9 October 2017
We know the drill - we should learn from our mistakes (just saying, Theresa, Boris, Philip…) At the beginning of the year, I listed a dozen challenges facing the EU. It has withstood several, in particular the French and Dutch elections. It has yet to face others, for example the busted banks mentioned by Bundesfinanzminister Wolfgang Schäuble in his farewell remarks. Meanwhile it’s too soon to gauge the effect of Merkel’s weakened position upon the central dynamic of Franco-German relations. All well and good: what that celebrated thinker, Donald Rumsfeld, called “known unknowns”. But who the heck expected the Guardia Civil to revert to head-cracking on the Ramblas as their very own homage to Catalonia? Similarly (and now we’re back with Theresa, Boris and Philip), who the heck expected a bungled budget, a disastrous election, a minority government, a Trotskyite Glastonbury, a schismatic cabinet, a calamitous conference and a botched coup? This is the stuff of airport fiction.
But here we are, with cheesy melodrama serving as the backdrop to the current fifth round of Brexit negotiations. I differ from most observers in seeing the key aspects of May’s Florence speech as her adherence to the robust line she took earlier in the year and her willingness to articulate positions supported by such guile as her negotiators and their paperwork have laid out for her. But that’s just me; ’most everyone else was all about her change in tone. Maybe we’re all on the money - after all, 450 years ago the Jesuits nailed it as fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.
Now attention is turning to the arrangements prevailing on 1 April 2019 - and please let’s not belabour the facetious possibilities of that date, the first business day after the two-year anniversary of Article 50 service. We hear much synthetic concern about “crashing out”. The alternative is a standstill agreement of some kind, gussied up as “implementation” or “transition” according to your choice of vocabulary. It seems a million years ago - actually it was 42 months - that I identified the EU’s assent to a standstill agreement as a litmus test of its sincerity in Brexit negotiations. We’ve now reached a point where such an agreement calls for qualities of statesmanship in scant evidence on either side, making “crashing out” the safest thing to expect. This has always been my view, not because I anticipated the details of the current turn but simply because it all looked too hard.
The question then becomes: at what point is this officially recognised with the formulation of domestic polices for risk abatement - what I’ve called “Plan B”. Interestingly, this was Sunday’s lead in the Telegraph, the first occasion of its prominence in the mainstream press. Now maybe I’m wrong about this too, but I’d be expecting a hardening of tone from Mrs May (yes, still her - for the time being at least), as she gets dusty answers to her calls for “flexibility” and “imagination”, most recently this afternoon in the Commons.
Another thing to be wrong about: maybe this sorry government can engineer some sort of domestic unity in getting behind “Plan B”. The difficulty is that national movements of this kind work best as a response to adversity visited upon an innocent people by overseas perfidy (Singapore bolting Malaysia; the Antipodes after we bolted them; heck, how about Dunkirk, doncha know?) This is likely to prove a tough sell to a populace which is three generations away from Jingoism. What’s more, Jingoism isn’t a good look for a country seeking to make a go of global trading or to cultivate ease among the pot pourri of nationalities which we have become. These are challenges to tax the highest order of political skill: precious little evidence of that in the last few weeks. Then again, the UK is famous for muddling through, admittedly thin gruel for optimism but then again, does anyone have anything else?.
Is there anyone out there? Theresa…Boris…Philip…anyone?