Wade through

1 December 2018

Hereunder as true a bill as I can deliver of the paradoxes bringing us to - well, wherever it is we are. If you can bear to wade through, the final paragraph will offer you a modest reward by way of reminding us of the hyperbole of the cheerless commentary in the ether.

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Remain campaigners, however animated by idealism, felt obliged to rely upon bread and butter arguments. Their original “Project Fear” was based on the disruption said to follow a vote to leave the EU’s customs union and single market; after they lost, however, they claimed that no-one had voted to get out of either. Many Leave campaigners sought more open trading; by contrast, they found much support from those at odds with globalisation. Leaders of the Leave camp won the referendum and are now lost in the wilderness. No campaigner on either side made as much of the pesky Irish border as it now contrives to vex us.

Corbyn campaigned as an unenthusiastic Remainer, but makes no secret of his preference to leave so that he can take us back to the glorious Seventies. His MPs and metropolitan middle-class voters incline to remain but his provincial working-class supporters voted to leave. May also campaigned as an unenthusiastic Remainer but now presides over a policy making for a soft “Brexit In Name Only” - BRINO. This may have become her declared policy, but only because energetic opposition has made it impossible to follow it sotto voce.

May has reversed a project intended to “take back control” into a scheme which will make the country a rule-taker indefinitely. It caters only for the least attractive elements of the Leave project - controlling immigration, rather than trade and regulatory independence. Restricting EU immigration may address economic complaints - “the Poles are stealing our jobs”; but not cultural reservations - “the Moslems will never see things our way”, with the balance of immigration now moving towards the latter.

Although manufacturing’s part in the UK economy has fallen to 11%, it remains the largest contributor to export earnings. Nonetheless its contribution continues to decline, with the sector also suffering a deficit with the EU and the world. In an unhelpful symmetry, the EU is the largest destination for our exports of both goods and services, but its proportion of our export market has also much declined (and continues to do so), while its own manufacturers run a surplus with us. The UK's export of services runs a surplus in Europe and the world but grows most rapidly away from the EU's "single market". The country's most productive and dynamic sector, financial services, made a great fuss about access to Europe but is now quietly shifting for itself.

May is determined to ignore the private sector’s hunger for European labour, so she has fobbed off the manufacturers with the prospect of an uninterrupted supply of piece-parts. They have fallen upon this with relish, now forming the van of her supporters for her otherwise unloved deal. In fact, her plans do most for their competitors, continental exporters to us: the “frictionless trade” she sought with the EU has been ignored in the Political Declaration, which nonetheless makes it close to impossible for us to negotiate trade deals elsewhere. The upshot is that her deal caters for the least dynamic part of our economy by shackling us to its least dynamic market.

Experts are taken as partisan and held in contempt: even May has distanced herself from No 11’s most recent horror-stories. The Treasury was sufficiently chagrined by the failure of its pre-referendum estimates to change the basis of its modelling, only to hack the assumptions to ensure the same results.

The FO won the argument for a restrained negotiating stance which would not damage our good name, not least with a view to trade negotiations with third parties. This encouraged the EU to overplay its hand with a scheme which prevents them. This makes the Commons likely to reject the Withdrawal Agreement, threatening our reputation far more than a tough line at the conference table. If the EU’s gusto in controlling the next round of negotiations (paywall) becomes generally known, it is likely to upset the Brits enough to make ”no deal” more likely.

Obama threw in with Cameron while Trump has weighed in against May. In the event, the least admired, Trump, is probably the most accurate, as he’s right: FTAs are close to ruled out by May’s scheme.

For all the criticism of the 2016 referendum as going over Parliament’s head, May is now taking the same course in selling her deal. Her weakness in the Commons could yet be her strength, if the country rallies to her as a “trier”. Her original strap-line of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been reversed into “apres moi le deluge”. Even so, no deal may occur by default, for lack of any substantive alternative commanding a Commons majority. Gina Miller’s lawsuit ensuring that Parliament has a “meaningful vote”, intended to frustrate Leave, may instead stymie the PM’s BRINO.

A “People’s Vote” repudiates the last people’s vote. The national mood seems to balance exhaustion and exasperation, though majorities of both Leave and Remain supporters agree that May’s deal fails to honour the referendum result. After nearly thirty months of high drama and low, public opinion has barely moved on the central topic of do we go or do we stay: most polls are split within the margin of error; so too, in their own way, are the major political parties and the House of Commons. We are told the country is rudderless: commentators write of a constitutional crisis, some with transparent glee.

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Time for a sanity check. Two days ago, I WhatsApped half a dozen photos as “Christmas comes to Mayfair”. You can imagine: the lights of Burlington Arcade and Mount Street, backed up with the decorations outside Annabel’s, Scott’s and the Connaught. A friend sent back her rejoinder, “Christmas comes to Paris”, a tableau of burning cars. At time of writing, the riots continue. Adam Smith reminded us that “there is a deal of ruin in a nation”. We will wade through. With or without an agreement.