Wednesday , November 21 2018
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Endgame

Image: Alan Light

If there is one thing that Theresa May cannot be accused of it is being decisive.  Her entire – hopefully short-lived – premiership will be defined by indecision and prevarication:  The ill-fated general election that she vowed more than twenty times would never be called; the horrific Universal Credit rollout that has been delayed, apparently, because even Tories cannot stomach the number of disabled and homeless corpses piling up on Britain’s streets; but most of all, the stalling for time during the most incompetent of Brexit negotiations that leave the UK facing a choice between becoming a vassal state or an economic wasteland.

Only once in her premiership has Mrs May displayed the kind of resolve expected of a national leader – ironically in the one instance that absolutely dictated indecision; the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  May, apparently, did not and does not understand the significance of Article 50 despite its consequences being spelled out to her by the one UK civil servant who was paid to understand the European Union.  As Jim Edwards at Business Insider explained last October:

“The record books will show that the sudden, unscheduled general election was not her worst decision. Rather, it came six months earlier on October 2, 2016, when she decided to trigger Article 50 the following March before she properly understood how Article 50 actually works…

“We got evidence of that error yesterday in the testimony of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU in Brussels, who left that post in January of this year…  Sir Ivan said: ‘I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 [other EU countries] dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.  My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing, you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate and it’s got to operate like this otherwise this is not going work for me’.”

Article 50 was designed by the EU as a deterrent to leaving rather than to ease a member state’s passage.  This is because it reverses the usual convention of negotiations in which a failure to agree results in a reversion to the status quo.  In this case, however, a failure to reach an agreement does not leave Britain within the EU with all of its generous rebates and opt outs.  In March 2019 if an agreement cannot be reached, the UK will be outside the EU, and treated as an external nation in its dealings with the EU27.

By triggering Article 50, Theresa May allowed the EU27 negotiating team, led by one of the world’s most accomplished trade negotiators, Michel Barnier, to effectively sit back and ask the UK government what it was prepared to offer in order to avoid crashing out without a deal.  Worse still, May – along with most Brexiteers – has wholly misunderstood the position of the EU; assuming that they do not want to end up without a deal.

The lie to this is found in the EU’s sudden discovery that the Northern Ireland border might be an intractable issue.  It is notable that this issue only became the EU’s line in the sand after the 2017 election when May’s government found itself relying upon the hard-line DUP to keep it in office.  The treatment of Greece since 2011 shows just how easily the EU will throw a member state under the bus if it serves its interests.  If the EU truly could not afford to see Britain crash out of the EU, you can be sure that Ireland would be told to compromise and suck it up.

In another article in Business Insider this week, Jim Edwards points to evidence that a no-deal Brexit is precisely what the EU27 is angling for:

“In a Financial Times profile of Olly Robbins, May’s current chief Brexit negotiator, there was a telling quote from Sabine Weyand, deputy to EU negotiator Michel Barnier. When it was put to Weyand that a post-Brexit agreement with the EU might be a ‘win-win negotiation,’ she replied, ‘Hello?! Who are they kidding?’

“Her logic is that Britain must suffer the punishment of being banished from the EU before constructive talks can begin — to demonstrate to everyone else all the disadvantages of leaving the EU. She regards Brexit as a ‘fundamental’ threat to the EU, the FT reports, and sees Britain’s negotiating positions as ‘bollocks.’ As far as she is concerned, no-deal is the punishment for leaving, pour encourager les autres.”

Edwards goes on to cite Ivan Rogers in a recent speech at Cambridge University:

“The aim of the 27, perfectly legitimately, whether or not it is wisely, has been to maximise leverage during the withdrawal process and tee up a trade negotiation after our exit where the clock and the cliff edge can again be used to maximise concessions from London.”

May, of course, would be only too happy to make as many concessions as Barnier requests in order to conjure up something she can sell as an agreement back home.  Hence the odd behaviour last weekend, when Brexiteer Dominic Raab interrupted his Sunday lunch to fly to Brussels to prevent May’s negotiator Olly Robbins from striking a deal that would be contrary to the wishes of the Cabinet.

The EU negotiators understand all too well that there is no deal Mrs May could make with the EU27 that would also be supported by her Cabinet; still less a largely pro-remain parliament that has been afforded a “substantive vote” on any deal that is reached.  Thus, rather than offering May any lifelines, they went out of their way to humiliate her in Salzburg last month, and have continued to pour scorn on her negotiating position.

Coming away from yesterday’s meeting with the vague agreement that Britain could extend the transitional period (during which Britain is subject to EU regulation and must contribute to the EU budget, but loses its voting rights) was about the best that May was going to get.  The trouble is that her pro-Brexit Cabinet understands all too well that extensions of this kind can very easily morph into a so-called BINO (Brexit in Name Only) in which Britain becomes little more than a vassal state of the EU.

The trouble is, however, that there is no alternative deal that pro-Brexit Tories can put on the table that will not also be turned down by the EU.  This is one reason why high profile Brexiteers like Boris (“fuck business”) Johnson have not challenged May.  Any new Tory leader would be picking up a poison chalice; which is why the best they have been able to do is to ask former Brexit Minister David Davis to consider becoming an “interim leader” for the remainder of the negotiating period.

Brexit always was an all or nothing issue.  For the 48 percent of Britons who voted to remain in the EU, there is no compromise position that doesn’t leave the UK in a worse position than it would be if it remained within the EU.  For the 52 percent who voted to leave, the same is true from the opposite end; there is no position short of no-deal that does not oblige Britain to comply with EU laws and regulations over which it has no say.  The irony is that while most UK commentators believe that the EU wants the UK to stay (which is only true in the long-term) their preference is actually that Britain leave without a deal in March 2019.  This is because they are betting that when Britain crashes out of the EU, the pound will be slaughtered and what remains of the UK’s manufacturing base will be decimated.  Moreover, once outside the EU, pro-Brexit politicians will quickly learn that there are no external countries queuing up to offer the UK a package of new, favourable, trade treaties.  As this tragedy unfolds, the EU27 are betting that Britain will soon be begging to rejoin; at which point all of the opt-outs and rebates that have so irked the other EU members for decades will have to be sacrificed.

In this, the EU position is undoubtedly correct.  The once and for good North Sea oil bonanza that underwrote Margaret Thatcher’s debt binge (which inflated the decade long boom 1995-2005) is long gone.  Britain has been an oil and gas importer since 2005; and is only able to maintain its infrastructure by selling large tranches of it to Russian oligarchs, Chinese apparatchiks and Arab oil sheiks via the global tax evasion racket that is the City of London.  Without the stability of the EU Single Market, however, that international racketeering will come to an end as the value of the pound falls through the floor… after which the UK economy is toast.

The only silver lining in this otherwise extremely dark cloud is that former Prime Minister John Major may have understated the case when he wrote in the Guardian:

“I understand the motives of those who voted to leave the European Union: it can – as I well know – be very frustrating. Nonetheless, after weighing its frustrations and opportunities, there is no doubt in my own mind that our decision is a colossal misjudgment that will diminish both the UK and the EU. It will damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young.

“And – once this becomes clear – I believe those who promised what will never be delivered will have much to answer for. They persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer. That will never be forgotten – nor forgiven.”

In fact it is the entire Tory Party that will be held responsible for the entire Brexit debacle.  As Major knows only too well from his own time as Prime Minister, Europe has been a festering obsession for the Tories in a way that has seldom exercised the wider population.  The Brexit result itself was as much a revolt by the dispossessed against both Tory austerity and New Labour duplicity as it was against the EU itself.  Certainly the rise of left-wing populists like Corbyn and McDonnell has the potential to win back a large part of the ex-industrial working class that voted to leave the EU in 2016; especially once it becomes apparent that the Tories were prepared to destroy the UK economy, break up the union and plunge people into even deeper poverty than they are already facing… all just to settle what is little more than party in-fighting.

Brexit looks set to do to the Tory party what the 1914-18 war did to the Liberals.  The only question that remains to be answered is whether they will take the UK down with them.

As you made it to the end…

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