Richard North, 07/05/2019  

According to the Guardian, what it calls the "emerging Labour-Tory compromise" is a mirage.

The argument raised is that even if there was a real prospect of Labour bailing out the government, the apparent landing zone takes the political debate no further on from where it started. We are still left with the task of negotiating the real deal – the future relationship with the European Union.

But, if we get the full two-year extension, that brings us to the end of 2022, while the next general election is scheduled to be held on 5 May of the same year. That means that the final deal will not be agreed by this government.

Assuming that Labour has a chance of winning, the next government could be led by Mr Corbyn and it could be him that sets the final terms. Thus, if Mrs May is genuinely offering to leave the question of the customs union to whoever is in office at the time, the game is on.

In that scenario, everything rests on a general election success, and the very last thing Corbyn will want is interference from the emerging populist parties, building on platforms established during the European elections.

This would suggest that there is, at last, a real incentive for MPs to settle the withdrawal agreement in parliament, and as soon as possible. If Farage has ever done anything useful in his life, it will have been to bring to fruition the very thing he is apparently striving to prevent – the acceptance of Mrs May's deal.

Nor is there really any mileage in a "confirmatory referendum" as that still gives Farage opportunities to strut his stuff and increase his already considerable public profile. Establishment politicians have everything to gain by depriving him of a platform and keeping as much of the game as they can to themselves.

Whether this has dawned on individual MPs yet is difficult to establish. Many of them will be coming back from their constituencies after that short Mayday break, having absorbed the shock of the local elections and had a chance to talk to their constituency executives. They may by now better understand the threats to their own seats, and come back in a more realistic frame of mind.

It is nevertheless, something of a stretch to expect the MP collective to start behaving rationally and, if they continue on their path of self-immolation rather than taking the longer view, then all bets are off. The chaos in parliament will continue as the clock ticks down to a no-deal departure at the end of October.

If MPs are able to take the longer view, then the gamble for Mr Corbyn is that Labour must win the general election. That is anything but predictable, but it will be more predictable without populist interference. With the EU negotiations in full swing, he will then have to fight on a platform of a "better deal", which will leave the Tories with the initiative, having already set out their stall in Brussels.

Presumably, the Tory offer will exclude any possibility of a customs union, and since both parties will be going for regulatory alignment and safeguarding workers' rights, the customs deal could be the touchstone issue on which the entire general election campaign could turn.

What could bring this whole fantasy scenario crumbling down, though, is the onset of reality. Once the Withdrawal Agreement is out of the way and we are formally out of the European Union and into the transition period, attention will turn to the political declaration and the practical implications of the final deal.

This has been almost completely missing from the frenzied coverage of Brexit, and it may well be beyond the capabilities of the media and their tame pundits to work out the consequences of various scenarios. Unless something close to a miracle is concocted, the realisation might begin to dawn that, whatever is on offer, it won't get close to satisfying UK needs for "frictionless" trade with the EU, and nor will it prevent the backstop kicking in.

More prosaically, since the timescale is unrealistically short, we may find ourselves in a situation analogous to where we have been, where there is insufficient time to conclude a deal - any deal, and we are looking at a new version of a cliff-departure with no working agreements in place. The difference is that there will be no last-minute time extension.

What the electoral consequences of this might be are perhaps easier to predict than a more stable scenario. We can assume that, in this case, the Tories will be hammered for their failure to bring a deal to fruition.

The downside is that Labour won't be able to offer anything better, leaving both parties facing a potential train wreck. Mr Corbyn's customs union won't do anything to improve matters, and will finally be seen – one hopes – for the vacuous device that it really is.

The cold, hard facts of this situation are that there is no possible scenario on the books that could give the UK the frictionless trade it needs to be able to function. The Norway option, as such, has only ever been a partial answer. It is the raft of additional bilateral agreements, on top of customising the EEA Agreement, which will be needed to make for a functional arrangement.

In terms of VAT, data sharing, security cooperation and participation in EU agencies, any such agreements would take the UK into unknown territory, where it would be asking for a degree of integration and functional rights that under current conditions apply only to fully-fledged EU members.

Not only is there no incentive for the EU to go that far, there is every reason for it to hold back, having said many times that it cannot allow a departing state to enjoy the same benefits as its members.

On that basis, the UK is at some time going to have to bite the bullet, with the realisation that there will be substantial and unavoidable barriers to trade with the EU. It is inescapable that this will put UK firms at a commercial disadvantage, and slow down the physical process of moving goods to the continent.

This may provoke a rebellious mood in the electorate at large – if the predicament is properly understood – which may inject a further element of unpredictability into the electoral equation. On the other hand, the parties may indulge in their classic strategies of misdirection, focusing on domestic and non-EU issues, to take attention away from the impending predicament.

Here, they may have the willing cooperation of the legacy media which has shown itself in the past to be easily distracted, and then to misinform the public. We cannot rely on there being any clarity, or that the public will be focused on the EU to the exclusion of all else. Muddied waters may also add another level of unpredictability.

Any party strategist currently working on the best path to take may, therefore, find the imponderables and known variables are such that there is no clear way through the minefield. Random choices may have as much chance of success as careful planning.

If we throw into this mix the certainty that Mrs May will not be leading her party into the next election and we thus have different personal dynamics at play. The level of unknowns takes on stratospheric proportions and in terms of predicting outcomes, you might just as well hurl a handful of coins in the air and bet on the spread of heads and tails.

Coming back down to earth, the one thing that could change all this is for either of the main parties to step out from the circle of self-delusion that currently defines government policies, and come up with a clear, long-term vision for the future – warts and all. But, given the inherent negativity of the nation, any such attempt would be akin to the authors painting bullseyes on their backs – targets for every naysayer in the land and a certain recipe for disaster.

Politicians, therefore, have every incentive to perpetuate the fudge, as they have been doing for so long that there is no folk memory of any different way of doing politics. We expect our politicians to lie to us, and are happy with the fairy stories we are told. Anyone who tried to tell the truth would almost certainly be doomed to oblivion. Clarity is not an asset in politics.

And with all that resting on the outcome of the manoeuvrings of the two main parties over this week and the next, we could find ourselves having to brace for a journey into the unknown, with not even any idea of which particular branch of the unknown we are heading for.

Not surprisingly, people are either opting out of politics or falling prey to the soothing tones of the passing demagogue. Even with a withdrawal deal settled, we are no wiser as to our eventual fate than if we tumble off the edge of the world with no deal. All we are choosing is which branch of the unknown we are to confront, and perhaps delaying the inevitable.

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