Why Britain faces dangers that are still rising – and cannot be held back.
My Brexit star of the week so far is Andrew McLackland, the man who refused to leave Whaley Bridge with his family because he’d decided the threat to nearby Toddbrook Reservoir was “Health and Safety gone mad, a fuss about nothing”. I’ve no idea if Mr McLackland actually voted Leave three long summers ago, but his determination to do something rash in the face of persuasive evidence just up the valley certainly struck a chord.
If you want to believe that America’s insane gun laws are part of your cultural identity rather than the main cause of 33,000 firearms deaths a year, then two more massacres in 24 hours won’t convince you otherwise. If you don’t see a connection between a month’s worth of tropical rain, pouring virtually overnight into Toddbrook Reservoir, and climate-changing volatility, then carry on as before. There’s a lot of inconvenient truth lying around, waiting to be acknowledged before it’s too late.
In fairness to Mr McLackland, he did change his mind without having to wait for the reservoir’s 200-year-old dam to burst. This suggests he is more astute than many supporters of Boris Johnson’s “do or die” commitment to leave the European Union on October 31 without a deal if necessary, as Michael Gove promised. Sterling duly tanked (again), so holidaymakers have been getting just 0.78 euros for a pound at Stansted airport.
I had hoped that the election of Brexit Trump and the global surge in economic and political nationalism – see Hindu India’s Kashmiri coup this week – might swing public opinion decisively back to Remain. It hasn’t happened because all countries are infected by populist fervour. Yet when the Brexit dam bursts on voters’ jobs and living standards, many will still be saying “It’s all Health and Safety’s fault, or that Mark Carney bloke. He should have warned us sooner”. He did, he did. But the Global Britain posse was reading the Boris-infatuated political pages of their newspaper of choice, not the sombre, Brexit-panicking City pages.
As ministers step up their “drop your gun or I’ll shoot myself” threats to Brussels – in parallel with frantic appeals to ill-prepared businesses to try harder – there is no sign of a collapse in the dam which the EU27 have painstakingly built around their single market.
Every hairline crack is examined exhaustively before Jean-Claude Juncker’s helicopter drops more rubble on it. Both sides seem to be talking past each other – as usual. What a tragedy looms for car workers, fisher folk and patients needing rare drugs. If only the medics had fixed Boris’s glue ear properly when he was eight.
It’s not hard to fathom out what World King Bozzie Bear is up to while much of the country takes its cut-price pounds to the beach. The new prime minister’s compulsive crowd-pleasing has manifested itself in a spending spree. Not an indiscriminate one, only the funding of his largesse is pure fantasy. No.10’s targets are tactical, aimed at parts of the country and sections of the electorate which both feel aggrieved and tempted to take their disgruntled votes to Nigel Farage’s latest pop-up party. How much better for ministers if persuadable voters in Labour and Lib Dem-held marginals could be persuaded the World King’s way if he can caress their hot buttons.
So Priti ‘Useless’ Patel offers the Daily Mail the red meat of tougher law and order policies to cow those hardened criminals while Matt Hancock scatters £1.8 billion from Sajid Javid’s Back of the Sofa Fund to buy new hospital units and paint jobs from Truro to Tyneside. Experts are sceptical, but who listens to those evidence freaks any more? Actually voters are pretty sceptical too. Yet anyone who watched The Great Hack, Netflix’s expose of Cambridge Analytica’s data scams, can safely assume that Downing Street’s svengali, Dominic Cummings, knows exactly who he’s targeting, inside the UK if not beyond.
So we’re being played, just as those recycled spending announcements are being massaged. Booster Boris’s capital investment stimulus to the economy? It will take years to work through – as Gordon Brown’s HS2 boost (2010) is very slowly demonstrating. Ditto George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse boost. Our kids will pay anyway. Who was it who cried: “You just don’t care about anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything”? Ah, yes, it was First Girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, defending her Camberwell sofa.
Election, what election? Ministers protest innocence. “I don’t want one,” says Hanging On Hancock, who regrets that the Commons didn’t find a way to block a no-deal Brexit, but has since moved on. The government has “no plans” to hold one, he adds. Weasel words in a familiar format. The two Dominics are more frank. Ex-Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, says that to prevent chaos after October 31 he’s willing to vote down his own government, its notional DUP-buttressed majority reduced to one by the Lib Dem win in the Welsh swing seat of Brecon and Radnorshire last week.
In theory that might lead to a cross-party government of national unity – the latest pro-Remain last ditch – if one could be devised within the statutory 14 days. But can you see Ken Clarke or Grieve agreeing to support wishy-washy Jeremy Corbyn as a puppet prime minister? Can you imagine Corbyn’s minders backing Clarke – who could at least do the job in an OAP way – or Jeremy Hunt, rather than trigger the election gamble they still crave, despite Labour’s Farage-assisted humiliation in Brecon? Nor can I.
Nobody-Calls-Me-Dom Grieve argues that a defeated Johnson cabinet minding the shop during a long election campaign to, say, Thursday, November 7 would not dare to breach conventions that inhibit ‘caretaker governments’ (we last had one before the 1945 election) from doing controversial things a successor would not endorse. Legal super-brain Jonathan Sumption insists the law would be powerless to stop it. Downing Street Dom says a defeated Boris can’t be forced to resign until he’s ready.
In similar realpolitik tone Dirty Dom assures the motley crew of new ministerial special advisers (spads) – picked for their zeal, not expertise – that Remainers have missed their chance to stop a hard Brexit. “Too late,” cries Cummings like a B-movie villain. With a shameless ‘people vs the politicians’ pitch the author of ‘Take Back Control’ might just win a postponed election on a euphoric (“we did it”) Brexit Bounce before the make-believe ‘New Golden Age’ hits the reality buffers.
Such a strategy sounds more brutally effective than the People’s Vote plan to target 100 marginal seats where tactical voting might elect more pro-second-referendum-and-Remain MPs. In the 1980s the SNP-Liberal Alliance showed that tactical voting is very hard to organise, but targeted social media messages, Cambridge Analytica-style, now makes the task easier for the unscrupulous. I suspect Cummings will have access to more money and fewer scruples than Seumas Milne.
In the dog days of August the election speculation mill is working overtime and already getting repetitious. There is an obvious risk in letting this happen. Back in the summer of 1978 when I was a rookie political correspondent I watched Jim Callaghan’s campaign team let everyone – especially the TUC – expect an October election. So I was in the Lichfield hotel with Margaret Thatcher, campaigning in Labour-held Midlands marginals (just like Boris this week), the night Jim’s bombshell dropped.
“I don’t think Mr Callaghan is making a ministerial broadcast to announce there’s not going to be an election, do you,” she told local television news at 5.55pm. Five minutes later he did just that. When Gordon Brown showed signs of making the same mistake after succeeding Tony Blair in the summer of 2007 I reminded Damian McBride – Brown’s Dominic Cummings – against letting speculation run unchecked in case unwelcome events forced a change of plan, as they duly did. Cummings is much less a team player than ‘Mad Dog’ McBride.
I told you Dom isn’t boring, though I am increasingly convinced by what I hear that, one way or another, he will explode – as he has so often done before when exasperated with morons (ie. the rest of us). If we are to avoid a crash someone has to blink, as Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza negotiators did when the Athens brinkman’s bluff was called by Brussels and Berlin. Likewise the populist regime in Rome, which blinked over its scary borrowing plans. But it won’t be scruffy Dom, he doesn’t do blink. Like his White House counterpart, Steve Bannon, he walks away, snarling abuse.
Tuesday’s unblinking message from Brussels to Blustering Boris (“no, we won’t scrap the Irish backstop or Withdrawal Agreement”) suggests it expects a repeat performance. Britain isn’t Greece, but it’s only one-fifth the size of the EU27. Visiting Labour Wales last week Johnson alarmed Tory headbangers by hinting that he just might sign up to bits of Theresa May’s – remember her? – transition deal and even stay in the single market/customs union until 2021. A hard Brexit will cost the 27 plenty too, but less than it will cost us. Johnson must realise that by now, but he has boxed himself in. So a Grand Old Duke of York compromise would also carry a political cost and put lead back into Farage’s drooping pencil.
Perhaps both sides can bring themselves to blink just enough to avoid a deluge. But here we might usefully learn from the woefully under-reported experience of Switzerland since June. The Swiss are part of the Schengen passport union, but not the EU’s single market (Norway is) or customs union. So, contrary to Brexit myth-making, there is a hard border, plus 120 bilateral treaties to facilitate trade. The permanent negotiation is time-consuming and Brussels wants to consolidate the deals into one. When Bern dragged its tiny feet the EU revoked its ‘equivalence’ deal which permitted cross-border trading in financial services, a big blow to Swiss banks. It was nothing to do with the trade treaties, just a bit of playground bullying. In a technical row over credit rating standards it’s doing something similar to five significant countries – Brazil, Canada, Singapore, Australia and Argentina.
In response the Swiss did a Boris and self-harmed by making it a criminal offence, punishable by three years in jail, to trade in Swiss shares other than on the Zurich stock exchange. It will restore some of the income lost to the EU ruling, but hurt Swiss financial institutions more. It’s a reminder that the European Commission would retain control over UK state aid policy – any tax allowances or subsidies Sajid Javid may have in mind to ease Brexit grief – during any transition period and that the European Investment Bank (EIB) could recall 40 billion euros worth of UK loans if so minded.
In January the EU took the City of London to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over alleged non-payment of VAT on lucrative commodity derivative trades. Billions are at stake. This is politically motivated mutual harm. But it’s also leverage. That’s what nationalist populists do, as Trump’s escalating trade war with China and others (EU included) shows and China’s retaliatory currency manipulation confirm. In a lose+lose world, markets are falling.
Brexiteers will say “We told you so, they’re just bullies”. So they are, but they hold the big sticks, not us, and Brexit was our idea. Aspects of it are proving contagious across Europe, even in Germany. For “Brussels” as a populist hate figure, read “European Central Bank”. Remember too, the really tricky negotiation isn’t the Withdrawal Agreement which Gove wants ditched, it’s that pesky future trade agreement we were once told would be so easy. Brussels says it won’t open talks until we behave better over the Irish border.
Unfair, protests Gove, clearly warming up for the election blame game. Yes, but who said life is fair? If they think trade talks with the Trump administration will be any fairer, let alone quicker, they’ve been listening to the wrong people, Arkansas senator, Tom Cotton, for example. He’s a cultural hardliner on most things, including gun control, wouldn’t you know. Knowing how desperate the UK is likely to be, Washington will be very unsentimental, especially on agriculture.
That won’t do much for the friendly people of rural Brecon and Radnorshire, through whose small towns I happened to drive in bright sunshine last month. With Welsh lamb prized in France, there are said to be 10 times as many sheep in the constituency as people, at least until 40% EU meat tariffs and US market access have whacked them. Its defiantly cheerful high streets show familiar signs of distress, closed banks and post offices, struggling retailers, distant hospitals. The resourceful will always get by. One enterprising shop I entered had five businesses under a single roof. Not all of us are quite so resourceful.