracy? What is our Europe policy to be when half the country still wants to leave? If they attempt to carry on as before then it's only a matter of time before we are back here again. Without resolving this issue it looks like we are in a permanent state of uncertainty.

And here's the problem. The remainers haven't thought that far ahead. Stopping Brexit for its own sake is their sole objective with a view to returning to business as usual which just isn't going to happen. Should they get their way, they won't even realise that half their country hates their guts or even see the need for reconciliation measures. They're in a world of their own which is part why we ended up voting to leave.

Meanwhile, should we leave without a deal there are a whole heap of questions for what happens next, not least in respect of the shape of our future relationship with the EU and out international trade. Once their presumption and misapprehension collides with reality they are going to need good answer and fast - and since this is a movement that has scorned knowledge of any kind, they will find the cupboard is bare.

As it happens I rather hope that if we do leave without a deal, the Tories are left to pick up the pieces. They broke it, they bought it. It will be most entertaining to watch Boris Johnson floundering - to become widely regarded as the most incompetent Prime Minister in all of history. Neither the man nor the people around him are even close to competent enough to deal with the no deal fallout. It would be a shame if the Tories manage to slink away and blame the subsequent shambles on Corbyn. If there is to be a dividend from a no deal Brexit then it really ought to be the death of the Tory party once and for all.

One thing's for sure, though. What you or I now say has very little bearing on how this pans out. Democracy, it seems (or what passes for democracy in the UK) very much is a spectator sport. All we can do is watch and wait for the pieces to fall into place. All I can say is that if you are stockpiling for Brexit, be sure to buy in a truckload of popcorn.

Friday, 6 September 2019

No deal might well be self-defeating for the Brexiters


British politics is stagnant. It is stagnant because we are locked into an economic settlement where everything from trade through to labour rights is regulated by an external body. National politics cannot meaningfully influence those policies so a change of domestic government does not bring about meaningful change. even if our governing class could initiate change they wouldn't because they are all essentially locked into the same groupthink.

Being that the fundamental questions are already answered by way of EU membership, our politics tends to address only those subject matters commonly in the public eye - schools, hospitals and welfare. Consequently politics becomes a bidding war, with parties buying off their respective voterbases with either tax cuts or handouts. Retail politics.

This is the subtle but profound influence EU membership has on our politics and subsequently our economy. We have lost touch with the art of statecraft and we've forgotten how to do politics of consequence. Politics has become a profession for ambitious social climbers who basically like telling other people how to live.

The status quo is sufficiently adequate so that the middle class have no real use for politics save for entertainment. Brexit has only reanimated them from their perpetual slumber because they don't want change. EU membership suits both their lifestyle and their narcissism.

To my mind, Brexit and the subsequent political shake up is overwhelmingly in the national interest. We are long overdue a deep clear out and a reappraisal of who we are as a country and the direction of travel. I voted to leave without hesitation and with a smile on my face - and would do so again.

That, though, raises the question of what comes next. The problem for Brexiters has always been one of how the UK operates in a post-Brexit world where the EU is the dominant regional political power and one of three global regulatory superpowers with enormous clout.

It is not possible to go from a fully integrated member to independent state without serious consequence for just about every major areas of governance. And with so much having an international dimension, it is inconceivable that we could move forward without formal cooperation agreements with our closest and largest trade partner. Trade is more than moving trucks through Dover. It's investment deals and data transactions and much else - all of which is governed by an intricate web of regional and international agreements. The WTO system governs only a fraction of it.

This is why nobody who works within the discipline of trade can be found to lend any weight to the Brexiter claims that leaving without a deal is business as usual. The UK becomes a third country overnight and subject to a barrage of third country controls and our rights to participate in EU markets are substantially curtailed. When much of our trade has evolved inside the EU regulatory ecosystem it is foolish to believe the impact is minimal. A quick glance at the EU's own Notices to Stakeholders gives you an outline of just how much of our technical governance is affected.

Leaving the EU without a deal, without replacement arrangements can only be described as a failure of politics. A failure that requires immediate rectification. This is why "no deal" is no solution except to break the immediate political impasse. We then face the herculean task of negotiating a whole new relationship from a weakened economic position with the balance of leverage massively in the EU's favour.

Brexiters envisioned a far looser relationship with the EU, but even a best in class FTA with the EU falls far short of what is required for modern trade to function at anywhere like the levels we currently enjoy. Frictionless trade is not something we simply agree to have. It is the product of regulatory integration.

What underscores the importance of such a relationship is the absence of viable alternatives. Even if a US trade deal were to double the volumes of trade the UK does with the US (which no FTA has ever done), it still comes nowhere close to mitigating the loss of the single market. This, of course, would be supplemented with FTAs with other important economies but such FTAs would only replace the ones we lose the day we leave the EU. More than likely they will be on inferior terms - especially if the Tories execute their unilateral trade liberalisation policies.

Instead of confronting these realities, Brexiters have sought to downplay the difficulties we face, dreaming up all manner of wild suppositions to support their case, urging us to believe harder in the potential of Brexit. As a leaver I do not for a moment think the UK is necessarily down and out, but if we are going to cut it as a minnow in a shark pool then we need to hit the ground running and to do that we cannot hide from the cold realities we face.

In respect of that, opposition to the withdrawal agreement is largely a tantrum on the part of Brexiters who did not anticipate the kinds of demands made by the EU, failing to understand that the EU is the power in this equation and only too capable of wielding that power. No deal Brexit, therefore, is Brexiter escapism; a denial of that reality in the expectation that leaving without a deal will soften the EU's stance and see them coming running after us.

But then leaving without a deal, thereby leaving a gaping hole in the Irish section of the EU customs frontier, creates the sort of untidy legal limbo that the EU cannot tolerate in that it threatens the entire basis of the single market. After citizen's rights, this will be the first thing on their list of issues to resolve and resolving it will be part of the price tag for even opening new trade negotiations. The British government is not going to like it but the EU is in a position to wait us out. EU member states can use the time to cannibalise UK market share as UK exporters are subject to all manner of tariffs and red tape. Those German car makers are not going to ride to the rescue.

No deal, therefore, is a non-solution. From a weakened position it is more than likely that the Tory government is replaced and future negotiations are conducted by a party far less hostile to the EU and one that will not hesitate to ratify virtually anything put in front of them. If Brexiters hated the withdrawal agreement, they're going to hit the roof when they see what the no deal Brexit deal looks like. And there'll be nothing they can do about it. Politically they will be a spent force - especially when there is an avalanche of negative economic metrics and the regions are hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs.

Brexiters will rightly argue that the economic must always be subordinate to the political in that you cannot hope for long term peace and prosperity without a sound political settlement, but to totally disregard the realities of trade and write off all legitimate concerns as "project fear" is not only negligent but also a strategic blunder in that the initiative is then handed to remainers and the leverage handed to the EU thus ensuring the objectives of Brexit are thwarted. This tug of war between leave and remain forces does not end on Brexit day. The remainers might well have lost the battle over membership but they can very easily move in to define the post Brexit relationship.

Though no deal certainly ends this achingly tedious round of bickering, it opens up a new round of similar issues which will turn stale just as rapidly. I have previously argued that no deal would move the debate on but only to a new phase which could well consume politics for more than a decade and still not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

I am still of the view that if MPs engineer a situation so that the only way to leave is without a deal then leave we must, but if there is still a chance at a managed, negotiated departure - and I believe there is, albeit slender, then MPs must grasp it with both hands. We should not be an any hurry to put ourselves in the position where our exports are less competitive and jobs are less secure and harder to find - and certainly not when such a move destroys what little leverage we have. If the withdrawal agreement comes up for another vote then Brexiters should support it.

Of course the withdrawal agreement is far from what any of us hoped for - but the residual powers retained by the EU become less relevant over time. The WA must be viewed as scaffolding from a gradual dismantling of EU membership as opposed to the dynamite demolition of no deal. Our relations with the EU are a continuum and the relationship will evolve. We stand a better chance of shaping it to our mutual advantage if we retain our relatively strong economic position.

Ultimately the puritanical approach not only ignores the reality of modern trade and the inherent dilution of sovereignty that globalisation brings, trashing our own economy, handing the moral advantage to the opposition, means that leavers will not have a chance to shape Britain after Brexit. Politically, economically and strategically, no deal is unsound. The relief from the tedium is only temporary and despite the issue illiterate ranting of the puritans, the WTO is no solution to anything - especially when the WTO is in the midst of its own existential crisis.

The desire to be out of the EU and have it done with is understandable but this was never going to be a quick or easy process. If we take a short cut now, we will end up taking the longer way around and perhaps never achieve the objectives of Brexit. Through impatience, petulance and intransigence Brexiters risk throwing away all that they have strived for.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Turbulent times ahead

Three years in and we still haven't the first idea which way this goes. The possibilities have narrowed somewhat but this has now come to a standoff - with a leave voting public tired of the delays and shenanigans and wanting this interminable bickering to end.

I'm feeling the strain of it myself having to come up with something to say that hasn't be said a thousand times already. The public debate is going nowhere and we are recycling through the same old talking points getting nowhere closer to a resolution so anything that breaks the cycle would be welcome at this point.

The problem is that nothing on offer presents any kind of solution. No deal creates endless problems as discussed previously but then so does the prospect of remaining. Obviously there is no legitimate way to remain without another referendum - and though Labour would have it that they would renegotiate the deal and then have a referendum with the option to remain, it's doubtful this option would get past the electoral commission on grounds of fairness. It conflates the issues of whether we leave and how we leave.

If such a referendum goes ahead it would be widely viewed as a rigged referendum and if the remain establishment then accepts that verdict as legitimate then they will irrecoverably compound the perception that we have a ruling class where leave voters are disenfranchised. Essentially we'd be back where we started but with a larger and stronger eurosceptic anti-establishment contingent in UK politics and Brexit remains a permanent festering feature of it.

We then get to the point where leavers can justifiably say that if remainers won't accept a referendum result then why should we? We'll go again, only next time around there will be no votes or article 50 talks. We'll be in the territory of ripping up treaties and it won't stop there. All the while, with the UK still a member of the EU, the EU agenda is then stalled as nothing can go ahead without UK approval - where no government would dare approve further integration. At that point we would see violence directed at MPs.

The problem here is that the EU simply does not enjoy sufficient legitimacy in British politics for the UK to be a member. Even if we do a straight re-run of the 2016 referendum and remain wins by a mere two per cent, we then get calls for best of three. Any way you cut it, the EU is not popular enough as it is, let alone its stated destination.

Ultimately if remainer MPs are looking to keep this gaping division open and forever be fighting off a public who actively hates their guts then they are going the right way about it. It does not subside nor do the clock wind back to the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and we all sing Kumbaya. No. Things get darker and nastier. A lot of people are watching this process with one question in mind. Did my vote mean a damn? If it doesn't then Britain has got much bigger problems than Brexit.

To a very large extent this is no longer about the EU. This is about whether we have meaningful democracy. If we remain in the EU and ruled by a largely europhile political class where again general elections are meaningless then that famous British tolerance will evaporate.

There is no question that a no deal Brexit is a can of worms both politically and economically and nobody serious can claim we can do without a comprehensive formal relationship with the EU but at least any subsequent debate is on how we move forward as a country rather than being bogged down in the same stale tribal debates. Right now the nation is divided down leave/remain lines whereas if that dynamic is broken, having forced the issue on that question, we then get to redraw the lines toward a more collaborative discussion.

Of course there will be bitter recriminations over the damage. How can there not be. But the no deal destination is a collective political failure - not least because remainer MPs took an obstructionist stance from the get go. But then the right sought to provoke it by agitating for the most extreme exit possible and leavers soaked up their propaganda til it became a full blown culture war. Parliament could have asserted itself far sooner and sought to do the honourable thing but whatever it does now is probably too little and too late.

But then there is a silver lining to it. Though I don't relish a Labour government, Brexit will destroy the Tory party and the free market right and their obsolete trade ideas will stand wholly discredited. In respect of that, it is perhaps better if the Tories are in power for the first few years of Brexit so they don't get to scapegoat Corbyn. Then, once Brexit has devoured the Tories it will then feast on Labour as their decrepit socialist ideas fall apart at the first exposure to the fact that Britain is not the leading economy it once was. It may take some years but in my lifetime we will see politics transformed, breaking age old voting patterns - which can't come soon enough.

It's going to be a long time before we establish a new normal but if we don't get change then our sclerotic politics will fester on becoming ever more dysfunctional, out of touch and out of control by way of having proved the checks and balances are useless. Fundamentally Britain voted for regime change and it it turns out that votes cannot change the regime then democracy is dead. That's a whole heap of ugly that doesn't bear thinking about.