Thursday, 10 January 2019

Coasting into the fire


One of the functions of this blog is to tell you what's going on. Well, I'm sorry, I haven't a clue. The whole thing is going to hell in a handbasket. The no deal propaganda has worked hook line and sinker on the Tory membership, there is no backing for May's deal in parliament (it would seem) yet MPs don't want no deal and one imagines the remainers don't either. Meanwhile Nick Boles is facing deselection for pushing his Norway Plus agenda. It's fragmented every which way when the mirror was already shattered to a million pieces.

Meanwhile, we're getting blathering about "postponing" Brexit (Art 50 extension) or revoking the Article 50 notification. I don't see the former being accepted by the EU-27, while I don't think May will go for a revocation. As ever there is a certain solipsism in Westminster, believing that we can extend Article 50 but if I'm reading the mood right, they will only extend for ratification. there is no mood for yet more buggering about. That leaves us with no deal.

Ordinarily MPs might bottle it at the last minute and back May's deal, but there doesn't seem to be an awareness that voting May's deal down increases the risk of no deal. MP Emma Reynolds tweets "Spoke in today's EU debate against the PM's #Brexit deal. I cannot in all conscience vote for a deal which will make my constituents poorer and the economy smaller. Also warned against dangers of a no deal Brexit". This is essentially saying "I don't want this grenade to go off in my face but I've pulled the pin out anyway".

On every platform the Brexit debate has degenerated into petty squabbling while the no deal propaganda machine continues to pour in the poison, where it now seems that accidental Brexit is the more likely eventuality. One might speculate that Number Ten believes the EU will then reopen the books instead of letting the full consequences take hold. We are then in post-cliff edge "managed no deal" territory - which is highly unlikely given the complexity of such arrangements.

Here we bump into the golden rule of politics and especially the golden rule of Brexit - never think rationally about irrational circumstances. With so many competing agendas and no majority for any of them, absolutely anything could happen. The only thing one can do is to continue to inform the debate. Even that, though, has limited uses.

As one tweeter puts it "Loads of reasons to stop Brexit but no reasons to stay in the EU. It's a culture war". This is where we are at. There is so much political bad blood that facts have ceased to matter. Ordinary people will be caught up in the crossfire. For some it will screw them literally overnight. Whatever mitigating measures there may be, there is no evidence that we are sufficiently prepared and if the ferry saga is anything to go by, this government simply hasn't understood the nature of the problems.  

Another tweeter, Alex Dale, remarks "It’s sobering to think that before Brexit our elected representatives were carrying on just as incompetently as they are now, but keeping on the down low". That, however, is only part of the problem. They can handle one crisis at a time. Usually the crisis is one of their own making like Universal Credit, and the entire apparatus of politics goes into the scrutiny of it. In this instance they are being tasked with managing change to systems they as yet do not know exist and will manage it with the level of incompetence we have become accustomed to.

In the first instance all the energies will go on the more visible aspects. We won't see a total grounding of aircraft but some services will be closed off. The Commission has adopted two measures that will avoid full interruption of air traffic between the EU and the UK in the event of no deal - but in their exact words "These measures will only ensure basic connectivity and in no means replicate the significant advantages of membership of the Single European Sky".

This lands them with the main headache of what happens at the ports, where, for whatever mitigating measures there are, we most certainly need a transition period - but there isn't going to be one. It will take several months to organise a new regime to navigate EU "official controls" where during that time orders will be unfulfilled, contracts will be broken and businesses will go under. 

Being that I am somewhat familiar with the rules I am often told that "you might know the rules but on the ground business always finds a way". Indeed it does but with the added costs, delays and overall confusion as to what the new regime even looks like, only the most resilient will survive. It could be several months before we establish a new normal. 

The problem here is that the most visible symptoms will get the most urgent treatment and the bulk of intellectual resource. Everything else will have to wait its turn or in the case of lower priority sectors, be hung out to dry completely. Ferries and ports are the big sexy issues insofar as logistics are ever sexy, but as this blog continues to point out, much commercial activity does not depend on logistics but is part of a huge integrated regulatory system for the facilitation of commerce and when you start pulling on particular threads, the whole thing starts to unravel.

Here, fishing is my go to example. With fishing boats unable to land their catches in EU ports, no longer having access to EU processing facilities, and existing UK facilities being configured for existing markets, nobody can quite predict the effects - not least since the UK has different consumer habits. This could see some classes of boat sitting idle until the new system of rules is fully implemented. 

The problem with much of this analysis is that it relies heavily on the word "could" which Brexiter generally take to mean "probably won't" which is a result of media misreporting and trivialisation. My worry is less about the known effects as the unknown effects - the secondary impacts where few will have foreseen any impact at all. If people voted for change then we are going to have all the change we can handle. 

This is where the absorptive capacity of government will be saturated. Officials in education, justice and welfare are among staff in five government departments being asked to take up new roles within weeks. None will be replaced and the secondments are expected to last at least six months. Whitehall sources said ministers were being told to reduce demands on their departments. the normal functioning of government will collapse.

Moreover, these secondments are likely not going to be particularly effective. You can't just slot in and take on Brexit related work at a drop of a hat. Many of these regulatory systems take years to understand. If you're even well versed in the basics you're doing quite well. As to having a command of how and where they are implemented in real life, fuhgeddaboudit!

Much of this depends on the competence of government and whatever levels of cooperation we can expect from the EU. The EU will face pressures from member states and it will have its own self-interest to safeguard but the contingency measures recently announced are limited in scope and represent only a fraction of the concerns covered in the Notices to Stakeholders.

In terms of the Notices, they are reasonably explicit, giving only limited space for mitigation, with only limited bilateral powers for member states. From the beginning of negotiations the EU has acted in the defence of the integrity of its systems and will continue to do so. 

I never imagined it would come to this. It was logical to assume that with a parliament broadly against Brexit that they would have been able to organise themselves to avoid no deal at the very least. It seemed like a safe assumption but I don't think anybody truly anticipated this level of disarray. Emily Thornberry has been on the BBC Question Time programme yet again demonstrating she still doesn't know what a customs union is.

Politically the fallout will be intense. Certainly passionate and highly emotional. For me it will be something of a vindication. But it will also be a time to take scalps. The ERG MPs have been on record plenty of times to tell us we have nothing to fear from no deal. There is a long list of editors, journalists, MPs and think tank hacks who have added their prestige to the no deal case. Their names will not be forgotten.

When couriers, drivers, farmers and car workers are out of work, they will want answers. The ERG will attempt to shift the blame, once again using their propaganda vessels to call the imposition of controls a "blockade". Hardliner Tory tribalists will fall into line with this narrative and accept no responsibility. The EU, though, is not going to take the blame and the ERG have made far too many bold claims to evade responsibility. 

At that point I rather imagine the likes of Redwood, Paterson and Rees-Mogg will be looking over their shoulders and checking under their cars. If Ms Soubry thinks she has it bad now, the Brexiters will need armed escort and there will be more than cross words. Unlike Soubry, they won't enjoy it. This time there will be no wave of disapproval and very little sympathy. If Mr Rees-Mogg comes a cropper I certainly won't shed any tears. A man who has directed a systematic campaign of political lying, toying with the livelihoods of ordinary people is very much the author of his own demise. 

We've been told that much of this is little more than Y2K scaremongering and yet even with official impact assessments and explicit legal positions being available for months, the lie that it will all be fine has endured. There has been a determination to believe that the warnings are all just one great big remainer establishment conspiracy. I'm told more people would have listened to me were I not so abrasive but it wouldn't have mattered if I had a million followers. This fever stalking the land has to come to its own conclusion.

There will be a great deal of karma to come in the next few months. Should we leave without a deal there is no question of Mrs May staying prime minister, and by then the Brexiters will not be in anyone's favour. The Tories will be too weak to cling on to power and a general election shortly after surely must follow. For all that Tory tribalists have been telling us for months that voting for May's deal will see a Corbyn government, they are about to see how no deal is a fast track to a full term of Corbyn.

My own view is that Mrs May's deal is still the way forward. I'm no longer debating its flaws or merits. It is the deal on the table and if nothing else it buys us a transition. It is not going to be renegotiated, there is no plan B, and for a long stretch of time Efta will be off limits to the UK until it is suitably humbled. I'd rather we didn't end up in a customs union but that miserable consequence is something leavers must accept responsibility for having failed to plan or offer a viable alternative.

It could be that Mrs May's deal will fail the first vote, but that is by no means the end of it. There could be a bit of theatre and some horse trading, and on a second pass, with no deal looming, MPs might actually read the writing on the wall. There is a last ditch effort by the ERG to force a no deal Brexit but May has just enough political capital to fend it off. I live in hope. 

Most of all this will be a test of British society over and above the government which has already failed. This will be hard times for a great many people and though we may save our £39bn, tax receipts from the collapse of EU trade will mean there is far less in the kitty and with government putting out brush fires it will be unable to respond to the new problems it creates for itself. The people themselves will have to do the heavy lifting. 

There are those who insist that May's deal is not leaving the EU, but we very much are leaving the single market (which they also said was remaining) and that will have profound implications businesses in nearly all sectors. It will impact their recruitment and their ability to operate. It will impact investment and curtail a number of government infrastructure projects. It's going to change a lot about how things get done and local authorities are going to have to do more with less.

One way or another, life as we have been used to is going to come to an abrupt end. Either in 77 days or some time after that. Politics as we know it is done for. That much I do not regret. There will have to be a reckoning though. Too many lies have been told and too many will be avoidably made to suffer. If the one lesson we learn is to never overestimate the competence of politicians - and never to trust them, then perhaps this alone makes it all worth it. 

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