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Michael White on what might come next, after a disappointing Brexit

Boris Johnson during a Vote Leave campaign event. Photo: PA Archive/PA Images. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

I love it when Boris Johnson talks dirty in order to get some attention.

This time of year is always tough for the emotionally needy. Whichever way you spin it, roast turkey and King’s College Choir, presents under the tree and Baby Jesus in his crib, there is no way that Christmas is all about Boris.

In such challenging circumstances the best the foreign secretary could come up with was a reading from the Brexit Gospel. Which is what he did in the Sunday Times to divert a few headlines away from Theresa (‘We will not be derailed’) May’s anodyne essay in the rival Sunday Telegraph.

Pitching for a ‘liberal Brexit’ – how filthy is that, Mr Dacre? – Boris warned against what is now being called the regulatory ‘aligners” vision of Britain’s future. It is one which would turn us into a ‘vassal state’ of the EU, he explained.

Textual scholars immediately spotted that use of the v-word was a direct crib from the Book of Jacob, the hair-shirted Somerset hermit who has drawn thousands of devoted followers to his cave in the Quantocks. From here St Jake regularly makes mystical pronouncements against Britain becoming an EU ‘vassal state’ or even its ‘colony’. Acolytes have been known to tear their hair and go into a trance at such malarkey.

To remain malarkey-competitive Boris must ape St Jake’s language or risk being seen as ‘a Nokia to the Moggster’s iPhone X’, in Matthew D’Ancona’s cruel Guardian jibe.

All such calculations look to a Tory leadership contest which becomes more distant with every day that passes.

Around Easter 2018 ‘doomed’ May will overtake Sir Anthony Eden of Suez fame (1955-57) to become our 14th shortest-serving PM (she’s currently 92nd in length of tenure).

Since her ‘triumph’ in Brussels, even media hysterics of just a few weeks ago now say she will survive the decade. A cautious, provincial conservative – small c – she may be, but both Tory wings fear the intractable or chaotic alternatives. That’s also why EU leaders were so nice to her (for a change) at their summit.

So the preceding days had not been kind to the ‘liberal Brexit’ vision proclaimed by Johnson and his cabinet allies, Michael Gove and Liam (who he?) Fox. They have been joined by Gavin Williamson, the newly-promoted defence secretary and former Remainer who clearly spots a gap in the market, but David Davis, the Brexit Bulldog, seems to have moved his kennel.

On Monday the Brexiteers – regulatory ‘divergers’ in the new lexicon – finally got to discuss the post-Brexit Britain they want with May and those associated with the ‘aligner’ tendency, notably Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd.

Subsequent briefings claimed that all was sweetness and light – with more to come at Tuesday’s full cabinet discussion. The cabinet discussing policy! What is the world coming to?!

According to the Daily Mail’s account May promised to take back control (TBC) of farming and fisheries policy on Brexit day, still only pencilled in for March 29, 2019, a pledge that was presented – surprise, surprise – as a victory for Gove. More cautiously, the Times and FT reported a growing convergence around ‘gradual divergence’ on rules and regulations after 2021. It is presented as a wholesome mutation of Boris’s famous ‘have cake and eat it’ policy.

For its part, the Guardian reported that May will ‘aim high’ in pursuit of Bulldog Dave’s ‘Canada plus, plus, plus’ goal, a trade deal to cover services as well as mere goods. ‘Splendid, splendid,’ as the late lamented Willie Whitelaw might have put it, while averting his gaze from what exactly that splendid goal might actually mean or how it might be achieved.

There is no evidence that May’s ministers know either. But briefings which flatter the Johnsonian view of divergence (but not yet), suggest to me that the pragmatic opposite is likely to be what is actually happening behind closed doors. Gove is smart enough not to believe all he says. ‘Never believe all you write in the newspapers’ is an old hack’s maxim he will not have forgotten.

As long as Iain Duncan Smith is innocently happy and the Daily Mail goes along with it for fear of the terrifying hash that Jeremy (‘prime minister by next Christmas’) Corbyn might make of the country, May has plenty of room for manoeuvre. She’s going to need it – plus the courage to put outliers like St Jake of the Quantocks back in their caves when the going gets tough.

Two important domestic shifts – plus change afoot inside the EU and beyond it – have been perceived since 11 Tory MPs (led by Dominic Grieve QC, more fastidious and cerebral than Ken Clarke, the old bruiser, and with less political baggage) defied the whips and Fleet St’s playground bullying (‘egotistical malcontents’) last Wednesday night.

Grieve’s 11 insisted on parliamentary sovereignty over whatever terms of Brexit, outline or detailed ones, can be negotiated during the transition. Fair enough, surely, when Brexiteers who rebelled against their whips for decades, did so in the name of putting parliamentary power back at the heart of our public life? Apparently not.

On the domestic front those seeking some form of soft Brexit that averts Lord Lawson’s famous economic cliff (the cliff he says isn’t there) are at last feeling solid ground under their feet since Wednesday’s rebellion. Detach a segment of the parliamentary Conservative party from the basically Remain-but-loyalist-and-cowed majority and the maths change.

Add them to assorted nationalists (not the DUP variety) and to Vince Cable’s ardently pro-EU Lib Dems. Throw most of the dithering Labour party into the equation and parliament’s soft Brexit majority is clearly visible, in the Commons as well as the Lords.

The precise ‘plus, plus, minus’ terms may not be clear. Nor is the disputes mechanism which avoids us remaining a legal ‘vassal’ of the ECJ. But compromise options are starting to solidify, reality is creeping in, whatever St Jake of the Quantocks’ tough-guy talk or the stern warnings Michel (‘tick, tock’) Barnier might give Prospect magazine or the Guardian for public consumption.

A lot of ‘ifs’ stand between today and any future vote on May’s Brexit terms, not least Labour’s cynical ambiguity and Corbyn’s personal feebleness, which Labour activists – overwhelmingly pro-EU and pro-single market – seem not to have noticed yet.

If Keir Starmer and John McDonnell can coalesce around a customs/market access compromise with minimum regulatory divergence Jez will do what he’s told. The UK will still have to pay for any divergent cherries it wants to pick. It would be a hard sell.

Team May can do the parliamentary sums, though their collective inexperience shines through in most crises, as it did in mishandling Wednesday night’s tight vote when concessions were too few and too late.

But after decades of successive Tory leaders feeling the need (or the desire) to appease their small but vocal Hard Brexit faction, the worm may be turning. So it should turn, now that the Brexiteers’ narrow referendum victory – faith over calculation – is turning too, into unpleasant reality for many people: debt and inflation up, wages lagging.

This leads to the week’s second significant development on the home front, perhaps an emboldened consequence of the first. It is a push by prominent members of the ‘Stop Brexit’ lobby. Coordinated? Who can tell, the anti-Brexit camp has many well-meaning groupings, including counter-productively dismissive ones, but no unifying theme, let alone a persuasive leader.

But Tony Blair (the operative word is persuasive, Tony) popped up to be interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian, urging Corbyn to get off the Brexit fence and campaign to prevent it hurting Labour voters. Michael Heseltine told Newsnight that he’d even consider voting for Corbyn if he thought Labour would reverse Brexit.

In a typically serpentine article for the FT Peter (‘I am not one of Mr Corbyn’s greatest fans’) Mandelson urged Labour to get behind Starmer/McDonnell – as Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott are doing, he says – and back more of a Norway/EFTA solution to the Brexit outcome than a ‘Canada plus’. Staying in or close to the single market/customs union is the only way to guarantee the ‘jobs first’ Brexit Corbyn claims to espouse, says Mandelson.

Evidently aware that (despite excitement over a ‘10% Remain lead’ poll) no seismic shift in public opinion away from Brexit has occurred, they do not invoke the ‘second referendum’ option for whatever terms May obtains, though that might be mere tactics. Most voters are more bored with Brexit than angry. What is needed to save Britain from the Lawson Cliff is a combination of shifting public opinion and parliamentary leadership, they seem to agree.

Leadership? ‘Guys, come on. What the hell are you in politics for?’ asks Blair who memorably calls Brexit both ‘destructive and distractive’ from more pressing problems. He sounds frustrated. What a pity Blair’s own conduct helped his enemies on the Corbyn-Dacre axis trash his reputation so that few now listen to him.

But what a mountain to climb, what rugged opposition to overcome. What made Boris Johnson’s appeal for a ‘liberal Brexit’ – tolerant, open, trading, welcoming to the outside world – ring in a particularly hollow way was its context. The Mail had unleashed its hooligan tendency – even Top Gun, Richard Littlejohn – on Grieve’s 11. The lesser Brexit press was as adamant that the rebellion will make it even harder to cut a deal with the EU 27.

Tory MP, Nadine Dorries, less popular on 2013’s I’m A Celebrity than fellow (albeit belated) Brexiteer, Stanley (father of Boris) Johnson has been in 2017, called on activists to de-select them.

To his credit, the foreign secretary deplored such behaviour towards principled colleagues. So did Gove, who champions Edmund Burke as his political hero.

It was Burke who, in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol, explained that he owed them ‘not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

Even Dorries ought to know that quote. So should Paul Dacre, who occasionally defies Mail readers’ prejudices too (though not often).

Yet 24 hours after the rebels’ vote it lauded an unnamed Labour voter for berating Nicky Morgan and other Question Time panellists in Barnsley for their ‘really treacherous act’ for opening a path to stay in the single market – and retaining what he called ‘unrestricted migration’ that damages working class communities.

It was an angry outburst from someone too busy to study the finer points of UK labour market shortages or fragile, cross-border supply lines, let alone banking passports.

But it was almost certainly sincere and represents the challenge facing all parties’ political leadership and partly explains Labour’s equivocation on Brexit.

Alas, it also helps explain why Grieve, Anna Soubry and others received death threats. ‘Liberal’ Boris has stirred a hornet’s nest he cannot control.

But Barnsley Man is not alone in his anger against elites, the ‘betrayed’ working class (betrayed by local boy Arthur Scargill too?) and globalisation. The reaction against the technocratic centrist elite – us ‘Centrists Dads’ – on both left and right this week saw the far-right enter coalition in prosperous Austria, a shift also driven by fears of Muslim migrants on Europe’s former Turkish Ottoman frontier. Poland and Hungary have already defected from the optimists’ camp.

France and Germany have kept the lid on their own extremist pressure cookers, at least for now and at great cost, not yet paid. Spain and Italy have divisive elections bubbling away.

Barnsley Man’s outburst and the Mail’s incitement easily fits the Trump template. Defeated in last week’s Senate by-election in Alabama, the forces of populist nationalism were again aroused this week by Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ vision for US national security and its economy. His tax reforms, blatantly slanted in favour of the rich, represent a solid achievement (of sorts) in time for Christmas.

As always the picture is mixed. Thanks to that falling pound UK manufacturing output is up, but jobs growth has dipped and wages stalled.

There is excited talk of a ‘Lawson boom’, but none of the subsequent over-heated, Lawson bust. The FT reports that major banks are shipping far fewer employees out to Frankfurt and Amsterdam (just 4,600?) than initially feared.

But the paper’s research also suggests that the Brexit hit to the UK economy could be as much as £350 million a week. The figure is the exact mirror of the amount Vote Leave promised that Brexit would bring home from Brussels, to support the struggling NHS.

Some analysts are wondering what happens when populism of either left or right – in Greece or Austria – is seen to fail, to do more harm than good.

What is the post-populist future for a disappointing Brexit and for the remaining EU 27? Will voters revert to the wisdom of the centre, fallible though the past decade has shown it to be? Or will they double down on varying populist panaceas?

Boris Johnson tells us he wants a ‘liberal’ future, as Nigel (‘betrayal’) Farage clearly does not, a drinking buddy of Steve Bannon, not of Dominic Grieve.

The EU elite remains committed to doubling down on the integrationist project. Barnier’s message to May is ‘no special deal’, no ‘Canada plus plus plus’ for Britain’s financial services giants.

That may be bluff, like Gove’s claims of ‘victory’ in cabinet. In a suspended Luxembourg criminal trial last week, Barnier’s negotiating ally, commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, took a direct hit on his alleged involvement in a complex case of illegal spying by the tiny duchy’s security services. Back in 2013 it ended his premiership. Against British advice (among others) he ended up in Brussels. What goes round comes back again.

Sometimes what comes back is good. At the weekend, former Emmanuel Macron adviser, Jean Pisani-Ferry, recirculated a report denounced as heresy by EU elites when first published in August 2016. It rejects EU rigidity in favour of a more flexible model, the inner Eurozone core, surrounded by a less integrated outer circle, including Britain. It sounds like John Major’s two-speed Europe from 20 years ago.

Is there an opening here for the Blairs, Hezzas, Grieves and Vince Cables? For Team Corbyn even? Everything is fluid, old certainties are certain no longer.

Macron uses the v-word too, as in ‘UK vassal of the US’. As I type the BBC is reporting an outbreak of cabinet unity in pursuit of May’s ‘aim high’ vision for the 2018 round of Brexit talks. Will it survive into tomorrow’s headlines? Perhaps.

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