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A dangerous exercise in self-delusion

Writer and one-time political candidate Upton Sinclair famously observed that: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  With this in mind, we might want to consider the ongoing Tory blindness to the way their own actions have completely ruined any possibility of achieving a favourable Brexit settlement with the European Union.

Somewhat ridiculously, despite Brexit being an entirely Tory project from start to finish, Tory ministers together with their cheerleading BBC journalists are attempting to lay the blame for the impending failure upon some combination of the European Union itself and/or the Labour opposition.  Even conservative commentator Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian nails this latter accusation:

“Yes, Jeremy Corbyn’s vacillation has been pathetic. But he is the leader of the opposition. It was a Conservative government that called the referendum, and a Conservative prime minister who – having squandered her party’s majority in the 2017 general election – bought the support of the Democratic Unionist party with taxpayers’ money so she could stay in power and finish the job. Brexit is a Tory gig.”

To which I would only ask readers to imagine the political stink that would have been raised if the Labour Party had used its position to constantly thwart and amend the Tory Brexit negotiations.  The inevitable Tory failure would have been laid at Labour’s door with 90 percent of the mainstream media blaming Corbyn for undermining the referendum result.  As it is, Tory claims that the Labour party is somehow to blame amount to little more than “they didn’t stand up and save us from our own folly.”

Not, as we saw once again last night, that Labour could have done anything.  In the internal vote on Theresa May’s leadership of her party, the vote of no confidence in the government and in yesterday’s vote on the amendment proposed by Sir Graham Brady – aka “the Malthouse fudge” – the Tories have shown a ruthless determination to defend their own self-interest at all costs.

The accusation that the Tory Brexit failure is somehow the fault of the European Union is even more risible.  Perhaps the biggest failure of all was the arrogant and unworldly Tory belief that Johnny Foreigner would have to do what Britain wanted; and that if they refused to go along with us, we merely had to shout louder to make them understand.  Never, either among the UK political class or the mainstream media did anyone entertain the idea that the EU might have interests of its own separate from and different to those of the UK.

Just two days after the Brexit referendum, I homed in on two fatal flaws that have shaped the Tory fiasco ever since:

“Ideally, before Article 50 is officially triggered, the new Prime Minister will want at least a broad outline of the kind of relationship with the EU Britain will want to negotiate.  This is likely to require a general election to provide the new Prime Minister with the legitimacy to develop a negotiating stance.  The trouble is that unless Article 50 is triggered before a general election, the election is likely to end up being about whether or not to trigger Article 50 at all – if the opposition won on pro-EU manifestos, this would give them the necessary legitimation to overturn the result of the referendum itself.

“So the new Prime Minister will have just weeks to decide what Britain’s relationship with the EU is to be after Brexit.  The three options on the table are some modification of:

“The Norwegian model in which Britain continues to participate in the single market through the European Economic Area.

“The Swiss model in which Britain attempts to access the single market by negotiating new bi-lateral trade treaties with each of the remaining 27 EU member states.  The Swiss have been working on their unfinished version of this for the best part of seven decades.

“World Trade Organisation rules in which Britain effectively tears up all existing rules and seeks a preferred trading status similar to Turkey or Ukraine.

“In practice, the first option is worse than ignoring the referendum result, since it entails operating by EU rules over which Britain will have ceded control, continuing to pay into the EU budget, and continuing to allow the free movement of people.  The second option may be little better, since an embittered EU has no incentive to ease Britain’s exit given that this may encourage others to consider referendums of their own.  It may well be that the free movement of people will be a red line issue for any of the EU member states Britain seeks treaties with.

“In reality, then, the only option that guarantees that the result of the referendum is enacted is the one in which Britain tears up every agreement that it has entered into in the course of the last 40 years.  That option, unfortunately, is simply insane.”

A day later I pointed to the one entirely obvious fact that almost everyone on this side of the English Channel has been working overtime to ignore:

“In all of this British naval gazing, one ominous fact is being overlooked: THE EU DOES NOT WANT BRITAIN!  That’s right; the EU has reached the end of its tether.  For 40 years they have had to put up with British exceptionalism – opt-outs here, rebates there, and all the while British politicians and journalists blaming all of the ills of their collapsing society on Brussels…

“When German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the world yesterday that: ‘We can see no way to turn this around.  It’s not a time for wishful thinking, but of contemplating the reality’ she was not making a legal case.  In fact there are 1001 legal means of preventing withdrawal from the EU from happening.  What Mrs Merkel was really saying was ‘Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out.’  Quite simply, even if British politicians attempt to find a means of reversing the referendum result, EU leaders are not going to allow it – the people have spoken; you must abide by their decision.

“The EU is not going to dance to Britain’s tune any more.  As things stand, Britain is clinging by its finger nails to its access to the single market.  It is only the clause that says it has to be Britain that triggers an Article 50 withdrawal that is keeping us there.  EU leaders will bring all the pressure they can to bear upon the next Prime Minister to fire the starting gun as soon as possible.”

It is precisely in this context that you should view the various pronouncements of EU negotiators and politicians who have lined up to explain that the deal negotiated by Theresa May which the UK parliament rejected with a thumping 230 vote majority is not up for re-negotiation.  If the UK wishes to put something else on the table – such as remaining in a customs union – the EU will extend the Article 50 time period to allow further negotiations.  But as it stands, there can be no negotiated hard-border between Ireland and the UK of between Gibraltar and Spain.

Article 50 was designed as a trap for the unwary rather than a means through which a member state might smoothly extricate itself from the European Union… an entity that is designed to promote ever closer union between its member states.  In October 2017 I comparted triggering Article 50 to the opening chess move made by novices that results in “fool’s mate” in just four moves.  Theresa May had, indeed, made both of the mistakes I had pointed to just days after the referendum – she had Triggered Article 50 without understanding it and had gone on to call – and lose – a general election:

“Immediately after the unexpected referendum result last June, EU leaders were urging the British government to get on with triggering Article 50.  This was nothing short of psychological warfare, since it was designed to wind up the head bangers on the Tory right, who feared that the government was seeking to overturn the referendum result.  In fact, not triggering Article 50 was the only means by which the UK government could force the EU27 negotiators onto the back foot.

“Once triggered, Article 50 is a done deal.  The UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 irrespective of whether a Brexit deal has been reached.  And there is every reason for the EU negotiators to avoid reaching a deal.”

Losing her majority in parliament then left May without the votes to push through any deal that she was able to secure. The bigger part of the Tory-engineered Brexit crisis, however, is due to the fact that Brexit has absolutely nothing to do with the European Union.  It was always and only a mental aberration that periodically causes the Tory Party to self-destruct.  John Major had to wrestle with it in the early 1990s and it became a running sore during the wilderness years (1997-201) when the Tories were simply unelectable in large part because of their internal divisions over Europe.  Cameron managed to avoid the EU question while in coalition with the rabidly pro-EU Liberal Democrats; who would have collapsed the government if the issue was raised.  The decision to include an EU referendum in the 2015 Tory manifesto was also bluff and bluster.  Evidence from EU president Donald Tusk in a new documentary about Brexit gives weight to claims that Cameron had always intended to barter the referendum away in a new coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats.  However – and this is the greatest error in the whole Brexit scheme – the British people refused to play their allotted role.

It is very likely that the promise of a referendum was sufficient for enough people to switch their votes to the Tories and/or at least to cause Labour voters to stay at home in sufficient numbers to provide Cameron with a small but workable majority.  With hindsight, the polling errors that suggested that there would be a hung parliament were very similar to the errors that suggested Remain would win the referendum.  The reason appears to be some combination of the “shy Tory” phenomenon (in which people are embarrassed to admit they vote Tory) and methodological problems with Internet-based polling.  Nevertheless, a more astute and competent politician than Cameron might have taken some time to research and understand the reasons people voted for a pro-referendum party whose domestic policies were far from popular.  Instead he charged headlong into a referendum in the belief that his (in reality rather meagre) personal capabilities would be enough to win the day.

Although the pro-remain campaign came to be dubbed “project fear,” its real flaw was that it was an elitist “project technocrat.”  Tory minister Michael Gove is often derided for his campaign interview statement that:

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”

Critics, however, wilfully ignore the complete quote:

“…from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

It was precisely these “organisations with acronyms” – IMF, OECD, ECB, BOE, etc. – that had led the world into the biggest financial crisis in living memory just a few years before.  A crisis that saw ordinary people’s living standards crushed in the 2010-13 recession; living standards that even now are well below their 2008 level when adjusted for inflation. 

In many cases, Leave voters were misled into believing that the EU rather than the Tories themselves were responsible for the austerity that had been inflicted on them in the six years prior to the referendum.  This worked (outside Scotland) not least because in most of Britain’s ex-industrial regions the process of steady decline had been going on throughout the four and a half decades since the UK joined the EEC/EU.  For many more, the sight of hated political figures like Tony Blair, George Osborne and David Cameron wagging their fingers and telling people to vote in the way their elders and betters told them to was sufficient for them to use the Brexit vote as an opportunity to stick two fingers up to an out of touch elite.

Either way, on 23 June 2016 what had begun as little more than a Tory debating society issue between a cabal of spoiled public schoolboys was made real by the British people who inadvertently placed the Tories in an impossible position.  As I pointed out in December 2017:

“Politics is the art of compromise.  Whatever the issue, for the greater good of society no side can be ignored entirely and the winner cannot take all.  Everyone gets some of what they need and nobody gets everything they want.  It is a messy and often dissatisfactory process, but it is one that has stood us well for centuries.

“Every now and again, however, an issue comes along to challenge the process.  Taking a country to war, for example, involves a binary choice – either you declare war or you do not.  And if you do, then those who opposed going to war have to be pushed aside.  Brexit is an equally binary (and existential) issue; although in a slightly more nuanced way.

“Theresa May clearly intends balancing the two wings of the Tory Party while simultaneously keeping her DUP allies on board and, hopefully, not alienating too big a swathe of the British electorate.  But this assumes that all of these interests can be balanced.  They cannot.  What the recent [Chequers Agreement] policy fudge (it is wrong to call it an agreement when in its own terms, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’) designed to move us onto trade negotiations actually reveals is the impossibility of a Brexit compromise.”

The inevitable conclusion came, of course, when Theresa May managed to secure a deal with the EU based on the “Chequers Agreement” only to discover in the most damaging way possible that the deal proved to be the only thing that really could unite all of the warring factions within her party and her DUP enablers… They all hated it!

Theresa May had been dealt a single ace when she took over from Cameron in September 2016 – Article 50; the ace of trumps.  So long as she refused to play it, she could negotiate a compromise deal with the EU; because any failure in the negotiations would leave the status quo in place.  As her one time advisor and former EU negotiator Sir Ivan Rogers explained to her:

“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.’”

May, along with most of the pro-Brexit Tories disregarded this advice; preferring instead to maintain the fiction that the EU was terrified of the UK leaving without a deal.  As I pointed out 18 months ago:

“Here the Brexiters fall into the trap of mistaking the institutions of the EU with various exporting companies within EU member states.  The assumption is that because French cheesemakers, Italian vineyards and German car factories stand to lose out if the UK is forced onto World Trade Organisation rules; that the EU institutions will be obliged to come to a favourable agreement.  More, however, is at stake than the fortunes of mere companies (which can be bailed out by the European Central Bank if need be).  The EU institutions will be fatally undermined if they allow a former member state to walk out with a good deal.  With the rise of hard line nationalist movements across Europe, the risk is that any number of member states might follow the UK out of the door unless leaving is made overly punitive.”

May’s belief that the threat of a no-deal Brexit gives her some kind of leverage with the EU is akin to the belief on the part of a neurotic partner in a relationship breakdown that threatening self-harm or suicide will cause the other partner to stay.  The EU would rather Britain didn’t self-harm.  But it is not about to abandon the entire basis of the European Union – the single market – just to prevent the Tories from driving the UK economy over a cliff in eight weeks’ time.

In the grand scheme of things, Brexit is a trifling matter.  As Jason Heppenstall recently explained:

“Brexit… is unimportant at face value. It is simply a country reconfiguring its trading arrangements into a more efficient format from the point of view of its people. True, there will likely be a period of adjustment when some prices of goods will be higher and some services could be unavailable, but demand and supply will iron out these problems in the medium term, like they always do…

“In fact, compared to the real crises of out time, such as the insect apocalypse, decaying infrastructure, mass mental breakdown etc. Brexit is hardly even worthy of consideration.”

Politics – including the handling of Brexit – can, however, have serious consequences.  The politicians we elect matter:

“In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

“For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.”

My biggest concern with the way the Tories have managed to serve up a complete dog’s breakfast of a Brexit is precisely because compared to the gathering second round of the global economic crisis; looming shortages of key mineral and fuel resources; and growing evidence that the environment that allows us to live on this planet is being poisoned beyond repair, Brexit is trivial.  And if these politicians – supposedly the best that our university system can provide us with – could not figure out how to negotiate a relatively simple trade deal; what prospects are there of us surviving climate-induced food shortages or the coming collapse of our critical infrastructure as a result of resource shortages?

In its way, a no-deal Brexit may be an indicator of the crisis that awaits us in the course of the next decade.  We do well to pay attention to how the politicians are mismanaging it.

As you made it to the end…

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