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MICHAEL WHITE: Whiffs of compromise can’t mask signs of incompetence

I see ferries!!! Illustration by Martin Ronson - Credit: Archant

As things get glummer it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry

‘Death to May’ shouted the protesters. But don’t panic. It happened in Tehran which, for nostalgic reasons of its own, still overestimates Britain’s global strength as much as Liam Fox or Gavin ‘Private Pike’ Williamson do. Britain and the EU27’s performance this week has been all too familiar. Both sides have spent it staggering erratically on through their dance of diplomatic death on the edge of the Brexit cliff. Everyone knows the negotiating rituals, from handshakes to private dinners and brief statements, by now, so it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the folly of leaders who fail to rise to the challenge, and of easy-life voters who elected them in preference to better candidates who would have demanded more of them.

It’s not just Brexit. The EU leadership has expended more energy on Venezuela’s crisis than on the showdown between Barcelona and Madrid which has now reached Spanish courts en route to Strasbourg. Why? Because it’s far away. Jeremy Corbyn has made a career worrying impotently about Far Away. Tehran protestors aren’t paid by Brussels or Boris. They tack May’s name on the enemies list as a nod to ancient imperial grudges.

At home there were slight signs of movement between the two front benches, certainly of tone, perhaps of substance. It didn’t sound that way across the dispatch box during Theresa May’s latest holding statement on Tuesday, but that may just be noisy distraction. Cross-party cooperation on the back benches – with chunks of cabinet support – may yet force both leaderships’ hands, even take over the reins if needs be.

Let’s not rehash another distraction, the row over Donald Tusk’s ‘special place in hell’ outburst to which far too much attention has been given by people keener to trade jibes than find solutions. In this instance they clearly didn’t understand, since the European Council president’s target was Brexit’s devious leadership – the Nigels, Jacobs and Borises – not their mostly decent followers.

The devious promptly misled the decent on that point too, though you do wonder if those pro-Brexit voters who ache with patriotic sincerity ever to stop to question the nonsense. Might they not ask why mild-mannered Tusk is so out of order when the Borises and Nigels – their tabloid allies too – have spent decades calling EU leaders Nazis, Stalinists, imperialists, tyrants, fascists (etc), words especially offensive to those who suffered these evils as we did not? Perhaps Tusk threw them a ‘dead cat’ outrage as a distraction from grown-up talk.

What ITV’s Brussels correspondent overheard in a bar seems to have been grown-up stuff about May’s tactics: Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, saying that MPs will eventually have to choose between whatever Irish backstop changes she can get (anxious German businessmen are now urging EU concessions) and a ‘significant’ delay to Brexit. Surprise? No. Synthetic outrage? Yes.

If all that wasn’t enough to make a cat laugh (or cry) what we did have to suffer was the spectacle of Chris Grayling’s Department for Transport cancelling Seaborne Freight’s £14 million contract to ship emergency Brexit cargo from Ostend to dear old Ramsgate – and hopefully some goods the other way too. It happened after the firm’s would-be Irish partner withdrew (the partner who actually had some ferries). Right on cue, blame-averse Jacob Rees-Mogg wondered aloud if the Irish government hadn’t sabotaged the deal. (No, Jake.)

You couldn’t make it up and you don’t even have to try because they do it for you. Hours before it emerged that management consultants had warned the DfT against the ferry contract (and submitted its own £800,000 bill) May’s hapless, post-Fallon defence secretary, Private Pike Williamson was fantasising aloud about using Brexit to ‘enhance the UK’s lethality’. Embarrassing or what? Yes, he wants to restore British military bases east of Suez (abandoned in 1968) and plans to dispatch one of our two new aircraft carriers to frighten the Chinese.

Downing Street expressed ‘full confidence’ in Failing Grayling, who is to ministerial decisions what the Duke of Edinburgh is to road junctions. Were it not for the fact that the transport secretary prudently took out a political life insurance policy – he switched from Brexit pragmatist to May deal loyalist – he too might have lost his licence by now. By leaving him in charge May makes the DfT Britain’s first driverless vehicle, though Private Pike is reportedly working on ‘drone swarms’ – also unmanned. Pike is a low-key Remainer turned born-again Brexiteer.

This was another week in which May made no discernible progress in her search for a do-able Withdrawal Agreement in her team’s travels to assorted capitals in Europe. The 27 are still saying versions of ‘nein’. So May pushed back her timetable for Gina Miller’s ‘meaningful vote’ yet again to next month – either side of the March 21 EU summit – with an amendable progress motion on February 27. She also decided that being polite to Jeremy Corbyn – via Sunday night’s letter – might not be the bad idea she decided it was when she became Tory leader in 2016.

Tory Brexiteers, always quick to catch a whiff of betrayal, smelled the rat of compromise in the shape of a greater accommodation with the EU’s hated customs union, the one that would prevent Liam (‘one of the easiest deals in human history’) Fox doing all the trade deals hardly anyone – he has bagged Switzerland – seems very keen to do after all. No.10 denies any such intention. Roll-over deals to protect trade which EU membership covers, but no-deal won’t, is currently Fox’s more modest ambition.

‘Hold your nerve,’ says May. But this is where things start to get a bit subtle. Was the Brexiteers’ rodent the same rat of compromise smelled by Chuka Umunna a few days earlier when Corbyn unexpectedly burst into print – when did that last happen? – by writing a letter of his own?

Not quite. Different rat, same idea: compromise. Corbyn’s letter, more likely a text negotiated between Keir Starmer and the Labour leader’s overstaffed and deeply divided office, was the one which reduced the opposition’s six famous (and intentionally impractical) demands to five.

These included bread and butter points like continuing membership of key agencies; access to security structures like databases and the EU-wide arrest warrant; ‘dynamic’ alignment on evolving environmental and workers’ rights; close alignment with the single market; and a form of ‘permanent customs union’.

Absent were any references to the Irish border backstop or freedom of movement, over which Labour’s heart and head have been battling for months. It’s a hornet’s nest May likes to poke. She did it again on Tuesday when she reminded Corbyn that single market equals free movement of people.

By implication, Corbyn’s letter surprised only his more fervent admirers by revealing himself willing to facilitate Brexit at a reduced price. ‘Very demoralising,’ declared Umunna, long a People’s Vote advocate on the very reasonable grounds that voters were lied to during the 2016 referendum campaign. Statesman that he is, he didn’t add ‘lied to by Jeremy too’, but he might have done. The new Corbyn biography – 13 pages worth in the Mail on Sunday – by literary assassin, Tom Bower, makes plain the leader’s muddled, but vehement and long-standing dislike of what he may still see as a Nato-dominated European ’empire’.

Jeremy can sound as wacko as Boris, can’t he? And about as honest. The patience of The New European editor, Matt Kelly, finally snapped in a savage column on these pages last week. Polling data – chaotic Tories up to 7% ahead – and flagging membership suggest Matt is not alone in his dismay. Cynically sitting on the fence and ignoring the overwhelmingly pro-European sentiments of the sacred rank and file is not what democrats do, it’s what crypto-revolutionary elites do.

Back in the short-term, we can assume one component of May’s ever-shifting strategy is to risk alienating the ultra wings of both Leave and Remain camps, Labour and Tory, in the hope of cobbling together a majority for the May Deal 3.0 in the centre. But the maths require her to peel off votes of some ultras – the DUP or even Boris the priapic plotter, he sounded wobbly this week – MPs who are less keen to experiment with a hard Brexit than they pretend.

In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten, the alternatives still floating around cabals in Westminster include withdrawal of Article 50, the Blair/Major position; postponement of Article 50 pending further negotiation or (the Kit Malthouse Variant) a possible WTO Brexit; a general election; a second referendum; a Norway+ single market Brexit; or – of course – the hard Brexit with no-deal (and no transition either, David Davis) to which the driverless car is legally set to take us all on March 29 unless the stalemate is broken. ‘Opposing no-deal is not going to stop it,’ May reminds MPs.

All such options anger or frighten many people who study these matters and many more who don’t. I am happy to accept the charge that Remainers and Remain-to-pragmatic-Brexit supporters sometimes exaggerate the likely horrors of a hard Brexit and can still be as patronising to decent Brexit voters with legitimate concerns as they were before they lost the referendum. Brexit slow learners are not all on one side.

But I’d wager that at least 52% of the slow learners are definitely on one side. Every day adds a new addition to the litany of problems with perishable foods and pharma, manufacturing supply chains, container ships of exports setting out on the six-week voyage to China this weekend, uncertain if they can unload or at what price, lethal third country tariffs on Welsh lamb exports, standards on financial services and the repatriation of the EU’s body of law – the acquis communautaire – via UK statutory instruments (SIs). Andrea Leadsom insists they are in hand (411 out of 600 essential SIs) just in case they are needed. Grayling levels of competence do not reassure. Coffee traders went public this week with fears we may run out of this vital resource.

Friends in the City tell me coffee drinkers there are grossly under-pricing the risk of a hard/no-deal Brexit – average sentiment still puts it around 15% – when hard-pressed officials in Whitehall put it closer to 50/50. Businesses which actually make stuff and try to sell it to foreigners have long been tearing their hair out. The Brexit uncertainty must be a major factor in the investment slump and that nasty Q4 dip in GDP growth to 0.2%, an annualised growth rate of 1.4%.

If a panic sell-off of sterling suddenly materialises it will prolong 2019’s cut-price January sale of attractive British assets. But No.10 knows it might also corral wavering MPs behind the May Deal. The exchange of letters with Corbyn is part of the same strategy. She doesn’t explicitly reject it but she asks him why his vision of a permanent customs union is better than her more flexible plan that would allow Britain to negotiate free trade agreements – albeit very slowly. That process will be an ‘acid test’ for fragile free trade, warns the Bank of England’s Mark Carney.

Even though a customs union would solve the Irish backstop issue, we know she doesn’t want one. It might split her cabinet and party 1846-style, though you can never be sure. A breakaway is not necessarily a split. But she refuses to rule out a customs union in order to bring her right wing into line, for fear that she might do it. Ditto her determination not to take no-deal off the table.

The significance of Olly Robbins’ overheard bar chat is that he sees the backstop as more of a ‘bridge’ to the future EU/UK relationship than a ‘backstop’. They just got the language wrong. That’s not what May says in public. Nor does she want to have to extend Article 50 beyond March 29, as the Yvette Cooper/Nick Boles cabal (narrowly defeated last month) seek to do. But she knows she may have to accept it. If so, she may have to concede the greater role in determining the final shape of Brexit which bolder MPs are seeking, possibly with cabinet collusion. On Tuesday she talked of involving MPs more in the next – harder – stage of Brexit, the future relationship.

The People’s Vote option as a last throw of the dice? Both Corbyn and May seem keen to avoid one. But who knows?

Along with her promise of extra funds for hard-pressed Brexit constituencies in Labour heartlands, that surely makes it easier for Labour rebels, Brexiteers and pro-Remain MPs in Brexit seats, to back her deal in larger numbers than the 27 who voted/abstained to prevent the block on no-deal passing the Commons on Crunch Tuesday.

Signs are that the Cooper/Boles cabal is backing off trying to delay Article 50 before February 27. The People’s Vote campaign is also on the back foot. Much of the EU members states’ media coverage has given too much weight to the second referendum campaign and speeches of support from old friends like John Major and Tony Blair. After all, ‘second thoughts’ referendums are unwritten parts of the EU constitution.

So it was only this week Sabine Weyand, Michel Barnier’s deputy, conceded ‘I don’t see a majority in the House of Commons for a second referendum’. That realisation may carry May over the line which allows Team Barnier to find a mechanism, or stronger form of words, on the Irish backstop’s impermanence that allows Wobbly Boris and others to come on board, rather than risk a no-deal which will badly hurt their recession-sensitive economies and jobs. They have weak growth figures. Hence those twitchy German businessmen.

The Treasury select committee at Westminster this week announced that the government’s plans to eliminate the deficit are no longer credible, given chancellor Hammond’s promises to the NHS and the fiscal boost which a shaky Brexit will dictate. But the major EU economies are also loosening the purse strings as demoralised voters demand an end to austerity or don their gilets jaunes. Remember, there are EU elections in May.

Talk of a general election is low- hanging fruit for the media, which never loses elections. On Tuesday the Times devoted its splash to a complicated form of analysis of voting intentions – called multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) – which claimed to show May could win a small Commons majority if an election were held this week. Haven’t we heard that before?

So I will spare you the details or the MRP’s elaborate findings among 40,119 voters, impressive though that number is. It’s all nonsense. May isn’t going to have an election, she’s probably not going to resign in early summer either, though that one too is doing the rounds. With negative polling figures like his, Corbyn would have a death wish to want one. It would solve very little. And besides, the same edition of the Times reported that doctors are handing out more pills for depression. There’s talk of a Brexit Anxiety Disorder, something we can all relate to. Let the political class fix that before asking for our votes.

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