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MICHAEL WHITE: Brexit crisis will dominate 2020 – regardless of election result

The ghosts of Brexmases yet to come. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

Why the looming general election presents us with a frightening lose-lose dilemma.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses supporters prior to boarding his General Election campaign trail bus. Picture: Frank Augstein-WPA Pool/Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

Just when you thought this dispiriting election campaign couldn’t sink any lower, something new pops up to further lower the tone. Dysfunctional Donald Trump flies into London and World King Boris goes into hiding. Usman Khan’s murderous spree in the Fishmongers’ Hall goads our feckless political leadership deeper into the swamp of opportunistic dishonesty. And Jeremy Corbyn’s latest attempt to weaponise the NHS seems to have been circulated by a covert Russian cyber-warfare operation. Oh dear. Roll on Christmas, so we can all get a few days respite.

Mark my words, it will only be a few days off. The agony of the Brexit crisis will dominate 2020 as it has the past four years. The range and quality of most public services has declined since 2010, thanks to cuts and neglect, I heard an analyst at the sober Institute for Government (IfG) say the other day. Even in the better-protected NHS clinical performance is just about holding up. But waiting times and deficits are growing – and none of the main parties unfunded election pledges will restore our health service to its 2010 standard.

That’s the opportunity cost of Brexit – all the things we can’t focus on because we’re too busy – before we’ve even left. Whitehall and parliament paralysed, voters angry and confused. The European Union keen to get shot of us so it can concentrate on its own pressing problems, not least the Brexit budget hole. The Nato summit in Watford infected by similar centrifugal forces – exactly what the Brexit crew told us wouldn’t happen. As illusory slogans go, “Get Brexit Done” is as dishonest as that “£350 million a week for the NHS” bus boast.

So we witnessed the grisly spectacle of Trump saying he wouldn’t touch the British NHS “on a silver platter”, his point instantly undermined by loudly wondering who started the rumour it might be up for grabs in future trade talks (You did, Mr President). Likewise his pledge not to interfere in our election (“I think Boris is very capable”). Backed by noisy street demos, Corbyn ploughed on with his “NHS for sale” trope and finally apologised for Labour anti-Semitism. Johnson promised to impose suitable tax rates on US tech giants. Should we believe any of them?

At the weekend I quarrelled with a high-minded friend who argued that Friday’s terrorist attack justified the BBC’s ‘public interest’ decision (was a rival offer from Sky’s Sophie Ridge the clincher?) to drop its veto on Boris Johnson doing The Andrew Marr Show until he’d done his porridge in Andrew Neil’s torture chamber. I feared the rogue would play politics with two murders. So did one victim’s dad.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the launch of the party’s general election manifesto in Birmingham. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images – Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Johnson was barely a minute into his session with an unusually combative Marr (“I’m as ‘ard as Neil”) before he tried to blame Labour government policies for Usman Khan’s release, much as I had predicted. My friend waited until the programme was over before graciously apologising. But the Dominic (‘No Complacency’) Cummings spin machine rolled on into Monday’s “New Blitz on Freed Jihadis” headlines and similar kneejerk soundbites in the Daily Toady.

All this despite the explicit plea from David Merritt, father of Jack, one of the two rehabilitation champions murdered by pathetic Khan, not to use his son’s death to promote the “vile propaganda” of revenge. Yes, the adrenaline-fired civilians who cornered Khan with fire extinguishers and a whale tusk were indeed brave, it takes a different kind of courage to make such points in deep shock and family distress. Merritt Snr’s plea was half-acknowledged by opposition parties, but buried in the Daily Mail. Surprise!

Ignoring Merritt Snr’s appeal highlighted just how the Tory campaign team has lost whatever moral compass it started out with. We used to be better than this. The failure runs like a stain through much of Johnson’s cynical campaign, its throw-away promises, its ambiguities (Global Britain or state-subsidised Britain?), its reflexes when confronted with awkward truths about that Irish Sea border or the absurdly remote prospect of a decent EU trade deal (or no-deal?) by next Christmas.

All have been on display this week to seduce the susceptible. “Not so much Singapore-on-Thames as Stoke-on-Trent” was how the Sunday Times economics editor despairingly put it. The tragedy of 2019 is the lack of a credible alternative. Labour’s ‘renegotiate before another referendum’ is clearly better than Johnson’s ‘my deal or no-deal’. But, with respect to Steve Richards in last week’s TNE, do we really believe it will happen if Labour limps home next week? Jeremy Corbyn is no Harold Wilson, Steve, and his Praetorian Guard are not Remainers.

“Focus on me, your local representative, not on Jeremy, think about our policies, not the personalities,” Labour candidates tell Corbyn-resistant heartland voters in the now famous (previously unheard of) ‘red wall’ of seats across the midlands and north. But Tony Benn was wrong to insist it is the “ishoos” alone that count. It’s also personalities, as his own career proved.

Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson at the launch of the Liberal Democrats’ general election manifesto in London. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

Unite’s Len McCluskey admitted this week that Islington’s Jeremy is a hard sell among Labour loyalists who are leaning towards Johnson’s populism and “Get Brexit Done” mantra. In an echo of then-general secretary Jim Mortimer’s announcement during Labour’s doomed 1983 campaign, that the NEC had confirmed Michael Foot as leader (“you said what, Jim?”), Corbyn’s banker – at least Len’s not a Russian oligarch, Boris – also told the HuffPost website that, if defeated again, Jeremy should take “a period of reflexion” before resigning as party leader.

I happen to agree that the modern habit of scampering for the exit immediately after electoral defeat – think Cameron, Miliband, Brown, but nor Michael Howard or Vince Cable – is a bad one. But what Comrade Len wants is time to stitch it up for another malleable successor. Try as I do, I find it hard to see Angela Rayner or the current favourite, Rebecca Long-Bailey, being the answer. What did you think of RB-L’s debate performance on TV? If Labour wants a woman leader, savvy Brummie, Jess Phillips, comes across as a much more voter-friendly, but that suggestion may be equally bonkers for different reasons.

In a Corbynesque grassroots revolt, Germany’s traditional SPD, debilitated by years of being junior partners in Mutti Merkel’s fading CDU-led coalition (ask Nick Clegg to explain), has just unexpectedly elected a new, largely unknown left-wing leadership. Vying for third place in the polls with the right-wing AfD (on 15%) the idea is to distance the SPD from the centrist taint. Jo Swinson is engaged in a similar post-coalition rebranding, so far with limited success. Polls suggest the two-party squeeze is on again. No wonder Cummings is jittery as the Tory lead slips to as low as 6% in some findings and postal voting surges, student registration rates too. What is going on out there?

Not just here either. Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen – Belgian born of posh German-British-American stock, her formidable CV includes seven children – has just taken over from Jean-Claude Juncker as EU commission president. Not that you’d notice in most UK papers. But who will govern back home in Europe’s anchor state? There is some talk of the highly-disciplined Greens going into government – a first at federal level in Berlin – as the left counterweight to whoever succeeds flagging Merkel in 2020-21. Or the SPD and Greens could cut a deal with their foes in the ex-communist, left-wing Die Link, the Green leader, Robert Habeck, a credible candidate for chancellor.

Either way, it opens up a greater prospect that Germany will embrace a less restrictive tax-and-spend stance, easing those trade and budget surpluses to help their struggling allies and appease ‘America First’ Trump. Faced with strikes that make ours look puny Emmanuel Macron could do with help. But will there be kindness to spare for whoever is negotiating Britain’s new EU trade agreement, the serious bit of “Getting Brexit Done”? Paris has been making friendlier noises, but its fishing ports are eager for a fight.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage eats fish and chips in Whitehaven – Credit: Getty Images

In the age of identity politics, gender fluidity (another touchy topic ducked in this campaign) is no longer the only fluidity around. At 70, Nato is an unusually durable alliance (so far). But Donald Trump was a Democrat when his left-wing challenger, Elizabeth Warren, was a registered Republican. The Etonian Johnson is embracing blue collar economic populism to breach that red wall. Corbyn’s admirers say he is not like that, he has consistently stuck to beliefs he has held for 50 years, ideas whose time has supposedly come.

Well, yes. The FT last week printed a letter from 163 economists – half the number that attacked Thatcher’s monetarism in 1982, cried the wits – defending Labour’s transformational plans. They would dramatically restructure the economy in favour of the public sector, raise taxes, but only on the rich and corporations (which few believe), transfer shares and boardroom power to workers (ie unions), fund a huge green deal, regional deals, a back-payment deal for Waspi pensioners like Theresa May, but not the working poor.

Since we last met here a 30% discount for rail commuters and free travel for under-16s has been added to the Corbyn Christmas Tree – paid for by cuts in the wicked road programme. Does justifying that shift on environmental grounds make that bribe a form of ‘greenwashing’, I wonder? And is it a coincidence that the manifesto’s intellectual underpinning by modern monetary theory (MMT) – that a government’s monopoly on the printing of money can be used to finance full deployment of resources and employment – also stands for magic money tree? Young voters, angry with their boomer parents, are attracted, but boomers know they have heard it all before. So have most economists. It’s too much, too fast – just like born-again Elizabeth Warren’s fantasy programme for an American NHS. It’s posturing.

In a pre-planned national security speech in York on Sunday Corbyn did make some welcome compromises with his own past. He still avoids the always-silly “would you press the nuclear button?” question, but he no longer condemns Nato and says he wants full cooperation with our European allies on security and intelligence matters. But he persists in asserting that the Blair government’s ill-fated role in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacerbated the terrorist threat Britain faces today. Perhaps it has, but it begs the obvious retort that France and Germany sat that war out – and both have suffered grievously from Islamist nihilism, France far worse than Britain.

It also gives the Johnson campaign another chance to rehash the Labour leader’s anti-western CV, his dangerous friends in strange places, his essential “present but not involved” naivety. Is it likely that the “Lock ’em up” clichés from the PM and Priti Useless, his home secretary of choice, will cut through better than Corbyn’s legitimate points about a decade of cuts and Failing Grayling’s partial privatisation of the probation service? I fear it will. An ill-judged austerity’s impact on offender management and the kind of rehabilitation programmes that Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt both supported was apparent long before Khan ran amok. Prison service reforms have been proposed and shelved – another addition to the long list of Brexit opportunity costs.

Clearly mistakes were made in Khan’s early release, judicial, administrative and political. Mistakes are always made by fallible humans, errors easily identified only with 20/20 hindsight. But if Corbynite Labour shares its leader’s naivety about terrorism and self-assigned rehabilitation, the Tories are cynical. They brush aside over-crowded and under-staffed prisons (2,500 fewer officers), austerity’s impact on courts (300 closed since 2010) on probation staff and even those 500 closed libraries.

As a measured Times editorial minded its readers, these people have been in power since 2010. Yet they still blame Labour for the bankers crash in which Deutsche Bank bond salesman, Sajid Javid, was an active player.

Voters awareness that they’re being offered some very smelly fish these days explains why the Manchester bombing damaged ex-home secretary Theresa May in the 2017 campaign. It’s why Tory HQ twitches now as their poll lead narrows and why their manifesto was designed to be unmemorable and – with luck – published late, quickly forgotten.

Carrying the fragile Ming vase that is his campaign strategy across a very slippery floor, Johnson has said as much as he dare to keep Donald Trump at a safe distance during the Nato summit’s photo opportunities. But the president is about as discreet as pole-dancing tech entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri, who this week let it be known that she and mayor Johnson used Shakespeare’s love sonnets as a warm-up routine. Is nothing sacred, not even Shakespeare?

What a lose-lose dilemma. I have never known a time when so many friends and family, Labour, Lib Dem or Tory have been so undecided so late in the campaign. To vote with their conscience regardless of wider consequence? To vote tactically in the hope of achieving a wider objective like the second referendum (or Scottish independence!) – or preventing a worse alternative like a Rees-Mogg (where is he?) no-deal? To vote for an admired local candidate – or against a loathed one – and fatalistically accept the bigger outcome? To vote Green – surely only a gesture this side of the Rhine – or curse them all and abstain? Everyone’s dilemma is slightly different. To my astonishment, I am still vacillating, disgraceful in a man of my age and experience. Good luck.

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