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Politics @ Surrey blog

  • A good rule of thumb is that when you’re in a hole, you stop digging. Unless, of course, you’re in the tunnelling business.

    The British government is very much not in that line of work – such things being outsourced – so the rule would seem to apply in spades.

    And yet is spades that the Cabinet appear to be holding in their hands, as the series of speeches on Brexit continues this week.

    So what’s going on?

    The first observation is that none of the speeches to date – Johnson’s, May’s, Davis’, Gove’s – have really said anything new. They promise bright futures and underline common interests with European friends, but they lack substantive detail on how to get to these sunlit uplands. Read in soundbites, one can find evidence of whatever one likes, as well as whatever one doesn’t.

    Given that this cycle of speeches was pitched as a moment of revelation and clarification, the lack of a road map will continue to concern those involved in the Article 50 negotiations, especially as we move towards next month’s European Council, where progress will have to have been achieved on a number of points.

    The mutual inconsistency of the speeches – e.g. on state aid, or on deregulation – points to the on-going lack of consensus in Cabinet, which tomorrow’s Chequers meeting is unlikely to resolve.

    All of which brings us back to the opening observation on holes.

    Prudent politics would suggest that at times of uncertainty, the default option should be to avoid making rash decisions. Better instead to find a holding position and wait for things to change – as they always do – and hopefully become less fraught.

    (Clearly, there’s also the maverick school of thought, which pushes for radical action in periods of uncertainty, but this has to be grounded in profound self-confidence, some kind of justifiable pay-off, plus a sense that holding isn’t possible. Neither the first nor the last of these would appear to hold in this case.)

    The effect – if not the object – of Cabinet’s indecision has been to create a holding pattern, visible in several places.

    Most obviously, the lack of push-back on a stand-still/’full monty’ transition is a particularly pure expression of this. Take the UK out of the EU, but keep everything else in place. Even the mooted intervention from Davis today on a mechanism to indicate displeasure with new regulation during this period is a minor point in comparison to the rest of the package, with the UK becoming a rule-taker.

    But it’s also to be seen in the shifting rhetoric of various Cabinet ministers. There is much more talk now of gaining the power to diverge from EU regulation, rather than actually diverging. In this world of alignment, there is a growing assumption that the UK will remain aligned unless it chooses to de-align, rather than implementing a new framework from the get-go. Even the obvious exception to this, agriculture, is set up to stick to CAP rules until the end of 2020, and is a relatively self-contained area of regulation: moving to a UK agricultural policy will not necessarily require similar shifts in other parts of policy.

    Again, as I’ve argued before, it might be that for immediate political purposes in the UK, it will suffice that the country leaves the EU in March 2019, and then a new period will begin in which government can work out a long-term plan for its EU policy without quite the same pressure.

    Indeed, by pumping out the contradictory messages contained in the speeches of late, it can hold off different factions until there is simply no time to plot another course.

    The danger in all this is that it is not a given that present confusion and uncertainty will be replaced by future clarity and security. Rather, trying to keep things the same represents a rather precarious path.

    That precarious nature is not so much intrinsic to the EU side – in broad terms, having the UK as a (literally) silent partner looks pretty good – as it is to the UK side. Paying into the budget, taking all the rules, obeying all the ECJ judgements, continuing free movement: each one is a red rag to eurosceptics, who would not struggle to find sympathetic media outlets to spread their message.

    Since any agreement on ‘not digging’ is likely to have clauses about the ability of either party to withdraw from that agreement, a new contest risks springing up in the UK about making use of those clauses: most obviously, it would become a key cleavage in the 2022 general election, especially if transition has been extended.

    Not making a decision is an often-overlooked option within negotiations. But leaving a decision for now should not be the same as ignoring it for good: there is always a reckoning to be had. To think otherwise is foolish at best, fatally damaging at worst.

  • Some transitions take longer than others

    I’m back to transition arrangements once again this week, despite having got a load off my chest not that long ago.

    This is prompted in part by stories such as The Sun’s piece on Tuesday about the UK agreeing to end transition on 31 December 2020, as per the EU’s proposals.

    The story is an odd one, not least because it’s another concession to the EU, but one that The Sun feels is a good concession, because it ends transition some moths sooner than the government’s original suggestion.

    Indeed, the entire British debate on transition is marked by confusion as much as by indifference: the real issue is the new relationship and that’s where the battles must be fought. And that’s as true for Remainers and soft-Brexiters as it is for the hard camp. Transition is a technicality.

    But if European integration tells us anything, then it’s that technicalities have a way of becoming very important.

    In this case, the much under discussed feature of transition is its scope to become longer than originally planned. The EU’s transition proposal removed language about the period of transition beyond an intention to end in December 2020: this was a big step back from December and the European Council, when all and sundry were talking about a fixed and non-extendable period.

    The cynical interpretation is that it serves both the UK and the EU to carve out this piece of technical space, for two, inter-linked reasons.

    Firstly, the UK still has yet to provide a definitive and meaningful statement on the end-state of the new relationship. The round of speeches and lobbying that the Cabinet kicked off yesterday are almost certainly not going to change that. This in turn means that Article 50 will remain a very lean agreement, setting out not more on the new relationship than the intention to get along and talk lots. Keeping the door open for a longer transition in which to do that discussing makes sense.

    Secondly, it’s becoming evident that British public opinion remains very thin. As much as the overwhelming majority of people think the government is doing a bad job on negotiating Article 50, that does not translate into a shift of views on leaving/not leaving the EU. To crudely characterise, the public voted in the referendum, made a decision and they now expect the politicians to get on with it and to hell with the details.

    Seen in that light, it is not inconceivable that it will be enough for most voters to know that after 29 March 2019, the UK will have left the EU. And because nothing will have changed (because of the ‘full-monty’ transition) that will be OK, especially as net migration has fallen sharply due to the economic and political uncertainties in which the UK is operating right now.

    That in turn might provide the government with more space to negotiate with internal factions, especially because no-one argues that there’s any kind of fast-track process in Article 49 to get the UK back into the Union: out means out, indeed.

    Thus by the time late 2020 arrives, the pressure to have concluded a new relationship might have lessened, along with the political heat that would come with extending transition. And as a good political rule of thumb, once you’d done something once, then it’s much easier to do it again. You can compare and contrast Sterling and the ERM with Greece and the Eurozone on that idea.

    Article 50 has proved to be very hard going, from the start. If transition is a sleeping dog, then that still doesn’t mean things will go easier for the various parties involved. But that shouldn’t mean it doesn’t bear inspection, especially if it contains the model for a much longer period than everyone seems to imagine right now.


  • Bigger than it looks

    As a child, I used to like watching a TV programme where a bearded Australian would talk about some cartoons that he was going to show, hurriedly sketching a character in some dynamic pose.

    Part of the fun was the way he caught the characters’ essence: distilling them into a single image.

    Of course, this is a televisual treat now pushed to one side, for various reasons; but the guy’s catchphrase, which heads this post, sprang to mind the other day in a completely different context.

    This week marks the end of the first part of the prep for Phase 2 talks in the Article 50 process. Since December’s European Council, both the UK and the EU have been engaged in internal negotiations.

    For the EU, that’s meant agreeing the mandate for Phase 2, including yesterday’s proposal on transition.

    For the UK, it’s meant getting caught up in questions about releasing impact assessments and starting to consider the preferred end-state of any future UK-EU relationship post-membership.

    This last point – manifesting itself in this week’s Cabinet sub-committee meetings – were the prompt for my childhood memory, for they would seem to represent the logical point at which the UK can address the ever-mounting pressure to provide clarity on its intentions.


    This demand comes from all quarters: domestic, EU and internationally. Without knowing where the UK might be trying to head, it’s very hard to plan, whether you’re a business, a citizen or a Commission negotiator: no headline goal means no way of building the more detailed things underneath that. My thoughts on this are long-standing and don’t bear repeating here, other than to recall that the UK’s current position is a set of mutually-inconsistent headlines (in the tabloid sense).

    But as we move into Phase 2, where very precisely the future destination of this process is under discussion, it might seem logical that now is the moment to bite the bullet.

    However, three big objections stand in the way.

    The first is a point first suggested to me by @Sime0nStylites the other day, namely that Theresa May might well believe that she has a settled and suitably agreed plan.

    Evidence of this comes from a speech given by her former strategy director, Chris Wilkins, to a UK in a Changing Europe event last week. Wilkins argued that May has always tried to place Brexit within a wider frame of the future of the country and the society we are trying to build. Laudable aims, but not obviously executed in practice. Matters of social justice do not map easily on to models of UK-EU relations and even where they do, Number 10 has not tried to make that case. As much as the tone of Wilkin’s speech might be understood through the lens of his former role, the decided lack of criticality suggests that the consistency of the Brexit agenda has not been seriously challenged on its own terms.

    At the same time, my unwillingness to ascribe a lack of reflection to someone who has managed to make their way to the office of Prime Minister means that we have to handle this with a degree of caution. Even with her small circle of advisors, May has had more than enough exposure to critiques of the Lancaster House agenda to know that it is not sufficient to carry negotiations through to October. So there must be something more.

    The Muppet Show

    This leads nicely to the second objection, namely that there will be no detailing of a UK plan because no consensus is possible.

    As the previous months has shown so frequently, the Cabinet – and the Conservatives more generally – remain split in their views. There is a significant group pushing for a hard break – up to and including walking away from the table – but there is also a blocking minority that wants a very soft model. Neither can force the other into a defeat, especially with a Labour party that continues to hedge its bets.

    Obfuscation is thus a party management tool for May: by not collapsing her ambiguity she is able to offer treats to all, even as she fails to offer succor. As much as she appears to satisfy no-one, equally no-one can be sure of who might come next, so she remains in office. But that doesn’t mean she has freedom to do as she likes, but rather she has to continue to plot a tricky course between the different interests.

    Danger Mouse

    This domestic barrier is further aided by the nature of Article 50 itself.

    There’s no intrinsic need to detail the final end-state within the Article 50 agreement, largely because it can be left to later. The only necessities are the Phase 1 issues, a framework for negotiating the new relationship and a set of transition arrangements. The first is in progress (albeit with some big issues still outstanding), the second is trivial and the last is close to agreement (since neither side wants to pick that fight).

    Yes, once you begin the new relationship negotiations in April 2019, then you need an objective, but if you have a ‘full monty‘ transition, then there’s much less of a problem, since you’ve kept in place all the current policy arrangements.

    To go one step further, the absence of a British position on the end-state might makes matters simpler, precisely because it precludes the inclusion of any language about the new relationship in the Article 50 text. Everyone can sign up to ‘deep and special’ (or similar language), but that hardly commits anyone to anything.

    And to go another step, if May does fancy a softer Brexit, then this all would help to keep the UK closer to the EU, for lack of a viable alternative plan: going ‘full monty’ becomes an imperative to keep options open until a decision is made. The EU would likely not complain about a continuing stream of budget contributions without the costs of having the UK at the Council table.

    Time for bed

    As well as the cartoon programme, I also used to watch a Japanese show, about a monkey – made human – on some quest. I can honestly say that I never had the faintest clue what was going on and there never seemed to be a resolution, but it was quite a spectacle.

    Importantly, Brexit is not a kid’s TV show. But the fog of confusion surrounding the UK government’s preferences on the future relationship with the EU are likely to hang around us from some time yet. How much of a problem that is – for the government’s longevity, for the conclusion of a deal on Article 50, or for the articulation of an idea of a future British society – remains debatable. However, if the UK is to move from crisis management to strategic planning, then that fog will have to lift.

    We interrupt our programming

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