Thursday, 9 November 2017

Government paralysis risks a Brexit disaster

With each day bringing ever more peculiar political stories it is easy to take for granted the over-arching peculiarity shaping British government, as if it were a normal situation. That is to say, we have a minority government whose central and defining policy is to change fundamentally Britain’s economy and foreign policy in ways which will damage, and are already damaging, both; and this on the basis of the most extreme interpretation of a very narrow referendum result, itself conceivably influenced by a foreign power, an interpretation which is not supported by the majority of MPs, nor by half the cabinet, nor by the majority of the electorate and which the Prime Minister herself probably does not think is in the best interests of the country. I cannot think of a precedent in the history of Britain, or any other country, for such a situation. No matter how familiar these facts are we should never take them to be normal.

It is from this perverse situation that everything else flows, with cabinet ministers quite airily articulating their own version of what form Brexit will take so that (even leaving aside Priti Patel’s freelance adventures in diplomacy) Britain no longer has a functioning foreign policy, as Ian Dunt argued in an excoriating article this week. Meanwhile, having insisted that its 58 sectoral impact assessments, full of “excruciating detail”, must on no account be published since they would reveal the UK’s ‘negotiating hand’, the government now announces that, in fact, they do not exist. Which suggests either that on one of these points they were lying, or that the damage of publishing them would consist of revealing to the EU how little proper planning had been undertaken.

If the latter, it is, alas, likely that the EU are all too well aware of this. Indeed, there are widespread reports of growing frustration and bewilderment within the EU. Despite Britain’s frequent calls for quicker progress, this week’s talks are to be brief and, according the government, no more than a ‘stock taking’ exercise rather than substantive negotiations. A closely argued article by Jonathan Lis this week, based on high level contacts in Brussels, suggested that the EU is now coming to the view that a ‘no deal’ outcome, with all the chaos that entails, in March 2019 is more likely than not. And it is reported that a deadline of three weeks will be set for Britain to agree the terms of a financial settlement if there are to be talks about a transition agreement (itself a highly complex matter, as a new analysis by Professor Kenneth Armstrong discusses).

It hardly needs to be spelt out, but the reason why things are stalled is that the government can do nothing because as soon as it does it will fall apart (there have been rumours of a serious offer on the financial settlement, but nothing has happened yet). For that matter, The Times is today reporting (£) that Brussels are preparing for the British government to fall by the end of the year. I argued in my previous post that this must be a real possibility, underscored by the fact that the cabinet meeting was cancelled this week, apparently because of the depth of the political crisis and divisions engulfing it. If this doesn’t happen, then the paralysis will continue. But paralysis does not mean stasis, because each day that goes by brings March 2019 closer, and brings no deal closer. This, of course, is precisely what the Brexit ultras want and is the reason they continue to support May. The issue thus becomes whether and when the more pragmatic parts of the Tory party (and pragmatic in this context does not mean remainers or even soft Brexiters, it just means not belonging to the kamikaze tendency) are prepared to stand up and say that this ludicrous situation cannot continue, bringing the government down if needs be.

If that does not happen soon the damage will be huge. And yet if it does happen soon the Ultras will inevitably say that all would have been well had the government survived and continued on its kamikaze course. In those circumstances, a new government of whatever stripe might well continue on just such a course. So it may be that it is not until the damage – economic and political – really ramps up that there is any chance of the Ultras being discredited, if not in their own eyes then those of the public. Thus we are on a very perilous tightrope with no certainty, and perhaps only a slender chance, of getting to the other side more or less intact. If the government implodes too soon, the Ultras may still drag us to disaster; if it struggles on as it is for too long the disaster will arrive of its own accord and it will be too late to do anything about it.

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