Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Brexit: eyes to the near future

Usually I have a decent idea of what's going on - except for when it comes to parliamentary fannying around. You would think with up to the minute news on Twitter it would be easier but reports come in thick and fast from other people who don't know quite how it works either so I usually leave it til the end of the day before making any definite remarks.

One gets a sense today that this was the day when remainers hopes died. For sure we are not going to meet the Halloween deadline and there is yet more parliamentary mucking about but the remainers have probably played their last hand. My hunch is that the numbers aren't there for a second referendum and this is going to go to a general election and Johnson is going to win it.

One way or another this deal is going to pass and there is now little the wreckers can do to derail it. They can legislate for a customs union but I don't see how it can be meaningfully binding even if such a stipulation made it as far as the political declaration. Which it won't. Brexit day is in sight. The end of the beginning.

Brexit day, though, brings a whole new contest into light. The battle to shape the future relationship. I suspect we are in for some nasty surprises. It wasn't until Article 50 was invoked that we got a clear idea of the format for the talks, which then resulted in a year long contest over sequencing. I strongly suspect we are in for more of the same. There is no time to waste but waste it we will.

Here we must work on the presumption that the Tories want to replicate a "Canada style deal" which isn't much more advanced than the boilerplate EU comprehensive FTA. This is where we will see the deep rooted misapprehensions of the Tory blob coming to the fore in assuming an FTA does more than it actually does. We're going to have to have a new argument pointing out that an FTA is insufficient and that we need a more more comprehensive regulatory relationship. Eventually the Johnson administration will be forced to climb down in much the same way Mrs May did.

At that point we'll have to go through the same old arguments as Tory think tanks wheel out their "goods only single market" gibberish, probably emanating from Open Europe and the IEA. I don't think we've heard the last of the ill-fated "common rule book" outlined in Mrs May's Florence speech, latterly dubbed Chequers. Only this time, because it falls from the lips of Boris Johnson rather than our Theresa, the Tory clan will praise it as innovative and pragmatic. Especially so when the EU rejects it for roughly the same reasons as before. No cherry-picking! Again we shall have to explain the basics to Brexiteers on the functioning of the single market and the MFN principle.

It won't take very long to realise we have squandered a great deal of time and that there isn't sufficient time to conclude an agreement whereupon we will go through a whole new cycle of extensions to the transition (which will come with the same obligations and a further demand for monies). This time, though, parliament's ability to interfere with a Benn Act mechanism will be limited by way of Johnson enjoying a working majority (one assumes). We'll then face another cliff edge.

This is actually Theresa May's fault. Initially the Tories resisted the idea of a transition phase, failing to understand the necessity having failed to plan for Brexit and having failed to understand the enormity of it. The boneheaded assumption on was that we would trigger Article 50 and do the whole deal in one sitting and head off on our merry way. Only when the penny dropped did May concede to an "implementation period" (failing to understand that at that point there would be nothing to actually implement). Being that she was held hostage to the ERG she bowed to pressure to make it a short period of two years.

Whether or not the Tories have acquired any greater institutional knowledge of trade in the interim remains to be seen. At the time the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and assorted Tory spads believed an FTA could be rapidly concluded despite treaties of this nature taking a minimum of five years. There is also the somewhat inconvenient realisation to come that there are three hundred areas of cooperation that will require alternative arrangements taking the scope of the future relationship beyond even an Economic Partnership Agreement.

If we are going to do this properly we are going to need some sort of ramp down process, bringing new agreements online as an when they are negotiated (assuming we don't crash out). That then could see us in a never-ending "vassal state" transition where we're still adopting EU rules (without a say) and paying through the nose for the privilege. Once we add in the time we spend dithering by way of having no clue what we actually want we could be in Brexit limbo half way into the next decade and still not see light at the end of the tunnel.

By then it's going to dawn on the Brexiteers that any enhanced regulatory relationship is going to follow the Swiss model of adopting EU rules verbatim where decisions form the ECJ have direct applicability. They are not going to be at all pleased about that and they're going to be livid about the mission creep when they see just how many sectors remain under some form of EU regulatory supervision. And they're not going to have an easy time of it when fishing is thrown under the bus for services access.

Of course all of this was predictable and predicted. It was not difficult to anticipate if you took all the facts into account - but Brexiters thus far have spent all of their time hiding from them. I was warning about this early on and it certainly smells like this will be the one significant prediction of mine that comes true. It is precisely this bear trap that led us in The Leave Alliance to conclude that EEA Efta was our safest bet. We could do it faster without falling into asymmetric negotiations. The best way to survive a knife fight is not to get into one.

Whether this dismal fate can be avoided depends on the shift in the political dynamics following a general election. With remaining taken off the table, opponents of Brexit are going to have to refocus their efforts on shaping the outcome, where they may enjoy a great deal more sympathy from my side of the argument than they do now. As it happens, had remainers put as much energy into devising and selling a viable plan as they have stopping Brexit (to no avail) they could now be poised to beat Johnson to deliver a more pragmatic relationship.

Much is going to depend on Labour and whether it can shake off the Corbyn disease to form an effective opposition. But even then, with Labour bizarrely fixated on customs unions and still struggling with basic terminology, even the departure of Corbyn does not necessarily improve the quality of opposition. Meanwhile the Lib Dems will still be campaigning to remain and making prats of themselves.

It seems we are going to have to go through the depressing spectacle of Brexit ideologues learning the hard way, bumping into the limitations of their own dogma. Again we will see demands to quit the process to trade on WTO terms. Which way it goes at this point is impossible to predict. At that point we are at roughly the same fork in the road where leavers are faced with an unpalatable deal that looks nothing like they were promised or WTO oblivion. At some point the shine is going to wear off Boris Johnson and if it looks like another dog's dinner of a deal then the hardliners will desert him and we may yet see another leadership contest. The outcome of that will depend on the cut of the new intake of MPs.

I would like to believe there still is a window for a sensible outcome along the EEA Efta lines but politically it seems unlikely unless remainers pivot to the solution as the basis of a new campaign. Chances are, though, they will spend a long while infighting in much the same way eurosceptics always have, split between the softeners and the rejoiners. The Tories could again be left to fumble in the dark without effective alternatives.

This could be thrown wide open if there is a move to delete the fixed term parliament act so that should really be the first order of business for any serious opposition. Sooner of later the popularity of the Tories will tank. they are only riding high presently because the alternatives are so dreadful and because Johnson is the only man who can get a withdrawal agreement over the line, Beyond that, the voting public may start to turn on Johnson. He may need to reset the proceedings in the same way May attempted to do with her Florence speech. If then, Barnier (or whoever replaces him) points out that EEA is still an option, then parliament would do well to press that line.

In short, we are going to see a repeat cycle of an administration whose ambitions far outstrip their competence and subject knowledge while the EU runs rings round them. Johnson for the moment may be the conquering hero but his reign could just as easily fold as Theresa May's did - lacking the leadership ability to get results. The next phase is equally detailed and complicated and we lack the intellectual arsenal to make good of it. All the while we cannot rely on our media to provide any enlightenment.

If anyone thought Brexit day was a new dawn they are in for a deep disappointment. We still face a long road and big battles pivotal to the future of the country are yet to come. Thus far we have walked into every ambush and show no sign of having learned anything and this perpetual Groundhog Day sensation is not going away any time soon. I don't know what it will take to turn it around but on present form we are set to squander what would have been a workable and sustainable outcome. All for the want of a Brexit plan.

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