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MICHAEL WHITE: Labour meanders towards the cliff as Tories cling to Chequers

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour's Pied Piper. Picture: Michael Rowson - Credit: Archant

Labour are losing the battle to control the national conversation while the Tories continue their inevitable march into Brexit chaos, writes Michael White.

These are dark, post-Salzburg days for all sides of the Brexit debate, not much light visible at the end of the tunnel, wherever the tunnel turns out to be going. Canada Plan A+, courtesy of the Moggites, anyone? So let me offer a shard of comfort from Basel airport, through which I recently passed.

At first glance it is just another bland, modern airport, but its existence on this Franco-Swiss-German frontier city rests on ingenious diplomatic compromises. And I haven’t even mentioned the railway station arrangement. Basel moral: people can fix most problems if the will and flexibility exist to do so.

But does the will to avoid an over-the-Lawson-cliff no-deal Brexit exist after the very public roughing up of Theresa May’s Chequers compromise by the EU27 in the birthplace of great Mozart the city where Helmut Kohl, once pleaded he was ‘too busy’ to have a bilateral with Margaret Thatcher?

The then-German chancellor was later spotted stuffing his face in a cake shop, luckily only by Thatcher’s foreign policy advisor, Charles Powell, who was able to steer the boss to safety across the street. So our Tess, almost alone in her brave red jacket among those menacing dark suits, is not the first PM to sense a lack of ‘respect’ in Austria, though possibly the first to have it expressed in an Instagram post.

But something went badly wrong last Friday. It is a basic rule of diplomacy (unless you’re Donald Trump) to do the spade work before the big meeting, sew up most of the detail, and, above all, avoid surprises – in press conferences as well as cake shops. When May was exposed to a media drubbing at home, the 27 purported to be surprised and Brits complained of an ambush by what the Sun called ‘EU dirty rats’ (it is often an honour to be insulted by the Sun). The usual suspects were duly lined up for blame. J-C Juncker (of course), Emmanuel Macron for calling the Brexit crew ‘liars’, even poor old Instagrammer Donald Tusk, who is generally thought to be on our side.

Oh yes, May was in the frame too, for trusting bagman-in-chief, Olly Robins, when he told her Salzburg would go the way she wanted – opening the way to a November deal. Which bit of their two-year, ‘no cherry picking’ warnings didn’t London understand?

Why did they think it was clever to try divide-and-rule ministerial visits to EU capitals again? Was it smart of May to repeat the burden of her German newspaper article when she got her 10 minute after-dinner spot? The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg treated herself to a joke: The Brits were negotiating like the kind of tourists who keep repeating themselves in English – but LOUDER – in the vain hope of being understood.

Easily said, but it’s unlikely that the 27 deliberately set out to weaken May’s fragile political case at home, since all the visible alternatives are worse. Boris or Mogg? Sajid Javid or Jeremy Hunt? They would all face the same problem with a deeply divided party. None is a leader who looks capable of changing the weather.

The other Jeremy – we’ll come back to him – has been prevaricating as usual over Brexit and a People’s Vote option to reverse Brexit at his party’s Liverpool conference. Sunday night’s anguished ‘compromise’ over the wording of Tuesday’s motion deceived no one not eager to be deceived. And Labour’s real leader – his name is ‘Len McDonnell’ – quickly shot down the likelihood of Remain being a second ballot option, despite Paul (‘It’s all Kicking Off’) Mason joining his old pal, Tony Blair, in calling for one.

To reinforce the folly of it all, Sunday’s London papers were full of wild nonsense about a snap November election (hollow laughter) and a breakaway Brexit party that won’t solve anything either. Neither story lasted 24 hours, though it was good to see a constituency poll funded by a breakaway Brexit City-type found that voters don’t want their pro-Remain local MP deselected. Voters often have more sense than Labour activists in Liverpool.

Buck-passing after a pile-up is pretty standard, though was it significant that chancellor Merkel did not feature conspicuously in the (dis)credits? A further sign of her declining authority and domestic preoccupations? Or that she is saving her energy to knock heads together when a Basel airport deal is needed as Berlin realises that the Brits really might crash out? Understandably, odds on a hard Brexit have shortened again despite me still not expecting one.

Ah yes, a Basel airport deal, or EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg deal to give its full name. Let me explain. It serves all three nearby cities, but is actually just inside France, 2.2 miles from Basel to which it is linked by a 1.6-mile ‘customs road’ that allows travellers like me to leave Switzerland without going though French passport control.

Ingenious, eh? But not so fast, I haven’t finished yet. The airport is divided into French and Swiss sections with Swiss officialdom and police having complete authority over their bits, subject to French spot checks for hanky-panky. But woe betide an arrival who intends to visit France then exits through Swiss passport control. That complicates matters, though less than it might have done if Switzerland hadn’t joined the Schengen area in 2009.

We’ll save the railway arrangements for next time. It’s enough for now to say that one of Basel’s stations, the Basel Badischer Bahnhof, is operated by the German railways and has a passport control in the passenger tunnel between the tracks and the railway. Even we’ve managed something similar at the Eurostar in St Pancras. These border issues can be fixed if people want them fixed.

The Irish border issue, so blithely brushed aside by the Brains of Brexit as a fake political distraction, can be fixed too, using an ingenious combination of several ideas that have been floated, including the trusted trader, high tech etc options and an extension of existing controls and checks that already exist across the Irish Sea.

It is all much less sacred than May’s Chequers plan claims, a point reinforced by the recalcitrant DUP’s insistence on an Irish Sea border on some matters – mostly to do with sex, a topic that features in most people’s lives.

I was reminded of this anomaly again this week when a Kiwi cousin of my wife arrived from playing golf in the region and tried to offload his Northern Ireland pound notes. Neither Barclays nor the Forex Bureau would oblige. ‘You’ll have to pay them into your bank account,’ they said. He doesn’t have a UK account so my wife took them. Apparently the notes are legal currency, but not legal tender. Work that out.

It will not help that Brussels is now demanding that Britain repay 2.7 billion euros of lost import duties on cheap Chinese footwear and textiles, illegally imported into EU markets courtesy of customs failures at UK ports. Roll-on, roll-off Dover and the container port of Felixstowe (a Brexit icon) are chiefly in the frame. If Jacob Rees-Mogg has had anything useful to say on it I have missed it. But it does illustrate the dangers of lax customs facilities.

Rees-Mogg was more visible at the launch of the European Not Much Research Group’s (ERG) alternative to Chequers document on Monday. At last! Two years on, the Brexiters have a plan! This was arguably a more significant development than Labour’s People’s Vote contortions or the cabinet’s renewed endorsement of Chequers, a tougher dead parrot than it looks. The usual ‘cabinet revolt’ talk evaporated as usual.

Ministers also backed home secretary Javid’s plans (drawn up by the Migration Advisory Committee) for a more even-handed, skills-and-wealth orientated, global immigration policy after free movement formally ends on March 29 (but informally doesn’t end much). Details are still pending. Send an SAE.

Business worries that it will squeeze still further the supply of low and unskilled labour which keeps much of Britain ticking over, even in areas of high unemployment. But it works politically – at least for now – and May’s cabinet is not seen as business-friendly, or business as politically engaged as it should be, a bad combination. John McDonnell has noticed this and launched a City+voter charm offensive.

Unlike Corbyn the Street Protester, the shadow chancellor is serious about power, though not very serious about what he hopes to do with it. That brackets him more with Boris Johnson than with Rees-Mogg. I suspect Mogg of being more of a street protesting romantic like Jez, Bond Street in Jake’s case.

But Mogg gave his wholehearted endorsement of the Plan A+ model produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) think tank, as did David Davis, now in the Battersea Home for Brexit Bulldogs, and Boris ‘Me Too’ Johnson. As you would expect from the venerable right-wing tank – almost as old as me – it rejects close regulatory, market or customs alignment with the EU in favour of a Canada (CETA) style trade deal on goods and some services.

Trade with the big booming world out there will make up for the losses. There would also be a lot of ‘red tape’ slashing over environmental, social and data protection, and food safety legislation. EU labour protection seems to be slowing down the UK economy, Jake’s crew seems to think. So we can throw more of that overboard and make some space at the table for chlorinated chicken and hormone-packed beef. It’s all fine, Donald Trump says so.

There’s also a passage on negotiating third party trade deals behind the EU’s back during the 2019-20 transition (isn’t that illegal?) and possibly suing Brussels at the WTO for its own violations of the GATT trade rules during the Brexit talks. All that and lots of bracing Singapore tax cuts. My, my, why did no one else invent this magic wand sooner to cheer up Daily Express readers who are unlikely to benefit from it anyway?

I must admit I was not previously aware of the ‘leading world trade lawyer’ behind Plan A+ and suspect he may quickly melt back into rewarding speculations. No, not quirky Patrick Minford this time, he is Shanker Singham, of St Paul’s School, Balliol College, Oxford etc. Obviously a clever chap, though the BBC’s policy editor, Chris Cook, quickly drilled holes in his maths and modelling, the bits which justified his claim that GDP growth could be 7.25% higher than it would have been if we were stuck with EU rules. An important footnote (no 28) seems to have gone missing.

An ex-Remain voter (though he used to work for the Brexit-packed Legatum Institute), Singham sounded quite reasonable on Radio 4 until I heard him claim that Brexit is not a local European matter. A G7 economy reasserting an independent trade policy is ‘a major global event’, he said. Sorry, but it isn’t. If the future is trade blocs then the future is China (plus Belt and Road Initiative), US-dominated NAFTA, the EU and India too, Brazil in time. If the future is more nationalistic and populist – as it looks right now – the answer is roughly the same. Singham’s faith in a renewed Commonwealth trade bloc may be sweet nostalgia, but 60 years out of date.

A bonfire of regulations and social protection? More choking cities? Singapore tax rates? Labour ought to be all over this, making great sport of what a Mogg Brexit might look like. As everyone from banker peer, Jim O’Neill, to Polly Toynbee is proclaiming, the public mood has changed. Even May recognised this at the last election, she just failed to address voter concerns in a meaningful way that people noticed.

It’s all up for grabs, yet the shambolic Tories are still pretty much neck-and-neck with the Labour opposition and can’t find a Not Theresa leader to restore order. I can’t remember quite what Vince Cable thinks – another missed opportunity – but Labour in Liverpool this week has consumed far too much energy on internal party battles – notably the deselection of MPs, deputy leaders and the ongoing fudge over Brexit – to seize control of the national conversation over the biggest, most intractable issue of our time. Voters aren’t interested in navel-gazing.

I don’t blame Keir Starmer, he does his best on an impossible wicket. ‘Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option,’ he ad-libbed in Tuesday’s conference speech. Even so, the BBC’s Nick Robinson politely made him look cheap when he challenged his promise to vote down virtually any deal May makes – it would fail whatever his six tests are. That means that you, a pro-Remain MP, would be voting with Boris and Jake Mogg against May, Macron and Merkel. Duh? It’s what we’d expect of serial backbench rebel Corbyn, not of a man who clearly retains a healthy ambition to be prime minister.

Pulled in opposing directions by Starmer and McDonnell, Pied Piper Corbyn said on the Marr show that he’d do what the membership wants. That’s his shtick. Except it isn’t true. On Europe, 85% back a second referendum which Len McDonnell, Jeremy, Seumas and Co don’t, because they think they can engineer a general election. Ditto mandatory de/reselection of MPs, an utterly destructive mechanism to anyone who knows anything about creative politics. Jez’s beloved Momentum
army wants it, but Len McDonnell doesn’t. He fears it may dilute their
own influence.

So much for the decentralised and democratised power we heard about when the shadow chancellor unveiled his plans to renationalise the water industry, put workers (union reps) on main company boards and force them to hand up to 10% of equity to their staff, at least in theory. There’s plenty wrong with the UK water industry where regulation and enforcement has been poor. But is borrowing £70 billion to renationalise it – with no guarantee of a better performance, to put it politely – really a radical’s priority in troubled 2018?

Meanwhile statisticians report that the steady rise in post-war UK life expectancy has stalled. Cold winters and flu? Infant mortality? Austerity and cuts? Fewer healthy young migrants? We’re too busy with Brexit to ask why.

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