Wednesday, 11 September 2019

An abuse of the mandate - (or why Brexiters should get real)

I'm the last one to defend parliament - especially given its recent juvenile conduct but we need to separate the issues here. The public was handed the decision as to whether we leave the EU. It was a long running fundamental constitutional question that could only really be resolved by the public. The question of how we leave, though, was a matter that could only be resolved by a representative body.

In this, parliament has been obstructionist throughout - to the outrage of leavers. The extent to which MPs have simply been trying to kill off Brexit is a matter for some debate but the fact remains that Brexiters have not been playing an honest game. There are four basic models Brexit could follow but ever since the referendum Brexiters have insisted ever that the most extreme and the most damaging is the only model that honours the referendum result.

They have done so in a completely cavalier fashion. MPs have had good cause to ask serious and searching questions of the Brexiters and what they get in response if fact free flim-flam. Debunking Daniel Hannan has become a cottage industry. Not a single word from the lips of John Redwood is bankable. When it comes to prolific works of fiction Shakespeare's got nothing on advocates of the WTO option.

Then when it comes to the more technical debates we are told that anything from blockchain through to ANPR cameras will do the job - and can be implemented without a transition - completely ignoring the regulatory aspect of frictionless borders. There's just nothing these people say that can be taken seriously and that is rightly a cause for concern for MPs.

I've watched countless committee meetings watching inquisitive MPs like Rachel Reeves coming at it cold asking hard questions, wanting to be convinced but finding the answers wholly unsatisfactory. Had I not been passionately involved in the campaign to leave the EU the answers given by Brexiteers would have made a militant remainer of me. When these people aren't being spectacularly ignorant they're lying through their teeth.

I think it highly uncharitable to think that the majority of MPs are acting in open defiance of the referendum. A great many do respect the result but cannot in good conscience roll over and let the Brexiteers do as they please when their case stands in such a flimsy foundation. The stakes are too high.

And if there's one thing MPs know better than anyone, if there is a sustained campaign of lying then there is an unspoken agenda. And we now what that agenda is. To the ERG, Brexit is less about national sovereignty and democracy and more about a radical right wing economic adventure where the classic democratic arguments serve only as a smokescreen. Their intent is to embark upon aggressive deregulation and unilateral trade liberalisation using the 2016 vote as a mandate without seeking a new one for their agenda.

On that there has been extensive debate where again we find the Brexiteer arguments wanting. Deregulation is part of the libertarian right canon, long baked into Tory scriptures but has long been obsolete. Modern trade is all about regulatory harmonisation for the facilitation of speedier more profitable supply chains. Deregulation and divergence is a wholly false economy and involves painful and expensive change only to find goods have less export potential at the end of it.

As to unilateral trade liberalisation, we are talking about massive, sweeping, unplanned change with no risk assessment. There's no way that ends well. It's just another deep rooted Tory superstition that the current tariff regime is a "protectionist racket" - overlooking the labyrinth of free trade arrangements the EU has with just about every major economy.

So here there is nothing to enthuse Brexit sceptics. No reasons why they should green light this course of action when it is abundantly clear that the Brexiteers are playing fast and loose with the truth and quite simply do not know what the hell they are talking about.

As it happens, had there been the outright hostility to the referendum result that Brexiters now claim exists, we might perhaps be out of the EU already. Given the mood at the time they had no choice but to trigger Article 50 but they could well have united to insist on EEA Efta form the beginning but even Brexit sceptics reluctantly agreed that freedom of movement must completely end, mindful of northern Brexit voters whose votes they depend on. Had Labour ever investigated the possibilities of EEA Article 112, this might well have gone a different way.

It is something of a Brexiter conceit to say that MPs are wholly and unequivocally against Brexit. I have made that argument myself more than a few times but it's a bit of lazy shorthand. Plenty of MPs theoretically want to deliver Brexit but they just can't agree on a way forward. All that they can agree on is that they don't want a no deal Brexit because there's nothing much to be said for it and it is an abuse of the 2016 mandate.

Ok so many of the scares are increasingly risible. We're not going to impose additional customs measures on incoming goods so the likelihood of medicines shortages is minimal and the EU's own contingency measures, (which will be reciprocated) will ensure basic connectivity for the essentials, and planning will ensure the ports stay clear even if that means diverting trucks or stopping them setting off. That's all fine. We can ensure there isn't a Brexit day meltdown. But longer, term, taking into account all the secondary effects, there is nothing to be said for it.

As remarked almost every other day, no deal cannot stay no deal and we must have a comprehensive relationship with the EU. Crashing out puts us in a state of limbo, handing all the leverage to the EU, and it will take some years before we are even negotiating a new trade framework - with the precondition that we submit to an accord on NI that looks pretty much the same as the backstop. A self-defeating mess.

I have argued that no deal is essentially what it must be if MPs cannot agree and there is no other way to leave - but there is a deal on the table. For sure, Brexiters hate it but they're going to hate anything that doesn't deliver the great Brexit pipe dream. they tell us that "May's deal is not Brexit" but that's a wholly dishonest claim. It just doesn't deliver the Tory wet dream Brexit - which they are by no means owed on the back of the 2016 referendum.

The mistake of parliament was the failure to realise that the withdrawal agreement was pretty much the only option by the time they'd ruled out all the other avenues. It was their failure to get to grips with the issues early on that brought us to this point. Incompetence rather than outright malevolence. The Ultra remainers couldn't even muster double figures when they broke away to start their own party.

When It comes down to it, MPs are thinking about the harm a no deal Brexit will do. This is not a matter of crystal ball gazing. We are not talking about the economic guesswork that said there would be a recession immediately after the referendum. Here we are talking about cause and effect whee the EU's own Notices to stakeholders explicitly list all the areas where the UK is frozen out of lucrative markets. The absence of a data adequacy agreement alone is a serious dent for UK digital services providers. Even if we disregard the worst of the scare stories as "project fear" we are still looking at a deeply damaging, long lasting hammer blow to jobs and trade.

In respect of that, despite my involvement in euroscepticism since back when Alan Sked was leading Ukip, I think I would have joined Tory rebels in doing virtually anything to try and prevent, or at least delay a no deal Brexit. For as long as there is a chance of a deal we have to keep rolling the dice.

Of course Brexiteers will wail to the rafters about this but like all spoiled children in the midst of a tantrum, you ignore them. What they want is not a viable or desirable destination. At this point they just want a Brexit day for its own sake so they can put on their party hats and bunting just "own the libs". But that is not remotely in the national interest and celebrations will be short lived.

Ultimately Brexiteers may have won the vote but they certainly didn't win the argument for no deal and have utterly failed to persuade decision makers and likely never will because there has never been such a far reaching radical proposal built on such flimsy foundations. Brexiteers can't seriously expect MPs to roll over and let it happen. The mandate doesn't stretch to that.

Brexiteers could and should have anticipated maximum resistance to the path they have chosen. Had they set out a plan and a clear set of objectives and a credible pathway to accomplishing them then MPs might well have reluctantly gone along with it but instead they are being asked to green light a self-inflicted disaster that doesn't have majority support in the country or in parliament and the whole basis for doing so is a grunt of "democracy".

Well as it happens, we have representative democracy and that is not cancelled out by the referendum. We might perhaps wish it come other way but there is a line of delineation between the issues. The public had their say but parliament still has a role to play and if they did roll over to allow a minority of headcases to dictate the agenda then we would consider it negligence.

I am still of the view that if parliament can't get its act together then we still have to leave with or without a deal, but it looks like MPs have bought us a little more time. Whether they use the time intelligently remains to be seen but I'm happy if we tell the fat lady to hang on a while longer.

This perhaps does put Brexit at risk but in the end Brexiters should have appreciated that this one be a long process. Instead of building a consensus they have done everything possible to antagonise resistance, using a form of electoral judo to leverage public anger against remainers. As a strategy it could very well work - but there was also a high chance of it failing. They took that gamble with open eyes. It's their can to carry.   

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