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Project Hope: Some revolutions need revolt, others need only revolving

Philip Hammond, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Arlene Foster - Credit: Archant

The A of austerity, plus the B of Brexit may be heading to the C of a crashing economy, but there is still time to change things.

After the past weeks of horror, terror, turmoil, and hubris that has brought chaos – only the Greeks had adequate words for both – anyone who offers forecasts with certainty simply hasn’t heard the latest newscast.

The election was called – you may remember – by a Prime Minister who repeatedly said there shouldn’t and wouldn’t be one because it would cause ‘instability’. She did it, she claimed, to gain a mandate that, she’d previously insisted, she already possessed for a departure from the EU that she had declared would ‘not, in economic, trade and security terms, be in the national interest’.

Against this giddy background, and after months in which ‘strong and stable’ overtook ‘Brexit means Brexit’ as the meaningless mantra of the decade, we got an election result. The general judgement is that, perversely, Theresa May won, but lost; Jeremy Corbyn lost, but won. And Arlene Foster, who was not even a candidate, became the most powerful woman in the United Kingdom as the pork barrel is tipped into Northern Ireland.

There are other oddities among the effects of that election outcome. The first occurred to me around 4am on June 9: Since the Election was called by the Prime Minister to provide a big majority to ‘make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union’, doesn’t the result – no majority – mean that (at least) the Article 50 notification should be suspended until the Government tells the people what they want?

After all, it would be unfair to allow a manifestly weakened Prime Minister to negotiate with the leaders of the EU without a mandate that has clarity. If a big win was essential to proceeding, why doesn’t no win mean at least a pause for thought?

Other oddities from the election include the fact that we have been repeatedly told since last October’s Tory conference that the UK must leave the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. But we now hear from the Chancellor of the Exchequer – at the Mansion House and elsewhere – that the prime ambition is to secure ‘mutually beneficial transitional arrangements to avoid unnecessary disruption and dangerous cliff edges’ We must seek, he said, ‘an implementation period, outside the customs union itself, but with current customs border arrangements remaining in place, until new long term arrangements are up and running’.

Spreadsheet Phil is showing an unexpected gift for gymnastics. Apparently it will enable the UK to be simultaneously in and out of the Customs Union. I’ll now think of him as Hokey Cokey Hammond, the Houdini of Brexit.

A third – and vital – oddity resulting from the election is the fading of the ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ warcry. It is still to be heard, of course, from Brutus Johnson and Dr Pangloss Davis. They’ve tried to pass off the readiness to walk away as a masterly negotiating stance. In reality, it’s the most improbable tactic since Captain Mainwaring dealt with the German U-Boat commander: ‘Don’t give him your name, Pike!’

Of our exports, 44% go to the EU 27, 9% of theirs come to us; three million jobs in the UK relate to our exports to them but two million jobs spread over 27 countries relate to their exports to us. ‘No deal’ would be cataclysmic. Only fantasists ignore that.

Indeed, Chancellor Hammond recognises that ‘asymmetry’ when he says ‘No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain’. That’s the truth, of course. But it was pitiful that he then felt obliged to seek cover by adding: ‘But there is a possible worse outcome and that is a deal that is deliberately structured to suck the lifeblood out of our country over a period of time.’

It was a picture of a man climbing out of absurdity by recognising reality only to be pulled back into stupidity by deference to myth. The truth is that no-one, certainly not Michel Barnier or the 27 member states, is seeking to ‘suck the lifeblood out of our economy’. As Barnier himself said: ‘We will work with the UK, not against, the UK.’

And if, as Brextremists claim, ‘they need us more than we need them’, an EU Dracula attack on the UK would seem to be rather counterproductive. In any case, anyone familiar with the long-established negotiating stance of the EU will know that it is always ‘Pas la peine, mais le processus e la structure, dans interet de l’Union’ – not punishment, but process and structure in the interests of the Union. It can be a bit tedious – but it is very dependable. To put it in a simpler, more colourful way: ‘Vous ne pouvez pas avoir votre gateau ET le manger’ – you cannot have your cake AND eat it. That is not ‘intransigence’ – it’s plain common sense to anyone who has advanced beyond Borisonian nursery school logic.

ALL harm from Brexit will therefore be self-inflicted, all bleeding will be the result of leeching by the quack surgeons who promised £350 million a week for the NHS.

That will become increasingly apparent as the months of negotiation tick away and the A of ‘Austerity’ plus the B of Brexit extrudes the C of Crash for the economy.

I therefore celebrate the possibility that the results of the election will at least mitigate that wounding and make a softer landing achievable. Indeed, it could mean much more if the time is used productively.

Fulfilling that possibility of averting serious and lasting damage will, of course, depend on three factors: First, the extent to which – in this nip-and-tuck, hand-to-mouth Government – rational Tory Ministers, Tory MPs from Scotland and elsewhere, and DUP MPs (who prize an open Irish Border above all else) show the sense and spine necessary to resist a smash-up Brexit and insist on what Hammond calls a ‘slide’ Brexit. They must recognise the truth that, while some voted to leave the EU at any cost, most who voted Leave accepted the illusion that it would be done at little or no cost. If they understand that, maybe they will then find the brains and the backbone to act, especially as the heavy costs of instability, inflation and dwindling investment become increasingly palpable to the British people.

Second, making at least a softer Brexit possible will depend on the ability of Labour, SNP and Liberal MPs to use Parliament to pursue a ‘jobs and investment’ Brexit through participation in the European Economic Area for a prolonged transition period. That would make it possible to sustain stability for business and communities and to provide vital time for massive systemic adjustment and – who knows – a profound rethink.

The tides of politics and economics always change. Those who wish to serve the national interest must be permanently ready to catch those tides and – as awareness rises – a big wave is, I believe, coming in.

Third, making a softer Brexit possible will require recognition of two dominating realities: It is the UK which is seeking to leave the EU and we are therefore the demandeurs, the party wanting terms, the party most needing a deal. The acceptance by David Davis of the (long obvious) unavoidable reality of ‘sequencing’ negotiations in place of simultaneously securing a Brexit deal and a ‘comprehensive trade agreement’ is the dawn of his learning. In addition, and crucially, there is no departure deal, and no prospect of speedy alternative arrangements, that compares with our current, full, empowered membership of the EU.

Outside Liam Fox’s fevered imagination, there is no fix that can replace or replicate the EU’s single market and customs union, its 760 trade deals with 168 countries, its intelligence gathering and sharing to fight crime and terrorism, its global presence and weight to exploit borderless opportunities and to combat borderless menaces, and its Court of Justice to arbitrate disputes according to rules of agreed laws.

The UK will be voluntarily leaving the closest and richest barrier-free market and the most extensive association of democracies in the world. Those who stay in the union will not deliberately seek to inflict disadvantage on the UK, but they cannot and will not allow exit to be advantageous either. Indeed, they can even use the language of a ‘deep and special’ post-Brexit ‘partnership’ – but they cannot let it even resemble membership,

Each Member state has their own priorities, values, purposes, pride and identity to uphold. Collectively, they consolidate and present their common interests through the union. It is not, and never will be, a monolith of conformity – a state. This is a union of diverse democracies, not a utopia. It makes errors, and agreements are sometimes awkward. But it is, and will remain, a community of mutuality and solidarity and – through dispute and difficulty – it serves practical interests for its member states, large and small.

That is one of the reasons why last June’s vote, and the posturing since then, has been greeted in the EU with some derision and some despair but, mainly, with incredulity. That will not be permanent. Human nature and political reality mean that the head-shaking will eventually become a shrug, concern will become indifference to the country that wanted to be ‘on its own’ to ‘take back control’ while losing its authority.

A similarly perplexed response to the prospect of Brexit is evident in the wider world. Political and business decision makers from Australia to China and India to the USA saw the referendum and the election and still cannot believe that the economically, politically, militarily, culturally, diplomatically and historically globalised United Kingdom will absent itself from the EEA and EFTA as well as the EU.

I make no Blimpish bulldog point when I say that even seeking to do that diminishes our country’s significance and authority. Doing it will corrode our effective power to influence and decide – our sovereignty.

And such prospects are made more emphatic when Angela Merkel says ‘Europe must now take its fate into its own hands’ and the relationship between the UK and Trump’s USA is now not ‘special’ enough to sponsor a presidential visit to London.

Those considerations, together with the increasingly evident truths about the fragility of our economy and its trade, borrowing, productivity, household debt, public service and living standards deficits, could generate fresh recognition of the dimension of the prolonged risk, insecurity and complexity that come with departure.

Such realities could also foster new recognition that Article 50 notification can – for the sake of the jobs, security and democracy of rising generations – be revoked.

That must be Project Hope… and I end with some optimism about that: We have a Prime Minister with an unequalled record of political cartwheels. From switching to avid Hard Leaver from Remainer, from Hinckley Point to Heathrow, from National Insurance to social care funding, from dismissing the need for an election in March to calling one in April, Theresa May has proved that this lady is only for turning.

Some Revolutions need revolt. Others only need some revolving. Up the revolution!

Lord Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party from 1983 until 1992. He also served as a European Commissioner

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