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Weak at the knees

MICHAEL WHITE on a Westminster consumed with scandal – and dodging the truth on Brexit

A businessman just back from his first visit to Singapore in 10 years marvels at the pace of change and the optimism permeating much of South and East Asia. ‘Mind you, an average growth rate over 6% for the last 40 years must help. Those sort of numbers mount up fast,’ he ruefully explains. ‘In Europe and America we seem to be fighting for our share of decline.’

From Modi’s India through the new arc of prosperity to Xi’s China, the sense that history is back on Asia’s side after a 500-year trip west is hard to avoid though many Europeans lazily do their best. Yet the evidence is near at hand for all to see in the shape of well-heeled Chinese tourists pouring through Rome, Paris and London.

Their tour buses detour from Oxford to snap up designer clothes – in devalued pounds – at the crowded retail outlet stores across the M40 in Bicester ‘village’. It may be the only corner of rural Oxfordshire where shop assistants speak Mandarin and green fields surround packed, multi-storey car parks.

The booming states of Asia all have their problems too – plus North Korea’s ugly paranoia within missile distance. But the contrast between China’s monolithic confidence and sluggish, divided Europe is a painful one when 1.6% annualised growth – Britain’s slightly-better-than-expected Q3 outturn last week is currently deemed a cause for celebration. Growth is little better in ‘recovering’ France.

The ECB’s Mario Draghi may stave off a reckoning by prolonging bond purchases under quantitative easing (QE) to beyond 2019. The Bank of England may this week risk a token interest rate rise. The speed of Mariano Rajoy’s imposition of direct rule on Catalonia at the weekend may prove a master stroke, especially if his separatist opponents really do seek asylum in Belgium. Or they may not. The recovery is fragile and the mood febrile. In Washington, where the ‘Russian connection’ indictments creep closer to the president, it is even worse.

And what of Brexit Britain, where the Daily Telegraph has been busy framing the Spanish crisis as proof that Britain was right to leave the doomed EU project which for so long suppressed legitimate national feeling? Cherry-picking nationalist causes to support is a slippery slope kind of argument (ask Nicola Sturgeon), but who’s counting when the end justifies the means for tax-shy, ex-pat newspaper proprietor?

If history has nothing better to do with its time it may one day care to record that in these tumultuous days the Westminster political class and its feral media devoted more time and energy to ongoing culture wars, skirmishes that were less important but easier to sort-of-understand than the finer points of an EU transition deal or the Irish border question.

How much does it matter that, in the wake of Hollywood’s predatory Harvey Weinstein revelations, a lot of women at Westminster – women of all ages and parties – have come forward (again) to reveal past experience of unwelcome sexual attention? They range from the merely inappropriate to the thoroughly nasty. Some have been provoked by investigative reporting, though – as with 2009’s fiddled expenses scandal – these practices are not unknown in Fleet Street either.

Welcome sexual attention is a different matter, of course. As in most offices, there’s plenty of that at Westminster where MPs and ministers sometimes marry their secretaries or at least promise to marry them. Ditto gay sexual attention, welcome or not. Do you remember the failed prosecution of Nigel Evans MP? Not being a Weinstein thing, gay misconduct has been largely off the media gaydar this time around – at least until (Sir) Kevin Spacey muddied the waters.

What would such flagrant and accomplished seducers as the late Tom Driberg (Labour and gay) or Alan Clark (Tory and straight) have made of the latest uproar? Liberal and straight David Lloyd George even, or the delightfully camp but discreetly closeted Norman St John Stevas?

It is usually the amateurs who get caught. Step forward, Sir Michael Fallon, whose warm hand on journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee in 2002 became shocking news to Sun readers on Tuesday. Admirers of Hartley-Brewer’s robust style will know that the self-effacing Brexit broadcaster will not have needed counselling, though the defence secretary might.

Even in 2017, when highly permissive sexual licence – facilitated by dating websites like Tinder and Grinder – coexists with very volatile courting etiquette, calling your secretary ‘sugar tits’ and asking her to buy a couple of vibrators as Christmas gifts isn’t criminal. But it isn’t the ‘high jinks’ Mark Garnier MP suggests it is either. She was an employee and much younger. Power is the critical variable. Sexual power sometimes counts too.

As a conscientious feminist Theresa May must be tempted to make an example of this 54-year-old public school banker who backed Remain, but serves as one of Liam Fox’s under-employed trade ministers. Sacking him may not be a luxury the prime minister can afford this week, even when advised to take a tough line by Andrea Leadsom, who must have her best interests at heart. Just watch out for the next reshuffle.

Sex or money, they are the twin temptations that routinely bring down politicians – bankers and submarine commanders too, oddly enough, not steel workers. But in the old days it was axiomatic that impoverished Labour MPs would be led astray by money, while Tories, ensconced for so long in single sex schools, would succumb to rash sexual adventure, usually known only to the whips.

Since the professionalisation of the political class, both sides now do both and so do the minor parties, despite their frequent claims to moral superiority. After all, MPs are representatives of wider society and its morals, even if voters expect their elected servants to behave better than they do themselves.

The week’s other diversion from the hard graft of the Brexit small print was politically more significant and more unusual: Chris Heaton-Harris’s Eurosceptic attempt to police university teaching curriculums has no known precedent in a modern, liberal society. Did the whips office know about this curious bit of freelancing? Yes and no. Yes, Heaton-Harris is himself No 3 in May’s embattled Tory whips office. But no, he seems not to have asked any grown-ups in the room whether his round robin letter would be a good idea.

When the manure hit the fan – a Guardian education staff scoop on this occasion – the MP, 49 and scion of a wholesale fruit and veg dynasty at New Covent Garden, went to ground like a good vegetable. He left it to universities minister, the cerebral Jo Johnson (‘I’m the ambitious member of the family’), to brush off Chris Patten’s charge of ‘idiotic Leninism’ and explain to sceptical Radio 4 listeners that ex-MEP Heaton-Hooligan’s motive was itself cerebral. He is thinking about writing a book (Yeah, right).

It was a comic performance in the PG Wodehouse tradition. Give that Johnson a knighthood, Theresa, it will annoy his brother. On the campuses few were either convinced or appeased. In these divisive times, a letter on Commons notepaper asking for details of staff teaching on EU-related matters, and of the reading material offered to impressionable young minds, smacked of another attempt to intimidate by Britain’s strikingly defensive Brexit elite, the back-foot Brexiteers.

Any doubt that this alarm might be misguided was quickly dispelled by the usual suspects. The Daily Dacre piled in with lurid pages of ‘evidence’ (‘How academics push Remain propaganda’) that Britain’s universities are a hotbed of Remoan activity where dissent in ‘safe spaces’ is as ruthlessly put down as a feminist revolt against militant transgender-ism.

Not to be outdone the Telegraph rounded up teenagers from all directions who claimed they dare not express Eurosceptic or Brexit views, lest their essays be marked down.

At Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas the other weekend I happened to hear a distinguished academic Brexiteer speak without putting a partisan foot out of place. At the previous year’s festival a UKIP spokesman was delighted at how well he was received in a famously Remain city. But everyone knows that senior common rooms can be as petty and intolerant as boardrooms. Academic colleagues have fallen out as bitterly over Brexit as families and friends all over Britain.

Two points are worth adding here. It is legitimate for newspapers and other mainstream media to criticise the near-monopoly over social media exercised by Facebook, Amazon and Google – it has profound political, social and economic implications. And it is legitimate for universities to flag up the risks that Brexit poses to a flow of EU-funded research projects and staff, to student fees and numbers.

Yes, the universities have a financial interest in remaining inside the EU tent. British universities will be worse off – their students too – without EU funds and fees. But Fleet St has a commercial interest in attacking Silicon Valley’s intrusive oligarchy which also happens to hoover up most (85%?) of the new online advertising that Fleet St had hoped to share. As long as we all know about mixed motives (BBC-bashing also has a commercial motive), it does not invalidate either critique.

There is a much more serious point. Universities are committed to evidence-based research and teaching, the legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment that gradually overthrew the tyranny and cruelty of faith-based dogma.

Once the Pope has been obliged to admit the Earth does travel around the sun, if only occasionally, it is easier for the natural sciences to progress unhindered, though even here intellectual corruption can take hold without political interference. Test tube babies, GM crops, embryo-research, truth and wisdom usually prevail eventually.

In studies dominated by ideas and the imagination it is harder to assert categorical, objective truth. Economics is not a science, dismal or otherwise, though science plays a huge part in its accrued wisdom. Lefties and right-wingers have long complained about each other’s influence. This past month Cambridge students have been demanding that Eng Lit degrees be opened up to post-colonial writers. And why not?

But respect for evidence, for rigorous debate and peer review, remains central to the idea of university life. The post-colonial writers must be good enough (some are) to stand comparison with Great Expectations or Middlemarch which were not, as charged by activists, written by toffs and blokes, but by an ex-boot blacking boy and a woman.

By the same measure, a lecturer can discuss the pros and cons of Brexit, but not teach their students that British trade with the wider world will easily thrive under World Trade Organisation rules after Brexit just because Iain Duncan Smith says so – when years of study in the finer print of WTO functions has persuaded you otherwise.

So Boris Johnson’s repeated assurances that Brexit will yield £350 million a week to the NHS is not enough to be taught as fact, even if he did attend Eton and Balliol. Nor are Chris Heaton-Harris’s views on climate change – he is green only in the New Covent Garden sense – to be treated as respectfully as those of a learned professor. For the record, neither are Al Gore’s, but the science of climate change overwhelmingly predicts a coming crisis. It is the details and timing which may be disputed by men and women of good will.

What is troubling in the post-truth world we now seem to risk embracing is a combination of suppression and intimidation, the assertion of feeling over reason, a disdain for evidence and for experts. I realise that ideological zeal is not confined to one side. At that same Cambridge festival I heard it explained that Luxembourg’s six (six!!) daily papers make it a point to exclude extremist (ie non communautaire) views. I bet they do. Jean-Claude Juncker is a local.

Our problem is the opposite. Faced with a Brexit route much harder than they promised, the Brexit chieftains have turned ugly. Jacob Rees-Mogg calls the Bank’s Mark Carney ‘an enemy of Brexit’. The Mail attacks the BBC and the FT, cries ‘traitor’ at Ken Clarke, Andrew Adonis and Nick Clegg for talking to officials in Brussels about how we can avoid Nigel Lawson’s cliff edge.

Brexit bloggers airbrush rash, discredited promises from their sites, much as diehard Trump supporters tweak the record to reinforce their narrative in the face of inconvenient facts. They were at it again as special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, closed in on his trio of suspects at the weekend.

I realise the evidence of economic damage/benefit attributed to the Brexit effect is mixed. I know not by reading the Mail’s highly selective coverage but by reading the FT, which covers both good news (‘UBS to move fewer London jobs than first feared’) as well as the bad (‘Brexit cools KKR’s attraction to UK as Macron reforms stir interest in France’).

Every day new evidence – anecdote and data – is mixed, though the dominant trend is unmistakable, except to the editor of the Mail. As the EU’s Christmas summit deadline approaches – will it provoke or prevent some form of disorderly Brexit? – banks and other multinationals are quietly taking steps to protect their EU business. They are rightly fearful that they will otherwise fall foul, not of tariffs, but of regulation and compliance rules. The airlines worry too. The Bank of England now predicts 75,000 financial job losses over time. Howls of Brexit rage: ‘Wrong again.’

Let’s hope it is. But ‘three Japanese banks are already moving staff, two to Frankfurt, one to Amsterdam – not thinking about it, doing it,’ says a well-briefed friend.

When another City contact tried to explain to a UK minister why his financial service firm must establish subsidiaries in neighbouring EU states in order to continue to do business lawfully after Brexit, the ignorant minister’s response was ‘You’re a traitor’.

No better example of the clash between hard-won expertise and experience has surfaced lately than the under-reported clash between Brexit-minded members of the Commons Treasury select committee (TSC) and Sir Ivan Rogers, our ex-EU ambassador to Brussels, the man who quit last January in despair at the destructive hopelessness of what Theresa May’s conflicted Brexit policies seek to achieve.

Rogers’ session clashed with May and David Davis getting their knickers twisted (can I still say that?) over the promised Commons vote on the deal they seek and the transitional arrangements they hope will tide us all over for Brexit’s first two years, 2019-2021 – a confusion trailed in this column last week.

Davis had told MPs the vote might have to take place after the event, itself a deal that might be done in the 59th minute of the 11th hour of the March 29 2019 by stopping the Barnier Brexit clock if necessary. May said otherwise and Davis duly said he hoped it will be OK. ‘Hope’ is the key word. Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to cut a deal? Only if you think Brexit is in everyone’s best interest. The latest Pew Research Centre polls across nine EU states suggests most don’t.

In his TSC evidence multilingual Ivan Rogers (he’s grammar school, plus Balliol and an elite French post-graduate college, Boris) was scathing about such confused thinking. A clever man who has negotiated in Europe for decades, he is now freed of a civil servant’s professional obligation to defer to his elected political masters.

It can sound arrogant, but it’s also impressive. Tuesday’s cabinet heard that 3,000 civil servants have been hired for Brexit, 200 more lawyers, 5,000 more to come for customs and migration, perhaps. Sovereignty ain’t cheap.

How much do we owe Brussels, beyond the £20 billion promised by May in Florence, if we owe anything at all? The lawyers could fight it out ‘from here to eternity’, said Rogers (academic lawyers at his side agreed), but it’s as much politics as legal. If we want both sides to move forward in December – to ‘jump together’ by prior, private agreement, as EU jargon goes – May will probably need to find another 30 billion euros – our share, 12-13%, of the EU’s accumulated commitments (‘reste a liquider’) running at about 240 billion euros, he explained.

Leaving under WTO rules only – the only counterfactual alternative to a deal – would render the UK’s ‘third country’ trade like Venezuela or Yemen’s. ‘There is a WTO world for some of it, but not a WTO world for a lot of it, for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, aviation or large chunks of financial services,’ Rogers told MPs.

Not that No Deal is really no deal, even for the Hard Brexit crowd. They would expect to patch up ‘last-minute mini-deals to keep us on the road,’ says Rogers.

Yet the EU has little incentive to help, and the moment May triggered the Article 50 timetable – against expert advice like his – without first scoping the Brexit options with Brussels and Berlin, she gave away her best weapon: the timing is now in the EU 27’s hands and on its side.

The more lucid became Rogers’s commanding grip of detail, the more alarming it sounded – you can find it on the Hansard site in the TSC’s evidence for October 25. Thus he reminded the MPs that the US Congress won’t do a UK trade deal without agricultural sales, which the EU now blocks and Michael Gove opposes. That’s not just about chlorinated chickens but also stymies the Irish land border.

A ‘Canada plus’ trade deal, as hinted at in Whitehall? A ‘British fantasy’, moreover one which favours manufacturing exports over financial services. Guess which side that would benefit most?

Kit Malthouse, an experienced London politician, Boris Johnson’s mayoral deputy for business matters and MP for North West Hants since 2015, tried to trip up Rogers. It’s not true to say there is no WTO agreement on pharmaceuticals, is there?

Not that will make much difference in practice, Rogers replied briskly. Malthouse just bounced off him. British commercial court rulings? It won’t suit German courts to follow them when they no longer have to.

If there was a ray of sunshine in Rogers’ clouded vision it was that, if the City of London’s concentrated financial power and expertise is dispersed – to New York and Asia, not just to EU rivals – it will seriously damage the EU too. As Michael Bloomberg, New York’s London-based ex-mayor, said this week, the City is going to remain Europe’s financial hub. That fact is real leverage, but only provided EU negotiators are sufficiently well-versed in finance to grasp it, he grimly added.

At moments like this Remain supporters risk sounding counter-productive. After all veteran Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, is in hot water for pointing out that they tend to be ‘better educated people’. It’s true, but telling people they’re idiots is tempting, but rarely wise.

So in the interests of fairness I cross-checked Rogers’ gloom-fest against Tuesday’s BrexitCentral website where better-educated Julian Jessop, highly-experienced chief economist at the free market Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), was explaining why a No Deal outcome wouldn’t be as awful as Project Fear claims.

Sorry Julian, I’d love to think your optimism is well-placed and all will come right on the night. But it reads like a free market version of Jeremy Corbyn’s kind of wishful thinking. The Tooth Fairy must have spiked your Kool Aid. Reader, in fairness you’d best check him out.

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