Monday 29 April 2019

Pissing into the wind

I'm not the first or last to say it, but the betrayal narrative is a useful political tool to the likes of Farage and his new personality cult. It's like catnip to his supporters who would rather rage over Brexit than actually commit to doing something as radical as leaving the EU. This is where I start to lose patience.

Few want to leave the EU more than I do. I'm intellectually and emotionally invested in it. But I am also acutely aware of the enormous risks in doing so and especially if we leave without a deal. As much as the economic impact concerns me, I am more concerned that in the longer term, as we seek to rebuild formal relations with the EU, we will end up with a "vassal state" arrangement concocted by the Labour party who have no ideological attachment to Brexit and no real interest in governing the UK as an independent state.

The Labour party isn't actually interested in governing. It sees the arms of the state as a tool of redistribution and keeping things running is a secondary consideration. So long as it can tax and spend and maintain its clientbase, they are none too bothered who is doing the work on technical governance. They have no interest in it nor the intellectual curiosity. To date they still don't know what a customs union accomplishes but they will ask for one anyway.

Today on Twitter I have warned that if we leave without a deal there is a strong probability that we could end up with a deal worse than the one presently on the table. Naturally the Faragistas tell me that the deal couldn't possibly be worse but I'm quite certain it could and if anyone can make it worse and it's Jeremy Corbyn and his no-talent entourage.

This then leaves us with the uncomfortable truth that, give or take a few tweaks to the political declaration, the deal on offer is as good as it is ever going to get. This is a reality that the Brexiters don't wish to confront and will instead stamp their feet and demand we drop the backstop - which is not going to happen.

The chief complaint is that the deal locks us into a customs union with no exit mechanism and it's a near certainty that the backstop will be activated to become the basis of the whole future relationship. There' a few things to unpack here. Firstly it isn't a customs union. It goes a long way to having a similar effect where we will still have to coordinate our trade activities with Brussels but that really is the price of frictionless trade. As the junior in an asymmetric relationship, Brussels holds most of the cards and this is just a fact of life.

Secondly, the lack of an exit mechanism overlooks the political declaration. We have to look at the package as a whole and take into account the stated ambitions of both sides. The political declaration seeks to replace the backstop and since all bilateral relationships evolve over time, employing new methodologie and technologies as they emerge, if we hold the EU to their word then eventually we can bash it into shape. Short of an outbreak of hostilities, it is difficult to see why we would wish to unilaterally end that process.

But this betrays the fundamental misapprehension in Brexiter thinking in that they view Brexit as an event concluding in a static deal that dictates the terms of trade for eternity thereafter. That's not how bilateral relationships work. Moreover, Brexit is a process, not an event, and the withdrawal agreement is really only the first step in what is to be at least a twenty year long process of refinement. We can, therefore, afford to let a few things slide. We don't need an optimal Brexit. We just need to get the ball rolling.

This, though, is all a bit too much for Brexiters to take on board. Grunting populist slogans is much more lucrative than applying yourself to the issues and whipping up the rabble will always attract more media attention. There is next to no mileage in constructively engaging as this blogger continually laments. If leavers actually agree to a withdrawal agreement and move past the better adversarial referendum era politics the demagogues lose their reservoir of outrage.

This, dear reader, is where I have to get off the bus. The Brexit blob, ie the ERG, the Faragistas and leaver radio pundits, have shifted the goalposts and changed the original proposition. They have taken ownership of the narrative and turned the process into a revolutionary crusade. They will tell you they would rather have a deal but will only agree to a deal without a backstop, knowing this is not going to happen thus are not at all honest about it. That makes the proposition one of leaving without a deal.

Now they would have it that this is what we all voted for in 2016, presuming to speak on my behalf a a leave voter. We have gone from a relatively mundane proposal to a full blown economic experiment that never appeared on any manifesto based on the flimsiest of suppositions and rejecting all known norms of international trade. A suicide cult.

What one immediately notices is that all those pundits and self-promoting activists pushing this proposition are nicely ensconced in the politico-media bubble and largely insulated from the consequences of such an enterprise. Some will have EU parliamentary pensions to fall back on. the rest of us, though, still have to find ways to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads. People need a degree of certainty in order to plan their lives.

Ah but!, they say, none of the predictions from before the referendum came true so why should we believe them this time? Well, as it happens, it's actually quite difficult to tell what is happening in that a lot of money is being moved around in anticipation of Brexit which goes toward GDP. Many multinationals are positioning themselves for bargain acquisitions. But then we should also note that if we do leave without a deal then we face the full array of third country controls and restrictions on goods and services while losing most of our FTAs with other countries. We can argue the toss as to how severe the impact of that may be, but it's safe to say the consequences will be seismic.

Being that the process could very well drift to October without resolution, unless there is a change of leadership, we could be looking at a further extension. I would imagine the only grounds for a further extension would be if there were to be a second referendum, which I would no longer oppose. Parliament has had a year in which to get its act together and yet still cannot reach a consensus. There is an exit path available to the Brexiteers but they decline to take it. I cannot, therefore, see any alternative to another referendum.

This in my view would have to be a binary referendum separating the question of how from the whether. We have already had an in/out referendum, so the purpose of any public consultation should be between the withdrawal agreement and the actual Brexiter proposal, which is now essentially the WTO option - something I do not wish to see and (probably) wouldn't have voted for in 2016. We are no longer just talking about leaving the EU. We are now talking about a full blown termination of comprehensive EU relations and something of that magnitude must have a clear mandate.

This, though, may already been a forlorn hope. With what looks to be a local election wipeout for the Tories and with hammering defeat on the cards in any euro-elections, Theresa May's position looks increasingly untenable. It could go either way though. She could be gone in days or she could linger on until October. If she is replaced by a Brexiter then no deal is a near certainty. The EU's patience will be at an end as will that of the UK electorate.

If that is how it is to be then that is ultimately part and parcel of the risks I took into account when I voted to leave. That, though, will not be the end of it. The Brexiters are deeply mistaken if they think no deal Brexit is the conclusion. Very rapidly their suppositions will hit the rocks of reality and then we need further consultations on how to proceed. The one small mercy is that the Brexit zealots will have been taken seriously for the very last time. If the consolation prize is the death of the Conservative Party as we know it, it won't all have been for naught.

Brexit's credibility gap

I'm on a loser trying to make the case for the Withdrawal Agreement on the table not least because the betrayal narrative is too useful to Brexit demagogues to actually do something pragmatic like taking the first tentative steps toward leaving the EU. Instead they reassert the usual mantras but at no point seek to acknowledge the real world implications of what they demand.

For starters the usual four mantras of controlling our money, laws, borders and trade hits the rocks with any serious examination. Since we know they do not want May's deal and no deal other than "no deal" is on offer we have to assume that is what they are gunning for. It doesn't pan out.

For sure, this would end payments to the EU but the subsequent collapse in trade would result in a corresponding collapse in tax receipts. But of course, according to the Brexit blob, trade carries on as normal and there are all kinds of magical devices that ensure continuity. In their universe the EU's Notices to Stakeholders simply do not exist.

Taking control of our laws is no so straightforward either. There is some regulatory red tape that we could prune away but here we encounter the "double coffin lid" problem where we find much of the regulatory impositions that come to us via Brussels begin life in Geneva or are obligations under international treaties such as the Paris climate accords. If you really wanted to "take back control" to ensure we really do have democratic control over our laws then Brexit is really only a starter for ten. We'd have to withdraw from a number of flagship global accords which would be unprecedented and politically difficult. 

Then of course, there is the classic dilemma that the more we diverge from the EU, the more border and customs formalities we must endure, adding layers of overheads to transactions which harms UK competitiveness. Harmonisation and integration of systems is part and parcel of modern trade. It is the global direction of travel and the regional trade superpowers tend to call the shots. 

As to taking control of our trade, the fact is the EU as our nearest and largest trade superpower has enormous leverage over its neighbours as we have seen in the way it imposes on Switzerland. If the UK wishes to maintain exports to the EU then it will be on EU terms and there is no scenario where we won't have to coordinate with the EU. Every FTA we sign has implications for our primary relationship and unilateral action has trade offs and consequences. The global fabric of trade deals is deeply interconnected and governed by a global set of rules and nobody operates entirely independently. 

Then, as far as taking control of borders is concerned, we can end freedom of movement, but it's only a bit part of a solution. Immigration control is multifaceted and requires joined up local enforcement and effective systems for tackling the negative symptoms. Here we find there are a number of impediments from stretched council budgets through to human rights legislation that are nothing at all to do with the EU.

From a puritan perspective, the only way to take control is not only to withdraw from the EU but also a number of other international bodies to the point where we might even question our membership of the WTO and its legitimacy. These issues are far from clear cut. 

But then reality intrudes. Post-Brexit the UK still has to make its way in the world, it still has to have formal trade accords with the EU and as the junior in what is always going to be an asymmetric relationship, we will have some bitter pills to swallow. We can leave without a deal but that is no basis for operating in the longer term and our relations will have to be rebuilt sooner rather than later.

This is point I tire of repeating. Leaving without a deal means the UK is subject to the full array of third country controls and even if the headline impacts can be avoided we are still excluded from a number of lucrative markets simply because we are not legally connected with EU regulatory systems. Trade is more than trucks shifting tins of beans through Dover. Much of it depends on peripheral instruments such as visas and recognition of accreditation and qualification.

In the immediate aftermath of leaving without a deal, there is a strong change that the government's absorptive capacity will be overwhelmed and anything broken will likely stay broken if it is not an existential priority. This is where business starts to bleed away in search of a more stable regulatory environment. It will take some months for it to become clear as to what exactly is happening with services exports. By then we will be looking at the fag end of a Tory government with a looming election and there is then a strong chance of a Labour government led by Corbyn. 

Being that Labour is not ideologically wedded to Brexit and shows no real interest in running an independent trade policy it will more than likely concede to whatever the EU demands and will probably agree to a customs union largely because they think it does more than it actually does. I strongly suspect the EU will not be of a mind to tolerate the legal holes in its frontier and will demand something akin with the backstop in order to open talks on a more comprehensive FTA.

So as much as no deal is incredibly damaging to the UK's standing, it is difficult to see where it gets us. The stated objectives of Brexiters will be defeated and there is no way to deliver a sustainable Brexit that actually delivers on the promises they made. A Brexit of a sort is deliverable but it requires taking on board all of the harsh realities and prioritising our red lines. 

This is something the Brexiters have failed to do. We are still in unicorn territory and nothing is likely to persuade them that the WTO does not provide any realistic answers to the multiplicity of critical problems created by Brexit. Worse still when you have a political movement behaving like toddlers, there is no possibility of constructive dialogue. 

Even worse is that all of the windows for alternatives are now closed. There have been opportunities along the way where constructive engagement by the Brexiteers could have guided May's hand, but all we got from Johnson and Davis was bluff, bluster and frivolity and the ERG are profoundly unserious people, still rejecting everything they are told, preferring instead to indulge in their own private fantasies.

Depressingly, we are still nowhere close to a solution. The Brexit movement appears to have galvanised around political chancers promoting their no deal fantasies, steadfastly refusing to accept the withdrawal agreement on the table, blaming May for the state of it rather than their own intransigence and lack of adult engagement. This brings us to a political impasse where the deal is practically deliverable but politically a non-starter.

Being that the deal is non amendable and the EU is not going to back away from its flagship position on the backstop (being far too politically invested) it is for the UK to reach an internal consensus which looks no more likely now than it did some weeks ago. It seems that we are destined to fanny around with yet more tedious soap opera until the final weeks before the October deadline only to have nothing to show for it. 

By that point, much will depend on the feeling in the Brussels. Barnier implored the UK not to waste this time but waste it we will and at no point will there be a coherent proposal from any wing of UK politics. We will have yet more pointless arguments about the Swiss border and another resurrection of the Malthouse Compromise, and the usual self-deception but nobody will look at the facts in the cold light of day. 

The fact of the matter is that the UK, by way of its own lack of direction, its issue illiteracy and lack of leadership, has been completely outgunned and outplayed by the EU and though the withdrawal agreement is a bit of a stinker, it's the only way we get to leave with our hide intact. Some call it a capitulation and a humiliation but it's a greater gamble to leave without a deal only to go grovelling to Brussels some months later to sign whatever is put in front of us as the wheels fall off the ERG's "fwee twade" dogma.

Meanwhile, there are some who suspect that we may yet enter a further extension of Article 50 come October. Your guess is as good as mine. Were that to happen there would need to be a reset and this perpetual limbo is unsustainable for both sides, but if that is how it plays out then we are still looking at a number of complex questions requiring comprehensive answers and any deal will ultimately attract the ire of Brexiters who simply refuse to engage in reality. It could drift on to the point where there is really then no choice but to put it back to the people and at that point, I would not be at all surprised if it returned a decisive win for remain.

It seems to me that if we are serious about leaving then we have to hold our nose and sign May's deal, taking into account the political declaration and the joint ambitions for phasing out the backstop. Brexiters, though, have convinced themselves that the deal is a trap designed to ensnare the UK permanently with no way out with a view to the UK rejoining. That may certainly be a risk but one that is overstated. The likelihood of rejoining is greater from a botched no deal Brexit than an orderly departure.

There are two fundamental errors in the thinking of the Brexiters. Firstly that their fantasy construct of what constitutes Brexit ever was deliverable - and that Brexit is an event rather than an intricate long term process. It was always going to have to be done in stages and the withdrawal agreement is on the first step in a process that is sure to last two decades at least. What matters to me, as a leaver, is that we are not part of the political EU construct. The rest of the extraction process will have to be done over time with great care and patience.

This ignorance, though, cannot be corrected. the Brexit movement in the public domain lis largely comprised of self-promoting chancers treating the whole process as a popularity contest, churning out pleasing slogans to bolster their own standing within the Brexit blob. To seriously engage in the process would require telling the hard liners a few things they don't want to hear and and cynical manipulators are not going to do that. Consequently the Brexit Party is the dregs of Ukip and former Revolutionary Communist Party activists - none of whom have the first idea what they are even saying.

At this point I no longer know for certain if we will leave the EU. A strong showing at the euro-election for Brexit favouring entities will be long forgotten by October, and for as long as key players keep working to prevent no deal then we could be in this Brexit limbo for a long time yet. All the while the mandate for Brexit drains away while its leaders hemorrhage credibility. The nation may yet conclude that if leavers are not prepared to take Brexit seriously, why should anyone else? 

Saturday 27 April 2019

Nu-kip: the same old ignorance

It's hard to look at the Brexit Party (Nu-kip) any differently to its predecessor. While the old vessel has been appropriated by the internet cranks the new one looks much the same as the old one. One that is hell bent on leaving the EU for its own sake with no real idea of destination. There is a giant empty space where a deliverable vision ought to be.

When put on the spot for any kind of details, any one of the new candidates will fall back on bluster and borderline jingoistic optimism but cannot identify a national purpose. They've (still) never really given it that much thought. The Ukippy case for leaving the EU is a litany of whinges (many only partly to do with the EU) but never have they been able to articulate what they would do instead.

This appears to be a consistent feature of British politics where you can always find someone willing to opine but not actually do any thinking. Consequently the justifications offered for leaving tend to be the tired old canards that largely have nothing to do with the UK's relationship with the EU. When it comes to the mechanics of leaving the EU the cupboard is completely bare.

This is where I wish we had a remotely competent media. I would love to see any one of them seriously cross examined. Were that to happen we would very rapidly see how far out of their depth they are. This is where they would copy the homework of the Tory right and the Brexit blob, citing free trade with the rest of the world. There exists a body of work designed to bolster the Brexiter argument but it all traces back to the same handful of usual suspects centred around the Institute of Economic Affairs and the ERG.

Those who depend on this derivative work to help them bluff their way through an interview have no real idea what any of it means and take it entirely on trust being that it comes from kosher sources within the Brexit blob. It's fine if they want to persuade themselves of something but at some point this tribal dogma hits the rocks of reality.

The central problem is they have never checked what they want to achieve against what is actually deliverable. This pits the deregulatory instincts of the libertarian right against the real world. The Tory view has it at regulation is an expensive overhead that excludes new players from markets. This is where it helps to have been a long time eurosceptic, knowing the origin story of this particular misapprehension.

This all goes back to the nineties when the wheels started seriously turning on installing the legal software of the single market. Most certainly it did place major investment obligations on business equipping and training for a new regulatory regime. Some did not survive. Moreover the UK implementation was swift and ruthless with a bureaucratic zeal that only the British could muster. This provided ample fodder for the tabloids to run their "crazy EU regulation" stories.

What was not understood at the time, and seldom explained, was that this process was the foundation of a Europe wide regulatory union which would in time massively enhance the export potential of British goods if they made the grade. Though there may have been good arguments for not embarking on such an enterprise, the fact is that we did.

Fast forward to today and we have mature regulatory systems governing everything from farm waste to intellectual property - lucrative markets which are now well established and forms the foundation of the current UK business model. Eurosceptics warned that this would lead to an irreversible process whereby critical economic decision making would drift toward Brussels. That much is no longer in dispute.

The problem being that what is done is not so easily undone - and though we could set a course for deregulation and divergence, we'd be looking at a disruptive and expensive process much like the nineties, only this time it would be an exercise in reducing export potential and adding an array of non tariff overheads to supply chains and services. The commercial utility of regulation has never been fully appreciated by eurosceptics nor its complexity and certainly not its role in reducing border formalities. This is why the leave camp have such a hard time recognising the need for a comprehensive solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum.

None of these issues are particularly difficult to understand, unless of course you are mired in ideological dogma and don't really understand the nature of the single market. It is oft assumed that goods crossing borders is entirely organic and happens largely without government intervention. Except that the intergovernmental process of harmonising standards is what makes it possible to do at a profit the world over.

Without understanding that regulation is the WD40 of cross border trade, the EU's approach to Article 50 talks will always seem alien. It is assumed that if both sides have the political will to open their frontiers to goods without checks then it is simply a matter of dismantling border facilities. Frictionless trade, however, is the product of market integration based on uniform rules. It does not happen by accident.

Over the last three years much of this has been discussed and understood in many corners of the debate and much written here is repetition. None of this, though, ever seems to permeate the Brexit bubble where the realities of modern trade have taken a long vacation. The Brexiters continue to insist that we take back control of our money. laws and borders, but still seem to think this is without consequence and that free and open trade to the extent they imagine is still within the realms of possibility.

Here we have Nu-kip's Claire Fox blethering about sovereignty while utterly failing to appreciate not only the European state of play but also the universe of global regulation and the interconnectedness upon which most modern commerce functions. This is the classic dilemma between sovereignty and free trade that has been central to trade discussion for nearly three decades. As much as it was irreconcilable thirty years ago, as global regulatory systems have matured much has escaped from the realms of politics and drifted into the hands of technocrats.

This would all be far easier to resolve if this drift toward technocracy had no intrinsic value but as it happens we find that business does not want to go through the pain of regulatory upheaval for diminished functionality especially when it leads to larger overheads. This is why anyone serious recognises the need for a comprehensive relationship with the EU.

Had these basic facts of life been acknowledge by the leave movement then these dilemmas would have been anticipated leading to a preferred destination that adequately balances the ambitions of Brexit with the realities. Having failed utterly to understand the issues, making impossible demands based on misapprehension and jingoistic self-delusion, the Brexiter blob have largely written themselves out of the script, while they jeer from the sidelines waving their issue illiterate "solutions" such as the Malthouse Compromise.

Essentially it has all been left for the adults in the room to provide the direction and substance where the UK government has tried and failed to reconcile the irreconcilable. When the undeliverable and unrealistic is taken off the table, taking into account the UK's self-imposed red lines, the deal on the table is pretty much the only thing left. Naturally Nu-kip throws a tantrum because reality intruded on their fantasies, calling it a betrayal of Brexit.

Having persuaded themselves that no deal is viable, continuing to work from a position of supreme ignorance they will use all at their disposal to push us over that cliff. The problem, though, is that none of these realities go away and one way or another there has to be formal arrangements between the UK and the EU and with the EU being the economic and trade superpower, it will call the shots.

Eventually the penny will drop. The Brexiters will not know what hit them. If we leave without a deal we are looking at a major hit to exports and a major humiliation a we sign virtually any deal to get our trade back on track. This is precisely where we did not want to be but is ultimately the destination for this enterprise when the Brexit blob have a strictly enforced policy of maintaining its own ignorance.

This is why this leaver is largely resigned to supporting May's deal. Suboptimal though it may be, it can be revisited down the line and it at least breaks us out of this present deadlock. That the deal has been mangled to this extent, placing obligations on the UK that Brexiters find unacceptable is ultimately the consequence of Brexiters failing to anticipate these events  - which they could have were they willing to face the facts.

Brexiters will say that the deal looks the way it does because we have an establishment that doesn't want to leave the EU. That may well be a factor, but ultimately this has been an exercise in damage limitation seeking to tick the Brexit boxes while doing whatever can be done to preserve our existing trade.

This may infuriate Brexiters but this is done in the absence of a credible vision and an alternative destination. Uncoupling from the single market is no small undertaking and something that should only be done where we can identify alternative mitigating avenues. Given the general rule of regulatory gravity the options are few and nothing in the Brexiter cupboard comes anywhere close to replacing a lucrative £270bn a year regulatory relationship.

The bluster and bluff of Farage and Co may well be sufficient to sweep the boards in euro-elections which are little more than an opinion poll on domestic politics but it is not a serious proposal for the future of a leading world economy.

It is right to say that the mandate of 2016 must be upheld but the Brexit blob are not the sole arbiters of what constitutes the One True Brexit and having little more than a ragbag of flimsy theories to go on, most of which they themselves did not originate, they have no right to be taken seriously. Not at any point have they constructively engaged in the process or done that which is necessary to deserve a place in the debate.

There are, of course, answers to these complex questions, many of them outlined on this blog, but often it means coming to terms with some uncomfortable truths about our predicament. Something the Brexit blob is unwilling to do. They've decided that Brexit is something they alone own, excluding alternative voices and choosing to remain ignorant. Since they control the Brexit narrative I find myself more a detractor than supporter, right about the time when the leave movement ought to be doing all it can to hang on to the slim mandfate it had. If Brexit is stolen from them, they alone must bear the responsibility.

Friday 26 April 2019

March of the noisemakers

I don't have much to say about the euro-elections. I don't see it as terribly important. If we are leaving the EU then it's just a proxy opinion poll and if not then we have a pack of grunting Faragists with their nose in the trough as usual, producing nothing and wasting everyone's time.

Of the remain efforts that I can see, it's split between Lib Dems, the Change UK group and the Greens, and they can't seem to organise a coherent platform. They're pretty much self-ridiculing archetypal remainers and I can't see them making any difference at all. The whole thing is a sideshow. The central issue is how and when we leave the EU and that decision is ultimately a Westminster concern.

Here we have to zoom out and remind ourselves of the facts. There is a deal on the table and parliament doesn't want it. Brussels says the deal is non-amendable and there is every reason to believe them. They don't want to risk unravelling the whole thing and certainly wouldn't consider renegotiation without a coherent plan from the UK with the full backing of parliament. Such a proposal would have to respect the EU's territorial integrity so the options are limited. It is unlikely that any renegotiation would produce different results given the nature of the technical concerns. In other words, parliament can either like it or lump it.

If parliament persists in rejecting the deal then it comes down to one of two options. Revoke or leave without a deal. Parliament has thus far sought to rule out no deal but no deal remains the legal default. If it then comes to crunch point, with little possibility of extending, a decision has to be made.

This prompts questions as to whether parliament could exert its own authority to revoke Article 50. Generally it is assumed that it lacks that power, but these are strange times indeed and with the government enjoying a wafer thin majority anything could happen.

Leaving aside the fallout of such a decision, I'm now somewhat ambivalent. If Article 50 is revoked it will be as an emergency measure to avoid no deal and MPs taking the view that it cannot be allowed is a respectable position. Leave won by a narrow margin with a false prospectus and no plan, Brexiters don't want the treaty that formally takes us out of the EU and at no time during the proceedings have the ever ventured constructive alternatives that take reality into account.

We now know a good deal about the effects of no deal and even long before the referendum The Leave Alliance said that no responsible government should allow it. It's too damaging. Brexiters have hypnotised themselves in to a state of complacency using the EU's stated unilateral contingency measures as evidence that trade will function as normal. We should not humour them.

If you have grasped anything at all about the functioning of EU trade then it should be that there is considerably more to it than tariffs and regulatory harmonisation. There is a universe of peripheral instruments that facilitate commerce and trade, and contingency measures don't come anywhere close to resolving the multiplicity of problems. Brexiters have dismissed these issues as "project fear" quite successfully by ridiculing media reports which have either trivialised or misrepresented the issues or simply not understood them.

We are then left to triangulate with our best guesses. It won't be the day one armageddon as predicted by many but it would leave us with a decades worth of legacy problems which may never be fully resolved. The question, therefore, is whether our own contingency actions are sufficient. Which they aren't. The rollover of existing trade deals is a long and complex process and without any transition and with massively inferior trade relations with the single market, we are looking at full renegotiation of third party deals rather than technical rollovers.

Brexiters are generally cavalier about this. What they all share in common is a deeply flawed understanding of international trade and rely on a narrow set of agenda driven prestige sources who are manipulating the debate for their own ends. Realists, however, see this as a serious concern which will have unknowable secondary effects rippling out in ways that are impossible to anticipate. It then relies on the public and the private sector to adapt, but with only limited information from the government and no real idea when we expect to see anything like normality.

Being that the Brexiteers repeatedly assert that devices such as WTO Article 24 can act as a substitute for a formal trade agreement and that unilateral regulatory alignment can mitigate some of the issues, we can say in all fairness that the Brexiters pushing for no deal simply do not have the first concept of what they are talking about.

Were it that no deal were the central proposition during the referendum - which it demonstrably wasn't, we could fairly say that MPs were being obstructive simply because they do not like the result. But that is not the case. The Brexiteers have shifted the goalposts and manipulated the narrative so that it has (only in recent times) evolved to become The One True Brexit. This is the power of propaganda.

So here Brexiters are demanding of MPs that they simply roll over and suspend all of their concerns to clear the way for a Tory right inspired economic experiment that no serious trade professional thinks is viable - a theory which frequently asserts things that are counter to every known and commonly understood trade reality.

If I were a Brexit agnostic or a remainer, I certainly wouldn't roll over because what they want does not translate into trade gains and in fact exacerbates many of the complaints oft recited by lexiters. Why the left wing Brexiters have subscribed int totality to Tory free trade dogma escapes me completely. Probably, again, successful propaganda at work.

As a backup tactic, now that most of the crackpot trade theories and central claims made by Vote Leave are exposed, the Brexiters can fall back on the "betrayal" narrative, making this a more fundamental constitutional issue rather than the mundane act of extricating ourselves from the EU. It's powerful and persuasive rhetoric. Or at least it would be were they not accusing anyone of constructively engaging in the process of being a saboteur.

But then the Brexiter are right here. Stopping no deal and thereby stopping Brexit does deliver a constitutional crisis. Remaining in the EU certainly isn't the end of it. But then one can just as easily argue that if MPs have successfully thwarted a plot by the economic far right to take control of trade policy without it ever appearing in a manifesto while masquerading as democrats, then arguably they have done what is necessary in defence of the nation.

If that happens then Brexiters will indeed feel cheated but the ones most responsible are the ERG types who hijacked the Brexit mandate to chase "fwee twade" rainbows - and though my preference is to leave the EU I shall have very little sympathy. The bloviating Brexit blob now forming the new Brexit party appear to be media bubble pundits and activists like Claire Fox, none of whom have livelihoods depending on EU regulatory mechanisms. They are quite nicely insulated from that which they advocate.

Were we to revoke Article 50 then we would essentially have rewound the clock to 2014 when Ukip swept the boards at the Euro elections and was able to put existential pressure on the Tories. The Brexit movement would then spend some time in opposition to either become the replacement Tory party of external pressure to the point of them becoming a Brexit party. That is largely dependent on them securing the trust of leave voters after the fact which doesn't seem likely.

One way or another, we'd be back where we started either looking to elect a Brexit party with leave as a manifesto commitment or facing a referendum to end the uncertainty. If then the UK is still on an exit trajectory then we will go through this all over again. If not, the issue goes into dormancy until the next EU treaty process.

If Brexit is somehow defeated and then put to bed by a referendum that leavers lose, it won't be Brexit per se that will have been defeated, rather it will be the establishment putting down a revolutionary coup with pseudo democratic methods. It would still leave the "left behind" largely without a vice and with nothing politically resolved while the establishment gets worse. One can almost respect the no deal point of view that simply says we need to get it over and done with.

But with bilateral relations being a continuum, a no deal Brexit is far from the end of it. It won't be too long before we are grovelling to Brussels in need of a deal - and then we go through the mill once more where the condustions will be much the same as they are now, ie the Withdrawal Agreement.

If politics were functioning as it should this would now be fully understood and the futility of either extreme of the debate would become apparent. Being that politics has failed us, not least due to the failure of the media, one side has to win out and we must pick up the pieces when their certainties fall apart. Being though, that revoking Article 50 gives the economy a stay of execution, and with the arguments of Brexiters being so threadbare, you cannot be at all surprised if the leavers lose their prize. It will be a failure of their own making.

Now that Article 50 has been extended we are once again kicking the can down the road where if you ignore the soap opera and the noise created by the euro elections, we are still in the same old limbo. There is talk of reaching a new consensus on a way forward but to a large extend it is no longer within the gift of parliament. Like most things in life, if you do not make a choice then the choice will be made for you by circumstance. We have squandered every window to shape the process and now we are left with an unpalatable deal or a decade of political turmoil either way. MPs may not like the choice they have in front of them, but it looks like May's deal is the only to escape this toxic feedback loop. They have until October to realise this. Until then, the turf belongs to the noisemakers.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Brexit fever

The Brexit debate is now at such a state of stagnation that it's barely worth blogging. Anything I could write about the current state of play is worth neither my time or yours. The circus of the Euro elections is a matter of supreme indifference as regards to actual political outcomes. If anything it's displacement activity and as always is giving political z-listers a platform. The euro-elections are of sufficient media interest for the lackeys of the political bubble to climb aboard the gravy train one last time.

Discounting that as a source of writing inspiration we are then left with the spectre of Tory leadership contests which are really about the survivability of the Conservative party, which again is of very little interest. The Tories are toast irrespective of the Brexit outcome and at this point there is nothing Jeremy Corbyn could do to the country that would be more damaging than a no deal Brexit. Corbyn is no longer a viable scare story. He is something of a moot point.

But then this is one of those times where the lack of media attention on the central issues is neither here nor there. There isn't all that much to discuss. All the cards are on the table and we know where everyone stands. All that remains is for the politicians to make the actual choice. One way or another they are going to have to make a decision and at this point any decision will do. This is going nowhere until we know what path we are going down.

Between now and then all there is left is the trench warfare on Twitter which is of zero value. It involves picking a side in a largely binary debate centred on the respective leave/remain groupthinks, with each tribe wedded to equally crass sloganeering with neither side offering anything original and neither proposition (hard remain or ultra Brexit) is especially appealing. The only way out being to back May's deal which still looks dead in the water.

Course we could trot out all of the mantras about holding the government's feet to the fire, airing all the usual baloney about the largest mandate ever etc, but nobody seems to want to get real. For most, participation in the displacement activity is preferable to treating the subject with the seriousness it deserves. We still need a model for future relations with the EU and a destination for Brexit beyond ticking the Brexit box. Of itself Brexit is no remedy to anything.

This, though, is all lost in the noise. The news that without a deal securing the positioning of the Good Friday Agreement, the US Democrats will kill a post-Brexit deal in Congress is yet another crack in the ice the Tory Brexiters are standing on. Typically anything external to the UK simply does not register. Britain is self-absorbed and insular like never before and we haven't even left the EU yet. For all the talk of cliff edges, it may well be that we are already over the cliff but have yet to look down.

We may have bought ourselves a few more months but already the clock is ticking, and there is little chance politicians will have used their time productively over the Easter break and we're in for more of the same time wasting soap opera with politicians still grasping with basic definitions and still having trouble coming to terms with the withdrawal agreement being non-amendable. We will see yet more meaningless indicative votes and and more political scheming, but the central question they are avoiding remains the same. We are going to waste the whole time only to be back where we started.

It has long been my view now that Brexit is a fever that has to burn through and we'll have to deal with the aftermath as and when it happens, further revealing the inability of our political system to deal with complex problems. Furthermore, without political coherence and completely lacking in moral authority, the best they can do is to manage away the more acute symptoms. They won't know what hit them and won't know where to look for answers. They'll be too busy bickering among themselves to bring any resolution to it.

In respect of that, I think it is all part of the renewal process. We are not going to be able to resolve any of the difficult questions until we reach a new political norm - and that is some way away. Worse still, it has to degrade further before it gets any better. If we're waiting for politicians with half a clue then we are going to be waiting a very long time.

Monday 15 April 2019

Brexit on the doorstep

Serious politics has gone on holiday. You can tell by the way that run of the mill idiocy has a longer Twitter shelf life - and the idiotic remarks of David Lammy are still providing endless entertainment. One might be inclined to point out that the ERG are not remotely comparable to the fascists in that the fascists at least had an idea of what they wanted and a plan to get it.

This is where Twitter ceases to be a valuable tool, and instead becomes a warped parallel universe bearing next to no resemblance to politics on the doorstep. And speaking of which I had a knock on the door today from the local Conservative Party candidate, Chris Wood. He was collecting signatures to have a nearby road opened up to join Filton Avenue. I used up some of his time to, naturally, have a bit of a natter about politics.

Where it comes to local politics, I'm not at all partisan. Any sentient adult will do and since Wood has made the effort I see no reason not to vote for him. If I wanted to make a statement in respect of Brexit then I can vote for one of the Brexit parties in the Euro-elections. As far as local issues go, Brexit could not matter less. If the man is elected I'll be bending his ear about the stupid decision by South Gloucestershire council to give us all half size wheelie bins meaning I have rubbish sat by the bin for half the week.

But then of course there is very probably an EU dimension at work here probably to do with recycling quotas, where the council is primarily tasked with implementing agendas than actually doing the jobs we pay them to do. The chances of actually getting a decent sized bin back are somewhere around nil. One cannot, therefore, be surprised that interest in local politics is minimal. We even find that in some parts of the country there is a shortage of parish council candidates. The position has little carries little in the way of prestige and involves listening to people like me moaning about the bins.

If there is any point in candidates going through the motions locally then it's to get their face known and to climb the greasy pole inside the local party to have a shot at selection when a parliamentary seat is up for grabs. This perhaps explains why many of our MPs are of a particular sort. Nobody would spend the years on this stuff if they didn't have more ambitious ideas. Local politics is just a stepping stone and if you have eyes on the big job then you need to do the groundwork in an established party.

This then has the obvious knock on effect of constituents treating their MPs like glorified social workers and one cannot be surprised if the quality of national politics is then degraded and trivialised. Many of our current MPs would make excellent parish councillors but have no business at all in the national legislature. They are profoundly unserious people.

It seems to me that if we want national politics of consequence then we have to start with local politics of consequence, and that means putting real power back in the hands of people so that if we decide, for instance, that we want a bin you can actually put things in, then we don't have to ask London or Brussels for permission to do it.

It is perhaps that centralist culture within government that has done more than any one single factor to undermine people's faith in politics - undermining the notion that they have the power to influence what happens locally and nationally.

This is why international trade is more important than ever. With ever more subjects brought under the heading of trade concerns, from local government procurement through to product labelling, in or out of the EU, we will find that our powers in our own democracies are limited and often subordinate to economic concerns. This brings the central dilemma of globalisation right to our doorsteps.

Though we do not as yet know what our relationship with the EU is to be, it should be these concerns that inform our thinking on how we leverage Brexit to bring about more meaningful democracy and more responsive government. We may very well sleepwalk back into a similar system of constraints that render Brexit futile. Without a destination in mind, we could repeat the same old errors.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Britain must have an independent trade policy

James Kirkup, writing in the Spectator gives us a round up of why he thinks Brexiter trade delusions do not pass muster. This is the same Spectator that saw fit to publish Liam Halligan's piece entitled "No deal with the EU? Sounds like a good deal to me" and "Why a no-deal Brexit is nothing to fear" by David Collins - and many more like it along with apologia for Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

As it happens the Kirkup piece has a decent enough grounding in the Janet and John stuff (compared to the rest of the legacy media dross), though spoiling it beyond credibility by describing the EU as a free trade deal. But this really is the sort of discussion we should have been having many moons ago while the Spectator was polluting the debate with its poison.

A prestige vessel like the Spectator really ought to have shown better judgment but having done the bidding of their mates in the IEA and the Tory party, there is zero chance of its editors ever taking responsibility for the damage they have done. They will hide behind the excuse that they seek to publish a range of opinions. That may well be a laudable goal but at the same time the Spectator really ought to be setting an example by at least publishing material with a passing relationship with verifiable facts.

But none of that matters now. We have crossed the event horizon. The narratives are now so deeply entrenched that this kind of discussion is largely pointless. Brexit is now a revolutionary movement and these such populist orgies are never all that interested in the finer details. In the end, the propaganda won out. People still, sadly, place their faith in titles of good standing and prestige and the Spectator certainly played its own role in persuading the Tory grassroots that no deal was a viable outcome. 

As it happens, though, as readers of this blog will know, there are ample avenues for the UK to pursue an independent trade policy and so long as we do safeguard our trade with the EU by leaving with a deal we could very well have a more responsive trade policy interwoven with our foreign and international development policies and there is even a case to be made that a diversified approach to trade could be mutually beneficial to the UK and EU.

That case, however, is no longer worth making. It looks very much like we are leaving without a deal in which case we are in damage control mode and will be unable to finance an active trade and development policy. Moreover, good ideas simply won't see the light of day for as long as the political mainstream is dominated by the likes of the Spectator. If they get anywhere close to an interesting contribution it will be years late and thin gruel, much like Kirkup's latest effort.

We have to assume, though, that while it isn't explicitly stated in the article,  the article seeks to address the matter of the Tory demand that we avoid a customs union at all costs. That's something they are right about albeit for the wrong reasons. The textbook definition of a customs union would not stop us operating an independent trade policy, but a customs union with the EU would come with all the bells and whistles which very much would. 

What that means is full alignment with the Common Commercial Policy which would not only stop us operating independently, it would also leave us politically bound to the EU - impacting major areas of domestic policy and more broadly our foreign policy. We cannot expect that Brexit will give us an entirely free hand being that the nature of trade is interconnectedness, but a customs union with all the trimmings would leave us more of a supplicant than before.

This is fundamentally a question of who gets the final say over what happens in respect of our trade. As an EU member, the ECJ is always the supreme authority and with the definition of what constitutes trade ever expanding, requiring ever more European level coordination, we are drifting toward a scenario where nationally and locally we will have no meaningful democratic inputs on the laws we pass.

This is the question that lies at the heart of Brexit. The EU most certainly is a trade superpower but in whose interests and in what ways can it be held accountable. Those are questions that have never been satisfactorily addressed. The discussions on Brexit are less about trade as to what sort of place we want our country to be where the economics arguments are a secondary concern. But in order to bring about the society we wish to see (an argument not yet concluded) we lack the means to build it if every policy decision must first be cleared with Brussels.

The EU certainly does contribute to an economy where we have high availability of cheap goods and services but the price of this is a more transient society with less secure work where people are increasingly treated as commodities. This is undermining traditions, weakening communities, diluting local democracy, and increasingly basic expectations of life for many are now a pipedream. 

Whether or not Brexit really gives us the tools to address these issues is neither here nor there. Whether the EU is the exact culprit of our many maladies is yet another irrelevant question. Brexit has put these vital questions back on the political map and at the centre of public discourse after decades of a prevailing orthodoxy that "the science is settled" on our approach to economics and trade liberalisation, despite it leaving so many behind.

You'll get no argument from me that the Tory free trade dogma is wholly deluded, but that seems to be something of a moot point since it looks like the Tory party is not long for this world. The debate about whether we align with the USA or enter a visa arrangement with India is one still to come. For the first time in my lifetime these such issues will be the subject of public debate and lobbying by civil society. Trade no longer belongs to the wonks and the civil servants. It's been put back in the public domain where we have a greater chance of influencing it.

The net effect may well be a weaker Britain in the trade leagues, but one that is more agile, more responsive and able to forge sectoral alliances independently so as to table its own agendas. Market size is not the only governing factor and though larger states have greater leverage, the ultimate veto rests with parliament on who and what comes in. Of course there are trade offs but at least there is a debate about it. We then become responsible for our own decisions rather than government being something that is simply done to us with no warning. 

Brexit does mean the UK will have to get used to its new status as a mid ranking power, but one more able to shape its own external relations and one capable of defining its own cultural parameters, safeguarding that which makes this country a decent place to live. If this were just about trade then there is no real case for leaving the EU - but as any Brexiter will tell you, this isn't about trade. But trade is one of those instruments we have outsourced to Brussels without our consent and to the point where we, the public, have less control than ever. That above all is why we must have an independent trade policy. Brexit has always been a question of who governs us. 

Bigger than Brexit

As EUreferendum notes, the real business Brexit has been abandoned, now serving only as a backdrop to our domestic politics. "Even the European elections, if they happen, will be seen more as an opinion poll on the state of the parties, rather than any expression of choice as to who we want to represent us in Brussels".

To a large extent the whole process is a soft re-run of the referendum where remainers will be keen to show that they have the numbers, so we could very well see a far higher turnout than usual. Or not. Either way it doesn't matter. There is still that 2016 referendum result and it isn't going away. The Tories will surely take a pasting but unless there is new leadership, I cannot see how the result can influence the direction. There is still only one game in town and that is the withdrawal agreement until such a time where it is formally rejected again.

Between now and then we can expect to see an orgy of populism. The Brexit blob have a new heroine in JRM 2.0 and as ever it won't take long for them to be worshiping at the feet of their new messiah. We're in for weeks of the same old tedious mantras while the movement converges on no deal as the only outcome they will accept. This then becomes an existential matter for the Tories which means at the very least, any consensus reached with Corbyn in respect of a customs union will see them collapsing in the polls.

This all begs the question of how the Tory party gets rid of Theresa May and who she is replaced with, but with the withdrawal agreement being non-amendable, as stated countless times by Brussels, a change of leader with a new fantasy solution for the backstop is not going to get anywhere. Being that revoking Article 50 is only a remote possibility, no deal does seem like an inevitability. In the end it will be down to the political incoherence of Westminster rather than a deliberate act. Remainer MPs ought to realise the only sure fire way to avoid no deal is to ratify the deal but they won't, so that is that.  

For such pivotal and historic times, politics ought to be more interesting than it is but the political machinery has turned away from dealing with the grown up issues and instead defaults to ideological trench warfare with the only objective of making sure the opposite extreme loses. From an anthropological perspective one supposes it has some intrigue but it offers us nothing we have not seen in abundance for the last three years.

As far as Joe Public is concerned, and as far as the know-nothing leaders of the Brexit insurgency are concerned, business can simply muddle on through without formal trade and regulatory frameworks and there is simply no teaching the unteachable. This is now a battle of political wills and the livelihoods of ordinary people are just a casualty of war. The Brexit Party clan and their sympathetic pundits are isolated from the consequences of their ignorance so it is unlikely they will ever take any interest in the grubby details. 

If then we take it as read that we are crashing out without a deal the the intellectual effort needs to go into how we rebuild our European relations. The EU has said it will do all it can to ensure there is no border in Ireland but will have to bend and break a number of its own rules to do it and will need a series of WTO waivers. It won't like having a gaping hole in its legal order and its customs frontier and its first priority when the UK asks the EU back to the table will be to address that concern. 

Then, of course, we are looking at something akin with the backstop, and then in respect of our mainland trade with the EU, issues such as VAT, tariffs, SPS controls and customs don't go away. All of this will need formal interim arrangements and will need to be firmed up over the years. Somehow we need a new template for cooperation on everything from fishing to transboundary pollution and space policy - the minutia that Brexiters refuse to trouble themselves with.

The prevailing attitude seems to be that we will sort something out - and though the optimism is commendable, nothing in international trade negotiations happens quickly except for failure. We are looking at three to four years just to rebuild the basics. Considerably more to get back to anything we might describe as normality. 

Were we negotiating inside the framework set out by the withdrawal agreement we would be doing so from a position of relative economic health, but with the UK excluded from a number of lucrative markets, not least in services due to work visa restrictions and certification problems, our need will be more urgent whereby we end up making concessions on everything up to and including fishing. There will be plenty of bitter pills for Brexiters to swallow as a consequence of their wilful ignorance.

Were it that we had politicians capable of learning and understanding these issues, there perhaps might be time to bring the debate back to sanity, but there is no hope of that when there are votes to be gained by playing to the gallery. Constructive engagement is wasted breath. The force of raw politics is just too strong. It is now a revolutionary force and we are all going to have to pick up the pieces when the damage is done. 

In respect of that I can well understand how this became a revolutionary process. The remainers have become ever more authoritarian and nasty and the mask of progressivism and tolerance is slipping further by the day. As objectionable as I find the Brexiters, if I have to pick a side then I'm still for Brexit all the way. It was perhaps too much to ask that we approach regime change in an orderly fashion. British politics has long been too degraded to handle something like Brexit and politicians on the Brexit side of the debate are far from immune to its effects. This is no longer just about leaving the EU. 

Saturday 13 April 2019

Brexiters for Remain

They say that battles are won or lost before they even begin. On June 22nd, 2016 I predicted on this blog that we would lose the referendum. Prior to the big day this blog charted a dismal campaign over many months where the leave campaign made every possible error. In the end we didn't win it. Remain lost it. That, though, was no real cause to celebrate. A day later I wrote on this blog "They will use every means at their disposal to keep us on the EU leash".
They will try as Cameron did, to present a new deal which they say is out of the EU but not actually out of the EU. And once again they will use every mechanism of state to commend it to us. They are not going to go without a fight.

So while you may celebrate the referendum victory, we are not out of the danger zone yet. All we have done is establish a beachhead. We have not yet taken the power back and there is a long road to travel before we have. That is why those who campaigned to leave the EU must keep up the pressure. We must demand of them that Brexit does actually mean Brexit and that we will not tolerate any funny business.
That much I was right about. We may have won the battle but we have not yet won the war. But then the reason we are here is very much down to the mistakes made in the early days - running a campaign based on lies on a foundation of intellectual sand, and without anything resembling a workable plan. Had the leave campaign come up with a prospectus to take us beyond the referendum, they would have greater credibility in calling any deviation from the prospectus a betrayal.

But then that was not the game of the Tory Brexit brigade. By keeping it vague they could use bait and switch tactics and shift the goalposts along the way so now they are saying virtually any deal is somehow a betrayal of the One True Brexit, which is, you guessed it... no deal. Having decided to play double or quits, the ERG have been every bit as instrumental in delaying Brexit as the remainers, putting the whole enterprise at risk.

But now I find myself in the most bizarre position of all. Having been a prolific campaigner for Flexcit centring on an EEA Efta approach, I was repeatedly told that Flexcit is not Brexit, and that the EEA was BRINO. The consequence of chucking out an option like that meant that the government would be free to devise its own vision of Brexit - where each of the red lines has gradually crumbled as we crash into the rocks of reality. 

So now it is down to three possible options. No deal, May's deal or no Brexit. I am of the view that if we crash out without a deal it won't take very long for the penny to drop that we cannot function as a third country with no formal agreement with the EU and in order to reopen talks we will need to accept whatever conditions demanded by Brussels meaning that our exports take a shellacking only to end up with a deal similar or worse than Theresa May's.

The Brexit blob, though see things differently. Being that they have written off any no deal warnings as "project fear", we are only one political act away from leaving without a deal and sailing off into the free trade sunset. There is not a lot I can do to dissuade them of this, and were I resigned to it I would just put my feet up and let them learn the hard way. Except, of course, this affects me and I am not giving up without a fight.

But then of those Ultras who are coming round to this uncomfortable reality, they now tell me they would rather remain than accept May's deal on account of it having too many ties to Brussels and no unilateral means of exit. So the plan The Leave Alliance put forward (which was a softer Brexit than May's Brexit) wasn't good enough for them (even though it would have us out by now) - and now when the going gets tough, they're the ones resigning themselves to staying in the EU. 

This is one of those "turns to camera" moments for me. I can scarcely believe the stupidity and futility of it all. Nobody wants to leave the EU more than me and now I'm the one being "betrayed" by the very people who have stamped their feet and whinged for the last three years.

Then we get the Julia Dunning-Krugers of this world telling us that May's deal is not Brexit at all and that Brexit has been completely betrayed. According to her #Standup4Brexit following, anything resembling a customs union is not leaving the EU, despite the fact that the deal is not actually a customs union, is transient in nature and with formal ambitions to replace it in the event of its activation.

All May's deal does is put nominal restrictions on which tariffs we can tinker with which we need to keep roughly where they are for the next ten years or so anyway just for the purposes of rolling over third party agreements. It is but a sliver of the EU machinery and May's deal, suboptimal though it may be, definitely is Brexit and starts the long process rolling. 

At work here is a refusal to understand that Brexit is a process rather than an event and that a no ties, no deal scenario is not only optimal but also not sustainable. This simply does not bear any resemblance to the reality of modern trade. You can then perhaps understand why I am in no rush to support a Brexit party when they have converged on this deeply flawed idea that will result in a worse outcome than May's deal or very possibly lead to not leaving at all.

We are, therefore, in a position where the debate is now almost completely polarised between two equally flawed positions, both of which lead to a decade or more of political and economic turmoil and instability. Remaining is not without its risks. Those of us who do want to see a managed departure without hammering our exports and destroying our international relations seem to be in the extreme minority. I might even be the last person alive who is actually serious about leaving the EU. The way the Brexit blob are acting, you could be forgiven for thinking this was all just one giant practical joke. 

Friday 12 April 2019

It's party time!

So Farage has launched The Brexit Party. My first thought is that he wouldn't have to had he not made a massive pig's ear of Ukip. He could have built a sustainable organisation but instead he built a cult of personality and surrounded himself with quarterwit lackeys. There was nothing else it could do but implode only for the brand to be hijacked by the Tommy Robinson brigade so as to concentrate full time on grunting about muslims.

Moreover, the main reason we are even considering euro-elections is precisely because the leave movement didn't have a plan which is very much the fault of Farage and it was his lack of leadership that allowed Vote Leave Ltd to steal the campaign away from Ukip.

If there is a reason to vote for a Brexit party, or any party at all it escapes me. As much as I do not wish to lend legitimacy to that entity by voting in its elections, it is little more than opinion poll. I suppose there is some merit in a show of force to remind politicians at home that leavers mean business, and if you feel that way out don't let me stop you, but I'll be sitting this one out.

I could be persuaded to vote were any of the four Brexit parties actually constructively engaged in seeking a viable outcome but this will be the same jamboree as usual with Farage, Tice and Ms Rees-Mogg grunting the same empty slogans and demanding to leave without a deal. There's no way I'm voting for that. These are people who have gone to extended lengths to ensure they own the narrative and undermined any hope of securing a viable Brexit outcome.

Then of course, if there is to be a vote in the European parliament, the remainers will vote against the deal that takes us out of the EU and so will the Brexity mob. It's going to come down to how desperate the others are to get rid of us. And then if we do end up remaining there's is no utility in having thicko Ukippy MEPs who don't apply themselves.

We should also note that this is all well downstream of the real business of Westminster. In order for the European parliament to have its say, parliament needs to ratify a withdrawal agreement which probably won't happen, except in an emergency vote at the last minute, but in all likelihood it will end up with the usual fannying around until October when it comes down to a coin toss of no deal versus revoke. There will be no further extension.

Between now and then, anybody serious about leaving in a controlled and orderly way must make the case for the withdrawal agreement, suboptimal though it may be. What the Brexit mob want is to be out and out now with no ties to Brussels. This is a pipedream and one that will do enormous damage, leading to an even worse deal than the one on the table.

If we leave without a deal, the moment the penny drops that we are a third country and will be treated as such, it won't take very long for the government to collapse, and then the next administration, in a blind panic to restore any kind of trade functionality will be over to Brussels with the begging bowl, where to even start the talks the EU will present us with a bill along with no deal reparations, and a demand we sign up to a variant of the backstop.

The Brexit blob has convinced itself that we have nothing to fear from no deal - and if the Brexit Party sees fit to put the idiot Tice front and centre then we can say this is not a movement with an intellectual foundation. It will be every bit as inept and risible as Ukip and if this is the best they can come up with after being outplayed at every turn then it deserves to lose. They've learned nothing.

Being that politics is now atomised every which way I do not see that I have a dog in the fight and it all seems rather futile. Sometimes all you can do is watch and let it unfold. Then it will be left to the rest of us to clear up the mess they make of it.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Still none the wiser #74

Leavers are said to be incandescent with rage at new delays. I wouldn't know because I only see leavers on the internet where everything is warped and strange. I often write like I'm the only leaver who thinks we do actually need a deal and that leaving without a deal would be a major economic and political failure - but I can't be the only one.

I'm actually at the point where I'm not sure if I should be angry or not. This morning I stumbled on this post I wrote at the beginning of December which probably pinpoints the exact moment where I had "no more fucks to give". It details the full spectrum of failure by the foolish Brexit blob - and the only thing I can really add to the post is that, had Brexiter MPs engaged with reality and constructively engaged in the process, a deal could have passed - and we would have been out of the EU on schedule.

The fullest implications of this delay are not yet fully understood. Says Bruno Waterfield, "31 Oct is not a final, final Brexit date (not least because its All Souls Day). There's a scheduled #EUCO on 17 Oct that could extend. 31 Mar 2020 is still the default end date - as before an expected April #EUCO to thrash out 2021-2027 EU budgets".

Typically, better analysis will appear on but then the substance will fall through the cracks by morning and the entire debate then becomes about Euro-elections and the leadership of the Tory party. The substance of any deal, Brexit fallout and other such piffling concerns will evaporate. What it means in cruder terms is months more buggering about, the same moronic arguments about customs unions, the same tedious mantras that May's deal "is not leaving" - and a strong chance the deal will get worse so that it still doesn't pass and then we are back here again whenever the real deadline is. 

Here we should not forget that the rage fest on Twitter has virtually no relationship with real world events. The grunter wing of Brexit were still tweeting "Chuck Chequers" even until recently, long after Chequers was even a thing. The same will apply here where remain and leave trench warfare troopers will rehash the entire leave/remain debate, all the while the EU continues the process of isolating the UK from EU institutions so that when they do call time on further fannying around, Britain will drop out without a deal if it has not then got its act together.

That is not to say that Brexit couldn't be stopped somehow. I've ruled things out as impossible before and then parliament goes ahead and does it. Their capacity for treachery and stupidity knows no bounds. I just don't know and I'm not prepared to speculate until I've seen where the battle lines are drawn. I will still make the case for leaving but this now feels like a tiresome chore foisted upon us by Brexiter MPs who have squandered every chance we had to get out on time. 

As to the soap opera of who leads the Tory party, the EU is still immovable on the backstop and the deal is still non-amendable and is likely to remain that way so it matters not who is captain of the Titanic. If there is to be a deal then it's a slightly modified version of the political declaration attached to the same deal - and if parliament wilfully obstructs it again and again then there is nowhere left to go. No deal is still a realistic prospect despite the PM's every effort to stop it from happening. 

So essentially, though this is a new chapter of the Brexit process, the closing scene of the first act, we are still essentially non the wiser, not knowing how, when or if we leave while politics continues to implode and the media retreats further into its comfort zone of confrontation, soap opera and airtime filling trivia. If there is anything to be incandescent with rage over then it is that. But that is the new norm, so how can I waste the energy?


Following on from last night's analysis, we now get the speculation over the respective courses of action. If Brexiters are serious about leaving then they have to swallow their respective whinges and back the Withdrawal Agreement sometime before June. They could continue to play silly buggers but that pushes it it right to the wire. There can be no further extension after October for various procedural reasons where it's then either no deal or revoke.

If they are going to do that then they need to ensure there's a PM who definitely will not revoke. This cannot be said of May. She will put it to parliament and wash her hands of it. It is unclear, though, how the Tories will rid themselves of May. There is also talk of a snap election which would be electoral suicide for the Tories so I personally rule that out. With votes going to Brexit parties, and remain votes consolidating on Labour who would make vague noises about a referendum of some kind, we'd probably see Labour take a slim majority.

In the meantime we are sure to see all the same noises about putting it back to the people, but as yet we are not told precisely what it is we are putting back to the people. If it's going to happen then the wheels need to be rolling on the process by August. I don't see that happening but stranger things have happened.

All the while we should recall that the deal is not going to change so even though indicative votes are mooted once more, any conclusion can only augment, not replace the withdrawal agreement. Parliament will expend massive energy on the usual displacement activity to accomplish nothing.

Were I a betting man I would say that if the withdrawal agreement hasn't succeeded thus far then it's not going to, especially if remainers see a window to stop Brexit. They will play their double or quits games same as the ERG. So really it smells like we'll be here again in another six months facing the final dilemma, a last ditch attempt to ratify the deal and then if that fails whatever happens, happens on the toss of a coin. I have absolutely no idea.

The only certainty is that between now and then we'll get all the Brexiters who wailed at The Leave Alliance plan squealing at the consequences of having no plan at all. They will cry betrayal, but ultimately this is a mess of their own making. They cannot say they were not warned. 

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Revoking Article 50 is not an option

As hopes for a sensible negotiated Brexit drain away, some are starting to ask if revoking Article 50 is the only option left. I don't think it's an option at all. Leaving aside the political fallout, it does not conclude the process. The matter has to be resolved so that the UK and the EU can progress. It is not sustainable for a country to be a member in open defiance of a democratic consultation.

As much as this is toxic to the UK, the EU then loses what little moral authority it has overseas. It's hard to preach the virtues of democracy when a major member is there by way of political connivances. If Britain is to be there then there needs to be a renewed positive mandate. That means another referendum at some point.

If that happens then there is a strong chance it returns exactly the same result in which case all we'll have done is prolonged the uncertainty and instability. Should it go the other way then it won't be by a particularly large margin. It won't be a positive mandate either. It will be a reluctant admission that we are essentially too incompetent to leave. The EU is then essentially a prison.

At that point British politics turns more sour than it has ever been. Something worse than Ukip of yore will sweep the boards at Euro elections and it is difficult to see how any government can ascent to further integration. Britain then assumes a role as permanent blocker to EU progress.

On the domestic front, we are then set for a decade or more of political turmoil. Brexit was a safety valve against a populist uprising but if we don't leave the such a political revolution is inevitable. Prior to 2016 Ukip existed only as a pressure group to chip away at Tory support in order to force their hand. All that time the Tory party was on life support and the referendum offer in 2015 is pretty much the only reason they are now in office. The Tory party was allowed to live on the proviso that it got us out of the EU. That deal is now off.

In many respects we'd be hitting the rewind button on politics to 2014 where all the popular resentment would be concentrated in eurosceptic parties, only this time there will be nothing on this earth that would tempt any leaver to vote Tory. Brexit then becomes a permanent feature of British politics and there is no political stability until the issue is resolved. We then have to go through all this again, only next time around there will be no Article 50 process. We'll just leave.

Revoking Article 50 is only a sticking plaster. A temporary life support machine for a politics in freefall. It is a mistake to assume that revocation brings us back to unity and political coherence. What existed before was only a veneer. A mirage. There is no going back. As Latimer Adler points out, "the coming realignment of British politics will not be class-based as historically, but along different fracture lines: London vs The Country, Meddling vs Freedom, Academics vs Workers, Meeja vs The Rest, Remain vs Leave". Brexit will be the festering sore at the centre of it all. It is a fundamental question of values.

By that point remainers have a serious problem. With the auto industry in a global recession and Brexit remaining a political artefact, we will gradually see a slowdown of investment and businesses quietly decamping from our shores. With Brexit an ever ready possibility and political instability being the new normal, most of what remainers said would happen if we left will happen anyway. This creates a problem for remainers in that the EU was supposedly the safeguard against.

What has made Britain an attractive proposition all these years is less the EU as it is the political stability. It's impossible to do business when you can't take any long term decisions. For as long as we remain in the EU, we are only one election away from a radical leftist or populist party, where even if we remain in the EU, the threat of tax hikes and political turmoil will lead to lukewarm investment.

Further still, Brexit has exposed a deep rooted political incompetence and now it's out in the open we will start seeing manifestations of it everywhere we look. Remainers are going to have to carry the can for that. The incompetents screwing up everything they touch will be the same politicians who connived to keep us in the EU. The culmination of all this only ends up back at the same old arguments, meanwhile, precisely nothing is done to address any of the drivers of Brexit.

When we voted to leave in 2016 the lines of British politics were redrawn for good. Remainers claim that Brexit won't fix anything but remaining in the EU definitely won't. Brexit is going to jam up the works here and in the EU and Britain is not going to be a popular member. Britain will have to veto any further integration and that will seriously sour relations. Leaving is the only long term path to amicable relations.

The only way I see us moving forward is by biting the bullet and leaving. There is a hell of a mess to clear up, especially if we leave without a deal but it does at least lance the boil. If Article 50 is revoked then we will be bogged down in Brexit indefinitely, going nowhere and tearing ourselves to pieces. MPs are going to have to face facts. May's deal is the least worst option.

Monday 8 April 2019

Peter Oborne is wrong

Peter Oborne has come out as a reluctant remainer in the face of the government making a total pig's arse of Brexit. He's probably not alone. We are at the end of the line and we now have to hold this thing up to the light and say what we see.

In most respects I find it hard to disagree with Oborne in that much of what he says has already been charted over the course of this blog. The ignoramuses in the Brexit campaign aristocracy have made endless misleading and false claims and it is hard to argue that there is any geopolitical or economic merit to Brexit as envisioned by the lead Brexiters.

Oborne is right to cast a critical eye on Brexit's remaining supporters. On the one hand we have foaming rightists whose economic arguments are not supported by any sane or honest analysis, and then on the left it's a ragbag of radicals from the Corbynistas who see Brexit as a prerequisite for full socialism, and then there's the infantile Spiked brigade who've persistently refused to engage with the subject matter on an adult level.

Brexit has been dogged by saboteurs throughout the process but I can think of no political cause in living memory so prone to self-sabotage. The ERG would have a far more legitimate claim to betrayal had they at any point worked up a deliverable plan instead of doing everything in their power to bring about a no deal scenario. Not at any point have they constructively engaged in the process or recognised the realities of modern trade.

Through their respective propaganda vessels they have poured substantial resources into promoting the idea that we have nothing to fear from no deal, enlisting their friends in the Spectator, The Telegraph and even The Times to deliberate pollute the debate and obfuscate on critical points of detail. They cannot then be surprised to see that the whole of the Westminster apparatus works to frustrate their agenda. The ERG are the ones who made this a winner takes all fight to the death. They are the ones who gambled our win to say double or quits.

The ultimate absurdity here is the belief that having no deal with the EU is a sustainable place from which to operate internationally. The Brexiters have played on public ignorance of trade, skilfully confining the debate to tariffs on goods which barely scratches the surface of what is an academic and professional discipline in its own right.

Here Brussels has made itself clear. The EU will do the bare minimum to preserve its own commercial interests but will act to preserve its own territorial sovereignty and the integrity of its legal order. They would find means to avoid a hard border in Ireland - not least because they have made explicit promises to Ireland in respect of that. This, though, will require that they bend every rule in the book to make it work. That presents them with a problem.

If the UK leaves without a deal then there is a gaping hole in its customs frontier which the Tories can very easily weaponise. Up with this they will not put. The precondition of restarting talks on a formal relationship for the future will be something akin with the backstop and they will use all of their soft power and weight as a trade superpower to ensure we sign on the dotted line before they talk turkey. We'll be hanging out in the breeze, hemorrhaging jobs and investment until we do. This could have been avoided by taking the EEA Efta path at the very beginning but Brexiters wailed about that saying that it was not Brexit. Another spectacular own goal.

Whether we sign May's deal now or crash out on to WTO terms, it will be the case that Britain will have an inferior and asymmetric trade relationship with the EU. That is jointly the fault of the ERG and Theresa May with her irreconcilable red lines. That is the consequence of entering this undertaking without vision, ambition or even half a clue. At every turn ignorance has won out.

Were I viewing Brexit solely through the prism of economics, disregarding all other factors, then I would find myself resigning to the depressing conclusion that we have squandered the window for a successful Brexit, and we as a movement were largely defeated by own own incompetence and dishonesty. That is Oborne's very pragmatic conclusion. 
Finally – and without naming them – I must state that there are many MPs (and not a few journalists) still marching under the Brexit banner who will read this article with a sympathy and support they do not feel able to declare. They too have changed their minds. I have, and must say so. Fair enough (you may think), but where is the ringing declaration of love for the European Union? We have seen the passionate beliefs of the Brexiteers. Where’s your own positivity? Where your matching passion for Remain?
I have none. Only a deep, gnawing worry that we are making a significant mistake: a worry that is growing by the hour. Call that negative, if you like, but precaution is negative – yet it is part of our kit for survival.
This is where I part company with Oborne. Every single argument rests on the fact that whether we like it or not, the EU has us by the balls. That fundamentally describes our entire relationship with the EU. We have always viewed it as an entirely transactional relationship out of resignation. It is that same resignation that has seen us sucked ever deeper into the EU where we have sleepwalked into a supreme government for Europe - which has massive powers over how we are governed, and substantially more than any of us ever realised. It is that precise resignation and defeatism that led to what we were warned of in 1975. This is why the issue still festers and divides our politics. 

Much of what has been done to the UK is largely irreversible. There has been a quiet revolution in trade and governance. We have moved from fumbling democracy to ruthlessly efficient managerialism where all concerns in respect of identity, heritage, culture and democracy are entirely subordinate to the four freedoms - and though these care dressed up as individual freedoms they are ultimately the four freedoms of capital which always drives a bulldozer through democracy.

There is no winding the clock back, there is no great restoration, but at the very least Brexit is drawing a line in the sand and sets us on a path of restoring the people as the supreme authority. That does not lead to sunlit uplands nor does it bring about a renaissance in free trade. It will cost us greatly. Brexit is a seriously expensive business. That, though, is not reason enough not to do it.

One can pick fault with the withdrawal agreement as it stands, arguing that the EU retains control in a number of key areas. I liken it to erecting scaffolding in order to deconstruct EU membership a piece at a time where the control the EU has wanes over time as the legacy concerns become less relevant. The EU can be trusted to honours its obligations under the political declaration and eventually the backstop will be replaced. Politically it could not be sustained and neither side is especially keen on it. All bilateral relationships evolve and ours with the EU has always been a continuum.

Hardline Brexiters, though, are still insistent that May's deal "is not Brexit" but in truth, though the EU holds us to maintaining certain standards and requires that we coordinate our trade policy with the EU (which we would end up doing anyway) it still removes most of the EU's power over domestic governance. We would still, in the eyes of the world, be a distinct entity to the EU. Out is out. 

Here, though, it is not the ERG standing in the way of leaving with a deal. The ERG are certainly a nuisance but it's parliament as a whole steering us to the edge of the cliff, hoping that the terror of no deal will be enough to put brakes on Brexit for good. Economic blackmail. And it worked on Peter Oborne.

I take the view that if we leave without a deal then it won't take very long for there to be a wider realisation that a deep and comprehensive relationship with the EU is both inevitable and necessary and if we have to rebuilt that relationship from the ground up then so be it. As much as it will discredit the ERG ultras, ultimately the blame for the damage will rest squarely with Parliament as a whole and as much to do with them playing the same double or quits games as the ERG. 

I didn't vote to leave the EU because I thought it would be good for the economy. A long time ago I probably believed that it would be, but those days are long over. Fundamentally it is a question of what the EU really is. It may not be a federal superstate and may never become one, but it's ninety per cent of the way there and increasingly acts like one on the global stage and is largely accountable to no one. Democratic safeguards are non-existent. 

The fact of the matter is that Britain has finally decided to resolve the matter of its uncomfortable and divisive membership of the EU. It is essential we find a way forward everyone can live with. If we do not now commit to that process then we will never be given another choice. That singular fact is perhaps the most glaring and most urgent matter to resolve. Democratic politics is supposed to be about choices where the people have the power to make them. Here we're saying we have no choice and we will rob the people of the power to make that choice. 

That Brexit is going to end up more expensive than it ever needed to be is not the fault of Brexit as an idea. There are a multitude of reasons why this process has unfolded so badly, and all of the key players on both sides share in some of the blame. It points to a deep dysfunction in politics and media and a more worrisome chasm of values between our political class and the country as a whole. It is the intransigence of our establishment that has brought us to this point. they are the ones making us pay more for Brexit that we ever had to. 

We could defer this decision and attempt to sweep it all under the carpet as though it never happened, but it wouldn't resolve anything, and there is no reason to believe we will handle it any better the second time around. Opinion is too atomised and the complexity is beyond the ken of our low grade politicians. We cannot be held hostage to their galactic incompetence. In so doing we would be admitting that this shambolic managed decline is the best Britain can aspire to. That is not an admission I care to make.

Britain is a first world nation of sixty-five million people. We can and should be self-governing. We have a long way to go before we can call ourselves a democracy but we won't get there unless we are able to choose who governs us. It really comes down to whether you believe that the UK has the intellectual and material resources to make a go of it. Though the former is certainly not evident in our ruling class, the human capital of this country is enormous. We do have the talent if only there is the political will.

If it is not already abundantly clear, it will soon become unmistakably necessary to have a fundamental clearout in Westminster. Brexit will be that catalyst. The process has already started. The Independent Group will likely lose most, if not all of their MPs and it won't take very long to dispense with the Brexiteer deadbeats too. 

Britain's social, political and economic problems are not going to be solved until we reboot our politics and if our politicians must grovel to Brussels for permission to make meaningful changes to the way we do things, then politics will remain in its current stagnation. However expensive you think Brexit may be, the cost of flushing our democracy down the pan is unthinkable. Sooner or later there is a price to be paid.