High-wire act

14 October 2019

First, a note of apology for neglecting my post for fourteen days. Truth be told, I couldn’t bring myself to comment on the froth and gossip. Then I began to get it. What looks like no news is in fact a studious silence, both as reaching the press (thus the froth and gossip) and as reaching me from private sources. This tells us something new: for the first time in three years, the Government’s information security is holding up. And for the last week or so, the silence has been punctuated by the sort of noises-off which have preceded past EU deals. So let’s aim off the Floundering theme of my last post and consider that the Government is up to something. It would have to be a high-wire act, but what could it be?

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The first thing is to recognise that the noises-off tell us that the negotiators are genuinely going at it. Even so, the timing could be awry for a prompt deal, what with the European Council meeting on Thursday 17 and Friday 18 October; and the Benn Act threshold triggered the next day when there is also to be the first Saturday sitting of the Commons since the Falklands invasion. What’s more, the negotiators will be hard-pressed to square the circle, where the EU insists on defending its trading borders; neither Ireland nor the UK wants a hard border for fear of reviving the IRA; and the UK jibs at a border across the Irish Sea, let alone indefinite “regulatory alignment” with the EU.

But let’s make the heroic assumption that the negotiators pull off something in time to put it to the Commons on Saturday. How will that then go? We may take it that Labour will whip its MPs against anything Boris shows them. This leaves the Party’s Leavers, either principled, as (eg) Kate Hooey, or spooked by their Leave electorate. This group is somewhere around a dozen but isn’t organised and is likely to fragment. There might be a half a dozen votes for the government in it. Then there are the 21 Tories from whom the whip was withdrawn. Many have behaved with conspicuous restraint and most - say the high teens - may be expected to vote for a deal.

So it all comes down to the Spartans of the ERG. Numbers here are also uncertain, with some 55 MPs identified as participants, but smaller numbers voting consistently against May’s deal. At this point the group’s past Chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, now leader of the House, is asking for compromise. The current Chairman, Steve Baker, is one of those maintaining his own version of a studious silence. This may be taken as a willingness to be convinced and who knows? no-one can be considered immune from Brexit exhaustion.

It’s piling one speculation upon another, but I’d say that if a deal comes to the Commons on Saturday, the chances are a shade over fifty percent that it would get through. But make no mistake, this is a second-best outcome, with continued political turmoil in prospect until the transition period runs out at the end of 2020, or as it might be extended. There would be bitter rows about this extension and the coincident trade negotiations with the EU. No doubt, the Remainers’ campaign to reverse course would also discover new wheezes. This promises nothing better than a continuation of the nightmare of the last thirty-nine months.

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And so to the prospect of no deal. If none is put forward on Saturday, the Benn Act comes into play. What can the Government’s cunning plan be? I see no way of overcoming it from this side of the Channel, without a torrent of litigation before courts shown to be disinclined to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. It would also stir up prolonged and bitter recriminations, with Remainers crying foul for all eternity. I can’t rule out a veto from an EU Member State, though I wonder who would have the kishkes to stand against Brussels on such a headline matter. If not, this leaves Boris forced to accept the Act, ask for an extension and then go to the country. Parenthetically, I surmise that the EU would grant the same six months that they did last time as this is a businesslike period, but I also surmise that they would signal that this is the final suck of the lollipop.

In the past I have argued that such conditions would leave Boris looking weak, with the last such occasion going badly for his party: in February 1974, Heath asked, “Who governs?” and the electorate’s answer was “Not you.” There is, however, another way of looking at it. If Boris decisively establishes a narrative that he has been frustrated by naughty foreigners and untrustworthy locals, then for a second time he may pull off Dominic Cummings’ stunt of mobilising those who don’t normally vote, but who brought home the Leave campaign in 2016. The polls are beginning to support this, but in order for Boris clinch it, he has to reel in those voters who are still flirting with Farage.

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This probably means that the Tories have to campaign on a “no deal” manifesto, which would not please everyone in the Party. Then again, if Boris wins a working majority, “no-deal” paradoxically holds out the promise of greater domestic harmony than an agreement, as the Government can then take Brexit off the agenda. Of course, it would have to throw cash at such labour pains as come up. For choice, moreover, it would decline to add fuel to the fire, by declaring a moratorium on trade talks with the EU for enough time for the UK to close a few third-party deals. Let’s say four years, which would also enable the mood to calm at home and a cohort of leaders with no investment in May’s deal to emerge on the other side of the Channel. We’ve reached the point where this sort of cooling-off-period holds out the prospect of the best eventual outcome with our neighbours. Sure, it’s a high wire act. But you know what: ain’t it always been that way?