Week in Review: A deal is still the most likely outcome

Lots of noise in the Brexit process this week. The EU and the British team are now operating with abject suspicion of each other. Boris Johnson invented the threat of a food blockade to justify an assault on the treaty he'd only just signed. Tory MPs in the Commons rose one after another to insist that the EU was not negotiating in "good faith". It all looks terrible.

But a deal is still, even in this context, the most likely outcome. That's not to say it'll happen. No.10 is really quite deranged in its European policy and it is liable to make some very foolish decisions indeed. But the basic incentives have not changed: a deal is still in everyone's interest.

For the EU, no-deal is a failure. It is not the kind of failure they want to be associated with. That doesn't mean they're going to trip over their red lines, but they will likely put this week's antics into the 'domestic showboating' category and they will offer compromises - indeed, they already have done - if it gets a deal over the line.

The same must ultimately be true for the UK. The public will not realistically look at the content of the deal, any more than it paid much attention to the content of the withdrawal agreement. In the media narrative, events will be simply defined as 'deal good' and 'no-deal bad'. For a government reeling from accusations of incompetence from all sides, no-deal would be a disaster.

If there were really firm issues of Brexit principles at stake, maybe it would be different. But in truth the divisions here are not unbridgeable. On fisheries and level playing field provisions on labour and the environment, the eventual landing zone is perfectly visible. It's state aid that is the problem. The EU has - implicitly - backed down from asking for full EU law and European Court of Justice jurisdiction when it asked the UK to provide the details of its envisioned state aid regime. Now it is up to the UK to provide it. In reality, all it needs to do is hand it to the Competitions and Markets Authority under the same principles operating now.

And why wouldn't they do that? The existing state aid regime is flexible and fair. During covid, for instance, it has bent with the requirements of the period. There's nothing in it stopping Britain from achieving economic success. Would the government really throw away the chance of a deal for that? It seems inconceivable - not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of its own interests.

Anyone on the Remain side of the debate should want a deal. There is a temptation to go the other way. We can all see the story line play out already. A deal will be used to attack Remainers. Even though it is a pitiful thing - severing a frictionless relationship with our biggest trading partner in exchange for a series of possible future deals which anyway would never make up for it - it will be projected as a triumph. It will be treated as proof that the Brexiters knew what they were doing. Managing a cheap, highly unambitious deal will be interpreted as negotiating brilliance. And worst, No.10 will likely try to portray Johnson's juvenile threats this week as the moment the EU blinked.

None of this will be appetising. But no-deal would be worse. The government would take damage for competence, sure, and the Brexit project will have been shown to fail. But that will come with severe consequences to people's lives. And who will Johnson and Dominic Cummings blame? Not themselves. They'll blame the EU.

Perhaps that won't work. But what if it does? Public antipathy towards Europe could grow, amid chaos and significant material decline. Britain and Europe would have no working relationship to operate from, so they would likely bunker down into a blame game typified by animosity and denunciations.

A deal, on the other hand, even a small deal like this one, offers a springboard for more cooperation, on things like financial services and data. It provides a framework which can be built on. It makes it easier, when you really get down to it, for the UK to rejoin the EU sometime in the future. No-deal might show why Brexit was so foolish, but it would make reversing it harder.

This might all be wrong. No.10 behaves in the most unconscionably stupid ways. It is so beset with unchallenged tribalist sci-fi zeal that it could well sabotage its own political interests for an imaginary long-term economic strategy which it will never achieve. You should never underestimate their capacity for egregious error. And talks often create their own momentum, develop their own narrative of betrayal and counter-betrayal, which can push people towards outcomes they did not intend to pursue.

But taken on the level of incentive, most people - on both sides, across the spectrum - want a deal. And when incentives align like that, they usually come to fruition. We should hope they do. The alternative would be very ugly indeed. And no amount of vindication will make up for it.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out now.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Shock and outrage as parliament votes to put government above the law

No-one expected it to be defeated. But to see the internal market bill pass its first parliamentary hurdle was still a sobering moment. The governing party of the UK was voting to give itself the power to break the law. Something fundamental in British constitutional life was disintegrating. One of the most basic of all the political principles that held the country together was coming unstuck.

There's a good chance that, even if the bill eventually passes, the powers within it will never be used. It's quite possible that these proposals are some kind of deranged and counterproductive negotiating strategy. Or - more likely - they are intended for a domestic audience, to beef up the sense of conflict ahead of concessions with the EU, so it is easier for No.10 to later present a deal it as if it is a negotiating victory.

But even if that's the case, parliament did something alarming today. It gave its initial consent to handing the government powers to operate outside of the law. Britain began the process of foregoing its status as a civilised power which operates on liberal principles.

The powers in the bill are very extensive. The legislation does not, as the government has insisted, give ministers the power to break the law in "specific and limited" circumstances. They are much more expansive than that. In the area of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the bill allows ministers to pass provisions which have effect "notwithstanding any relevant international law". It states that these actions cannot be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of incompatibility with international or domestic law. These are general powers, not specific ones.

They will not require any consent from parliament either, once this bill is passed. For the first six months of the legislation taking effect, they will operate according to the 'made affirmative' mechanism for statutory instruments. That means that ministers don't have to check with MPs or peers. They can just do it. Parliament then has 40 days to annul them. But even if they do, the government can just put the regulation down again.

There is, in essence, nothing to stop the government doing whatever it wants - without parliamentary support, and without any respect for domestic or international law. It is, simply put, the largest expansion of executive power we've seen in our lifetime.

In order to defend these proposals, Boris Johnson went to the Commons and issued a series of lies. He insisted that the deal which he himself had promoted as wonderful was in fact terrible and full of "ambiguities". He said the EU was no longer acting in good faith, when in fact it was his own behaviour which manifestly fell within that category.

Finally, he told the Commons, in the most chest-thumping Churchillian tones he could muster, that the EU was threatening a food blockade which would present the UK from sending goods to Northern Ireland. In fact, the protocol has mechanisms to prevent that sort of occurrence, and anyway, this bill has no clause to stop it if it did.

"If the prime minister wants to tell us there's another part of this bill I haven't noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of the blockade - he can," Labour's Ed Miliband, in a coruscating speech, said. "I'll give way. He can tell us. I'm sure he's read it. I'm sure he knows it in detail, because he's a details man. What clause protects the threat he says he's worried about?" Johnson refused to answer.

There was no way in which any fair minded observer could accept the government's argument, but of course the majority of Tory party rose, like some kind of half-functioning battery-operated toy, to parrot the lines the prime minister had given them. Europe was not acting in good faith. The bill was necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement. A food blockade was a clear and present danger.

Only a few respectable voices on the Tory benches held firm. "Some level of bureaucracy was, and is now, the foreseeable and obvious consequence of the withdrawal agreement we signed," Stephen Hammond told his fellow party MPs. "That point was highlighted at the time, but it was justified as a way we would move onto the next phase."

It is an indication of how catastrophically the standard of politics have fallen that this was to be considered in any way notable. All Hammond was doing was reminding parliamentarians of the things they themselves had said just months ago. And yet, at this stage, it was the height of bravery. To retain memory, to be consistent on the things one has said, was to rebel against the day-to-day functioning of the government and the central principles on which it operates.

But in truth, even the rebellion was weak. In most cases, rebel MPs seemed to be drawn towards Bob Neill's amendment, which will be debated and voted on next week. This does not reject the powers which the government was giving itself. It simply requires another parliamentary vote before they could come into force. On the level of principle, it is insufficient. On the level of political reality, it is hopeless. It does not take a stand for the principle of international law. And by authorising the powers in principle, it makes any future vote on activating them a near-certainty.

The only real surprise was why the government didn't just go ahead and accept the amendment. After all, it imposed almost no restriction on its actions and was notable only really as evidence for how obedient and morally broken the Conservative party has become. It's likely that next week the government will accept the amendment. And that, in and of itself, indicates how ineffectual it is.

You can judge the severity of your circumstances by the propositions which are expressed and the resistance to them. In both cases, this was a dispiriting spectacle. The government proposition was appalling - as irresponsible as any passed in our lifetime, sold on a pack of lies. But the resistance was just as depressing: a half-hearted shrug of reluctance rather than the all-out opposition demanded by the moment.

If any good comes of what is happening here, it is that some of those observing it will recognise the depths to which this government will sink and the absolute moral imperative of removing it from power. But that is really the only bit of hope one can salvage from what we saw today.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this week.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: Getting smart about the culture war

We have the basic picture now. For as long as they are in power the Boris Johnson-Dominic Cummings administration will seek to divide us into warring tribes to sustain its electoral coalition. If it keeps politics fractured along cultural divides it thinks it can maintain the 40% support it enjoys, composed of Tory and Leave voters.

This week's events are the latest iteration of that approach. The clear plan was to present the internal markets bill and accept - even promote - that it would break international law. Labour would then attack the government and the EU would kick up a storm, perhaps even walk away from the talks. No.10 could get into its safe space - fighting the Europeans abroad and Remainers at home.

This much was obvious from Johnson's visible befuddlement when Labour leader Keir Starmer did not bring the issue up at PMQs. "He is totally silent on the bill that obsesses the rest of his backbenchers," Johnson spluttered. "He does not want to offend the huge number of his backbenchers who want to overturn the verdict of the people."

It was a telling moment. Johnson's culture war gun was loaded and he had to fire it, but there was no target to aim at. And there are lessons to learn there. Specifically: when to fight the culture war, who should fight it, where we fight it and how we fight it.

There are moments when you must fight. This was true during the referendum campaign - although most of us were too slow to realise that we were in a culture war by then. It was true during the torrid years between the campaign and Johnson's election victory. Back then, Brexit could be stopped or at least made more moderate. Free movement and deep UK-EU trading and political connections could be salvaged. There was a slim Tory majority up to 2017 and a hung parliament after that. Things were possible.

The same is true now for issues like the European Convention on Human Rights, asylum policy or judicial review. We must fight to preserve people's rights where they are at risk and we can still do something about it.

But on Brexit, things are now different for Labour. Brexit has happened. There is an 80 seat Tory majority. There is nothing Starmer can do to stop it or to make it more moderate. Arguably, his vocal involvement at this stage would make the government take an even more draconian position in opposition to him. So Starmer's best bet is to sidestep the obvious Tory trap, demand the deal the government promised, and then launch an assault on them if they fail to secure it. Quite what he does if there is a deal is another matter - one fraught with difficulties that are too tortuous to go into here.

This is not a matter of completely giving in. Labour should obviously be voting against the internal market bill. It should be stating its opposition to the breaking of international law. It should be asking urgent questions in parliament, which it has done, and using its shadow attorney general, Lord Falconer, to lambast it, which it has also done. But it does not need to make it the focus of the central weekly clash at PMQs.

The next question is who fights. None of these calculations affect the rest of us. People should fight for their values. Even without Labour, the battle against these sorts of provisions still takes place, in the media, online, and through lawyers. It happens in international capitals, through campaigners, through expert bodies, through constitutional advocates. You can rob No.10 of the dynamic it wants while still maintaining the ability to challenge it.

But by removing the opposition's role, the centre of political dispute shifts. The impact of that challenge takes place at a different location. In this case, it becomes internal to the Conservative party. Suddenly, figures like former Tory leader Michael Howard and former minister Bob Neill become the centre of resistance. They become embroiled in a battle with the ERG, who, as is their way, are demanding more radicalism from the bill. That battle is then informed not by the opposition party, which would prompt them to close ranks, but by figures like Nancy Pelosi in Washington, who is making it clear that the bill will mean a UK-US trade deal will never pass Congress.

The government uses culture war to consolidate its own side and divide others, as it did to great effect in the general election. But what happens when you relocate that dispute? What happens when it is shifted instead to inside the Conservative party? Then it becomes less attractive.

The final aspect is how you fight. What are the arguments you use? What do you emphasise? During the Brexit referendum, Cummings' Vote Leave campaign knew that it could bank on the quarter or so of the population who held very right wing or anti-immigrant views, but that it needed different arguments for those in the centre who could go either way - and so the NHS bus and arguments over sovereignty were given precedence in that area.

The same is true here. The basic principle of breaking international law is a key motivator to many of us. It galvanises those who believe in a rules-based international system. But to many voters that argument will not have force. What will have force is the notion of competence, an area where the government is already very weak.

It spent the last election insisting it had done a fantastic deal and wrapping support for the party around the passing of the document. Now it has turned against the document. That is, no matter how else you might interpret it, grossly incompetent. And that argument should be taking centre stage in this dispute.

These two things go hand in hand. We argue for our values, for the supreme need to maintain liberal and democratic principles. But simultaneously we should make arguments that reach out beyond our core support to a broader section of the public.

Fortunately, that is precisely the approach Starmer is following in parliament - a relentless focus on competence. And that is the one which will have most force if the government ends up with no-deal.

They did not get Brexit done: it turned into a mess that will impact for years. They did not get their own deal done: it was torn up. They did not protect the economy, let alone level-up: it was hammered by the actions they took. If that eventuality is met with people saying that it is the fault of Brexit, it will not change things. If it is met with people saying that they made a mess of it, it will. And the sooner things are changed, the sooner they can be rectified.

The alternative is too grotesque to contemplate: a country becoming steadily poorer with a government which can only respond to events by trying to divide people into warring tribes. Who will they blame? Europe. Remainers. Immigrants. The young. And what will be the effect of that, as we tumble further into chaos and decline?

This is how the culture war must be fought: smartly. We have to know when to fight, where to fight, who should be fighting, and how they should be doing it. If we don't learn those lessons, things will become very ugly indeed.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out next week.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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