Tuesday , July 17 2018
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Brexit is the backstop

Image: Paul Lloyd

As an exercise in creating unnecessary constitutional crises, Brexit is turning out to be a humdinger.  The underlying reason for this is that at no stage in the process has any decision in the chain been about Britain’s relationship with the European Union:

  • The decision to include the promise of a referendum in the 2015 Tory manifesto was taken solely as a means of winning back UKIP voters
  • The decision to proceed with a simple “in/out” referendum was made as a means of seeing off the swivel-eyed hardliners on the Tory backbenches
  • Cameron’s decision to resign, and Johnson’s and Gove’s refusal to pick up the poisoned challis was all about personal ambition rather than the needs of the country
  • May’s succession to the leadership was all about holding a fundamentally divided Tory Party together
  • The insane decision to trigger Article 50 (which surrendered all of the UK’s negotiating cards) was made to appease the Hard-Brexiteers
  • May’s catastrophic decision to call an early general election was solely based on her need to recruit a new intake of Tory MPs who would owe their seats (and thus their loyalty) to her; giving her enough of a cushion to ignore the hardliners on the Tory back benches
  • The decision to deal with the DUP was taken solely to maintain May in office, even though it effectively gave one of the most deranged political parties in the UK a veto over any Brexit deal.

The referendum we should have had was the one run in New Zealand in 2011 to decide which electoral system they should adopt.  That referendum came in two parts.  The first asked whether the people wanted a different system to first past the post.  In the event – as happened – that the people said yes, this was followed by a further referendum in which the people voted on which alternative they wanted.

Had Britain done something similar in 2016, things would be a lot less muddled today.  That is, rather than the simple “in v out” referendum, once it was clear the people wanted to leave the EU, we needed a second vote on the future relationship between the UK and the EU: Should we remain in the single market? Stay in the customs union?  Adopt the Norway model? Or have a complete break and revert to world Trade Organisation rules?

In the absence of the clarity that a two-part referendum would have produced (even if a lot of fine detail remained to be negotiated) we have ended up with a complete dog’s breakfast in which the arrangements for leaving the EU have been placed in the hands of a Tory leadership who, along with their corporate funders, are desperate to find a means of maintaining business as usual while pretending to the electorate that they have somehow honoured the referendum result.  This situation has not been helped, of course, by the sheer incompetence of a Tory leadership that has allowed itself to be outmanoeuvred by the EU negotiators at every turn – something symbolised early on by the hapless David Davis turning up at the negotiations without his papers.

Ironically, the result of this toxic blend of incompetence and naked self-interest ought to delight Britain’s “remoaners” – that section of the electorate that has simply refused to accept the outcome of the referendum and that would be happy to sacrifice centuries of democratic reform on the altar of low-paid Polish builders and visa-free holidays in Provence.  Having put themselves in an impossible negotiating position, the Tory leadership now have no option but to maintain the economic status quo.  The only real issue is how they can go about selling this to their backbenchers.

The reality of the situation is all too visible in the recent angry open letter to Tory MPs and donors from Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave:

“The government’s nominal policy, which it put in its manifesto and has repeated many times, is to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

“This requires preparing to be a ‘third country’ for the purposes of EU law. It requires building all the infrastructure and facilities that are normal around the world to manage trade.

“This process should have started BEFORE triggering A50 but the government has irretrievably botched this.

“Having botched it, it could have partially recovered its blunder by starting to do it afterwards.

“No such action has been taken.

“Downing Street, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet have made no such preparations and there is no intention of starting…

“The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded.”

Cummings is undoubtedly correct here.  Triggering Article 50 without a post Brexit deal was insanity… unless the aim was to scupper Brexit in all but name.  Recent media articles talking about Britain running out of food within days of crashing out of the EU are only possible because the government has deliberately left the UK in this precarious condition; and it has done so precisely to prevent Brexit from happening.

The problem, however, is that – like it or not – a majority of the British people voted to leave the EU.  This is why current arguments about the “backstop arrangements” to be put in place in the event that the UK and EU negotiators cannot agree a Brexit deal are key to Britain’s future.  Theresa May’s best option would have been to refuse to trigger Article 50 and then simply do nothing.  This would have infuriated EU leaders and Tory backbenchers.  However, it would have maintained the status quo while allowing May’s government (and a future Corbyn government) to maintain the fiction that Britain was going to leave “soon” without ever having to do so.

Having been forced into triggering Article 50, and having botched last year’s general election, May’s best option is to secure a business-as-usual backstop arrangement that isn’t time bound.  This would allow the UK to embark on a perpetual Brexit in which nothing really changes, but everyone maintains the fiction that it is going to.

The problem for May, however, is that the backstop position is likely to be the worst of all worlds (unless you are a City of London bankster).  All of the things that people voted against – unchecked immigration, offshoring of jobs, corrupt EU finances, lack of accountability – will remain in place, while Britain’s ability to influence policy – through the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the Parliament – will have been removed.  In short, Britain would be better off remaining.

This, I suspect, is why Corbyn and (his far more competent negotiator) Kier Starmer are in no hurry either to align themselves with pro-remain Tory rebels or to come out unequivocally in favour of overturning the referendum result.  Both have had meetings with the EU negotiating team (as has Scotland’s First Minister) so it is clear that in the event of May’s government falling and a Labour or Labour-led government taking its place, there is a negotiation to be had.  Moreover, the weakness of the EU financial system and the rise of populist movements – most recently in Slovenia – leave the EU bureaucracy more open to a compromise deal on some of Corbyn’s stated red lines such as migration controls, offshoring, state aid rules and public intervention in the economy.

The most likely outcome of Brexit, then, is an amended version of the backstop position currently being developed by the British civil service under May.  Using the pretext of the Irish border, this will maintain the UK-EU trading arrangements (including passporting of financial services) until some unspecified point in the future when the British government agrees a deal with the EU… or, of course, after sufficient time has been allowed to pass to make a second referendum appear reasonable.

As you made it to the end…

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