Sunday, 20 October 2019

Labour is barking up the wrong tree


There has been much talk this week of "level playing field" - chiefly workers rights. There's a lot to unpack here. The basic nature of Labour's manufactured niggle with the withdrawal agreement is the childish presumption that without provisions guaranteeing a minimum array of rights the Tories will prune back those rights to Victorian levels (women down mines and children up chimneys).

Firstly we should note that there wasn't much wrong with existing workers rights before the onslaught of EU rules that couldn't have been addressed by our own democratic processes and institutions. I also think that a number of measures designed to improve rights had the complete opposite effect. It's no coincidence that permanent work became harder to find. Every intervention has unintended consequences.

But there's also a lot that needs to understood about EU "workers rights". Every intervention has a specific purpose and usually it's got nothing to do with workers rights at all. Unions are in the business of improving workers rights for its own sake whereas the EU uses them for a number of political objectives. Primarily they serve as a tool of integration (and subsequent appropriation of powers) but they also serve as a handy means of trade protectionism. They are also very obviously of great propaganda value of the EU as we have seen this week.

But this is where the EU pulls a fast one. The EU claims that there is no mass of legislation emanating from Brussels, choking businesses to death as the Tories would have it. The bulk of legislation that regulates the labour market, they claim, is of national origin. "European laws simply set down minimum standards for health and safety at work and deal with matters such as the right to free movement of workers, equal rights for men and women at work and some labour law which deals with certain rights in specific situations such as collective dismissals, or where a company changes hands or when an employer becomes bankrupt".

The claim that rules are of national origin is always something of a deception in that directives instruct member states to legislate according to parameters defined by the EU so the origin question is never clear cut. This runs throughout the whole debate about where our laws really come from. The thrust, though, is toward "ever closer union" and harmonisation between member states. 

One such instrument being the Posted Workers Directive which regulates a practice used between companies located in different countries. A worker is posted when their original employer sends them to work, for a temporary period, in another company. Posting has been defined as a specific form of labour mobility within the EU. It generates extensive controversy due to fraudulent practices hampering the enforcement of existing regulations. Changes in the location of work raises various questions - namely, who is the employer and which national regulations apply. The use of temporary agencies, subcontracting and posting of self-employed workers gives rise to additional problems.

This is something of a beneficial crisis for the EU which uses something that affects only 1% of the workforce to drive harmonisation on maximum work periods and minimum rest periods, minimum paid annual holidays, the minimum rates of pay, including overtime rates, gender equality, the conditions of hiring-out of workers and health, safety at work. Initially it started out as a set of minimum standards but over the years has evolved into a rigid schema of legislation which is no longer an exclusive competence of member states.

Cutting to the chase, once something becomes an EU competence and the EU is the supreme authority, national parliaments lose the ability to define their own rules and certainly not without checking with Brussels first. Our own rules can be struck down if they in any way interfere with the integration agenda. Ultimately the EU single market envisages a homogenised labour market throughout where the same job has the same pay and conditions wherever you go.

In theory that's great but in practice it neuters national unions who then have to operate as lobbyists at the European level. They then become obedient cogs in the machinery while traditional union activity is replaced by works councils - widely adopted by corporates to freeze out unions. Workers rights, therefore, are largely a technocratic mechanism for the balancing of an economic programme and not done altruistically. If we had a Labour movement worth speaking of, it would strongly object to being sidelined by the EU.

Instead of leaping on Brexit as an opportunity to revitalise the union movement and "take back control", the Labour party sees the EU as a guarantor of those minimum standards - a safe locker where advances (for what they are worth) are bound up in an external treaty. They're working on the presumption that Labour won't be taking power any time soon. Instead of addressing why that might be, they work to neuter Brexit instead.

But then to a very large extent Labour is barking up the wrong tree this week. Though the level playing field provisions have been removed from the withdrawal agreement and shunted into the political declaration, they needn't worry. This has been done to give Johnson an illusory victory knowing that no future relationship treaty will be agreed unless there is a competition policy chapter.

The fact, though, that these provisions come under competition policy of itself should inform Labour (had they bothered to check) that the workers rights are more to do with trade than ensuring Janine in accounting has a VDU assessment and a foot pedestal for her arthritis. Had they looked at any EU FTA they'd see that the provisions largely employ International Labour Organisation standards which for the most part are geared toward stamping out the more egregious practices found in developing countries such as child labour and compulsory labour. Not exactly a high bar for the UK to reach or maintain. 

As with most other chapters of modern EU FTAs on standards, be they food standards or vehicle safety standards, the FTAs only really reaffirm existing global conventions. The same is true of competition rules. The EU-Japan FTA states "The Parties reaffirm their obligations deriving from the International Labour Organisation". Much of the text is lifted verbatim from multilateral agreements that the UK would be an independent signatory to even on a no deal basis.

The fact is, if Labour wanted to retain the high level of labour governance that goes with EU membership then they should have campaigned for an EEA Efta solution. Leaving the single market means leaving the European regulatory ecosystem and all the social flanking policies. Labour assumes that level playing field provisions provide the same guarantees when in fact they're arguing for the "WTO rules" of labour rights. A minimum framework that provides no real guarantees at all. Even with the "level playing field" provisions, the Tories can still have a field day with deregulation. 

As it happens the Labour party is just looking for any excuse to derail the withdrawal agreement and latching onto anything that sounds remotely plausible. One should also note that if this was their sticking point they should have voted for May's deal when they could. But then by now it should be abundantly clear that Labour is opposing the deal for its own sake. For the progressives in Labour, these parlour games are more about stopping Brexit than any heartfelt concern for workers rights. Corbyn just gets dragged along with it because he's a coward. Ultimately you could give Labour whatever they demanded and they would still go fishing for something else to object to. They're taking us for fools. 

Another day in Brexit purgatory


Of itself the logic behind the Letwin amendment is sound. When you have a Tory government you can't quite trust is not seeking a no deal Brexit when time is running out for ratification, it makes sense to close down the options. Though a provisional deal is on the table, it isn't a deal until it's cleared fully on the Brussels side of the table and we'd probably left it a bit late to get it done.

As you'd expect, though, the Brexiteers are fuming about it. In their eyes (and not without good cause) this is a wrecking amendment and that's exactly how the public will see it. Parliament was convened on Saturday to pass a deal and they didn't. MPs can hide behind the amendment but it didn't take long for the real wreckers to get stuck in - with Keir Starmer announcing dozens of amendments and an amendment to insert a customs union and legislation for a second referendum.

The effect of mangling such legislation is to ensure that yet again Brexiters will withdraw their support for the deal ensuring we remain entrenched in this quagmire. I suspected the morning of the deal that the only way this was ever going to pass is after a general election.

Much now depends on the nature of any extension. Though I wouldn't blame the EU for pulling the plug I think there will be an extension but only for the process of ratification and with a termination clause. There is no appetite for further delay on either side of the Channel and if the deal wasn't open for discussion before, it certainly isn't now. If it's only a short extension then there can't be a general election and MPs have to choose between this deal or no deal. Being that the wrecking amendments would make it impossible for Brexiters to vote for it, no deal is still a very real possibility.

You'd think parliament would've learned something but no, we have to repeat all the same fannying around we had over May's deal. They'll sod around the whole time till we're at the cliff edge again and they still won't make a decision. The stupidity of these wastrels staggering. If there is now a no deal Brexit, the public won't blame Johnson. Parliament reaffirmed its position that it won't pass any legislation that facilitates an orderly exit. They're more at home playing cynical tribal games. It hasn't gone unnoticed.

As to the matter of a second referendum, it should be noted that any referendum can only realistically have two options which is the deal versus remain. This would require a far longer extension which we likely will not get but if we do have to go through the motions then it will likely make no difference. They dress up a second referendum as a vote on the deal but it's only the exit mechanism+transition. That's a technical issue not a constitutional question. Without a defined future relationship, a referendum with a remain option is a straight rerun of 2016 because they didn't like the result. That will be a strong card for the leave camp.

In any case, a "kangarendum" forced on a minority government would still face enormous opposition the Tories can just as easily make Brexit a manifesto commitment and immediately relaunch the process following a general election, this time circumventing the Article 50 process entirely. By that time it will be clearer than ever that this really is the people versus parliament and Johnson could well win by a landslide.

The conventional narrative has it that if Johnson doesn't deliver Brexit after all his promises then leave voters will desert him for the Brexit Party, but I don't think that holds and I don't think it ever did. The public won't blame Johnson and the way in which ardent no dealers have pivoted to support Johnson's deal suggests that support for no deal has always been fickle. It is also becoming clear that Farage could end up blowing the whole thing by refusing to compromise. Between that and the total absence of an electable alternative, Johnson could come through this unscathed.

With so many possibilities and so many branches of probability the situation defies any prediction. As usual we are left to speculate on the basis of incomplete information and limited understanding. The media doesn't seem to appreciate the limitations and constraints the EU is working under and all the while the vagaries of our own parliamentary system adds only further confusion. All we can do is take it one day at a time. For a brief moment it looked like we would leave with a deal on time but thanks to parliament there's a good chance our departure is some weeks away and no deal is as real a threat as ever it was. The shenanigans in parliament can't seem to make it go away.  

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Brexit: As good as it's going to get


I made the case that there wasn't a sincere attempt to secure a deal. And for a time I don't think there was. Amber Rudd was right. The leave vote looked to be galvanised in favour of no delay and no deal. But with the Benn Act breathing down the neck of Johnson, a deal became the only way (and may yet fail) to avoid an extension. And of course Johnson needed to save face after all the promises made.

Bizarrely the media, not least the FT and BBC, are falling behind the narrative that the backstop has been done away with - which it hasn't. It seems to have been rolled back to the NI only proposal which was the EU's opening offer. Then, as I understand it, the level playing field provisions have been shunted into the political declaration.

From what I gather there are a few bolt-ons to the NI arrangement which is described as "Schrodinger's backstop" where it is has the effect (give or take) of being a customs union with the EU while legally part of the UK customs territory. It's an inelegant fudge which is politically more acceptable than May's whole UK quasi-customs union. In most respects, though, it is still the same dog.

If, then, there were any intellectual consistency, those who opposed May's deal shouldn't budge - and by the looks of it they aren't budging save for the Tory tribe who will fall behind Boris Johnson because Boris Johnson. It looks to me like the EU have done just enough for Johnson to save face - claiming two victories - the "abolition" of the backstop, and reopening the withdrawal agreement when everyone (including me) said it couldn't and wouldn't happen. How the EU now squares that with the breach of its own rules remains to be seen. I think we are in "phantom veto" country.

If there is a victory on reopening the deal it's certainly not because of Johnson's opening offer. The EU was never going to agree to that. More likely the EU has set out the only conditions that could qualify as "legally operable" and the parties have worked together to row back to where we were before May lost her majority. Make no mistake, this is a major UK climbdown. Johnson was supposed to be the conquering hero who could handbag the beastly EU, scrap the backstop and come away with a better deal. This is just tinkering around the edges. But it will have to do.

We should note, however that the devil is in the detail. The small print says the texts are "subject to legal revision", so we're not even dealing with the final drafts. Then, the drafts are not to be approved today. They wait for the European Parliament's "consent" - presumably next week, whence there must be another European Council formally to conclude the agreement (which will only happen if the swamp dwellers have ratified).

So will it pass? Again your guess is as good as mine but with Raab falling into line he stands a good chance of taking some of the ERG with him. Securing the deal is the easy bit. Getting it over the line is the real political accomplishment. Johnson may well find he has it no easier than Theresa May - especially since Labour are opposing the deal for its own sake and the DUP will oppose it because that's what the DUP does.

I'm not sure how this now goes but I think if the deal doesn't pass then we'll have to go for a general election to replace this zombie parliament. A new majority means Johnson can safely throw the DUP under the bus. Leavers will probably tolerate an extension for that and then one hopes a new parliament will pass the deal. We'll have to wait and see. The assumption is that if there is an extension then leavers will be so enraged that they'll vote for the Farage Party. I don't think so. The Brexit Party tops out at 14% in the polls which is roughly where Ukip was at before it imploded. With Brexit on the line it won't do that well. Leavers know full well that if there's any hope of leaving then they have to vote Tory.

Farage being Farage, though, will make the case that the Johnson deal is a rehash of May's deal thus is not leaving. That narrative has worked since the Tory Brexit blob have also massaged that narrative but if the Tory blob moves away from the hardline position (BrexitCentral is the one to watch) then Farage is out on his own looking like he's just after saving his own gravy train. The Brexit Party won't break the 11% marker.

As to the respective merits of the deal, the argument remains the same. We are investing way too much energy over the withdrawal agreement failing to recognise that it is only the instrument of departure and in all likelihood the backstop will never see the light of day. The deal provides a framework for a managed departure where most of the provisions within the agreement will be replaced by the future relationship.

My hunch at this point is that, if the deal passes, the Tories will go in cack handed (as ever they do) with an idea of what they want only to be gradually strangled by reality the same way Mrs May was. They'll want a bare bones FTA with customs protocols but that will leave too many gaping holes so there will be further concessions on regulatory and customs cooperation and we will see a high level of coordination on tariffs. I suspect the EU will seek to recycle much of the work it has done with Switzerland so we end up with a shadow EEA - or nine tenths of it.

As an outcome it's suboptimal but certainly preferable to going the long way around by leaving without a deal and then be bludgeoned into making concession after concession. In short, this deal, or virtually any deal) is preferable to no deal. I'll back this deal for the same reason I backed the last one. We won't get all of what we want this time around but we live to fight another day.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

What makes me such an expert?


I've just had a Dutch journalist on the phone asking about me and The Leave Alliance. He wanted to know what it is that makes me, formerly an IT professional, an authority on Brexit and trade - wondering what my credentials are and why so many people seem to trust this blog.

As it happens I am not an expert. I'm a very good generalist. Where trade is concerned I'm only expert by contrast with the Brexiters who know precisely nothing about it. But then you don't have to be an expert. Trade is as complex as you want to make it but in general the principles of the discipline are simple. It takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. It's just that politicians have never taken those five minutes necessary to understand what the game is.

My golden rule in all this is that the simple answer is usually the wrong answer. It comes from appreciating that the single market is not a "trade bloc", rather it is a system of government with multiple crossovers - and the system is greater than the sum of its parts. This is why the EU does not allow cherry picking.

But even then it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a trade expert) to work out that delays at the ports cost money and adding overheads to the the cost of exporting makes your goods less competitive. It doesn't matter if goods are tariff free if you still face an added three hours queueing in traffic to then have your shipment diverted, inspected and examined. Non-tariff barriers to trade come in many forms not least differences between regulatory regimes which is why they went to the bother of creating the single market to begin with.

As to why all these measures on the border exist, the EU is looking to safeguard its own standards on everything from toy safety to pollution controls. If you want to minimise your overheads you have to maximise your compliance. Our frictionless supply chains are the product of regulatory harmonisation and behind the border enforcement. Then if you are a party to this system, obviously you can't make unilateral decisions that undermine the integrity of this system. That is the basis for understanding the dispute on the Irish border.

In many respects the debate is polluted by the term "free trade deal" in that "free trade" as imagined by free market Tories does not exist. Trade agreements are treaties governing the conditions of transactions where each agreement has ramifications for the next. Each must be evaluated to see how it interacts with existing frameworks. Then of course trade deals are not clinical instruments of commerce. They are intensely political and very often used to advance foreign policy objectives which can often contrast and contradict. It is therefore a matter of prioritising.

Once you scratch the surface (and I have certainly done that) it becomes apparent that the simplistic narratives advanced by Brexiteers and remainers alike bear little relation to how things work in the real world. This blog is an attempt at a corrective. For what that's worth. I'm not always right.

But then I was asked why I appear to be so angry and sarcastic on Twitter. The anger is easily explained. Both out politicians and media should after three years have a far better handle on the issues than they do - and after all this time have no excuse for getting basic concepts wrong. Even now they are still struggling with the basics of Article 50. Then what makes me absolutely livid is the Brexiteers advancing some wildly inaccurate narratives and doing so quite deliberately. I have a distaste for imprecision and I especially don't like politicians lying to us. That they are notionally on my side is neither here nor there. They don't get a free pass. As to the sarcasm, after four years of spelling out the basics, sarcasm is all I have left. My patience is exhausted.

Suffice to say that after four years of intensive debate and reading countless agreements and regulations and books on the subject, I now have pretty good idea of what I know but also how much there is out there I don't know - so while you can dispute my expertise it's safe to say I know a bullshitter when I see one - and bullshit is something we need a lot less of if we are to successfully navigate the challenges of Brexit. If we can't confront the realities head on then we will fall into every trap along the way. Nothing is served by lying to others - or ourselves.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Voter ID - a populist cop out


Voter ID is a bit of a decoy. Electoral fraud is a problem but it takes a different form to vote tampering and Voter ID doesn't scratch the surface. It's a sledgehammer to miss the nut. It's an easy answer for politicians who dare not grapple with the more sensitive causes.

Voter ID is just a political meme much like "australian points based system". Superficially it sounds like a solution to widespread electoral corruption but in practice is fishing in the wrong pond. It allows politicians to pretend they're doing something whereas the actual policy impact is minimal.

Though I don't have a problem with asking for ID, any requirement for ID for a basic civic function like voting is going to end up with calls for a compulsory national ID. We have been here before under the Blair years. As an idea it sucked then and it sucks now. Not least because we are dealing with a criminal element and if they are ok with forging votes then they're equally ok with forging ID - and no matter how sophisticated the system, they will always find a way around it.

On this it's worth reading the Electoral Commission's somewhat mealy mouthed report on the subject identifying the vulnerabilities. It's clear that the problem is complex and requires a spectrum of policy solutions.

As with immigration you need a long term strategy looking at all parts of the problem, tackling each of the issues as part of a joined up policy - which our politics doesn't stretch to. Without joined up thinking all we'll have is populist sticking plasters that accomplish little.

Moreover, electoral fraud to a very large extent is a symptom of a wider problem starting with immigrant communities which is why we need a much more robust immigration integration strategy. It means asking uncomfortable questions. What we would probably find is that the issues of CSE, voter fraud, and visa fraud are all connected requiring a much more sophisticated and daring approach and I really doubt any administration has the stones to get serious about it.

In that respect Voter ID is a handy piece of electioneering that allows politicians to duck the thornier questions and excuses them from applying themselves to more complex questions. Another failure of our politics. Sadly though, it appears to work.

The Johnson administration can now pretend it's getting tough on the issue when in fact it's just a device to wrongfoot Labour - and the issue is only of temporary expedient interest to them. It's a dog whistle aimed at the kiptard constituency - and they fall for it every time.

For the Tories it's good politics. Labour falls into the trap of opposing it from which they can infer that Labour is up to its neck in it - which of course it is, but then that's just the stereotype. The Tories are just as vulnerable to it in northern slums/Pakistani enclaves. The truth of the matter is that local politics has been a cesspool of corruption for going on three decades now and it follows US trends where ethnic groups operate tribally through mosques etc. The parties themselves need to clamp down on it. That sort of electoral corruption is really only the tip of the iceberg. Once they control a council they have free reign to abuse the system for their own ends.

Consequently the electoral fraud we see needs to be look at as part of our immigration strategy rather than an isolated issue. And this is where we'll see whataboutery from Labour because a serious crackdown would seriously embarrass them and expose further instances of CSE. And of course wherever you find CSE and visa scams you also find instances of modern slavery and organised crime which is another facet of the immigration question. If you want to fix attitudes to immigration then you need to clean up the negative externalities.

That's why backstreet Asian law firms need to go under the microscope. Lift that stone and you'll see the woodlice crawling out. But it's a question of who has the guts to do it. We'd need a serious law and order government - but they prefer the easy answer of voter ID. Unless we get to grips with it then local democracy will cease to be democracy and we'll end up with south asian tribalism that requires central supervision. We need to be candid about this instead of labelling people "far right" for pointing out the bleedin' obvious.

Instead of grasping this nettle though, we'll see leftists scurrying round for any shred of whataboutery they can dig up and crying racism. In so doing they are undermining our democracy whilst enabling industrial scale noncery and corruption. But that's the modern left for you.

But then Tories are far from innocent. The only reason a talentless hack like Priti Patel is in office is because she leveraged the tribal Indian vote to vote for Brexit in exchange for softening of visa requirements. That's why we won't see the Tories get serious about it either. The sick joke of it is, Toryboys and Kiptards LOVE Pritti Patel. She's a darkie but grunts right wing slogans at them and so long as there's a red herring like Voter ID in circulation (along with nonsense about Australian points based blah), they can get away with doing... fuck all.

It's a criminal shame too because for as long as this is too hot to touch we stand no chance of successfully integrating immigrant communities and will only see rising hostility to immigration - not because we "hate foreigners" but because it can't be sustained.

This is why I dislike the Brexit Party etc. They're so easily bought off with sops like Voter ID. Every time Johnson throws them a bone they lap it up. They're too lazy to set out and demand policies of their own and use soundbites instead so soundbites is what they get back. So when we should have a fringe politics holding the Tories' feet to the fire we have pliant little lap dogs like Arron Banks and Nigel Farage patting Johnson on the head - selling out the entire movement and undermining everything it hoped to achieve, ie draining the swamp.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Falling for decoys.


I always feel like I need an excuse for not blogging for a few days but this time I make no apology for it. I was gifted a ticket to see Alice Cooper. That information is not pertinent to this post save to gloat. But then it's just as well since I absolutely refuse to waste a nanosecond on the Brexit soap opera which is almost entirely based on speculation from half -informed court scribes. Buggering off to Birmingham seemed like a far more sensible idea.

Front the beginning of this particular chapter I have not been at all convinced that any sincere attempt to secure a deal is underway. In the unlikely event that Johnson's customs proposal was remotely credible and satisfying the EU's legal requirements, this administration would find something else to pick holes in - shifting the goalposts as they go. That seems to be the case as of now with calls to dump the "level playing field" provisions.

Quite obviously the furore over the backstop is little more than a decoy. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement is simply the mechanism that gets us through into a transitional period, where we continue to act as if we are in the EU, buying time for the future relationship talks. In theory, we agree a new relationship (yet to be defined) at the same time we drop out of the transitional period. That second agreement is the one that is supposed to guarantee frictionless trade between NI and the Republic - augmented by the Strasbourg supplement to the Political Declaration. Most of the provisions in the WA will never see the light of day.

In those pages, Johnson has everything he could possibly want.
The Union and the United Kingdom have the shared ambition to have the future relationship in place by the end of the transition period." ... "Given the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s firm commitment to work at speed on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements such that the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will not need to be applied, a specific negotiating track will be established at the outset and as part of the negotiations to lead the analysis and development of these alternative arrangements. This dedicated track will consider the use of all existing and emerging facilitative arrangements and technologies, with a view to assessing their potential to replace, in whole or in part, the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
You really couldn't really ask for more. The backstop is a exactly that... a backstop in case of a total collapse of talks in the transition period, which just doesn't seem at all likely. There just doesn't seem to be a rational reason for all this fannying around over what will end up a redundant mechanism.

But, of course, a lot of what's driving this is paranoia and suspicion. Brexiteers are convinced the WA is a device to keep us trapped in a permanent BRINO limbo from which we cannot escape without EU approval. There may be good reason not to trust the EU in some regards but in this matter, that level of suspicion is bordering on the delusional - largely from those who pay more attention to the ranting of Guy Verhofstadt than Michel Barnier. If the Council had any sense they'd tell the former to put a sock in it.

But then Barnier hasn't done himself any favours either, not least having posed this week with a trio of Lib Dem deadbeats hell bent on scuppering Brexit. It may have been in the spirit of inclusive cooperation but I'm guessing they didn't think very hard about the optics. To your average Brexit grunter it looks like collusion.

If there were a sincere effort to secure a deal it would have to start with the recognition that there must be a backstop. Being that there isn't much wiggle room the only real scope is to dial it back to what it was before Theresa May expanded the scope of it to become an all UK customs arrangement which is widely believed to be a customs union. Though Johnson would have to throw the DUP under the bus for that. He'd need to win support on the opposite benches.

Initially it certainly smelled like that was the game in play - where Johnson would eventually offer up a rehash of May's deal and the Tory tribe would fall into line to save face. The Brexit party certainly think that's the game in play having always suspected Johnson as a sell out. That, though, is probably not going to happen. The demands to drop the "level playing field" provisions create yet another artificial obstacle and one more reason for opposition MPs to oppose the deal. Hilary Benn tweeted something to that effect earlier today - fearing a "Singapore on Thames".

In any case, for there to be formal negotiations to hammer out the details of whatever could (but won't) be agreed, there would more than likely have to be a technical extension so we are back to the same old speculation (Though there is talk now of an extra "special" European Council later in the month, with talks being allowed to continue for a few more days). If there is to be a deal, though, it's going to take a general election because it doesn't look at all likely that parliament will ratify any deal at this point so it all seems somewhat redundant. If parliament then refuses a general election ensuring a squatter parliament then we'll be right back where we are, careering towards no deal and with no chance of a further extension.

The media began the weekend on a high note with cautious optimism that a deal was in sight. I don't think any realist thought so and such optimism wasn't likely to last the weekend. The signals today suggest there is still no coherent proposal from the UK and Monday will revert to the war of words we have seen for some weeks now. At least, though, there will be something new to speculate over. The end of the line is in sight.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Brexiters will come to regret rejecting May's deal


I am a leaver. But I didn't celebrate that morning in June 2016. Vote Leave Ltd dug a number of holes that would ensure a long and bitter battle to get Brexit over the line in a situation where it was already going to face implacable opposition. For me it was just another day in the trenches. So too will be Brexit day when we leave without a deal. There won't be much to celebrate.

Obviously I will take some great pleasure in this arduous phase being over and watching the remainer wailathon as they're visited with much deserved karma for their obstructionism - which is in part responsible for the failure of this process. But no deal is by no means a success. The failure of the Article 50 process merely starts another process of negotiation and another fierce political battle. One where the UK is excluded from a number of pivotal markets and will find itself putting out brushfires all over the shop.

At that point, the EU will have a gaping hole in its customs frontier which is a major liability that threatens to weaken the single market, undermining the sovereignty of the EU. Brexiteers assume that our departure leaves a gaping hole in EU finances which will change EU attitudes considerably. This is a major miscalculation in that the £39bn was never a lump sum, nor is it an especially large figure in terms of EU income. The EU's first priority will be to address the frontier problem in Ireland.

For some time now I have said on this blog, at least three times a week, that the price of even opening up talks will be a customs protocol for Northern Ireland and it's not going to look much different to that which is already outlined in the withdrawal agreement. A number of EU officials and diplomats have said this and it seems like the logical thing to do. That's exactly what I would do in their position.

The assumption that because the EU loses an important export market it will face internal pressure to soften its stance underestimates how seriously the EU views the threat of an unpoliced border without formal arrangements with the EU. In the first instance the UK remains aligned in most senses so the immediate risks are minimal - so through a mix of fudges and waivers the EU can stave of the installation of customs facilities for the interim. That is time enough to gradually tighten the noose at Calais and step up the process of freezing the UK out of lucrative services markets - enough for it to hurt.

I doubt it will take very long before we are once gain bickering about customs formalities and "regulatory alignment", with the Johnson administration still failing to grasp the basics, ensuring we remain in a limbo for some months with no indication as to when or how we are going to repair our trade and cooperation with the EU. There lies further damaging uncertainty for business and foreign investors.

The obvious reality that seems to escape Brexiteers is that the EU is a trade superpower with greater clout than us but also one that places greater value on its founding ideals than it does commercial expediency. It has taken the necessary unilateral measure to safeguard its own immediate interests so those mythical pleas from "German carmakers" will fall on deaf ears. More likely the EU will face demands not to allow the UK any competitive advantages while EU firms hoover up our share of the EU market.

The question, therefore, is how long the Johnson administration can withstand the onslaught of negative economic signals and the manifestation of real job losses. For Johnson to then cave in on an NI protocol he could have had without all of this mess would be too much of a loss of face so he'll continue to play the victim, keeping the UK in a state of limbo. For a time the Tory tribe will promote the narrative that the EU is refusing to do a deal with us and is blockading the UK out of spite. That might work for a while but when the public start to experience real problems Johnson will start sliding in the polls and eventually the letters will go in to the 1922 committee.

By that point, anyone not still drinking the Brexit kool aid will view Brexit as a manifest failure and the task of rebuilding our relations with the EU will likely fall to the centrists whereupon they probably will ask for a customs union (still not knowing what one is or what it does) and then there's a chance we could end up with an economic settlement which is more BRINO than May's deal ever was.

But that's karma for you. The Telegraph, Spectator and the rest of the Tory blob have played up the idea that May's withdrawal agreement is a customs union when in fact the requirement is alignment with the rules of the Union Customs Code. It may not have been what the Brexiteers had in mind but the simple truth being that we would end up in any circumstances aligning with the EU both on regulation and tariffs because it is in our interests anyway. The EU regulatory sphere spans thirty three countries directly and influences the standards and regulations of a dozen more and the EU;s rules of origin ensures that substantial variance in tariffs would not be the boon that Tories seem to think it is.

For now the Brexiteers have the power and they think they've won. They seem to think that Brexit day is the end of the matter where we move on to other things. Sadly this is not the case. Our external relations are a continuum and there is no end point. Leaving without a deal only ensures the road to a new normal is longer and harder and much, much more costly. The power then ends up back in the hands of those who never wanted Brexit in the first place who'll be keen to undo as much of the damage as possible. The economic imperative will override the fundamental democratic argument underpinning Brexit.

That is the essential problem here in that this is very much a "Tory Brexit", seeing Brexit as a Trojan horse for a radical economic experiment rather than something worth doing for a principle. They may have won the key battles but failed to win the argument - and having failed to set us on a course to a viable destination, leavers will have a new fight on their hands to stay out of the EU. The promise of sovereignty loses its shine when you're not meeting mortgage payments.

Though no deal is a collective failure on the part of our media and politics, the ultimate responsibility will lie with Boris Johnson and to a large extent Dominic Cummings - who favoured bluster and bluff over knowledge. From the outset they've viewed this as a game of 3D chess necessitating plots, schemes, gambits and trickery when all it really demanded was for the UK to agree a coherent position and work with the EU to deliver it.

Here the Commission has fallen back on the instruments it favours because it sees no real reason why it should complicate matters for the sake of a departing member. It has, however, been consistent in saying that if the UK could devise a viable alternative then they'd be open to it. That the EU is apparently "intransigent" is because no serious alternative has ever been presented. The EU has been clear enough that any solution must not compromise its customs and regulatory territory. Both May and Johnson attempted to subvert the process and unsurprisingly came to a dead end. 

The problem was that every mode of a negotiated exit involves facing up to a few uncomfortable realities that Brexiteers have steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Theresa May tried her hardest to square the circle and in the end admitted that something had to give. That cost her the premiership and she was replaced with the ultimate charlatan who promised the Tory tribe they could have the moon on a stick with no penalty. It is that fundamental arrogance combined with a galactic ignorance (cultivated by the leave inclined press) which perpetuated the notion that we have the upper hand and it's all there for the taking.

With talks having stalled today it now looks more certain than ever that we'll leave without a deal. The only hope I see is if the withdrawal agreement can somehow be resurrected. Forlorn hope though that may be. It's still our best chance of reaching a viable destination.

Initially I was opposed to the WA since the Tories were hell bent on leaving the EEA which leaves a binding framework with none of the single market advantages but once it became clear EEA was probably a dead option, and the deal was the only deal, I learned to like it simply because no deal is a disaster. In the longer term a negotiated exit would probably reveal in time that an FTA is insufficient and that we'd end up working toward a shadow EEA - having made Efta untenable.

The bottom line is that we either accept suboptimal terms now or worse terms later when we're in serious trouble. The withdrawal agreement is at least a lifeline, kicking off a fresh process and a new debate where, if the government is serious about preventing the activation of the backstop, it will be looking at whole UK solutions which will naturally lean toward the single market.

One way or another I think something close to single market membership will be the longer term destination. The only question is how we get there. If we allow the Article 50 process to fail then the road will be longer and considerably more painful. The only discernible upside is that it will destroy the Tories and utterly discredit the ultra Brexiters which is almost a price worth paying. But only almost. The price is too high even for me. 

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

A nation lost


I think we are odds on for a no deal Brexit. It is a collective failure. Nobody is blameless. If anyone is directly to blame then it's Boris Johnson who seems to be playing a game designed to fail with the intention of leaving without a deal. There doesn't seem to be a sincere effort to secure a deal and I don't think there ever was. I think very probably the Johnson administration concluded that if May's deal wasn't going to pass then nothing close to it would either. Parliament can wail about this all it likes but had they realised May's MV3 was their last chance, Johnson wouldn't even be prime minister. But they all decided to play double or quits.

At this point it is largely futile to complain about no deal or even warn of its imminent effects. The die is cast. I can't see any other outcome. It's plausible May's deal could be dialled back to what it was originally but Johnson would need a new mandate in order to throw the DUP under the bus. If that happens then a general election would likely see attitudes harden and we'd still leave without a deal since Johnson would still seek to remove the non-regression instruments. Even if he succeeded in doing so he may still struggle to get it past parliament.

That's all a bit of a reach though since this government has already persuaded itself we can manage without a deal. Bombast, bluster and jingoism is the order of the day. And it seems to be quite popular. Or at the very least preferable to the alternatives. The game is all about apportioning blame now.

The view on Tory Street is that the UK has made a sincere offer and has done everything possible to "help Ireland with its problem" - as though we have nothing at all riding on it. The penny has not yet dropped that we have a £270bn a year trade relationship riding on it. Nor have they realised that leaving without a deal doesn't evade the technical dilemmas of Brexit. It only postpones the decision making to a time where the UK is excluded from a number of lucrative markets when the balance of leverage is heavily in the EU's favour. Johnson is setting us up for humiliation.

The ultimate cause of this failure is that the EU cannot grant single market rights to any part of the UK without the UK observing the obligations that go with it. To do so would would require it to offer the same preferences to any other FTA holder. The EU would be forced into a unilateral liberalisation that would pose an existential threat to the single market. This they cannot do. Not for a third country and not for a departing member hell bent on executing a Tory "free trade" agenda based on obsolete ideas from a crooked Tory think tank.

Brexiters would have it that the Benn Act removes the incentive to compromise, knowing that the UK is forced to ask for an extension. This is a flawed understanding. The EU is well aware that no deal will hurt them but will not allow a departing member to compromise their system. It's not just a matter of technical solutions. There is a fundamental principle at stake. The EU does not see itself as just a trade bloc. 

For Brexiters, the Benn Act is all part of a pincer movement between parliament and the EU. Something of a paranoid conspiracy. Parliament may be trying to keep us in the EU but the the EU is not. They have accepted that we are leaving, though it is not their preference, and now the feeling is that the UK could not now be a functioning member of the EU. They'd have a cuckoo in the nest.

With that in mind the EU is prepared to do all it can to facilitate an orderly withdrawal but can not be seen to let a departing member dictate the terms nor can it make existential compromises. If under the Benn Act the UK asks for an extension, it will likely be granted, but the same conditions will apply and the EU will not shift from its red lines. They will keep all channels open but will see an extension as a diplomatic courtesy that will likely accomplish nothing. Parliament is showing no sign of getting its act together and it doesn't look like a general election would change very much.

But then the UK government is probably well aware of all this. the decision to dub the Benn Act as the "surrender act" is all part of a narrative engineering project so that Brexiters continue to believe that remainer duplicity and EU intransigence are responsible for the imminent failure of the Article 50 process. The Telegraph and Spectator will do all they can to shore up this narrative.

If there is a way out of this mess then I don't see it. Revoking is certainly not the easy answer it pretends to be and any "national unity" government would forever be perceived as a coup and any subsequent referendum would lack the necessary legitimacy to put the matter to bed. Nor will the Brexiters down tools. It settles nothing.

We are, therefore, in a position where there is no happy outcome to this. Brexiters are going to learn some hard lessons first hand and we will all pay the price. We could very easily end up grovelling back to the EU for any deal we can get where we end up adopting EU rules verbatim without a say and be no better off in the sovereignty stakes while trashing our exports. That will be Johnson's legacy. There will be a great many politicians and hacks on the right owing Britain an apology for failing to understand that the freest trade happens because of regulatory harmonisation.

Ultimately it is that singular misapprehension steering this whole thing. The Toryboys have it in their heads that tinkering with tariffs is the key to free trade and the ability to do so is 50% or more of the point of Brexit. They saw Brexit as a vehicle for a doomed economic experiment rather than a necessary step to redress the democratic imbalance. In so doing they killed of any chance of accomplishing either ambition - leaving a country in a state of total dysfunction.

No deal Brexit is the inevitable consequence of our total institutional ignorance of the EU and trade as a whole. It was always too complicated, too nuanced and too grown up for either our politics or our media to adequately address. It has never been up to the task. We put all our eggs in one basket and took our eye off the ball. Now we reap the consequences. 

Monday, 7 October 2019

Bored


Apart from yet another futile court case today there's nothing doing. There's been a sporadic feed of official opinions over the Johnson proposal and we can safely say there isn't a basis for opening up more detailed negotiations. There is too much wrong with it so that leaves us back where we were on Friday, making guesses as to whether Johnson will extend or not.

Meanwhile, cross party talks have failed ensuring there is no credible option for a government of national unity, so if there is an extension we are looking at the same deadlock which may or may not come to a general election - which Johnson will probably win, bringing us roughly back to where we are now.

As each day passes I become more convinced that MPs blew their last chance of averting no deal when they slapped down Theresa May for the third and final time. They just don't seem to have clocked it yet.

This leaves me very bored indeed. I'm bored of this endless speculation. I'm bored of pointing out that no deal is an insanely bad ideas. I'm bored of warning what will happen if we remain. I'm bored of venal supine MPs posturing. I'm bored of pointing out that EEA Efta was the only credible mode of Brexit. I'm bored of pointing out that everything else just means a massive hit to our trade and a ball and chain when we go grovelling back to the EU for any deal we can get.

Most of all I'm bored of the tedious tribalism on Twitter. Twitter is little more than a popularity contest. It's a game to score the most likes and retweets. Virtually nobody is interested in informed debate and the spoils go to those who grunt the most pleasing slogans to their respective tribes.

And then today we hit peak Brexit with actual Brexiters accusing the EU of being dishonest, pointing to the Norway-Sweden border as an example of soft borders. The same zealots who wailed about the EEA for the last four years. What can you do but laugh?

There was a time when the intricacies of trade and customs was infinitely fascinating, but now we're looking down the barrel of no deal it ceases to be a matter of interest. If we're leaving without a deal then we are immediately in damage control reacting to crises as they occur - so policy instruments are far less interesting. Policies are for those in the position to make choices - and the UK won't be. Instead it'll be ultimatum after ultimatum.

It's days like this when I wish I was a "news junkie" so that I could fill this space with chatter about today's court case but after four years of this I have become expert at spotting a tiresome distraction when I see one. If we focus only on that which matters then we're not much further forward on the last time I gave the matter any serious thought. One is almost looking forward to "interesting times". We can't take much more of this. 

Friday, 4 October 2019

Another day of Brexit soap opera


There was a time where you didn't have to dig very deep to get an idea of what is going on. Even a glance at the headlines would have given you some idea but now that the anonymous "EU diplomat" has become a viable source upon which to speculate, the newspapers can now pretty much invent their own version of events. This is especially true of the Express and Daily Telegraph and each day it becomes harder not to get tricked into thinking something has happened when in fact it's a figment of the media's imagination.

Today, though, you can be entirely forgiven for not knowing what's going on. All the signals are contradictory. On the one hand we have court papers suggesting Johnson will seek to comply with the Benn Act and ask for an extension and then we have Johnson himself tweeting that we are still on course to leave on Halloween. The government is sticking to its line of take it or leave it and seems to be pinning its hopes on Hungary vetoing any extension.

Meanwhile it is reported that EU member states have agreed that the Government’s new Brexit proposals "do not provide a basis for concluding an agreement" according to "a European Commission spokesman". Asked whether Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay was right to say that the ball was "in the EU's court", a spokesperson for the Commission said the EU would not be left "holding the bag" and that it was the UK that needed to act. "There are, as we have said, problematic points in the United Kingdom's proposal and further work is needed – but that work needs to be done by the United Kingdom and not the other way around".

The general consensus is now that the UK is not sincere in its efforts to secure a deal and Barclay's remarks would seem to suggest a cynical game is in play. They have knowingly submitted something the EU cannot agree to and now seeking to pin the blame on the EU for the failure to reach a deal. Course you and I are not buying any of this baloney and nor is the EU, but the Tory sect will buy into the intransigence narrative and the Telegraph and Spectator will do all it can to reinforce that belief among the Tory tribe.

But then supposing the Johnson proposal was a viable basis for a backstop (which it isn't), there can't be any negotiations on the detail until 31 Oct as per the terms of extension. Barnier needs a new mandate. If Johnson is sincere about this deal then he has to extend. But then this proposal isn't remotely serious so there is no credible basis for seeking a new mandate or for opening up WA talks again. The basis for an extension, therefore, is just more time for the British to flail around nursing various misapprehensions.

To put it bluntly, the UK is playing silly buggers. It's clearer than ever that Johnson is not interested in a deal and is doing all he can to put the EU off the idea of extending in that it would likely accomplish nothing. Still, though, I expect the EU will extend if only to show sincerity and patience on their part - however futile it may be.

The belief on Brexiter street is that the EU is working in collusion with remain forces in the UK where the Benn Act "authorises" the EU to turn down Johnson's offer. In the meantime remainer MPs are expected to make their move. That means we could be in for a few more weeks of useless posturing and parlour games that accomplish nothing while doing all they can to stave off a general election. That raises the question of what parliament could usefully do under the Kinnock amendment, but it's so vague the government can easily evade it even it if it means filibustering and further prorogations. 

All the while we will see all manner of attempts to bring Johnson down by way of unearthing the skeletons in his closet. If they can knock out Johnson they can seriously damage the Tories' shot at re-election. It's a long shot in that the public have to be sufficiently scandalised but it would much of it will struggle to stick when leave voters just don't care so long as Brexit is delivered. On a long enough timeline Johnson's skeletons might just catch up with him, but time is finite here. If there is an extension it is sure to be short and sure to be the last.

Between now and the council meeting later this month we can only speculate but we can safely assume there will be no agreement and nothing to be put before parliament. It's no longer a matter of process. What happens on the UK side now is all politics. 

Thursday, 3 October 2019

The collapse of British politics


Every now and then it's worth doing a recap of why we are where we are. So much gets lost in the noise when every wrong turn is a consequence of the last. Here I remind myself that the current dysfunction is everything to do with the self-destruction of our politics rather than the Article 50 process. This is where we have to put the parties under the microscope to see what makes them tick.

The Lib Dems are the easiest to understand. They have only one mission - to stay relevant. They know they will never get into power but like to think of themselves as a protest party for people who don't want to vote for a single issue party on the fringes. The weakness of Labour and the strength of remain feeling has given them an opportunity that has staved off their extinction so they are fully wedded to the idea of thwarting Brexit. It's not an ideological kinship with the EU, rather they see the EU as an embodiment of liberal internationalism and it suits their narcissism to be in favour of it.

As far as Brexit goes, the remain position does not require any serious thinking or engagement in the issues. They don't need to come up with any solutions or try to square the circle. They have their easy answer and they're sticking with it.

Labour is a little more complex. Labour's pro-EU stance has historically been a political instrument to show they are not divided like the Tories. The EU has been a long running sore for the Tories so Labour just took up the proximate position to attack them. Labour, though, has an old school euroscepticism based on a patriotic socialism that still resonates in working class communities. It is barely represented in the Commons but Corbyn knows he can't afford to turn his back on it. It is only reluctantly that he has edged closer toward the remain position by way of internal pressure from its London constituency - metropolitan progressive paternalists.

This is where the Brexit Party hopes to capitalise on Labour's schizophrenia in that they can seemingly reach those traditional Labour voters who would never in a billion years vote for a Tory no matter how awful the Labour party gets.

Labour's incoherence, though, is fundamentally an indifference to Brexit. It's out of their remit. Brexit speaks to a high politics over and above the everyday administration of a welfare state. They just want Brexit to go away so they can resume the dismal redistributive managerialism they are used to. Instead of steering Brexit they simply hope to survive it so they can capitalise on the mess that follows.

As to the Tories, the Tories have always notionally eurosceptic except, of course, when they are in power - when they are usually full on europhile. The obsessive rump, though, has never gone away, much though Cameron did everything in his power to kill it off. He drove out the hard right and into the arms of Ukip which later backfired on him, forcing him into a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Over the last two decades especially, the main parties have sought to bury the EU issue refusing even to debate it. that proved easy for Labour in that it has always been a matter of little interest to them. The EU has served them well by way of handling the detailed business of statecraft so they can concentrate their attention on health and welfare. Statecraft and external affairs is a bit too grown up for them.

It was hoped that if the issue could be stifled for long enough then the eurosceptics would gradual die off, utilising a younger vote that has never known anything but EU subordination. On a long enough timeline it might have worked but there is too much wrong with the status quo to kill it off entirely. Certainly the mass influx of immigration became problematic for "the establishment". If anything has kept the eurosceptic cause alive it is the establishment europhile consensus which sought not only to take us deeper into the project but also to prevent the issue from being debated and to deny the public anything like a meaningful say. The eurosceptic voice was loud but barely represented in parliament.

This actually speaks to a more fundamental dysfunction in our own democracy which is amplified especially in the age of Brexit where we see a weakened establishment closing ranks to overturn the vote. They take the view that enough time has passed since 2016 for a million or so leave voters to have died off and if they can leverage another referendum they can bury the issue for good.

Depending on which polls you read that strategy stands a chance of working. The mistake, however, is the belief that thwarting Brexit puts the issue back into deep stasis. The shenanigans since the referendum and with the referendum itself bringing the issue to the fore, the Eurosceptic movement is bigger and stronger than it has ever been - and though they could be defeated this time around, they are sufficiently powerful to ensure the Tories remain in opposition unless Brexit is a central manifesto commitment.

This is where the remainers have, in my view, overplayed their hand. This has now become less to do with EU membership and is now part of an ongoing culture war that exposes the gulf between the public (especially in the regions) and parliament. It's now a values thing. Rather than a democracy we appear to have an electorally mandated feudalism and a ruling class that ultimately conspires against the voting public with the broad support of the judiciary.

Because of that, Brexit has become a political civil war with the remote potential to become an actual civil war. Remainers and cautious leavers can scream from the rooftops about how bad a no deal Brexit would be, but at this point the economic issues are a matter of secondary concern. Thanks to the duplicity of parliament coupled with the intransigence of the hardcore Brexit radicals, a managed departure no longer seems possible. Both extremes are playing double or quits and there is no low they won't sink to.

Part of the reason we are now in a state of total dysfunction, though, is the weakness of the parties themselves. With society now having evolved beyond traditional tribal models associated with heavy industry the parties are increasingly empty brand names without a wide membership base, easily captured by the radical fringes.

This is where the schizophrenia comes from. The parliamentary parties very much represent the old guard from the Blair-Cameron era while the membership have very different ideas. For the first time since Mrs Thatcher there is a clear ideological divide between the parties so we are now back to red versus blue politics. For the Tories, Brexit is a no brainer, but Labour has a major identity crisis and is falling to pieces as it tries to ride two horses, attempting to appease irreconcilable factions.

What we see now, therefore, is not a dispute over the direction of Brexit. Rather it is a tribal realignment. Virtually nobody in mainstream politics is thinking about a viable definition for Brexit and is only thinking as far as the next imminent general election. The EU and Brexit is only a proxy issue that decides which side of the culture wars you're on.

It is interesting that the Tory party seems to be falling into line over Johnson's latest Brexit proposal even though on balance it's even more of a dog's dinner than May's withdrawal agreement. One suspects the issue is less to do with the actual content of the deal as the fact it was negotiated by Theresa May who is widely regarded as a closet remainer and part of the establishment old guard. Had Johnson won the leadership the first time around and produced the same deal (give or take) as May then it's probably we would already have left the EU.

But of course the deal would have been different under those circumstances in that there would never have been the need to appease the DUP thanks to a borked election. So much of Brexit is decided not on the balance of argument but on the basis of tribal assumptions in their electoral triangulation. Anyone who's examined the issues in any seriousness has concluded that the EEA Efta option is the most pragmatic and least risky option but Labour is too afraid to confront the freedom of movement issue (even though there are workarounds) while the Tories have to pander to their ideological base who buy into the obsolete deregulation narrative.

With our politics in a state of flux and with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between county and conurb, and with no clear mandate for any particular course of action - and with parliament having fought itself to a standstill, it would seem like no deal, the default option, is inevitable. We lack the coherence and clarity to do anything else. It seems to be dawning on MPs that they do need to ratify a withdrawal agreement but they've likely squandered their last opportunity. No deal is odds on.

Though this enthuses leavers, remainers rightly point out that no deal falls short of the slogan "Get Brexit done". Contrary to the widely held belief in the Tory party, crashing out is far from the end of the matter and we won't be moving on to other things. But it now seems that we need to complete the political realignment process even if that means leaving without a deal. The central dispute won't be put to bed until we get a definitive answer on who's right. Brexiters will have to see the worst consequences of no deal before they'll believe it. Only then are we likely to see a consensus on a way forward. Sadly though, by then, our options will be few.



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Monday, 30 September 2019

Brexit: the battles to come...


For the purposes of this hypothetical no deal scenario I'm going to assume there has been a general election in which Boris Johnson has won by a small but functioning majority. By all rights Jeremy Corbyn should have resigned but hasn't. Dysfunctional opposition is here to stay. We have left the EU without a deal.

Chaos at the ports was not what was anticipated. Third country measures are not yet ready on the continent and the EU's unilateral contingency measures, along with well executed marshaling ensures port operations are stable albeit with reduced volumes of freight. Airlines function more or less normally since most have already moved their operations to the EU.

The Tories will claim that there was undue panic. In this post I will not dwell on the secondary economic effects which are sure to be far reaching. The concern here is the immediate political confrontation with the EU.

The EU has made a number of assurances to the Irish, including (if memory serves) a direct promise from Juncker, that there would be no border in Ireland. This is where we see what it really prioritises - single market integrity or the Good Friday Agreement. I don't put much stock in the latter argument but they clearly do so any attempt to impose any kind of controls is going to raise eyebrows in Dublin. Perhaps the Irish government will change their tune to save face, but the Irish people will certainly notice.

Either way, the lack of an agreed protocol will be a matter of serious concern for the EU. It's not an acute concern in terms of regulations and standards in the short term but has the potential to pose an existential threat to the single market. One suspects it will take a little while before the full effect of tariffs on UK produce is fully understood so the Tories are likely to operate under a false sense of security believing the EU will approach them first. Arrogant brinkmanship does seem to be their thing.

This is where the EU can afford to wait us out. Sooner or later the government comes under intense pressure to sort out come kind of trade relationship. Being that the Tories still have only a wafer thin grasp of trade issues, operating from the same set of flawed assumptions, they will seek an interim "mini deal" on tariffs from the EU. No doubt the term Article 24 shall be uttered.

This is where the EU throws a bucket of ice cold water on Tory assumptions when it declines such an offer without first agreeing to backstop mechanism to close the hole in the EU customs frontier - the terms of which shall be dictated not negotiated.

At this point the Tories are going to look like total clowns in that they'd have blown a withdrawal agreement by way of refusing a backstop and would lose too much face politically if they then caved into EU demands. So we then have a standoff. Tories will convince themselves that they just need to wait until those "German carmakers" put pressure on the Commission. Which won't happen.

As this drags on, confidence in the UK starts to slide as does Johnson's popularity and standing in the polls. The Tories then face a wipeout in local elections. Soon after, Johnson begins to lose votes in the commons, facing pressure to step down. By this time the secondary impacts of Brexit begin to catch up with him and we see a number of blazing rows as we watch a number of sectors in crisis while the response from ministers is vacillation and bluster. At that point the letters to the 1922 committee start rolling in and we face another Tory leadership election.

My bet is that someone like David Gauke will be the immediate favourite since he looks like the only vaguely sentient adult in the room. The closest we'll get to a unity candidate. Likely it will be a coronation rather than a drawn out process since neither the party nor the country is in the mood for a tiresome section ritual. This time we will see a sense of urgency. Or at least I'd hope so.

Following the coronation we will see a more emollient tone from Number Ten but the EU will be in no mind for a protracted negotiation on the NI issue and will set the backstop mechanism as the ultimatum, along with whatever provisions are required to settle the issue of citizen's rights and the financial commitments. That will be the down payment just on an Article 24 agreement on tariffs. There follows the longer and much more fractious question of trade and the future relationship

A leading demand will of course be an agreement on access to UK fisheries and possibly Gibraltar which is sure to be a humiliation for the Brexiters. This may prove to be a sticking point that sees negotiation stalling. And it won't be the first of its type since every member state will have its own pound of flesh in mind. The UK is then forced to make a succession of embarrassing concessions and climb down on just about every red line. We'll keep trying to double spend the UK market access leverage we have but it won't work.

You can see where I'm going with this. Likely it will be years of bickering, stalling, internal debates and major rows culminating in an election defeat for the Tories, putting Corbyn in Number Ten. Unless. The best way to survive a knife fight is not to get into one. This is why we really should look at the EEA as a readymade (or ready for tailoring) basis for future trade and cooperation. It certainly requires concessions from Brexiters but will avoid the major humiliations and delays that go with a bespoke relationship. It wall also dampen calls for readmission to the EU.

Since it looks like we are leaving the EU without a deal, anyone with an interest in limiting the damage to our trade and international standing needs to be thinking about a rescue plan for Britain - and in my view EEA Efta is still a no brainer. We might find by then the pre-Brexit resistance to such an option from both sides subsides when we see for ourselves the realities of no deal. We had best hope that such an option is still a possibility and that the EU recognises the danger of an impoverished and humiliated basketcase on its doorstep. We're going to need a lot of goodwill that we are not in any way due or entitled to.

All that's left is the consequences.


Today I'm supposed to be chattering about Boris Johnson and whether he did or did not grope a female journalist. Or at least I think that's the story. I couldn't be bothered to check. It relates to an event from some years ago which was not brought to the attention of the police thus was not regarded serious enough to waste anyone's time with. Number Ten has denied the allegation but then Boris Johnson is a liar so we can safely assume that he probably is a lecherous sex pest.

That, though, is all part of the persona, and if it was to have impacted his career then it would have by now. The is a man who effortlessly grazes his way through the corridors of power with those around him making allowances for him. That's how he became PM. We are told that "Boris is Boris" with a casual shrug as though that were meant to explain or comfort. Boris is Boris, sure. Which is another way of saying he is a conniving, dishonest, thieving, boorish snake in the grass. This is not news.

This court gossip, though, is of no real interest to anyone. Nobody outside the media bubble cares. On some level we should care that the PM is a pig but there has been such an assault on basic standards of decency in politics over the years that this doesn't register. But then the central reason no one cares is because there are bigger fish to fry. I'm not interested in lurid tales from Westminster court prostitutes. The only thoughts on my mind is if, when and how Brexit is being delivered.

With the Remain clan in parliament moving to install a dictatorship headed by the reanimated corpse of Margaret Beckett with Jo Swinson pulling the strings, I couldn't give a tinker's toss if the PM is the devil himself. I can write excoriating pieces about Boris Johnson til the cows come home but ultimately the alternatives are a magnitude worse.

There are times when I have suggested that a no deal Brexit with a government led by Boris Johnson would be worse than Corbyn. I was drifting to that point of view about this time last year - but Corbyn's Labour have seemingly entered a race to the bottom. Vile as Boris Johnson may be I would rather stomach whatever he throws at us than tolerate any of the garbage on the opposite benches. 

And it seems, if the polls are anything to go by, the nation agrees. That is why parliament has no intention of letting Johnson have a general election. We are now at a point where we have to pick the least worst option where the least worst option is still unimaginably bad. Johnson appears to be doing everything possible to avoid striking a deal, further antagonising Ireland, failing to present any serious alternate proposals and driving us irretrievably toward the cliff edge.

Meanwhile it seems that parliament has lost the plot entirely. Generally I take the view that parliament is there to serve as a goalkeeper against abuse of power so I should've in theory been against prorogation. The line I took was that it didn't matter because they wouldn't do anything remotely useful with the time. I was right. For all the fuss about the supreme court ruling last week there is no sense of urgency from MPs and nobody is calling Johnson out on the inadequacy of his Brexit strategy. The only Boris Johnson story that should concern the media today is his complete miscalculation that he can handbag the EU into a last minute deal. Anything else is light entertainment and trivia.

One suspects, though, that MPs themselves have no idea what's going on outside of their insular little circus. Justine Greening in the Guardian calls on Boris Johnson to disclose what he is currently negotiating, failing to note that Johnson isn't negotiating anything. There are currently no official negotiations. There is only posturing about the backstop - for which he has no viable alternative proposal. There will not be a deal come the October Council meeting.

The reality is that our neither our media nor MPs have the first idea what to do or even what they can usefully do to stop no deal. Hence the trivia and displacement activity. But then to be quite honest with you, I have no idea what can be done either. There is some vague hope in the Kinnock amendment of resurrecting a deal but if (and it's a big if) it can be utilised, parliament will more than likely squander the opportunity and bring us right back to this limbo. Very probably they blew it when they elected for a third time not to ratify a withdrawal agreement.

You can then forgive Boris Johnson to some extent in seeking to sideline the so-called "surrender act" so that we do leave on Halloween. There is zero chance of parliament ever getting its act together and there doesn't seem any sense in wasting another nanosecond of our time with this endless futile bickering. The Article 50 process has failed, the media has failed and parliament has failed. All that's left is the consequences.  

National unity? Are you having a laugh?


Talk today is of a "national unity" government led by Margaret Beckett. Not sure how they see this playing out. The theory is they would seek an extension for however long it takes to hold a second referendum. This presumably would follow Labour's notion that there should be a credible leave option.

They would soon find that the only leave option they could take to the public was the withdrawal agreement as is. The EU is not going to reopen negotiations not can it accommodate any of Labour's fantasies so we'd be going to the polls over a leave option that leavers widely believe is a stitch up in a referendum that nullifies the first.

Here we would see a partial boycott since many would already have given up on voting. A second referendum in itself is a signal that a vote will only be respected provided it goes the right way. In this instance we would probably see remain win by way of a smaller turnout.

This time, there would be no question of legitimacy, no enquiries into spending, no moral panics about targeted advertising. They'll have the result they want and that will be enough for them to put it to bed.

Though such a referendum would in all respects lawful they will never be able to argue it was fair or legitimate. It would provide the leave movement the fodder it needs to mount a full scale anti-establishment culture war. Not only would the referendum be held in question but also the legitimacy of Westminster itself - having essentially had the first referendum overthrown by a coup, installing an election dodging rogue parliament.

Sooner or later there would have to be a general election, only this time the Tories would have to adopt an unequivocal Brexit position. No referendums, no negotiations. Just out. I think that would probably win by a landslide. It wouldn't even be about EU membership by that point. They can dig up all the Boris Johnson scandals they like. It won't make the slightest difference. Even I, fundamentally opposed to no deal and a Boris Johnson "hater", would vote Tory just on principle.

For a remain vote to be seen as legitimate it would need to win an unarguable majority far exceeding 17.4m voters. I don't think that's possible. At one time they might have been able to leverage that kind of support having worn down the opposition, but staging a coup led by a band of hasbeens and rejects, championed by Tony Blair, John Major and all the other establishment deadbeats would be unimaginably toxic.

Anything short of a full on landslide for remain sends the message that we have a ruling class in which half the country is effectively disenfranchised. This is simply not sustainable. Personally I don't rule out a low grade civil war unless we find an outcome that brings closure. But at the very least we are looking at a decade or more of political instability and uncertainty - especially when the question of Brexit continues to loom large for business.

As much as the UK is then in a state of political deadlock, it can no longer be a functioning EU member. Without a legitimate basis for membership and zero mandate for any further integration, the British question brings all EU business to a grinding halt - especially with a permanently hostile contingent of British MEPs.

Again we would soon bump into the reality that EU membership for the UK is not sustainable. The leave movement, with an army of new recruits, disgusted and outraged by the establishment stitch up  would keep a vibrant strain of euroscepticism alive only this time we will have established a political fact. We as a nation do not respect referendums. The establishment doesn't and voters no longer respect them either. They didn't respect ours so we won't respect yours.

The attitude on the remain side here is quite interesting. They don't actually have a problem living in a politically dysfunctional country at eachothers throats just so long as we are in the EU. They reckon it's better to be divided inside the EU than divided out of it. At least something of the status quo is kept ticking over.

One could could almost respect that point of view from an entirely practical point of view, but it does seem to confirm that EU membership is as I have often described it; a life support machine for a vegetable patient. Yes, we can stay in the EU, resolving nothing politically, with the boil continuing to fester but if that's our answer to the Brexit question, then we must accept that this morass of dysfunctionality, bitterness and division is the new normal.

This is not to say that Brexit of itself will bring the nation back together but it is at least a new conversation as regards to a new relationship with the EU and a new political settlement. We may very well be poorer because of it in the midterm, but nobody is getting any richer or safer by maintaining the status quo. As Britain further toxifies inside the EU the economy will stagnate and the mood will turn further sour.

What's missing in the current debate is an understanding that we need a solution that brings closure - and though remainers will wail bitterly about any Brexit, most will eventually get used to the idea. Leaving, preferably with a deal, is the only way to break out of the deadlock.

MPs, of course, haven't realised this and have instead used this time to frustrate every mode of exit. They have likely squandered all their chances to leave with a deal and all the wailing about no deal comes far too late. Johnson's last minute handbagging strategy is sure to fail and there is no new deal in the offing. Moreover, thanks to tribal games on the opposite benches, they still wouldn't vote for any deal so the cliff edge still awaits.

As it happens, parliament has probably left it too late to make its move. It is doubtful a "unity government" could ever command the confidence of the house and I think most moderate MPs recognise the danger of a new government acting without a mandate from the public. Would they really be so arrogant?  A cynic would say unequivocally yes, but I'm not so sure.

MPs really only have two options. They can either call an election, risking a Johnson landslide, where they lose control of the agenda - or they can seek to further strangle Johnson in this current deadlock until the next extension expires. Either way, it doesn't look like they can stop Brexit. The only way to avoid no deal is to ratify any deal, and if they haven't the wits to do that then whatever else follows is richly deserved.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Is there a role for women in politics after Brexit?


Bit of a tongue in cheek post this - but having watched parliamentary debates featuring Paula Sherriff, Jess Phillips and Jo Swinson this week I do start to wonder if there is a role for women in politics after Brexit. It's just becoming more and more apparent that women can't cut it in modern politics since they can't control their emotions over colourful metaphors and hurty words. If we have to stop everything every time they have emotional episodes then we can't get any grown up work done.

Right now we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis that was deemed so urgent that there was a legal campaign to recall parliament yet we ended up having a three day debate over the meaning of the words "surrender" and "humbug" because of an outcry from wobbly-lipped wimmin.

I don;t know what's happened in recent years  but I was brought up to respect women politicians, seeing their participation as entirely normal and nothing out of the ordinary. Our then PM, Margaret Thatcher, never once let her voice quiver with emotion to make a cheap point. Somewhere along the way, probably down to all women shortlists, we've ended up with manipulative fishwives who only seem interested in bins, babies and benefits. Deliberating over complex matters of statecraft are far beyond their minuscule abilities.

Don't get me wrong, I fully understand that female MPs are more vulnerable since they're easy targets for psychopaths but I'm pretty sure they are self-radicalising. If that's not the case and it's really everyday metaphors and the occasional hurty word that puts women at risk then we have a problem. We can only delete so many words from the English language and there's no way we can ban metaphors and analogies.

No doubt there are moves to open up a Ministry of Hurty Words but since words have different meanings in different contexts we are soon going to find that MPs can only conduct Commons business through the use of Semaphore flags and interpretive dance. The latter could prove problematic for less nimble types and some gestures could be viewed as microaggressions. Frankly I am shocked and appalled that Labour MPs are now regularly clapping in the house of commons when it is widely known that jazz hands are the accepted convention now. 

As it happens debates probably would be improved by way of using semaphore flags in that there are fewer opportunities to virtue signal and the slower nature of debates would significantly reduce the output of the Commons in terms of legislation but that then excludes the blind and partially sighted.

All of this is going to prove far too impractical. The obvious answer is that if women can't get a grip of their emotions (and there is scant evidence that they any longer can), then we are going to need some system of segregation where matters of secondary importance are given to women to sort out in a separate chamber. Until such a move is made I can't see myself voting for any female candidates.

All the blubbering and histrionics we have seen of late has chewed up far too much media and parliamentary time at a time when the stakes have never been higher. Hysterical women using emotional blackmail and temper tantrums just isn't productive. We can't have crucial debates over international trade if they're going to interrupt every five minutes to cry about something. 

Prior to Brexit when the important decisions were made in Brussels by faceless bureaucrats we could afford to have the odd token female to make parliament look inclusive but now we are repatriating important matters of state we can ill afford the time consuming distractions of wimmin's issues and make time for their melodramas. Is it time to simply admit that women can't cut it in politics anymore? They don't seem to be able to win seats without positive discrimination and without men making allowances for them. Is it time to put our foot down?