If the Chequers summit holds

10 July 2018

A version of this post was circulated on the morning of Sunday 8 July. This was to respond to requests for a view of the outlook following my initial comments on the Chequers cabinet meeting. It now takes account of the ministerial resignations on 8 and 9 July.

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Events, dear boy, events. It would be foolish to see the Chequers settlement as other than the shocker it is. May has put herself into the business of shunting any kind of palpable Brexit into the sidings, with baleful consequences. Once the implications are better apprehended, there could be something of a change of course. Three ministerial resignations may be opening the door for this, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Here is my construction of the warnings which Steve Baker, David Davis, and Boris Johnson might reasonably give.

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Immediately

1.   Harken unto the roar of frustration from disappointed partisans for Brexit.

2.   Expect also complaints from the same quarter about Europe being bound to reject the Chequers scheme. This cannot be ruled out, but…

3.   …May has sought to orchestrate (and from what I can gather, pre-sold) a de facto capitulation, which if it holds, Barnier should be smart enough to take - while asking for a wee bit more on services, jurisdiction and freedom of movement. Which if May’s approach stands, he’ll get.

4.   Meanwhile, look for quiet-ish expressions of regret from Oz, US and maybe Canada. No-one in Britain will care. Even if Trump were to offer something substantial later this week, he’d be ignored as he’s just not taken seriously here.

5.   Unless Tory blow-back forces May out, she will get her bills through Parliament as Corbyn will not whip the Parliamentary Labour Party to defeat them. May will be blithe in rising above complaints that her deal places the UK in a worse position than before the referendum and fails to honour it. She will glory in criticism that she has put her party first, though it is becoming uncertain that she can achieve this. If Friday’s settlement holds, look out for some frothy turmoil in both political parties, succeeded by delight at having something else to talk about.

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Medium term

6.   If Chequers stands, Leavers will regroup slowly. This includes intellectually, as they seek to learn lessons from their failure, as to negotiation (understanding the other side), domestic constituency-building (press and industry), constitution (Northern Ireland) and technology (customs, visas etc). This is just as well, as much of their thinking has been second eleven. If those in the Brexit camp are wise they should channel Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organise”. Otherwise, they risk becoming more narrowly Little Englanders, unlike Hannan not to say Boris, however much the latter may have lost his mojo with the public and the press.

7.   UK diplomacy will be damaged: potential trading partners - Oz, US etc - will be disappointed. Britain will be disqualified from leadership in free trade. Our former natural allies in the EU - Scandinavia and the Netherlands - will have to write us off for some time, possibly indefinitely. In a reversion to the Seventies, investors will see the country as politically risky, to the extent that commitment to May’s coup is transparently incomplete. This would put capital flight back onto the domestic agenda for the first time since Thatcher. It would also abate inward investment in capital-intensive industry, frustrating one of May’s intentions.

8.   The EU will feel vindicated. Its reformers will be discomfited and Brussels’ weakness for centralising and general bullying will be encouraged. Shortly, however, new constraints will emerge out of reinvigorated hubris.

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A longer view of the British climate

9.   If Friday’s agreement prevails, disgruntled Brits will blame any subsequent disharmony with our European neighbours on its untidy resolution: Remainers will call for full re-entry, Leavers for full departure. For some time, however, there will be little interest amid a general feeling of exhaustion, if not revulsion. So the boil will remain unlanced. Eventually however, the accumulation of friction will force reluctant politicians to revisit the issue.

10. Manufacturing’s successful campaign betrayed a whiff of desperation. This means that fewer Brits than ever will see industry as a good place for their cash, careers or children. Questions will get asked about the country’s thirty-year policy of featherbedding large-scale production when foreign owned - which is all there’s going to be.

11. Ireland - north and south - will come in for flak as the tail that wagged the dog. The Republic remains in an unbalanced position - highly dependent on the UK for imports, if less so for exports. Relations risk turning a tad more acrimonious all round, with Tory devotion to the Unionist cause weakening.

12. The political parties will strain themselves to rectify the breakdown of trust between voters and representatives, which May’s manoeuvre makes worse. Bitter remarks about “Hotel California” will let us in for a generation of chronic resentment, finding acute expression in ways beyond my prediction.

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Conclusion

13. Three ministerial resignations don’t stymie May - yet! If she pulls her stunt off, she wins every prize for student politics but none for strategic apprehension. Her coup against her party and the voters certainly looks like a masterly gambit. If however, it succeeds, it is more likely than not to take the country to a dark place. If I were writing the book today, I’d have her down as England’s worst leader since Mary Tudor.