Richard North, 13/08/2018  
 


According to Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, the only way Mrs May can survive as prime minister – and then only until the next general election – is to walk away from the Brexit negotiations "and start preparing properly for the fact that we're going to leave without a deal".

This is a measure of the stupidity of the man. While evidence of the dangers of the "no deal" scenario continues to accumulate, Davies and his fellow "Ultras" continue with their delusions, impervious to the reality which is all too evident to anyone with eyes to see.

It is doubtless true that, by opting for a "no deal" exit, Mrs May would enjoy a brief spell of popularity with a section of her party and the "kipper" tendency. But that would be short-lived. It would last just as long as it would take for the effects to become apparent.

With that, the Conservative Party should expect electoral annihilation. Even against Corbyn – should be not be deposed by his own members – the Tories would struggle to win. Received wisdom suggests that they would be out of office for a generation.

One supposes that, with this as a prospect, wiser heads within the May administration will prevail. An attempt will be made to secure a deal with Brussels, on whatever terms can be agreed. But these terms are not going to be favourable, creating their own stresses within the Conservative Party.

Either way, this is a lose-lose situation for Mrs May. But, in terms of short-term survival, Davies is probably right. Going for a "no deal" exist is probably the only way the prime minister will survive to the next election. But even then, she will need to act quickly. The forces of opposition are mounting.

From the likes of the Daily Mail, for instance, we see reports of dark conspiracies, the latest being a "secret plot" to oust Mrs May, and install David Davis as an interim prime minister – with the oaf Johnson waiting in the wings, ready to take over once we have left the EU.

Whether Johnson really has enough support to take over leadership of the Conservative Party is difficult to judge. There is a certain madness abroad at this time which is infecting the minds of men, obscuring the fact that this crass man at the helm of the party would be electoral suicide. Even if he did secure the leadership, he would never bring the Conservatives to electoral victory.

Politically, this leaves the UK in an interesting position. If Mrs May attempts to do the right thing, she will almost certainly be deposed. If she or her successor implements a "no deal" exit, that will ensure that neither of them remain in office. As such, Brexit represents an existential threat to the Conservative Party.

Despite the wishful thinking of those in continuity remain, seeking to stay in the EU – revoking the Article 50 notification – isn't an answer either. Not only are the "colleagues" unlikely to want us back, a serious attempt by a Conservative government to remain in the EU would precipitate an unreconcilable split which would also keep it out of office for a generation.

On the face of it, therefore, we seem to be looking at a problem to which there is no solution – not in the current political environment. The media have lost the plot, most of the expert groups are compromised when it comes to devising solutions, and industry representatives are not in a position to proffer anything which is politically sensitive.

Given this situation, and the enthusiasm for inventing new, named "options" to supplement the Efta/EEA, Swiss and WTO options, perhaps we ought to recognise the disaster scenario, to which we seem to be heading, by giving it its own name.

Both Pete and this blog has referred to Dunkirk (as in the evacuation of the BEF in 1940), whence I have remarked that we need a real, full-blooded disaster on the scale of Dunkirk or the loss of Singapore to the Japanese before we can get to grips with what is needed.

If such a disaster is needed to create the political environment in which change can be proposed and accepted, then we need to stop beating about the bush and start planning for disaster in what we might call the "Dunkirk Option", going for this as a deliberate choice. 

Oddly enough, the end result of the Dunkirk Option would look very much like the Swiss Option, with a succession of bilateral agreements made with the EU over a prolonged period, the totality amounting to the single treaty that we will have failed to secure.

The great danger of this – apart from the obvious economic damage – it that it cedes the initiative to the EU. In a crisis situation, we will be pressing for the deal(s), and the EU will usually be in a better position, able to bide its time.

However, there is no point in seeking an alternative if the political will is not there. Creating the conditions where the parties can come together to make an agreement is often as important (and sometimes more so) that the substance of the agreement itself.

The great handicap under which we labour at the moment is that not enough people understand, or are prepared to accept, quite how damaging a "no deal" scenario will be, and we are running out of time to convince the majority of the perils they face.

As late as yesterday we saw a senior meat industry representative (and former colleague), blithely assert that the post-Brexit beef industry "will be trading with the EU on the same basis as we are now". And even where there is some recognition that problems lie ahead, there is often a lack of understanding of their nature or severity.

In short, many people lack the imagination, the experience or the understanding that will enable them to visualise for themselves what the consequences of a "no deal" might be. Thus, they must actually go through the experience before they will accept the need for countermeasures.

Looking at the bigger picture, we need not assume that the EU would necessarily reject the crisis management approach embodied in the Dunkirk Option. After all, it was Juncker who said of the 2008 financial crisis, "we all know what things need to be done. What none of us know is how to get re-elected after we've done them".

In the main, we are dealing with mature, experienced politicians who will fully understand that there is often a gulf between defining what needs to be done and getting the backing needed for implementation.

Clearly, a politically enfeebled Mrs May lacks the political support needed for the implementation of a rational Brexit solution. Any new leader will need help if they are to achieve anything useful. And, if nothing else, continental politicians are fully aware of the concept of the beneficial crisis.

Another aspect of the bigger picture is the need to remember that Brexit is not an event but a process. Crashing out on day one may be disastrous in the short-term, but it doesn't have to be the last word. If we can absorb the damage and come back for further developments, then we can still end up where we wanted to be, albeit incrementally over a longer time period.

In fact, looking for a "big bang" solution was probably never on the cards. Governments simply do not have the absorptive capacity to deal with multiple, complex policy changes in such a short period as a couple of years. They need the flexibility to deal with issues sequentially, one at a time, without overloading the system.

This makes the prospect of a prolonged transitional period by far the most attractive option. But if there is no political support for the idea, then there is no point in hankering after something which is unattainable. If we need a crisis to clear the rubbish out of the system and create the political space for a workable solution, then we have to factor in the crisis as part of the process.

It thus seems to me that the best way out of the current impasse is to allow a crisis to develop, and manage it as best we can to minimise the damage, while using the political space created to pursue a longer-term objective.

Such a strategy may be considered very far from optimal, although in the real world, the politically attainable must always take precedence over the unattainable ideal. Pragmatism must be the watchword. If we need a crisis in order to achieve long-term goals, then that must be considered as part of the price we must pay for a sustainable, long-term solution.






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