Thursday, 13 June 2019

No deal: thinking ahead

Before the EU released their programme of unilateral contingency measures I was among those making the direst of warnings over no deal. Without legal cover, reading the situation as was, there was every logical reason to believe that airlines would not have the necessary legal permissions to fly. Similarly, if we assumed that third country controls would be installed at Calais without a transition then there would be queues at Calais.

It would seem the EU's contingency measures are just enough to keep the worst of the impact off the front pages. I later concluded that with enough preparation, it would very well be that Brexit day turns out to be a non event with the press corps waiting fruitlessly at Dover with nothing much to report. The effects would likely be a slow burn rather than a big bang.

Except that, since then, preparations for no deal have been suspended and we now have a mere four months to get our act together. A leaked cabinet memo suggests that we are nowhere near ready and given the breadth of issues I believe it. The memo suggests "it would take at least four to five months" to improve trader readiness for new border checks.

In terms of readiness much is going to depend on actions private industry has taken for itself. Some manufacturers are well ahead of the game having started the re-authorisation process months ago, but those working in more heavily regulated sectors, coming late to the party, may run into difficulties.

Either way I'm not at all certain what will happen but it is safe to assume that without the array of peripheral instruments native to the single market, our services sector will suffer from the outset and those goods exports facing more stringent border formalities will see their overheads skyrocket.

Cynically, the ultra Brexiters have rebranded the EU's unilateral contingency measures as the basis for a managed Brexit and these measures are in fact "mini deals" which is an abuse of language but that is yet another pointless argument to have since we are dealing with a cult like belief system. What they don't say is that the contingency measures are time limited, contingent on reciprocality, and cover less than a tenth of the issues.

The issues range from waste export through to fishing, through to airline services, energy and data adequacy for which there are either no contingency measures or only rudimentary fixes in place. They are all detailed in the EU's official Notices to Stakeholders. To a large extent, new border checks are the least of our problems. In respect of that we will soon arrive at a new normal and there is every reason to believe the time limits on contingency measures could be extended, which at least provides a degree of certainty that business can work around.

The rest of it, though, will be contingent on how rapidly the civil service can address the technical and regulatory issues, and how rapidly they can adapt to a fundamental change in the way the regulatory systems operate. We may well be transposing EU regulations but that is much the same as copying and pasting an operating system from one PC to another without going through the installation process.

This is where the Tories have made a fatal miscalculation. Boris Johnson may well see off Farage and his Brexit party by leaving without a deal, but there are then two years for it all to start unravelling. Up to press the Brexiteers have been able to write off job losses in the auto industry as a result of global shifts in the sector, but at some point they will run out of excuses. The steady drip of job losses will start to snowball, coupled with a torrent of negative press as regulatory systems start to break down, coupled with procurement scandals similar to Ferrygate. 

How well this plays politically is going to depend on the competence of the civil service and the incumbent government. Now you see the problem. No government could withstand such an onslaught. The last thing places like Derby and Lowestoft need is more bleak economic news, and soon enough Tory recklessness will start to catch up with them. 

Then, of course, we cannot simply assume that the Farage Party will simply vanish. Their collective vanity prevents them from simply walking into the night. There will still be an insurgent entity that will cost the Tories seats in key marginals. As we have seen, it only takes a few hundred votes to turn a blue seat red. 

This then puts the Tories in full blown panic mode, and will revert to their comfort zone of scaremongering about Corbyn, but it's difficult to credibly do that when you've just let off an economic H-bomb. The Tories cannot cash in on their residual reputation for economic competence having bungled Brexit.

Moreover, this is not just about EU relations. Rees-Mogg et al have been promising cheaper food and clothing, but even heavily discounted goods count for little when you don't have a job. And then if the Tories do press ahead with their programme of unilateral tariff disarmament (now more likely under Johnson), there will be further bodyblows to UK manufacturing, and with the UK government giving away preferences for free, we'll have to give away more to secure those "bumper deals" we were promised by Boris Johnson.

By faking polls in the Telegraph, the Tory grassroots have persuaded themselves that Johnson is their saviour; the only man who can see off Corbyn and Farage. This is making huge assumptions all round, not forgetting that Johnson will be in the spotlight every day, affording him further opportunity to show the nation who he really is. He'll need better than bluff and bluster to explain away the problems as the economy crumbles around him. The nation can very rapidly grow weary.

This was always a problem the Tories had to think their way out of. Winning the next election was always a bit of a stretch but if the party wanted to at least survive then the withdrawal agreement was their best bet. Though the transition is assumed to be only two years, it is more than likely to be twice that since we have a long road ahead of us in hammering out the basis for a new treaty with the EU. We'll be lucky to do it in four years. That then would at least defer the worst of the impact and there would at least be a landing zone that leaves some of our exports intact. 

That, for the Tories, would be survivable, and with someone capable of winning over swing voters (ie Rory Stewart) they might stand a chance. Instead, having delivered a dog's dinner of a Brexit, they will face a pasting at the polls. My own view is that if we leave without a deal, it won't take long for the UK to realise precisely why it does need a deal, and will soon be grovelling back to Brussels to restore any kind of trade functionality. 

This, though, would be a major humiliation for Johnson, so there is every possibility he will leave us all hanging just to save face. It will take his removal for us to get back to the table with Brussels. Johnson will have proved by then that he does not win over hearts and minds in Brussels. At some point the grown ups will have to take over to pick up the pieces. In any case, neither the Tories nor Johnson will ever be forgiven.

Johnson will likely win the leadership contest not because he is the right man for the job, but because the Tories are in a full blown panic and have exhausted their talent pool. Johnson is the closest they have to a celebrity. Their calculations are entirely short termist in believing delivering Brexit for its own sake is their lifeboat, They are not factoring in what actually happens when we leave without a deal, not least because they themselves have been guzzling the WTO Kool-aid. That more than anything else is the fatal miscalculation. Johnson lacks the attention span, gravitas and integrity to lead us through such a process. This error of judgement might well be their last. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The crushing sound of inevitability

It looks like the Tories are dead set on foisting Boris Johnson upon us. He claims he is aiming to leave with a deal but in the same breath declares that it won't be the deal on the table. For all that Johnson is capable of oafish behaviour, lacking all attention to detail, it cannot have escaped him that the negotiations have ended, Brussels has made its position abundantly clear and all the diplomatic signals on Twitter indicate that the EU is assuming no deal as the most likely outcome.

Consequently any attempt at renegotiation with the EU will be Johnson going through the motions, putting on the theatricals for the benefit of the media and his formless supporters. He can at least then say that he tried. About as cynical and dishonest as you can expect from the man. But then this is far from a new trick in British politics. (See EU renegotiation/Phantom Veto).

At his campaign launch today the media was typically distracted by trivia but neither the journalists present nor the ones in the Radio 4 studio ever thought to ask the man or his entourage of apologists how he intends to get a new deal in the face of what Brussels has said. Being that the British debate is wholly self-absorbed and insular, Brussels once again ceases to exist.

But then this is not limited to Johnson and the media. Parliament is again living in a world of its own, seeking to take control of the parliamentary agenda believing no deal can be stopped by way of legislation. Though the motion was defeated it's difficult to see how it makes any difference either way. Parliament does not seem to have grasped that its best chance to avert a no deal Brexit was to ratify the deal on the table. They might well have blown their chance save for a vote of no confidence.

For all that we can fairly accuse Boris Johnson of insincerity, those MPs now hyperventilating about the prospect of no deal have been playing games of their own. Taking no deal off the table is really just a smoke screen for stopping Brexit. Both sides have played a game of double or quits and one side had to lose. Having failed to ratify the withdrawal agreement it looks like it is they who have foisted Johnson and no deal upon us.

With the situation now taking on a depressing air of inevitability it seems we are all now to become victims of our politics. We've had a change of government in which we had no say taking us down a path with no explicit mandate to appease less than a third of the population. When Johnson says he can unite the country, he can certainly unite us in the view that we are not by any measure a functioning democracy.

At this point further Brexit debate is largely futile. The no dealers have convinced themselves that we can leave, plough £39bn in to public services (despite all evidence to the contrary), arrange an Article 24 transition and leave with a series of mini deals. This tells you one thing. The propaganda has worked and cool headed factual argument never stood a chance. The WTO option has become a wishing well and there's still the bizarre expectation that the EU will come chasing after us. What we're looking at here is a full blown psychic epidemic where we will all pay a heavy price for the education of the few who think that all we have to do is believe hard enough.

There is still the outside chance of parliament getting its act together where they could somehow bring down the government and force a general election which would likely result in yet another hung parliament but this time very possibly a Labour/Lib Dem coalition that spells the death of Brexit. From there on the corpse of the Tory party limps on for a few more years with the Brexit Party eating away at the base, while the left try to airbrush Brexit from history.

Here I'm left wondering which is the more dangerous path. I fully expect, should we leave without a deal, the economy will take a pasting, and soon enough we'll be grovelling back to Brussels for any deal we can get which will likely include an Irish backstop, resulting in a national humiliation and a rout of the new right. That at least lances the boil, and the issue one way or another can be put to bed.

If, however, we do remain then we actually get the opposite of the promised revolution, with a broadly europhile progressive government that will end up writing blank cheques for any madcap climate scam in order to rebuild Britain's "internationalist reputation" followed by a series of patronising bribes as a sop to those whose votes have been nullified. Nothing is resolved, establishment politics returns to business as usual and the resentment reaches boiling point. All we'll have done is to kick the Brexit can down the road and into the long grass. There it will not stay.

The more sensible path was always an orderly Brexit but neither side wanted that. Both sides retreated from reality to play their own cynical tribal games, and neither had any concept of the national interest let alone a desire to put the national interest first. Whichever way this plays out now there is only one unarguable fact. Our politics has utterly failed us. In the state it's in, it was never likely to get it right.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Peterborough: failure to launch

To be fair, the Brexit Party pulled in a superficially respectable result, but by eating into the Tory vote they handed the seat to Labour. In this instance an intellectually subnormal grunter. That will likely scare a lot of voters back to their tribal habits at a general election so BP won't do as well but will poll enough in marginal seats to hand the game to Corbyn.

What we see is that Farage has been unable to expand the appeal of his vessel from earlier Ukip efforts and will likely score zero MPs - or certainly not enough to make a difference to anything. There are all the signs that it will hit the rocks again through a combination of unforced errors and internal bickering. The Farage effect. If at that point we haven't left the EU then we probably never will.

The only way for the Tories to make this problem go away is to actually deliver Brexit, but if they press ahead with a no deal Brexit then there's two years of damaging headlines and a wave of job losses they somehow have to explain away. That will also cost them the next election. Then if they ratify a withdrawal agreement then the Torykip wing will stay at home and the Tories lose that way. In other words, the Tories are finished. The only question is whether they take us all down with them.

As to Farage, Beth Rigby of Sky News asks "If Farage can’t win in seat where 61% of the population voted leave, where can he win? ". That is indeed the question. The obvious answer being that Farage is not Brexit and Brexit is not Farage. Ultimately it is the media who foisted Farage upon us. The media has anointed him as king of all things Brexit and had he not been at the head of any new Brexit party the media would likely not have given it a second look. What Farage gives them, though, is ample opportunity to roll out all of thier prepackaged narratives about a "Brexit insurgency". He's easy copy.

Whichever way you look at it there is a ceiling to the appeal of Farage and any party led by him. That ceiling was reached some time ago. It probably doesn't help that the party has set itself up as the party of no deal. No deal may very well have strong support in the Twittersphere but the tone and the rhetoric is a huge turn off for the largely voiceless moderate leavers.

Then, of course, it won't take long for the rot to set in. Farage has an all new, newly energised entourage, largely bleating the same old slogans who genuinely believe the party can smash its inherent ceiling. They fail to recognise that Farage himself is that ceiling. Only new leadership can widen the appeal of Ukip 2.0 but with Farage carefully vetting his followrs to ensure no-one can follow him, without Farage, the Brexit Party goes the same way as Ukip. Oblivion. His old gang are left fighting over the scraps until there is nothing left to take seriously.

The Brexit Party will likely follow the exact same pattern where the gaffes and missteps being to snowball and as its spokesmen start to build up their own media profiles we will see just how ghastly they really are and how utterly clueless they are. Ukippers were not famous for knowing what they are talking about. It looks like nothing has changed. They learned nothing about message discipline and still think they can wing it. Research is a dirty word in the Farage cult.

Should we get near a general election with the Brexit Party still in play, they will have existed long enough for its MEPs to have made total arses of themselves and for the media to have done the grubbing on the internal workings of the party. They will face the same onslaught they faced in 2015 by which time all that slick campaigning we saw in the Euro-elections will be falling apart as the public gets to see them for what they are.

Some believe Ukip 2.0 will fare better having tapped into a new seam of support in the form of Claire Fox and James Heartfield of the Spiked fraternity. The closest the party will ever get to an intellectual wing. The problem there is that virtually anyone can concoct a plausible case against the EU. That's the easy bit. But as readers of this blog know, the question of how we leave and what comes next are the more difficult questions and it doesn't take long to spot who has done their homework and who hasn't. At that point, BP's intellectual wing starts to look as gormless as the rest of them. It doesn't help that they're still in their honeymoon period with Farage and still believe the party can accomplish anything of note other than handing the keys to Number Ten to Corbyn.

The ultimate problem with the Brexit Party is the same problem Ukip had. It has no intellectual foundation and consequently no workable strategy. They don't know the meaning of the word. This is a party obsessed with leaving the EU for its own sake with no regard to what shape we are in afterwards and how we might wield our new found sovereignty. Without a deal, Britain is considerably weakened and the choices are grim.

This is where the Tories would do well to know their enemy. The Brexit Party will follow roughly the same trajectory as Ukip for largely the same reasons. If they try to out Farage the one true Farage then all they do is split their own vote while driving moderates away in droves. This is one thing George Osborne is absolutely right about. Taking a hard line on Brexit doesn't get them anywhere not least since hard line Brexiters don't trust the Tories anyway.

In any case things do not look good. There is only a small window for a viable outcome which is entirely contingent on passing the withdrawal agreement and the chances of that seem vanishingly small. Passing the deal would at least clear the air and allow us to move on to negotiating the new relationship, but if we leave without a deal or do not leave at all then we open the door to a decade of political turbulence and economic stagnation. Never before have we been in greater need of clear minded leadership. That, though, is sadly not on offer.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Be careful what you wish for

I've never actually sat through the whole of Yes Minister but have set about it this week. It's every bit as good now as then. In one of the early episodes Jim Hacker sets about streamlining the civil service. It is one of the oldest Tory canards that we have a bloated civil service in need of rationalisation and every new generation utters that same old refrain.

In the Yes Minister episode, Hacker finds himself in quite the pickle as it transpires than much of what is perceived to be waste actually serves a function and things work rather less well when you get rid of them - and has to be bailed out by Sir Humphrey. The man who knows the ropes.

This is all rather typical of politics and especially now. Everybody thinks they have an easy answer to problems that are more complicated than they appear. The Tory right wants to prune foreign aid and cut DfID, largely on the back of a few classic Daily Mail tropes ie funding India's space programme. And while there are, admittedly, some egregious examples of poorly focused aid, much of it is what buys us support for our initiatives in international forums. International development itself is key to tackling a number of long term problems including mass migration. It is a soft power instrument we need now more than ever.

There is a similarly simplistic view of trade. Much of the debate this week has centred around any potential trade deal with the USA and yet again we wearily return to the subject of chlorinated chicken where the point is missed by a country mile. It is less to do with whether such products are safe as the implications for our regulatory configuration and the subsequent reduction in access to EU markets it would lead to.

We could go into more detail on that but it's largely pointless. The right has convinced itself it is simply a matter of allowing customers to choose for themselves. But then it doesn't quite work like that either. Young mothers shopping to a budget don't have the luxury of choice. Food ethics is very much a middle class preoccupation. What you then get is a situation where the UK is a dumping ground for US surpluses at the expense of our domestic production and subsequently exports. If we are importing what is viewed by the EU as a system contaminant then UK produce will face more frequent inspections at the border.

This is the thing with trade. It's not just a matter of securing free trade deals like notches on the bed post. Every single decision has ramifications for existing trade and not all FTAs are necessarily beneficial. The danger is that we rush ahead with a deal for a quick propaganda win only to find it is detrimental to our own interests. As it happens, I think in the event of no deal the UK will soon be grovelling back to Brussels for any deal it can get which will see demands that squash any potential US deal. Between that and an outpouring of public opinion, it's a non-starter.

This is where we can put to bed the notion that the free traders in the Tory party are actual conservatives. Trade as a policy instrument is highly political and every decision in the process must be evaluated not just in terms of trade growth but also its social and environmental impact. Taking the ERG Tories at their word; that they seek a quickie deal with the USA and will also implement unilateral tariff cuts, unless there are safeguards for UK agriculture we end up turning our countryside into boondocks. Why go to the trouble of rearing livestock when you can turn the land over to a solar farm and cream off the subsidies? I know of no actual conservatives who want that.

This is where it helps to have a class of expert technocrats in the system as a line of defence against fundamentally bad ideas. The creaking bureaucracy of the civil service may well be something we all complain about but in most cases we are better with than without. Parliament may not be able to crush a bad idea but the civil service can.

That, though, has changed in recent years where experts who say the wrong things tend to find themselves out on their ear. We have seen Ivan Rogers effectively dismissed after having his inputs vetted by political advisers. This dynamic is not limited to Number Ten. Just about every senior minister has a political stooge appointed to senior advisory roles, very often knowing nothing at all about the subject matter and very often party apparatchiks rewarded for their loyalty.

If Yes Minister is anything to go by this has been the case for a long time but it certainly worsened under Blair and has now become the norm. Consequently politics is less about good governance as it is turning the whole apparatus of Whitehall into a political plaything for those with no knowledge and zero aptitude.

This then leads to the breakdown of parliamentary evidence gathering. We have seen since the referendum how parliamentary committees are largely toothless, with their findings going straight into the bin supposing they are read by anyone of influence at all. One wonders if there is any point in them continuing to exist.

To a large extent government has been hijacked by a wonkocracy based on political favours and good sense gets nowhere near the levers of power. This partly explains Theresa May's idiotic red lines and the marginalisation of genuine expertise. From that point onwards any chance of a workable Brexit deal went out the window.

The essential problem here is the gulf of understanding between the public and government. Demagogues and chancers will often promise to slash foreign aid, streamline the civil service, get us out of the EU with a single bound and kickstart British trade. It's all so very easy to say, and all very popular, but when politicians reach office they are often told a few of the facts of life. This is why parties very often do not make good on their manifestos and it's why the public become so very jaded with politics.

This makes for ample opportunity for populist upstarts, none of whom will actually get near power thus do not have to confront any of the realities of modern government. They will never go as far as actually detailing any of their policies because populist ideas never withstand the onslaught of serious scrutiny. Ukip tried in 2015 to much ridicule. I look forward to Ukip 2.0 making the same errors.

The short of it is that modern statecraft is inherently complex and every lever you pull on sets in motion a serious of events with consequences that cannot be anticipated. To be a serious proposition for government you need a joined up programme of policies toward specific outcomes, many of which will be counter-intuitive. In an age of ideological trench warfare it simply cannot compete with demagogues pushing simplistic mantras. They are revolutionary wreckers.

Arguably the system has become so ossified and set in its ways and so deeply corrupt that we perhaps are in need of wreckers, but right now it is hard to see how that will accomplish anything. It's also easy to tear down but I do not see any serious answers to difficult questions coming from the new right. Certainly where Brexit is concerned all we get is delf-deception and high fantasy. We're in serious trouble the moment it collides with the real world.

Still, though, the revolution as begun all the same. It is now unstoppable. There are forces at work beyond our control and the fever will just have to burn itself out in its own time. It will be left to the rest of us to pick up the pieces. All one can really do is batten down the hatches and do whatever it takes to survive it. Neither Labour or the Tories are in a fit state to govern so we are just as well letting the chips fall where they may. It seems the revolutionaries will have to discover for themselves that running a country is a lot more difficult than complaining about it.

For Britain this has been a long time coming. Government has become so remote and so out of touch and our collective involvement in the process of governing has diminished over the years. This is partly a consequence of EU membership which so much is out of reach of politics, but it is also a consequence of a born to rule political class which is singularly incapable of acknowledging that anything outside of its myopic concerns even exists at all.

At this point, one starts to sympathise with remainers whose chief argument seems to be that none of it is worth the hassle. They are all about the status quo which, for all its injustices and inadequacies, is perhaps preferable to the long and costly process of political renewal. I could almost talk myself into being a remainer. The point, though, is that these questions will not wait and to deny democracy to uphold a failing status quo only results in a more turbulent correction later down the line.

Ultimately we can only have a functioning economy if we have functioning politics and we simply cannot say that our politics is working as it should. Where this revolutionary process leads I don't know, but I do know that the old establishment has outstayed its welcome and its various corruptions need to be resolved. It won't be the upstart populists who do it in that they'll be equally or more corrupt at the first sniff of power, but we are at least opening the door to long overdue change - right about the time when the post war settlement and its institutions are dying of old age.

The world is entering a new and unpredictable age. British politics is based on a centuries old model which never anticipated the internet and social media and is far from fit for purpose. We are entering a new age of politics and economics where the old rules simply don't apply and our institutions are unable to cope. We have proved that centralised government in London cannot serve the whole nation and if there is to be renewal then it most be at the hands of the people deciding for themselves how to structure their own affairs. Westminster cannot be fixed. It is time we bypassed it entirely.

Every effort must be made to avoid no deal

My opinion is that we have had a referendum and it was a free and fair vote that produced an unarguable result. Ballot boxes were not tampered with and was about as clean as such an endeavour ever could be. There are those who believe that the grubby shenanigans at Vote Leave are grounds to nullify the vote. But as we have seen just lately, with Change UK spending the most on social media advertising in the euro-elections, no amount of internet jiggery pokery can buy a particular outcome. The 2016 vote must be upheld.

That, though, is the fullest extent of my agreement with Brexiteers. I had previously considered a no deal Brexit as an instrument of last resort. Now that we are there, with parliament steadfastly refusing to ratify any withdrawal agreement, and seemingly no choice but to press the nuclear button, I think we are duty bound to do whatever it takes to avoid leaving without a deal. It's too much pain or no discernible advantage.

In recent months we have seen the likes of Mogg and Baker telling us there is a magical solution in WTO Article 24, but of itself that is an admission that no deal is not a viable end point and that no deal cannot stay no deal. So by their own admission, we would be seeking to invoke an arcane piece of international law as a sticking plaster - one which doesn't even begin to address the full array of concerns and deals mainly with tariffs which are only a bit part of the problem.

They fail to to grasp that the EU acquis is not just a list of rules. It is a system of government. A system upon which much of our trade and cooperation has evolved inside for the last half century. You cannot pull the plug and expect anything to function even half as well and certainly not without meticulous planning and watertight contingency measures. If you believe government reassurances that we are adequately prepared then I have a bridge to sell you.

The only argument for no deal is the rather fatalistic view that politics has drifted so far from reality that no deal is inevitable and we might as well just bite the bullet and try to make the best of it. It all seems rather hopeless and anyone holding out for an amicable orderly exit is probably more deluded than even the no dealers.

This, though, is a question that we cannot afford to get wrong. The decisions made in the next few months will decide the UK's international standing for the next century. A no deal Brexit could well see us becoming a weakened supplicant of the EU as we cave into virtually any demand in order to re-establish our deep economic cooperation with the EU. The promise of buccaneering free trade will soon hit the rocks if it hasn't already. Every effort must be made to keep the Article 50 process alive even if that means further delay.

Some worry that if there is further delay then Parliament kicks Brexit into the long grass. That much is a risk but the the Brexiteers share the sole blame for that. They may have won the 2016 poll but they certainly didn't win the argument for leaving without a deal. The ERG have managed to turn many moderates off the idea of Brexit entirely and now conclude that it simply isn't worth it.

For me it's simply a matter of if you are going to do something then do it properly. No deal is a resignation and a shortcut to nowhere. The UK will always need a deep and comprehensive relationship with the EU for as long as it exists and no deal ducks the issue entirely leaving others to clear up the mess at a massive cost to the country.

There are times when I feel like I'm a lone voice out on my own but my view is not entirely without support. It just isn't represented in the national debate. The media has given ample airtime to the demagogues of Brexit allowing them to own the narrative, pitting hardcore leavers against hardcore remainers just to watch the sparks fly. The media has abandoned its obligation to inform and treats politics as yet another channel of entertainment where you pick your team and cheer them on. This is no basis on which to make a seismic constitutional decision.

Similarly the Twittersphere is in no way representative of the country as a whole. It tends to be the domain of activists and political obsessives, most of whom are in hock to an established narrative. No deal may have been popularised among a narrow strand of Brexiters of the Ukip 2.0 persuasion but that is far from a majority view. There is no explicit mandate for terminating all formal relations with the EU.

This is where parliament seriously needs to get its act together. If one trend is becoming apparent then it is that the Brexit issue is carving up politics and eroding the capacity of either main party to win outright. It must recognise that a failure to deliver Brexit will keep British politics off balance for a decade or more, extending the uncertainty which will no doubt lead to economic stagnation. A cross party alliance may well be able to keep Brexit at bay during this time, but in so doing would be unleashing a darkness in politics that cannot be contained.

Here parliament needs to realise that their only realistic chance of avoiding no deal now or in the future is to ratify a withdrawal agreement. Thus far the opposition to the deal is largely based on a fundamental opposition to Brexit rather than the deal itself, at which point parliament is acting in open defiance of the 2016 vote for which there are far reaching consequences.

This is simply a case of the losers refusing to accept defeat which makes this less about Brexit and brings the whole basis of our democracy into question. For some, that is the whole basis of their demand to leave without a deal. There are a great many no dealers who would rather have a deal but simply do not see any other option. Parliament alone is responsible for that.

Thus far parliament has been crippled by indecision. They have been instructed by the electorate to do something that goes against all of their political instincts. By asserting their own supremacy they are effectively telling us that they rule over us, and though we may have the opportunity to periodically replace our dictators, we ourselves are not the masters of our own destiny. That, not Brexit, is the constitutional emergency. For all the outrage at the suggestion that a no deal prime minister could prorogue parliament, they might well take some time out to consider how it came to be that it might be the only way to ensure the 2016 vote is honoured.

A right old mess

I'm not following every last twist and turn of the Tory leadership contest. I'm keeping my eye on it hoping for a glimmer of realisation but all the candidates thus far are entertaining their own private delusions proving they have failed to stay on top of the issues. At this point one starts to wonder if our MPs are even capable of adult engagement.

There have been some encouraging noises from Rory Stewart in respect of no deal, bringing a refreshing realism to the debate but that does him no favours if he wants to win. The party expects to be told that which they want to hear rather than the truth. But then Stewart is also short on solutions. He recognises that the withdrawal agreement is pretty much our only option but doesn't say how he'll get it past a deadlocked parliament.

This, though, is hardly important in that he is not going to win. He is considered too much of a wet by the party and though political nerds have warmed to him he has no hope of winning Brexiters over. Thus we are left with a spectrum of equally dreadful candidates each pushing their respective fantasies and whoever we have foisted upon us is going to be so far from adequate that it almost ceases to matter. As with much else lately we are playing a waiting game while the media fills the dead space with trivia and manufactured controversy.

This puts us back in familiar territory, left to speculate over a handful of outcomes and none of them are good. That explains the lack of activity on this blog. Until we have a new PM and an indication which way this is going, there is little to be said. We have to turn to the real world for signs of actual news.

In respect of that, we see the beginnings of a slow motion trainwreck. We are told that Britain is ready for a no deal Brexit while the Farmer's Guardian reports that a damning new report from the National Audit Office has revealed a potential IT nightmare which could leave farmers entering Defra’s public money for public goods scheme out of pocket.

Whenever you look under the bonnet of any sector you find complex regulatory systems all dependent on the exchange of data and all systems depend on a degree of regulatory continuity. The moment we pull the rug out these systems will cease to function without a fundamental redesign which doesn't happen overnight. Where government is concerned we're talking about years rather than months. Several government departments could very easily fall into a near permanent state of dysfunction leaving industry to fend for itself.

The full extent of this kind of chaos is difficult to quantify but even if the contingency measures manage to keep the ports clear of backlogs we're still looking at systems that are no longer recognised or authorised by the EU which will affect everything from farming to energy production. This much hasn't been understood by politicians who have no experience or comprehension of these such systems and the issues are not being treated with the seriousness they deserve.

This is where we are badly let down by a media which seems to think that if it isn't connected to the Tory leadership contest then it just isn't news, right about the time where there is probably ample news in the wider economy if only they cared to look. They are instead focused on the Peterborough by-election which in isolation won't tell us very much and if there is a lesson for the Tories, they will grasp the wrong end of the stick with both hands.

What the Tories fail to grasp is that they can keep their party faithful on side by taking us out without a deal, thus neutralising the threat of the Brexit Party, but there are some two years between exit day and the next general election whereupon there will be a constant stream of seriously bad news and major job losses for which the Conservative Party will not be forgiven. Certainly the incompetent response by the oaf Johnson will be noticed by electors, leaving the field wide open for Labour. 

The Tory leadership contest seems to be all about the future survival of the party, but it is difficult to see any outcome where the party is not beaten to the brink of extinction. Even if a moderate like Rory Stewart succeeded in securing a withdrawal agreement, the backlash from the right would be fatal. Since there is no way for the Tories to to stave off defeat, they should be putting the national interest first as a matter of duty - but this they will not do. Not least as there is no agreement on what the national interest actually is. 

In any case we shall soon have answers to these questions whereby we shall have a new prime minister selected by a handful of Tory members pushing an agenda that has no explicit mandate and likely in defiance of Parliament. Though much else will be clouded, it will be crystal clear that British democracy is is barely worthy of the name.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Just deserts for parliament

One thing we Brexiters are good at is whingeing. We can whinge about the EU til the cows come home and we can whinge about withdrawal agreements and we can whinge about politicians and whinge about each other. Collectively, we don't do much else.

Whingeing about the EU is the easy bit. We're all expert at it and on a long enough timeline, in a a one to one debate, most of us can make a convincing argument for leaving. Or at least that the EU is a bad thing. What we have never done collectively is examined what comes next. What the objectives are, what the obstacles are and whether we are any better off for doing it. We always thought whingeing was sufficient. For the most part, it evidently is.

Now that we are leaving, we somehow have to reconcile the fact that the more you travel in the direction of sovereignty the more you sacrifice in trade. Worse still, there doesn't appear to be an optimal balance in that the EU can and does exert considerable influence. As the regional trade and political superpower it can strong arm its neighbours into accepting their way of doing things if they want to do business with the EU. And being that most trade is done locally, they don't have much of a say in the matter.

At some point after leaving the EU there will be a formal trade relationship with the EU where the UK ends up following everything from food safety rules through to data protection laws. We won't be doing much services trade otherwise. This is precisely where Brexiters do not want to be. Pretty much all activity ever since the referendum by Brexiters has gone into pretending these facts of life simply don't exist and that there is some magical scenario where the UK gets to have its cake and eat it.

Here we see just how creative they can be. From MaxFac through to "regulatory alignment" through to creative readings of WTO articles where magically the EU is somehow compelled to break all of its own rules for the sole benefit of the UK. You can try telling them otherwise but it's now an article of faith. A belief system. Course we know the arguments don't stand up (and so do they) so they then shift the debate back to the comfortable ground of "democracy".

This is pretty much their only strong hand. We did have a vote, it wasn't tampered with and it was comfortably in favour of leaving - so leave we must. That, though, does not give them the exclusive right to decide how or when we leave. Since the the ERG brigade how now shifted the goalposts so that only no deal can ever be considered the One True Brexit, despite many of them having campaigned on a Norway/Switzerland/Canada ticket, they seems surprised that they face a wall of opposition.

Essentially they have turned a fairly pedestrian proposition into a hard right radical economic experiment for which they would never win a mandate for in a general election. You might even call it an attempted coup. They're using the 2016 referendum mandate as a smokescreen for an agenda that has no mandate and if parliament serves any purpose at all then it is to defend our country against that kind of attack.

To that extent, it's partly a good thing that we have an immovable establishment. It is right that it does not simply roll over to any passing demagogue. Any movement for change must win through force of argument. Which it has not yet done. The problem, though, is an establishment that is no longer acting in good faith as a defender. Rather it simply refuses to acknowledge any democratic impetus and is now acting in bad faith.

They are right to resist the ERG to the last breath, but at no point have they constructively engaged in the exit process to ensure that we do leave with a deal. This is a parliament determined not to deliver on the people's verdict. In so doing they have further emboldened the no deal radicals to the point where many believe that no deal is the only way we will ever get to leave and there is no basis on which to trust parliament - and that much they are very probably right about.

So it's parliament itself that created this constitutional emergency. If it will not vote to pass a withdrawal agreement, it is acting in direct defiance of the public will. That then makes this a constitutional standoff where all other issues such as trade become secondary.

Nobody is asking them to like the withdrawal agreement. Remainers are never going to like an instrument that takes us out of the EU. But that decision was made for them when they voted to hold a referendum. And whether or not Brexiters like the deal is neither here nor there. They actively resisted having a plan of their own, they failed to seriously engage in the process and now what they get is what they are given.

Irrespective of the noise of the european elections and the Tory leadership contest, it is for parliament to honour its democratic obligations and pass the deal otherwise it is they who hand the ERG everything they want on a plate. It may or may not be the right path for the UK to follow, but it is the inevitable consequence of the decision made in 2016. If parliament is not willing to uphold its obligations then no deal (and the mess that goes with it) is pretty much what the nation deserves.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Nothing much to talk about

Presently the Conservative Party is an empty husk awaiting leadership. That was true the moment David Cameron left office. Theresa May was a caretaker with the sole mission of delivering Brexit. This she could not do and now the Tories are left to confront the double barrelled problem of having not delivered Brexit and having a party devoid of substance. It is now vulnerable to capture in much the same way Labour was.

The problem, though, is that unless either party has a united and coherent position on Brexit, and what comes after, there is no hope of resurgence for either. The only utility in voting Tory is to keep Corbyn out which seems redundant should we go down the path of no deal. There is not much more damage he could do and with neither side intellectually equipped to handle the fallout of a no deal Brexit, it scarcely matters who wins the next general election.

But then for me, the fortunes of the Tory party in the future are of little concern. I see only one pressing political priority and that is to avoid a no deal Brexit. That is the only measure by which I will be assessing candidates. Not that it even matters. The choice is not mine to make.

Of course we will hear the usual array of slogans about uniting the country but that is no so easily done. Brexit is a fault line of its own before we even begin to address the clash of values between London and the regions. I wonder if the UK can ever be a truly cohesive country ever again.

As it happens I don't think we will see a new normal until the culture war has a decisive winner. That will rage on beyond Brexit until a new political consensus wins out. If the complete no show for Change UK is anything to go by then the paternalistic "progressives" are very much out on their own and on a loser. Brexit seems to have purged the values free centrist left before we've even left. It no longer has a powerbase. It never did belong in a left wing party.

Meanwhile, staying the course as a dedicated remain party appears to have paid off for the Lib Dems, or rather they have benefited from Labour's dithering ambiguity. That will eat into Labour's support as much as Ukip 2.0 will eat into the Tories. We may yet be in for another hung parliament of unknown composition.

Either way it's not going to matter since no party in politics right now has a coherent idea of what it wants. For sure Ukip 2.0 wants a Brexit event to happen, but  has no agenda to shape Britain beyond that. Similarly the Lib Dems want to stop Brexit and that alone is enough. It therefore falls to the legacy parties to present an agenda to break Britain out of its political stagnation.

This we will not get. Labour has a few dregs of ideas, but nothing that would directly address any of the problems confronted by everyday people. Renationalising things is largely an ideological hobby horse and they haven't stopped to ask if it brings any remedy to any known problems.

As for the Tories, most of the leadership contenders think there needs to be a conservative renewal but the word has become so meaningless and conservative values so diluted even I wouldn't recognise a true conservative agenda and I'm not even sure I would welcome it anymore. Simplistic mantras about small government and low tax overlook the fact that modern government is complex and necessarily large and is going to cost a lot of money to run. Even at its most efficient it's going to be an expensive affair.

There are then the Priti Patels and Steve Bakers of this world who are ever keen to resurrect Thatcherism, unleashing market forces on the country like never before, in direct contravention of all the lessons learned from Brexit in respect of globalisation, pace of change and identity. Again we are dealing with ideologues who simply believe a dose of their brand of medicine is all that's needed and the rest will sort itself out.

It's actually surprising politics is so wide of the mark when it comes to providing answers. It's not rocket science. Basic needs don't change. People want secure jobs, affordable housing, shorter commutes, better transport and less intrusive government. They want the bins emptied once a week, they want police to investigate crime and they want a doctors appointment outside of work hours within three days of deciding they need one.

For this there isn't really a national solution. It's only going to happen through responsive local government and if real power is in the hands of the people. For as long as we have politics attempting to impose ideological programmes from the centre we will forever be dedicating resources to mopping up the consequences rather than getting on with the real business of government. We won't get anything sensible from Westminster until Westminster realises it is a large part of the problem.

This is why I'm jaded with politics. Forever people are looking to London politics to serve up a saviour who will sort it all out - a messiah who can put things back on track. The politicians know full well how it works so we get demagogues of all stripes singing their populist songs to their respective bases. Some more successful than others. "Give me the power and I will fix it to your liking" - the psiren call of the ages.

Increasingly I am of the view that there are no real solutions the the big questions. There isn't really a way to marry up the culture clash between London and the regions and there is no national blueprint for greatness. The best we can ever hope for is to empower people to shape their own regions so that they are not culturally subordinate to the perversions of Westminster. Big ticket expensive agendas won't fix Britain, but giving people the powers locally to decide their own fate might.

Increasingly I find that Westminster politics has nothing to say to me. The limited pool of ideas falls out of clapped out think tanks, largely home to suburban dwelling politicos with no connection to the outside world, where ideas are the product of a singular mentality of ruling from London. London media has nothing to say to me and I could not be less interested in the scribblings of the legacy media. Their idea of news is not my idea of news.

Ultimately though, Westminster is never going to realise that Westminster is the problem. It is too self-absorbed. It's going to take the wider public to realise it for themselves and demand power for themselves. I live in hope that moment soon approaches. Eventually the penny must drop that we cannot afford to be the plaything of London politicians and we will be waiting a lifetime for them to get their act together.

Until then, there is very little in politics to take remotely seriously. We may get a Tory leader with the maturity and wisdom to resist the pressure to leave the EU without a deal, but that is still contingent on an immovable parliament ratifying a withdrawal agreement, and its refusal to do so could park us in limbo until we bite the bullet. Beyond that it doesn't matter who leads any of these empty husks. Perhaps the system has to fail hard before people realise that we can no longer afford the Westminster circus. Until the fever breaks, there just isn't much more to talk about.

Diminishing hopes

Owing to Theresa May's extension of Brexit negotiations the UK has just undergone fresh elections to the European parliament. Unsurprisingly the clear winner in terms of seats gained was the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage. Though I am very much in favour of leaving the EU I didn't vote for that party.

I have long held the view that the European Parliament was a fake parliament where members have no meaningful powers and it serves largely as a veneer of democracy thus voting in European elections would lend legitimacy to a fraud. But then I am no fan of Nigel Farage either.

There are two ways to leave the EU. Either we have a negotiated departure or we leave without a deal. The latter involves unplugging from a complex system of governance established over forty years and to do so would have a volatile fallout. No responsible government should even consider it. That, though, is precisely what Farage is campaigning for.

Though I voted to leave the European Union I did not vote for the termination of all formal relations with the EU and very much wish to maintain amicable relations and a comprehensive trade relationship. The Brexit Party, however, takes the view that with so much parliamentary resistance to leaving the EU, the only way to leave is to leave without a deal.

They may well be right in the end, with parliament having refused three times to ratify a withdrawal agreement, but leaving without a deal really is a last resort and every diplomatic effort must be made to avoid such a calamity if possible. But then for Farage and co this is no longer about Brexit or securing a successful outcome to these events. This is now a full blown culture war where outcomes no longer matter. All that matters is that the other side loses. A zero sum game.

I have to admit that I would take some momentary enjoyment seeing the British establishment facing up to its own worst nightmare, but that kind of nihilism is shortsighted. The reality of the situation is that the UK does about half of its trade with the EU and very soon after leaving without a deal, it will become apparent that the contingency measures in place in no way replace a formal trade treaty, Soon we would be grovelling back to Brussels whereupon they will demand much of what they have already demanded in Article 50 talks.

Being that there is no combination of free trade deals with the rest of the world that could possibly replace or even mitigate the loss of the European single market, Britain's choices would be few and though leaving without a deal on paper means greater sovereignty, that's no use if your leverage is significantly depleted. The Brexiters would have their day of celebration but it would soon be followed by a major humiliation.

There is one other thing that bothers me. Were we to take such a bold move, assuming it were a viable prospect, you would need a ruthlessly competent government with an idea of what it wants and a realistic plan to accomplish it. This we do not have. We have a threadbare government with no coherent agenda, massively split with no moral authority and no mandate to speak of. We would be facing a moment of national crisis with nobody at the wheel.

Soon after we would then be looking at a general election, and as soon as the job losses start to mount we would then be looking at a Corbyn led government. Here we would be no better off because the Labour party is similarly divided, and in a similar state of intellectual meltdown over Brexit. To even begin to put the pieces back together you need to have a working idea of what is broken and on recent performance, there is nothing to suggest that Labour MPs have grasped the issues any better than their Conservative counterparts.

Ultimately the UK has never faced a crisis quite like this. Certainly not in peacetime. Much of the day to day running of the country seems to happen without much in the way of political interference, but when you rip away the regulatory and legal foundation, it all starts falling to pieces in ways that are impossible to anticipate - which would soon overwhelm the government's capacity to respond whoever was in charge.

Pretty soon much of the apparatus of government would be turned over to Whitehall civil servants who would be forced to take whatever action was necessary just to keep things working, with very little political oversight. We'd have gone from being run by unelected officials in Brussels to unelected officials in London, which is not a net gain in the democracy stakes and there is no reason to believe London would make a better job of it than Brussels.

It very well could be that the UK enters a near permanent state of administrative and political dysfunction that it never fully recovers from, and politicians would descend into displacement activity, lavishing their energies on any passing triviality rather than addressing the more urgent concerns. This is how a once great nation enters a cycle of decline. Arguably it has already begun.

The issue here is that our political apparatus simply isn't equipped for a change of this magnitude. There needs to be fundamental reforms in the structure of government, locally and nationally and we are not going to get anywhere near those radical changes until Westminster can comes to terms with the fact that Westminster and its political culture is very much central to the problem. This is will not do. Any suggestion of reform tends to produced hackneyed ideas lacking imagination and radicalism.

Should we leave without a deal the UK is looking at decades of political dysfunction, with all the economic harm that goes with it. The lack of political coherence may even spawn a popular movement to rejoin the EU whereupon we would be a far less powerful member and more subject to the diktats of Brussels than ever. The great Brexit revolution would then be erased from memory.

As it happens, I think we probably will leave without a deal in that politicians are unable to break from their entrenched positions. Those MPs who do not want to leave will never vote for a withdrawal agreement, nor will those MPs who favoured a more extreme departure. Yet again we will drift toward the deadline and parliament will fail to ratify the withdrawal treaty and then the executive is faced with a binary choice of leaving without a deal or cancelling Brexit entirely. Both sides are playing double or quits so this will go right to the wire.

Which way this goes is now entirely contingent on who replaces Theresa May which may well be influenced by Farage's victory at the euro-elections. Parliament can do little to stop a Tory prime minister determined to leave without a deal and the EU may very well be glad to see the back of us. Only time will tell. Between now and then the UK hangs in a state of Brexit limbo, hemorrhaging political authority and credibility.

My hope is that sanity will prevail and a withdrawal agreement is secured but that now seems too much to hope for. Only a freak of circumstances that sees us remaining in the EU seems likely to stop a no deal outcome. I do not discount the possibility but that has political risks of its own that could see a populist party replacing the Conservative Party where we would soon find ourselves back here again. One way or another, Brexit fever will have to burn itself about before we can see what the new normal looks like.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Back to business

There seems to be some dispute over who "won" the euro-elections. You can cut the results any which way so they say what you want them to say. The only statistic that matters is the pitifully low turnout. An election and a parliament with zero legitimacy.

We could go into some depths trying to extrapolate some kind of trend but at the end of the day it's all guesswork. This is why we have referendums to settle this kind of thing and we've already had one with twice the turnout. All we can say for sure is about half the country still wants to leave the EU and the other half wants to remain.

What that tells you is that neither side has a viable or sustainable proposition for the UK to build on. Remaining is an unsatisfactory answer with political consequences of its own and a no deal Brexit is far from the end of the process where in all likelihood we end up grovelling to Brussels from a far weaker position to end up with a deal equal or worse than the one presently on the table.

Were it that we had a functioning parliament there would be a realisation of this and we would see a renewed push for a negotiated outcome. But then the politicians won't have learned anything at all and will construct their own tribal narratives based on the results and the arithmetic won't substantially change.

Much is now going to depend on who the Tories appoint as their next leader, and whether there is a final push at securing an agreement. I won't waste your time with my speculation save to say the prognosis is not good. The offerings thus far give us little hope. It's a choice between the deluded, the mendacious, the profoundly ignorant and the irrelevant. And it's not even our choice to make. We are spectators.

Until such a time as we do have a new PM, we are once again marking time with no new developments to reflect on and as each day passes the euro-elections will fade in significance (for all that they were significant to begin with). The Farage party will crow and the media will trot out all of the tiresome recycled narratives but Farage has no more power over the events than he did yesterday. 

If the euro-elections have served any function at all then it is to prick the egos of the Change UK brigade and remind parliament that leave sentiment has not gone anywhere but there still remains for parliament all of the dilemmas they've been ducking for months. 

Insofar as what can be done, I'm using my own limited influence to continually restate that no deal is a path to nowhere and can lead only to a major national humiliation when the flimsy free trade theories of the Brexiters fall apart. A new Tory leader may have a walkout in mind but none of us have to take it lying down. 

The conventional wisdom is that unless the Tories reform as a hard Brexit party they face electoral oblivion, but in the real world, with the UK facing standard third country controls, new impediments to trade and exclusion from a number of services market, the Tories will have to carry the can for a major jobs blow that cannot be swept under the carpet. A negotiated exit may infuriate the Tory grassroots, but it may be the only thing that stands between them and extinction. No floating voter will ever forgive the Tories for a total wipeout Brexit. Perhaps that thought might focus the minds of moderate backbenchers.

Ultimately parliament is where the real business happens now. Farage and his entourage of replacement lackeys are little more than noisemakers. They can be safely ignored. Their polling wasn't an advance on the last go around and their impact in a general election, after a bout of infighting no doubt, will be similarly unimpressive. They have shown us that for them this is not about a viable or successful Brexit outcome. This is now a puerile culture war against the likes of Soubry and Umunna, and winning in polls is more important than actually achieving anything. It should be treated as the empty sideshow it is.

Whether or not the withdrawal process gets a new lease of life is the only question that should now concern us. If it can't be the withdrawal agreement on the table then something has to give and we should look to a far longer extension until the UK has a consensus on how to proceed. Avoiding a no deal Brexit is the paramount concern. Nothing good can come from it. 

Friday, 24 May 2019

Another one bites the dust

May came to power as the least worst option. The one least tainted by the referendum. She came to the job with the utmost sincerity in wishing to deliver Brexit. She faced down the Lords and rammed through the necessary legislation and got the ball rolling.

Sadly though, she never understood what she was dealing with and chose her advisors poorly. She struggled to comprehend the sequencing or the structure of the talks and repeatedly failed to read the landscape. She sought to skirt around the process with ill thought out alternatives, facing repeated rebuffs from Brussels.

By the time she got to grips with the realities of our predicament, the EU was calling all of the shots. It was then for May to reconcile the demands of Brexiteers with the stark and uncomfortable truths of leaving the EU.

Eventually she came to understand that this was not a negotiation, rather she was confronted with an array of difficult choices with outcomes that would satisfy nobody. She came to terms with it and made her best guess. The party, though, still harboured a number of delusions, believing the EU could or ever would bend to the high fantasy ambitions of the Tory right.

Though she made many avoidable errors, many of them were dictated by the wider political landscape where she could have made no other choice thus further limiting subsequent choices.

She carried out her duty with stamina and determination but in the end could not bring the deal across the line. This is ultimately the fault of parliament which has been vocal about what it doesn't want but less forthcoming in what it does want. She was herding cats the whole time with impossible demands placed upon her. There is no way her premiership would not end in failure.

Though many of her errors were of her own making I have no time for the cruel and spiteful things said of her by Brexiteers. Nobody has been more determined to deliver Brexit. Her deal, though unliked, is simply what a technical treaty looks like in dealing with 45 years of legacy membership issues. It was never going to be pretty and the balance of power was always going to favour the regional trade superpower.

Leavers accepted this when they voted to leave. Scapegoating May because they don't like the taste of the soup they ordered is a little rich. This is a PM who worked to the best of her limited abilities in totally unfavourable circumstances at a time when parliament and politics as a whole has never been more atomised.

Though I am saddened by her departure, not least because the alternatives are worse, it is right that she leaves now. She has run out of road and now we must follow another path whatever that may be. They say, unfairly in my view, that she will go down as the worst prime minister ever. All I can say is you ain't seen nothing yet.

Say what you will about Theresa May but she did at least attempt to balance the equation. Likely her successor will be a bombastic fantasist with a slender grasp of reality and zero command of the issues. With bluster and beligerence we will see our relations with the EU slide into oblivion. History will then look more kindly on Theresa May. We needed a dull technocrat like her to get this part over with. We just needed one who was better at it. So with that, though she was ultimately a failure, I thank the lady for her dedicated public service. She deserves our respect.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Election day.

I might have liked to have sent a message in these elections confirming my desire to leave the EU but the Brexit Party set itself up as the party of no deal thus stands atop a mountain of lies and collective self-delusion. A mass retreat from the real world. Not in my name.

To acknowledge the risks of no deal and argue that the political landscape demands more radical action (and having an idea what to do after) might be persuasive but these people are pushing the idea that Brexit can be fudged without grave consequences. That makes them irresponsible liars and propagandists waging a zero sum game culture war which everybody loses. They are no longer interested in the outcomes. They are only interested in winning for its own sake even if that leaves Britain weaker and poorer.

Being that the Brexit blob never defined a viable outcome they will always cry betrayal which tells you that this is a demagogue's crusade interested only in massaging grievance while masquerading as democrats.

Theirs is the belief that leaving the EU leaves us free to act unilaterally without consequence; The notion that what we do is in isolation from world politics and that we have the might to withstand global forces even superpowers struggle to bring to heel. A fantastical notion of glorious sovereignty where the world will look the other way as we throw international conventions into the bin, expecting that we retain the same levels of carefully nurtured soft power. All you have to do is believe hard enough.

This delusion is no basis for a decision of this magnitude with repercussions lasting through decades. If this pig headed anti-knowledge obstinacy is the thing that ultimately costs us Brexit itself, there will be none more deserving of defeat. It won't be the forces of remain that defeats Brexit. Rather it will be our political system as a whole that probed the inconsistencies and found no satisfactory answers. Much though I would like to leave the EU, it would be a rare example of the system working if no deal is defeated. If the price of that is no Brexit at all then it will be the likes of Farage and Mogg who take the greater share of the blame than May or even the useless remainer bunch.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The no-deal grand delusion

There was a time when I would entertain a no deal Brexit as a last resort. Just recently though, I have taken the view that every effort must be made to avoid it even if that means further delay or even a confirmatory vote.

The arguments for trading on WTO terms have never been convincing. The Tory right and the Brexit blob have popularised some very deliberate distortions to cloud the debate and now the generally understood scenario is a work of political fiction.

We can debate til the cows come home what the initial impacts would be and while there have been wild exaggerations, the longer term damage in terms of trade and our political standing is a price too rich for my blood.

To go ahead with such an enterprise you would need a ruthlessly competent government with a plan and an exact idea of the policies it would execute on day one. The ERG likely believes they could sweep into power and do that job. They've been plotting for a while.

This has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The process of rolling over deals we have via the EU is stalling because some are wondering what levels of unilateral action the UK will take on tariffs. They're not about to offer us trade preferences if there's a chance they can get what they want for free.

As to contingency plan execution, you're dealing with people who deny the problems even exist even when they are clearly outlined in the EU's own Notices to Stakeholders. Pretty soon the government will be slapped with an avalanche of policy emergencies beyond the absorptive capacity of the cabinet meaning everyday governance is handed entirely to the civil service with virtually no political oversight.

Pretty soon you have a government mired in an omnishambles with zero political authority and wildly hated in the country. The next administration is then formed of either a LabLib or ConLib coalition after a hung parliament. Before we know it we're grovelling back to Brussels whereupon they demand pretty much everything now demanded in the current withdrawal agreement and quite a bit more... because they can.

There is no combination of new FTAs that can possibly offset the loss of the single market and the only thing halfway close is a US deal that requires massive asymmetric concessions. It's a net loss to trade and a substantial loss of face. It's also highly risky in that any deal has to get past a Democrat congress. Good luck with that.

I have previously argued that there can be no economic revival until there is a political realignment but from the looks of the habitual cycles our politics is falling into, this state of dysfunction could well become the new norm as it did for Italy and we never manage to recover politically or economically. Britain will become a further deluded basketcase with a legacy sense of self-importance that's even worse than it is now. A no deal Brexit as a tool of political reboot may very well have the opposite effect and further entrench all of our worst habits.

Put simply, pulling off something like a no deal Brexit requires a level of political talent that we just don't have. It would lack a majority government and a public mandate and in no time at all the only coherent movement in politics would be a coalition to rejoin the EU on worse terms than now. Taking back control? Methinks not.

Ultimately there is a deal on the table to get us out of the EU but if Brexiters MPs won't vote for it and campaign for it then they are passing up the opportunity to leave in an orderly amicable way in such a way that we maintain our international standing. If they prefer to chase "fwee twade" rainbows they are going to face a wall of opposition and ultimately lose the prize.  I'm not lifting a finger to dig them out of that hole. If they balls it up now it's entirely on them. Why should any of us have our lives tipped upside down for such a very obviously poor decision?

Spare a thought for Brexit Derangement Syndrome sufferers.

These days it is not uncommon to see formerly sane individuals losing the plot completely over Brexit. Brexit Derangement Syndrome has claimed its fair share of high profile victims from the ridiculous AC Grayling through to Alastair Campbell. They actually deserve their self-imposed torment. Poisonous vindictive silly little men deserve what they get.

But then as someone who wants to see a successful managed departure, I'm somewhat prone to losing my shit too. For a long time we've had the likes of Spiked and The Spectator telling us "we have nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit" calling on some of the most wildly wrong interpretations of WTO rules and seriously misreading how the EU trading system works. As much as they are demonstrably wrong, they cannot be told anything.

Typically there's the dribble about EU tariffs, often failing to understand that EU tariff rates are the default for those nations with no formal preferential agreements and in terms of developed nations and the oft invoked "poor African nations", that amounts to very few. The narratives just don't stack up.

Then there's the guff about "mini deals" in place of a withdrawal agreement. What they refer to is a limited number of unilateral contingency measures taken by the EU on the condition they are reciprocated. This may well offset some of the worst predictions made early on, but with a whole tranche of authorisations ended, and a number of additional third country controls detailed in the Notices to Stakeholders, that's still a very serious impact on trade.

Then there's the general misapprehension of what trade means. Trade in services is not just a banking concern. This is a question of being able to support goods sold all over the continent where we need visa arrangements, recognition of certification and a number of other market freedoms where agreements on tariffs (assuming the could be rapidly sorted out under Article 24 WTO) are neither here nor there. You need a whole stack of treaty instruments for the free circulation of goods and services up to and including recognition of driving qualifications. They prattle on about tariffs when tariffs are less than a tenth of the issue, emphasising how tinkering with tariffs somehow offsets the damage of trashing a complex integrated market system like the one we are presently part of.

For the no deal devotees, there is no problem to which they do not have a pre-prepared nostrum or slogan which either ignores the issues or ducks the question entirely. But then after three years of intense public debate, it's getting harder for the likes of Tice and Farage to make these assertions without being humiliated. This is perhaps why there has been a subtle shift in rhetoric, and perhaps explains why they have brought the Spiked groupies into the fold who persistently bleat about democracy and sovereignty.

Now this blogger certainly does not discount those issues. It is fundamentally why I am a leaver. But then democracy and sovereignty as objectives are problematic. You can have absolute sovereignty and jealously guard it but in so doing lose all of the trade advantages of coordination, harmonisation and cooperation. And then if we are simply transferring cack handed decision making from Brussels to the London bubble then that is no improvement for democracy either. In respect of technical governance it could even get worse.

And then there is a general failure to recognise that the exercise of sovereignty is not inconsequential. For sure after Brexit, especially in the even of a no deal Brexit, we will have the sovereignty to do a great many things as suggested by lexiters. The problem here is that the EU does not stop existing after Brexit and as the regional trade and political superpower, it can and will respond to the UK unilaterally subsidising things. As much as we are likely to breach a number of international conventions upon which EU rules are based, others will react to any behaviour they see as anti-competitive. Pretty soon you have a tit for tat war of frustrating measures which the UK loses most of the time.

The lexiters reside in non-interconnected world where economic policy can be imposed unilaterally without regard to global context, where increasing tax on upwardly mobile corporates and high earners inevitably leads to increased revenues without risk of relocation. Where the City's hegemony is inevitable and can be squeezed for new revenues as though other nations are incapable of competing for business. Where Government can pick and choose which international laws and regulations it deigns to adhere to without losing global influence in making those laws. Where the government can nationalise and subsidise industry at a whim without fear of reprisal or economic consequence. Like their ultra right bedfellows, they live in a world of their own.

Those of us who have factored in these realities recognised early on that much in the eurosceptic canon was obsolete baloney and that the march of globalisation means Brexit is only a partial remedy. For instance, it can be argues that the single market creates structures that favour corporates as only they can afford to the compliance. I have made that case myself somewhere on this blog, detailing how the EU has changed UK business culture in many subtle ways over the years - and not for the better. 

The problem here is that even in a WTO Brexit we are still signatories to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and still independent signatories to a number of environmental conventions which create many of the regulatory requirements in the contract bidding process. We can leave without a deal but the scope for deregulation is nowhere near what is believed without dismantling a number of global accords - which is not going to happen. All that would happen is that we could fiddle round the edges to make marginal improvements but the net result is a reciprocal response form the EU and the loss of access to EU markets.

Then there are certain facts of life the Brexit blob choose to ignore. The dilemma of regulatory and trade gravity where the larger customer usually dictates the regulatory conditions where there are often clashes with other systems. This is where it gets to a technical level that the flapping mouths of Spiked Online cannot cope with. 

If you are going to leave the EU you at least need to have a destination in mind and a comprehensive overview of the potential obstacles, but in the binary brains of the Brexit blob we are moving out of the EU regulatory sphere and into an unregulated wild west inhabited by buccaneering free traders. If that was ever the case then it was a very long time ago. In the modern world there are dilemmas to which there are are no satisfactory answers and to arrive at an optimal outcome will will have to engage on a number of multilateral platforms seeking a global consensus - which is not at all easy. 

Those of us who have done the thinking arrived at the conclusion that the Efta EEA system was the best balance of outcomes between trade and sovereignty - and though suboptimal, the UK would still be sufficiently influential to rebalance the Efta-EU equation. But this wouldn't do for the headbangers. Spiked called it a "third way non-Brexit". Only a total self-immolation can be considered the One True Brexit.

After some years of trying to explain these facts of life to their devotees, I am now bordering on Brexit Derangement Syndrome myself - driven to the brink of insanity and dismay as they invent any flimsy excuse not to plug into Sanity FM. So now we have to go over the cliff for the sake of their education at a major cost to the UK economy and our political standing in the world. And even then they will still make excuses for themselves.

Now you can credibly argue that a no deal Brexit has certain beneficial social impacts (which I won't go into) - if your objective is to wholly transform the UK into a less dynamic and more austere country. There's no shame in that. There are reasonable moral arguments for doing so, but that tends to come from the more dour CofE wing of conservatism and it's certainly not what the lexiters have in mind. I've made some of the arguments myself and have been suitably ridiculed for them. It requires people give up a lot of the perks they are currently used to and that is not something people like doing.

You can also argue that we don't get anywhere near a new economic settlement without first resolving the politics, and the so-called WTO option certainly does open a window for seismic political change, but there are certainly no guarantees it will resolve anything and could in fact send our politics into a state of permanent dysfunction until such a point where there is general agreement that grovelling back to Brussels is our only salvation. We may want to govern ourselves but it may transpire that such is beyond our abilities when faced with the avalanche of problems created by a no deal Brexit.

None of this though is what they promise us. What they offer is a buccaneering "fwee twade" future free of the shackles of the EU - and as a reasonably well respected trade commentator I can tell you it doesn't have even a passing relationship with reality. The extent to which the no deal headbangers dissemble and obfuscate would send any reasonable person round the bend.

Worse still is the cynical tactics they employ, doing the rounds of northern working men's clubs to drum up support for their ill conceived venture. There is nothing about a no deal Brexit that will improve the fortunes of the northern slum towns and dead end seaside resorts. When the mines shut, the ones with nous retrained and used their substantial redundancy money to invest and get out of dodge. The ones who squandered it in those very same clubs on card games and horse racing are still whining bitterly even today.

The Working Mens Clubs are not representative of the north or indeed the working class. They are the fag end of the 70's working class and no longer a cornerstone of northern culture, which these days is not a million miles away from culture in the south. Bradford has its own craft beer offerings and Saltaire village is almost hipster insofar as anywhere in Yorkshire can be. The north has moved on yet we are to believe beer bellied northern rugby nerds are northern lions and the authentic voice of working class Brexit voting Britain. Well, that can fuck off basically.

My family home was less than fifty yards from an infamous working mens club, often the subject of television poverty safaris. You have to hunt pretty hard to find one these days so it's not surprising TV producers always land on the obvious. I never went in the place and nor did my dad. We had a crap Vauxhall Astra and a Fiat Regatta estate which I still regard as the worst car ever made and even worse than anything made by British Leyland. Middle class we were not. 

My parents just found nothing particularly edifying about the slovenly local behaviour and educated me to aspire to more. I went to the same mediocre schools and worked the same local chemical plant. Nowhere, though, does it say by beginnings dictate my political leanings or that I should be a slave to them and I fail to see why complex and consequential decision making must take into account the issue illiterate grunts of ignorant northerners who get their information from the likes of Farage whenever he's on the telly. 

That is not to say they should have no voice at all, but we cannot allow a populist fever massaged by demagogues to shunt reality into the sidings. The lionsation of a tiny fragment of an increasingly diverse and increasingly affluent working class is little more than narrative manipulation. But then of course this makes me an elitist! See how this works? You're a snob if you don't bend to the ignorant grunting of Ukip 2.0.

But then we need a little history lesson here. Brexit was never specifically about the WTO option. The Tory Brexit machine didn't really go hot on that until after the referendum. They popularised it by way of having enormous influence over London prestige media. It's only because Farage, being idle, knowing little and having no ideas of his own, that he adopted no deal as a populist default. So then a narrative engineered by a band of powerful Tory donors is now being sold back to us as the authentic voice of the working man in the north. Well, is it bollocks!

The average northern working man has no concept of the WTO and has no well defined concept of trade governance and it is fair to say they have virtually no idea how the EU system works because Brexit has shown even the experts aren't exactly sure. So to say that this would be anything like an informed and authentic decision is a twist of the truth. The referendum win in 2016 does not give Brexiters a blank cheque either.

I confess to a little intellectual snobbery on this subject but then few can say they have examined Brexit through as many sides of the prism as this blogger, where different examinations have brought me to varied conclusions. At some point you just have to call it how you see it. A no deal Brexit is the worst outcome. People often say they are willing to endure the disruption and knuckle down and get on with it, but then how does that play out for those starting their careers and their families to be facing a ten year jobs drought? If that is a possibility then politics has an obligation to do all it can to avoid it.

There are high principles we can proudly nail to the mast as we leave without a deal, but as the predators close in and we find the useful exercise of sovereignty is not nearly as potent as was assumed, we might then wonder if there really was anything so bad in Mrs May's deal that was worse than the predicament we may soon face, when it won't just be the aggressive moves of the EU we are fending off. But the Brexit mob will never ask themselves these questions. The madness prevails. So if you find me succumbing to a bout of BDS, you'll have to cut me a bit of slack. At this point I've earned the right to go a little mad. 

Alive and kicking

I'm very probably the luckiest man alive. I've never been in a hospital in my adult life. Until now. Two nights ago I felt my throat swelling up to the point where I could no longer swallow and was gagging on my own saliva. The NHS 111 hotline was pretty useless with a long list of annoying questions and at the end of it the operative did not seem to get that I was suffering quite badly. I hung up. Some moments later my call was returned, this time by a chap who seemed to think it might be something serious and advised me to go to Southmead A&E.

Southmead is a new hospital in North Bristol. It's clean, extremely efficient and actually quite pleasant. I was seen in a timely way, first by a triage nurse who had a reasonable good guess what was happening. I was then directed to be examined by a doctor once I'd been fitted up to an IV or paracetamol. Instead of beds they had large leather arm chairs with motorised reclining and wide enough so you could curl up and sleep. I have to say the staff were brilliant. If all hospitals ran like that then you would say there simply isn't a problem with the NHS.

But my condition was a bit more serious and needed to be transferred by ambulance to Bristol Royal Infirmary in the city centre. That was an eyeopener and more in line with what I had imagined a hospital to look like. BRI is a bit of a cavern of despair, especially when delivered to the subterranean bunker like ENT ward, where there were some seriously poorly people from all walks of life. I actually felt like an imposter, thinking I should just go home. The nurse practitioner told me not to think like that and that I would be seen to.

My initial consultation was in the corridor as the ward had no beds. They were at capacity and there were others on trolley beds being treated in the somewhat grubby corridor. They had to activate their winter emergency procedure even though it's a warm mid May. It would seem they have problems adapting to unanticipated surges. When I was finally seen, I was seen by a very smart, very credible doctor of African origin and a trainee doctor. Diagnosis was quick, and was soon allocated a space for treatment albeit at the opposite end of the hospital in an unrelated ward. They put me wherever they could find room for me.

In fairness, once you move out of the emergency reception wards, the rest of BRI is tolerable and clean enough. It's true what they say about the NHS being dependent on immigrants. There were a lot of foreign nurses, mainly agency nurses from Hungary to Africa and beyond. The Hungarian nurse was great. Very jaded but very funny and very kind and turned a blind eye to my vaping. That really made a difference. They really did treat you like an adult human.

If I had any complaints, I'd say there were long waits with no information and I wasn't really being properly informed, and the nurses had only basic information. But then they were busy and had more urgent cases than me, so I waited my turn. I think perhaps some who complain about the NHS have over-inflated expectations and a belief that their own case is more important than anyone else's. I can understand that to a point. When you are in a hospital your first and main concern is to get treated and get out as soon as you can.

The sense you get is that a hospital is a universe of its own and its own ecosystem where it's only as good as the people in it and results will vary from hospital to hospital. I think Bristol is very lucky. I don't think it's the sort of thing that lends itself to miracle solutions where every customer has requirements that differ to the next. Politicians on all sides will tell us things are worse than they are because they have their own agendas. Some want it to be cheaper and more efficient but this business is by its very nature inefficient and very very expensive.

From the high tech snake camera they rammed up my nose to the multimode beds and monitors, you're looking at tens of thousands worth of equipment and man hours and that's before you get into the expensive treatments. Ensuring everyone gets the treatment they need, whoever they are, when they need it, on a a walk in basis is actually something to be in awe of. Whether or not the NHS is the only way to deliver this is another question, and though I had an entirely satisfactory experience, one can see how those with special requirements may fall between the cracks.

Casting my mind back to the Mid-Staffordshire scandal where we heard reports of patients drinking water from vases seems wholly plausible. There are times when all the staff are busy and even if you press the summon button you can be waiting a while to be seen for something even as basic as a glass of water. It could be argued that some wards are understaffed and could benefit from a few more gophers to deal with basic care needs. When you have no relatives nearby to call on the whole process can be quite frightening and when you're conscious you're taking up space, your instinct is just to wait your turn. There seems to be two extremes of patient. The overpolite and the totally impolite. Sometimes you need to be a bit of both to get what you need.

I therefore arrive at the conclusion that the NHS question is one much like Brexit, where anyone offering up simplistic and pleasing solutions is one who hasn't really understood the issues and is probably not even interested in them. Improvements happen with multiple intelligent policies from HR to care policy. In many ways the NHS makes life harder for itself by having incredible high care standards. They follow process to the letter and though this could be interpreted as unnecessary bureaucracy, very often it preempts the sort of errors that could be made otherwise and is a life saving influence. A well functioning administrative system makes all the difference and there is always room for improvement.

Of course, one stay in an NHS hospital does not make me an expert on the NHS, nor indeed is this post meant to influence the debate one way or the other. All I'll say is that the system worked when I needed it and all this experience cost me was £16.50 in parking and I'm not now having to fill in a stack of forms and guessing what will or won't be covered. The NHS most certainly needs its critics and the cult like devotion to it is politically unhealthy, but a system with those outcomes has intrinsic social and economic merit which is perhaps not factored in by beancounting Tory economists. Either way, I'm alive and on the mend. And I am thankful for that.