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MICHAEL WHITE: As the atmosphere turns toxic, alternatives remain scarce

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings (centre) alongside the characters of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Photograph: Channel 4. - Credit: Archant

As Theresa May attempts to district the public Brexit’s ugly habits are catching on, says Michael White.

It’s all very well for Theresa May to try and distract public attention from the Brexit War of Attrition by launching other policy initiatives like this week’s pledge to sort-of spend an extra £20.5 billion per year on the NHS. Gosh, isn’t that slightly more than the £350 million a week that Dominic Cummings’ bus promised in 2016? It is. And the cash will be deployed to save more 500,000 lives, young and old, from killer diseases and self-inflicted harm. ‘Splendid, splendid,’ as Willie Whitelaw used to say in Mrs Thatcher’s day. He sometimes even meant it.

The trouble is that these are not splendid times. May hands out knighthoods and drinks invitations to Tory MPs and they suspect she may have an ulterior motive. They duly vote against her anyway. Tut, tut. She gives the NHS a bung (England only, you understand, health is devolved) and disaffected voters only half-believe it may be at all splendid. The chancellor, Phil Hammond, only half-believes it too. That is why the Treasury has been banging on (again) about the need to extract higher productivity from hard-pressed NHS staff and the importance of reducing customer demand as well as increasing the supply of cash.

No, not OAP euthanasia, not yet. Hammond highlights those renewed calls for tougher action against smoking, boozing and obesity which I’ve been hearing half my life, though sugar didn’t used to be on the health police hit-list. Scourge of the nanny state, Jacob Rees-Mogg, promptly declared himself a sugar-sceptic, an expert of diet as on so much else. Why can’t everyone be as thin as his own nanny keeps Jake, eh! Put down that cigar, Ken Clarke, and eat your greens.

It would be funny if it wasn’t also tragic. For one thing the small print confirms that the NHS’s £20.5 billion (‘in real terms’) won’t arrive in full until 2023-24 when May will – by her own account – no longer be around. Nor might a successor Tory government after the post-Brexit general election scheduled for 2022, not if Jeremy Corbyn proves insufficiently craven to pull off another defeat.

For another thing, no one knows what the UK economy will be able to afford by then. Not even hair-shirted apostles of a hard Brexit (‘it won’t be so bad’) are claiming it will have recovered from that ‘short-term hit’ they blithely talk about.

One thing we do know is that the NHS will be facing skilled staff shortages. Why? Because it’s already facing them at a time when the service’s European employees are feeling anxious and unwelcome enough to start going home. City banks and Sports Direct warehouses are having similar problems. ‘Go back to Poland,’ a nurse in the West Country reports being told by a patient who didn’t stop to explain who (a robot?) was going to do the nurse’s job in future. In fairness, I’ve heard that the same jibe was hissed across the table at an NHS consultant of foreign extraction, this time in his expensive London club. Xenophobia is catching, the genie is out of the bottle.

There are currently 41,000 nurse vacancies – alongside the 287,000 now employed – in England, where 5% of nurses hail from Europe. Since Brexit 7,000 have left and few have arrived in their place. The coalition’s protracted wage freeze, rising living standards at home and the post-referendum fall in sterling (plus new language requirements) have also weakened Britain’s appeal. NHS professional bodies warn of worsening shortages causing a bigger bill for temporary agency nurses, which will eat into that £20.5 billion without benefitting anyone except the agencies.

This is the law of unintended consequences doing its usual disruptive work. Doubtless there will be some benign disruptive consequences of Brexit in whatever form it finally takes on March 29 – by coincidence the birthdays of old Brexit opponents, John Major and gilet jaune militant, Norman Tebbit. For example Ramsgate harbour, which lost its Ostend ferry service in 2013, is urgently being dredged in case of hard Brexit necessity. Around the coast outside Broadstairs – deep in Ted Heath-turned Brexit country – ministers this week experimented with an emergency lorry park on the abandoned airfield at Manston airport, closed in 2014.

Locals at Ramsgate and Manston have campaigned for both port and airport to be revived. Are they grateful? Nah. ‘Too little, too late’ seems to be the refrain from both sides of the yawning Brexit canyon. To add insult to injury the Ramsgate contract and a £14 million grant was given by Chris Grayling (who else!) to a colourful pair of operators whose Seaborne Freight firm has no ships, as James Ball pointed out with the heartless glee of youth in last week’s TNE. If Dover loses 90% of its 80,000 weekly lorry crossings, Ramsgate won’t fill more than a fraction of the gap. The firm’s boss is a Hard Brexit man. You can see why.

Of course, chaos at Dover is the government planners worst case scenario, airily derided as part of calculated ‘hysteria’ by hard Brexit’s Boris Johnson in Monday’s £5-a-word Telegraph column and by Canada+’s David Davis on Tuesday’s Radio 4. The Calais region just won’t let it happen, the Brexit Bulldog explained, clearly not a student of French state structures in which Paris decides important matters.With fewer than 80 days now left before Britain’s scheduled Brexit day, parliament back and New Year business resuming, the long-awaited endgame has now started with no-one any clearer as to the likely outcome than they were before MPs opened their Christmas stockings. So I was looking forward to Channel 4’s much-hyped Brexit: The Uncivil War in the hope that it would provide fresh insight into how we all got into this mess back in 2016.

I’m a great fan of playwright James Graham. As entertainment it was often good fun, but as a serious piece of work this was a severe, if frenetic, disappointment. There is nothing wrong in crafting a narrative around a single character, especially one so intriguing as clever, driven Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s turbulent campaign director. But Graham went much too far in his focus, excluding key protagonists – Cameron, Osborne, May and Corbyn for example – and reducing Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Tory-to-UKIP’s Douglas Carswell and Leave’s Matthew Elliott to shifty, ineffectual puppets, all cowed by their Svengali.

In the same spirit, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks were portrayed as boozy, uncouth ruffians, even worse than they actually are. The machinations of the algorithm mechanics at Aggregate IQ and questions over the role of Trump backer, Robert Mercer, were also underplayed.

Voters, anguished and mostly decent, only got a walk-on part too, but that’s often their place. If there is any consolation it must lie in the paradox that, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cummings is the hero of the piece, ardent Brexiteers have much more reason to hate Graham’s dramatisation than the rest of us.

In the programme – which relies for much information on Tim Shipman’s book, All Out War – the Remain campaign is depicted as high-minded and initially complacent, out of touch and hopeless, all of which it was. I can remember Peter Mandelson (reduced to an off-stage voice here) complaining as much at the time. I thought so too and remember sending No.10’s Craig Oliver (beautifully played by Rory Kinnear) an exhortatory email a week before polling saying he was in serious danger of losing. Reproachful emails were not something I often did as a political reporter.

But Vote Leave and its provisional wing, Leave.EU, were portrayed as a mixture of hopeless old farts – Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin and co – and ruthless Machiavellians, for some of whom Europe was just a handy symbol of popular discontent, a means of drilling into countless small oil wells of resentment, as Cummings puts it (his father was an oil man) to shake up the system. That tactic is only a short jump from the Trump, Bannon, Mercer, Le Pen, Putin-Xi style of cynical and xenophobic nationalism, economic as well as political. It threatens us all – even you, Brexit voter – in 2019. Bad ideas produce bad results.

And Cummings? I used to know him slightly as the brains behind Michael Gove before a showdown with Theresa May, then home secretary, forced him out. In some ways he reminded me of TNE’s own Alastair Campbell, very driven but less balanced and grounded than Alastair (pause for chuckles), less rooted in a set of political values and tradition, more arrogantly Messianic.

As such, the author of Brexit’s lethal and dishonest slogan ‘Take Back Control’ is that mercifully rare but familiar figure, the puritan who believes that regeneration of a corrupted society can only come through the purge of destruction. ‘Pull it down and start again.’ Some of the left embrace that error too.

So Graham has Dom deploying his algorithmic army to pander in customised heart-over-head fashion to individual feelings, resentments and prejudices of neglected voters. The army is none too scrupulous about the facts of EU/NHS budgets or Turkish migration patterns. Guided only by what the software – ‘data and polls’ – tells him shifts votes, he is happy to farm out the rough stuff to Banks and Farage. In a late-night scene where Oliver and Cummings bump into each other and chat over a drink (the Robert De Niro scene from Heat) Kinnear warns him ‘You’re feeding the toxic mix… you can’t close that box.’ Cummings shrugs it off.

He has since retired from the fray, like so many of the protagonists of 2016, angry (as usual) that the second-rate idiots who ruined everything before the referendum have since ruined Brexit (‘the same old crap system’) and with it their chance to offer Britain a rebirth, free of past mediocrity and corruption. Nature’s Robespierres usually end this way – angrily disappointed or on the scaffold. For those even rarer Messiahs, the Lenins, Hitlers and Pol Pots who get a chance to implement their dreams of purification, the reality of defeat takes a little longer. Who was it who decided – in the ruins of Berlin – that the German people had not been worthy of him? Talk about narcissism.

But the Cummings genie is out of the bottle. It was on display outside parliament again this week, where loud-mouthed Brexit bullies screamed abuse at Anna Soubry, the militant Remain MP, as she did television interviews on College Green.

Ugly habits are catching – just look at Trump’s incitement on the Mexican wall, or violence on French streets – so the police should take steps to nip them in the bud before we start to think they’re as normal as gratuitous sex and violence on TV. It is a delicate balance. The Macron government’s threat to ban ‘unauthorised’ demonstrations or masks looks like an unenforceable provocation in a country like France.

Back in what remains of the more orderly British world we knew before yesterday, lesser mortals than Dominic Cummings are struggling this week to minimise the damage of a disorderly Brexit – or a ‘managed’ hard Brexit as the self-deluding still call it. In an encouraging display of Labour leadership, Yvette Cooper (you didn’t think I meant Jeremy, did you?) has joined forces with Tory Nicky Morgan to table an amendment to the finance bill that would – in theory – prevent the Treasury funding emergency measures to handle a hard Brexit. With the support of 20 Tory MPs, including Michael Fallon and Oliver Letwin, the cross-party coalition won by seven votes – the first government defeat on a budget measure in decades. Expect more. (One rebel Tory, Nick Boles, got an overnight death threat after the vote.)

Will it work, even if the votes are there, as they might be ahead of next week’s ‘meaningful vote’ on May’s flawed deal with the EU 27?

No-one knows because coherent party discipline has broken down, as it did for some years after the last comparable Tory implosion over repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846. Jeremy Corbyn’s excuse for not backing a Plan B or the second referendum option adds to the uncertainty.

He wants a general election and a Labour government to renegotiate Brexit on unrealistic terms. Team Corbyn won’t get either – and YouGov’s latest polling suggests it will eventually pay a heavy price for its cynicism. Activists who want a People’s Vote are increasingly restless.

By general consent May’s plan is still heading for defeat on January 15, but her strategy remains to keep pushing it in the hope that, as the clock ticks down towards Lord Tebbit’s birthday, enough MPs – including all DUP members but hardliner, Sammy Wilson – will blink and back her at the second or third attempt, for want of a viable alternative.

Will she get away with it? Lots of people who might support her hate the deal. On Sunday, Mandelson wrote a scathing attack on the ‘legal and political no man’s land’ in which rule-taker Britain would find itself. The influential London First lobby group is reportedly poised to abandon its support. But her strength remains that in the contest to be the last plan standing her rivals have failed to coalesce behind an alternative that can command a Commons majority. Thus stalwart Remainer Ken Clarke (no knighthood nonsense for him) pops up to dismiss June 23 as ‘a single opinion poll’ but accepts the pragmatic need for a Brexit deal. That would take 4-5 years so he proposes not a pause in Article 50 (that would require the EU 27’s consent), but a unilateral repeal to allow time – ‘revoke and revive,’ as he puts it.

Even Clarke knows that ‘paranoid’ Brexiteers will suspect a plot to Remain. His old comrade in arms, Chris Patten, proposes a postponement of the A50 process to allow more time to explore a deal that might embrace the single market or even the customs union, rather than the illusion of Brexit without a transition and trading on WTO terms – the very WTO that Donald Trump is actively undermining. Either that or a People’s Vote.

It is hard to see such scenarios playing out. That is why rival camps have mostly refused to table their own amendments, as No.10 would wish, in order to flush them out. Everyone is engaged in wait-and-see.

Some 200 MPs have called on May to rule out a no-deal Brexit. So have cabinet ministers like Amber Rudd. But she won’t, because fear of one is her electric cattle prod to cajole MPs into her lobby and persuade Europe to concede just a little more and allow her to claim a bit of victory.

Legal assurances that the Irish backstop is temporary? A promise that a new trade deal would be done by 2021? The rumour mill turns noisily. EU negotiations always end like this and we should not be surprised. Irish ministers are very keen to avoid the damage that no-deal would do to their economy and their peaceful border.

Who will blink first and how will they do it?

Not long to wait now.

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