The clock is ticking

PUBLISHED: 16:00 25 August 2018

Clock Tower, better known as 'Big Ben', is bathed in afternoon sunshine at Parliament on October 22, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Clock Tower, better known as 'Big Ben', is bathed in afternoon sunshine at Parliament on October 22, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

2010 Getty Images

When will the Left wake up to the fact that Brexit is a project of the Right, by the Right, for the Right?

As it was Michel Barnier who first uttered, in the context of Brexit, that old negotiations process cliché – “the clock is ticking” – it is usually assumed that time pressures are greater for the UK than for the EU.

In many ways, in the real world, they are. But sadly, these are not real world times. We are living in Trumpian, truth-twisting times in which Brextremists continue to claim “Europe has more to lose than we do” (false), Liam Fox opens most statements with the lie that the US is our biggest trading partner, and we are being asked to trust the analysis not of virtually every economics expert and actual business on the planet, but Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, Nigel Farage, Nigel Lawson and Patrick Minford. On which point, when will the Left wake up to the fact that Brexit is a project of the Right, by the Right, for the Right?

But there is a point in time where the truth twisting and the real world collide, to their benefit, with possibly dire consequences for those of us trying to halt the madness, and indeed for the future of Britain. The point is this... that the ticking clock has become the Brextremists’ friend. Indeed, it is pretty much all they have left. If the polls are to be believed, they don’t even have ‘will of the people’ any more, as the will is clearly changing, and calls for a People’s Vote on the final deal growing. So they are clinging to the hands of that ticking clock, pushing them as hard and as fast as they can. March next year. Exit Date. Just get there. Keep trying to fill the airwaves with fantasy, bluster and delusion. Bore and confuse the public into submission. Anger and irritate the EU by constantly promoting ‘deals’ that are incompatible with their basic rules. Watch the government do the same. Get to the final whistle. That’s it.

Then, once the flag is lowered, finally get rid of Theresa May, install a ‘proper’ Brexiteer, undo as much as they can of what has been ‘agreed’, and achieve their right-wing Brextremist vision that way.

Some months before the March deadline, there are the conferences, which will be difficult for both main parties, and the October heads of government European Council. When May first started Barnier’s clock ticking with her premature, planless, conference headline-grabbing, Brextremist-pleasing triggering of Article 50, this summit was envisaged as a key moment in the timetable, when the detail of negotiation would start to become Treaty language. Yet so much time has been wasted, David Davis and Boris Johnson been and gone, key issues like the Northern Ireland border no closer to being resolved, hard practical fact intruding deeper and further into the delusion and fantasy, that the less extreme Tory Brexiteers are starting to press for the clock hands to slow a little. They think it might make more sense for the final government proposals to be put to parliament not in November, but after the December European Council.

With Christmas and the New Year, Brexit Year, in sight, this will accentuate the sense of ‘last chance’ dramatics. It will give them more opportunity to play the blame-game, not least at their party conference, and seek to pin responsibility for failure and delay on Barnier and the EU, not the fact that they won the referendum without a clue as to how to deliver on it.

Some delay might also suit May, because with all but the ultra-Brextremists accepting that ‘no deal’ is a disaster, this slower route gives her more time to persuade Tory and Labour MPs that her ‘plan’ is the only alternative to that disaster. Her Chequers ‘agreement’ may be viewed as dead by the Brextremists, and has united No Dealers with People’s Voters in being dismissed as the worst of all worlds, but Tory MPs who just want Brexit delivered, and Labour MPs who just want to avoid the tough task of confronting what needs to be done to bring about a referendum on the deal, might yet be tempted in sufficient numbers by a version of it. The real choice facing the country, given that her own party, parliament and the EU see so many holes in her Chequers deal, is ‘no deal’ versus ‘no Brexit’. But if that is a choice sufficient MPs prefer to avoid, they might just opt for the sense of a mush in the middle, even if it amounts in practice to ‘no deal’ because it is unacceptable to the EU. Indeed, far from resolving the problem, it may give us the double whammy of parliamentary paralysis and economic catastrophe, with insufficient capacity to deal with either.

As ever in this, Labour’s position is vital. And the handling at conference is key. The signs thus far are not great. In a video fronted by John McDonnell to promote the ‘World Transformed’ fringe, which he says will address all the big challenges facing the Left, Brexit does not rate a mention. For the second year running, there seems to be an effort by the leadership to avoid a meaningful debate or vote, including on the issue of the referendum on the final deal, for which there is huge support among party members whose views, we are constantly told, are fundamental to Corbyn’s vision of politics. There are plenty of signs that opinion on the Left is shifting, to the obvious recognition that Labour’s social justice goals and legitimate desperation to end austerity are incompatible with Brexit, hard, soft or mushy. But short of Momentum or Unite positively wanting to make Brexit the focus of conference, and wanting a shift in policy in favour of the People’s Vote, it is unlikely to happen.

So stand by for the well-worn tactic of an ‘NEC statement,’ which can be heavily laden with fudge, allow them to say key issues have been debated, members and unions have been listened to, avoid confrontation with the very large elephants in the room, but at least hold the door open (or not close it might be a better way of putting it) to a People’s Vote if Parliament votes down the deal. Also, though the anti-Semitism issue has been difficult for the leadership, when it comes to conference, they will seek to play it to their advantage by claiming that any divergence from the given line on Brexit or anything else is all about the usual malcontents trying to undermine ‘Jeremy’.

We saw that with the front page of The New European last week. I was surprised to ‘learn’ from many Corbynista twitterati, the image was all my idea – it wasn’t – because my anti-Brexit campaigning is all part of some plot to start a new party – it’s not. It is, rather, a campaign to try to stop the country going into decline, and to persuade the Left that fighting Brexit is a fight against the policies and attitudes of the Right, that Labour’s chances of power will be helped – not harmed – by supporting the People’s Vote, and that Brexit will do real and lasting damage to the people and communities Labour most seeks to help.

The clock Labour wants to see ticking is the one towards a general election. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. The Brexit clock is the one that counts for now. Hence the Brextremist desperation to get on with it, talk of delay on the non-extreme Tory side, and tactical manoeuvring by Labour as conference looms.

Final point, while we are in real world territory. Welcome though the recent Brexit polls are, we People’s Vote supporters should not get carried away by them. Yes, they clearly show a shift our way, and that shift seems to be happening in all parts of the country, which is great news, and part explains why Rees-Mogg et al are climbing on to those clock hands and trying to drag them forward. But the shift probably says as much about perceived incompetence and division in the Tory government as it does about any detailed following of the debate. A business friend of mine whose company regularly does focus groups, for example, told me there was universal awareness of Boris Johnson’s resignation, but zero awareness of the ‘Chequers deal’ that led to it.

So, as the conference season begins, we should be hopeful but realistic about the scale of the task. Hopeful, because public opinion is shifting, and MPs will have sensed that over the summer, whatever the Brextremists may say in public. But realistic because time is indeed short and this parliament’s track record on facing up to tough choices thus far is not exactly inspiring. The challenge to MPs is to understand the real world change is happening, and respond to it. The challenge to us is to help them in that direction. The next few weeks are vital. The clock is ticking...

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