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Why we are living in reckless times

"Make me an offer", Theresa May is supposed to have told Chancellor Merkel in Davos. Picture: Gary Barker - Credit: Archant

Michael White discusses Tory infighting and the soft Marxist looking on in opposition

Is it over yet? Has the latest ‘May Must Go’ spasm convulsing the Tory ranks and the Brexit end of Fleet St subsided?

Has the proxy slogan ‘Hammond Must Go’ and its more tentative rival ‘Hammond must definitely be reined in’ given way to ‘May must do better by May’?

How about the Tory donors’ reported threat: ‘Raise your game by October, Theresa – or else, maybe.’ Is that taking off?

For want of any realistic options that won’t worsen the Tory civil war, the spasm is over, though by the time you read this I may have been horribly wrong-footed. Ours are reckless and volatile times when decades of peace and stability have come to be taken for granted by people who can’t remember the bloody 20th century except through the misty, misleading prism of Dunkirk and Finest Hour where grim reality is romanticised.

Who knows? Perhaps the pro-Remain House of Lords will throw caution to the wind and reject the EU Withdrawal bill. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer will decide he has had enough. Or Michel Barnier will throw in the towel after his latest set of EU ministerial instructions (‘more of the same, mon vieux’), agreed on Monday after just two minutes discussion. Any one of them could ignite the fatal spark.

What is clear after weeks of unsettling calm (‘It’s too damned quiet out there, Carruthers’) since December when Theresa May cut her wisely-vague deal on the divorce terms, is that the tribes of Brexit are on the move again. The Christmas truce, with football matches in No Man’s Land, is over.

Result? Assorted attempts to fashion a Brexit formula are popping up from Brussels, from the City and CBI, even from Whitehall and Westminster, though they are prudently presented as restatements of existing government policy: Brexit means Brexit. Plotting has resumed too. Is it a death wish?

Has anything solid emerged? An extended transition (‘implementation’ in Maybot-speak) after March 2020, or an extension of the Article 50 process to spare Britain ‘vassal state’ status as a rule-taker?

A settlement outside the single market but inside some form of customs union (is that what those Turks have?). A second referendum on the final deal, for which a Guardian/ICM poll found some stirring in the public’s loins at the weekend?

We’ll return to that later. The politics of the German coalition negotiations – which look a bit shaky again – are still the big political story in Europe. As Alastair Campbell reported in last week’s New European the tribal politics of Brexit remain a baffling puzzle to our neighbours, as exotic, impenetrable and violent as Druidic Britain did to the Roman invaders in Sky Atlantic’s new box set offering, Britannia.

Is May going to be sacrificed to her Druidic Tendancy? Of course not. Nothing fundamental has changed since the last backbench plot against her erupted and fizzled out in 2017, nothing except that May, by virtue of her divorce deal, and Philip Hammond, by way of his dull-but-deft budget bung, are stronger in relation to their mostly hapless colleagues.

Correction, that’s not quite true. Tess and Phil’s trips to Davos did them little good. She endured a bilateral in the Swiss Alps with Donald (‘we love your country’) Trump whose fundamentally contradictory self-promotion (‘America Second’ would be a more honest slogan) has been embraced by naïve Brexit commentators in Britain as the road for May to follow.

Unaffordable tax cuts, trade wars, macho posturing which unravels quickly, that sort of thing.

The PM then snubbed the cream of British industry by turning up to their lunch for a few minutes (14 on some stopwatches), but not staying for the grub or for networking. Her excuse? That she had her Davos speech to finish, except that it proved to be an exercise in avoidance about the only topic on which they wanted to hear: the government’s Brexit strategy.

May spoke instead about the potential and the risks of artificial intelligence. Laudable. AI is going to reshape all our lives at ever greater speed far more than Brexit, Merkel, Trump or even Jacob Rees-Mogg, but not this week.

Hammond too devoted half his CBI lunch speech to AI, while managing to inflame Fleet St by assuring the anxious Titans of industry (deliberately, so we are told) that they might yet get ‘very modest’ changes in post-Brexit customs arrangements between Britain and the EU27.

‘We are taking two completely interconnected and aligned economies with high levels of trade, and selectively moving them apart, hopefully very modestly apart,’ the Chancellor explained. These are unusual trade talks, not about bringing economies closer together, but about doing the opposite, he said.

Thanks, plain-speaking Phil. We can see that’s what you want from Brexit.

We applaud your reality-based thinking. Even the smarter kind of Brexits are starting to talk about gentle divergence in a world of AI-driven rapid change. But why blurt it out in Davos, January conference of choice for the kind of people more basic Brexit voters dislike and – with some good reason – mistrust?

May initially ducked the Chancellor’s meaning, then let it be known it isn’t government policy.

What is business to make of all that? It’s obvious what business is making of it, confirmed by Downing St’s cancellation of her promised speech – the third in the Lancaster House Florence series – setting out a stall she hasn’t yet built.

The PM is making it up as it goes along (‘Make me an offer,’ May is supposed to have told Chancellor Merkel in Davos), half paralysed by the need to balance competing factions around the cabinet table.

That’s the key really. Politics abhors a vacuum. Into May’s vacuum step senior officials, determined to keep the Queen’s government going, as such people do in darkest hours.

That explains the Sunday Telegraph’s deplorable splash headline ‘Mandarins forcing May into Brexit Betrayal,’ the worst kind of Trumpian language. In what she thought was a private WhatsApp exchange (guys, you’ve been infiltrated!) Claire Perry was reported to have called the ‘sell out traitor mob’ mostly elderly, retired and ‘swivel-eyed’.

We know how you feel, Claire, but it’s not helpful in building back trust in suspicious times. Thus the ‘Brexit Betrayed’ claim was attributed to a ‘cabinet source,’ a slippery formula which I assume usually means a cabinet minister’s over-excited special advisor trying to big him/herself up and make innocent readers believe they were reading a cabinet minister. If the spad’s boss really thinks that it’s only a slight deception, but it’s source inflation all the same.

What the ruffians have in sight is chief negotiator, Oliver Robbins, the man actually doing the job that Brexit Bulldog, David Davis, is paid to do, and the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Cover Up in Daily Mail parlance. The pair are suspected of being the architects of what Rees-Mogg has taken to calling Brexit in Name Only or BINO.

Shouldn’t that be BEANO, for which publication all middle aged and elderly men, swivel-eyed or not, feel nostalgic? No, Jake was already reading The Tablet by the time most boys discover Dennis the Menace and his dog, Gnasher. In the admirable trend towards giving important posts to women, Jake the Menace’s dog, Gnasher, is played in the Brexit version by Nadine Dorries MP.

What Dennis, Gnasher and their gang are witnessing is the imminent reality that Boris Johnson’s ‘cake and eat it’ strategy is not going to happen and that their own alternative strategy for cooking a completely new cake from the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) recipe book is looking hopeless too.

A leaked report to the BuzzFeed website suggested that Whitehall’s analysis of three visible options are all bad news. The ‘soft Brexit’ option whereby Britain retains single market access via the European Economic Area (in effect the Norwegian EFTA option) would trim UK growth by 2% over 15 years. The ‘comprehensive free trade agreement model’ (ie, the Canadian option) would cost the economy 5% growth over 15 years.

As for the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ WTO option – known to all but the Lawson School of Geology as a cliff – it would cost 8%. If only Jeremy Corbyn’s staff would let him stop harmlessly campaigning and think for a bit in a darkened room, he might realise that a Labour government on those terms wouldn’t be much fun.

But the Labour leadership is too busy with its own idea of fun, which is to help subvert the Labour leadership of a North London borough close to Jeremy’s heart via a Momentum-targeted controversy over a public/private housing project called the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV). Never mind that Labour council leaders around the country, the people doing the work, have publicly backed Haringey.

By the same token the ‘May must Go’ campaign is displacement activity, wishful thinking until the MPs supposedly sending letters to the chief whip, Julian Smith (they are always just a few short of the 48 needed to trigger a confidence motion) have a credible candidate to replace her, preferably two, so they can hold a contest.

The current cycle all started when clever Nick Boles, a pro-Remain MP still recovering from a cancer tumour that derailed his ministerial career, accused May’s regime of timidity. That’s true enough, but it was picked up by Brexit pundits. Did Times columnist, Iain Martin, start the snowball rolling? Probably.

But what does it amount to if they can’t find a candidate. Gnasher Dorries and Theresa Villiers? Grant Shapps and his twin brother, Michael Green? Dennis the Mogg and IDS? A phantom army of anonymous backbenchers and a few ministers whispering bravely in corners? Oh please.

The joy of last week’s New European was Andrew Adonis digging out the awkward fact that Mogg himself floated the idea of a second referendum on the final deal in 2011 (‘I agree with Jacob,’ cried Nick Clegg in the FT).

As for Gnasher Nad, when she tweeted that everyone had been told in 2016 that voting for Brexit would mean leaving the single market, fellow-Tweeters queued up to provide video evidence that Dan Hannan had said just the opposite. He was not alone.

Boris Johnson remains the flawed character he has always been. Michael Gove, suspected in some quarters as using vain Boris as his stalking horse, is interesting but untrustworthy and not a little mad, over-dependent – like May in her Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill apprenticeship – on shadowy special advisers. If one thing is worse than government by unelected civil servants it is government by an unaccountable spadocracy.

In desperate times Gavin Williamson’s (41) star rose briefly in the leadership handicap when he and his tarantula moved from the whips’ office to the MoD. But he too is now the object of derision for having to confess to the Mail about an ‘extramarital flirtation’ (a couple of kisses?) during his commercial career, accused (probably wrongly) of leaking anti-Russian covert intelligence to the Telegraph by way of a distraction. Boris without the charisma (or even dropped trousers) does not look a voter winner, even with a pet spider.

The truth remains that there is only one name in the Downing St frame that unites the Tory ranks.

That name is Jeremy Corbyn. It is no use apoplectic pundits denouncing Tory ‘Remoaner’ MPs like fastidious Dominic Grieve for treachery that may deliver the key of No 10 to a soft-Marxist fantasist.

It is their own self-indulgence and Brexit escapism which is keeping Corbyn in play – even though he’s not 20% ahead in the polls as he should be.

‘Loyalty is the Tory secret weapon,’ was the slogan of my political youth. No longer.

Back to the harsh uncomfortable world of Brexit options. The FT reported that, while Brussels sticks to its negotiating guns – no bespoke deal – Britain is demanding the right to vet new EU27 regulations during the transition/implementation from March 2019. This is what Rees-Mogg would call ‘taking the piss’ if the boot were on the other foot. Hopes of an outline political deal to move forward – as distinct from a merely legal outline agreement – have been shelved as a result.

At least, that’s what they are saying. But is that what any of them mean? It is already a platitude that the booming eurozone economy is leaving Britain behind, only slightly true. It is the wider global economy that is driving growth.

The Czech election results, reinforcing Euroscepticism, are a blow to the project. Germany is uncertain, Italy’s March 4 election likewise. Poland is legislating to pretend no Poles helped butcher Jews in 1939-45.

The 27 are not as strong as they pretend either.

In his select committee’s exchanges with the Brexit Bulldog last week, Rees-Mogg told the Bulldog, cheerfully hopeful about extending the transition beyond two years as part of a deal in March, that it would be more ‘honest’ to extend the Article 50 phase (if the 27 will allow us
to do so, of course), so that we would retain our EU rights and powers, not become a ‘vassal state’ that merely takes them.

I dislike the V-word, though vassal statedom has a long history, not least in Asia, and possibly a future too in the Chinese sphere of influence, starting with its island claims in the South China Sea. But Mogg makes a useful concession.

As Clegg puts it, an extended A50 phase would give business more time and certainty and May and her team – some 80 ministers new to their post since June – a breathing space.

Elsewhere in the forest the CBI seems to have accepted that political imperatives of a ‘Take Back Control’ Brexit vote – budget contributions and the end of ‘free movement’ mean leaving the single market. But Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s veteran economics editor – and a Brownite Brexit voter to boot – detects a coalescence of sentiment behind some form of customs union, albeit not the existing one.

More of Boris’ pie in the sky? Possibly. But Labour optimists claim that Team Corbyn is finally on the move. The Guardian’s ICM poll of 5,000 people – a big sample – found growing concern about the economic impact of Brexit and a 47:34% tilt in favour of a second referendum on the terms. Labour-controlled Hammersmith’s leader, Stephen Cowan, competent and moderate, keen to nurture the small business economy, this week became the first local authority to call for one.

Corbyn still says ‘no’. But his advisers have kept their leader’s options ambiguously open, much as Trotsky cynically did after the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Then the slogan became ‘neither war nor peace’ – a holding position while Lenin carved up those comrades still bent on fighting the Germans. Corbyn aides know their Janet and John Trotsky.

So as public opinion edges uneasily away from a hard Brexit and the Lords debates on the Withdrawal Bill open various devices for a soft Brexit or – who knows? – even that second referendum on terms, the prospects are bleak but full of creative possibility. Jake the Menace and his gang have the power to break the May government, but not to defeat a cross-party majority in the elected Commons whose sovereignty they purport to revere.

That would leave the Mogg-ites with the unattractive last resort of crying ‘betrayal,’ down there with Trump, Nigel Farage and the Telegraph-owning Barclay Brothers, Dave ‘n’ Fred.

The economy might emerge less damaged but the country would remain deeply divided.

That is hardly new when one half of the country eagerly waits to cheer Darkest Hour at the Oscars while a fringe group buried in the other half wrecks the Blighty UK café in North London for the thought crime of celebrating the ‘imperialist racist’ Churchill.

This is not a good place to be.

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