Thursday 31 October 2019

New video blog

As we know, this current deadlock is only phase one in a long process. The next phase carries a great many challenges and dilemmas we need to be realistic about.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Election fever

Regular readers will notice I've not been following every twist and turn in parliament. In these times where the situation is fluid it's always best to stand back and let reserve judgement until they've finished fannying around. And now it seems we have a general election to contend with.

I can't say I'm remotely enthusiastic about it. I'm sure it will provide some considerable entertainment on the night when we shall likely see a bloodbath of inadequates but with politics in the toilet their replacements are not likely to be an improvement. Moreover we shall not have seen the last of those ejected since the the media so often returns to its vomit.

Then there's the question of whether an election will solve anything. The facts on the ground aren't wildly different. The Tories are still Tories, Labour is a rag bag of communists, antisemites and gormless fishwives and the Lib Dems have travelled further down the path of remain extremism with a smattering of social justice nonsense.

The only new factor influencing the outcome is an overall sense of apathy where the real number to watch will be turnout. As much as the timing carries its own turnout penalty there is a prevailing sense of voter exhaustion. Nobody normal is in a hurry to make this election a re-run of the referendum. Everything has already been said.

And of course we know the game in play. Reamin's strategy seems to be to delay Brexit long enough to hold a kangarendum, at which point the electorate succumbs to the relentless futility of it where remain limps over the line by a whisker. They'll then seek to draw a line under it at which point Brexit fatigue will see the masses switching off in droves, finally concluding that there is no point in voting ever again. I might well be one of them.

That strategy though, is contingent on a remain party winning - which seems unlikely. I have a hunch we are in for another hung parliament or a small but workable Tory majority. There is widespread disaffection with the Tories but nothing that presents itself as an obvious viable alternative.

One supposes one ought to consider what influence the Brexit Party may have, but I rather suspect it will fall far short of its ambitions. The party seems to have taken up a role as a protest pressure group but owing to its lack of an intellectual foundation it doesn't appear to have a coherent strategy at all. It may make a difference in marginal seats, enough to hand a few Labour seats to the Lib Dems, but we won't be seeing any BXP MPs.

Should we see a hung parliament then we're in for a repeat of the last few months with endless dithering and indecision that will likely see us hit the deadline with absolutely no patience for further extensions here or in Brussels. A crunch point will come eventually. The most realistic chance we have of avoiding a no deal Brexit is a working Tory majority.

For now I suspect I am far from alone in my sense of deflation. With the days closing in, energy levels dropping off and thoughts turning toward Christmas, invasive dental treatment seems more welcome than a general election. Parliamentarians are not likely to win our affections in the coming weeks and the sane thing for any reasonable person to do is tune out. This debacle is far from over and there will be much more to say on the flip side  - but this current Westminster mess is currently theirs to sort out. We'll see what's what when/if they get their act together. 

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Brexit: A matter of priorities

The classic Brexiter narrative is that after our departure we are free to do as we please. Breaking away from the EU means politics is once again open to the battle of ideas. On the right we have free market free traders and on the left we have good old fashioned socialists.

The problem with Brexit, though, is that both camps are offering up an intellectually bankrupt prospectus. The right are obsessed with tinkering with tariffs with barely a foothold on what the term "free trade" means (if indeed it any longer means anything) while the left seem to think we'll be free to subside and prop up industry without international consequences.

Both are essentially economic arguments. And that's a problem since Brexit is not an economic proposition. Both factions have lost sight of Brexit's intellectual foundations. Such as they are.

Any serious analysis, taking into account the significance of European and global regulations and standards suggests that there simply isn't an economic argument for Brexit. Those things we would be free to do are not necessarily things we should do and if we did, we would find that they actually aren't very good ideas. We then encounter the "double coffin lid" where we find the restrictions imposed by the EU are not entirely dissimilar to the global frameworks from WTO to Basel2.

It actually takes the EU to remind us what the rationale for Brexit is. Today the Commission tweets "Since 2011, the EU enjoys enhanced observer status at the UN. In New York, the EU delegation @EUatUN coordinates with all EU countries to ensure they speak with one voice. It allows the EU to participate and present common positions at the UN’s general debate every September".

That's pretty much the whole of the argument right there. We are told the EU will never be a superstate but all the same it is still a supreme government and one that seeks to replace the member state in the international arena. The voice of member states is subordinate to the common position.

When you factor in the disparity in geopolitical outlooks even within the EU that can only mean that there are times when the national interest is subordinated by the EU common position, largely dictated by the bigger fish. In respect of that, when considering French colonial interests and German energy ambitions, it seems implausible that there could ever be a coherent common position without the UK or any other member being silenced on occasion.

And then of course if the EU is to have an international presence at the top tables it needs its high representatives - people such as Federica Mogherini who, so far as I can work out, is accountable to nobody. EU foreign and neighbourhood policy then takes precedence and our international concerns are a distant second. As much as this is true for the UN, it is also true of UNECE, Codex, WTO, ILO, IMO and many other key global bodies - especially in the domain of trade which is an exclusive EU competence.  

This is where remainers roll out the "clout" argument in that "pooling sovereignty" enhances our international power. They do not say, though, why the UK cannot act in ad hoc blocs and alliances according to the arena utilising its own considerable soft power. They can only think in terms of a fixed international alliance in all matters.

That said, I am the first to admit that Brexit does indeed reduce our global clout in terms of trade - quite substantially should we fail to secure a deal, but that clout is illusory when we find ourselves on the losing side of important arguments within the EU over what the common position is. So it comes down to a question of whether it is better to always have a voice and the ability to lead or whether it's best to play it safe accepting we are subordinate to the EU. 

If we follow the latter to its inevitable destination we find UK delegations disbanded entirely and replaced by the EU on everything from fishing subsidies to human rights abuses in the far east. Our consular services are shuttered and our official presence is no longer felt overseas. Then of course if there is an overarching foreign policy there is an overarching military policy since the latter is a tool of the former. British warships will be doing the bidding of Mogherini. British flags but EU armbands.

Our continued membership of the EU is a commitment to replace European states with an active political cabal playing its own games of empire. Britain will retain its flag, its monarchy, its national anthem and its red phone boxes but these will be mere relics of a former nation. The end of Britain as an independent sovereign country.

This I will never be reconciled to. It is why, at the end of the day, I will gladly pay virtually any price to leave the EU. It's not about saving £39bn or spending £350m on the NHS or deregulating or even subsidising British manufacturing. This is an existential question for the country - and when you look at the constitutional make up of the EU it's an existential question for European democracy.

Whatever baubles are up for grabs, be they pan-European health insurance, abolition of roaming charges or visa free travel, nothing dangled in front of me is worth the terrible cost of the EU. Our country is more than just an economic region. It stands for a particular set of values (though they be in flux) and if we wish to be a sovereign people capable of defending and exporting those values then we must at all times have a voice internationally.

Looking at what has been achieved through UNECE, the WTO and other major global bodies, it is clear that we can defend the environment and uphold labour standards and human rights through multilateral cooperation. Political subordination is neither necessary or desirable. Britain punches above its weight because we are willing to invest and because we keep our word and because we are a great country with massive cultural influence. We would be fools to turn our backs on that.

Of late Brexiters seem to have lost sight of this, instead getting worked up about the relatively trivial details of the withdrawal agreement, arguing the toss over inconsequential sums of money. They measure any deal against what they hope to achieve economically, losing sight of what's important. 

Whichever way Brexit goes we will remain closely aligned with the EU in matters of trade and we will find that breaking out of the EU's regulatory orbit is largely futile - with limited utility. What matters is that we reassert ourselves internationally making it clear that though the EU is a valued partner, we do not share in its destination nor walk the same path. That is the objective. I didn't get into this to save a few quid nor strike free trade deals. This is about something much bigger. 

Monday 28 October 2019

Restoring parliament

"Westminster politics is seen as aggressive, entitled, phoney and unprofessional, a braying bear pit hopelessly out of step with modern workplaces, where respect and empathy are increasingly valued." says Harriet Harman reflecting on her 40 years in parliament.

This is, of course, a bid for the Speaker's chair. She will make all the right noises but nothing will actually change. Leaving aside that Harman has a questionable record, the problem is bigger than any one person's capacity to resolve. Half the problem is our media.

Were I to go out into the high street and ask passers by to name a few MPs the responses would be predictable. There seems to be two kinds of MPs. Those who seek the media spotlight (and get it) and those who do all in their power to avoid it. We know everything about the former and nothing about the latter so our perceptions of MPs form up on the view that they are narcissistic, slippery and quite a bit thick.

Of the ones who do register in the public eye most will be prolific tweeters. Their time in the Commons is viewed less as an opportunity to make a pertinent point as it is to provide fodder for their next social media video clip, signalling to the folks back home that they're raising issues important to them, or parading their own right-on credentials.

Too often are we subjected to grandstanding and lip wobbling emoting along with staged walk outs or sit-ins - which tells us virtually everything they do is calculated in accordance with the "optics". It was bad before social media when MPs competed to get their face on the Six O'clock News, but now MPs have their own media operations where they can prepare and promote their own selectively edited content.

Respect for parliament really comes down to one factor. The more we see of them the more we hate them. The 24/7 media circus sustains this behaviour and encourages the cynical manipulative stunts we see all the time now - which has even spread to select committees. The dull forensic questions don't make it into the public eye but the finger-wagging and hectoring does. Unless there's a gimmick, the media isn't interested. 

The obvious answer is that cameras need to come out of the Commons. Having cameras in their creates a cottage industry in punditry which turns our MPs into performing seals. We cannot talk about trust in parliament when the presence of CCTV is an implicit statement that we do not trust them. Nothing they ever say or do is off record. Trust simply cannot happen when they are never let out of sight. 

But of course there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Were MPs to move toward the removal of cameras they would face predictable accusations of seeking to hide from scrutiny. We could perhaps ration TV footage and limit it to special events and PMQs but that wouldn't be sufficient for the media mob.

Since we cannot, there is really only one answer and that is to dramatically reduce the role of Westminster in our politics. We need to see a lot less of them. We need to starve the media beast. This unhealthy politico-media bubble needs breaking up and moving out of London. Possibly the only thing in politics more inane than a virtue signalling MP is a Westminster lobby correspondent.

For all that we saw unedifying squabbles over the prorogation of parliament I was certainly not alone in asking what they would usefully do with the time otherwise. As it happens, nobody was remotely surprised to see parliament half empty and when it did sit, its output was of such little value that they may as well not have bothered. The fact is that we don't need parliament to sit passing laws all year round. Much of what it does could be devolved to local politics and would be improved for doing so. 

Brexit has done much to erode public confidence in our so-called democracy, stretching the limited abilities of MPs to the max, but if it wasn't this then it would be something else. Public frustration with our political process is partly why the public voted to leave the EU in 2016. We are long weary of the shenanigans and parlour games. We are tired to the hypocrisy and heartily sick of having it foisted on us without having a meaningful say.

As it happens I voted to leave the EU simply because I do not believe that decisions taken far away can ever be democratically informed decisions and the more centralised the decision making the more likely it is to be an ideas cartel, closely guarded by the corrupt and self-serving. That is true of Brussels but it is also true of London - which is why Brexit of itself does not solve very much - if anything at all.

For the last few months parliament has done itself no favours by obstructing our departure and many have warned that if they succeed in overthrowing the referendum of 2016 then there will be blood in the streets. There are days when I believe that and days when I'm not so sure. I think perhaps the effect would be much more subtle.

If we reach a stage where MPs have manoeuvred to silence the voice of half the country to assert their own supremacy, and so doing killing off any chance of meaningful change, then the public will quietly conclude that voting is pointless and leave them to it. They perhaps might like that but the consequences is a collapse in respect not only for parliament, but also the rule of law. If we are not ruled by a body with gravitas and legitimacy then the conventions that bind us, that make up a functioning society, will simply fall away.

If we ever are to restore public faith in our system then we must take the power away from Westminster and put it in the hands of the people. They won't always be right or even wise but at least then they will own the consequences of their decisions. For as long as the public are ruled over rather than participants in their own democracy, the rulers will always be the object of hate. That is not a sustainable basis for government. 

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Changing platforms

After some years building up just over twelve thousand followers, my Twitter account has been terminated. This is most likely a result of vexatious predatory reporting. There is a core of nihilistic remainers whose main motivation on Twitter is platform assassination. Consequently over 150k tweets, threads and pictures have vanished down the memory hole.

This does not come as a surprise to me. I'm genuinely surprised I lasted as long as I did. I know my reputation as a potty-mouthed misanthrope and I have never moderated myself in the slightest. It was only a matter of time. In this game you can behave as badly as you like just so long as you maintain a veneer of civility. I've always found it hypocritical.

Critics have long said I would have fared better had I been a little more composed but the reason for this ban couldn't be any more ridiculous which largely demonstrates that the ghoulish remain mob will keep trying until something sticks. It's a game you can't win no matter how careful you are.

But there's another reason I am the way I am. Some time ago I realised that I could be prim and proper but it wouldn't get me anywhere. I exist below the line and I'm not batting for any particular tribe. I don't represent anybody and I don't slot neatly into either of the extremes. I parrot no narrative. I simply say what I see. That means the tribalists will never trust me even if my views sometimes align because they know my guns can just as easily turn on them.

In short, nobody was ever going to formally acknowledge I exist despite me being one of the most prolific writers on the subject speaking to thousands of people almost every day. I'm not in the gang. Whatever foothold I have in this debate is that which I clawed out for myself speaking directly to people rather than relying on media exposure.

That process has been slow and though I've had one or two breakthroughs I am still toiling in obscurity. Much of the time I've spent on Twitter in the last three years has been a futile indulgence. But then others have chosen to take a more placid approach, conforming to the unwritten rules of conduct and they haven't got anywhere either. The media is more interested in polemical speakers and those with a gimmick. Meanwhile remainer voices seem to have no problem at all. That's how we know who the real establishment is.

The one consolation I take from having my voice deleted from Twitter is that it makes zero impact on blog hits. This platform is still very much alive and kicking - and as it happens, sometimes I can get a hundred or so blog retweets and it makes no discernible difference to hits either way. I strongly suspect 90% of what is retweeted isn't actually read. Twitter is an important communication tool but it's still a bubble with limited reach and its denizens are nowhere near as important as they think they are.

But then as we are this particular juncture in Brexit, it seems an opportune time to take stock. Perhaps it is time for a change of approach. Previously on Twitter you could do the Reggie Perrin stunt of reinventing yourself under a new account, but Twitter has sophisticated techniques to detect it now. My replacement account was locked and deleted in minutes along with the EUreferendum account. They are quite determined that I am not welcome on Twitter.

I will not, therefore, be resuming my typical activities on Twitter. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. After nearly five years of tweeting into the void, depleting my own resources, I see no reason to further indulge Twitter. They've decided it's going to be a regulated sphere for those whose opinions conform and if you don't belong to the self-regarding self-referential claque then you're talking to yourself until the assassins get you.

From now on I will maintain the @LeaveHQ account for the purposes of linking to the blog, but I think from now on I will follow EUreferendum's lead and cultivate better debates in the blog comments - over which I have control. Try as they might, they're not shutting this down.

As it happens I concur with the EUreferendum assessment that it isn't worth the energy following every twist and turn of the Brexit soap opera and even if a deal passes, as outlined in yesterday's post, there is next to no chance of our politicians making a good go of it. We simply have to let them do whatever it is they're going to do and we'll pick up the pieces afterwards.

It has been clear for some time that a viable managed departure is beyond the abilities of our political class not least because it would require a better media than the one we currently have. For the last few weeks I've been watching events to assess whether an EEA Efta Brexit is still possible and I really don't think it is. That was the theme of my talk on missed opportunities last night at King's College. I have more chance of living to see a new moon landing.

The only certainty here is that whatever the Tories manage to cobble together in the next few years it will be neither adequate nor sustainable. We probably face as long a road to a workable outcome as it took to leave the EU. And to do it we are going to have to start all over again. We are going to have to build a political movement the old fashioned way from scratch and it's going to take twenty years. We can, therefore, afford not to stress anymore about the current crisis. What matters is ensuring that sensible people are in control of the narrative when another window of opportunity presents itself.

Interestingly I was asked last night if there is still a future in blogging. I think there is just so long as there are people willing to work very hard for a long time for little reward. If there is one mistake The Leave Alliance made, it was not acting sooner in cultivating a network of bloggers. It takes a long time for a blog to establish. Presently gets tens of thousands of hits every day but I remember for its first five years there were long stretches where it wouldn't even reach the 4k mark. The trick to this game is patience and persistence.

So while you'll no longer see me pumping venom into Twitter any more, I'm certainly not going away. The Brexit process is in a transitional phase, as is our politics and it seems, so am I. Having lost the battle for a viable Brexit outcome we now need to cut our losses, regroup and rethink. The leave movement has lost its intellectual foundation and the Brexit Party is certainly not part of any solution. We need a fresh debate about longer term objectives.

In respect of that, I think it's time to refocus on The Harrogate Agenda not least because we can't fix the Brexit mess until we've fixed our politics. For the last three years The Harrogate Agenda has been very much on the backburner with Brexit chewing up all of our time and intellectual energy. But now that is wasted energy we need to look at ways in which that energy can be better spent.

To that end I think very possibly it would be worth putting on another THA conference. the last three years have revealed flaws in our politics and has taught us many lessons about the functioning and relevance of referendums and THA perhaps needs revisions to take into account our departure from the EU and the suboptimal relationship that will likely replace it.

What was interesting about last night was that the auditorium was one of the very same rooms in which the eurosceptic movement began. I never imagined I would be speaking there. The turnout was respectable and certainly we had some high quality questions from the audience. I certainly think such an event is worth doing again and it seems to have been appreciated. That is perhaps a way forward to rebuild. One thing I'm certain of now is that I need to get out from behind this keyboard. On that score, Twitter might well have done me a favour.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brexit: eyes to the near future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 October 2019

Brexit: why and how?

I'm not one for written speeches so when I give my talk on the missed opportunities of Brexit this Wednesday, it will likely follow the video blog format where I riff off a number of themes and take direction from those asking the questions. I thought, though, that it would be useful to lay out a primer of how we arrive at Efta EEA as the preferred outcome for Brexit. 

Firstly we have to establish a few facts.
  • Just under half our trade is done with the EU.
  • Much of our exports only exists because of the facilitation measures inherent to the single market.
  • Frictionless borders is a product of regulatory harmonisation.
  • The EU is a regulatory superpower.
  • If you want to do business with a regulatory superpower then you follow its rules.
  • It doesn't have to take your position into account. 
  • The cost of non-tariff barriers far exceeds the cost of tariffs. 
  • You do the highest volumes of trade with your immediate neighbours.
  • The EU is the largest contiguous regulatory block in the world, extended by way of its own FTAs and external agreements. 
  • The UK already enjoys tariff free trade via a number of EU FTAs.
  • There is no likely combination of new FTAs that could ever offset the loss of the single market.
These statements I believe to be true. On the face of it, therefore, there isn't an economic case for leaving the EU. If only this were just an economic question. Brexit, though, touches on a range of issues which come into conflict with the direction of travel of the EU.

It is said that the EU wishes to be a federal superstate. EU scholars say that ambition ended with Lisbon with a recognition that member states to not share that aim. To a large extent they are right. It's only really the mouth foamers such as Guy Verhofstadt who still speak to that goal.

But the EU is still an incomplete project and one that is still guided by its founding dogma of "Ever closer union". Economic integration is a tool of political integration. As rules are harmonised authority over them is centralised which diminishes the power of national parliaments to reform or repeal laws according to their own values and political manifestos. If we take democracy to mean the ability of peoples to organise and take power to direct the institutions then the EU does not qualify. It is a benign dictatorship but a dictatorship nonetheless. There can be no democratic choice against the treaties.

The EU may never become a federal superstate with homogenised law throughout but it will continue to weaken member state sovereignty and lay down the parameters in which member states must operate. Primarily the objective is to liberalise trade within the borders of the EU so that national borders are increasingly meaningless. Superstate it may not be but it is most certainly a supreme government with the power to overturn laws of member states.

The effect of such rapid integration on the UK has been profound. Economically and culture it has made a deep and lasting impact. It has transformed the culture of politics and government. All levels of government below the EU are constrained by it and must give over much of their resources and time to implementing agendas devised in Brussels and above. The people can be overruled and their decisions nullified.

That the EU has a parliament does not make it a democracy. Elected representatives turning up to rubber stamp initiatives devised by the EU machinery is a figleaf of consent but one lacking a legitimate mandate. Especially when you consider the Euro election turnouts.

This system of government works toward a "level playing field" across Europe. That level playing field, though, is really about removing the obstacles to commerce so that business and workers can move freely around the continent under a single regime. The grand design, though, fails to accommodate national and local laws derived from the customs and values of diverse peoples. The human touch is subordinate to the economic and political integration objectives, alienating ordinary people from their laws and law making institutions. Brexit is a manifestation of that alienation.

In 2016 the public were finally given a choice as to whether to continue working toward the completion of this project. By a small but decisive majority, Britain voted to leave. Though there are a number of individual freedoms created by the EU and a great many economic benefits, the public weighed up these factors against other concerns and on balance decided, despite a wave of warnings, that the economic was subordinate to the political. The British public were not won over by the economic case for remaining. And it was an economic case. At no point did the remain campaign make a case for the vision that drives the European Union.

The case for Brexit has always centred on the desire to repatriate decision making and restoring a sense of control over economic policies that define our country. Immigration and trade are a huge part of that which the EU, to a very large extent influences or controls outright.

The case for Brexit is easily made. Once viewed in terms of what it truly is - a supreme government rather than a "trade bloc", the arguments tend to fall into place. The case for remaining, however, is based on a wholly negative premise that the act of leaving is simply too damaging to our economy and our international standing. That therefore presents a number of questions as to how we extract ourselves from a 45 year old system of government. That's the hard bit.

I have long spoken of the need for a managed departure in recognition of the fact that Brexit is a process, not an event. Many believe that on Brexit day we terminate our membership of the EU and the matter is finally resolved. If only that were true. Being that regulation is the WD40, it is unthinkable that we leave the EU without a system of alternative agreements.

Trade in the modern world is not simply protocols for moving lorries full of tinned beans from Worcestershire to Lisbon. Trade now encompasses all manner of services and digital services that didn't exist even twenty years ago. The EU governs everything from data adequacy, intellectual property to European space policy. Our departure creates a vacuum that must be replaced by a new relationship.

So what form does that relationship take? The British attitude to the EU generally been standoffish, not least because it doesn't carry the same cultural significance. We have traditionally viewed it as an economic necessity in the absence of an alternative. Most Brexiteers will tell you "we just want the trade bit".

But Brexit is not only a question of our relationship with the EU but also our place in the world as a midranking power and medium sized market. For half a century the EU has served our political elites as an empire substitute. Going it alone is not something we have psychologically prepared for.

That is where the bland list of realities mentioned above come into play. There are two types of Brexiter. There are those who hold them to be true and those who deny those realities. The latter believes that leaving without a deal has manageable consequences and an an exaggerated economic impact. I therefore have as much difference of opinion with them as I do remainers.

As mentioned much of our high tech just in time economy is a product of regulatory harmonisation and much of our trade with the EU only exists because of it. An overnight departure, subjecting us to the full force of tariffs and third country controls (as defined by the Notices to stakeholders) is a hammer blow to the UK economy with grave ramifications for jobs. Thus far this has been disregarded as "project fear" - with Brexiters ever keen to remind us that this isn't just an economic question.

On the latter point I do not disagree but the economic question is not one we can afford to ignore. In the bluntest of remainer terms, you can't eat sovereignty. Bills have to be paid. Mortgage payments have to be made. Politics impacts our lives.

Here it is commonly assumed that trade is in the mutual interest and that eventually the EU will do a deal with us. The problem with this point of view is that the EU does not see this issue purely in economic terms any more than we do. The single market is a quarantine area as much as it is a regulatory union. It is a system that facilitates trade but also (in its own estimations) embodies the values of the European Union.

One way or another the EU will seek to conclude a trade relationship with the UK, but will not extend any preference that in any way undermines the basis of the single market or gives a third country a competitive advantage over members. You can have the trade benefits of the single market but only if you are prepared to accept the obligations that go with it.

This has never really sunk in with the British polity. This is betrayed by some of the clumsy abuse of terminology we see peppering the debate. Very often we hear Jeremy Corbyn telling us we need to maintain "a close relationship with the single market". But you can't have a relationship with the single market any more than my body can have a relationship with my right foot. It's either attached and functioning as part of my body or it isn't. You are either part of the single market operating under the same rules or you're not.

For many Brexiters, very probably most of them, the obligations that go with single market membership, not least freedom of movement, is too high a price to pay. Brexiters also believe that regulatory independence is a pillar of the Brexit canon. The hardliners believe that unless those two objectives are met then we have not meaningfully left the EU.

The essential problem here is that Brexiter objectives are now decades old. Regulatory independence as a demand stems from the old Conservative belief that pettifogging regulations were a burden on business that stifle international competitiveness and that regulations at an EU level are stacked in the favour of global corporates designed to cripple competition. The latter is partly true and the regulatory process will never not be corrupt and politically skewed according to who has the best lobbyist.

Having looked at this debate from every imaginable angle it's always six of one and half a dozen of the other. But the fact remains that the EEA single market is the world's largest contiguous regulatory area and the most sophisticated and British exporters and service provides face innumerable obstacles to commerce outside of the European regulatory ecosystem.

Complicating it further, the EU has for the last two decades used global standards as the basis of its regulations and the base framework of regulatory cooperation in its external relations. Globally we are moving toward a single regime of standards, leaving only the USA and China as the sticks in the mud. Were we to secure a deal with the USA according to their system of standards, even if it doubled the volume of trade done with the USA (which not FTA has ever done) it wouldn't come close to mitigating the loss of the single market.

The scope for divergence, therefore is minimal and leaving the single market leaves us broadly aligned against a backdrop of a public that doesn't favour deregulation, only we'll have lost the recognitions and authorisations necessary to participate in European markets on the same terms. The buccaneering "Global Britain" dogma does not account for these realities, very often placing undue emphasis on tariffs as the tool of trade liberalisation.

Leaving the single market, therefore is somewhat self-defeating. It would be logical were Brexit motivated by a strain of nationalist protectionism but we are told by the Tories that this move is primarily about free trade. That is not to say there isn't a nationalist protectionist mentality in the mix but that's a relatively recent phenomenon as relations with the EU have soured in the last few months.

The logic of leaving the single market is further eroded as industries such as automotive, computing and electronics are becoming more regionally concentrated, with companies increasingly looking to make their products close to market to be better able to cater for changing patterns in consumer demand and to reduce disruption from political risks such as a trade war, which is known as near-shoring.

Much of what is commonly understood about trade follows assumptions from the previous decade of globalisation when offshoring was the fashion and corporates moved around to exploit differences in tax regimes and labour standards. To some extent the EU has sought to close some of these holes by way of its own "level playing field" provisions and seemingly it has an effect.

But if we are ruling out the single market then we must evaluate the alternatives. Having no relationship at all is obviously not a solution which puts us in FTA territory. In respect of that the EU is increasingly moving toward a boilerplate model of zero tariffs, a 50% Rules Of Origin threshold and, depending on proximity, customs cooperation protocols using WTO conventions as a baseline along with similarly boilerplate affirmations on technical standards. Although the UK could adapt to this model it would soon reveal its own inadequacy. Regulatory cooperation in EU FTAs is only rudimentary where the most advanced it gets is the framework for vehicle type approvals as defined by UNECE.

Under this regime there would be considerable administrative overhead in order to exploit trade preferences. UK goods would not be subject to tariffs and the generous ROO threshold would suffice for most eventualities, but overall we would still be looking at a dramatic reduction of trade with the EU. We are then looking at the next level up where the UK would follow Switzerland in adopting parts of the EU acquis with ECJ decisions having direct applicability.

At this point the conditions begin to erode the logic of leaving the single market. In short, the UK pays a heavy price for prioritising the end of Freedom of Movement and as we rebuild trade relations over time, there si the danger of becoming the "vassal state" as our regulatory relationship evolves.

The truth of the matter is that the UK, not least because of our size and proximity was always going to become a "rule taker" (to use a clumsy phrase). Brexiters could and should have anticipated this and recognised it as an inescapable consequence of Brexit. Had they done so they'd have recognised that the real emphasis should not be on what rules we adopt, rather the mode of adoption. If the intent was to remove the influence of the ECJ and to repatriate the decision making process then the best available model for trade and cooperation with the EU is the EEA via Efta.

I not not here rehearse the argument of how the EEA Efta relationship functions. Some will never budge from the assertion that Efta is a passive recipient of rules and a slave to the ECJ as it suits their own narratives to do so. I only ask that implacable opponents of the option identify a better alternative.

The sticking point, though, continues to be Freedom of Movement - and while "liberal leavers" can (and do) argue that it's a secondary consideration, it has lodged itself into the Brexit narrative as something that must end come what may. The Leave Alliance has always taken the view that the issues must be addressed in order of significance in which case we deal with the process of exiting the EU first and the matter of immigration later down the line. We identified a process beginning with Article 112 of the EEA agreement that could fundamentally reform FoM as we know it.

That, though, is a hard sell especially when we're dealing with full spectrum ideologues who will find any excuse not to acknowledge reality. Put simply, the puritanical sovereignty sought by Brexiteers is possible but of limited utility and the "free trade" envisaged by leavers is based on a faulty premise. We must choose form an array of suboptimal trade-offs.

In this I have always taken the view that our relationship with the EU is a continuum and though from a Brexiter perspective the EEA Efta solution is far from optimal, our weight combined with that of Efta could be applied to reshape and rebuild an agreement which is long due an overhaul anyway. A re-balancing of the equation would make the single market a joint venture rather than the exclusive domain of the EU.

The point of such a relationship is less to diverge from where we are. Rather it is a means to draw a line in the sand to say this far and no further, allowing us to opt out of further integration and allowing for negotiated divergence as and when necessary. This is in recognition that the EU is a power with which we must contend as an independent state. Were you to listen to Brexiteers you could almost get the impression that the EU stops existing after Brexit day and it ceases to have any influence over our internal and external affairs. We may wish that were true but it isn't.

A pragmatic government would recognise that though 52% is indeed a mandate to leave the EU, neither extreme of the debate offers us a sustainable way forward. Britain values its open relationships and its global reputation for open markets but does not see itself as a mere region in a politically motivated homogenising integrationist project. A solution does exist if we are willing to make the necessary compromises but it requires a thorough understanding of the issues and a desire to reunite the country.

Presently both sides of the Brexit debate are playing double or quits, and the Brexiteers have behaved shamefully in trying to provoke the worst behaviours of the opposition in order to advance their intellectually stunted ultra-Brexit agenda. Similarly "lexiters" share a great many traits with Corbynites who believe that once we are free of the EU we can subsidise, bail out and privatise without international reprisals. Leavers seem to have lost sight of the fact that Brexit is not an economic proposition, rather it is an assertion of independence and a statement that we are allies and partners of the EU but not subordinated to it.

Brexit of itself delivers nothing in terms of tangible economic benefits and it is unlikely that we will ever roll back the cultural impact of the EU in our politics, and much of what ails the UK is only tangentially related to EU membership. Many of our problems stem from an antiquated system of government with a flawed democracy which is long overdue a radical overhaul as set out in The Harrogate Agenda. Brexit provides a window of political opportunity but leaving the EU is only a catalyst. A failure to secure a viable outcome to the immediate Brexit process will only make that process longer and more costly. 

Brexiters still need to be patient

For someone who shows so little patience with people I sometimes surprise myself with how patient I can be with the Brexit process. I'm not one for screaming betrayal every five minutes and though parliament is doing its best to frustrate the process, if we're being generous, there is some just cause for doing so. There is no basis for MPs to trust Johnson and this close to the cliff edge he could always pull a nasty surprise out of the bag.

On that score I'm happy to concede the point that the Brexit process needs more time. Johnson was cutting it fine where if there were any complications ratifying on the EU side (enormous hubris to assume it would be smooth sailing) we could end up with an accidental no deal Brexit. The Letwin amendment is an annoyance but I will also concede that the WAB needs a debate not least so the public can properly digest it. If we are going to the trouble of a managed departure then rushing through complex legislation is no way to go about it.

At this point it should be noted that after all the effort to take no deal off the table, the rebels have played their last card. No deal is now very much back on the table. If the deal wasn't open for renegotiation before then it certainly isn't now. Without a change of government and without a coherent reason for requesting a delay then this time around I strongly suspect the EU will pull the plug. It will become abundantly clear that a deal cannot make it through parliament.

Between now and the next cliff edge we are likely to see the usual wreckers playing their usual sordid little games but it smells like they don't have the numbers for a second referendum (and this parliament certainly does not have the legitimacy to do so) and further wrecking measures such as a tacked on customs union is likely to stall the ratification process. In all likelihood we will waste yet another extension and coast toward the next cliff edge.

What's interesting is that parliament has twigged that even if a deal is passed then there is still a second cliff edge should we fail to conclude a treaty defining the future relationship. They seem to be distracted by that, oblivious to the new cliff edge they themselves have created. 

For now it would seem that the wreckers are winning the battles but losing the war. They can frustrate government business but all the while the chicanery has not gone unnoticed and the chances of a Johnson landslide keep growing. If parliament won't consent to a general election and won't ratify a deal then it's difficult to see how this doesn't end in tears. Not forgetting that Johnson has problems of his own making in throwing the DUP under the bus. Johnson may well find that he has no more success in passing a deal than his predecessor. It could be that the only way to pass any deal in this parliament would be to revert to Theresa May's deal. Such a scenario is so pregnant with irony that we cannot discount it.

This, of course, is all on the assumption that we get an extension this time around, where the EU will be paying close attention to see if there is any point. If an extension means three more months of witless fumbling only to end up right back here, you certainly couldn't blame them for writing it off as a bad jobs and leave us to get to with it.

This is a distinct possibility, though The Telegraph reports that Johnson may "scrap his Brexit deal". This seriously complicates matters. That means the European Council will let its extension decision run to the wire and could make it conditional either on a referendum or a general election. That would then require the government to put the decision to the Westminster parliament to decide, but if there was then a general election, it might not be until next year.

This, though, is where I have to suspend the speculation being that the situation is fluid and changing by the hour. It could all look different by morning and change again by the end of the week. This is why, as some have noted, my predictions often turn out to be crap. I should know better by now. 

On a final note, I will be giving a talk at Kings College in London this Wednesday on a loose theme of Efta and missed opportunities. There will be a Q&A session and will hopefully make it to a pub afterwards. Hope to see some of you there.

Sunday 20 October 2019

Labour is barking up the wrong tree

There has been much talk this week of "level playing field" - chiefly workers rights. There's a lot to unpack here. The basic nature of Labour's manufactured niggle with the withdrawal agreement is the childish presumption that without provisions guaranteeing a minimum array of rights the Tories will prune back those rights to Victorian levels (women down mines and children up chimneys).

Firstly we should note that there wasn't much wrong with existing workers rights before the onslaught of EU rules that couldn't have been addressed by our own democratic processes and institutions. I also think that a number of measures designed to improve rights had the complete opposite effect. It's no coincidence that permanent work became harder to find. Every intervention has unintended consequences.

But there's also a lot that needs to understood about EU "workers rights". Every intervention has a specific purpose and usually it's got nothing to do with workers rights at all. Unions are in the business of improving workers rights for its own sake whereas the EU uses them for a number of political objectives. Primarily they serve as a tool of integration (and subsequent appropriation of powers) but they also serve as a handy means of trade protectionism. They are also very obviously of great propaganda value of the EU as we have seen this week.

But this is where the EU pulls a fast one. The EU claims that there is no mass of legislation emanating from Brussels, choking businesses to death as the Tories would have it. The bulk of legislation that regulates the labour market, they claim, is of national origin. "European laws simply set down minimum standards for health and safety at work and deal with matters such as the right to free movement of workers, equal rights for men and women at work and some labour law which deals with certain rights in specific situations such as collective dismissals, or where a company changes hands or when an employer becomes bankrupt".

The claim that rules are of national origin is always something of a deception in that directives instruct member states to legislate according to parameters defined by the EU so the origin question is never clear cut. This runs throughout the whole debate about where our laws really come from. The thrust, though, is toward "ever closer union" and harmonisation between member states. 

One such instrument being the Posted Workers Directive which regulates a practice used between companies located in different countries. A worker is posted when their original employer sends them to work, for a temporary period, in another company. Posting has been defined as a specific form of labour mobility within the EU. It generates extensive controversy due to fraudulent practices hampering the enforcement of existing regulations. Changes in the location of work raises various questions - namely, who is the employer and which national regulations apply. The use of temporary agencies, subcontracting and posting of self-employed workers gives rise to additional problems.

This is something of a beneficial crisis for the EU which uses something that affects only 1% of the workforce to drive harmonisation on maximum work periods and minimum rest periods, minimum paid annual holidays, the minimum rates of pay, including overtime rates, gender equality, the conditions of hiring-out of workers and health, safety at work. Initially it started out as a set of minimum standards but over the years has evolved into a rigid schema of legislation which is no longer an exclusive competence of member states.

Cutting to the chase, once something becomes an EU competence and the EU is the supreme authority, national parliaments lose the ability to define their own rules and certainly not without checking with Brussels first. Our own rules can be struck down if they in any way interfere with the integration agenda. Ultimately the EU single market envisages a homogenised labour market throughout where the same job has the same pay and conditions wherever you go.

In theory that's great but in practice it neuters national unions who then have to operate as lobbyists at the European level. They then become obedient cogs in the machinery while traditional union activity is replaced by works councils - widely adopted by corporates to freeze out unions. Workers rights, therefore, are largely a technocratic mechanism for the balancing of an economic programme and not done altruistically. If we had a Labour movement worth speaking of, it would strongly object to being sidelined by the EU.

Instead of leaping on Brexit as an opportunity to revitalise the union movement and "take back control", the Labour party sees the EU as a guarantor of those minimum standards - a safe locker where advances (for what they are worth) are bound up in an external treaty. They're working on the presumption that Labour won't be taking power any time soon. Instead of addressing why that might be, they work to neuter Brexit instead.

But then to a very large extent Labour is barking up the wrong tree this week. Though the level playing field provisions have been removed from the withdrawal agreement and shunted into the political declaration, they needn't worry. This has been done to give Johnson an illusory victory knowing that no future relationship treaty will be agreed unless there is a competition policy chapter.

The fact, though, that these provisions come under competition policy of itself should inform Labour (had they bothered to check) that the workers rights are more to do with trade than ensuring Janine in accounting has a VDU assessment and a foot pedestal for her arthritis. Had they looked at any EU FTA they'd see that the provisions largely employ International Labour Organisation standards which for the most part are geared toward stamping out the more egregious practices found in developing countries such as child labour and compulsory labour. Not exactly a high bar for the UK to reach or maintain. 

As with most other chapters of modern EU FTAs on standards, be they food standards or vehicle safety standards, the FTAs only really reaffirm existing global conventions. The same is true of competition rules. The EU-Japan FTA states "The Parties reaffirm their obligations deriving from the International Labour Organisation". Much of the text is lifted verbatim from multilateral agreements that the UK would be an independent signatory to even on a no deal basis.

The fact is, if Labour wanted to retain the high level of labour governance that goes with EU membership then they should have campaigned for an EEA Efta solution. Leaving the single market means leaving the European regulatory ecosystem and all the social flanking policies. Labour assumes that level playing field provisions provide the same guarantees when in fact they're arguing for the "WTO rules" of labour rights. A minimum framework that provides no real guarantees at all. Even with the "level playing field" provisions, the Tories can still have a field day with deregulation. 

As it happens the Labour party is just looking for any excuse to derail the withdrawal agreement and latching onto anything that sounds remotely plausible. One should also note that if this was their sticking point they should have voted for May's deal when they could. But then by now it should be abundantly clear that Labour is opposing the deal for its own sake. For the progressives in Labour, these parlour games are more about stopping Brexit than any heartfelt concern for workers rights. Corbyn just gets dragged along with it because he's a coward. Ultimately you could give Labour whatever they demanded and they would still go fishing for something else to object to. They're taking us for fools. 

Another day in Brexit purgatory

Of itself the logic behind the Letwin amendment is sound. When you have a Tory government you can't quite trust is not seeking a no deal Brexit when time is running out for ratification, it makes sense to close down the options. Though a provisional deal is on the table, it isn't a deal until it's cleared fully on the Brussels side of the table and we'd probably left it a bit late to get it done.

As you'd expect, though, the Brexiteers are fuming about it. In their eyes (and not without good cause) this is a wrecking amendment and that's exactly how the public will see it. Parliament was convened on Saturday to pass a deal and they didn't. MPs can hide behind the amendment but it didn't take long for the real wreckers to get stuck in - with Keir Starmer announcing dozens of amendments and an amendment to insert a customs union and legislation for a second referendum.

The effect of mangling such legislation is to ensure that yet again Brexiters will withdraw their support for the deal ensuring we remain entrenched in this quagmire. I suspected the morning of the deal that the only way this was ever going to pass is after a general election.

Much now depends on the nature of any extension. Though I wouldn't blame the EU for pulling the plug I think there will be an extension but only for the process of ratification and with a termination clause. There is no appetite for further delay on either side of the Channel and if the deal wasn't open for discussion before, it certainly isn't now. If it's only a short extension then there can't be a general election and MPs have to choose between this deal or no deal. Being that the wrecking amendments would make it impossible for Brexiters to vote for it, no deal is still a very real possibility.

You'd think parliament would've learned something but no, we have to repeat all the same fannying around we had over May's deal. They'll sod around the whole time till we're at the cliff edge again and they still won't make a decision. The stupidity of these wastrels is staggering. If there is now a no deal Brexit, the public won't blame Johnson. Parliament reaffirmed its position that it won't pass any legislation that facilitates an orderly exit. They're more at home playing cynical tribal games. It hasn't gone unnoticed.

As to the matter of a second referendum, it should be noted that any referendum can only realistically have two options which is the deal versus remain. This would require a far longer extension which we likely will not get but if we do have to go through the motions then it will likely make no difference. They dress up a second referendum as a vote on the deal but it's only the exit mechanism+transition. That's a technical issue not a constitutional question. Without a defined future relationship, a referendum with a remain option is a straight rerun of 2016 because they didn't like the result. That will be a strong card for the leave camp.

In any case, a "kangarendum" forced on a minority government would still face enormous opposition the Tories can just as easily make Brexit a manifesto commitment and immediately relaunch the process following a general election, this time circumventing the Article 50 process entirely. By that time it will be clearer than ever that this really is the people versus parliament and Johnson could well win by a landslide.

The conventional narrative has it that if Johnson doesn't deliver Brexit after all his promises then leave voters will desert him for the Brexit Party, but I don't think that holds and I don't think it ever did. The public won't blame Johnson and the way in which ardent no dealers have pivoted to support Johnson's deal suggests that support for no deal has always been fickle. It is also becoming clear that Farage could end up blowing the whole thing by refusing to compromise. Between that and the total absence of an electable alternative, Johnson could come through this unscathed.

With so many possibilities and so many branches of probability the situation defies any prediction. As usual we are left to speculate on the basis of incomplete information and limited understanding. The media doesn't seem to appreciate the limitations and constraints the EU is working under and all the while the vagaries of our own parliamentary system adds only further confusion. All we can do is take it one day at a time. For a brief moment it looked like we would leave with a deal on time but thanks to parliament there's a good chance our departure is some weeks away and no deal is as real a threat as ever it was. The shenanigans in parliament can't seem to make it go away.  

Thursday 17 October 2019

Brexit: As good as it's going to get

I made the case that there wasn't a sincere attempt to secure a deal. And for a time I don't think there was. Amber Rudd was right. The leave vote looked to be galvanised in favour of no delay and no deal. But with the Benn Act breathing down the neck of Johnson, a deal became the only way (and may yet fail) to avoid an extension. And of course Johnson needed to save face after all the promises made.

Bizarrely the media, not least the FT and BBC, are falling behind the narrative that the backstop has been done away with - which it hasn't. It seems to have been rolled back to the NI only proposal which was the EU's opening offer. Then, as I understand it, the level playing field provisions have been shunted into the political declaration.

From what I gather there are a few bolt-ons to the NI arrangement which is described as "Schrodinger's backstop" where it is has the effect (give or take) of being a customs union with the EU while legally part of the UK customs territory. It's an inelegant fudge which is politically more acceptable than May's whole UK quasi-customs union. In most respects, though, it is still the same dog.

If, then, there were any intellectual consistency, those who opposed May's deal shouldn't budge - and by the looks of it they aren't budging save for the Tory tribe who will fall behind Boris Johnson because Boris Johnson. It looks to me like the EU have done just enough for Johnson to save face - claiming two victories - the "abolition" of the backstop, and reopening the withdrawal agreement when everyone (including me) said it couldn't and wouldn't happen. How the EU now squares that with the breach of its own rules remains to be seen. I think we are in "phantom veto" country.

If there is a victory on reopening the deal it's certainly not because of Johnson's opening offer. The EU was never going to agree to that. More likely the EU has set out the only conditions that could qualify as "legally operable" and the parties have worked together to row back to where we were before May lost her majority. Make no mistake, this is a major UK climbdown. Johnson was supposed to be the conquering hero who could handbag the beastly EU, scrap the backstop and come away with a better deal. This is just tinkering around the edges. But it will have to do.

We should note, however that the devil is in the detail. The small print says the texts are "subject to legal revision", so we're not even dealing with the final drafts. Then, the drafts are not to be approved today. They wait for the European Parliament's "consent" - presumably next week, whence there must be another European Council formally to conclude the agreement (which will only happen if the swamp dwellers have ratified).

So will it pass? Again your guess is as good as mine but with Raab falling into line he stands a good chance of taking some of the ERG with him. Securing the deal is the easy bit. Getting it over the line is the real political accomplishment. Johnson may well find he has it no easier than Theresa May - especially since Labour are opposing the deal for its own sake and the DUP will oppose it because that's what the DUP does.

I'm not sure how this now goes but I think if the deal doesn't pass then we'll have to go for a general election to replace this zombie parliament. A new majority means Johnson can safely throw the DUP under the bus. Leavers will probably tolerate an extension for that and then one hopes a new parliament will pass the deal. We'll have to wait and see. The assumption is that if there is an extension then leavers will be so enraged that they'll vote for the Farage Party. I don't think so. The Brexit Party tops out at 14% in the polls which is roughly where Ukip was at before it imploded. With Brexit on the line it won't do that well. Leavers know full well that if there's any hope of leaving then they have to vote Tory.

Farage being Farage, though, will make the case that the Johnson deal is a rehash of May's deal thus is not leaving. That narrative has worked since the Tory Brexit blob have also massaged that narrative but if the Tory blob moves away from the hardline position (BrexitCentral is the one to watch) then Farage is out on his own looking like he's just after saving his own gravy train. The Brexit Party won't break the 11% marker.

As to the respective merits of the deal, the argument remains the same. We are investing way too much energy over the withdrawal agreement failing to recognise that it is only the instrument of departure and in all likelihood the backstop will never see the light of day. The deal provides a framework for a managed departure where most of the provisions within the agreement will be replaced by the future relationship.

My hunch at this point is that, if the deal passes, the Tories will go in cack handed (as ever they do) with an idea of what they want only to be gradually strangled by reality the same way Mrs May was. They'll want a bare bones FTA with customs protocols but that will leave too many gaping holes so there will be further concessions on regulatory and customs cooperation and we will see a high level of coordination on tariffs. I suspect the EU will seek to recycle much of the work it has done with Switzerland so we end up with a shadow EEA - or nine tenths of it.

As an outcome it's suboptimal but certainly preferable to going the long way around by leaving without a deal and then be bludgeoned into making concession after concession. In short, this deal, or virtually any deal) is preferable to no deal. I'll back this deal for the same reason I backed the last one. We won't get all of what we want this time around but we live to fight another day.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

What makes me such an expert?

I've just had a Dutch journalist on the phone asking about me and The Leave Alliance. He wanted to know what it is that makes me, formerly an IT professional, an authority on Brexit and trade - wondering what my credentials are and why so many people seem to trust this blog.

As it happens I am not an expert. I'm a very good generalist. Where trade is concerned I'm only expert by contrast with the Brexiters who know precisely nothing about it. But then you don't have to be an expert. Trade is as complex as you want to make it but in general the principles of the discipline are simple. It takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. It's just that politicians have never taken those five minutes necessary to understand what the game is.

My golden rule in all this is that the simple answer is usually the wrong answer. It comes from appreciating that the single market is not a "trade bloc", rather it is a system of government with multiple crossovers - and the system is greater than the sum of its parts. This is why the EU does not allow cherry picking.

But even then it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a trade expert) to work out that delays at the ports cost money and adding overheads to the the cost of exporting makes your goods less competitive. It doesn't matter if goods are tariff free if you still face an added three hours queueing in traffic to then have your shipment diverted, inspected and examined. Non-tariff barriers to trade come in many forms not least differences between regulatory regimes which is why they went to the bother of creating the single market to begin with.

As to why all these measures on the border exist, the EU is looking to safeguard its own standards on everything from toy safety to pollution controls. If you want to minimise your overheads you have to maximise your compliance. Our frictionless supply chains are the product of regulatory harmonisation and behind the border enforcement. Then if you are a party to this system, obviously you can't make unilateral decisions that undermine the integrity of this system. That is the basis for understanding the dispute on the Irish border.

In many respects the debate is polluted by the term "free trade deal" in that "free trade" as imagined by free market Tories does not exist. Trade agreements are treaties governing the conditions of transactions where each agreement has ramifications for the next. Each must be evaluated to see how it interacts with existing frameworks. Then of course trade deals are not clinical instruments of commerce. They are intensely political and very often used to advance foreign policy objectives which can often contrast and contradict. It is therefore a matter of prioritising.

Once you scratch the surface (and I have certainly done that) it becomes apparent that the simplistic narratives advanced by Brexiteers and remainers alike bear little relation to how things work in the real world. This blog is an attempt at a corrective. For what that's worth. I'm not always right.

But then I was asked why I appear to be so angry and sarcastic on Twitter. The anger is easily explained. Both out politicians and media should after three years have a far better handle on the issues than they do - and after all this time have no excuse for getting basic concepts wrong. Even now they are still struggling with the basics of Article 50. Then what makes me absolutely livid is the Brexiteers advancing some wildly inaccurate narratives and doing so quite deliberately. I have a distaste for imprecision and I especially don't like politicians lying to us. That they are notionally on my side is neither here nor there. They don't get a free pass. As to the sarcasm, after four years of spelling out the basics, sarcasm is all I have left. My patience is exhausted.

Suffice to say that after four years of intensive debate and reading countless agreements and regulations and books on the subject, I now have pretty good idea of what I know but also how much there is out there I don't know - so while you can dispute my expertise it's safe to say I know a bullshitter when I see one - and bullshit is something we need a lot less of if we are to successfully navigate the challenges of Brexit. If we can't confront the realities head on then we will fall into every trap along the way. Nothing is served by lying to others - or ourselves.

Monday 14 October 2019

Voter ID - a populist cop out

Voter ID is a bit of a decoy. Electoral fraud is a problem but it takes a different form to vote tampering and Voter ID doesn't scratch the surface. It's a sledgehammer to miss the nut. It's an easy answer for politicians who dare not grapple with the more sensitive causes.

Voter ID is just a political meme much like "australian points based system". Superficially it sounds like a solution to widespread electoral corruption but in practice is fishing in the wrong pond. It allows politicians to pretend they're doing something whereas the actual policy impact is minimal.

Though I don't have a problem with asking for ID, any requirement for ID for a basic civic function like voting is going to end up with calls for a compulsory national ID. We have been here before under the Blair years. As an idea it sucked then and it sucks now. Not least because we are dealing with a criminal element and if they are ok with forging votes then they're equally ok with forging ID - and no matter how sophisticated the system, they will always find a way around it.

On this it's worth reading the Electoral Commission's somewhat mealy mouthed report on the subject identifying the vulnerabilities. It's clear that the problem is complex and requires a spectrum of policy solutions.

As with immigration you need a long term strategy looking at all parts of the problem, tackling each of the issues as part of a joined up policy - which our politics doesn't stretch to. Without joined up thinking all we'll have is populist sticking plasters that accomplish little.

Moreover, electoral fraud to a very large extent is a symptom of a wider problem starting with immigrant communities which is why we need a much more robust immigration integration strategy. It means asking uncomfortable questions. What we would probably find is that the issues of CSE, voter fraud, and visa fraud are all connected requiring a much more sophisticated and daring approach and I really doubt any administration has the stones to get serious about it.

In that respect Voter ID is a handy piece of electioneering that allows politicians to duck the thornier questions and excuses them from applying themselves to more complex questions. Another failure of our politics. Sadly though, it appears to work.

The Johnson administration can now pretend it's getting tough on the issue when in fact it's just a device to wrongfoot Labour - and the issue is only of temporary expedient interest to them. It's a dog whistle aimed at the kiptard constituency - and they fall for it every time.

For the Tories it's good politics. Labour falls into the trap of opposing it from which they can infer that Labour is up to its neck in it - which of course it is, but then that's just the stereotype. The Tories are just as vulnerable to it in northern slums/Pakistani enclaves. The truth of the matter is that local politics has been a cesspool of corruption for going on three decades now and it follows US trends where ethnic groups operate tribally through mosques etc. The parties themselves need to clamp down on it. That sort of electoral corruption is really only the tip of the iceberg. Once they control a council they have free reign to abuse the system for their own ends.

Consequently the electoral fraud we see needs to be look at as part of our immigration strategy rather than an isolated issue. And this is where we'll see whataboutery from Labour because a serious crackdown would seriously embarrass them and expose further instances of CSE. And of course wherever you find CSE and visa scams you also find instances of modern slavery and organised crime which is another facet of the immigration question. If you want to fix attitudes to immigration then you need to clean up the negative externalities.

That's why backstreet Asian law firms need to go under the microscope. Lift that stone and you'll see the woodlice crawling out. But it's a question of who has the guts to do it. We'd need a serious law and order government - but they prefer the easy answer of voter ID. Unless we get to grips with it then local democracy will cease to be democracy and we'll end up with south asian tribalism that requires central supervision. We need to be candid about this instead of labelling people "far right" for pointing out the bleedin' obvious.

Instead of grasping this nettle though, we'll see leftists scurrying round for any shred of whataboutery they can dig up and crying racism. In so doing they are undermining our democracy whilst enabling industrial scale noncery and corruption. But that's the modern left for you.

But then Tories are far from innocent. The only reason a talentless hack like Priti Patel is in office is because she leveraged the tribal Indian vote to vote for Brexit in exchange for softening of visa requirements. That's why we won't see the Tories get serious about it either. The sick joke of it is, Toryboys and Kiptards LOVE Pritti Patel. She's a darkie but grunts right wing slogans at them and so long as there's a red herring like Voter ID in circulation (along with nonsense about Australian points based blah), they can get away with doing... fuck all.

It's a criminal shame too because for as long as this is too hot to touch we stand no chance of successfully integrating immigrant communities and will only see rising hostility to immigration - not because we "hate foreigners" but because it can't be sustained.

This is why I dislike the Brexit Party etc. They're so easily bought off with sops like Voter ID. Every time Johnson throws them a bone they lap it up. They're too lazy to set out and demand policies of their own and use soundbites instead so soundbites is what they get back. So when we should have a fringe politics holding the Tories' feet to the fire we have pliant little lap dogs like Arron Banks and Nigel Farage patting Johnson on the head - selling out the entire movement and undermining everything it hoped to achieve, ie draining the swamp.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Falling for decoys.

I always feel like I need an excuse for not blogging for a few days but this time I make no apology for it. I was gifted a ticket to see Alice Cooper. That information is not pertinent to this post save to gloat. But then it's just as well since I absolutely refuse to waste a nanosecond on the Brexit soap opera which is almost entirely based on speculation from half -informed court scribes. Buggering off to Birmingham seemed like a far more sensible idea.

Front the beginning of this particular chapter I have not been at all convinced that any sincere attempt to secure a deal is underway. In the unlikely event that Johnson's customs proposal was remotely credible and satisfying the EU's legal requirements, this administration would find something else to pick holes in - shifting the goalposts as they go. That seems to be the case as of now with calls to dump the "level playing field" provisions.

Quite obviously the furore over the backstop is little more than a decoy. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement is simply the mechanism that gets us through into a transitional period, where we continue to act as if we are in the EU, buying time for the future relationship talks. In theory, we agree a new relationship (yet to be defined) at the same time we drop out of the transitional period. That second agreement is the one that is supposed to guarantee frictionless trade between NI and the Republic - augmented by the Strasbourg supplement to the Political Declaration. Most of the provisions in the WA will never see the light of day.

In those pages, Johnson has everything he could possibly want.
The Union and the United Kingdom have the shared ambition to have the future relationship in place by the end of the transition period." ... "Given the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s firm commitment to work at speed on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements such that the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will not need to be applied, a specific negotiating track will be established at the outset and as part of the negotiations to lead the analysis and development of these alternative arrangements. This dedicated track will consider the use of all existing and emerging facilitative arrangements and technologies, with a view to assessing their potential to replace, in whole or in part, the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
You really couldn't really ask for more. The backstop is a exactly that... a backstop in case of a total collapse of talks in the transition period, which just doesn't seem at all likely. There just doesn't seem to be a rational reason for all this fannying around over what will end up a redundant mechanism.

But, of course, a lot of what's driving this is paranoia and suspicion. Brexiteers are convinced the WA is a device to keep us trapped in a permanent BRINO limbo from which we cannot escape without EU approval. There may be good reason not to trust the EU in some regards but in this matter, that level of suspicion is bordering on the delusional - largely from those who pay more attention to the ranting of Guy Verhofstadt than Michel Barnier. If the Council had any sense they'd tell the former to put a sock in it.

But then Barnier hasn't done himself any favours either, not least having posed this week with a trio of Lib Dem deadbeats hell bent on scuppering Brexit. It may have been in the spirit of inclusive cooperation but I'm guessing they didn't think very hard about the optics. To your average Brexit grunter it looks like collusion.

If there were a sincere effort to secure a deal it would have to start with the recognition that there must be a backstop. Being that there isn't much wiggle room the only real scope is to dial it back to what it was before Theresa May expanded the scope of it to become an all UK customs arrangement which is widely believed to be a customs union. Though Johnson would have to throw the DUP under the bus for that. He'd need to win support on the opposite benches.

Initially it certainly smelled like that was the game in play - where Johnson would eventually offer up a rehash of May's deal and the Tory tribe would fall into line to save face. The Brexit party certainly think that's the game in play having always suspected Johnson as a sell out. That, though, is probably not going to happen. The demands to drop the "level playing field" provisions create yet another artificial obstacle and one more reason for opposition MPs to oppose the deal. Hilary Benn tweeted something to that effect earlier today - fearing a "Singapore on Thames".

In any case, for there to be formal negotiations to hammer out the details of whatever could (but won't) be agreed, there would more than likely have to be a technical extension so we are back to the same old speculation (Though there is talk now of an extra "special" European Council later in the month, with talks being allowed to continue for a few more days). If there is to be a deal, though, it's going to take a general election because it doesn't look at all likely that parliament will ratify any deal at this point so it all seems somewhat redundant. If parliament then refuses a general election ensuring a squatter parliament then we'll be right back where we are, careering towards no deal and with no chance of a further extension.

The media began the weekend on a high note with cautious optimism that a deal was in sight. I don't think any realist thought so and such optimism wasn't likely to last the weekend. The signals today suggest there is still no coherent proposal from the UK and Monday will revert to the war of words we have seen for some weeks now. At least, though, there will be something new to speculate over. The end of the line is in sight.