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Britain’s introverted nature is setting it on a slippery slope

The plump pudding head in danger. - Credit: Martin Rowson

As Britain’s future trade talks with the EU 27 edge towards what we hope will be some sort of amicable resolution, at home Boris Johnson grapples over free school meals with a 22-year-old footballer who didn’t win the Eton-and-Oxford Lottery. It made me think of a long-dead trades union activist whom I admired.

Moderate but meticulous, unflashily determined, Mick was the antithesis of the noisy militants who – so I noticed in my 20s – were often happier to settle for a good headline than to devil away at the negotiating substance.

Beneath the laughter, Mick was a bit of a puritan, a thoughtful and erudite working class Londoner, who disliked swearing but did detail. How he would have despised the over-entitled, none-too-fastidious public schoolboys who have managed to scramble back to power after a 40-year exclusion by voters. Manchester United’s modest Marcus Rashford and his practical efforts to feed hungry children – as he once was himself – would have been much more to Mick’s taste.

Food fights prompt faint memories of James Gillray’s immortal 1805 cartoon, The Plumb-pudding in danger. It’s the one that portrays William Pitt the Younger and the newly-self-crowned Emperor Napoleon, both in military plumage and carving up the globe like a Christmas pud. Johnson is no Pitt, whose relentless hard work – prime minister for most of his adult life – had worn him into an early grave by 45. It is the age at which Napoleon met his Waterloo and Boris his Waterloo Station as new London mayor.

EU trade negotiator, Michel Barnier, is no Bonaparte either. But he comes to the trade carve-up meticulously prepared and – doubtless to his great relief – seems to have been given more latitude for negotiating compromises by his elected masters on the European Council. Patience, attention to detail and timing, these are the crucial ingredients of a successful outcome – as they probably are of goal-scoring in Premier League football. A dash of flamboyance often helps things along. But Angela Merkel can’t have everything.

Alas, poor Boris. In a generation of dull politicians, flamboyance is his unique selling point and it’s not enough. As public affection wanes and trust diminishes in the Boris brand, Manchester United striker Rashford – 23 on Saturday – seems to be carving the largest slice in 2020’s Christmas Pudding Fight. The PM talks tough and ostensibly refuses to back down in the face of a backbench, even ministerial revolt, but his “no children to go hungry this winter” pledge sounds like surrender by other means. Good.

It need not have been like this if his Brexit-compliant cabinet had more experience, more political nous, a greater willingness to tell the boss what he might not want to hear. Occasional squeals emerge from the cabinet table, followed by tabloid-briefed retribution. Messrs Gove, Sunak and Hancock demonstrate some independence while Gavin Wilkinson leaks to pin the tabloid blame for school meals failure on the Treasury.  Bad move, Gav. 

The country pays a price for the poor quality of our current politics, style as well as substance. Honest citizens can disagree over Manchester metro-mayor, Andy Burnham’s stand-off with Whitehall over the exact amount of central government grant that the region should get to compensate for tier three restrictions. Was Burnham just grandstanding for political gain when he could have settled for the proffered £60 million, asked some? 

Fair enough, though I disagree. As Britain’s second city – Birmingham has under-performed in recent decades – Manchester had a decent case. Burnham was making a wider point about better consultation and the vulnerability of some communities – low wage and frontline workers – to the economic and medical consequences of second wave Covid. We don’t have to believe the “King of the North” froth (though Keir Starmer must have clocked it) to agree that Manchester’s Burnham – like Manchester’s Rashford – has been winning the PR battle.

Greater Manchester MP, Sir Graham Brady, the Tory backbench shop steward, was on the local team, and mid-week Red Wall Tories – who don’t have much experience to sustain them – banged out a warning letter to Number 10 about the widening north-south divide, “levelling up” ambitions cruelly exposed by the pandemic. “Where’s the clear road map out?” they asked, as morale and compliance sagged and embattled hospital staff sounded very tired. Do you know anyone who now understands the lockdown rules?

Such dramas are taking place all over Europe this autumn, each country revealing its distinctive regional and cultural contours. Among northern England’s complainants was Jake Berry. MP for Rossendale and Darwen – near the centre of the tier three vortex –  Berry was an important and early Boris-for-PM organiser, an ex-‘Northern Powerhouse’ minister whose loyalty has carelessly not been rewarded. In this resentful climate voters remember that, as an inattentive Spectator editor, Boris once sanctioned a wounding attack on Liverpool.

So damage is being done by sloppy politics. How can it not be when local boy Burnham amplifies the divisive refrain that the south is being selfishly callous to the needs of the formerly industrial north? Unlike many in those lazy BBC vox pop interviews – so much easier than proper analysis – I don’t think it’s deliberate. As an economic migrant from Cornwall I blame ignorance, reinforced by indifference. Look how much harm ignorance has done to Ireland down the centuries – still is doing in those EU trade talks – and how Scotland’s anger is vigorously being channelled into separatism.

Cornwall has long had a separatist movement, Wales too, of course. Do we really want indy Manchester? No, we want proper and inclusive leadership which consults and listens outside the Golden Triangle formed by Eton, Oxford and West London. Restauranteur and government ‘food tsar’ Henry Dimbleby is Eton-and-Oxford media dynast too, but he seems to be in touch and on top of the detail too. 

Holiday clubs which provide support and educational activity – as well as nutritious food – to the neediest kids is better than extra money for universal credit claimants, Dimbleby cogently argues from home in Hackney. Across London in Johnson’s Hillingdon constituency – inside that Golden Triangle between the M4 and M40, as his old seat in Henley was – local food bank volunteers ask “Where’s Boris?”

Which leads me back to the government’s Internal Market Bill (IMB), this week going through its detailed committee stage in the Lords. That’s right, it’s the one which only breaks an international treaty in a “specific and limited” way if Number 10 does not get what it wants from Barnier. The Frenchman’s decision to stay in London for talks this week – instead of returning to a Covid-smitten Brussels (he has already had Covid-19 once) – was taken as a sign of progress by the clutching-at-straws lobby, though the pandemic-obsessed media has paid scant attention to this rival scourge.

Let us emulate most of Fleet Street and tiptoe past the negotiations in this week’s column, pausing only to wish them well in making the best of a bad job. In comparing their Lordships’ performance to the craven Commons majority, let us for the moment also park the legislation’s proposed illegality. Instead let’s focus on its domestic impact, economic and legal, but also constitutional. 

What I had not fully grasped when we first discussed the bombshell bill here (TNE #211) was the existence of a post-Brexit procedure called the ‘common frameworks’ committee. It was devised to smooth the repatriation of 154 trade and related commercial regulations and standards which were deemed to intersect between the UK and the three devolved nations. They had all been handled at EU level since Britain joined the then-common market in 1973 when there was no devolution.

Some powers over agriculture, the environment, justice, energy and – 38 of them – transport (etc) were deemed suitable to be reserved to the UK government, others designated to the devolved administrations while others were open to negotiation. Though Whitehall only wanted to devolve 40 of them, according to an excellent paper on the Institute for Government website, talks were going well amid mutual goodwill and cooperation on all sides, despite the four nations each having different parties in charge.

Then came the IMB, ostensibly to protect the UK’s internal market cohesion from mischievous and malign “maximalist” pressure by EU negotiators bent on dividing Northern Ireland from mainland Britain via the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which Boris Johnson hailed as “fantastic” barely a year ago. To all but the most diehard Brexit loyalists – who didn’t include Lords Michael Howard and Norman Lamont on this occasion –  its real purpose was to scare the EU 27 into making concessions to a Britain prepared to risk a no-deal outcome.

But it was done without prior consultation with the devolved governments who have a right (Holyrood has already voted to do so) to withhold their consent, or with the judges and wider legal profession. Lord Judge, a former Lord Chief Justice, reminded peers as much during last week’s second reading debate – when 100 members, mostly hostile to the IMB, spoke in grave and anxious terms. What they described was a twofold domestic threat, one to extend the executive power of government to use secondary legislation – ministerial statutory instruments (SIs) to amend primary legislation (bills) – on an unprecedented scale.

The other fear is that the measure amounts to a power grab by Whitehall in the name of protecting an internal market which has always enjoyed a degree of ‘managed divergence’. Scottish home-building regulation reflects the colder climate of Orkney against Surrey. Welsh plastic bag laws and Scottish smoking bans were pioneering divergence. The Cameron government supported Scotland’s alcohol minimum unit pricing reform in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Scottish law, education and religious settlement still reflect the compromises of the 1707 Act of Union.

Is all this threatened? Is the common framework process now redundant? Lord Callanan, the junior business minister who introduced the measure, told peers it is not. On regulation, as on state aid and ‘structural funds’ – the EU’s regional policies will now be called the ‘shared prosperity fund’ – ministers promise “a much more collaborative approach” towards devolved and local authorities. “Ask Andy Burnham,” a naughty peer might well have shouted, but the upper house retains pre-Twitter habits of courtesy. For his part, Callanan raised the improbable spectre of Welsh lamb being unable to be sold in Scotland.

Callanan is a Geordie project engineer who got an early taste for politics, a councillor and jobbing MEP until he lost his seat in 2014. To colleagues’ astonishment, he did not even mention the illegalities in clauses 44-45 and 47. Nick True, a veteran Tory peer whom I both like and respect, did not do much better in his winding up speech. Disappointingly, True took the (untrue?) party line. The offending clauses are a “contingent and potential power” only, ones would be only be deployed – subject to a vote of MPs (ho, ho) – if EU bad faith forces ministers to choose between the rule of law and the integrity of the UK, True insisted.

Faced with such a choice, the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe would do much the same. So would the ECJ to advance the acquis communautaire, said the bill’s more sophisticated supporters, correctly so. I do not include those among Lord Matt Ridley’s dozen pro-Brexit, anti-lockdown peers, whom we teased here two weeks ago. Lord Lamont excepted, most had only platitude to contribute, but took their chance  to reproach Archbishop Welby for sticking his nose into the row. Welby argued that upholding the law is a cornerstone of Christian morality. How dare he!

Thatcher cabinet veterans, Lords Peter Lilley and Michael Forsyth (poll tax champion!), were unapologetic in justifying Team Johnson’s action as a response to the EU negotiating in bad faith. Lord Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff, was not alone in retaliating: the EU feels the same about us. Team Barnier had told May to her face that it wasn’t that they mistrust her, but that she wasn’t going to last much longer, he recalled. They feared whoever came after her in Number 10. Long memories in Brussels remember Bent Bananas Boris of the Daily Telegraph.

Inevitably most lordly firepower was on the anti-bill side and duly registered its disdain by passing (395 votes to 169) Lord Judge’s reproachful amendment regretting the legal breach. Peers do not reject second readings which carry election manifesto endorsement. Only one speech I spotted urged them to refuse formal third reading consent if the NIP clauses remain in the bill – because Johnson needs the bill by December 31 for his ploy to work at all.  “On this occasion the power is in their Lordships hands,” said no less a figure than Lord Butler of Brockwell. 

Being a former cabinet secretary makes him almost as grand as the Archbishop, alas no politician. Outright revolt is not going to happen, but Butler’s argument that the rule of law and the constitution matter more is strong stuff from a pillar of the establishment. A chap called Lord Clarke of Nottingham was also among the scornful, baffled majority, but he turns out to be Ken Clarke in his new billet, so we’d expect it of him. 

A law-breaking blot on Britain’s reputation, it addresses an unlikely hypothetical threat in the Irish Sea without resolving it. It threatens both the Irish peace and – in Scotland – the very Union it purports to defend. What’s there to applaud? “A half decent diplomat” could sort out the practical border problems in an hour, boasted Lord Charlie Falconer, Tony Blair’s redoubtable Lord Chancellor. More than half-decent, Lord John Kerr, ex-FCO head, called the whole shambles a bad case of “buyer’s remorse” by Boris, repudiating a triumph he had so recently proclaimed. Ministers had brought it all on themselves. 

All the same I was struck by the short contribution from worldly historian, Robert Skidelsky. The biographer of  JM Keynes, he quoted the great economist saying “I want lawyers to help me act legally to go on doing sensible things in unforeseen conditions”.

The bill’s justification may be weak, its motives questionable, Lord Skidelsky suggested. But the critical variable lies in its consequences: will Britain’s breach of international law prove damaging or will it lead to a pragmatic deal as the EU backs off?

Too soon to say, he concluded. But this is an introverted country, one where a centralising leader cynically takes further constitutional power to himself – a blond Henry VIII – and Moody’s credit rating agency further downgrades Britain without eliciting much of a shrug. We are already on a slippery slope.

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