Archive for the 'BREXIT' Category


Who loves Dom?

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Cummings has burnt too many bridges to survive committing the cardinal British political sin: hypocricy

25 January 2016 is not a date that has gone down in history. Despite that, the events of that day were critical to Britain voting to leave the EU, with all that’s meant since. That morning, Dominic Cummings was summoned to a meeting that was intended to remove him from running the Vote Leave campaign.

The meeting did not turn out as its board intended. Cummings responded by asserting that key senior Vote Leave staff as well as a good deal of the rest of the office, would walk were he sacked; assertions that a few quick phone calls validated. In the face of losing pretty much their whole staff less than five months before the referendum day, they backed down. The rest is well known: the data mining, the social media campaigns, the £350m/week, the signing up of Gove to Leave, and the Boris Johnson – without Cummings at its head, there’s every chance that Leave would have lost (probably not by much but lost all the same).

The crucial point here though is that Cummings needed leverage to see off the coup, in the form of support from his Vote Leave colleagues; support he was confident he would get. It was all very well him being rude to the MPs who were notionally his bosses because ultimately, they didn’t have the power to remove him and once the point had been proven, he could ignore them at will.

This is a lesson he appears to have forgotten. Since ascending the heights of Boris Johnson’s key advisor, he’s retained his legendary rudeness and contempt for norms but without any obvious sign of building up the sort of Praetorian Guard that saved him at Vote Leave. He has a patron, of course – and a very powerful one at that, in the form of the Prime Minister. That, however, may not be enough for at least three reasons.

Firstly, a political patron has to balance the value of retaining their valued adviser against the damage that keeping him does. Johnson’s own political position is strong for now and he won’t be brought down even if he retains Cummings. Doing so, however, would spend valuable political capital with both the public and with MPs; capital the PM might not want to spend.

Secondly, neither the PM nor Cummings seem on top of their game at the moment – perhaps for health reasons. Cummings may well have come up with the “Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives” slogan: it certainly has his feel about it. There would be a deep irony if so. But that apart, the government hasn’t been co-ordinated recently, messages have been mixed, policies have had to be U-turned (the NHS immigrant charges, for example – an obvious bad policy to anyone with any political nous), and the media game is slipping badly. Any Odyssean Project seems still-born. So if he’s not doing much useful, is the pain worth it?

But most of all, Cummings is guilty of that greatest of British sins: hypocrisy. When people are prevented from attending the funerals of loved ones, from meeting critically ill family members, from all sorts of normal interactions in the interests of preserving the nation’s health, he – who quite possibly wrote the slogan that sums up the government’s strategy in eight words – not only didn’t stay home but didn’t stay home when he had Covid-19 symptoms. That kind of hypocrisy is not forgiven by the public.

Nor will forgiveness easily be extended to a protective patron who grants his friends special favours when livelihoods (and indeed lives) are being lost on a great scale. Such matters are not always critical but nor are they necessarily forgotten and they will continue to weigh in the balance.

The only way people usually survive such scandals is if they are effectively unsackable, as Cummings was in January 2016. He no longer has that ultra-loyal bodyguard – and even if he did, he’s in a different position now and is less important to Number 10 than he was to Vote Leave. I don’t see how he survives this. And I don’t see why he should.

David Herdson


Splendid self-isolation. The lack of realism infecting British foreign policy

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Play it again Sam. The piano is battered but the tune is very familiar. This time it is China that is the focus of the hostility. It’s too big, too powerful, too inscrutable and too responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. The John Bull tendency has decided that there must be consequences. There must be boycotts. China must be made an international pariah. The Huawei 5G contract assuredly must be ripped up. There must be a reckoning.

You must remember this refrain. Those furious with China now were in many cases furious with the very concept of the EU. Britain has made a collective decision to make trading with the EU, the world’s second biggest economy, harder. Now voices are pressing to pull up the drawbridge with the world’s third biggest economy.

Actually, Britain is going for the hattrick. It has made desultory attempts to negotiate a new trade deal with the USA, the world’s biggest economy.  Those seem to be foundering on a combination of resisting private healthcare access to the NHS and a horror caused by chlorinated chicken.  No trade deal looks likely to emerge any time soon.

Britain has sanctions in place against Russia and Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Brazil are also on the naughty step for many. How extravagant we are, throwing away potential trading partners like that. Someday they may be scarce.

Many Brexiteers argued that leaving the EU would enable Britain to enter into new trading arrangements with other countries more easily. Whatever the theory, this does not seem to be Britain’s proposed course in practice.

There are many problems with the hard right vision of Britain becoming Singapore-on-Thames. One of the biggest is that no one is prepared to get their hands dirty when specific choices need to be made. It’s all very well making the case in the abstract for being a buccaneering trading nation, but no one is making the case in the concrete for improving trade with individual countries that one way or another fail hygiene tests for many people.  

As a general rule, those on both the left and the right who talk most of internationalism are those who are most prone to attaching preconditions for their amity. The self-image of many Britons is that they are running Rick’s Bar, amorally working with everyone. The reality is closer to a monastery.

Britain should look afresh at how comparable countries deal with the imperfect behaviour of potential trading partners. For if they can stand it, so can we.

Every country wrestles with where to set the balance between open trading and not condoning state delinquency.  Every country draws the line in the place best suited to it. Britain seems to be talking itself into a particularly purist stance, driven by a toxic combination of anti-corporate animus and good old-fashioned chauvinism.  

It doesn’t help that many in Britain seem to overstate considerably the amount of heft it has. Britain’s economy is a sixth or a seventh the size of that of each of the EU, the USA and China. That’s considerable. It is not, however, going to be anything more than a competing consideration. It’s not that others despise Britain. If they gave it any thought they probably would.

Britain’s direction of travel forms part of a wider global trend. Britain is not the only country going through a bout of blaming China. Plenty of politicians in both the EU and the USA see that as a fruitful approach just now. Negotiations between EU and the USA for any kind of trade deal have ground to a standstill and they have instead ratcheted up an escalating tit-for-tat round of targeted tariffs, a feud that has not been halted by anything so trivial as a pandemic.

The trend worldwide is away from globalisation to regionalisation, to closed blocs and promoting national champions. Covid-19 looks set to cement this trend. You must remember this did not work particularly well in Britain when it was tried in the 1960s and 1970s. This leads inexorably to the Austin Allegro. (It didn’t work well elsewhere either – few mourn the Trabant.)  

As time goes by, horizons are shrinking around the world. This has happened before. The world economy was very open before the First World War. It took 100 years for the world economy to become as open again.  Perhaps it will be another 100 years before we get back to the levels of globalisation we saw till recently.

What next for Britain then? If the buccaneers have been keel-hauled by reality, something else is going to be put in its place. With Britain having left the EU and no one being able or willing to make the case in detail for working together constructively with other countries, Britain is drifting into the reactionary insularity that Nigel Farage has been advocating his entire career, steadily getting relatively poorer and less relevant year by year.  This is what the Conservatives have now signed up to deliver in government.

While Covid-19 continues to dominate all our thoughts, no one will particularly notice.  But one day, we’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of our lives.

Alastair Meeks


Reflections from Cyclefree: Here We Go (Again)

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

There were not many dogs, hardy or otherwise, out this morning on the North West coast, understandably so in view of the overcast weather. Still, on a clear day from the top of Black Combe , a couple of miles away, it is possible to see Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Beyond lies Ireland and the great big wide world beyond. All those opportunities! 

Just behind the spot where this photo was taken is Silecroft station, one of the few stations where you have to hail the two-carriage train to make it stop. The train travels from Barrow-in Furness up the coast to Carlisle via Sellafield, Whitehaven and Maryport, a town originally settled by the Romans and later turned from fishing village into a coal port.  

All three constituencies along this coast are now represented by Tory MPs, the first – Copeland – having fallen in February 2017, a precursor of Boris’s later breaches in the Red Wall. The clues were there in the EU referendum result where between 60 – 62% of those voting voted to Leave. In 4 years there have been 3 General Elections, 1 referendum, 1 EU Parliamentary election and, in Copeland, 1 by-election.  One part of GK Chesterton’s “people of England” has certainly spoken.

Have they felt forgotten? The referendum vote might suggest so, though South Lakeland, a mere 40 miles east voted to remain. The area has not been all that forgotten though. A sign on the beach edge proudly announces the arrival of Superfast Britain, funded in part by the European Regional Development Fund 2007-13, the EU flag logo next to this announcement having been carefully scratched in an attempt to obliterate it. 

Will voters here continue to feel forgotten by those now in charge? It will take more than having a Cabinet meeting outside London to impress or effect real long-lasting change, even after the Brexit desired by a majority.

One of the happy side-effects of being laid up with illness is having time to read, including Dominic Sandbrook’s “Who Dares Wins” about the early years following an equally disruptive break with a long-standing political and economic consensus. There are echoes with now:-

  • A PM winning unexpected voters and sneered at for being populist by those unable or unwilling to understand how voters could possibly bring themselves to vote for such a person.
  • Labour in the grip of in-fighting, leadership elections and the Left seeking to get control. Two of the minor players then became party leader and founder of Momentum, a reminder that when a party’s leadership cannot say what it is for there will be plenty willing and able to fill that vacuum. Oh and Ken Livingstone was, even then, embarrassing his party with offensive comments and ignorant historical analysis.
  • A Liberal leader having their grandiose ambitions squished by voters.
  • A fruitless attempt at creating a centrist party or, perhaps more accurately, a “party for the people who know what’s good for the people”. TIG might have saved itself a lot of grief had it realised that a promise of a return to a semi-mythical non-ideological consensus is rarely the change people want when they are fed up with what they have.
  • A nostalgic nationalism exemplified by the reaction to the Falklands War, seen by some as a welcome fight back against a sense of failure and of Britain as a nation in retreat. The need to see Britain as somehow oppressed, fighting for independence (its own or others) and regaining its pride and self-confidence through some dramatic act seems to have a long history.

There are perhaps two lessons from that time for now. Mrs Thatcher, faced with an unexpected and difficult war and the challenges it posed, rose to the occasion – and turned into a real leader – one who understood her limitations, listened to her expert advisors and backed those who did the work behind her triumphs. When she forgot those lessons to believe her own myths, the path to her downfall was set. Will today’s leaders rise to the occasion they say Brexit offers?

And the second? “A change has come about in Britain,” written – shortly after the Falklands war ended – by one politician driven mad by his obsession with sovereignty. “We are ourselves again.”  It is a sentiment which might be said by any one of the many pro-Brexit politicians now in charge.

But who is this “we”? Are “we” even one people anymore? And what kind of a people will “we” now be? We shall see.



The SNP’s Brexit conundrum

Wednesday, January 29th, 2020

Drink, says the Porter in the ‘Scottish Play’, is an equivocator with lechery: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance…. it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him”.  So it may prove with Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Nicola Sturgeon loses no opportunity to remind Scots that Brexit is taking them out of the EU ‘against their will’, citing this as justification for holding another independence referendum so soon after the last one.

It’s a good political argument, as far as the provocation of desire is concerned; Brexit does indeed seem to be acting as a lever prising Scottish self-identity further away from the Union.  For now, Boris Johnson has ruled out authorising another independence referendum, but that does not look sustainable for very long; no doubt it will be another of his promises which he can’t keep

You can expect Brexit to continue to figure very strongly in the SNP’s case both for another referendum, and for a Yes vote when they eventually hold one. Yet the objective effect of Brexit will be to make Scottish independence much more difficult than was envisaged when Scots voted in the 2014 referendum.  The Scottish government at the time claimed that Scotland could ‘remain in the EU’ and that therefore there would be very little disruption to trade not only with the Continent, but much more importantly with the rest of the UK. 

Of course there was a lot of hand-waving here: it was never clear how the transition from being part of the UK to becoming a member state of the EU was going to happen, and the then EU President Jose Barroso emphasised how difficult it would be, requiring a full accession process and the formal consent of all member states. This is disputed by some experts, but, whatever the exact legal position, the SNP’s broad point was surely correct: it was inconceivable that Scotland would be excluded from the EU for very long, and in practice some transitional mechanism would have been agreed to avoid disruption to trade and the economy.

EU membership is not only central to the emotional and identity-based case for Scottish independence, in 2014 it was central to the economic case.  There would have been no need for a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK; closely-integrated trading relationships across the border, accounting for 60% of Scottish external trade (the EU accounts for just 18%), would have continued undisturbed.

Not any more.  Although the Scottish border thankfully doesn’t have the violent history of the Irish border, in other respects the same problems of creating an external EU border within the British Isles, as would happen if Scotland left the UK and then joined the EU, would apply.  Brexit makes Scottish independence more difficult, and more economically damaging, with the damage being more severe the more the UK detaches from the Single Market.  The SNP’s siding with Corbyn and the ERG to torpedo Theresa May’s softish Brexit, which would have produced a much more frictionless border than Boris Johnson is aiming at, looks short-sighted. 

Further, the political argument that Scotland would be ‘remaining’ in the EU can no longer be deployed.  There will be no status quo of Scotland being part of the EU, with the UK’s opt-outs, to build from.  That in turn makes accession to the EU more problematic: adopting the Euro, and perhaps even joining Schengen, would be harder to resist.

To make things worse, the North Sea oilfields, once seen as the primary economic opportunity of independence, now look much less attractive, with the oil price much lower and climate change concerns mounting.  The SNP’s economic case, already thin in 2014, has been severely damaged by all these ‘changes in circumstances’. Enough to scare Scottish voters off independence in a second referendum?  Maybe not; we should know by now that identity politics often trumps economics, and perhaps Brexit will, as many believe, lead to Scotland breaking up the Union, in an act of self-harm ironically similar to Brexit.  But it doesn’t look a slam dunk: desire may have been boosted by Brexit, but performance would be even more difficult than looked to be the case in 2014.  Project Fear v2 will have plenty of material to work with.

Richard Nabavi


Brexit’s Hotel California

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

This time next year, we’ll be in a very familiar place

They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Originally was said of the Bourbon monarchy after its restoration, it’s equally true of the EU Commission today which seems intent on repeating all its own mistakes for lack of comprehension that they are, in fact, mistakes.

Perhaps this might be because one of the easiest ways to turn a blind eye to existential threats is to convince yourself that the reasons for those threats existing is nothing to do with yourself and everything to do with the obsessions and prejudices of the other side – which by definition can’t be engaged with because they’re not the product of rationality. The best you can do is strengthen your defences and wait for the crisis to pass, at whatever cost.

This attitude isn’t, of course, unique to the EU. England, from the government through to individual citizens, could benefit by asking itselves why support for independence in Scotland, for example, remains so high – and by trying to answer the question as honestly as possible. It’s not just about oil (which may well be a worthless asset into the future anyway). But that’s another discussion for another day.

As far as Brussels has been concerned, the critique and solutions that Cameron put forward in his Bloomberg Speech were so heretical that they needed to be opposed, even at the risk of Britain being forced out of the club (granted that this risk was misappraised in advance and grossly underappreciated).

Consequently, Cameron’s negotiations – which his campaign promises of 2015 obliged him to undertake – became a question of British special pleading, which was at least something that Brussels had the conceptual capacity to process but one which would, inevitably, grant the minimal possible. And for want of a decent deal, that ‘minimal’ meant that Britain’s membership was lost.

It’s not necessary to repeat the whole history of the last three and a half years to see the same repeated pattern of grudging engagement, maximal demands, misjudgements about what would be acceptable, a UK political crisis as a consequence of unrealised expectations or broken pledges, a rupture and a failed agreement.

We should deal here with the cynical explanation that Brussels actively wanted Britain to leave; that it didn’t regard it as ‘properly European’, that its membership got in the way of The Project and that Brexit itself would bind the rest more closely together. Such a view is, to my mind, a mishmash of ex post facto reasoning on how Brexit has played out, a confusion of interpreting the comments of a few zealots as being representative of the whole, and – typical of conspiracy theories – the attributing of an excessive control of events to the dark forces of the enemy.

It’s far too early to say whether the political benefits to the EU of Brexit outweigh the economic, security and other costs and while cynics would say ‘ah, but the important thing is not what has happened but what they expected in advance would happen’, the far more likely explanation to that objection is that they consistently didn’t think that Britain would leave and that therefore they didn’t need to do more.

But this time there won’t be a failed agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, only introduced this week, has already passed its Second Reading and the government can confidently expect it to become law by the end of January. Any belief or expectation that Britain would eventually, somehow, remain are now over.

That’s not to say there won’t be a battle in January over the detail. The government has ruthlessly stripped the Bill of the concessions it previously made to the pre-election hung parliament and opposition MPs will no doubt bewail futilely that development. The Lords, however, where the Tories don’t have a majority, could well succeed in reinserting some or all of the dropped clauses. If so, chances are that this will be a final echo of life before 12 December. The government will argue that it has no need to parrot what foreign countries agree among themselves, that Westminster is perfectly capable of delivering on workers’ and environmental rights itself, and that in any case, Taking Back Control means such decisions (or indecision) should be Britain’s to make and for those who do so to be accountable for it.

The one area where a Lords amendment might succeed is in parliamentary oversight and involvement. Number Ten has an unusual and unhealthy aversion to parliament (and counterproductive given that any Tory leader is only ever 48 hours from being dumped by his or her own MPs), but concessions on a temporary process don’t affect any fundamental interests and arguing for the exclusion of MPs sends poor signals. Best to throw the dog a bone while you’re enjoying a banquet.

However, while Brexit might be legally ‘done’ on 31 January next year, it won’t just go away, much as many might like it to. The UK and EU will then have eleven months to conclude a trade agreement. Trade experts generally believe this impossible and if conventional processes are to be adhered to, they’re almost certainly right. But politics can provide solutions where the circumstances demand it and the ingenuity is there; Brexit is a unique circumstance and wider precedent is not necessarily a good guide.

Or that would be the case were it not for everything about Brexit so far, and indeed about what we already know about the incipient trade talks. Charles Michel tweeted again yesterday that “a Level Playing Field remains a must for any future relationship”, which is almost certainly code for an EU demand that it set and enforce, and the UK be obliged to implement, standards on pretty much anything from product regulations to social policies. Whether the EU’s concept of the Level Playing Field extends to financial services is a more open question and a genuine card in the UK’s hand, albeit in a game it doesn’t want to play.

But either way, once again the EU is playing hard-ball to a degree that suggests they either don’t understand what’s going on in British politics, or they do but that they don’t care because they’re so wedded to Ever Closer Union that it must bind even a state that leaves the club – which truly would be a Hotel California Brexit.

Is there any logic behind the EU’s stance? Yes, on a tactical level, there is. If we ignore the strategic calamity of turning one of your biggest members and financial contributors into a best an ambivalent outsider, the EU’s negotiating tactics have been highly effective. Time and again, the British government has agreed to what it said it wouldn’t, either because the UK side felt compelled by the circumstances or because of a change in personnel. True, time and again, the British parliament or people have rejected those deals but the negotiators’ job was only to launch the deals; where they came down was someone else’s department.

As regards the next round, the EU can look at Johnson and see someone who has sold out his former partners in the DUP and agreed without much fuss to one of the EU models on display. They can also looks at someone without a strong personal ideology and whose Euroscepticism is so thin that he didn’t even decide to campaign for Leave until February 2016. Johnson might have always regarded the EU as an outlandish absurdity but he also has something of a soft spot for outlandish absurdities, perhaps not without self-interest. In short, they can see what they want to see: someone who will bend to pressure.

What such an analysis would miss is that Johnson is under pressure from both sides. Having sold his political soul to Leave in return for the keys (but not the title deeds) to Number Ten, he is under an obligation to deliver for them. In normal circumstances, relying on Johnson’s sense of obligation might be a little naïve but in this one it’s backed up by the hard fact that the Tory majority is nothing like sufficiently large enough to make the ERG irrelevant, not least because most of those new MPs that constitute his majority were elected from strongly Leave seats on a specific mandate to Get Brexit Done.

What that means in practice is that the December 2020 deadline is real and that the UK government won’t be able to sign and deliver a deal that ties Britain to ongoing comprehensive regulation from an outside source that it has no formal input into. The chances of a No Deal in a year’s time are therefore quite high: I’d make them narrow odds-on. The chances of nothing being agreed – and therefore No Deal being on the table, with all the risk and uncertainty that brings – before the backend of next year are all-but certain.

Welcome to the new year: just like the old one.

David Herdson


Labour’s last chance?

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

You can only play with fire for so long before being burned

Labour is rather fortunate. Rather than looking on at a mere disaster, its members and supporters could have been witness to the electorate having smote the ruin of a once-great party unto the dust.

Despite Boris Johnson having led the Tories to their highest vote share since 1979 – and their sixth successive increase in share, the last three in government – there was surely the potential to have polled even more strongly had the Tory leader had the confidence and ability to face media and public scrutiny. Margaret Thatcher would not have ducked an Andrew Neil interview, never mind hidden in a fridge. Perhaps for Boris, those manoeuvres were the right tactical choices but sceptical voters can’t have been impressed.

But the Tories can only ever be rivals to the Labour Party; existential threats must come from the left-of-centre. Outside of Scotland and Wales, that means primarily the Lib Dems. Over the course of the election campaign, the Lib Dems lost more than a third of their support, mostly to Labour. The last five polls before the vote for the early election all put the Lib Dems in the 18-20% range and Labour between 21-26%. Had that campaign-period swing not taken place then not only would Labour’s losses would have been far, far worse but the Lib Dems would themselves have made solid gains – and that swing was not guaranteed.

In the event, Labour ran a sufficiently dynamic campaign, while avoiding public infighting, to be able to claim the mantle of being best-placed to oppose the Tories and Brexit. They also ended up being the more moderate Remain option, despite the logical difficulties of their policy and Corbyn’s own position. The Lib Dems would have been better, in retrospect, to have maintained their Second Referendum policy, putting – and backing – Remain against Johnson’s deal. But without a stronger, more heavyweight leader, the Lib Dems would probably have suffered whatever their policies.

What the election did show was just how weak the bonds between voters and their party now are, outside a few ultra-safe areas, and how rapidly they’ve dissolved. This problem isn’t unique to Labour of course – the Tories’ EP election result shows a similar breakdown on the right – but it was they who suffered the worse this time. And the Tory Party in 2019 once again showed its willingness and ability to dump a failing leader; Labour demonstrated their inclination to protect theirs.

Where does this leave Labour going into the next parliament? Well, on the one hand, it has a field of opportunity. Johnson’s ratings took a hit during the campaign but he was given the votes both to complete a task and to keep Corbyn out. Both tasks are likely to be complete within a year at most. Unless Labour elects a similarly extreme and incapable leader (which given the membership and current Labour front bench has to be a possibility), he will not find votes so easy to come by in 2024 – if indeed he is still Tory leader by then.

Indeed, the Tories, having undermined their own voting coalition of generations in order to build a new one round the transient issue of Brexit will find their own base decidedly wobbly unless they can firm up Brexit into a wider values-based alliance.

However, oppositions will only be given so long to challenge a government, especially one that hits trouble. The 2017-19 parliament showed the strains within Labour but memories of the 2017 election must have stayed some hands that now wish they’d acted. If Labour does elect a new leader in the old one’s image, they will be playing with fire.

David Herdson


Getting Brexit Done

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

Past performance is not a guide to the future. A caveat plastered all over investment products which might usefully be remembered by those anxiously scanning polls or those politicians explaining why the PM’s success in getting a revised Withdrawal Agreement means that he can reach an FTA with the EU before the transition period ends in 385 days time.

The steps needed to reach an FTA have not featured much in the election campaign, despite this being meant (once again!) to be the Brexit election. Politicians – whether through calculation, weariness or a desire to talk about subjects they are actually interested in – persist in the fiction that getting the WA through Parliament means Getting Brexit Done. Even Leave Actually cleverly confuses (in the 1st 4 cards Boris pleadingly shows a voter) the WA with the transition end date. Only Jo Swinson has accurately categorised it as “episode 1 of a 10 season box set“; little good has this done her.

The reality is a simple one but bears repeating.

  • The WA only governs the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU not the future relationship with it.
  • The Political Declaration outlines a general set of principles for the negotiation of this relationship. It is not, however, a legal agreement let alone an FTA.
  • The transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
  • If by then, no FTA has been agreed with the EU, then Britain reverts to being a third country, trading with the EU and 168 other countries it had trade deals with via the EU, on WTO terms. A No Deal Brexit, in other words.
  • If the transition period is to be extended, a decision needs to be made by July 2020, 6 months after Britain formally leaves on 31 January 2020 (assuming the Tories win with a majority large enough to get the WA approved by Parliament).
  • That is a challengingly short timetable in which to agree an FTA or be confident that one can be agreed and approved by all those needing to give their approval by December 2020.

It is true that the PM did manage to agree a revised WA, something many of his critics thought impossible or unlikely. But even giving him credit for that (ignoring the fact that his renegotiation largely – though not entirely – involved a rehash of a previous version) the matters covered by the WA are very different and far fewer in number than those normally covered by an FTA. A look at the topics listed in the Political Declaration gives an indication of the very many areas which an FTA normally covers – and usually in quite mind-numbing detail. FTAs are the work of years not months.

Ah – but there is perfect regulatory alignment now so this will make it easier and quicker say the Brexiteers. Er, yes: this is the starting point. But it is the destination which matters. The EU will not agree an FTA identical to EU membership and, anyway, the point of Brexit is for Britain to do things differently (Taking Back Control, as it is usually described). This has been confirmed by no less a figure than the PM himself. How different, in what areas, at what cost and to whom is still a bit of a mystery though.

Even if an agreement is not reached in time, WTO terms are nothing to be scared of is another argument heard when concerns are raised about a 2020 No Deal exit. Those saying this imply that WTO terms are a sort of the shelf basic FTA, a bit like those DIY will packs available in newsagents for those too mean or too poor to afford lawyers. It is a bit more complicated than that (and, yes, that applies to wills too!) Mrs May’s government did indeed publish a temporary tariff regime on 13 March 2019. Will this apply in December 2020 if no FTA is agreed?  Again, who knows.

So let’s assume there will be negotiations once Britain is out. What’s needed? Let’s see:-

  • A negotiating mandate for the British government, requiring input from all the relevant Ministries involved and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations. Boris – if it is he – will need all his cat herding skills and more.
  • Some sort of consultation mechanism – with experts, NGO’s, unions, all the very many parties affected, even Parliament, for surely, post-election it will represent the Will of the People, no?
  • An understanding of the process on the EU side, what they and the national governments will be looking for and how they will approach it. A guide to this can be found here. A summary: it’s a little more complicated than a walk in a garden and a friendly chat with Mr Barnier.

And that’s before you get onto the actual negotiations themselves and the astonishing level of detail they go into. The EU-Canada FTA, for instance, is 1,589 pages long. (Something to read in the longueurs waiting for the election results perhaps.) Of course, it is possible to go for the bare minimum that can be done in the time available. But that only results in combining the disadvantages of WTO tariffs in some areas, prolonged uncertainty in others and negotiations continuing in yet more areas. What was that again about avoiding dither and delay?

All these concerns – and there are plenty more not touched on (including the lack of preparedness and experience Britain has in trade negotiations against an entity with decades of both) can – and no doubt will – be hand waved away by those who deplore such an Eeyore-ish approach to Brexit’s opportunities.

So let’s look at a very recent example of a trade deal concluded by Britain to see what light it might shed. Earlier this year, International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, trumpeted an FTA with Korea as the “new gold standard of trade deals with our existing allies and like-minded countries”. This deal was reviewed by a specialist House of Lords Committee which was distinctly unimpressed with the claims made.

The critical point is that, if the terms of the Korea deal are indeed the template for future trade deals, they show that the UK, being a much smaller market, will be unlikely to get better deals on its own than it did through the EU.  Bizarrely, despite feeling strongly about cheese, Ms Truss agreed 27% tariffs for Cheddar exporters to Korea rather than the zero tariffs currently enjoyed via the EU and by Britain’s competitors. What a disgrace! Of such details are FTAs made. Exporters’ hopes may be in the hands of a Minister who shows every sign of being the new Chris Grayling.

Whoever wins the election, Brexit will not go away for a long time. If Corbyn becomes PM we will, if Corbyn’s promises to renegotiate the WA and have another referendum are to be believed, be reliving the past 3½ years but crammed into 6 months. Believe that and you’ll believe anything. If Leave wins again, all the same issues arise. If Remain wins – but with fewer votes than Leave in 2016 – imagine what arguments about legitimacy and democracy there will be then. And if the Tories win, years of negotiations and/or a no Deal departure and/or the dramas of “will he/won’t he” extend the transition period await.

Get Brexit Done?  If only.




Labour’s Brexit Divisions

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Political parties have always been coalitions in themselves. They are big tents and broad churches that try to keep everyone singing from more or less the same hymn sheet, or at least not fighting in the aisles. But sometimes you can see the stretch and the strain in the canvas as it tries to hold it all together. As James Maxton quipped during Labour party splits in the 1930s, “if you can’t ride two horses at once then you’ve no business being in the circus”.

Since becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has certainly undergone a crash course in dual equestrianism as longstanding fault-lines within the party were re-opened by the prospect of Brexit, and they all looked very familiar.

Harold Wilson had long been a pro-European in private, and during his first spell as Prime Minister Labour applied for the UK membership of the then-EC, but after his fall from office it was Edward Heath’s Conservatives who took charge of the negotiations for the UK’s entry. Wilson was against British membership under those terms and set the Labour party squarely in opposition to EC-entry. The Roy Jenkins-led revolts on the issue helped squeeze the bill through parliament, and culminated in Jenkins, Harold Lever, and George Thomson resigning from the cabinet (Jenkins and Thomson both went on to become Lib Dem MPs).

Faced with a divided party Wilson tried to bridge the rift by calling a referendum and outsourcing the decision to the people. The Labour manifestos of 1974 promised a referendum on re-negotiated terms but carefully avoided committing the party to one side or the other (for the sake of completeness Labour won a plurality of seats in February and a small majority in October). The party declared no official position for the referendum with the leading figures of the party splitting heavily in favour of staying in while the Trade Unions and wider membership supported leaving.

Wilson also decided that if democracy was good for the nation it might also be good for Labour. At the Labour Party conference of 1975 a vote was to be held with a condition attached. If either side won the vote with a 2:1 majority then it would become the official party stance. In the event the ‘leave’ side won only ~65% of the vote and neutrality was outcome by a whisker. Wilson held on to official impartiality for the start of the campaign before coming out in support of remaining within the EC.

Wilson used that vote to release the divisive pressure building within the party, while weighting things heavily towards the outcome of an officially neutral party that was split on the issue but not divided against itself. The leadership moved the decision out of its hands but kept a thumb on the scale.

Corbyn has followed many of Wilson’s decisions on neutrality but veered away when it comes to internal democracy. The party’s position of supporting a referendum and combining freedom to campaign with official neutrality was laid down by the leadership. It was a stance they’d taken such a hammering at the European Elections that holding on to a Labour Brexit was no longer possible and the leadership had to bow to the pressure from the remain wing of the party.

The party manifestos of 1974 and 2019 share many similarities, the support for a renegotiation of a Conservative deal and a referendum on the result alongside the calls for reform if remaining inside the European project. Modern manifestos have all extended greatly in recent years, the 2019 Brexit section at over 1200 words is significantly longer than both 1974 manifestos put together (about 650 and 250 words respectively) and in those extra words there’s a wealth of tension. It is clear and comfortable in what it is against, but when it comes to what it supports it reads like it was created during a Mexican standoff, with each side taking their turn to write a paragraph.

The Labour party conference in September passed a motion committing to the support of freedom of movement, in a significant shift from its pre-existing policy of ending it. In the 2019 manifesto there is a paragraph waxing lyrical about the benefits of immigration and freedom of movement to the country, and a very pointed omission of any commitment to retaining it in a Labour Brexit deal. It’s tempting to imagine Len McCluskey and Ian Lavery diving over the table to prevent it going any further.

The Labour party is now going out of its way to trumpet how it’s changing tack and going after leave voters. Its existing strategy of trying to focus on issues other than Brexit had delivered mixed results. Their focus on the NHS has coincided and probably helped it rise to being the most important issue of the election, but they still trailed heavily in overall voting intention polls. 

This new tactic suggests a powershift at the top of the party, but also sets it up for later conflict if it manages to surge in the coming weeks. Leavers will take it as evidence that the party should be pursuing a harder Brexit, while Remainers will point to the shifts that had already happened and claim it as a continuing trend. It’d be a problem Jeremy Corbyn would be delighted to have to deal with (as opposed to spending more time with the damsons on the allotment) but is something to keep an eye on.

Beyond the factional struggle for control is the question of whether the tactic is a good one for the campaign. It’s ostensibly aimed at winning back Labour leave voters who had defected to the Conservatives after it underestimated ‘the willingness of Leave voters to switch from Labour to the Conservatives.  They may have internal polling to recommend this view, but it would represent a shift from earlier in the year when BES data was showing anti-Tory tribalism outweighing leave voting preferences. For it to work it’s more likely that they’ll have to hope that the remnants of Brexit party support (sitting at a stubborn 3-5%) includes some voters they can pull back. It’s a hope that seems possible but doubtful, the hardcore last few percentage points of any party tend to be particularly difficult to shift.

They may be targeting undecided voters, and Ipsos-Mori’s November political monitor found that Labour supporters were far less likely to say they had ‘definitely decided’ (71% to 54%). But most of the undecided Labour voters are leaning Liberal Democrat as their second choice (and vice versa, while very few undecided Conservatives are considering Labour). One of the justifications for changing strategy was that the Lib Dems had not proved to be as big a polling threat as had been expected, when that could also be evidence of the previous strategy actually working.

It’s unlikely to make the campaign trail questions on Brexit any easier for Corbyn, especially when it becomes such an obvious target for any journalist looking to find an awkward spot to dig into (and Corbyn’s tendency to get riled up by such questions). When there’s such division within the party not just on remain vs leave but also on what a Labour Brexit would look like it makes pushing any clear message very difficult. Boris Johnson has taken an old political lesson, one mastered by the Labour party during the Blair years, and applied it relentlessly. The public like political parties to appear united in the ranks and clear in their messaging, the moment the politerati are utterly sick of a slogan is the moment the public starts to hear about it.

The Labour party are unlikely to be troubled by unity or clarity on Brexit, either before or after this coming election (and in victory or defeat). This new strategy probably won’t improve relations between each side. Corbyn needs to either find a way to get the horses going in the same direction, or he’s likely to fall through the gap between them.

Tomas Forsey

Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal