"Brexit-ready"

23 April 2017

While I was slacking in sunny Spain over a late Easter break, May surprised us all by calling the election which I first pushed in The Doctors Mandate five months ago. It turns out that the Parliament Act was readily squared - we may take it that it is not long for this world. From May’s decision we learn that a famously stubborn character can be moved by evidence and that the Brexit deal she has in mind embraces a brief transition arrangement. It was this last which clinched it. May realised that she needs to be able to say “job done” by the following election: any transition period must have fully expired, lest she be pilloried for betrayal by back-benchers or challenged by the other parties with promises to reverse.

We also know that May’s years at the Home Office have caused her to prize national self-determination. This means that she will have no truck with an indefinite relationship with the ECJ and makes it likely that she will use her new mandate to revisit the policy she gave up last summer for lack of parliamentary support: a domestic Bill of Rights enabling the UK to rescind its entanglement with the ECHR system.

I’m still calling a breakdown in Article 50 talks, but of course I see that an orderly transition would be easier all round. For this to occur, however, it will have to respect May’s other red lines on sovereignty. To remind us, these include:

  • No freedom of movement for EU citizens, let alone the extraterritorial rights sought in the Commission’s latest draft. If Brussels is serious about the latter, talks will end within days.
  • No continuing payments other than minor sums for agreed programmes.
  • No single market/EEA/“Norway option”, as these prevent the UK from setting its own regulations and negotiating them with third parties where they amount to non-tariff barriers.
  • No common external tariff or customs union, as these prevent the UK from setting its own tariffs and negotiating Free Trade Associations.

-o-

As at 22 April, Electoral Calculus is forecasting a Tory majority of 134, based on polls sampled 11-18 April 2017, sampling 7,097 people. Unlike newspaper commentators, Electoral Calculus expects little by way of a Liberal revival at 9 seats (now 8). I take it this overlooks campaigns to promote tactical voting, though YouGov suggests such schemes could pile up votes where they do little good (polls sampled 1-25 November 2016).

Speculation about the character of the incoming Tories is premature: we will not know who is standing till nominations close on Friday 12 May or thereabouts. May’s own political personality is also yet fully to emerge. Her controlling impulses make her far from an instinctive free-marketer, but she will come under much pressure for “Brexit-ready” reform. We have just seen that she is unafraid to change her mind in the face of evidence, making flexibility the key desideratum of the Tory manifesto.

As yet, we don’t know when to expect manifestoes, but if releases follow the 2015 calendar they will come on Friday 19 May. The Tories have to strike a balance between the flexibility of a doctor’s mandate and headlines which dish the (admittedly very weak) opposition. Money is tight, so signature policies are most likely to be regulatory, eg, caps on energy prices; or - as mentioned above - constitutional. Lords reform and a Bill of Rights would do the trick, embarrassing the Liberals as obliging them to defend “unelected peers” and “foreign judges”. (There is no need to divert tactical resource to the Labour party which can be relied upon to embarrass itself.)

-o-

Looking forward to the next administration, I do not expect to see a better time for a programme of reform. YouGov reports that over three quarters of those expressing an opinion want to crack on with Brexit (poll sampled 26-27 March). They will be in the mood for the changes needed to make it work. In addition, May will shortly have a stonking majority. On the other hand, a manifesto had better steer clear of hostages to fortune in what should be a very slim volume. I should also admit that reforms of this kind are tricky to reconcile with May’s inclinations, combining dirigisme with something like “one nation” Toryism.

Even so, one or two future blogs will explore what “Brexit-ready Britain” might mean. I get that May is a natural meddler, so I need to reiterate that here and now it is a stretch to see her warming to serious tax reform and deregulation. But it must be worth hoping that once again, the evidence will change her mind. The country faces disruptions not just from Brexit, but from an ageing population and its implications for public finances; the workplace upheavals of AI and robotics which in turn give rise to a gig economy of ever-changing skill-sets; all plus the continuing effects of a world on the move and globalisation in general.

I’m pretty sure that these challenges lend themselves to a programme making for a new Tory constituency combining the disaffected young with the constitutionally self-reliant, under the strap-line of “take control” (haven’t we heard that before?) But that’s for future blogs.

-o-

Finally, this is a good time to pay tribute to Gisela Stuart who is to stand down as Labour MP for Edgbaston. She left her native Bavaria in 1974, won her seat from the Tories in 1997, and from 1999 to 2000 served on the European Convention which drafted the abortive European Constitution, eventually reincarnated as the Treaty of Lisbon (2009). This experience so alarmed her as to lead her eventually to serve as chair of Vote Leave over the referendum campaign. She has done her adoptive country distinguished service and Brexit2016 hopes that this election does not bring her public life to a close.