ABHI Brexit Update: Our Future on a Post-it Note
If you are reading this on catch-up, SPOILER ALERT. We have not left the European Union. Yes, I know. My wife suggested, mischievously, this week, that the fact that the film “Dumbo” went on general release on the same day it was all supposed to happen, was not entirely coincidental. Someone at Disney, she reckoned, had a sense of humour.
I am going to apologise upfront for this horrible, toe-curlingly tenuous link, but someone who is not a dumbo by any stretch of the imagination, has been centre stage these past days.
If you can bear to, cast your minds back to the 2010 General Election campaign. Now I know this gets you to picture those dribbling posh boys who got us into this mess in the first place, but just go with it for a minute. The philosophy underpinning Conservative Party policy at the time was described, in the red tops at least, as “Big Society.” If you were going to be a bit more highbrow, then a more complete description is the post-bureaucratic state. I got all highbrow thanks to our old friend Nigel Edwards at the Nuffield Trust. An important aside here is that Nigel will be in action again at our UK Market Conference on 13th June. What with a new NHS Long Term Plan, all and sundry talking about improved access to HealthTech and the fall out from this lot, then it is not an event to be missed. If you sign up today, not only do you get the early bird rate, but you can still pay in Euros.
Anyway, Nigel pointed me towards the Institute for Government website, on which was a highly impressive elucidation of what post-bureaucratic state thinking was all about. The compelling lecture was delivered by Oliver Letwin. Such was the quality of narrative and clarity of thought, Nigel, myself and others wondered why it was that the Tories did not Letwin out more. Not everyone is a fan. Notably the Guardian’s wonderful Marina Hyde in her latest missive, which, I should warn you is, as always, XXX rated. ABHI colleague, Andy Taylor, my wisest of wise counsel, who has form here, also groaned when I mentioned Letwin’s name. Their views might explain why he is not let out more. And, to be fair, he is an Oxford philosophy Don, comes across like one and, you would probably have to say, lacks the common touch.
Nonetheless, it was a trim looking Letwin who pulled off what I suggested last week might be attempted. In another moment in history that the PM was on the wrong side of, Parliament took control of the process from Government. After his amendment attracted some 30 Tory rebels, including 3 resigning Ministers, and passed by 27 votes, Letwin suddenly appeared to be in charge. The next step was a series of so-called indicative votes. That was not a course of action entirely without merit. MPs have been very clear about what they do not want, but there has been no consensus on what they do.
These votes were to be quite different from the usual tribal marching through the lobbies, the Speaker shouting “the Ayes have it, Unlock!” and all that pomp and circumstance that you do have to wonder about in this day and age. Rather, MPs would write down their response to a number of options, indicating which ones they could live with if push came to shove. The size of the various piles of paper would then indicate which options could be ruled out and which ones might be runners. Hello, hang on a minute. Ideas being written down on bits of paper? We have all done this before have we not? And if you are of my vintage, you have done it scores of time. You know how this story goes. The invitation arrives to attend a “Strategy Workshop.” You pitch up and find it is being facilitated by a hideously overpaid management consultant who has arrived with a box of Post-it Notes (usually pink), coloured pens and sugar free sweets. You are encouraged to write down big ideas and stick them on the wall. Remember, no idea is a bad one. The facilitator then groups the ideas into a series of themes. Mind you, if you look at the connection between any two ideas in the same theme, it is so convoluted it could be in an Inspector Morse. But you pays your money and that is the strategy all done.
I will now wager that the outcome of the last one of these I did had the same outcome of the last one you did. A month later you got a write up of the day and an invitation to a follow up. You never read the write up because it was so long ago you could not remember what it was all about in the first place, and the follow up got cancelled because the person who had arranged it all had left to pursue other opportunities. This then is the methodology being used to decide the future for our children. Lordy. I believe the Cypriots will actually sell me passport. The only problem is I will have to enter a Dutch auction. Probably with a Russian. The search continues.
Back to the Fun House on Wednesday night. I maintain not a course of action entirely without merit, but concede that Marina may have a point. The Speaker selected eight options for MPs to play the pink Post-it Note game on. From revoking Article 50 to leaving without a deal, they covered the full spectrum. The problem was that none of them, not a single one, got a majority consensus, so they will probably have to come back on Monday and try again. Not even the week in which we were supposed to have left has proved pivotal. And we ought not to forget that without a deal this week, Brexit date becomes 12th April unless we can come up with another plan that makes sense to the EU. The inglorious 650 may just as well have started chanting, soccer style, “We don’t know what we’re doing.”
And then there was Mrs. May herself, an increasingly tragi-comic figure, somewhere between King Canute and Monty Python’s Black Knight. She stood, fingers jammed into ears, repeating her refrains “Brexit means Brexit, my deal is the best deal, it’s my deal or no deal, none of this is legally binding.” I speculated last week that if the PM was to lose a third meaningful vote or not to bring one back at all, then you could sit back and watch her demise. I was not entirely right, but I was not entirely wrong either. As if to confound me, she managed to get it all covered. First, she decided that she would not bring her deal back as she might lose again. Then she decided she might actually like to after all, even though Mr. Speaker said, again, she probably could not. Then in an act of Blackadderesque futility, she offered to stand down if MPs would back her. Actually, I thought she had effectively already done that, but even so, not even that gesture had any sense of finality as she refused to say precisely when. Maybe she has a new approach to committing to deadlines.
She does not have a new approach to her deal. Terrier like, she will not let it go. In quite extraordinary scenes, even by current standards, on Thursday the Government, recognising it could not hold the third meaningful vote, elected to vote on only the Withdrawal Agreement and not the associated Political Declaration. The Political Declaration sets out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Legally, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration are inextricably linked, so the move created confusion amongst MPs and pundits alike. The assumed rationale was that by agreeing the withdrawal part, the extension of article 50 from 12th April to 22nd May would automatically be triggered and we would have a bit longer to avoid making a final decision. It certainly made a lot of MPs very grumpy because today they have all been in Westminster voting when they would ordinarily have been back in their constituencies and with their families last night. In the end the PM had to console herself with the fact that it was “only” a 58 vote loss. The best defeat yet, but bigger than it was looking at one point mid morning. Quick draw tweeter Donald Tusk immediately announced there will now be a European Council meeting on 10th April, two days before we are supposed to leave. At that point we will have to come up with a plan ranging from, er, revoking Article 50 to leaving without a deal. What happens between now and then is completely unknown. We have entered yet another darkened room.
None of this helps you of course, so stay tuned to our Brexit pages which are regularly updated with official advice.
Probably wishful thinking I know, but did Donald Tusk offer us an olive branch when he talked about not betraying the 6 million who signed the petition or the 1 million who took to the streets of London on Saturday? (I was busy putting up a shed as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know). I had a drink with Linette Irons on Tuesday to mark the fact that after over 25 years’ service, she hangs up her Eventbrite today. It might have been the whisky, but we concluded that having been European citizens for 40 years, happily carrying a plumb passport for many of them, we must be entitled, on the grounds of residency, to some sort of consideration.
Until next week’s installment of the Adventures of Blunderwoman, remember the clocks spring forward this weekend and that Sunday is Mother’s Day. I am already behind the eight ball, having elected to spend Saturday in the hospitality marquee at the Mennaye, where, doubtless yet more disappointment awaits.