Another precious week has passed with no sign of progress on Brexit, as everyone waits for next week’s next parliamentary vote.
Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, gave another speech on the Brexit debacle at UCL on Tuesday night (stream on YouTube) . Here are some highlights that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere:
[The EU] has never for one minute believed that the UK would go through with “no deal” as it is self-evidently a lot worse—in economic terms—for the UK than the deal, and a lot worse for the UK than it is for the EU. They can see we might just do it by accident, indecision or incompetence. But not on purpose. The EU side has, however, persistently underestimated the accident risk.
The last point seems crucial: the EU underestimated the chances that the UK government would make such a pig’s ear of everything that they could end up crashing out by accident even though they (the UK government) want to conclude a deal. That seems consistent with the reactions we’ve seen from the EU (and indeed the entire world) when the UK government has triggered Article 50 prematurely, thrown away its majority in an unnecessary snap election, stalled and wasted time at every turn, and lost the vote it needed to get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament. Thirty months ago UK governments were widely perceived as competent. Now?
If you drive the bus at full speed towards the cliff edge, though, with the intention of braking just in time to avoid going over, but misjudge and end up doing so anyway, is it really an “accident”? Or is it a reckless gamble that you happened to lose?
The Prime Minister’s proposed deal is now suffering precisely the same fate at the same hands as did continued EU membership in the referendum. It is there: concrete and attackable. Everyone can specify what they do not like about it. Which is plenty. To both sides, it seemingly looks worse than what we are leaving. You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose, as the saying goes. And the campaigners—on both sides, because this applies in spades to the Remain lobby now too—still vastly prefer to carry on campaigning in poetry than having to govern in prose.
His point about the Remain lobby preferring not to “govern in prose” might apply to some of the indecision around how to get Parliament to haul us back to remaining, but surely the destination is as prosaic as it gets: it’s the status quo ante.
We are deep in the Alice in Wonderland world of UK politics where the vast bulk of the peculiarly antiquated debate about our trading future has been focussed on goods and tariffs issues. Where tariffs are, outside agriculture, very low with very few exceptions. Where services represent 80% of the economy and tradeable services much the fastest growing element of our trade; where barriers to services trade are all about regulatory architecture. And where the difference between commitments which are at Single Market levels and those in an FTA on Canadian lines could represent the loss of a very substantial percentage of our current total services exports to the EU.
This is why May’s deal and anything close to it is almost as bad economically as no deal. Not as bad, because at least a deal on goods means we can eat, but without being able to deliver services into the EU an awful lot of UK people won’t be able to eat anyway. Is the government in any way prepared for the spike in unemployment that this will cause, even if it’s spread out over a 21-month transition period under the Withdrawal Agreement?
One frustrating element of the current situation is that if we do crash out and find ourselves wanting to open free trade agreement negotiations with the EU within, ohhh, I’d give it about a week, their baseline (quite reasonably) will be for the UK to cough up the £39 billion and implement the backstop. So we’ll be right where we are now, except haemorrhaging money and people.
Later in his speech Rogers made another point about how the EU misread the UK government’s position going into all of this:
This has frankly rather bemused EU elites who are used to a British political elite who they think, basically correctly, never really thought about the EU in anything other than purely economic, mercantile terms. Suddenly, you are dealing with a UK elite which seems not to be deriving its negotiating positions from any analysis you recognise or remember of the UK’s vital national economic interests.
He talks about how EU leaders need to think hard about what comes next; the situation is looking worse by the day, and everyone needs to tread carefully. Which doesn’t imply that they’ve been wrong to approach the negotiations as they have to date: they believed, quite justifiably, that No Deal would be a disaster that surely no rational government would countenance, and their negotiating strategy was predicated on that. Perhaps it’s now dawning on them that they might not be dealing with a rational government.
But what would that mean for their strategy going forward? Rogers doesn’t say, but I’m guessing it still isn’t “give the UK whatever it wants”. Just... keep looking for ways to limit the damage.
This Mirror column shows how impossible the parliamentary timetable is between now and 29 March, whether it’s Deal or No Deal. Something’s got to give.
This point might even make an effective (non-patronising) message to wavering Leavers. “Parliament needs to change forty years’ worth of laws to get Britain ready for no deal or for May’s deal. There’s no way this lot are up to it. Let’s stop Brexit until we’ve fixed Parliament.” Who knows, we might even get proportional representation out of it. (Given that current events might lead us to overturn one or two far more significant and more recent referendums, who knows what else might be up for grabs? It’s not likely, I suppose, but a man can dream.)
Chris Grey on the poisonous politics of betrayal: “The logic of ‘betrayalism’ leads ... to a never-ending circle of purism, suspicion and betrayal. Once the betrayals start, they never end.”
A gobsmacking moment in which Breitbart editor James Delingpole reveals that he doesn’t understand the WTO rules he wants to see the UK trapped in. Delingpole’s got form for cluelessness, but it’s still staggering that he’d go on the Beeb to parade it so spectacularly.
Yesterday was possibly the lowest I’ve felt about this whole mess since 24 June 2016. After the ridiculous series of votes on Tuesday I can’t allow myself to believe that Parliament will do any better on 14 February; and it now seems unlikely that any desperate last-minute scramble will prevent us from crashing out. I wish I could believe that there’s still some reason for optimism—that once changes to the Withdrawal Agreement are definitively ruled out, enough MPs will choose no Brexit over no deal—but there just seems too high a chance that they won’t.
I’ve been following James Patrick on Twitter for quite some time, as a counter-balance to my more hopeful moments that the parliamentary politics of a minority government could prevent a hard Brexit (like May’s deal) or leaving with no deal. He’s long said that we’re headed for no deal, and should start stockpiling if emigration isn’t an option. I’ve resisted the idea, because I didn’t want to become a doomsday prepper stocking his bunker, like some libertarian fantasy out of a Heinlein novel. It won’t just be a few tins that make the difference: it’s the gas for our cookers, and the petrol for our cars, and what everyone else around us has done that will shape our lives.
But it’s getting harder to resist the temptation to retreat to an underground room lined with bottled apricots. This is like living with Mutually Assured Destruction in the early ’80s. A different kind of doomsday; but doom enough.
Added by Rory on 31 January 2019.