ABHI Brexit Update: Our Disunited Kingdom
This week, my daughter presented me with what was, essentially, a business case for the procurement of accoutrements to turn her bedroom into a Winter Wonderland at Christmas. I think she gets the tinsel time fixation from me, and the organisation from her mother. I know we have Halloween and a Half Term to go before Santa comes, but it is actually only about 12 weeks before it is, sort of, OK to start putting up the decorations. Anyway, it cheered me up, and I am not sure about you, but I could do with cheering up at the minute. It is now officially autumn, it said so on the wireless the other day. Pitch black by half past eight in the evening, I have arisen in darkness every morning this week. Radio Five Live has become unlistenable. Tune in, and one tedious item about soccer is followed by another even more tedious item about soccer. Am I alone in being incapable of caring about the merits of Rovers’ new reserve ‘keeper? I am hesitating over putting the covers on the outside furniture, knowing that when it is done, that is it. No more hiding down the bottom of the garden in the swingy chair with Winston Graham and a tin of Dry Blackthorn.
But, I can hear you saying, I must have found some cheer in the events in the Westminster village this week. As a, supposedly, political animal, my loins should be well and truly girded by all the goings on. But I am reaching the conclusion that all this cut and thrust, bull and bluster, move and counter move is better suited to the script of the Thick of It or the West Wing, not the real world, with real things affecting the lives of real people. I was sent to bed at the weekend for my own protection, and that of our new television set. The late news was showing reruns of Michael Gove suggesting, a little too casually for my liking, to an incredulous Andrew Marr, that Her Majesty’s Government might choose to simply ignore any legislation passed that it did not like the look of. It is like we went to bed and woke up in 27BC. On Tuesday, I had one of those days containing meetings with people so clever they make your head hurt. Three of them. These were some of the leading thinkers on health and social care in our country. You would know their names if I told you. These folks are on it, and feature regularly in the more cerebral programmes on the broadcast media, and in the pages of the broadsheets. And you know what? They have all stopped following the news. One has his smart phone confiscated by colleagues when he gets to the office, as mention of Dominic Raab sends him into an uncharacteristic, yet uncontrollable rage. Another, a former BBC journalist of some renown, has recorded a bank of documentaries which he plays when the news comes on. The other said she had simply had enough.
If there is one thing I was cheerful about, it was that my miserable run of punditry abated somewhat. I had promised you that if Boris continued down the no deal line, the response of Parliament would be spectacular. And so it was. I also promised last time to try and make sense of this week’s happenings for you, although your view on what actually happened depends, largely, on where you were standing at the time.
I think it is fair to say that Boris did not have a very good time of it on the first day of the new term. His maiden Commons address as Head Boy was upstaged by the Conservative MP Phillip Lee, who used the opportunity to march symbolically across the floor to join the Lib Dems. With Lee, admittedly hardly a loyalist, went the Government’s majority. Johnson and Rees-Mogg banged on about how attempts to prevent a no deal were getting in the way of the good progress being made in negotiations. How they lied, oh how they lied. It was a pretty poorly kept secret that virtually no negotiations were happening, and in those that were, absolutely no new ideas were being advanced by the UK. And then Boris started losing votes. The Motion to allow MPs to take control of Parliamentary business, passed by a majority of 27 on Tuesday night, more than most had predicted. Boris responded in much the same way Cameron might have. Maybe it is an Eton thing. Cameron was a charmer too, albeit in a very different style to Johnson’s amiable fool act. Cameron was slick, polished, the kind of man you might expect to find selling you a motor car in an Aston Martin dealership. But when he started losing the arguments he quickly snapped, reverting to his sneering, bullying Flashman type. Boris lost it too on Tuesday night, pointing, shouting, doing his best to look angry, but he lacks Cameron’s steel, his ruthlessness. Boris’ lips quivered. His anger manifested itself as more like a child running away form the park with his ball, because the rough boys from the council estate were calling him names. Then, in a fit of pique and an act of monumental hypocrisy, he expelled the 21 Tory MPs who had dared to defy the Whip. I suppose he reckoned that since his majority had already gone, there was no harm in killing it off completely. Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke no longer recognised as Tories by their leader. Even I think that is a bit off. But gone also was Johnson’s authority.
The next day, a Bill, that we will now have to call the Benn Bill, after the admirable Hilary who tabled it, passed all its stages in the Commons. More defeats for Boris. He responded by attempting to use the the Fixed Term Parliament Act to call an early election. He needed two thirds of the House to agree, but he did not even get close. Defeated again. The perceived wisdom was that the Bill would face hours of filibustering in the Lords, but at 1.30am on Thursday morning an agreement was reached, and Benn’s Bill will now receive Royal Assent before Parliament is prorogued next week. MPs knew they had a week to act after Boris got all uppity, and they have succeeded. I am not sure how many defeats all that constitutes. Now we have entered a very serious game of Risk. It is why the Labour Party, which, since the Referendum, has been fixated on forcing an early General Election, turned up the opportunity to take one on Wednesday. It is also why the Tories in the Lords stood aside to allow Benn’s Bill to proceed.
Benn’s Bill is important in all of this because failing to take no deal off the table makes it ever more likely to happen. Unchecked, Boris could have come back from October’s European Council meeting with a “new deal.” It would have been lipstick. Meaningless. Parliament would have recognised it for what it was and rejected it, the clock would have ticked down, the legal default would kick in and we are out with no deal. Boris would have honoured his commitment to leave on 31st October, and the Brexiters would have been happy. No deal, for them, is not the Brexit they thought they had won. No deal provides a clean break from the EU, whereas Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and, indeed just about everything else suggested, mitigates against the likely economic disruption associated with Brexit, by staying close to existing arrangements. That is why the leavers do have a point, and why so many of them are comfortable with a no deal exit. On Wednesday Boris was calling Labour’s bluff. “Opt for an election on 15th October, watch me win, I will go to Brussels on the 17th and come back with a deal.” See above. Corbyn did not bite. So, allowing the swift passage of Benn’s Bill through the Lords keeps the option of an early election on the table, given that Corbyn said no election before legislation to thwart no deal. Bluff and counter bluff.
The opposition parties do not trust Boris and want to ensure that no deal is not possible without the explicit consent of Parliament. The wording of the Bill is significant in that regard. It requires that by 19th October, the PM will have passed a deal in Parliament, or managed to get MPs to agree to no deal, something they will not do. If this is not achieved, the PM must request an extension until 31st January 2020, something he has said he will not do. It even prescribes the wording of the letter the PM should write. That then is Labour’s counter play. Send Johnson to Brussels on 17th October, reject whatever worthless concessions the EU agree to, and send him back the following week begging consent for the extension. Then, with the PM humiliated and powerless, they call for an election. But that would not be the end of all this. An election is not the answer to what happens next with Brexit, rather the options would form the Manifesto commitments of the parties. For those currently in opposition, that is somewhere between a second referendum on a choice of Brexit options, and a second referendum to stop Brexit altogether. That is what our politicians will be thinking about in the coming weeks.
Of course, there is no certainty that an election would produce any certainty. Two of the last three, after all, have proved inconclusive, and how would you vote tomorrow? Part of the problem is our fixation with majority government. It is not something that bothers our European neighbours too much. In those countries, politicians seem to be able to get along with each other sufficiently to cooperate for the collective good. Can you imagine that in our Disunited Kingdom at the moment? I thought not.
Elsewhere this week, Brexit was firmly on the agenda at the NHS Expo, with NHS England’s EU exit strategic commander Keith Willett updating the audience on preparedness planning. HMRC have announced that 88,000 VAT registered companies are to be automatically enrolled for EORI numbers, which will enable identification by Customs authorities. And more trader readiness webinars for your diaries. Although not specific to HealthTech, useful updates will be provided on the movement of goods between the EU and the UK.