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MICHAEL WHITE: Reasons to be cheerful

Bank's Demons. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Martin Rowson

They be only modest, but let’s take them while we can, says MICHAEL WHITE

In a week when Brexit’s self-styled Bad Boy, Arron Banks, got a short, sharp shock from the news National Crime Agency coppers were looking for campaign dark money, his fair weather friend, Donald Trump, got his own arresting setback. Enough Americans voted Democrat to ensure there will now be some checks and accountability imposed on his cruder partisan impulses. About time too – twice.

On top of those modest reasons for cheer, the Survation poll of 20,000 Brits for Channel 4 News – the biggest such survey since 2016 – has just revealed that 54% of our fellow-countrymen would now back Remain, England and Wales included. Excellent, but let’s not get carried away.

The Republican loss of the House of Representatives is an important victory for the US constitution and its core belief in the separation of powers between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. With record numbers of women elected it will help the gender balance too. But it will generate renewed gridlock between White House and Congress that will not make it easier to address urgent problems or bind up a tragically divided nation’s wounds.

And those Republican gains in the Senate (not to mention Trump’s blatant packing of the Supreme Court with legal conservatives) could trigger a dangerous response from a cornered president. He’ll tell himself he’s won (‘tremendous success’), it’s a psychological necessity for this self-absorbed man. Yet he knows deep-down his brand is losing in the suburbs as well as the big cities. Trump can campaign powerfully among his adoring heartland supporters, but he is barely interested in actually governing.

What’s more the Democrats now control the republic’s finances as well as the power to subpoena persons and papers. They would be irresponsibly rash to try and impeach him – any trial would be in the Republican-held Senate – but it will be harder now to shut down Robert Mueller’s inquiry into the Russia connection, whatever it turns out to find – or not. Cocksure Arron Banks also faces more serious accountability than the herbivorous Electoral Commission is able to demand.

The BBC got a lot of stick for giving chippy Banks a platform on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show which allowed him to muddy the already-murky waters of his business affairs and generate headlines to the effect that not a kopek of the record £8 million he gave to Leave.EU came from dark Russian sources. Since he gave no convincing explanation as to where the wonga actually did come from I’m not going to stop calling him Ronski on Twitter – not just yet anyway. How much money has he got and where did it come from? This is no longer a fringe investigation. Some upscale commentators like Dominic Lawson, wearing his Daily Mail balaclava, make light of all this suspected skullduggery. They express themselves far more concerned by the sight of assorted peers – lords who are also prominent in business and the City – popping up to endorse the Business for a People’s Vote initiative. Twenty-four hours later 1,500 lawyers (‘democratic government is not frozen in time’) also piled in with a People’s Vote letter to Number 10.

But what about the Remain money which came from the UK subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs and J.P Morgan, isn’t that foreign money too, Lawson asked his readers? No, not in the clandestine sense, Dominic, as you know perfectly well. Not illegal either. But weren’t these some of the same people who foolishly backed British membership of the euro, not to mention George Osborne’s dire warning of an instant recession in 2016, Lawson continued? How dare they try again!

It’s not as if Team Brexit’s predictions (‘easiest negotiation ever’ etc) have been spot-on either. Lawson’s injured tone is a piece of the same ‘anti-failed-liberal-elite’ argument we hear from far less respectable figures than a former editor of the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph, not least from Donald Trump and his politico-media entourage, mostly illiberal elitists who didn’t go barefoot to school either.

As Ronski Banks told Andy Marr, all this donation nonsense is being stirred up by the usual Remain suspects, desperate to reverse the ‘wrong’ referendum result. He cited the Guardian and the FT (which doesn’t understand his accounts anyway). Ronski may well have gone barefoot to school, but only because he was too big for his boots. He was expelled twice, once for flogging lead from the school roof.

Banks missed a chance on television to indict Martin Wolf. The FT’s chief economics commentator changed his mind the other day when he wrote that, if Theresa May’s late push for a do-able deal fails, then the grim prospect of a no-deal Brexit on March 29 would justify a second ballot. It would override his own practical objections in the past, that another bitter referendum might further divide the nation and still not change the result. If people still want Brexit now that they can see the likely damage, ‘so be it,’ Wolf declared. Channel 4’s poll found that more people (44% to 31%) expect the economy to suffer.

That’s a cue to check out what Euro-buffs call the ‘tunnel’, the phase of intense negotiations now underway between Brussels and Whitehall. Theresa May and her cabinet have been grappling with difficult choices this week, trying not to kick the can further down the road than strictly necessary to fudge a deal with each other as well as with Michel Barnier. Assorted sources tell us one may be closer to hand than most people thought last week. That is to say, a deal with Brussels, not each other.

So confident was Sunday Times man, Tim Shipman (when is he not?), that he itemised a detailed 50-page agreement, parts of which ‘could have been written by Jacob Rees-Mogg’ according to the paper’s sources. It plausibly sprinkles fairy dust over tricky withdrawal points like ‘frictionless trade’ across the Irish land border, backstops galore and the prospect of negotiating a ‘future economic partnership’ (FEP), one that might that might deliver a hybrid UK/EU trading model somewhere between the Chequers plan and Canada+.

‘Chanada’ as the wits were quick to dub it. Shipman was clearly well briefed. But by whom and why? To be helpful to May or to hinder her latest attempt to herd her cabinet cats? Remember, we’ve had other breakthrough moments and may have them again. More cautious reporters quoted an official who rated the chances at just 50/50. The mooted ‘independent/review mechanism’ to end May’s temporary all-UK membership of the customs union – whenever smart technology makes a virtual Irish/UK border a reality? – shifts from day to day, from briefing to briefing.

Last week’s reported ‘breakthrough’ on City financial services didn’t quite live up to its billing either. Yes, EU money markets depend on the sheer scale of London’s clearing houses to hedge their riskier exposures at reasonable cost. Brussels has given ground. But no, a wider City ‘equivalence regime’ (actually, there are seven) to recognise each other’s regulatory standards doesn’t quite cut it.

Why? Recognition can be withdrawn at 30 days notice, too quickly to obtain a new licence to trade elsewhere and therefore too fragile to sustain the necessary business confidence. Early hopes of ‘enhanced’ or even ‘mutual’ recognition have receded. Like the business coverage in the serious papers, City page coverage of Brexit trends is usually gloomier than the perky, personality-driven political reports.

So it may be best not to commit the acronym FEP to heart yet. And don’t cancel that autumn break so you catch watch the possible deal signing half-pencilled in for November 21-22 – third time lucky – so it can be confirmed at the EU’s December 13 summit and even voted on by the Commons before Christmas. That way the Treasury could avoid committing more money – lots of it – to preparing for a hard Brexit. Philip Hammond says it would have to be accompanied by a spending boost and even a Bank of England interest rate cut. After his budget giveaways – pork barrel politics to buy off votes – Eeyore Phil was back on view again at the Treasury select committee on Monday. He warned a hard Brexit might feel like the 2008 bankers crash.

Any May compromise deal – what Nigel Farage calls a ‘Remainer’s Brexit’ – must be acceptable to the EU27’s component parts (those bloody-minded Belgian regions have some sort of veto) and to the equally fragmented landscape that is the Westminster parliament, the wider Conservative party and the floating fulcrum of British public opinion.

It is a fulcrum that is unlikely to include Bad Boy Banks and other intractables whose judgement and honesty has repeatedly been thrown into doubt. Hence Farage’s Trump-like renewal of the ‘Betrayal’ alibi this week. Remain has only edged ahead, he told Channel 4’s Brexit: What the Nation Really Thinks debate, because Leave has not been campaigning for 18 months (oh really, Nigel?).

There are so many moving parts in this story that it’s near impossible to keep focussed on all of them. David Davis (and Boris ‘where is he?’ Johnson?) are urging May to publish any legal advice on her deal before ministers and MPs are asked to vote on it. This would avoid the Tony Blair trap on the legality of the 2003 war in Iraq.

But are those two Chequers resigners in step with the cabinet’s career pragmatists – ministers like Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom and Failing Grayling? What is the Rascal-to-Watch Michael Gove, up to? Good question. And the millionaire barrister turned Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox QC – a Brexit Tory hero since his rousing, old-fashioned conference speech. Whose side is he really on? And who leaked No.10’s plan to enlist foreign leaders to help May sell a November deal?

Baghdad Blair himself used an Observer article last weekend to urge the Commons to vote down any May package pitched as a ‘reasonable deal’. That’s simply not good enough, even if a ‘best of a bad job’ outcome does end the uncertainty and avoids the no-deal nightmare, says Blair. The choice MPs can no longer fudge isn’t between staying closely aligned to EU rules or breaking free and paying a heavy economic price. That’s what he calls ‘pointless versus painful’.

The real choice, Blair insists, is between a hard Brexit and staying fully in the EU and the single market from which ‘Britain has probably gained more than anyone else’ – a remarkably cavalier claim in my opinion. But in decades of dealings with Blair I came to grasp that he’s a very good politician while understanding less about economics than my cat, the one that got run over. Far more than Iraq, foolishness over money is what’s undermined his reputation since leaving office.

But when he calls May’s various fudges Brexit in Name Only (BINO) ‘madness’, is Blair right? ‘Decide the matter, leave or stay, but, please, not half-in, half-out, with the battle not decided but postponed to be continued for decades to come,’ he pleads. Rafael Behr posed a similar challenge in his Guardian column: a Banks/Farage/Mogg backlash can’t be avoided, they will never take responsibility for the mess they created or join in efforts to bind up the nation’s wounds. Remainers who reluctantly back a bad May deal in December – or January – would get the blame for whatever followed.

I feel this kind of argument is directed personally at me because, as regular readers know, I think it would be politically very hard to both concede and win a second referendum unless there is a much bigger admission by 2016’s Brexit voters that they got it wrong than is suggested by Channel 4’s 54:46% poll.

Since when was Blair an enemy of fudge and compromise? Hasn’t Britain’s relationship with the continent been fraught with on/off ambiguity since the Romans went home in 410? Isn’t it Armistice’s grim centenary on Sunday? Isn’t he sounding a bit like Farage? Or is it more like Banks, who told the BBC it might be better – ‘if I had my time again’ – to vote Remain than for a half-baked Brexit that has ‘unleashed these demons’.

In pragmatic everyday reality under Major, Blair and Brown, Britain evolved a half in/ half out relationship – no euro or passport-less Schengen deal – which struck me as its suitably ambiguous place in a two-tier Europe. May’s deal would leave us half out/ a bit-in-for-now, with an evolving relationship being negotiated, trading between access and freedom – between Norway and Canada.

Which way will the negotiations go during the proposed transition period? I’ve no idea. In a world where Donald Trump attacks his allies more than he does America’s strategic foe in the Kremlin and veteran Brexiteer Norman Lamont can join Germany and France in supporting Iran against renewed US sanctions, we are living in very weird times.

Incidentally, how do the Germans and French do so much more trade with Tehran than we do, Norman? What’s holding us back? Not EU membership, it seems. Lord Lamont is not one of nature’s demagogues, but, whatever regrets he shared with Andrew Marr about ‘unleashed demons’, Ronski Banks and his allies show fewer scruples. When their project to destabilise the established order is threatened they simply change tactics and ramp up the alarmist rhetoric, usually on culture-war issues which distract voters from health care or the cost of living: migrants, drugs, terrorism, abortion, generic grievance. Preferably with Jewish-Hungarian billionaire, George Soros’ name in the frame.

We watched Trump do this during the mid-term election campaign, on which he spent more time this autumn than on tackling the urgent challenges which face any US government, a priority straight from the global populist playbook. When rising blue collar employment and higher wages – excellent – in the neglected heartland states were judged insufficient to clinch victory (do voters suspect the boom won’t last?) the president provokes fear and anger against that pitiful caravan of Honduran refugees – 1,000 miles from Texas.

Ronald Reagan used to do this. Do you remember his ludicrous scare story about the tiny Nicaraguan Sandinista army being only ‘two days drive from Harlingen, Texas?’ But Reagan was a man at ease with himself. Trump’s rhetoric is reckless and ugly. Even Murdoch-owned Fox News refused to run his final TV ad spot.

This is the context in which we should see the NCA’s criminal investigation into Banks’s Brexit loans, into his network of companies which the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is also taking a look at. On Tuesday it was the Information Commissioner’s turn to fine Leave.EU £135,000 for using staff and data from Banks’s insurance business to promote Brexit to customers while using Brexit database details to promote insurance. What a Jack the Lad, eh!!

Remember, it’s not just about shuffling data, profits and losses, unexplained sales and inflated figures, that trouble investigators. It’s also about boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador, offers of partnerships in gold and diamond businesses and allegations of bribery in Africa. Banks, for the record, denies any wrongdoing.

I don’t think that a criminal indictment of him – or even an eventual conviction – would justify declaring the 2016 referendum null and void, as some argue. Nor will the Information Commissioner’s fines make much impact. Brexit voters tend to say ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ and Dominic Lawson is entitled to point out that Goldman Sachs and other Remain banks have been heavily fined for financial misconduct since 2008. Besides, didn’t David Cameron spend £9 million on an ‘official’ government leaflet sent to every home? Yes – and pretty useless it was too.

Whether ‘take back control’ Britain will have stronger regulatory enforcement after Brexit seems doubtful. Quite the reverse, if the ‘light touch’ approach advocated by the free-market wing of the Brexit movement is combined with the cavalier attitude towards existing rules shown by Ronski and others. Throw in the growing trend towards contempt for the rules-based world we’ve known since 1945 (take a bow, Mr Putin) and the corrosive nationalism of Trump and the big picture is troubling.

So enforcing the law against miscreants may not have the political pay-off some would like or tip the country towards a People’s Vote. No such lightning bulb moment is going to shift public opinion decisively. But it’s worth doing for the principle of it and to deter other would-be corner-cutters, especially when the unscrupulous use of dark money threatens to corrupt the processes of government. It doesn’t threaten Britain or Brussels as much as it does Brazil – but the threat is real and contagious.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, Whitehall’s all-powerful Mr Fixit and cabinet secretary until a few weeks before his death from cancer, got a warm send-off from the Great and Good this week. But he’s the kind of dedicated public official belittled as ‘Sir Cover Up’ and worse by the enemies of good government, Brexiteers among them.

Shrinking budgets make government weaker and vulnerable to corruption. Likewise shrinking budgets for law enforcement, weakened in the fight against financial fraud, against hate crime and knifings on mean streets. Will Brexit, hard or soft, pure or fudged, help much? I can’t see it myself. And I’m not convinced that the Trumps and Borises actually care.

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