Monday 16 July 2018

Reaching the EU Negotiation Dead End

It's mid-July and the final week of the House of Commons before the summer break is going to be eventful.

Consider this: even if Theresa May had achieved her majority to overcome the two wings of her party, she would still have been nobbled by the Irish question. The Irish question and subsequent partition has derailed British politics ever since. The 'no border' in Ireland or across the Irish Sea would have had the same result. The European Union, designed to bring countries together, underpinned the evolution of Irish unity and British unity too. We cannot leave. It is as simple as that.

The new effort will have to be improving the democratic machinery of the European Union: elect its President, give the European Parliament more powers, and retain important vetoes in the Council.

Why? Let's look at the final week of the full parliamentary season...

If the 16th July Daily Telegraph authored article is anything to go by, Boris Johnson's expected House of Commons speech will be platitudinous and hardly a call to a strategy. Who knows: perhaps he has a clue. Boris Johnson was never a card-carrying anti-European; he adopted this persona only in the light of David Cameron's gamble.

Had David Cameron lost the Scottish Independence referendum that followed Scottish National victory and policy in Scotland, he would never have done his own gamble with an EU in or out referendum. From then, until now, this was only ever an attempt to close down Tory Party division.

That referendum would never have decided it. Indeed what has followed has not and will not decide it. This will go on, even if we do leave, because how we leave will not then satisfy the divided land created from the Tory Party dispute source. The outers will want it cleaner as out, the inners will want to develop closer contact for a return back into the fold.

The Prime Minister's choreography at Chequers was no substitute for actual agreement. Once people are let out, normal behaviour resumes. Officials and ministers continue to resign, and two cabinet members are on resign-watch. The proposal, with its White Paper, is not good enough among remainers for business and co-operation (we leave political institutions but carry on economically) and far too compromising for the exiters. The proposal is a classic middle of the road option, that if you stand in the middle of the road among divided traffic lanes, you get run over.

Such a proposal, then, grinds into the ground rapidly. It lacks support, and the party three-line-whip system isn't strong enough to have Tory members support it sufficiently, when no one else will bale out this half-baked attempt to retain limited contact with the European Union.

By at last coming to a position, the government has found that there is no position. It turned over its cards, and lost.

So what happens now? This White Paper is a non-runner. The government might try to nip and tuck, but which way? If it tries to satisfy one side, it will lose the other. Because it cannot go either way, it may push this scheme into negotiations. But it will not survive a vote of the House of Commons or House of Lords.

We assume the exiter Tories are going to push amendments this week that will find their own 80 or so MPs maximum (let's see) vote for them, but no one else will. They will contribute to destroying the Tory Party as it presently stands, but they won't contribute to a solution.

There are remain amendments too, that have more cross-party support, but the Tory remainers welcomed the government White Paper in order to isolate the exiters. For the time being, then, they may once again prove to be unreliable for business in goods and services and vote with the government. Time after time the remain Tories have shown an absence of will, and have caved in to assurances soon withdrawn, and they may well do so again. If so this means that they won't vote for the European Economic Area option that would put the UK into the European Free Trade Area. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway are in EFTA; the EEA unites these with the EU by following basic rules to enable goods, services, capital, and persons to move freely about the EEA. We could move from the EU to EFTA with minimal disruption, but Tory remainers might faff around with the government's half-baked proposal.

Meanwhile the Labour Party has a fantasy that it can have a customs union outside EFTA because we will then go to EU meetings to influence EU policy regarding the Customs Union proper. That's not how it works: there is full membership, the EU, and associated membership, the EFTA. EFTA members already have their needs considered with the jealously guarded EU Single Market and Customs Union. Many Labour MPs also think Labour's policy is a fantasy, and simply say go for staying within the EEA.

The exiters think that, because there is Article 50 and the ticking clock, and the Leaving the EU law now in place, that enough disruption will lead to the crash-out: leaving altogether at the end of March 2019: no transition, no nothing. The disruption this will cause will be like hitting a great depression: business processes will simply cease to function.

The Prime Minister has hinted that if her approach does not go forward, due to lack of support, then we may not leave the EU at all. How does that work?

Would the government do this? It means telling the EU to stop the clock, and means emergency legislation to overcome the law as it now is, that we leave the EU in March 2019. But if the government is suffering resignations now, it will have a torrent of them if the government goes ahead to stay in the EU. The EU no doubt will faciliate this, but not if it means carrying on with endless and pointless negotiations because the UK is incapable of making up its mind. If we stay, we stay.

One possibility is a referendum on the deal. But what if there is no deal? The government cannot make a deal alone without likely legislative back-up. Here I disagree with Liberal Democrat policy and the clamour for a second referendum: a second referendum is no more likely to heal divisions and provide legitimacy than the first one. A three-way referendum - deal, leave, stay - will simply cause confusion. Don't we learn any lessons?

If the government cannot function to put the brake on, the House of Commons through significant figures within it can. The Dominic Grieve's of this place will have to negotiate rapid votes cross-party to ram on the brakes, even as the government disintegrates towards a likely General Election, one unlikely to solve anything because of one split party competing against another split party, unless the Liberal Democrats were to rise like a pheonix (not likely).

If I call myself a remainer, it is a term I do not like. I never regarded the referendum as legitimate, because it didn't attempt to confirm a government changing the constitutional position. The Scots said, 'We are going independent, please confirm the action.' The people did not. Here there was no decision, only a ridiculous negotiation that achieved nothing pre-vote. So my approach has always been about staying in the European Union. MPs are representatives in the House of Commons and this is where sovereignty is demonstrated: as an MP I'd have been voting consistently to stay in the European Union.

The logic was always this. Come out, and we lose economic and cultural sharing thrugh institutions: such is how things are but also they are good - they bind peoples together and make us one. However, come out to EFTA and we are rule takers and have no formal representation, and therefore we may as well stay in. Being in the Council of Ministers, the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, makes sense. It makes more sense than sitting outside of these just taking the latest decisions others make.

Should we stay in the EU then many will cry foul. There will be a lesson here about facts on the ground. The Conservative Party will be shattered and lose a lot of support, and the Labour Party will hardly shine in comparative glory. One outcome may well be the division of the UK into four countries by a collapse of legitimacy. We will become our own confederate EU-like kingdom.

Cameron took his gamble and did not realise how bound we were to the EU, and how fragile is the UK union. His stupidity has likely destroyed his own party and the UK it once represented.

Monday 9 July 2018

Europe Destroying this Government

So, Sunday night and David Davis has gone. I was saying to my friends in the pub that political choreography on the day is no replacement for actual achievement. They were more cynical and saw it in terms of individuals and careers. I said it is legitimate for Gove to represent the Cabinet even if he is only the Environment Secretary: however, that he has sold the deal in public now does compromise him because he can hardly say, "I was talking collectively." I'm surprised Davis went, even though he had become tired of his job. It means, probably, Liam Fox will go, though he was 'in favour' even before the weekend. He can say that he disliked what happened. How long before Boris Johnson goes? He called the proposal "polishing a turd" and then under threat of restored Cabinet unity said he approved. He is so compromised now, given that he did his escape during the Heathrow expansion vote. Andrea Leadsom is, at the moment, a non-entity.

I said to my friends that Michael Gove put the strongest pro-Brexit case he could to Andrew Marr to appeal to that side of the argument for something that had this Combined Customs Territory and Common Rule Book. He was disingenuous about Parliament later changing regulatory alignment rules because it all will be fixed by Treaty. 'Fake Sovereignty' was a question or suggestion that rankled Gove by his reaction.

Coupling Robert Peel (Corn Laws) and the Irish question as historical examples matters. It is the Irish question intensity of the European division that leads to a Robert Peel like split. The deal for a proposal satisfies no one, and if implemented would have each side negotiating after the event and causing the splits to go on and on. Indeed the unravelling can happen now.

David Davis is a kind of Geoffrey Howe, as a sort of loyal dogsbody who lost much of his autonomy to negotiate to Number 10; the only difference is that May didn't criticise him through her Press Spokesman, like Thatcher did of Howe. Davis might get the votes to be Tory leader, but a good number of his party simply will not follow him. They will say he was disloyal to the Cabinet deal at best, and at worst there are more important matters to fix like a more European Economic Area solution.

With the Fixed Term Parliament Act it does not follow that May's government unravelling leads to a General Election: many MPs will think that the House of Commons is just right as it is to take a lead and go for an EEA solution. A weak government of any party or parties may simply exist to finish this particular job - with only 6 weeks of negotiating time to spare after the summer recess. If a General Election does come before meaningful negotiations, there will be a need to ram on the brakes, and that way may be the way to actually staying in the European Union. This General Election will have to be about this, with every MP putting their cards on the table.

It has always been about Tory Party politics, and Theresa May has now run out of Tory Party. Regardless of the Democratic Unionist Party propping her up, the right wing Europhobes are about to ditch her, and the Europhiles will now probably have to vote for the Customs Union aspect of the trade bill coming along.

Commentators are hardly worth the money their newspapers charge. They were saying it has been a Mrs May victory. No it wasn't and it never was. By plunging for one side, she will lose both. Harold Macmillan had his 'Night of the Long Knives' but for Mrs May it is her night of bunging up the breaks in the dyke.

Saturday 7 July 2018

The Unending Politics of the Proposal Deal

What is it, a Combined Customs Territory? And we could have a Common Rule Book for goods and agriculture.

It's not going to work, is it, because goods and agriculture increasingly come with services, and services are excluded. Is this a plot against the City of London, to cut it down to size?

Britain was the prime country to push for a single market, at a time when the EU was more dirigiste (combination of markets and planning, and plenty of oversight manipulation). It needs free trade and free movement of people and capital. The people side of this proposal deal will also have some sort of agreement for people being able to move back and forth between the EU and the UK.

So these wheels will be reinvented as circles with square bits in them, and incomplete. The wheels on the bus will go round, hit inevitable potholes on the way, and, by construction, fall off.

In the single market you can have free movement of people, but they can be registered and after three months of no job they go home. Belgium does this. Belgium is in the Shengen area.

The immediate politics of this is that the Cabinet Ministers went to Chequers, lost their mobile phones, and around 7 pm while still inside, Mrs May was outside giving the 10 Downing Street interpretation. The taxi firm they could use had gone bust, and no ministerial cars were available for resigned Cabinet Ministers. Then Mrs may wrote to them all to say Cabinet Collective responsibility, freed up at the referendum, was now back in place - as if it had been suspended all this time!

The substantive content will be in the White Paper, out next Thursday. Who will control the White Paper: presumably the Department for Exiting the European Union, but, really, again, 10 Downing Street. But between now and then, some ministers could resign, or, if they misbehave, get sacked. Collective Cabinet responsibility is a two-way street, it only happens if the malcontents in public, who fail to promote the proposal agreement, get sacked. They might not go at the weekend, but they might from Thursday.

The wider politics is this: that the whole business started and has been all about Tory Party politics. The EU referendum was called because the Tory Party could not make up its mind and Cameron had his gamble. He lost. A referendum should only be used for confirmation of a government position on a major constitutional issue (as in Scotland, where the 'no' vote stopped independence and a 'yes' would have put paid to any more referenda).

Instead of being a considered question and advisory towards a very complex issue, the referendum result on a narrow binary majority to leave caused most politicians to give an almost sacred status to the referendum result. Nevertheless, in the Tories in particular, the division was not solved by the binary question, but it has just gone on, and every move Theresa May has made i the last two years has been based on the balance of powers, first in the Tory party and, since the General Election, increasingly in the House of Commons. She started off wishing to stay in, she then slipped into power and was transformed into a hard exiter (I never believed it: read back in these blogs), and she has since enjoyed the European Council meetings and rowed back to this point. This is where, she thinks, she can just about get away with it but for forty or so Tories. Should these Tories object she can soften further to the point where Labour MPs by and large won't object, to gain a majority a different way. She thinks. (It meets the Democratic Unionist Party test of UK wide consistency.)

We know that the Budgets have a habit of being a tremendous success and then unravelling within forty-eight hours. This could well be similar. Even if it gets past next Thursday, Tories will fidget and get exasperated. For many, this has been their life goal to get out, and get out completely, and it is slipping away. They could be very badly behaved.

Remember that Boris Johnson was never one of these: before the campaign he was umming and arring over which side to support: he took his decision partly to separate himself from David Cameron, to beat him, and he has been on this side ever since. But he may want to try and recover his falling reputation, not helped by his escape from the Heathrow expansion decision recently. I do not know yet whether fisheries fall into agriculture, but to have common standards is to also have a price system and supply control that is the Common policies for agriculture and fisheries. If so, Gove's triumphalism only this week on the British instead of the EU limiting fish catches and boats in our waters (seeking access to other waters, surely) will look hollow. Will he go? Gove is often considered one who thinks we can alter things later: but not when a treaty is signed. One detects he was behind the caveat that the Houses of Parliament can disagree on common tariffs and positions: not if there is a treaty, it cannot - the end point. This does all end in a treaty between the EU and the UK. Liam Fox will not be able to do trade deals; Canada's limited deal was because there are regulatory differences. We will be bound to EU rules in a Common Rule Book, and the EU guards its Customs Union and Single Market as single entities very jealously including the role for the European Court of Justice.

The bizarre thing is that this is unlikely to satisfy the Tory remainers anyway - simply because it is so complicated and a hotch-potch. It will take ages to set up, needing a longer transition period. The EU does not want to extend such a period either, so the hotch-potch becomes impractical - in advance.

None of this is the negotiation with the EU. This is before we even get there.

Once again, this is like Irish nationalism before partition (indeed after as well - it is the Irish Question that has derailed so much of May's fantasy sloganeering of 'Brexit means Brexit'). It would have surfaced and nobbled her even if she had achieved a majority to overcome both wings of her party. Why the comparison? Because the Irish issue kept coming back to governments this way and that, finally getting a partition compromise which, in the very long run of things, needs revisiting.

If we come out of the EU inadequately, we will have everlasting division, especially in the Tory party, between those who would go back in, and those who would come out more completely. And this would be reflected in the wider body politic. The EU issue will start to affect Labour.

And a word about the Liberal Democrats. Their policy is a referendum on the deal with an option to remain in. This is a manifesto policy for opposition. Do we really seriously believe that, say if the Tories collapsed and the Lib Dems took power, that a Liberal Democrat government would negotiate us out of the EU? Of course not. It's position to Monsieur Barnier would be so say, "Sorry for wasting your time, we wish to stay in, and we carry on as we are." General Elections trump referenda. The General Election of 2017, that no one won, changed the referendum impact: it made the softer exit more likely. A General Election can also make us stay in. Not quite sure how (beyond the political earthquake) - but some Tories and exit voters are saying that, in future, given what has happened so far, they will stop voting. Well, many others have turned eighteen, and there are people who now say we must have representation in EU-wide decisions. They say EU principles for sharing and peace are worth fighting to retain. So this tide could turn, and could do so fairly quickly. It is time for the politicians who want to stay in to step up to the plate, and point out that this 'deal' for a proposal is a dog's breakfast: if we are in, we join in with representation and decision taking.

Friday 6 July 2018

How Leaving the EU Could be Like Peel and Ireland

Friday July 6th and the whole Cabinet arrives at Chequers at 10 am and expect to stay until 11 pm (stay overnight too, surely).

Thus the media should know about midnight what has been agreed, by official means at least, although presumably after 11 pm the Cabinet Ministers will receive back their mobile telephones.

This whole business has already reached a level of farce unseen in political decision making in modern times. It may not be the end of kicking the can down the road.

Theresa May's advisors came up with another plan. Michael Gove tore up the previous version. No one liked it, and this one has notable regulation alignment restrictions for goods if not services.

Now, last time there was a possibility of a push towards the 'soft' exit of the European Union, when reassurances to 'remainers' were followed by government betrayal, after which the House of Lords returned the Exiting the EU Bill. The remainers, instead of voting through the crucial meaningful vote amendment, voted against their own amendment on another promise. Never trust a Tory, was my reaction, although even then a few voted for this amendment.

I am unmoved, and still hold the view that this process should be stopped and Parliament has the right as representatives to do it. Armed with the facts and prospects, Parliament has the right to view the referendum as flawed (well, cheating also happened, says the Electoral Commission) and anyway advisory. New realities mean new decisions. It does not need a referendum on the deal; the proper process may involve a General Election - although it is unlikely to resolve matters given the low competence of the Labour leadership. This is a government that could not organise cups of tea with tea and boiling water available, and yet Labour is behind in the polls. No wonder when Corbyn leads all six questions on buses when critical questions face the future. Buses are important, but there is a timetable and bus stops for everything. Labour's policy on leaving the EU is its own fantasy island of 'a customs union' when there is one already.

The government's policy seems to be now wanting to leave the club while staying in, whereas Labour's policy is to stay in the club while leaving.

Jacob Rees Mogg says the government controls the House of Commons agenda, so therefore if there is no agreed government position we crash out anyway due to existing legislation and take on World Trade Organisation terms. Others say, no way, that the House of Commons will find the means, via the House of Lords too, to ram on the brakes. A House of Commons made up mainly of soft-leavers won't allow a minority to get its way on a procedural matter.

We need to ram on the brakes. Here is why.

If we leave, but are tied to EU institutions, the exiters will cry foul and won't give up pushing to leave altogether. At the same time, if we end up in crisis, or end up as this 'vassal State', the stayers will want our re-entry.

One hears some so-called remainers say, let us come out, but let us be in a position where we are the equivalent of those in the half-way house where we can apply to go back in.

One also hears some leavers say, let us at least come out, after which we can complete the job in years to come. So we come out with joint regulation and then break the treaty that would bind us.

In other words, if we come to a cabinet decision tomorrow, and it is a half-way house of some kind, the European issue will go on and on and on. Some will say that the referendum decision was ignored and there could be a crisis of legitimacy (due to misrepresenting the role of a referendum). Others will say it was Cameron's catastrophe and should never have happened.

Two possibilities to look out for tomorrow and Saturday. One is there is no agreement, and the can is kicked down the road again. The leavers (for reasons above) may be happy with this. The government can then go to the House of Commons and House of Lords and face defeat; a clever government leadership would make the House of Commons steer the ship, but it may have to become this secondary executive.

The second possibility is resignations of key exiting government ministers. Apparently, Liam Fox has been bought off already, although he has colleagues that may think otherwise. My view is let them go. The Tories might challenge the PM as leader then, but at the same time a reformed government can still introduce legislation, which may then be even softer based on a supposed House of Commons majority, although Labour leaders may not facilitate.

(This is why, if the House of Commons takes control, it is both front benches that will have to be circumvented, or forced to follow the lead of the MPS.)

Whatever happens, this is a might mess, and if the brakes are not applied, if we do not actually stay in the European Union and discuss now, this will become another Ireland, a rock on to which government after government will fall apart. The Robert Peel fashion split could well happen again, simply because everything stays unresolved.

The period of prosperity and stability that we had inside the European Union will be over, and Britain will become a very confused place. Expect then to see Scotland become independent, and the North in Ireland join a more comfortable-with-itself south, inside the EU.