The hinge of Brexit

15 November 2018


Last night, May’s Cabinet nominally approved the 585 page document on withdrawal from the EU. It is no surprise that subsequently her Ministers have begun to bolt, as her scheme fails to deliver what the country voted for, specifically:

  • it provides for a transition period which runs the risk of indefinite extension and expenditure - page 207, Article 132.
  • it maintains an adjudicative role for the ECJ, in particular as to the thorny issue of the Northern Irish “backstop” - page 340, Article 6, Para 3.
  • the political declaration, also published overnight, confirms May’s intention to remain in a de facto customs union with the EU, which would prevent trade agreements with third parties - page 1, Part II, Economic Partnership, Goods.

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May is in many respects an admirable woman: she has a palpable sense of duty and remarkable tenacity. But either her inclinations as a reluctant leader of a process to which she fundamentally objected, or her failings as a negotiator mean that she has been rolled up by Barnier and his thousand Lilliputian threads. We can’t be certain that she won’t pull her unfortunate scheme off, but it’s more likely that failure will have its own reward.

On the other hand, those of a leave cast of mind will benefit from a few moments of ruthless honesty. Let’s face it: Brexit is failing. Why is that? Let’s go back to basics: the EU is a political project, whose purpose we must admire - peace in Europe. Many Remainers take such inspiration from this objective that it blinds them to all else. Never mind that the EU’s methods – political, economic and social entanglement - have become controversial all round. That doesn’t take away from their effectiveness: not just the bread and butter of integrated supply-chains, but “freedom to live, work and love”. And Leavers haven’t done enough to honour the idealistic objective while taking exception to the downside of the methods: mangled accounting, reckless decision-making and a fundamental democratic deficit.

They’ve also let the economic argument get hijacked by the UK’s manufacturers. On this subject, no-one takes the Treasury seriously but it’s harder to overlook earache from honest-to-goodness employers. It’s turned out tricky to make the argument that industry’s natural preference for the status quo doesn’t justify tying down the rest of us: “fuck business” was never going to win prizes in debate club, let alone charm school. Professor Patrick Minford, Martin Howe QC and Shanker Singham have done their bit at the intellectual end of the game (click on each for examples), but too many of their arguments have blushed unseen. Brexiteers should have done better.

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Twenty-eight months ago, my countrymen voted against the EU’s methods. May has made a bish of fulfilling their intentions: she has failed to rise above the entanglements and thrown in with a manufacturers’ ramp. This last is all the more astonishing given the evidence of an economy in fine fettle, already making its adjustments. May is delivering the consequences of delinquent strategy, leaving us with five alternatives.

  1. She pulls it off – possibly with some cosmetic alterations. I can’t rule this out, but it looks like an uphill climb. Her party seems to be turning on her and it’s hard to see the Commons voting for her deal. In every other alternative she falls, possibly within a matter of days: her intermittent rabbit-in-the-headlight demeanour at the dispatch-box this morning and her press conference this evening gave something of a sense that she knows that the jig is up.
  2. The Tories find a leader who forms a new government. Setting aside the question of who the heck the new hero might be, conventional whipping and the renewed support of the DUP would give the poor sod a week or two to set a course. But what would be the point, unless the Government went back to Brussels with a far harder line? If they did, it’s not clear they could carry the Commons - let alone the civil service where a new broom might be tempted into something into along the lines of a summary clean-out.
  3. The Tories bring in Corbyn for a government of national unity. Coalitions are a hangman’s kit, but we know Corbyn is no Remainer and possibly Labour would be seduced if they got the ministries for their specialist subjects, health, education and welfare. This could be squared as either the end of austerity or a counter-cyclical spree against the expected shock of exit. Maybe the Tories could throw in Justice, but not Home, Foreign, Treasury or the Brexit ministries. The payroll vote might then bring in enough Labour MPs to swing the Commons arithmetic.
  4. An election. It is impossible to speculate how that might go or even what the issues might be, with both parties split on the issue of the day.
  5. Another referendum. This isn’t quite the get-out-of-jail-free card which its promoters imagine. After all, what is the question to be? If May’s out, then so is her deal. A rerun of the 2016 question makes no sense - after all when does it end? best of three? penalty shoot-out? And if voting for “hard” or at least “harder” Brexit, what’s the alternative?

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If a new Government emerges, survives and can steel itself to a change of stance (and if not, what’s the point?) it would face three problems:

  • international reputation  a new stance will have to counter accusations of bad faith or placing the country in bad legal standing. There are answers to this, but the government machine would have to get up a decent head of steam with briefings to Chanceries around the world (possibly another reason for that clean-out).
  • mechanical  sorting out contingency plans for no deal with a will, ie, getting the civil service and industry to make it work. Churchill had Beaverbrook to goose up production; he was a bit of a nit but effective in his way. Who do you fancy? Luke Johnson? James Dyson? Tim Martin? Peter Thiel?
  • domestic messaging  accepting that no matter how bonny, babies come with labour pains. Mandelson is right (paywall): you can’t have frictionless trade with Europe without regulatory juniority to Brussels. On the other hand, industry may be entitled to regulatory certainty but this is not the same as stasis. Net, net, it’s a matter of getting the “Nike tick” message out there. Get some of our latter-day Saatchis onto it.

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But first we must navigate the next few days, the hinge upon which Brexit is to turn. Earlier today, I filed my tax return online. This is never what you’d call fun, but HMRC has developed a pretty user-friendly interface. Well done them, and a signal of what can be achieved once you set your mind to it. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I still want to believe that it is not beyond our national talents to make a decent fist of Brexit. Heaven knows, the hour is late.