MICHAEL WHITE: May and Johnson are struggling to keep a lid on the Brexit betrayal chorus

PUBLISHED: 08:00 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 08:53 25 May 2018

Theresa May and her cabinet at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Images.

Theresa May and her cabinet at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Images.

PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE discusses U-turns from the PM and Boris Johnson as they try to keep a lid on the Brexit betrayal chaos

You all knew that was more or less inevitable. Picture: Martin RowsonYou all knew that was more or less inevitable. Picture: Martin Rowson

The sound of Boris Johnson assuring Brexit voters that they need not “fear betrayal” by Theresa May must have sent waves of panic through the ranks of Leave supporters. What was that, he slyly added? That “a customs backstop is not an outcome we desire”? And “we must give the PM time and space” to negotiate her elastic vision of Brexit Means Brexit?

Time and space? Undesired outcomes? Weasel words! How different from the Brexit Boris we heard denouncing Theresa May’s “crazy” customs partnership in Washington just two weeks ago! Britain has a robust extradition treaty with the United States. But Johnners knows that Trump would never hand over a man who speaks Latin so well that No.10 trusts him to visit Latin America (where Britain does such little trade).

So on Monday the foreign secretary was speaking from Buenos Aires. Does Argentina extradite political refugees, even gringo ones? Does its Ecuadorian embassy have a large broom cupboard in which the rascal might hide in returning for selling out the Malvinas as well as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? But why take the risk? The foreign secretary did a U-turn, much as fellow-populist, Donald Trump, did this week over Chinese trade.

That’s what happens when populists collide with reality. Their retail supporters don’t seem to mind as long as they keep bull-s**ting about everything going so well, according to plan, unprecedented, the greatest ever. Did you see that photo trending on Chinese social media? Elderly American trade officials facing a young Chinese team, the exact reverse of sepia photos from talks in 1900: revenge for the “century of humiliation”!

But to connoisseurs, the ones who follow the small print in our own mini-drama, Boris on manoeuvres is not a sight for sensitive eyes. He resembles an elephant doing Buenos Aires’s popular Tango Argentino. So what has happened since last week that makes him embrace May chest-to-chest, a flower between his teeth, while she talks dirty about the possibility of extending EU customs arrangements – tariffs – beyond the December 2020 transition?

No one claims to know for certain and Fleet Street has the perfect alibi for not asking hard questions: the royal wedding and the House of Windsor’s embrace of multicultural Britain, courtesy of the new Duchess of Sussex. For some Brexiteers that must be another betrayal of sorts, why couldn’t Harry marry a Deb? But attacking the Royals is the one treason they dare not name. The fickle tabloids have done a foreigner-bashing U-turn too.

But the political explanation must be the obvious one. May knows she doesn’t have the numbers to impose a hard Brexit, in cabinet, in parliament, MPs as well as those pesky peers. Whether of not that dilemma is her wish or long-held calculation, mere improvisation even, we cannot know. The Sphinx of Maidenhead is not as in touch with her emotions as Prince Harry of Wails. May’s role model is Harry’s inscrutable granny.

It doesn’t matter. We are where we are. May cannot rely on her backbenchers, Jeremy Corbyn certainly can’t rely on his. They can both rely on the SNP to be unhelpful, still stung by Holyrood’s stand-off with Whitehall over those repatriated Brexit powers over farms and fish, which Nicola Sturgeon refuses to concede, even temporarily.

Ah, “temporarily”. What’s in a word? Quite a lot this week. May promises that her new “alternative backstop”, prolonged adhesion to the customs union, is only temporary, while we sort out the technology and trust issues which will square the Irish circle for a frictionless border that satisfies restless Northern nationalists and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Team Brexit’s new hate figure and Brussels stooge.

Mrs (“trust me”) May says “temporary” is “time-limited” and only in “a very limited set of circumstances”. Michael Gove tells a Policy Exchange seminar that it is a “just in case” model and likens it on Radio 4 to a bridging loan. Lasting weeks, months or until 2022, Michael? Who can say. Gove chuckles, a sure sign he is stumped, and promotes his green credentials. A kinder, greener Mike is back.

Remainers hope and Brexits fear all this may prove a Hotel California moment in which Britain checks out of the EU, but never leaves. In circumstances redolent of his old “masochism strategy” (“nurses hate me? Then fix up a televised meeting”) Tony Blair steps up to the plate. If the choice is between a “jobs first” Brexit – the official Corbyn-McCluskey position – one that means staying close to the EU, people will ask “what’s the point?” Blair told Radio 4’s Today. A clean-break Brexit and they will ask “what’s the price?” Now the dilemma is clearer they should be given a referendum on the final deal, he says (again).

Little sign of that happening. Little sign of Brexit being reversed by popular demand. It’s weeks since the FT’s Gideon Rachman, once convinced Brexit would be reversed, conceded that he now thinks that just 5% likely. The issue now is finally focussing on real options: from WTO to Canada-plus-plus-plus and what sounds like May’s latest wheeze, Norway-lite. Admittedly Brussels still rejects most of them, but hey, the EU is negotiating too and those Italians are getting stroppy. On the upmarket ConservativeHome website, its cerebral editor, Paul Goodman, dismisses recent gossip of another snap election in October (here, not Italy). Whips office talk to frighten backbenchers back into line as the long summer evenings raise the consumption of Pimm’s on the Terrace, I’d say. So do the shameless bookies, even they rate the chances at no higher than 15%.

Instead Goodman notes a growing impatience to get it over with, even among the less ideological (ie opportunist) members of Cult Mogg’s European Research Group (ERG). “Leave first and negotiate the Brexit we want” from outside the EU after March 29, 2019, is the new, pragmatic mantra. “We daren’t risk an uncertain leadership contest, let alone an election that could misfire and make Jeremy Corbyn PM,” they mutter. Hence their muted response to Norway-lite and a only a single column report of May’s remarks at Jodrell Bank on page six of the Mail.

Ok, if you say so, guys, that’s fine by me. The longer the process drags on into an uncertain future, where Chinese trade negotiators get younger and smarter while oldster Trump’s fiscal boost to a QE-overheated US economy blows up in Jake Rees-Mogg’s face, the less likely Brexit Britain is to swallow the Go-It-Alone Kool-Aid undiluted. We can still rescue much of the furniture from the Brexit blaze. Hawaii is not the only island with an active volcano. We have Mount Dacre, but he’s quiet.

Perhaps the Mail’s editor has noticed Team Trump’s declared ambition to make the NHS subsidise bloated US health care costs through higher payments to Big Pharma. Or its hopes of flooding Scotch with Tennessee whiskey (note the ‘e”) and driving its allies out of trade with Iran. India, China, Oz, they’re all drawing up ‘free trade’ shopping lists for Liam Fox. ‘C’ is for chlorinated chicken, Green Mike.

Take your pick as to the most likely twist in this unfolding scenario. The FT’s world-weary Janan Ganesh, still young enough to be too cynical for his own good, reckons now is as good as it gets for the Tory right. They must be poised to trigger a leadership election and the gamble of a fresh election in pursuit of the hard Brexit mandate denied to May last summer.

Why? Because the jobs-rich-wage-poor economy hasn’t yet turned nasty to frighten voters and because Corbyn’s Labour – defying grassroots opinion when it suits the leadership – is still impaled on its ‘no single market’ hook, but softening fast under the parental guidance of Keir Starmer. The selection of Remain campaigner, Janet Daby, to fight arch-Remain Lewisham East on June 14 is another shove.

I don’t buy the Ganesh line. The Guardian’s Rafael Behr predicts a Tory culture war, but only after Brexit. In his view, May represents voters who see Brexit in terms of economic insecurity and cultural dislocation brought about by globalisation and embodied by immigration – her Home Office “hostile environment” phase – though not the Duchess of Sussex (obviously). May seems happier to sign up to EU technical standards and green/financial regulations than she is to unleash the free market beast that is Rees-Mogg, armoured knight of extreme economic liberalism.

It is probably true that financial integration of global markets has reached its peak and is in some state of reverse, driven by more factors than the populist backlash so visible everywhere. So May’s instinct may be zeitgeist. All the weekend talk about the Windsor wedding expressing a changed Britain, more accepting of multiculturalism and socially tolerant attitudes, drenched in manly tears, is fine for us city dwellers. The surge of support for the Windrush generation and respect given to family testimony at the Grenfell fire inquiry both point in the same direction. The Mail is on board.

But despite the welcome revival of British cities in the past three decades, mostly driven by migration, barely half of us live in them, even in 2018. The experience of millions of our fellow-citizens in village, town and sprawling suburb, is not multicultural at all. So I am wary of Rachel Sylvester’s elegant thesis in the Times that Corbyn’s fence-sitting over Brexit will cost him dearly among the younger ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ crowd who cheered him at Glastonbury. They’re not yet flocking to buy tickets for Labour’s White Hart Lane version of Glasto in June.

Sylvester rightly points out that there are more Tory seats (63) in the south where Conservative voters backed Remain than Labour seats up north (33) where most party supporters backed Brexit. Boris, IDS and Chipping Barnet’s Theresa Villiers could all get the heave-ho if only Corbyn would commit to membership of the single market and the ‘open values’ world view. Blair has banged on about it for years and Macavity Gove is edging back that way in his usual feline fashion.

Maybe Sylvester is right, but demography isn’t destiny, young folk age and change, people in Barnet vote Tory for other reasons, like Ken Livingstone. All we know is that despite everything – Brexit, housing and the NHS in crisis, top coppers complaining about police budgets – the Conservatives have a poll lead over Labour of between 1% and 4% in all surveys since the local elections. It shouldn’t be like this and wasn’t in January.

So the only leadership contention name that unites the Tories is Corbyn. He is more useful to the Brexiteers where he is, viscerally anti-capitalist EU and unwilling to compromise John McDonnell’s hare-brained plans for socialism in one country by embracing the single market in the name of ‘jobs first’.

We will know more when he has to decide – not Jeremy’s favourite verb – whether or not he persists in trying to impose an abstention on his MPs when the Lords-amended EU (Withdrawal) Bill comes back shortly (or not). If trade spokesman, Barry Gardiner’s lamentably ambiguous performance on Sunday’s Not The Andy Marr Show with Emma Barnett is any guide, we should not hold our breath.

In the absence of recognisable leadership from any quarter, the rest of us should brace ourselves for the next phase of the ‘Brexit Betrayed’ narrative. But perhaps not yet. What was the phrase which Luxembourg’s PM, Xavier Bettel, said of the negotiations so far. “They were in with a load of opt-outs, now they are out and want a load of opt-ins.” Spot on, Cake-and-eat-it-land.

But who will join the ‘Betrayal’ chorus when the moment comes? Will the Brexit coalition hold together if the skies darken in an unpredictable world? In one where crude oil has bounced back to $80 per barrel as Iran and Venezuela buckle, where Oligarch Abramovich is kept waiting in the Nothing to Declare queue at Heathrow, and voters in Ireland are targeted by online warriors in the global culture war over abortion rights?

Nothing more starkly illustrates the current desire to make things mean whatever Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen says they mean than a recent Saturday feature in the Mail. Under the headline “Proof the Remainer Row Over EU Customs Union is Claptrap”, it purported to show how the smooth operation of the mighty container port of Felixstowe demonstrates how high tech remedies can process £80 billion worth of annual trade – EU and global – in ways that make the £3 billion Irish border look child’s play.

The trouble is it’s a false analogy. Felixstowe handles huge container ships, some with the equivalent of 21,000 steel container boxes, they are mostly full of non-perishable goods, often at sea for up to three weeks, plenty of time to do the paperwork. The Irish land border and the port of Dover are mostly roll-on-roll-off lorries, not container ships. Sometimes they have roll-off stowaways underneath them, as perishable in their way as fresh vegetables.

Friends who have visited tell me Felixstowe has a very slick PR operation. I’m sure we can all learn from what they do so well. But not if we pretend complicated things are easy. They’re not. That’s why May is seeking more time. And another thing. One problem Felixstowe shares with Dover is a whopping two billion euros bill recently imposed by OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud unit, on the UK. Something about customs laxity towards consignments of under-priced Chinese cotton sneaking their way into EU markets via the sceptred isle. Just fancy!

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