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. 

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