Author Archives: dontdontdont

Why did Boris Johnson resign?

 

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In the space of 24 hours David Davis and Boris Johnson resigned from Theresa May’s government. Why?

The loss of two of the most senior ministers in her government constitutes a serious blow to May’s already dented authority. Cabinet ministers rarely resign without good reason, and quite often the reason is that they are being forced out for some failure, either personal or professional. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd tried to cling on for a week until it became clear she could stay in post no longer.

So, you would assume that Davis and Johnson’s motivations for giving up – respectively – the positions of Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary would be strong ones.

Davis Davis’ reasons for leaving are more clear cut than Johnson. Davis is a life-long critic of the EU; what used to be called a ‘Eurosceptic’, until the vote to leave the EU in 2016, after which such people became ‘Leavers’ or ‘Brexiteers’. At the weekend May brought all her cabinet to Chequers (the PM’s official country residence) in an attempt bring her fractious government in line behind an agreed negotiating position to put to the EU. Cabinet ministers reportedly had to surrender their advisers as well as their mobile phones, such was the discipline imposed by May. It appeared at first that she had succeeded in re-imposing her authority on the government, but this impression lasted barely a day.

Davis could not sign himself up to the principle of having a ‘common rule book’ with the EU. This idea  – which forms part of the so-called ‘Chequers’ proposal – is meant to facilitate trade between the EU and the UK in a similar way to the currently existing Single Market, where rules and standards are harmonised across the EU. Business leaders have been putting pressure on May to provide some direction on how trade will operate post-exit; they are worried about possible negative consequences of increased customs and border checks. Chequers was an attempt to deal pragmatically with this concern. Davis – and others like Jacob Rees Mogg – see this as a betrayal of the idea of Brexit. They argue that having a common rule book will mean just accepting EU rules and the authority of the European Court of Justice; the opposite of ‘taking back control’. So Davis walked.

Boris Johnson followed Davis hours later, saying in his letter of resignation that the ‘Brexit dream is dying’. On the surface Johnson – though a late convert to the idea of leaving the EU – was resigning in protest at the undermining of his vision for the country.

Few were convinced by this reading though. For one thing Johnson is far from the most principled politician. In just the last few weeks he broke a ‘vow’ he made to his electors in Richmond that he would “lie down in front of the bulldozers” if the airport at Heathrow (located right by the area of London Johnson represents) was extended. When a vote on the issue came up in parliament Johnson found he suddenly had to be on the other side of the world for 12 hours. Voting against the government would have meant resigning which, at that point, he was not prepared to do.

So was Johnson just resigning out of political ambition? If he had signed up to Chequers then it would have meant halting his constant undermining of his Prime Minister and jockeying for position. It is no secret that Boris yearns to be PM himself one day. Toeing the line would not have suited him, and harmed his chances of fulfilling his ambitions to get the big job.

I don’t doubt Boris Johnson’s limitless capacity for self-promotion, nor his political capriciousness. The true reason he resigned is somewhat more complex and, interestingly, beyond the control of Johnson himself.

The contradictions of Brexit

The referendum in June 2016 asked a simple question: would voters prefer to remain in the EU, or leave?

This seems a straightforward choice on the surface, but they way it was formulated was flawed and based on the political assumptions of the time. It was thought that people would naturally stick with the status quo, and in a binary choice the public’s natural conservatism would triumph. Furthermore, then Prime Minister David Cameron assumed that ‘Remain’ would win so there was no need to think through the manner in which the UK would extricate itself from the EU.

Once the vote was over, those questions became instantly and alarming live. Would the UK leave the Single Market? Or leave the Customs Union? Would fees owing to the EU be honoured? Finally, it also dawned on politicians that the situation with the Eire-Northern Irish border was going to be significant stumbling block to leaving.

It is only now, more than two years after the vote, and with less than four months before negotiations must be concluded that some of these issues are being addressed. Most commentators assume that May has found it difficult to find agreed answers to these conundrums because her cabinet is evenly split between former Remainers and Leavers. The Leave side have benefited from this interpretation because it has enabled them to shift blame for the lack of progress onto her. In fact the fault is their’s, or more accurately the fault of the Brexit project in general.

It is now clear that leaving the EU will cause significant harm to the UK, politically and economically. Much British industry relies on being closely integrated into the EU trading bloc. Multi-nationals based here value the role of the UK as a staging post to the Single Market. The UK isn’t going to be able to negotiate trade deals with superpowers on a equal footing. The regulations of the EU were actually responsible for improvements in the quality of life in the UK.

These increasingly obvious realities run directly counter to the rhetoric of the Brexiteers, both before and after the referendum. Take back control? Not if the UK is at the mercy of the US in negotiating a one-sided trade deal. Full sovereignty for parliament? Not if we still have to agree to EU rules, to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland.

Johnson resigned, not because the “dream” was dying, but because in the real world dreams don’t cut it. Brexit was, and always will be, a nationalistic, imperialistic nostalgia trip; a political programme for people who yearn for a time when Brtiannia ruled the waves and thumbed its nose at meddling Europeans.

The inherent, internal contradictions of Brexit have done for Davis and Johnson. The currents of geopolitics are a hard tide to swim against. Eventually  they will sink May and all other supporters of this rotten political fantasy.

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Labour on Brexit: not believing in leaving?

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What is the point of Labour’s position on Brexit?

It’s hard to tell. Or at least it’s been hard to tell, until Barry Gardiner let slip that the Labour’s stated policy position is “bollocks” (listen to audio below).

That situation is that while (1) the Labour Party campaigned to remain in the EU, (2) the referendum vote went against them. What has been tricky has been reconciling these two opposing realities. Leaving the EU will be detrimental to the country as a whole, which most within the Parliamentary Labour Party recognise. The official post-referendum policy is a hopeless papering over of cracks: that the UK would leave the EU while keeping “the exact same benefits” as staying in. I, and many others, pointed out at the time that this was a total nonsense.

Gardiner’s comment – meant to be kept private – acknowledges the impossibility of Labour’s public position. Which does beg the question: if Gardiner, and presumably everyone else, knows their policy is “bollocks” then why stick with it?

On the one hand there’s the problem that Jeremy ‘7.5‘ Corbyn has never been that keen on the EU and wasn’t exactly that upset that the UK voted to leave. The Labour Party under his leadership was never going to be full throated in its opposition to Brexit while it was led by the arch-Bennite. However, not even all Corbyn’s allies are as anti-EU as Corbyn was. So there must be another reason why Keir Starmer – an intelligent man – had to come up with such an abjectly bad position on Brexit.

Presumably it is because it is to Labour party political advantage to let the Tories get the messy business of Brexit out of the way, implode, as they surely will, and leave the way clear for the Labour Party to stroll in and form a government. It is a tactic beset with difficulty, not least that the public are not so stupid as politicians seem to think and it will become increasingly obviously how self-serving an approach it is.

More than that, though, it is a betrayal of the Labour Party’s role as an opposition. If parliamentary democracy is to work then the opposition must put forward opposing policies and scrutinise, rather than let the government of the day smash themselves on the rocks whilst keeping quiet.

Even worse though: while Gardiner, who in his unguarded comments was being critical of the idea, reveals the extend to which the Labour Party is lacking ideas on Brexit. His alternative proposal for the party policy was just to say ‘we’ll hold them to account on their claim to be leaving with exactly the same benefits’. That might have spared him some blushes inside his local party having to enunciate a party line he didn’t believe in, but it hardly helps the rest of us.

If the Labour Party doesn’t believe in Brexit it should collectively say so and become a conduit for the alternatives – like a vote on the terms of exit – or else admit they’re not up to the job.

Syria: does parliament get to decide?

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Whose decision is it whether the British military is sent to intervene in the Syrian civil war?

There is credible evidence that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has used more chemical weapons against the town of Douma. This has led to renewed calls from many British journalists and British politicians to take military action in Syria. This also brings back into the spotlight a question central to the exercise of democracy in the UK: is it the government or parliament who declare war?

The Syrian war is a terrible and evolving crisis. The many, many horrors brought about as a result of the conflict should be brought to an end. There should be concerted and careful action in order to end the suffering and bring peace. I am personally unconvinced that the arguments for bombing by the RAF are any stronger than they were the last time this was seriously debated in parliament.

The rehearsing of the arguments over Syrian is also bringing a purely British political question into focus. David Cameron’s failure to secure parliament’s backing  brought an effective end to the convention that the Prime Minister could declare war alone, using his or her prerogative powers. Just as Theresa May unstitched Cameron’s changes to the electoral timescale of the Fixed Term Parliament Act by calling a snap election, so she may be tempted to revert to the earlier practice of not seeking parliamentary approval for military action.

Were Mrs May to succeed in bypassing parliament – and thereby the views of the electorate – it would be a significant reversal. It would demonstrate that checks on executive power under the British constitutional system are not set in aspic once made. Or more importantly that the slow bleeding away of powers from the executive branch, which characterised the British constitutional system in the C20th, is under threat. It was largely a matter of democratic progress that government influence over parliament itself, as well as the military and judiciary, had been on the wane. For the sake of expediency, and out of a desire to avoid scrutiny of a decision to move to bombing raids, Mrs May might make a significant retrograde constitutional step.

It is also worth noting that were the Conservative government under May to succeed in side-stepping parliament and affirming executive control it would be doing so with a barely credible mandate. It would be deeply ironic, and hugely troubling, if Mrs May’s desire to avoid embarrassing and – for her government – fatal defeat led to the ultimate exercise of elective dictatorialness. It would also betray a complete lack of principle from the Prime Minister (though that hardly comes as a surprise). Whilst arguing that Brexit is being carried through in the name of parliamentary sovereignty, a unilateral decision to send British planes to Syria without the Commons’ consent would be to ride rough-shod over that same sovereign authority – the will of the people.

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Heading for the Brexit cliff edge?

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The argument over the ‘Brexit bill’ is likely to go on for the “full duration of the negotiation”, said David Davis in the Commons today.

If this is true it means that the UK is heading for a ‘no-deal’ scenario, and crashing out of the EU. Michel Barnier has made clear, and has been backed to the hilt by every one of the 27 countries involved, that there are 3 ‘separation issues that must be sorted before the UK can strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU.

Those three issues are: the border between Ireland and the UK (the UK’s only land border with the EU); the issue of rights for citizens, and the exit bill to be paid by the UK.

I highlighted yesterday a very interesting article by Faisal Islam about the current state of negotiations. In it the Sky News political editor discussed the issue of a ‘transition deal’. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’ll be impossible to tie up the whole shebang of Brexit before the deadline of March 2019. So an temporary fix might be agreed where we formally leave but basically stay till we can get the details fixed. A bit like getting kicked out by your spouse, but being allowed to kip on the sofa until you can find a flat to rent.

The problem is that the EU doesn’t want to agree a transitional deal until ‘Phase 1’ – the three issues above – are sorted. Yesterday Islam wrote this:

If we need a transition deal, then rather quickly we need to come to agreement on the ongoing Phase 1 of the negotiations. On current form this will not happen in time for the October EU summit. It might happen by December. “My hunch is it won’t happen till Christmas,” one informed Cabinet minister told me.

It would have been tight to negotiate absolutely everything necessary (a VAST amount) between Jan 2018 and March 2019 in order to leave, and that timeline only works if the bill gets agreed pronto.

If David Davis – as per his Commons statement – is now saying that the argument over a phase 1 issue is going to rumble on for the “full duration” of the negotiations, that is till 2019, then it’s really hard to see the UK getting any kind of deal even a transitional one. There might be hope from Davis that the EU might buckle – which they show no signs of doing – or take pity on the UK but that, I fear, is a vain hope.

Today, Davis also claimed to be making “concrete progress” in Brexit negotiations. As those in construction know, concrete is a very caustic substance which needs to be handled with care, and needs to be very precisely mixed, else it falls apart completely.

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The illusion of control

I’ve been banging on for a while about the way in which decision making power might be repatriated by Brexit, but influence will be lost in the process along with no small measure of political power.

There’s an excellent long article by Sky News’s political editor Faisal Islam published today.  I’ve clipped a short section which I think illustrates my point better than I could.

Fislam snip

(1) If Brexit really does happen, there will be a lot of choices which will be dressed up as having been made in London but that just-so-happen to be the carbon copies of ones made in the EU, thus allowing us to trade effectively. I.e. what a waste of everyone’s time.

(2) Take Back Control? No – more like just giving it away. And that’s not even taking into account that many big companies might well just leave rather than face regulatory uncertainties.

(3) Here’s the kicker: we get LESS influence post-Brexit over those regulations drawn up oversea (with our help btw, and some of which we quite like anyway). Dumb to the power of dumber.

Political decisions will be made in Britain post-Brexit. What won’t be decided on these shores is the long term direction of travel. Eurosceptics have long complained that our Westminster parliament was reduced to a mere rubber-stamp by membership of the EU. What an incredible irony that their own vigour and cunning in putting their case will unintentionally further reduce the power of those institutions they claim to hold so dear. They might still be able to choose the colour of the ink on the stamp perhaps.

 

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