Seventeen paradoxes

11 July 2017

To kick off on a personal note, I am old enough to remember the news reports of Suez but too young to have made sense of the bitterness which followed. By contrast, I entered into adult life in the Seventies, the disorder of which actually extended for fifteen years after '68 or so. This left me knowing more than I would wish of national turmoil and political weakness. Even so, the lavish spread of turbulence driving the current crisis - for once no hyperbole - is new to me.

How pleasant to believe that June’s election marked a local climax, though we have been disappointed before. But say it's so: let's make the heroic assumption that the summer recess allows the present chaos to resolve into more amenable patterns; for protagonists to return with clearer heads. How to resolve the paradoxes bedevilling us?  


First, domestic politics: Conservatives then Labour.

1.  The Tories increased their share of votes but lost seats.

2.  May remains in office but cannot control her party or Parliament.

3.  She is reduced to soliciting support from the predecessor and opposition she once gloried to scorn.

4.  She survives only because no-one is rushing to take over and her party has turned gun-shy of the voters.

It’s a commonplace that next time the Tories had better beef up their strategy, targeting and resourcing. Not to say, leadership. I remain confident that May is out by year end, with her replacements bravely overcoming their reluctance. How confident? - a good question as I’ve been as much caught out as anyone. Say two chances out of three. As that reopens legitimacy - that pesky electoral mandate - the Tories can only hope for a leader with some razzle-dazzle.

5.  Corbyn failed to win the election but acts like he did.

6..  Labour MPs once hostile to him are now cowed.

7.  His party handily beat expectations but is splitting on Brexit and MP selection.

I’m calling peak Corbyn. His voters can’t map their discontents onto him indefinitely. The youngsters I run into see him as mirroring their ambitions for everything from ending austerity, through repudiating foreign wars, forgiving debts and celebrating the transgendered, to simply shaking things up a bit. Note that this last is absolutely of a piece with the “give the rascals a kicking” populism behind Brexit and Trump. Meanwhile, the party’s centrists are squaring up for - what is it? - round seven? eight? I’ve lost count - I expect they have too.

Now to Brexit itself: first Remainers and Leavers, then the negotiations.

8.  Both major parties campaigned to leave the customs union and single market, but a revisionist wind has caught the Remainers’ sails.

9.  However keen to claim a Europhile mandate, they can’t forget that those who actually went for it got nowhere (LibDems) or lost seats (ScotNats).

10.  In consequence they are leery of challenging the referendum itself, instead seeking to undermine the process and the outcome.

11.  As to process, they talk up Brussels’ strength, while insisting that sovereignty is not at issue.

12.  As to outcome, they push “soft Brexit”, despite its political incoherence.

May’s disingenuous (and almost certainly futile) approach may nonetheless serve her parliamentary purposes of aggravating Labour’s inherent split on Brexit. For once, Corbyn’s metropolitan supporters are adrift from him on this, complicating Labour’s next manifesto. Meanwhile, Remainers have been savvy in fastening upon the loss-aversion which behavioural economists find to be central. Even if Europhiles don’t necessarily have the best of the argument, at present no Brexiteer has the kishkes to take them on. I’d expect this to change over the recess, with arguments joined with greater gusto thereafter.

13.  Davis may be a Leavers’ Leaver but he lost no time in knuckling under to Barnier’s agenda.

14.  Frustrated partisans may be tempted by disruptive tactics but have no interest in outright continental destabilisation.

The “agreement to agree” between Japan and the EU tells us that loss-aversion applies universally. It is remarkable that on this score Barnier’s mandate is confined to citizen’s rights. Despite the weekend’s methodical denials from the associations of German employers (BDA) and industry (BDI), this can’t be kept up for ever. Meanwhile, the G20 enthusiasms of Trump and Turnbull for trade agreements saluted the niceties which give the EU precedence, but no-one expects Brussels to close a deal before London - always assuming Trump and Turnbull are still in power!

15.  HMG’s discomposure may increase its bargaining power, as a principal with no room to manoeuvre.

16.  The EU27’s unity involves “promises of everything to everybody” which cannot be kept.

17.  Brussels’ consequent hard line intensifies its fears of a disorderly breakdown of talks.  

This is simply to remind us of the imponderables of negotiation. No-one has an interest in disorder: loss-aversion consumes us all equally. This particular penny doesn’t seem yet to have dropped for Barnier and maybe it never will. In which case, we’re back with “no deal is better than…” and May or her successor should be prepping lay and official opinion - at home and overseas - accordingly.


We are suffering a sorry national moment, with febrile politics and a truculent public mood. The summer may not bring respite: London’s watch commanders will be ramping up overtime for the steamy nights. Wherever holidaymakers fetch up, let us hope they find some refreshment. Although we cannot be sure of the balance of sentiment on their return, we can attempt to resolve the paradoxes, cut through the passions. The salient facts remain that the nation voted for Brexit a year ago, that both major political parties campaigned for it a month ago, and that Barnier’s obduracy is the price Brussels has had to pay to keep the EU27 on side. Something has to give: either London or Brussels changes course or the talks fail. I’m still going for the last of these.