Thursday, 19 January 2017
There is an up side to a trainwreck Brexit
If 2016 taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected. I didn't see us leaving the EU. The leave campaign was shambolic and cretinous. There was little room for optimism and in the end it was only a series of events that swung it for leave. I think any leavers who were confidently predicting a win were deluding themselves. The result was a momentary snapshot of public attitudes toward the London establishment. That though seems ancient history now.
Though we have yet to hear the verdict of the respective Article 50 court cases, events have overtaken them. Brexit now has a momentum of its own and even if parliament must vote there is now no stopping this. It doesn't look like Labour will put up much of a fight. I think that much will be noted and we can expect to see a Lib Dem revival because of it. The train has left the station.
Now that we know what the prime minister has in mind much of what was previously unthinkable is now a very real possibility. Before the 2015 general election Channel 4 aired a mockumentary entitled "UKIP - First 100 days". It was an obvious hack job with some grotesque exaggerations but there were some subtle elements of truth in it. It painted a picture of a Britain in chaos with protests redundancies and crackdowns on immigration. Such is not unthinkable if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement - and we should be prepared for that eventuality.
EUreferendum.com today gives us a working insight as to the shape negotiations will likely take and it shows that without a comprehensive grasp of the process there are a number of pinch points which could derail Brexit. With Mrs May having taken a provocative stance it is likely that we will see an erosion of political good will. Everything now depends on whether the EU is willing to allow a trainwreck Brexit.
A sudden death Brexit would likely result in a number of a EU institutions grinding to a halt and very quickly having to undergo restructuring. While inter-EU trade carries on pretty much as normal, a number of important joint programmes will be shut down due to funding issues. Without an agreement there will be a running dispute with the EU over restoration of trade until Britain fulfils its financial obligations. What should have been an ordered process of negotiation will be an acrimonious, petulant and long process that will very much hurt the UK.
It all comes down to whether the EU thinks it can adapt - and it probably can. It would be an act of self-harm for the EU but certainly not an existential crisis. Some may take the view that it is worth taking the hit to punish Britain. Any hope of good relations with the EU after that would be nil. This is why the tone taken by Theresa May is so reckless.
While the EU has made soothing noises that it does not intend to punish Britain there is nothing they can do to stop Britain needlessly punishing itself. Taking an aggressively demanding stance can only really result in a firm rebuke. Cause and effect.
In many respects Theresa May has already blown it. Nobody with any real grasp of what is involved thinks a settlement is possible in two years and it will be the UK eating humble pie in order to get the extension. For now May is making noises about being prepared to walk away but the message coming from industry in public and through back channels is "don't even think about it". I suspect they will call her bluff.
What remains to be seen is whether the determined arrogance of the Tory right has infected Theresa May. It certainly looks like she has caught the virus - for which there is no cure, and if that really is the case then there may be no reasoning with her. She might very well think she can walk away without a deal. Previously I didn't think she could be that crass but now I'd say all bets are off. It's probably a safe bet to bet on total incompetence.
During the referendum I took the view that a certain level of self-delusion was only to be expected and in the end it would be corrected by the legion of Sir Humphreys but it would appear the disease has spread to them and anyone with immunity has been purged. There is apparently no earth rod. Nothing that would indicate any sane voices within.
But then this is reflected from without as well. It is now a mainstream opinion on the right that we can walk away and that there is a fall-back position in WTO rules. Brexiteers have simply not understood the functioning of the EU or how deeply dependent trade is on the various systems that keep it all working. Nothing exists beyond tariffs in their minds and everything else is just meddlesome red tape. If they haven't learned the basics by now then they never will.
Underlying all this is an extremely presumptive view that we don't need a comprehensive agreement with the EU because the EU will implode anyway. Though I expect the EU cannot survive in its current form I certainly wouldn't be predicting its demise any time soon - and it's not in our interests to see a disorderly implosion.
It seems we are marching headlong into an ambush with an overinflated national ego and a trailer full of flawed assumptions. So much so that it will be a huge relief even to secure the most meagre trade agreement with the EU. Any way you look at it, the prognosis is not good. The free trade fantasists on the Tory right are about to have a collision with reality and will have to learn the hard way what non-tariff barriers are. We will all pay for their ignorance.
In effect the Tories are frog-marching us toward an accidental scorched earth policy where Britain stands humiliated with only a handful of useless bilateral deals to protect our modesty. What could have been an orderly transition is likely to be a political mess the likes of which we have not seen since the eighties.
There is no doubt that Britain can weather the storm and we can recover - but it will take a lot longer than it should and the pain we will experience will have been entirely avoidable. It will likely see a decade of political turmoil in which all of our assumptions will be turned upside down. While the Tories are riding high in the polls right now it all depends on their reputation for political competence. That will be the first casualty of Brexit and when the public sees just how destructive untempered zealotry can be, we might well be in line for the hardest left wing government we have seen for many decades. That may explain why Mr Corbyn is happy to sit this fiasco out. I would in his shoes.
This blog has always maintained that a smooth Brexit was within our grasp. There is no need to burn bridges and there is certainly nothing to be gained by souring relations with our neighbours. Rather than attempting to modify freedom of movement to maintain open trade, Theresa May has caved without even trying. She is about to surrender a good deal for a massively inadequate deal for the phantom of controlling immigration. It's insane.
It would seem that before Britain becomes a "global Britain" we are going to spend a decade or more of navel gazing, out in the wilderness, while we learn what this country really believes. Perhaps that is what we really do need. Perhaps that really is the medicine. Maybe this really is the price to pay for having buried our politics deep inside the back rooms of Brussels and withdrawing from the world. Maybe this is the price we must pay for the hubris of Heath, Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown. Just another chapter in our dismal tradition of having politicians doing as they please. Maybe this time we will do something about it.
If there is anything positive to take from a botched Brexit it is that the revolution will eat its children. By that measure I ought to be salivating at the prospect of the Tories hitting the rocks. Recent events have seen the party created by Blair utterly eradicated. For complete renewal the same must happen to the Tories which to a large extent is still run by the same establishment behind Mrs Thatcher. Davis, Redwood, Jenkins, Johnson and May etc were products of the Thatcher government and their supporting cast in this Brexit trainwreck were the up and coming Toryboys of the era.
If there is to be a new economic era and a new politics then as much as leaving the EU is necessary then it also follows that the Tories, the party that did this to us in the first place, must also be destroyed. I suppose any price is worth paying for that outcome. Just an awful pity we must sacrifice a good deal of wealth to make it happen.
That though, I don't suppose, will keep the people of Stoke on Trent or Sunderland awake at night. I can't say I blame them. Maybe dispensing with our garbage is what really secures our future leadership role in the world. Since they handle everything else as badly as they will Brexit, what have we got to lose? Might as well stop worrying and break out the popcorn.