Sunday 25 November 2018

Come the Hour, Come the Woman?

We have now come to a crucial and critical political point in the United Kingdom. The European Union top end has approved the draft withdrawal agreement that, subject to European Parliament approval, can (from that end) become a treaty. It also needs sovereign parliaments in the twenty seven to agree, and, most crucially, the Parliament for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Normally the Democratic Unionist Party for Northern Ireland give the government ten positive votes: on this agreement they become ten negative votes. There are about ninety to a hundred negative or no votes in the Conservative Party for the whips to whittle down. I would not be surprised if upwards of twenty Labour MPs vote for the government, but the rest won't, including the Labour leavers who usually vote with the government. Only loyalist Tories, the government benches (probably depleted further) and those convinced the deal is the best under the circumstances will vote for. All others will vote against. The House of Lords is a certainty for its stance.

On this basis the vote is doomed; but, being a "meaningful vote", the government could bring it back. It would only lose again.

So what is the procedure after such a vote is lost? The first thing is that the government has to come to the House of Commons and make a statement. Nevertheless, there is real politics ahead, rather than just formal procedures, and no one has yet set out the scenario as I see it.

A problem is that with a 'Brexit failure' the Tories will not vote for a General Election and it won't get the two thirds majority as required by the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which also removed calling an election by the Prime Minister, a one time monarchical power held by the Prime Minister. There is not a majority for a second referendum, and no one would know the questions to ask or have the rapid mechanism available to decide these. A Tory Party leadership election takes time and would be riven by division.

Oh dear oh dear? What will happen. There is a road forward, and no one has set this out. it is based on the fact that there is no requirement for a party leader to be the Prime Minister, and who is Prime Minister remains a monarchical power, this is to say the Prime Minister can be anyone who will present to the House of Commons and carry the vote in the house.

So we have the formal statement. The government may pledge to find a way to present the agreement back. Suddenly those 48 letters appear, to have a vote against Theresa May, but she would still win because Tories cannot agree on anyone else.

However, what matters is that the Cabinet itself implodes. In effect, the Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond faction of the cabinet, along with Jeremy Hunt and more, realise there is a crisis of an unprecedented kind, and effectively the five exiters (plus) resign - to begin with. The exiters cannot themselves force a cabinet coup. They can be replaced.

Theresa May also goes; and in the chaos it takes someone with a plan and flexibility to come to the fore. I am suggesting Amber Rudd as the most likely, because she is new (again) into the Cabinet and has a recent history of talking cross-party and thinking out of the box. She can go out and bring people into the Cabinet across the board, picking people from the Labour right or 'remainers' (e.g. Liz Kendall, David Lammy) and from the SNP even and even Liberal Democrats to come in on what would be a non-Tory Cabinet simply to manage this one issue.

The plan would be to select across the House of Commons, bypassing the party system for the time being, among MPs to get what there probably is a majority for - an 'off the peg' EEA/ EFTA solution. Pulling in a 'Cabinet of National Unity' in this deep constitutional crisis could lead to a 'for now' acceptance that we need government and we need government to produce legislation (because motions and amendments are not enough to change the crash-out legislation in place at present.)

The EU will only extend Article 50 not for negotiation but for reconsideration. This includes the off the peg option, but it may also and further involve, after all, a referendum with a remain option.

The majority to allow this Cabinet to function, and a Prime Minister such as Amber Rudd to function, would be slim, transitory, and to the task in hand. Labour might support it in general if it has the referendum option in it.

The question will then be EEA/ EFTA or remain. There would not be a crash-out option: the rump government would be the means to prevent the crash-out by legislation.

After this comes about the rump government itself would collapse into a General Election, after all it would not simply be Tory failure.  If the two thirds still does not appear, the government itself could legislate to remove the Fixed Term Parliament Act and replace it by a simple majority: Henry VIII powers once removed don't go back. No one would accept a Prime Minister having monarchical powers to call a General Election again. After all, a lot of the fight over leaving the EU has been about not restoring monarchical powers to the Prime Minister and Cabinet (the executive branch).

In deep crisis, then, a Cabinet can draw on monarchical powers to produce a caretaker Prime Minister. There is government to produce and pass legislation necessary. All the dedicated Tory and few Labour exiters are sidelined. The result is we either stay in or go to the EEA/ EFTA solution.

Afterwards the country will be deeply divided and politically traumatised. Referenda do not bring people back together: they divide.

Years ago I blogged that the effect of the narrow 'leave' vote was Labour split first but the Tories would later. Had it been marginally to 'remain', the Tories would have split as its exiters went self-defined, even United Kingdom Independence Party. Now we see the Tories split, and it is equivalent to 1846 (repeal of the Corn Laws where the liberal end of the Tories proper formed the modern Conservative Party). The Tories are heading for electoral destruction for utter incompetence and causing all this in the first place. It does not mean Labour marching to the socialist tune either: the obvious opposition in the defiance to all this fetishising the referendum would be the Liberal Democrats, as one time Tory partners in government and thus a refuge for Tory votes (and where they are mostly second). A Labour government is most likely, but those centrist Labour MPs aren't going away, nor does it follow that being in a government of national unity will cost those who participated.

We are now heading for earthquake politics. This must be so when a government so obsessed by 'Brexit' and with an international agreement ready finds itself defeated. The need to avoid perceived disaster, the need for government to produce legislation after its collapse forces radical and unseen before measures, based on the available constitutional forms. This is why, out of the remains of the Cabinet, has to come leadership from the Cabinet, reaching into the wider House of Commons, to act to avert disaster back into the European Union.

A lesson will be learnt here about fantasy politics and realities: and Prime Ministers like David Cameron who cannot gamble a country on the basis of solving one Party's tribal politics. For this his party deserves to be destroyed.

By the way, given her majority in Hastings, Amber Rudd is unlikely to survive the next General Election. Nevertheless, Theresa May will have set the benchmark for 'doing public service' and on that model Amber Rudd (can be someone similar - but she has the contacts) can do public service until she then moves on in another career.

This political disaster was always coming. I predicted it as the means not to leave the European Union, and either I am right on this or we will have the next best thing. But the crisis is coming and it needs people with strong political stomachs.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Surely This Could Not Be a Treaty

The Cabinet has agreed the draft deal of the United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union. Wednesday evening Theresa May well after 7 pm came out and gave a very luke warm presentation, a small puff of white smoke, that agreement had been reached. The Cabinet meeting went on more than two hours over the expected time period.

Given what was known and assumed at the time before agreement, Nicky Morgan MP was prepared to consider it, even approve it, in a desire to 'move on' and consider all these problems in society receiving such little attention these days. This worried me, because it sounded like yet again the so-called 'Remainers' capitulating to something sub-standard. And of course a bird in the hand, a document that would be so difficult to tweak, to change, is better than a calamity of no deal. Theresa May also raised this 'binary' option into a 'tertiary' on, of no Brexit at all, as an alternative. The latter used to be her position.

I have tried to imagine what this agreement would look like as a treaty. It won't get there, of course, but what if it did? It means we have no political representation in the EU, an extendable transition period, a backstop that means a sort of customs union and Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union in effect.

What would future governments do with this? The trade agreement to be UK-wide must match Northern Ireland. Would they keep extending the transition period? Would the backstop be the model for the trade agreement?

This is like some or most of the advantages of being in the EU, without the political representation? What is the point of this?

There are reasons in political life why we let sleeping dogs lie, or get them to sleep again when they wake, and why the anti-EU sentiment had to be suppressed. We see it in Northern Ireland, now to be treated differently from the UK if this becomes a Treaty. These are deep ethnic and constitutional issues. Deep too were the resentments of austerity that were dumped on the political class via the 2016 referendum. The gamble of the EU referendum was made to solve a Tory Party problem, which was then able to exploit a damaged public and bring in moneyed interests to cause damage against a social market economy model of political co-operation. The referendum has been made 'sacred' by interests that want a raw economy, that will do down the very people they conned to vote for the future not in any ordinary person's interest.

But imagine future governments of different political persuasion inheriting this agreement as a binding treaty? What would they do? They would extend the transition period. They would have the backstop as a model for the trade agreement: it must be to preserve Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and even then this agreement makes Northern Ireland different. And how come Northern Ireland has the benefits of the EU Single Market when the other countries of the UK do not? Imagine UK firms leaving England, Wales and Scotland to set up in Northern Ireland!

Perhaps the Cabinet ministers opposing this decided to back it on the basis that it would fail anyway. They will, presumably, resign anyway in order to vote against it themselves. Chequers seems to be the model for this: agree one minute and resign the next.

The elements of this agreement do not add up. It's like saying, here is this half-baked, half-offering what you have, inadequate product, without political representation. It's about the best on offer, we are told. But as a treaty it would be ridiculous and no future government would want to work with this. Surely this is now obvious? Surely now politicians can do what politicians should and stop this altogether. We work within the EU because it is there, and because it gropes towards democracy compatible with sovereignty not in itself but among Member States, sharing and pooling sovereignty via EU institutions, such as its Parliament and, critically, building a body of law which gives certainty of governance.

We've had two and a half years of this experiment into what is possible and impossible, what is a calamity and what is a pipe dream, mental imaginings that do not equate to realities on the ground. It is time to realise that this experiment was a delusion, that nothing was ever on offer, and bring it to a close. Parliament can do this, and start to heal what Angela Merkel, a woman of deep democratic and liberal principle, brought up through the oppression of East Germany, recently described as a deep wound.

Brexit Crunch Pincer Movement

It was always going to come to this. I have blogged for about two years of a trajectory that meant a point of crisis arriving in Parliament. Here it is. As I write, Cabinet ministers have seen the Prime Minister one by one. They have a Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon. It is very difficult to believe that there will not be resignations. Cabinet ministers can be replaced, but it would add to the voting cost if they were.

There was a remarkable interview on C4 News with both Alistair Campbell and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the latter making it clear that the government have not got the numbers in Parliament. There are 51 of his lined up against, and then the remain faction against, set against about 20 Labour MPs or more who would vote for the government. Kenneth Clarke says he will vote with the government if (big if) borders are open across the UK for as long as it takes to get a trade deal (of the correct kind). Some so-called remainers would not agree, from the argument that we for so long would take EU rules but be out of decision making structures. We would become a satellite of the EU instead of an equal member -  vassal state. Kenneth Clarke seems to accept that this is the cost of a referendum to which he never agreed, and he did not vote for Article 50. Why he does not follow-through and uphold our membership of the EU I do not know.

We (likely) have a UK wide customs arrangement, but even though this is supposed to protect the open border within Ireland (and the rest of the EU), it will contain some extra provisions on alignment should the UK become too flexible regarding EU rules. Now the Democratic Unionist Party opposes this, but let's be clear: they have Northern Ireland as different when it suits them, not just on excise differences, and the like, but on maintaining opposition to equal marriage and abortion freedoms. The DUP have no consistent principles at all regarding the Union. The government should never have made an agreement with them regarding voting support - that is now unravelling.

The argument has always been simple. Being completely out of the EU is to be removed from a just in time industrial and continental business structure, of a sharing in economics that leads to a sharing in politics: shared culture, shared interests, getting over the historical scourge of nationalism. In the end, this is a project of citizenship, of slowly bringing together sovereign states in shared decision taking with citizens' rights and freedom to move around, principally in seeking employment. Europeans are a people who share a history, much of it unhappy.

To have the Customs Union and Single Market but removed from the politics is least painful but is the worst of all worlds: and here we are with a worse version than that.

The EEA/ EFTA option involves its own institutions, but it is also tied to EU decisions and is usually a condition for a country considering joining, not leaving.

The alternative is being in the EU and reforming it. Remember, the single market was a British Conservative Party pursuit and changed the EU in a more neo-liberal direction. It used to be a social market economy: Thatcher feared it was socialism by the international backdoor. We can go on reforming and democratising.

For a while now Downing Street has had a bunker mentality, believing it can fix this and fix that. One should never underestimate the ability of government to get its way. The government controls the parliamentary agenda, and has since the Blair government. It now timetables procedures, and long gone are attempts the extend and ruin the timetable. Secondly, an agreement is' boots on the ground', rather as people have learnt that the EU is 'boots on the ground'. This is why some twenty or more Labour MPs are likely to vote with the government. Labour leavers - 'Brexiteers' may well not! I have never quite trusted the Tory 'remainers' to deliver under pressure, but in recent months they have hardened their positions and Jo Johnson is an example of clarity of opposition.

 In that the Government holds the cards, the Government will try to make it a binary deal or no deal scenario, and thus the 20 plus Labour MPs may well grow in number. The number of remainer opposers on the Tory benches may well shrink. Nevertheless, the betting has to be that the draft agreement cannot get through Parliament.

What then? May would have to go, although she is likely to try and hang on. A Brexit Tory Prime Minister simply will not carry the Tory Party: it will be 1846 all over again.

We also have the uncertainty brought about by Jeremy Corbyn, who in Der Spiegel recently stated that Brexit cannot be stopped: the people voted to leave. Keir Starmer, the Shadow Exiting the European Union Secretary, says it can be stopped. This is itself a battle at the top of the Labour Party. It could well be that Jeremy Corbyn and his dream of one-nation socialism undermines everybody. At this point, many Labour MPs would indeed rebel, but maybe not enough. For someone who could not campaign to remain with David Cameron, it would indeed be odd if the Labour leadership called to support the deal. It seems so unlikely, this, but prepared to be disappointed by maverick politics, of which Corbyn has been a practitioner all his political life.

Somehow, Parliament has to become itself the executive because this is where the hole is going to appear. There would have to be a huge political realignment at a time of national crisis, perhaps to organise a second referendum, or, better still (or both), ram on the brakes. We may have a General Election, but one where the main unreconstructed parties offer no alternative to this slavish attachment to a Tory Party based advisory referendum. We need political leadership from the likes of Chuka Umunna and David Lammy, and across the political parties. It is done through amendments to legislation, but in many cases this is just inadequate. Primary legislation needs countering by other primary legislation, and it may well be a referendum on the deal/ no deal to stay in comes about. But the bunker mentality government says absolutely not.

This is why Parliament needs to take up executive responsibilities and find a way to sort this out. Let's see what happens in the coming days in this regard.