Sunday, 1 July 2018

Hard Road to a Soft Brexit

Michael Gove lost his famous cool, you say? Took hold of Theresa May's custom plan and, with all the menace of a rabbit with a carrot, ripped it up did he? Aaah, bless his cotton socks. Well, no wonder he was peeved. As the most prominent Brexiteer in the cabinet after the noted self-publicist, you can understand why he might be miffed. However badly Johnson behaves, May just laughs it off and emits panicky signals that she's caving to his demands but Gove, well, who cares? According to the BBC, Gove was uncharacteristically aggro because he believes a customs arrangement (May's preferred position) would be too bureaucratic and disadvantage Britain's economic position. Well Govey, have I got news for you. These are the realities of the process you helped set in train, the painful and uncomfortable bump that was always waiting when your pathetic flight of nationalist fancy eventually connected with the terra firma of politics.

Meanwhile, The Times reports that May has finally found her mojo. About bloody time. Like Fabius the Delayer she has run scared of the hard Brexiteers in the cabinet and the wider party, and has sought to do so by being non-committal here, and fudging and obfuscating there. Unlike the famed Roman general, however, while he whittled down his enemies through the avoidance of a decisive clash her evasive moves have only emboldened the Brexiteers. Think, for instance, how we have got into a situation where Gavin Williamson, or Pike as they like to call him in the Treasury, even feels like he can openly brief against the PM. Still, you cannot delay forever. As "Shippers" notes in his write up of the cabinet's psychodramas, May has realised that she can face down the Johnsons, the Mogglodytes and the rest because, well, numbers are on her side. The Brexiteers lack the bodies to bring her down. It's amazing how long it's taken May and the Tory scribblers in the press wing of the party to have concluded thus. And with ambitions to succeed her hither and thither ("Shippers" reveals that 20 MPs are preparing leadership bids to succeed her), there's a very good chance they would all cancel one another out anyway should a coup come forward. And besides, she can count on the self-preservation instincts of Tory MPs to stay in so Jeremy Corbyn can be kept out

Contrary to what you might read in the press or from ostensible Labour supporters, the party's position on Brexit is clear. According to Keir Stamer, who is something of an authority on these matters, a customs deal of some description and single market alignment, again of some description, should be the UK's basic negotiating position. Contrast this with the shambles of the Brexit negotiations which, to remind sundry centrists, the Tories happen to be running, we see prevarication, posturing, and the floating of unconvincing threats to walk away from talks. You might be forgiven for asking "what talks?" as it turns out self-styled hard bastard David Davies has had all of four hours worth of meetings with Michel Barnier this year. And then we have the Tories' official position which is, um, well, you tell me. Two years after the referendum they are still squabbling among themselves about what this should be. Perhaps the reason Davis has barely sat down with Barnier is because there is nothing to negotiate about. So much for these being the easiest talks in history. Needless to say, this is the responsibility of May. She had the opportunity at the height of her powers to confront the divisions in her party, but didn't. In a weakened position following last year's election, she nevertheless could have done so then - the balance of forces were no different to today - but didn't. Truly a mockery of the strong and stable slogan she ran on.

And now, after everything it looks like the Tories are adopting a variation of Labour's position. After all the time wasting and shilly-shallying, "Shippers" notes that May is seeking a Norway-style arrangement with the EU. According to the forthcoming white paper, it will say the UK doesn't want to be in the customs union, single market or be beholden to the European Court of Justice judgements. Yet, to be Norway-stylee means keeping the four freedoms - the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. The Tories would quite like to retain goods, capital and services but want to dump immigration, and yet what we know (and have always known) is this is politically impermissible as far as the EU are concerned. If the UK can have three of the four freedoms, what's to stop some of the others, like Italy, the Netherlands and so on from demanding the same? May is stupid if she thinks frictionless trade is compatible with border patrols. With little time left on the clock, how does May hope to negotiate these immovable obstacles?

Back in December, the Tories and the Remain-honking centre showered plaudits on May for seemingly resolving the Irish border issue by signing the UK up to the customs union in all but name. Rather than building on this, she has let Brexit drift with the tide of Tory factionalism and petty leadership ambition, while occasionally talking tough, resurrecting "no deal is better than a bad deal" idiocies, dropping hints about walk outs and giving the impression she's on for a hard Brexit. And yet, just like the border deal, it's appearing the same short-termism, complacency and indecision has boxed her into a corner where a variation on the Norway option, i.e. a soft Brexit, is the only viable option. While this is good news as far as the livelihoods and the living standards of millions of people are concerned, it's bad news for the Tories. She can face down the hard Brexiteers, but that doesn't mean they can't cause her and their party a great deal of damage. Go and grab some popcorn, the infighting is just starting to warm up.

5 comments:

Robert said...

The one consolation of Brexit is that it will cause the Tories severe pain. The Mogg and his ilk aren't going to accept a soft Brexit. Cue cries of betrayal all round.

Lidl_Janus said...

"Back in December, the Tories and the Remain-honking centre showered plaudits on May for seemingly resolving the Irish border issue"

Did they? I remember the goodwill around that decaying faster than most radioactive isotopes. I'm not sure if there was even time to react before it fell apart.

Then again, if you're right it proves May's tactics have never been anything other than 'stall, then cave'. No idea how that can possibly be a winner, given how the 'cave' part inevitably leads to Wrong Kind of Brexit.

Samuel Bytheway said...

I wouldn't be so convinced that the infighting is just warming up because of something else you mentioned: Torys know that Tory civil war means à Corbyn Labour government.

This puts us fundamentally in a different position to the Brexiteers revolts of the early 90's, I wouldn't underestimate how much the threat of socialism (as they see it) could do to unite the malcontents behind the party

I think this is the paradox: the more likely a Labour govt looks from the pools the more likely the Tories and their outriders in the press will be to close ranks, and thus the less likely à Labour government

Samuel Bytheway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Livingston said...

They're a funny old lot, the Tory centrists. They'd rather see the UK crash out of Europe in a chaotic Brexit than see a Labour government renatioanalise a few trains. Has this got something to do with class and struggle?