MICHAEL WHITE: With Brexit deadline looming, it’s time for the grown-ups to take charge

PUBLISHED: 15:00 18 May 2018

Trump and Berlusconi by Martin Ronson. Picture: Martin Ronson

Trump and Berlusconi by Martin Ronson. Picture: Martin Ronson

Martin Ronson

With Brexit negotiations due to come to a close this year, Michael White suggests that its time for the characters to step aside and the real politicians to step up

Surely not when the tawdry name of Silvio Berlusconi is back on Italian front pages as a deal-maker – or breaker – for the eurozone’s first all-populist, eurosceptic coalition?

Well, maybe. I used to think of Berlusconi as an aberration, but now that Donald Trump is president he looks like John the Baptist. Actually, that’s unfair. My friend, who knows the former Italian prime minister (“he doesn’t like me”), says he can be an intensely seductive persuader in private, one who can also laugh at himself. No Trump then, though the conflicts of interest and the bunga bunga lifestyle fit the Trump template.

Is it more likely that he is Italy’s Boris Johnson, himself a none-too-fastidious, media-savvy egotist with a bunga bunga CV of his own? That’s getting warmer. But the British foreign secretary’s maladroit recent antics are hardly in Berlusconi’s league. It shows (again) why Michael Gove torpedoed his leadership campaign in 2016 and will do again in the unlikely event it becomes necessary. Gove is always the rascal to watch.

Sack Boris for brazenly calling her customs partnership “crazy”, as some MPs and pundits suggest? Now why on earth would Theresa (“Trust me”) May bother to do that and revive his flagging career a second time? Let him hurl himself against the border fence in the hope of martyrdom as much as he likes. But don’t waste live ammunition on the flabby fraud. Escaping responsibility is what Boris always wants. Let him sack himself. He won’t.

Not that my Roman friend’s comment was meant as a compliment to the political class in either country. But Whitehall’s drama-as-farce, Italian-style, simply invites comparison between forms of political stalemate. Our own version of a Spaghetti Western is being played out, much as it is in Rome. The continuing struggle there is between the left-populist Five Star Movement and the right-populists of the formerly-Northern League, who pushed aside the centrist parties, exhausted and discredited, in the March elections.

It is as if John McDonnell was trying to form a Brexit cabinet with Jacob Rees-Mogg. Divided Britain is not quite at that stage. But who knows? Amber Rudd has gone after scoring that Windrush own goal. Much like James Milner’s Champions League own goal in Liverpool’s match with Roma (I watched it in a café in Brindisi) the ball bounced off Rudd’s head, but the poor kick was May’s.

Her Irish border dilemma has not gone and the Lords have flung down the Brexit gauntlet by amending the EU (Withdrawal) Bill 14 times. Everything is currently on hold while May negotiates with her cabinet’s warring sub-committees and in meetings with backbench MPs while carefully not leading from the front. There were reports on Tuesday that she slapped down Rees-Mogg over an Irish border poll (“we would win,” said the Sage of Somerset at one such session), so expect retaliation in the Sun.

It all makes John Major’s war with his euro-bastards look quite dignified. How do we get out of this mess before the Brexit bus goes over Nigel Lawson’s famous non-existent cliff? I don’t know and clearly nor does May or anyone else. Mouthy Brexit cheerleader, Dan Hannan MEP, admitted last week on the influential ConHome website that things aren’t going according to plan. This may represent progress, a step towards realism.

It now transpires that Dan had blithely assumed the close 52:48% result on June 23 – that’s nearly TWO YEARS AGO – would have produced a compromise by now, a “moderate form of withdrawal” that would shed the EU’s political dimension, compromise on immigration (remember, Dan’s a ‘liberal leaver’) and encompass “very broadly, an EFTA-type arrangement à la Suisse”. Norway’s EEA model, inside the single market but not the customs union, is also back in play, this time (says the FT) with slight encouragement from Norway, more than slight from that cross-party Lords majority.

They are both versions of the softer Brexit outcome, tricky but doable. We’ve often knocked Dan’s Alpine panacea around on these pages and I read only the other day that the Swiss spend millions on their huge border staff. Being both outside the single market and the customs union, their EU deal is bespoke and fiendishly complicated. Nobody much likes it, not even the Swiss. But let us rejoice at the sight of repentant sinner Dan.

Is it safe to say that slowly Global Britain’s Brexit crew are being forced to accept that the choice is between detail-plus-compromise and a hard Brexit with only WTO terms to fall back on? I remain unconvinced that most of the ‘no deal better than a bad deal’ crowd, including the Daily Mail, will actually press their religious fervour to a smash.

If it triggers an uncertain Tory leadership contest that might throw up the Rees-Mogg victory that party polls consistently suggest. That or a general election that risks the accidental election of a Corbyn-SNP government, as backward-looking and fogey-ish as Rees-Mogg. My hunch is that Moggster members of the European Research Group are like those highly-organised gangs (the ‘Ultras’) at Italian football matches. They are not interested in football, only in the fight. They want an enemy to blame. But how many will want to die in the ditch for a variant of ‘max fac’?

We’ll have to wait until the Brexit negotiation’s designated climax in October to find out, though with all that legislation still to pass and implementation schemes to get up and running, I assume Brexit day will be delayed – as one of those Lords votes proposed. John Major’s 1992-97 government ended up like this, living hand-to-mouth and postponing things – including the inevitable defeat by Blair at the end of it. But Blair (can you believe Bambi is 65?) is not on offer now. And this month’s local election results reinforce the hunch (I share it) that we have passed Peak Corbyn. The Labour leader’s persistent fence-straddling on Europe – as the Lords’ showdown on the singe market again exposes – may be cynically astute, but it is the antithesis of leadership, as usual.

No one may be listening much to Blair, to David Miliband or Nick Clegg – for reasons we all understand – but voters do know where that trio stand. As Jane Merrick pointed out in last week’s New European the anti-Brexit Lib Dems and Greens even staged modest recoveries in the local elections off the back of consistency. Jeremy risks becoming the unprincipled “midwife of a hard Brexit” (copyright Miliband D) – for which neither side will thank or credit him.

But we live in strange times. Trump wasn’t meant to be elected. Mahathir Mohamad certainly wasn’t mean to regain power in Malaysia last week, at 92 and upending old alliances in the process. In London this week Britain courted – of all people – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s talented autocrat, much as Elizabeth I wooed the Ottoman Sultan, encircling enemy of her European foes, the Catholic and autocratic Hapsburgs.

Berlusconi wasn’t meant to get his criminal disqualification from public office trimmed by the courts either. Now he can menace the League’s Matteo Salvini, a popular ex-left-winger, as he negotiates a deal with Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio, at 31 barely one third Mahathir’s age. “What dirt can Berlusconi have got on Salvini to exercise such leverage?” asks my Roman pal. So old certainties dissolve before our eyes.

All of which serves to underline that the times are not propitious for the Brexiteers’ kind of wishful experimentation in go-it-alone free trade and hypothetical sovereignty. I almost spilled my double espresso when reading online that Gove had protested that May’s admittedly wacky customs partnership plan (“of course, I’ll collect your taxes for you, Jean-Claude”) was untested and unprecedented. Isn’t his own ‘max fax’ option, resting as it does on untried technology and ‘trusted trader’ optimism, much the same? And doesn’t Team Barnier reject both options anyway?

Least propitious of all is the latest manifestation of Trump Unchained: The Movie. We should struggle to keep an open mind, liberals and experts are not always right. Perhaps impulsive Trump’s disruptive style will achieve peace in the Korean peninsula while also persuading China to rein in some of its dirtier trade practices. Perhaps moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will also persuade the Palestinians to see sense and negotiate with Bibi Netanyahu – another Trump prototype – for a 1.5 state solution. This week’s dead and wounded in Gaza suggest otherwise. The White House is more isolationist and protectionist than it has been since the 1930s.

Read conservative US pundits – I recommend the RealClearPolitics website for a good left-right spread – and you can’t help noticing how insular and self-centred most sound, how naively optimistic they seem to be that everyone else will come round to their way of thinking. It has always been an American trait (most don’t have passports), but post-imperial Britain was shedding its self-centredness before Brexit. No longer. On Radio 4’s Any Questions? last weekend I again heard that the EU will “come begging” for a deal if Britain only stands firm.

But firm for what exactly? Polls suggest that immigration – which May fetishized over Windrush and student numbers at the expense of economic priorities – has slipped down the list of voter concerns, now that they have made their point. Does that mean she can secretly aim for a softer economic Brexit in cahoots with the strangely silent Philip Hammond? Speculation runs into the sand.

Or is she merely afraid that no Commons majority exists to leave the customs union? Staying in it would be the “worst of both worlds” by denying Global Britain all those free trade agreements elsewhere, say some Brexiteers. But not all. Single market? Customs union? Canada-plus? WTO? They still can’t agree the basics. Michel Barnier’s clock ticks on, but Barnier too shows Brexit-style complacency about the EU’s own intrinsic strength. Last week he said the eurozone will manage fine without the City of London’s financial expertise, deep and wide. Napoleon made that mistake, but it was City gold, as well as the Duke of Wellington’s armies (his heir led the charge in those Lords votes), which brought him down. Ditto the Kaiser, though Wall Street’s money did for Hitler (and for us).

Barnier is wrong, not just because he is a Frenchman accustomed to politically-directed regulation. Fragmenting Europe’s money markets would be costly and destabilising. Belatedly Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has been told to set up a technical working party with the Bank of England to explore how a deal might work in the financial sector. Fewer bank staff are leaving London than predicted. Brussels has blinked first.

But it is worse than that. No one understands why eurozone growth is faltering again. There is also tension between north and south over how to fill the EU’s budget hole, even without Brexit. Barnier’s colleagues playing hard ball on ‘security’ grounds (‘it’s the rules’) over Britain’s continued participation in the Galileo GPS system is both expensive and provocative. Security and AI are things we often do better.

When Trump is busy splitting NATO and the EU – most recently repudiating the Iran nuclear deal and threatening allies with sanctions – this is no time for Europe to split its feeble defence and security capabilities still further. Coalition Germany’s army is in worse shape than our own. Putin’s is not.

In Italy the League side of the emerging (‘give us a few more days’) populist government wants a flat-rate income tax to help the better-off, Five Star wants a guaranteed basic income to help the poor: Rees-Mogg meets McDonnell. Both expensive Christmas presents will increase debt and weaken confidence. That will increase north-south imbalances in those strange intra-zone money transfers known as Target2 payments. No wonder both have modified their campaigns’ anti-EU rhetoric.

If the eurozone went bust under pressure of some unknown external shock (Team Trump must have some idiot working on it) someone would owe German taxpayers 900 billion of Target2 euros – one third of its GDP – but who and how? It does not bear thinking about. Greece may finally be easing itself out of German-imposed austerity at great cost, but Greece would be trivia compared with an Italian crisis. Neither should have joined the euro, but they did.

Barnier knows this, but daren’t say so. Unless he’s a fool, he’s not, he’s bluffing too. He won’t ‘come begging’, but nor need we if we’re sensible and know what we want. It is barely a month to the EU’s June summit, barely five to the October crunch date.

Time for the grown-ups, or what passes for them, to man-up and take charge. I mean you, the Three M’s – Merkel, Macron and May.

You go first and show leadership, Theresa. Brexit matters most to you, but getting it right matters more to them than they think.

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