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MICHAEL WHITE: Brexit’s ring a ring o’roses is about to fall down

"Today's Brexit crisis is being billed as an existential threat," says Michael White. Picture: Martin Rowson, @martinrowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the looming conclusion for Brexit’s ring a ring o’roses and why we’re all about to fall down

I turned on Radio 4 one morning this week to hear a Sinn Féin politician lecturing the UK government on morality (sic) and opportunistically suggesting an Irish referendum on the border might now be due. A few minutes later a DUP MP was smugly suggesting that a hard Brexit is now ‘probably inevitable’ rather than see Northern Ireland ‘annexed’ to the EU via an all-Ireland customs union.

Are these people mad? Yes, but they’re not the only ones. Mid-week another DUP grandee was threatening to pull the party’s little rug from under wider Westminster government policy (remember these intransigent people have managed to crash their own assembly government) while solemnly declaring that it would not try to bring down the May government – because that might install Jeremy Corbyn in No.10.

Well spotted, matey, and in the nick of time too. Who says these people are stupid? If they are, they are no dumber than the expensively-educated Brexit chieftains who have led us to the cliff edge. Some of them are now keen to jump over it on to the rocks below. As in several corners of our reviving world of populist nationalism, the Brexit crisis is close to spiralling out of control.

Who knows where Theresa (‘Nine Lives’) May and her feuding cabinet will find their three-way negotiating stance – with Brussels and each other – by the weekend? In an act of sisterly solidarity three women cabinet ministers – Leadsom, McVey and Mordaunt – apparently threatened to walk out at the weekend, adding to conflicting pressure from Sturgeon, Foster and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. May must count herself lucky that Wales is currently choosing a new first minister. And, of course, that Michael (‘Trust Me’) Gove has got her back – for now. After Tuesday’s cabinet the Three Sisters backed down. On the pre-dawn plane to Brussels on Wednesday May told the BBC she will not be seeking the extra time many think she needs. Hmmm.

When the political situation looks this bad, it is usually a good idea to remember that we’ve been here before. The financial crisis of 2007-9, the sterling crisis of 1992, the 1984-5 miners’ strike in tandem with IRA attacks, the Falklands War of 1982, take your pick. All were tricky. In the 1970s – cue OPEC, IMF and IRA crises, the Winter of Discontent and foolish ex-colonels plotting in the Home Counties – it was worse and the usual Jeremiahs were saying ‘Britain is becoming ungovernable’.

Today’s Brexit crisis is being billed as an existential threat, Britain’s most perilous moment since the invasion scare of 1940: hence Dunkirk, Finest Hour and other zeitgeist films and television dramas. Watching May’s government teetering on the brink again, there’s a good case for saying it is. But that this time – as Sir Ivan Rogers, former ambassador to Brussels, argued in a powerful speech last week – the alternative government of ‘Brexit revolutionaries’ haven’t a credible clue what to do. There is no level-headed Attlee or Bevin to steady the ship.

Is the crisis more divisive than the abortive invasion of Suez in 1956? I think so and potentially more humiliating this time. When Britain, France and Israel colluded behind Washington’s back it signalled the end of Anglo-French imperial delusion. It lingered on in the League of Empire Loyalists and still does in many a nostalgic Brexit heart, as Empire 2.0. But it was not the end of the modern British state, as now seems conceivable as EU/UK negotiators dig in over the Irish border.

Sinn Féin and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon certainly sense an opportunity. The DUP’s Arlene Foster fears one, but is too narrowly focussed on her own electoral base to notice that Northern Ireland voted Remain. It is not clear whether these parochial souls ever ask themselves if the voters in the Irish Republic – who would have to be included in a border poll under the Good Friday Agreement – would chose to pick up the bill for ungrateful Belfast. It is no clearer that the Moggs and Borises have noticed that making up Northern Ireland’s 27% GDP deficit costs the UK taxpayer as much as Brussels – and with less to show for it.

On Scotland at least too many Little Englander Tory activists are at least clear, deplorably so. ‘Let them go, we’re fed up with subsidising them,’ one of May’s locals told a friend the other day. But Belfast is suddenly grasped to the hard Brexiteers’ bosom as a means of forcing what the nitwits believe will be a liberating crash out of Europe on March 29. Don’t assume this week’s melodramatic statements, flights to Brussels and related drama is mere choreography. I still believe the EU27 and May will cobble something together – the 27 really do need our trade and divorce money – but it may not happen.

In the course of a scholarly exposition of why the Brits misunderstand the EU project – it was prompted by Jeremy Hunt’s career-ending ‘Soviet prison’ comparison – the FT pundit, Martin Wolf, penned a chilling paragraph. ‘The great difference is that, in their bones, the English mostly lack fear. Most continentals do not. On the European mainland, only Finland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland survived the Second World War unconquered. What was the sovereignty of the Netherlands worth in 1940? Four days.’ These are the words of a child (born in bombed-out London of 1946) of Jewish refugees from Hitler. When speaking on Brexit I put it even more starkly to my audiences. ‘How many of the EU 28 survived the 20th century without being occupied by foreign or imperial armies, by foreign or domestic dictators?’ I ask. The other one is Sweden by the way (ask the Irish to explain), and even Sweden had to allow German troops through its territory to occupy Norway.

Yet I cannot think of a Brexit speech – Jews like Nigel Lawson included – which encompassed this simple thought. They think security against resurgent Russia is all about Nato. But it isn’t, as they – and, alas, our EU partners – will soon learn the hard way. In any case, Donald Trump is punching holes in Nato, as he is in the other pillar of the Brexit temple: the World Trade Organisation.

There is much force in Wolf’s assertion that the English – note, English – lack fear. It explains so much. We have been dancing on the slopes of Vesuvius as the Titanic orchestra plays blithely on. England unexpectedly beats Spain 3-2. Good oh. Harry and Megan are having a baby. Well done. Strictly Come Dancing provides reassuring sofa drama for a new season. No lifeboats on board, you say? Never mind, something will turn up, the Americans probably. No they won’t.

It is this second-rate insouciance that allowed ministers – including some who should know better, Mr Hunt – to plot in semi-public (real plots don’t leak) over pizza ahead of Tuesday’s cabinet showdown with May. It allowed David Davis to lob a Sunday Times grenade into the meeting in the shape of another attack on Chequers, a re-assertion of his own equally flawed Canada+ plan and a promise that German exporters are finally getting nervous about a crash.

‘It is time for cabinet members to exert their collective authority. This week the authority of our constitution is on the line,’ he blathered, inaccurately but romantically. This from a man who resigned his own right to assert his authority in cabinet, just as fellow-Brexiter IDS resigned from cabinet rather than fight to improve his other grandiose project, the floundering universal credit (UC) scheme for benefit claimants.

According to some reports this insouciance allowed Dominic Raab, Davis’s successor as Brexit secretary, to scurry to Brussels on Sunday and scupper a ‘backstop of the backstop’ technical agreement – ie by Olly Robbins’ civil servants – that would have fudged the ‘temporary’ Irish customs issue. That is sensible to do. We fudge so much for Belfast. But Raab, another Jewish refugee’s son, is one who seems to have misread the lessons of 1940. Perhaps it’s because he’s only 44 and doesn’t need to learn the hard way in person.

The former UK ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, had a cutting phrase about this kind of nonsense when he gave an update of his running commentary on Brexit in Cambridge the other day. He spoke of ‘oodles of (Oxford) tutorial plausible bullshit’ – based on the broad PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) degree which David Cameron, Ed Miliband and many other modern politicians have. ‘General Studies’, as I call it, though that jibe is slightly unfair to PPE because Boris Johnson read for the more demanding classics degree without taming his Roman demagogue’s taste for glib oratory.

Rogers is worth pondering (his Trinity speech is online) in a week of flux when the fabled endgame looks set to be postponed again. He sees Brexit as a revolutionary movement, led by elites ‘masquerading as non-Establishment’ figures (I think he means you, Jacob), who are determined to disrupt an unsatisfactory status quo and overthrow a failed ancien regime. The more extreme of them seek to impose a mid-Atlantic, low tax and regulation regime of the kind Tony Blair warned voters against – loudly, in vain – during the 2016 referendum.

It is the logic of those championing deliberate divergence from Britain’s largest and nearest market. Where else will they get the competitive advantage which they claim – except by cutting costs? Investment, innovation and rising productivity – the real keys to growth and prosperity – are not going to be made easier by Brexit, as is already apparent.

The posh boy revolutionaries (‘sometimes seriously mad’) harnessed legitimate grievances among those most hurt by Asia’s economic resurgence and globalisation – the industrial working class – but offered free trade remedies and sovereignty promises which are ‘total fantasy’. When she became PM May went along with it in her early speeches, triggering A50 without a plan, ruling out the single market/customs union and any regulatory role for the ECJ. Now that dawning reality has forced her to compromise those red lines the ultras are left crying ‘betrayal’ and ‘will of the people thwarted’ – on little or no coherent evidence as to what voters want.

Rogers is no fan of a second referendum, for which thousands of People’s Vote supporters are expected to march on Westminster on Saturday. Of course, he too resigned when he should have stuck to his post, like the boy on the burning deck, and done his duty. So should Cameron whose ‘outer tier’ model of UK/EU membership was not promoted hard enough (nor by Blair in his prime) and rejected by voters in 2016. Rogers says a second vote would make a toxic, poisonous domestic mood even worse. I fear he has a point.

Much of what the ex-envoy told Remain Cambridge is water under the bridge. Trade was never central to the early anti-Europeans, for whom pooled sovereignty and fear of a Federal Europe (itself a fantasy) was anathema. Instead, Margaret Thatcher (irony alert) championed enlargement eastwards and the single market. At that time – inspired by Lord Denning’s warning – the proto-Brexit campaigners claimed that EU law had penetrated all corners of British life. Simultaneously they were saying it would be easy to disengage from it all. Easy to cut a new free trade deal with Europe and other countries too. In reality, free trade agreement negotiations are brutal and long. The EU will be as brutal as China, the US and India 2.0, says Rogers, the veteran British negotiator.

The naïve zealots, few of whom have run much, told anxious captains of industry that they didn’t know their own business. They ignored warnings that triggering A50 so early would allow the EU27 to close the trap door on most options. Brussels has ‘been boiling the frog ever since’. Davis’ assertion is that member states’ mercantilist interests – the needs of their own exporters – will trump the Brussels lawyers in the end. It is about to be tested.

I am slightly more hopeful than Rogers that the mercantile interests may help a little. BMW stands for Bavarian Motor Works and Angela Merkel’s coalition was badly wounded in Bavaria’s elections on Sunday. Her SPD partners did even worse than her right-wing CSU allies. But will a regime change in Berlin be good for the Brits or even more intransigent? Like Westminster’s the EU’s embattled ancient regime is already rigidly-fragile – its eurozone and immigration policies alienating voters from the mainstream. Why would it start being more flexible now?

For the future, Rogers detects three options. One is Cameron’s outer EU tier model, rejected in 2016 but – says me – still in contention via some version of the Norway/Efta model. More access to the EU, in return for less freedom outside, it was still advocated during May’s Commons statement on Monday by some MPs on all sides. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s cake-and-eat-it response and Keir Starmer’s six points are kind-of-Norway, but not likely to get far in the current climate.

The second model is the revolutionary option, espoused in their different ways by the hard left – ‘Trotskyites’ in Rogers-speak – and the Farage/Steve Bannon right: nationalistic and essentially reactionary, Marine Le Pen meets Jean-Luc Mélenchon in post-Macron terms, the Corbyn-Mogg Pact here. They already have one in Italy, whose debts to German banks rightly terrify Brussels more than Brexit does.

The great power cynicism of Putin, Xi and Trump, the appeaser of Saudi state murder – all so easily recognisable to 19th century statesmen – looks increasingly nationalistic, but middling states cannot easily embrace that model.

Ivan Rogers detects in the cabinet struggle on the edge of the Brexit cliff a split between ‘Romantic Realists’ like Gove and ‘Romantic Revolutionaries’ like Johnson, Mogg and even dull John Redwood, who nodded when Nicky Morgan told MPs on Monday that some colleagues want a hard, no-deal Brexit.

The Gove-ites want a deal, agreement on the withdrawal treaty (cash, citizens’ rights, open Irish borders) and a political statement about the future trade relationship which they used to tell us would be done by now. They want a ‘Blind Brexit’ in order to re-energise their revolution from outside. That will be very hard during a transition, under 2019-20 time constraints which favour Brussels. Even so that’s gradualism, relatively speaking. The ultra-revolutionaries want to sweep it all away, eventually the EU too if they can.

It is easy to see why May resorts to Sphinx-like ambiguity when faced with this lot, unheroic though it is.

In such an atmosphere Rogers declares that some Remainers have responded by becoming ‘counter-revolutionaries’, hoping that Brexit will prove so awful that voters will own their 52-48% mistake and change their mind. The ultra-Remainers, he says, are ‘revolutionary defeatists’ in a sense opposite to the one this column deployed last week when suggesting that the Mogg-Johnson camp might prefer a disastrous spell of Corbyn government as a prelude to their own triumph.

It is dangerous stuff, but revolutions have a nasty habit of devouring their own children. Advocates of ‘Norway, then Canada+’ are beginning to feel those accusations of ‘betrayal’. Not that the EU can grant us a Canada+ deal. That is fantasy too. No wonder that a leaked study of flagging morale at the Foreign Office reports one official as saying that our European friends and neighbours have ‘checked us into the Priory’ – hoping that the celebrity rehab centre can do us some good.

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