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Michael White: Will this be a summer of discontent?

The summer of discontent: Wish we weren't here. Picture: Martin Rowson - Credit: Martin Rowson

MICHAEL WHITE sees a glummer holiday ahead amid fears we may end up worse off than in the seventies.

Though Ken Clarke, who was first elected an MP in the summer of 1970, says this is the craziest one he can remember at Westminster, I’m still not persuaded the Nearly Great Man is right. For one thing, world wars sometimes break out in the summer, Ken himself was born at the height of the invasion scare in 1940. For another, the current craziness has become pretty normal all year round in this rudderless parliament, as the former chancellor was pointing out only last winter.

With that reservation in mind and acknowledging, as both Brexiteers and Remainers do, that it’s been exceptionally hot (they don’t agree on why), things are pretty whacky. At the Tesco checkout in West Wittering last week I was rung by Irish radio with the news that Tory renta-quote MP, Phil Davies, had got the necessary 48 signatures to mount a no confidence vote in Theresa May before they all scampered off to the beach on Tuesday. That’s odd, she’d win it, I opined on the pavement outside.

The Phil Davies rumour turned out to be untrue (like most such rumours), but the hard Brexit posse will be back until May calls their bluff, which she might when the moment is more auspicious. There is a lot of bluffing going on this summer, both in London and assorted EU capitals as we all hurtle towards Lord Lawson’s non-existent cliff.

Bluffing Lib Dem MPs were reportedly plotting to replace near-invisible Vince Cable with a new MP called (I wrote it down) Layla Moran after their leader was caught missing those Brexit votes in order to plot (he denies it) a centre party breakaway. New parties are standard midsummer madness too, chatter which I will also only believe when rather more politicians than Labour’s John Woodcock jump ship. Do I hear ‘government of national unity’? I do. So did Ted Heath in the 1970s. It won’t happen.

That said, there is an emerging crisis of confidence in the capacity of the current government to carry on. It last happened in the Heath-Wilson-Callaghan 1970s, when IRA bombs, OPEC oil price hikes, plotting colonels and striking miners, made things look quite dark, literally so during power blackouts. The infrastructure of society was much less sophisticated then – virtually no AI for one thing – but also less vulnerable to disruption. Voters were more stoical too.

In 1995 John Major had a summer leadership crisis, caused by his hardline Brexit backbenchers and those cabinet ‘bastards’. He saw it off by resigning as party leader – not as PM – and issuing a ‘put up or shut up’ challenge in the rose garden at Downing St. I vividly recall they confiscated reporters’ (fairly basic) mobile phones so we couldn’t leak the news. In retaliation for the manipulation, in many subsequent visits to No.10 I never once handed in my phone.

But Major saw off the challenge from John ‘Vulcan’ Redwood while Michael Portillo dithered, Boris-like, on the sidelines. This week the annual trawl of the National Archives at Kew yielded another topical reminder. When Major finally got the Maastricht Treaty through parliament in 1993, former Times editor, William Rees-Mogg (father of Jake), sought judicial review of its constitutionality – and was roundly defeated in court. Major privately noted: ‘A full gloat is merited.’

Funny, how the same names keep coming round, isn’t it?

Britain in the heatwave of 2018 is nowhere near its ‘winter of discontent’, ‘Black Wednesday’ moments. Not yet. But it’s hardly surprising that a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times reported that 38% of bewildered voters would back a new party of the right that was committed to Brexit (but which Brexit, lads?) and 24% would back an explicitly far-right, anti-immigration party committed to being completely useless. Around one in three would back a new anti-Brexit party of the centre – the same proportion as support a People’s Vote second referendum – which Vince is definitely not discussing with Chuka (or his representatives) – when they should both be voting.

In other words, the public is as all over the place as the government about which the public rightly complains. That goes for the self-marginalising Corbyn Labour party too. Let’s not ignore it completely just because it’s having such fun attacking itself over the party’s unduly protracted anti-Semitism fiasco, which is ‘all the fault of Blairites and the capitalist press’ (except it isn’t).

But governments are paid to govern. When Fun Johnny McDonnell promised in Hastings the other day that ‘when Labour goes into government everyone will go into government’ he was either being sentimentally naïve or dishonest, possibly both. To govern is also to chose and to provide enough persuasive leadership to impose that choice on divided and uncertain citizens. Thatcher and Blair managed it for long periods within living memory.

It is what May has so evidently failed to do since she staked her early winnings on a snap 2017 election and lost. She has tenacity and resilience of a kind – a waterlogged plank does not sink – but conveys little sense of purpose or clarity. She does not, cannot, lead from the front. In Belfast and Gateshead this week – another ministerial round of EU capitals is promised soon – May’s trumpet toot creates no fanfare we can hear.

In last week’s reversal of this spring’s inch-by-inch (millimetre by millimetre?) progress towards a soft Brexit deal, rather than see off the Moggites over her customs plan, some think May has made her last fatal navigating error. I’m unpersuaded, even though it was 33.3C (91.9F to us oldies) in Suffolk this week. Yes, by rights she should be replaced. But as this column never tires of restating, the insurgent right don’t have a candidate who could convincingly run a whelk stand half as well as the one on East Wittering beach.

I see that Boris is back in the voters’ high opinion again – twice as many (34%) think he’d do a better job of Brexit than May would, bless their sunstroked heads – but his candidacy fell apart last time. That was before the slapdash rascal had demonstrated his ministerial incompetence as foreign secretary. His FCO deputies, Alan Duncan and Alistair Burt, both very solid operators and Remainers, are hardly likely to stay silent about what they know, any more than ‘Trust Me’ Gove did when locked in a room with Boris in 2016.

Churchillian man of destiny? My foot. Johnson quit the cabinet but failed to book a hotel room. His family had to squat in the foreign secretary’s quite grand grace and favour house off the Mall because his Islington home is tenanted. As Matt Chorley dryly noted in the Times: ‘It seems extraordinary that he would make a dramatic decision to leave without thinking through the practicalities, but there we are.’

But here I am, almost as hopeless, succumbing to distractions of midsummer silliness, no excuse even though it has seen temperatures soar across the northern hemisphere, 40C deaths in Tokyo, forest fires in Sweden as well as tinderbox Attica. I note in passing that many more ardent Brexit fantasists are also adamant that the heatwave is mere weather, not signs of a more profound change of climate. ‘The overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 years,’ Jake O’Mogg, the Irish fund manager, told Channel 4 News (and if he’s wrong, it’s May’s fault). We won’t have to wait 50 years to settle the climate controversy. There was a 51C recording in North Africa this week.

Several important things, not all Brexit-related, really did happen these past few days. As EU ministers signalled, some with admirable displays of tact (No, not you, Leo Varadkar), that May’s Chequers package – goods damaged during transit – is still not a basis for settlement of future EU/UK relations, both sides stepped up warnings to member states and companies to do more to prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit or – only slightly less scary – a World Trade Organisation-rules only deal.

The ‘readiness’ detail which emerged from battered Whitehall that I found most imaginative was the idea that the 10 mile M26 mini-motorway – the one which provides a shortcut through North Kent between the M20 near West Malling and the M25 near Sevenoaks – should be turned into a lorry park for all those goods which may get stuck in customs at Dover after Brexit ‘Freedom Day’ next March. At least it’s a lorry park that’s actually built already.

Both sides need to maintain the ‘no deal’ pretence, though they know they are not ready to cope with it. It’s part of the negotiation endgame, as are warnings that planes will be grounded, industry run out of spare parts, rationing at supermarkets and pharmacies and ‘unlicensed’ UK drivers unable to use continental roads. In his Guardian column the worldly Sir Simon Jenkins mocks such talk as ‘Project Fear Mark II’. So do the usual suspects, but not for the same reason.

Unlike the ‘no deal’ or (not quite the same thing) ‘WTO rules-only’ crews around the European Not-Much-Research Group (ERG), Jenkins argues that Britain would not be crashing out of the EU but ‘crashing in’ again with something like a Norway/EEA customs union, the model rashly rejected from the start by May. At this low summer ebb of the talks it’s hard to imagine us ending up as an EU rule-taker, waiting by the phone as ministers do in Oslo. It’s close to ‘Brexit in Name Only’ (BINO). I find it hard to imagine myself.

Might David Davis’s continuing advocacy of the goods-only Canada-EU model (CETA-plus-plus-etc) have a better chance? No one knows. But the risks inherent in a ‘no deal’ outcome – the Trump-enfeebled WTO does not really cover what is necessary – are such that both May and the EU27 will strive mightily to avoid it, blinking when they have to compromise on sacred principles while pretending not to: a Brussels art form.

It is a comfort to know that the new Brexit secretary and karate black belt, Dominic Raab, is ‘straining every sinew’ to achieve a deal based on May’s Chequers plan while lecturing Brussels for scare stories and threatening not to pay the £39 billion (and some) divorce bill. It’s only to be expected, much like Taoiseach Varadkar’s ‘no fly’ threats. Much more pressing was the IMF’s reminder that both sides would lose by a ‘no deal better than a bad deal’ result.

Yes, I know that the EU would suffer only a 1.5% loss in GDP by 2030 compared with 3.9% for the UK and 3.8% for Ireland, which may explain Varadkar’s mixed messages on the border and the skies. But the UK’s near neighbours, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark would suffer more – just at a time when Brussels would be asking for larger contributions from wealthier countries like them, regardless of whether Black Belt Raab actually tore up that divorce cheque. It’s all real growth and real money.

Yes, I also know that the IMF predicted a stock market crash and recession in 2017 if Britain voted for Brexit and that it didn’t happen as predicted. But give it all time. Sterling is sharply down as British holidaymakers are reminded at this time of year – ‘hey, it’s hotter at home, folks’ – and the promised export boom is still a forecast (another one this week) but treated as established fact by some who should know better.

The awkward truth is that this is a slow-burn crisis (quite unlike sunburn) and that elements are taking shape.

You do not have to be surprised at the spectacle of a senior UK executive of predatory tech disrupter, Amazon, warning against ‘civil unrest’ if Brexit goes wrong, to admit the man may have a point in disaffected times. Nor that US banks are warning the Treasury that it had better match Trump’s (mad) tax cutting if it wants them to stay in the City, along with their tax receipts.

But last week, barely noticed by the usual suspects, the Treasury’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – on the Daily Mail’s enemies list for bringing bad news that isn’t always right – warned that the prospects for sustainable public finances are awful.

When the bankers crash of 2008 blew a hole in Gordon Brown’s policy of keeping the national debt at below 40% of GDP it was hoped to get it back down from an 87% peak by 2030.

By 2015, the OBR predicted it would dip to 54% by the early 2030s, but then start to rise again. Its latest report suggests it will be 100% by then, around 280% of GDP (higher than after the Second World War) by the time O’Mogg’s Brexit hope is finally tested in 50 years time.

All this despite austerity, as the toll of an ageing population, fewer working migrants and disappointing growth become clearer. May has abandoned George Osborne’s budget surplus target, the NHS is getting extra cash, this week ministers conceded other public sector workers – teachers, soldiers etc – a (self-funded) pay rise.

They’ve had a lean time and it’s hard not to sympathise. The cabinet wants to send MPs off to the beach or – in May’s case – the mountain trails. But someone will have to pay for it and it won’t be the fantasy Brexit ‘dividend’ on Boris’s bus. Listening to Labour politicians you get the impression that austerity is a ‘political choice’, inflicted by the wicked Tories. It isn’t. Accumulated debt on the scale predicted by the OBR – even if it is half wrong – is unsustainable, as countries’ failures regularly demonstrate.

Labour is sitting on the Brexit fence because it must calculate that the only chance its strategists have of getting Jeremy Corbyn into No.10 – not a sentence I find easy to contemplate – is hanging on to Brexit voters in left-behind regions without totally alienating Remainers. That strikes me as both cynical and misguided. Raising taxes on the obvious targets – the rich and big companies, both highly-mobile – is only likely to make that debt challenge worse.

Here lies the disturbing difference between mid-summer crises in the 1970s and the 1990s. Things were pretty grim, worse in some ways, but everyone could see a way through, even if they weren’t going to vote for it.

His authority fatally weakened by the IMF crisis – 1976 was a baking summer too – Jim Callaghan delayed election day as long as he could because he knew he was going to lose to the formidable Margaret Thatcher. Unmanned by ‘Black Wednesday’s’ market turmoil in 1992, John Major kept his own nemesis, grinning young Blair, at bay as long as he could with the same result, albeit in landslide form.

Who represents potential light at the end of the tunnel in 2018? Surely not Boris or Rees-Mogg, let alone Farage? Not amiable but evasive Corbyn? There’s usually someone out there, but the smoke from those raging summer fires makes it impossible to see.

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