ABHI Brexit Update: How we Actually Leave
It kicked off a bit when I went on my hols did it not? Jeez. Whilst I was busy enjoying a, frankly ludicrous, upgrade courtesy of Hilton Hotels in Paris, (terrace the size of ABHI Towers, complete with jacuzzi bath) Boris was busy not getting his own way. Or so it seemed. It is actually one of those situations that is not easy to explain to someone when asked to do so. Give it a try and let me know how you get on. Boris actually achieved something many thought was beyond him, and got Parliament to back his terms for our departure from the EU. We do need to keep reminding ourselves that this is still the stage we are at, how we actually leave. Sorting out the fine detail will occupy years, probably decades ahead. The only way to make this all go away is to revoke Article 50, but I am not going to go there this week.
The problem was the deal was not exactly what Boris wanted. Not on his terms. Not happening quickly enough. In cricketing parlance, Boris tried to squeeze an extra over in before lunch, but the Umpires were having none of it. Boris knew this. Parliament had told him the previous weekend that, whilst they supported his approach in principle, they did not trust him not to engineer a situation in which we would leave the EU by default without a negotiated agreement. They told him again last week. What was also known was that the Party who has a disproportionate say in all of this, the DUP, does not do deadlines, and was never going to be hurried up. Besides, if you start tinkering with the bits of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to Ireland, the people whose negotiating stance beginning, middle and end is “No!” are not likely to simply roll over and let you get on with it. Boris also knew this.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the sensible, responsible course of action at this juncture, would have been to go back to Brussels and say, “Look, I have demonstrated that I can get a deal through Parliament, I just need a little more time, you might call it a technical extension, to pass the legislation which is a condition of the support. We can then move into a transition / implementation period.”
But no, it was not exactly what Boris wanted. I think I said a while ago that the soundtrack for Theresa May’s administration might be a tin can bouncing along the tarmac, Johnson’s would be that of a rattle and Mr. Hippopotamus flying through the air and hitting the ground. What this told us was that Boris is less interested in getting a deal, certainly this deal, than he is in getting a General Election. He thinks he can win a majority, and, if he has a majority, he can deliver the type of Brexit that he, or rather the right wing of his Party actually wants. For it is one of the many ironies in all of this that Johnson was never really a leaver, and he never thought the Referendum would deliver the result it did. He joined the Leave campaign to present himself as a polar opposite option to George Osborne when David Cameron finally decided it was time for one of the other boys to have a turn.
As I have said before, those that might be described as hard Brexiters have a point. Johnson’s deal is so close to the one May failed to get through on three occasions, that it can be considered as essentially the same. The principles are those laid-out in the Future Partnership and Position Papers that were published in the Summer of 2017, and subsequently incorporated into what became known as the “Chequers Agreement.” The underlying assumption is that leaving the EU was potentially economically catastrophic for the UK, and the best way to mitigate against this was to stay as closely aligned as possible to existing arrangements for trade, customs and standards. Whilst that may not seem an unreasonable approach, it is not Brexit. It is certainly not the Brexit envisaged by many of those who advocated for it. They wanted a clean break / hard Brexit / no deal, call it what you will.
Perhaps rather perversely, this also advances the case made by pro-European, bleeding heart liberals for a second referendum. Tony Blair articulated it very well a couple of years ago now, when he said that there were two questions to ask. Firstly, what is the cost associated with walking away and starting again? If it is unacceptable, then what is the point of leaving with a deal that essentially maintains the status quo? What is the cost and what is the point? Those liberals would like the people to decide again with the benefit of three years’ thinking time.
But Boris wants an election. His problem is that he cannot just call one, in much the same way he cannot just decide to leave on 31st October. He is not the Emperor and Parliament exists to provide checks and balances, however inconvenient that may be for the PM. So, true to form, the toys are out again, and Boris has said he will not play nicely with Parliament until he gets his own way.
Meanwhile, the EU has said it will grant another extension, maybe even a return of the “Flexstension” if needs be, but have not specified for how long. Brussels is looking at Westminster to see if it will have an election and how long it needs, whilst Westminster is looking at Brussels to see how long it will grant. By the time you get around to reading this, things may be clearer. As I write, the Government says it will seek an election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, but that requires two thirds of the House to acquiesce. From here that looks like a tall order. Labour maintain that they will not support it unless no deal is firmly off the table, but actually many in the Party fear that they could be sucked into an election in which they surrender a Tory majority, and we then end up with the hard Brexit as described above. There is also another sporting analogy that will be at the front of Labour strategists’ minds, always make your opponent do what they least want to. Boris wants an election, so do not give him one.
Labour will also be eyeing the polls nervously. You know my mantra about speculation being foolish, well believing the polls at this distance is even worse, but we should consider them anyway. Actually, they make pretty grim reading for the main Parties. The Conservatives would be the biggest as it stands, but they have lost significant support. Labour, on the other hand, has haemorrhaged it, one pundit suggesting they could lose up to half the votes they polled in 2017. The Parties gaining are those who are unequivocal about their positions, the bollocks to Brexit LibDems and Farage’s bollocks to Europe mob. The date Boris wants, in the middle of December, is getting social media types all worked up about spoiling Christmas, whilst others think it is timed to disenfranchise the large student body who will have returned home for the holidays by then with three months’ worth of washing. This is the cohort that did not get out of bed for the referendum, plus a large number of first-time voters, many of whom might be expected to have centre left tendencies. I may be able to tell you more on Friday.
None of this helps you much with your planning. As late as Friday afternoon officials were telling us that, in the absence of a firm offer from Brussels, a no deal exit on Thursday night is still possible, so contingencies remain in place. In reality, it seems highly unlikely that we will have left by the time I write again, and that begs some important questions. What will Boris do with that clock and when will they turn off those motorway signs?
I manged some reading during my break, including Eric Vuillard’s magnificent “The Order of the Day.” If you are one of the few people who follow me on Twitter, you will already know that I think it is the type of book that the national curriculum was designed for. It is a tale of ego, arrogance, stupidity and high farce in 1930s geopolitics. That is enough to tell you that I found the parallels between the world back then and the situation we have made for ourselves now, stark. One critic called it a black comedy, but the darkness absorbed many of the laughs for me. It runs to just 129 pages and is sufficiently pacey to be easily consumed in one sitting. Next time the other half is away and (if applicable) the kids are in bed, get yourself a bottle of something very nice and crack on with it. If you are not a book person, let me ape John Crace’s digested, digested read in the Guardian Weekender, and point you to the last sentence on page 68. “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.”