Hustings

17 May 2019

The log-jam is breached. We may take it that May’s indicative votes will be pulled or have no effect on Parliamentary sentiment; and that she will lose her second reading. No-one has a reason to rally to her: Labour wants Tory instability and hard Leavers aspire to see off Farage after the Euro Elections. So she will resign shortly thereafter, kicking off Tory hustings. Just as May has tested “soft Brexit” to destruction, a new team may end up doing likewise with “hard Brexit”; no-one can be sure that they will achieve what they want.

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Tories are bound to see Boris Johnson as maximising their appeal in an early election, but strategic considerations may challenge this priority. An incoming leader must choose between going to the country before 31 October and soldiering on without Brexit legislation. The latter may make sense on a view that there is no need for Parliamentary action, since the restrictions of the Cooper-Letwin Act apply only when

“…the Prime Minister [is] seeking an extension…”

and Article 50 contemplates an extension only if

“…the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend…”;

in other words, a new extension cannot be imposed, in the absence of which the Cooper-Letwin restrictions fail to apply. So the best policy may well turn out to be Fabius’ caution against Hannibal, as the dictionary has it

“…carefully avoiding decisive contests…a policy of delays…”

This could include

  • Disarming Parliamentary Leavers and distracting the Commons with a programme of wound-binding “One Nation” legislation, for example social care, green energy and regional infrastructure, daring Labour to oppose them.
  • An early budget, declaring an end to austerity, to disarm Labour and attract the hard-pressed; plus reducing corporate taxes to disarm industrial hesitancy.

Is Boris the man for such manoeuvres? If so, his “Brexit cabinet” might combine Rees-Mogg and Raab with “reach out” Leavers like Gauke, Rudd and so on, though the latter group not in sufficient number as to frustrate Brexit policy.

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Whoever wins the hustings will need to

  • disarm May, Hammond, Remainers from the current Cabinet, plus similarly-inclined Tory backbenchers, with the carrot of the Lords, the stick of deselection and the objective of loyalty in the lobbies and silence elsewhere.
  • neutralise industrialists, disclaiming any promises made by May and Hammond without being provocative. The carrot would be fiscal and regulatory concessions, the stick the threat of future inattention, all to ensure reversion to the customary stance of the private sector, public reticence.
  • if possible (and this could be tough), engineer a new Speaker and Governor of the Bank of England.
  • go to Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement (WA), with a position along the lines that the UK
          has low expectations and can live with a breakdown.

          repudiates Barnier’s WA (much better optics than “May’s deal”) as so one-sided as to absolve the UK of the obligation of “sincere cooperation”.

          is to suspend payments to the EU till 31 October, undertaking to pay an agreed sum on final departure.

          declares that a WA is only acceptable on the basis of

                 no prolonged jurisdiction for the ECJ;

                 no backstop; and

                 lower payments, staged in return for the EU’s future co-operation.

  • repair relations with Ireland, at the outset with hard cash and soft words, if need be venturing into greater robustness.
  • finally and obviously, stagily beef up no-deal preparations.

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It is also essential that a new government devotes itself to cultivating reputation. This is likely to involve bringing in outsiders and in the first instance addressing UK Remainers, to say

  • Let’s bind the nation’s wounds and move beyond Brexit with our legislative programme.
  • Let’s learn from mistakes all round and make this work together.
  • We can’t always let you in on everything, but we’ll never lie to you.
  • As to Brexit itself

         WTO terms and a clean break are no disaster.

         It won’t always be plain sailing, but we’re committed to minimising any disruption.

Other critical messages would be directed to

  • UK industry
    we’re offering the best fiscal and regulatory regime in the hemisphere.
  • EU member-states and private sector
    Barnier’s deal was unacceptable to an independent nation; let’s not risk exports and jobs.
  • Brussels
    although Barnier recklessly overplayed his hand, we remain your close friends.
  • Third countries
    early FTAs are welcome; the UK is brimming with attractions; Barnier’s deal took advantage of the UK’s commitment to orderly conduct.

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Finally, a new administration should revisit the “machinery of government”, with measures including

  • a detailed timetable for the period to 31 October, to be administered by someone with Baker’s skill-set.
  • daily meetings and WhatsApp messaging to promote unity among the core group of ministers.
  • an opportunity for senior Civil Servants to “conscientiously object”, that is to transfer to other work or take early retirement, if unable whole-heartedly to commit to Brexit policy.
  • military standards of security until 30 October for Brexit-related matters.

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In the nature of things these are preliminary thoughts, but they stem from the experience of the last three years. Let us see how much they might now be reflected in the Tory Party hustings.