MICHAEL WHITE: Blame inexperienced ministers for this shambles

PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 March 2019 | UPDATED: 08:37 15 March 2019

It ain't over til the think lady sings. Picture: Martin Rowson

It ain't over til the think lady sings. Picture: Martin Rowson

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MICHAEL WHITE writes about a political crescendo that may yet end on a very flat note indeed.

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Verdi should have been around to provide a suitably dramatic soundtrack for Theresa May’s Monday night dash to Strasbourg in pursuit of that next-to-last minute, triple-decker tweak to her deal, unveiled at 11.42pm local time. This is a libretto so greatly loved by the EU that in an ideal world Verdi would have set it to music for regular deployment as Il Cliffhanger di Bruxelles. Those of a more suspicious nature may look at May’s demand for a near-immediate vote and prefer Il Rimbalzo, The Bounce. Except she was the one being bounced.

Despite that daring childhood dash through a wheatfield, the prime minister is too cautiously earth-bound to make much of an operatic heroine, and her croaky voice isn’t up to much at present. But Jean-Claude Juncker and Jacob Rees-Mogg have potential as rival villains scheming for her hand. Boris Johnson or Geoffrey Cox as the comic turn? You decide. Ah, but the love angle, thwarted or fulfilled, tragedy or triumph? That was the question that could only be answered by MPs in Meaningful Vote 2 on Tuesday night. The morning’s late edition headlines were mostly positive, the Mail’s “Sealed With a Kiss” showing Michel Barnier kissing the contralto’s hand. But the chorus of swarthy natives in this season’s production sounded discordant, voicing familiar feelings of anger and suspicion. Many appeared to be wearing woad and double-breasted goatskins, though the Irish natives were bellowing less vociferously than usual and consulting their lawyers. Significant or not?

Not significant, it later transpired. After another day of high drama the May-Barnier production was booed off stage by the usual suspects, her historic 230-vote defeat last month trimmed to a humiliating 149-vote defeat, 391 votes to 149.

You can see why Sinn Fein’s MPs don’t turn up, someone quipped on Twitter. The DUP were doing far better than they ever could to bring about a united Ireland. Hiding smugly behind the Paisleyites and some parti pris Tory lawyers, Rees-Mogg, the Dublin asset manager, was doing his best for a disunited Britain. Some 39 Tories switched sides to back the deal, including David Davis, but 75 chose to vote against Brexit because it wasn’t their Brexit.

Much of the Il Cliffhanger drama has been dressed up in pseudo-legal arguments to disguise what has always been an essentially political choice. Remain diehards like the tireless Andrew Adonis make no secret of their aim to force a second referendum – the next People’s Vote rally takes place in London on Saturday – hoping to reverse voters’ narrow verdict in 2016 now that we better understand the downside of Brexit ‘sovereignty’. The European Research Group (ERG) has been less frank about tactics – Steve Baker time-wasting his way to a hard Brexit on reckless World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms – and even less candid about its goal of Trump-isation of our economy and society, largely at the expense of the poor.

Naïve or cynical, it is hard to tell. Rees-Mogg insists there is no time to change the law, a secondary statutory instrument (SI) is not enough. So only Brussels can prevent a hard landing on March 29.

The fact is that hard Brexiteers profess themselves globalists, but will quickly have to resort to trade protectionism. As declared Unionists they have been shockingly cavalier about the island of Ireland and protection of the Good Friday peace deal, let alone Scotland.

The quality of governance since 2010 has been second rate both at Stormont (suspended) and Hillsborough Castle where hapless Karen Bradley is installed. They obsess with control of British borders, but complain when the EU does the same to protect its single market borders from what Rees-Mogg would call smuggling if it was Afghans or cocaine coming in at Dover – or cheap petrol from Dundalk.

As for the DUP, it prioritises defying Northern Ireland’s Remain majority over getting its devolved government running again. It wants to be exactly like rUK except when it doesn’t: on sex and abortion, tax and libel law, even on the rugby, where a 32 county all-Ireland team beat France 26-14 at the weekend.

May’s night flight wasn’t a complete waste of time. With its joint instrument (“with comparable legal weight to the Withdrawal Agreement”), its joint political statement to start work on replacing the backstop (using those famous emerging technologies) and its admittedly flakier unilateral UK statement about taking the backstop to court if all else fails, her Strasbourg tweak ought to have been enough for “a Conservative MP, always well-disposed towards a Conservative prime minister” as St Jacob dishonestly put it on Radio 4 before adding a “but…”. Suddenly it was hardliners, usually so keen to dash for the exit, who were demanding 24 hours more to study the small print of Il Rimbalzo. Whoops, no. They must have been reading the small print when May made her final (?) appeal for support. Most of them certainly weren’t in the chamber.

Like the DUP and wavering Tory MPs Mogg hid behind the advice of Bill Cash’s team of ‘star chamber’ lawyers. But we all know that lawyers are like taxis. You hail them, tell them where you want to go and pay when they find a route that takes you there. In his own Tuesday morning verdict, the rotund Geoffrey Cox, Rumpole of the Attorney General’s Office, said as much.

The legal risk of a permanent imprisonment in the backstop without the means of unilateral escape had been “reduced” but not eliminated, he conceded. Given “competing risks” and incentives on all sides to make future trade talks work, it boils down to “a political judgement”. May’s risk is one “I remain strongly of the view that it is right to make,” Cox concluded. It was the QC’s equivalent of the taxi driver’s “I can’t stop on a double yellow line, guv’nor. Can you walk the last five yards?”

But not enough for the MPs whose votes May had to turn. It was bound to be an uphill struggle against the suspicious mind-set symbolised by a Sunday Times tirade against Whitehall last weekend, written anonymously by a supposedly “senior policymaker within the civil service”. If you were lucky enough to miss it, the article’s main thrust was that, far from being independently-neutral, the British civil service is dominated by Remainers who despise “stupid” Leave voters while not being very expert or capable themselves. What’s more, they are not averse to running scare stories about a no-deal outcome and completely control elected ministers who are supposed to be in charge. Well, I never. Is it so long ago that Antony Jay’s witty Whitehall satire on Anon’s thesis, Yes Minister, was on our screens that “senior policy professionals” were young enough to be sent to bed before it aired?

Sir Humphrey, you have been warned. A dyspeptic colleague is fitting you up as one of several designated scapegoats for when Brexit falls short of the glorious WTO+Magna Carta future Anon envisages for Britain. WTO heaven will arrive courtesy of Presidents Xi, Trump and Putin and Magna Carta-loving philanthropists in emerging economies poised to overtake ours. It’s not that Anon doesn’t make recognisably valid points. That “thickening cloud of negativity” towards Brexit among Whitehall folk, doing most of the hard work without much clear political direction, is real enough by all accounts, though unsurprising to anyone who doesn’t share Anon’s innocent enthusiasm for a WTO/no-deal Brexit. Alas, it’s as ungraciously counter-productive for officials to call fellow-citizens “stupid” as it is for aptly-named writer, Will Self, to call them “racists” on television. If we are ever to bind up the nation’s wounds, as an emollient Michael (Rascal to Watch) Gove has been urging us to do by backing May’s Deal, we (me included) must stop abusing the voters whose sincere and patriotic concerns have been misused. The phrase ‘One Nation Brexit’ is in the air.

Though it probably won’t do him much good whenever the next Tory leadership contest occurs (no rush, I still think), Kingmaker Gove has played a devious hand well. If (as reported) Tony Blair is among those retired politicians urging Juncker, Barnier and King Emmanuel of France to play hard ball until Britain ‘comes to heel’, I’d wager the Kingmaker (May’s Brexit is “not a vassal state or colony”) has judged the public mood this spring better than him. “It’s make your mind up time,” he said on Tuesday. Were fellow Tories really willing to risk either the damage of a hard Brexit or an Article 50 extension which could lead to a softer Norway (single market) or Labour (customs union) outcome – or even a Remain-backing referendum? Team May kept saying it to the end. She said as much in pro-Brexit Grimsby on Friday – though it will not restore Grimbarians deep sea trawler fleet, sunk more by Iceland than Brussels.

After the vote, May the rasping “dying swan” (Daily Telegraph) sprang no surprises which should be no surprise, but was to MPs who thought that she might finally throw in her busted flush. As promised, MPs would vote on Wednesday to reject a no-deal, all Tories on a free vote, and on Thursday – much trickier – to seek an extension to Article 50. The EU27 may/not unanimously grant that request, for two months without a “credible” (copyright D Tusk) plan of action. It is unlikely to insist on a much longer rethink. What with difficult Strasbourg elections in May and the appointment of a new Commission, Brussels won’t have much time for Brexit this side of November, Peter Mandelson, warns. They won’t be very nice to Theresa at the March 21 summit either. Jeremy Corbyn went through the motions of demanding a general election he can’t possibly want – despite everything, the Tories are ahead in most polls – but No.10 is already publishing no-deal tariff plans just in case a mere Commons vote can’t stop what is still the legal default position. The Lords, strangely quiet lately, oppose no-deal and might vote cross-party for a customs union version.

Once May had painted her rigid red lines in 2016-17 before setting Barnier’s clock ticking towards March 29, it was always likely that the process would go to the 11.42 hour in Strasbourg and possibly beyond. Corbyn – who has deigned to talk to political opponents like Oliver Letwin, ‘Norway’ Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock about ‘Common Market 2.0’ options (single market or customs union?) – immediately condemned the “nothing new” Strasbourg package. Keir Starmer QC agreed. Remain barrister, Dominic Grieve, sounded wary, though he would now vote for May’s deal in a People’s Vote. We need to pause and stage a cross-party commission to rethink where we are going, said Labour’s Yvette Cooper. It’s still not too late.

Cooper and cross-party allies will try to seize control. Ex-May buddy Damian Green will join Remain’s Nicky Morgan in reviving another dying swan: the ERG-backed Malthouse Plan for an extended transition to a no-deal. Defiant May insists her deal is still the best on offer and is not dead yet. Neither no-deal nor an A50 extension solve the problem or duck “unenviable choices” – including a string of eliminating ballots (indicative votes has centrist support) or a referendum to resolve the stalemate, she hoarsely told MPs. If you’re not bewildered you’re not concentrating.

It is stating the obvious to assert that much of the shambles reflects sheer inexperience among many ministers, over-promoted before their time like young officers on a battlefield. The high casualty rate is compounded by new forms of warfare, the machine guns of social media deployed by identity politics activists and grievance archaeologists with endless supplies of complaint. Karen Bradley (Bloody Sunday), Amber Rudd (“coloured” Diane Abbott) and Andrea Leadsom (designating Islamophobia as a Foreign Office issue) all fell into avoidable error last week. Old sweats would easily have sidestepped their gaffes or toughed them out rather than apologise to placate vexatious litigants.

It is not as if either side of the Channel has much to celebrate. The Bank of England may have retreated to a ‘less damage than we feared’ position on hard Brexit, but £900 billion of foreign assets (10% of the UK’s financial base) have now left the City for eurozone destinations. More will surely follow. If markets ever listened to Suella Braverman or could understand Bill Cash there might be a stampede. The OECD has just downgraded its 2019 growth predictions for both the UK (1.4% to 0.8%) and the eurozone (from 1.8% predicted in November to 1%), as China’s growth stalls (is its data trustworthy?), trade talks stumble and the US economy looks increasingly like doing so too.

With its own Chinese exports shrinking, a hard Brexit might help tip Germany – its growth prospects OECD slashed from 1.6% to 0.7% – into recession. It would certainly damage Britain’s closer neighbours, notably both sides of Ireland’s sensitive border. You would not think so listening to brinkmanship by Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar (pulled off a plane to sign off the Strasbourg tweak) as well as the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.

Jeremy Hunt, angling to be a compromise himself in the eventual leadership contest, annoyed the Europeans by saying a hard Brexit would represent failure of statecraft on their part, and Varadkar retaliated by saying for the umpteenth time that Brexit and the border problem are of Britain’s own making.

They are both right, but only half right. In a despairing FT column, Tory moderate Robert Shrimsley complains that his party has been “captured by demagogues, economic illiterates, provincial nationalists and wild-eyed free marketeers” as fervent as Corbyn in their own way, the kind of Tories who wrecked their chances over protectionism in 1846 and again after 1900. Harsh but fair, even after the TIG breakaway from both parties and the formation of Tom Watson’s Future Britain group inside Labour, a Blair-Brown legacy act to counter the Marxists.

Yet major EU states face recognisably similar centrifugal problems which Brexit helps to mask, much as apartheid did for decades at meetings of the Organisation of African (Dis)Unity (OAU). South Africa’s regime was a rare focus of solidarity among leaders divided by so much else. Italy has already fallen to what Guy Verhofstadt, everyone’s favourite Belgian after Tintin, calls the looming “populist nightmare” and is eying an embrace of China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative, the first G7 state to break ranks.

Viktor Orban’s Hungary, deploying the populist handbook against free courts and media, is flirting with Russia (so is populist authoritarian Turkey) and risks expulsion from the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP) at Strasbourg. Eviction might only serve to strengthen the enlarged populist bloc expected to be elected in the EU’s parliamentary elections on May 23 – the ones which May and the EU27 are so keen for departing Britain to avoid by as short an Article 50 extension as they can get away with. By then, Spain will have elected a new government, its competence and coherence further weakened by populist nationalism too. What price, Gibraltar?

Last week president Macron set out a new vision for “European renewal” in his letter to 28 EU newspapers, a pan-European challenge to reform Schengen asylum and refugee rules (too late for David Cameron!), manufacturing, trade and defence. It was designed to better protect citizens and liberal values from empty nationalism, albeit with much less this time about overdue structural eurozone reforms than in his 2016 Sorbonne speech.

He was even nice about Brexit Britain, though scornful of Brexit. In her reply, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, increasingly Germany’s de facto Merkel, was bland. AKK also ducked the euro and asserted the inter-state model of EU cooperation over the federalist blueprint which Twitter’s Brexit warriors find under every Brussels bed. Remind me again, why are we leaving when the realities of Europe’s challenges – as distinct from lofty rhetoric – are running our way?

Brussels says our Brexit is our problem to fix. Or as Verdi might have put it in Don Juncker, much-loved aria from Il Rimbalzo, “Non riapriremo la negoziazione.” You won’t reopen the talks, Don Juncker? Are you sure?

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