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MICHAEL WHITE: Jokers on both sides keep steering a course for chaos

Michael White says political jokers are steering us on a path towards chaos. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

As the warmer days lengthen and Michael Gove warns cryptically that ‘winter is coming’, the scramble to frame Theresa May’s Brexit gamble in popular culture grows, as frantic as efforts to thwart her My Deal strategy by rival armies of No-Deal, Delay and Remain.

Some liken her behaviour to Richard Nixon’s Madman theory, intended to frighten his communist opponents into acquiescence lest the seemingly volatile president do something crazy. With Donald Trump violating the US constitution to fund his Mexican Wall ’emergency’ that’s no longer mere theory.

Even more improbably, Stanford university boffin, Professor Niall ‘Flip Flop’ Ferguson (he swung behind Brexit and Trump after they’d won), prefers to liken both the PM and president to Queen’s Freddie Mercury. Why? Because in his art and life the flamboyant star engaged in brilliant brinkmanship, successfully so until he ended up dead at 45. Me, I prefer The Lego Batman Movie which I happened to watch with some kids the other evening. It may not be as good a film as Bohemian Rhapsody or as erudite as the Madman theory – first expounded by Machiavelli. But it is suitably childish and allows us to portray Jacob Rees-Mogg (no, not you Boris) as a Lego version of The Joker, prepared to blow up Gotham City until Lego Batman realises that his own selfishness has put everyone at risk. Just in time Batman learns to cooperate with others.

Brexit’s 11th hour passed some time ago and there are still only faltering signs of the drama’s main actors coming together for the common good as ever darker shadows fall across manufacturing industry – this week it’s Honda pulling out of Swindon – in defiance of the early spring sunshine. The other evening Theresa May gave her hardcore Brexit zealots in the Commons a quite unnecessary chance to inflict a pointless but unsettling defeat on her last-ditch negotiating talks with the EU27.

Then Labour’s less-than-magnificent seven MPs decided that Monday morning was the right time to leave the party and sit as, well, we were all left wondering what sort of animal The Independent Group is meant to be. This despite intensive media coverage (we do love a split) that was not quite eclipsed by Honda’s retreat from globalisation, a rather more important development.

To anyone who remembers the fateful Labour split in March 1981, Monday’s ritual exchanges revived a powerful sense of déjà vu. Then, Roy Jenkins came back from being president of the European Commission (hard to imagine Roy as Jean-Claude Juncker, isn’t it?) to lead the Gang of Four into the breakaway SDP which eventually attracted 28 Labour MPs, plus Tory Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler. This week Roy’s eventual heir as Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, cautiously welcomed the move as good news for moderate centrism, as David Steel once did. Shirley Williams (three of the Four are still alive) urged a willingness to work with others – just like Lego Batman. Thoughtful Labour colleagues like Tom Watson, avoiding ‘Blair tribute act’ jibes, expressed sadness and urged Jeremy Corbyn to mend his sectarian ways. John McDonnell warned the new split would keep the Tories in power and told the quitters to ‘do the honourable thing and resign their seats’ to facilitate by-elections they would lose.

Overnight he softened his tone, smart chap. But most people behaved as predictably as they did in 1981 when the final rupture over ‘broken/tribal politics’ was caused by Labour’s Wembley conference decisions: to leave Europe, abandon nuclear weapons and impose a union-dominated electoral college to pick future leaders.

In the age of Corbyn, that shopping list sounds pretty familiar too, doesn’t it, especially when Monday’s breakaway was used to cover Derek Hatton’s readmission to Labour membership. As the Militant Tendency’s ‘deputy’ leader of Liverpool City Council (in John Hamilton it had a figurehead leader too) Degsy helped lead the doomed ‘illegal rate setting’ campaign against Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1983. Like Arthur Scargill and Argentina’s military junta he lost – ‘a small-time, fifth-rate former town hall tosspot,’ as Merseyside’s much-loved chronicler Alan Bleasdale once scornfully called him.

McDonnell is right to say the split helps the Tories, but gives no indication that his own policies and behaviour as de facto Labour leader might be doing the same thing. In 1981 Tony Benn’s charges against the Gang of Four were crippled by the same obtuseness. I expect that Unite’s Len McCluskey, also mouthing dud clichés on Monday’s television, enthusiastically supported Militant’s budget defiance as a young Liverpool shop steward.

The attitude of Corbyn’s minders – public school lefties and Len’s ‘close friends’ – towards the planned deselections of moderate MPs may determine what happens next. Ditto the Tories where Norway+ advocate, Nick Boles, actively facing deselection in Stamford (don’t they have farmers in Lincolnshire?) has already got his revenge in first. He calls the creeping take-over of May’s party ‘NUKIP’. ‘Purple Momentum’ as others call it.

Deselection was a major driver of the split in 1981. In our disjointed times it is enhanced by intimidation and threats of violence against MPs which our budget-battered police seem curiously slow to tackle. I also assume there is an SDP element of choreography in Monday’s breakaway, so that further Labour (even some Tories) defections to Chuka Umunna’s Independent iceberg can be expected.

Enfield’s very decent veteran, Joan Ryan, became number eight on Tuesday night. Hard to disagree with her scathing verdict on her leader. John McDonnell probably agrees with much of it. If there is enough momentum and funding the chrysalis may morph into the butterfly that is the new party Umunna wants.

It would then need a manifesto telling us what it stands for – not merely what it stands against. In the Guardian Polly Toynbee writes that a national emergency like Brexit is no time to split Labour. I agree, as I did in 1981 when Polly was a prominent SDP recruit. Where I disagree now and think Roy Jenkins would be on my side is in her bland assessment of current Labour policies.

There is also the obvious problem that the seven are also identified with the People’s Vote campaign whose leadership moved with understandable speed to distance itself from a defection that stands to taint their cause in the eyes of Labour MPs and activists who were shifting their way as a means to resolve the Brexit dilemma.

‘May’s deal or Remain’ is a compromise formula – floated by Labour moderates Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) and Peter Kyle (Hove) – that would allow MPs with divided constituency loyalties to back May’s next offering, then campaign to stay in the EU in a People’s Vote. I’m not sure if that ingenious format would get through parliament without a Hard Brexit option for slow learners and would certainly require a March 29 postponement. But the seven’s defection gives Team Corbyn a fresh excuse to block a second referendum. Fatuous loyalty pledges give the mindset’s game away.

We shall see. It takes courage to leave, but also to stay. The quitters are mostly decent people with decent reasons for leaving – Brexit, national security, anti-Semitism and other intolerance, lots of economic nonsense – but I cannot yet spot a leader of even potential stature who could change the weather. No Macrons in sight. Umunna’s way of starting interview answers with a hesitant ‘Well…’ is a bad sign. I do it myself, but I’m no leader.

Tony Blair remains as almost as seductively fluent as ever on air and in print – urging a ‘confirmatory vote’ on May vs Remain again this week – but he and Camp Chuka would be wise to steer clear of each other. Blair’s time is past, his copybook too blotted. On current evidence Umunna’s chrysalis is no butterfly. Ours is a bad time, so a report reminded this week, for insect extinction.

In any case, Labour’s internal agonies are small beer in the larger scheme of things. It is matched by similar nativist disorder in other established parties – divided France, limping Germany, stricken Italy. Even Spain’s Podemos, the European left’s insurgent hope barely two years ago, heads into the April 28 election campaign, trailing in fourth place, with the right-wing populist party, Vox, on its heels.

So rapid is the erosion of civic space and trust, fuelled on social media by mysterious dirty money from God-knows-where, that it takes less and less time for parties to be tainted by compromise and ‘elitism’. George Soros, who knows a thing or three, has begun to warn that, over-centralised and ineffectual, the EU risks rotting to self-destruction like the Soviet Union. Unlike Donald Trump 
and his Mini-Me, Nigel Farage, Soros regrets this decay. Meanwhile paranoid populist hostility to vaccination science drives up measles outbreaks in Europe, Asia and Trump’s US. You don’t suppose they don’t really care about poor people, do you?

In fairness the populists are not the only paranoids, it’s as catching as measles. For every Andrew Adonis, defiant in his optimism that the ‘Remain Resistance’ can still reverse Brexit, there must be a dozen who think either that May is running down the clock for her 3.0 deal, that the Moggsters are doing the same for no-deal or that Brussels is doing it for its current 2.0 deal. In Sunday’s Telegraph, Janet Daley complained that the Moggsters have been outplayed, that no-deal will lose to May’s (Brexit In Name Only) deal. Panic! Daley wants Mogg to threaten to back Remain, stay in the EU and cripple it. Bonkers or what?

Meanwhile in the real world – following bad motoring news from Nissan, JLA and Ford – Honda announced it will close its Swindon factory in 2022 (ending 3,500 direct jobs) and move production to Japan whose new free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU will make them cheaper to ship west. As Swindon’s local Tory MP was unwisely quick to say, this isn’t primarily about Brexit (Honda’s Turkish plant is closing too), though Brexit provides opportunities for glib blame games.

It’s Make Japan Great Again economic nationalism in shrinking markets facing new car technologies, bloc economics conducted by major players, badly in president (‘I love tariffs’) Trump’s case. US exporters are hurting from tariff wars too. Europe is braced for worse to come.

All that is hard for UK politicians to control, though they can mitigate ill-effects, for example by not offending Japanese leaders with ‘hurry up’ pleas to cut-and-paste the EU’s FTA with little-old-us. Whitehall’s rusty trade skills were exposed that way this week as Liam Fox struggles to get more than £16 billion worth of the EU’s £117 billion worth of trade deals rolled over. It’s tough out there. Drop the human rights clauses? Fox is standing firm on rights, but it’s early days.

Behind the scenes the international trade secretary has been engaged in a much more important short-term battle, barely reported in the split-focussed and ISIS-bride obsessed media. It is one in which his Brexit fundamentalist views, shrouded by his decision to stay in May’s cabinet, return to sharp focus.

Fox is clearly calculating that attorney general Geoffrey Cox will not negotiate sufficient EU flexibility/fudge on the Irish backstop theology (paranoid 
Dublin fears he will) to get the Moggsters back on side, thereby raising the threat (Fox’s hope?) of a no-deal Brexit on March 29.

He has been arguing for zero UK tariffs on as many goods as possible – despite the fears of many manufacturing industries and farming that such a move would ruin them because World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules – our new substitute for the EU’s common external tariff (CET) – require members to treat everyone the same. Unless Michael Gove prevails in cabinet (he has more GCSEs than Fox) we can say ‘hi’ to US swimming pool chicken, zero-rated Chinese textiles and cheap n’ tasty Argentine beef – but ‘bye, bye’ to Ambridge as its exports to Europe face 50% tariffs. ‘F**k business’ indeed, Boris. No wonder that Dame Judith Hackitt, who speaks for 20,000 firms and one million workers in Make UK, spits tacks over ‘the pantomime at Westminster’ that tolerates such brinkmanship.

But it will be great for consumer prices, trills Mogg the insouciant theoretician. Blue collar Brexit Central website has a happy-clappy zero tariff piece by Tony Lane, head of UK international trade policy (1984-87), which is worth reading because he must vaguely remember his subject. Yet Lane sounds as naively reckless as fellow-oldie, Professor Patrick Minford. When theory collides with the reality of non-tariff barriers on standards, rules of origin, distance and culture it looks suicidally grim. With Brexit just one global disruption among many, the foreign exchange markets are strangely quiet. But for how long? We may look back on a golden age.

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