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Brexit: negativity

2019-05-05 09:24:30

It's got to the point where there is nothing that any politician (or legacy media pundit, for that matter) can say about Brexit has any meaning or relevance. It's just noise, endless noise which clutters the mind but conveys no useful information. Doubtless, I'm not alone in this.

Nevertheless, there is also a sort of oppressive feeling in the air, as if a storm is about to break. Mainly, that's because the Conservatives are working themselves into a tizzy over the putative "deal" between Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn, which could come to fruition as early as next week. The two sides are said to be "within touching distance".

When it happens, it'll happen – if it does. Then it'll be worth looking at. But there is a limit to how much one can speculate when all that involves is recycling the same bundle of possibilities that hasn't changed for weeks. Politics has never been so important, but has never seemed so dull.

One can't even get excited – or even interested – in the prospect of a Tory leadership fight. Here, a possible scenario is that May and Corbyn do their deal, parliament approves it and we are on our way out of the EU with the Withdrawal Agreement in place. Mrs May resigns and the bloodletting starts.

The trouble here is that there is no successor of any consequence on the horizon – just a succession of drab nonentities, with the potential nightmare of the oaf becoming prime minister. If there was ever a time for a directly elected prime minister it is now. We should no longer accept the governing party using the highest political office in the land as its own personal plaything.

Alternatively, there is the possibility of the Tory party splitting, whence we see a general election. I'm not sure whether that is supposed to happen before or after the May/Corbyn deal, but it's been on the cards so long, it has become part of the political furniture. If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.

Needless to say, that is not going to solve anything, and neither is an early general election, One has to resort to the tired clichι to make the point, but this really is rearranging the deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic. Brexit will still loom large and if, by then, we have entered the transition period, the players in the hot seat will discover that phase two of the process is just as bad as the first.

In theory, the transition period will still come to a close at the end of December 2020 – a ridiculously short amount of time in which to complete a negotiations on a complex and detailed treaty. If not immediately, then in a matter of a few months, any new government will have to address the prospect of an extension. And it will have to be a long one, as there is much to do.

Assuming we are about to enter the transition period, all this will really do is buy time for the parties to realise that nothing has been solved and we're in as big a mess as we've ever been. Mrs May's red lines will ensure that any future relationship with the EU will not ensure frictionless trading, and nor will it stop the Irish backstop kicking in.

This will be the case even if a commitment to Mr Corbyn's customs union is part of the package. Not only is that irrelevant to securing free movement of goods (to say nothing of services), it creates a bone of contention that is likely to create more than a few ructions in parliament.

We've certainly seen enough of those with the attempts to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified, with MPs demanding their "meaningful" vote, but these will prove to have been just a rehearsal. Any final deal agreed between the UK government and the EU will be in the form of one or more treaties. These will have to be ratified by each of the 27 EU Member States, and the Westminster parliament.

It is there that we can expect to see the fun start. If MPs couldn't agree amongst themselves on the exit plan, when it comes to the detail of a UK-EU treaty, the amount of detail will provide endless opportunities for dissent. We could find ourselves on the brink once again, facing a cliff-edge "no deal" scenario once again, but this time with no provision for further extension.

At this point, one wonders whether MPs are really aware of what is at stake. Given their track record, I very much doubt it. If they've ruled out no-deal for the moment and are thus, under protest, prepared to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, they may find that all they have done is kick the can down the road again. It is going to come back on steroids, ready to haunt them once more, and disrupt parliamentary proceedings.

At that point, if there is an attempt to insert a customs union into the agreement, it could be thrown out by parliament, along with anything else the MPs don't like, regardless of what promises Mrs May has made to the opposition leader.

Long before we get there, we do of course have the last minute option of Mrs May pulling the plug and revoking the Article 50 notification, but that seems to have disappeared from discussions. And there is absolutely no indication that a second referendum is being planned. We really are back to no-deal or the Withdrawal Agreement – with any Corbyn add-ons to go to the political declaration. On the face of it, there is nothing else credibly on the agenda.

The one caveat here is that if parliament can't reach an agreement on the May/Corbyn deal, despite both leaders whipping their MPs, there could be pressure to pass the decision to the people. That would mean a limited referendum on the deal, although one could imagine that there will be strenuous attempts to get "remain" on the ticket.

Some MPs, apparently, are prepared to vote for the "compromise" deal only on condition that Mrs May agrees to a "confirmatory" referendum. Numbers at the moment don't look sufficient to make it a slam dunk, but we could see a build-up of resentment when the terms of any deal become public.

Here, the Electoral Commission will be taking centre stage, as it will be advising on the wording of the question. I would imagine that it will prefer a straight yes/no question on the deal, leaving it for the government and the campaigners to point out the consequences of a rejection. At this point, Mrs May could set out her intentions in the case of a "no" vote, possibly setting the scene for a no-deal departure at the end of October.

That notwithstanding, if there are any MPs out there with enough brain cells to realise where we are going, they might raise an argument that anything agreed right now is only putting off the inevitable. With no likelihood of any agreement on the terms of a final treaty, we're headed for a no-deal in the longer term so we might as well get it over and done with now. If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.

On that basis - given the potential consequences of a no-deal outcome on the electoral prospects of the Conservatives, one might think that it is in the interests of Tory MPs to dump the decision on the people. That way, if a no-deal materialises, they can simply say they were implementing the will of the people – or some of them.

Rather than this interminable introspection, with the self-centred focus on Westminster politics, one would of course like to see the "great debate" on the shape of a final treaty that might emerge from an orderly exit (with the Withdrawal Agreement ratified). That, however, is not going to happen. The Muppet tendency is still calling for a "clean break", and the "WTO Option" still holds as much attraction for the hard of thinking as it ever did.

The other options, such as "Canada" with all the plusses is not going to provide an answer, and even the "Norway option", as envisaged by the few who even half understand it, is not going to satisfy our needs. But there is nobody leading a debate on the directions we could take, while the intellectual establishment is as bereft of ideas as it ever has been.

Therein lies a hint of the real problem in this country. It isn't only parliament that is clear on what it doesn't want, but without ideas of what it does want. The whole nation seems stricken by an overpowering sense of negativity.

Rarely does one see the debate more impassioned when the players are rejecting something or arguing against it. The only way we ever see any semblance of unity is in opposition to something or another. Even the famed climate change agenda is about turning things off rather than forging new directions.

If this is to be what is in store for us, where the sneering classes prevail, and it becomes impossible to enthuse the public with any positive agenda, then we are doomed as a nation anyway. And it won't be Brexit that is our downfall. Proverbs 29:18 said it a long time ago. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

If we are of such a demeanour that we reject anything we're offered, and go chasing after the empty rhetoric of the demagogue, there is no salvation. Deservedly, we will be looking at continued national decline, having rejected the opportunity to carve out a new future.