Corbyn’s Brexit Hokey Cokey

I’m not very good at predictions but one I made a couple of years ago has turned out to seem fairly prescient. Back in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn had just scraped onto the ballot for the Labour leadership, I noted that he was very strongly and consistently anti-EU and this in itself ought to give pause for thought even to eurosceptic Conservatives. For those who supported continuing EU membership at a time when David Cameron had won the first Conservative majority (what’s that?) in 23 years, having someone leading the Opposition, however scruffy and apparently unelectable, who firmly sided with Tony Benn in believing the EU to be an anti-democratic imposition of neoliberalism on the UK, should not have been seen as anything other than a huge threat. For those who supported Labour and its embrace of EU membership gained in the long struggle back to government after humiliation in 1983, it ought to have been reason enough to reject Corbyn. 

But, as we know, nobody very much from any side of the political spectrum did notice or care very much about this, even if since the EU Referendum, Brexit is the biggest political issue we all face. Indeed, it isn’t so much that people didn’t notice, it’s more that they deliberately ignored the ample evidence of it as inconsistent with their broader perception of what Labour was offering on Brexit. Despite Corbyn having gone on TV the morning after the Referendum to say that Article 50 should be triggered immediately even now I hear his supporters say that that was either because he didn’t know the ramifications of doing so (which is an odd thing to call in support) or because he is a democrat and wanted to respect a result he did not want. Despite him having refused to share a platform with Cameron to campaign for Remain and been described by the leaders of the Labour In campaign to have barely participated in it, it is claimed that he worked tirelessly on the Remain side. Nipping off to Portugal for a holiday during the campaign is similarly dismissed as irrelevant, along with his expression of “7 out of 10” support for the EU on Channel 4’s Last Leg. Only last weekend, a Labour activist sincerely argued to me that in this year’s Labour Conference members will vote overwhelmingly for a second referendum and opposing Brexit, and that Corbyn will pursue that policy, despite having been re-elected as leader in a campaign where he denigrated Owen Smith’s call for a second referendum. 

Detailed analysis of the 2017 General Election and attitudes of voters through the campaign from the British Election Study shows that not only was Brexit by a long margin the biggest issue informing who voters voted for but that Labour picked up a very big majority of the support of those who supported Remaining in the EU or having the “softest” Brexit possible and remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union . Individual Labour candidates did strongly pursue this line (including my local one who had criticised the LibDem MP he defeated for having sat on the fence by abstaining on the Article 50 Bill, proudly signed up to the Queens Speech amendment put forward by Chuka Umunna then promptly was persuaded to abstain, thereby avoiding censure in his first week on the job while other MPs lost their shadow ministerial posts over it). Overall, there was a perception that a Labour Brexit would somehow be softer and gentler than a Tory one, even though there was nothing in what Corbyn had ever said or his manifesto to support this. 

Since then, Corbyn has railed against the “wholesale importation” of foreign workers and essentially moved to a position more strongly against free movement of workers than heard from anyone other than Nigel Farage. Farage approvingly described him for these comments as “almost a proper chap”. Given that Corbyn is unsurprisingly critical of the other fundamental freedoms of the EU there really isn’t any significant bit of the EU that he doesn’t have a basic problem with. If attempting to retain as many of the benefits of the Single Market as possible while no longer having free movement of workers is a difficult problem for David Davis, doing so while wishing to curtail free movement of goods, capital and freedom of establishment is an impossibility. 

Where my 2015 warning went wrong was in expecting Corbyn to be open about his position on the EU and to have led the calls to leave. Instead, what has happened seems to be more subtle in that he did the least amount possible to support remaining in, which was just enough to prevent his largely pro-EU supporters and voters abandoning him, and then waited in hope that his ideal outcome of leaving the EU without any future relationship or agreement will transpire and for the Conservatives to take blame for something he could not have delivered on purpose. With no external check against subsidies or moving away from market economy principles coming from the EU, he would be free to pursue the Bennite dream of a socialist siege economy in the UK.

Whether he and those around him are clever enough to have done this on purpose, or that it is a happy coincidence, we’ll never know. But even on a purely partisan basis leaving aside any of the policy or political issues, it ought to have always been clear that the biggest beneficiary of a defeat for Remain in the referendum was going to be Corbyn because of the damage that defeat would inflict on Cameron. This may explain why he felt that he was strong enough to sack Hilary Benn and start to purge himself of the disloyal immediately after the referendum. That this benefit was not felt immediately is in large part down to the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership which followed, which was itself partly motivated by a significant minority in Labour who could see that Corbyn wasn’t going to lead them anywhere other than towards a “hard” Brexit. 

The best defence against this will of course be for the details of the Brexit agreement to be somewhat “soft” in retaining those checks which are beneficial*, albeit as sovereign decisions of the UK made bilaterally with the EU rather than as rules of the EU which we are bound by our accession to the EU 45 years ago. At the moment it is unclear where things stand because of the nature of the negotiations but it is interesting that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is talking of transitional arrangements which make UKIPpers froth at the mouth while Corbyn’s position on the EU is getting Farage to purr. Ripping up all of the legacy of 45 years within the EU wouldn’t be in the EU’s interests or in any potential Prime Minister’s other than Corbyn. 

But the people who voted for Corbyn, don’t want what he wants. So we are in the strange world of May having lost her majority because people thought she would aim for too hard a Brexit now being the bulwark against the ultra-hard Brexit which the man they voted for actually wants. I suspect that being canny folks, the EU team led by Michael Barnier will know that if they cause this government to fall, it will be replaced by one which won’t even want a deal at all. 

The question is whether the large proportion of people who voted Labour in June on the basis of expecting them to soften the impact of Brexit will continue to support Labour under Corbyn if and when they realise that he has no intention of doing that. Maybe they will. Or maybe, as with the discovery that he had no intention of writing off or reducing past student debt despite saying “I will deal with it”, it will take more examples to overcome the cognitive dissonance of evidence of Labour’s actions coming up against people’s perceptions of their intentions. 

So, we put our left leg in, our left leg out, in out, in out, shake it all about. Do the Hokey Cokey and turn around. Brexit, it’s all about!

I am not at all discounting the possibility that there will be aspects of Brexit which could be advantageous, merely acknowledging that there are also many aspects of the EU which are also beneficial and where there is no obvious major improvement to be gained by doing something different or in conflict. The purist approach of “let’s just get rid of all the regulation” is unrealistic in practice because it ignores the costs of change even where the thing being changed to is better. In many cases economies of scale or of effort would mean that even if there were a lighter UK regulatory regime, most businesses would comply voluntarily with the dominant foreign standard. We can see this in reverse in anti-bribery compliance where the UK has one of the toughest regimes globally and so most businesses seek to comply with it as doing so then involves minimal additional adjustment to comply with laws elsewhere in the world. Even if we were to ditch all EU regulation, from experience, much of it would end up being incorporated contractually by businesses (at least those doing cross-border work), regardless of whether they liked the regulations – e.g. it is now pretty much standard practice to extend by contract the application of the new EU Data Protection Regulation to beyond the date on which the UK will leave the EU. There’s not much benefit to business in repealing EU regulations and replacing them with lighter touch UK ones if businesses will shun the additional freedoms and comply with EU ones! On the other hand, were a future UK government to decide to regulate more stringently than the EU does, particularly for “suspect” foreign countries (as might be expected from a Labour Party which was not so keen on globalised trade and was naturally more suspicious about the activities of big corporations), that would potentially be harmful. 

Advertisements

Bored of Brexit

I’m bored of Brexit. I think most other people probably are too. It is of course the biggest task facing the government for the next few years and how it happens or doesn’t happen could have huge implications for us all. But that doesn’t stop it being quite dull. 


(apologies to Allan Ahlberg and Fritz Wegner for mucking around with this picture)

Brexit is dull for the same reasons that prior to last year’s referendum the EU was dull enough that most people didn’t really know or care very much about what being in the EU meant in any detail. Which is why so much of the debate was about simple elements like “taking control of immigration“, getting back the old midnight blue hardback passports we used to have, or whether there were other things we might or would do with the money we currently sent to the EU. That’s not to say that there weren’t better and more informed reasons for leaving or that even those things weren’t important enough to justify a vote to leave. They were certainly more compelling than arguments to stay based on things like the importance of the Single Market and Customs Union which to the majority of people might as well have been in Sanskrit for all the obvious impact they had on their lives as they are lived. 

This doesn’t mean that things like the UK’s trading relationship with the EU are unimportant. They’re incredibly important. But just as the way in which the Single Market operates, the framework of laws and regulations, the institutions involved in determining and enforcing those laws and so on were of little interest to most people prior to the referendum, I think that the immense and intricate detail of what will follow will be too. The vast majority of people are, I believe, not ultra keen on either extreme of the leave/remain debate. They’d think it wrong if the government decided to ignore the referendum and just stay in the EU and they’d think it wrong if the government ended up leaving on obviously bad terms just for the sake of leaving. Quite where the line should be drawn in between those extremes? Most don’t really know. We can have preferences on individual issues but as an overall position? Put that in the box marked “meh”. This is probably a better explanation for why the UK economy hasn’t collapsed (and indeed has grown more than forecast) than “well that’s because Brexit hasn’t happened yet, just wait and see when it does”.  It is only those at the extremes who have a clear view and for them either Brexit will always be too “Hard” or too “Soft”, depending on whether they were rampant Remainers or Leavers. 

I think where we’ll end up, boringly, is with something in between which will have those at the extremes still unhappy. We’ll be out of the EU, so those who believe that we shouldn’t under any circumstances leave will consider any form of leaving to be terrible. We will however not just rip everything up so it’ll be too soft for the most foam-speckled Ukippers.

I think it is almost certain that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK to stay (and about Brits abroad in the EU not to be repatriated) the status quo will be preserved. It is also quite likely that whatever restrictions are placed on future movement between the UK and EU they won’t be so onerous as to prevent those who are genuinely moving to work or study from being able to do so, even if it might not be quite as simple as waving a burgundy passport. If anything, I think economically there could be benefits for much of the rest of the EU if there isn’t completely free movement of people with the UK – once outside the EU, ending free movement would restrict the UK’s ability to have a competitive advantage in attracting workers from elsewhere, driving up wages and costs in poorer countries and reducing them in the UK. That’s why even with “control” over immigration, the UK probably wouldn’t want to shut its borders regardless. 

As long as we can see that the government has the power to control immigration and is using it to stop obviously harmful people coming, the actual numbers won’t matter so much any more because people will assume that the numbers coming and going are controlled. The perception will be different even if the substance is not very. In the absence of lots of new states acceding to the EU there isn’t another bow wave of EU migrants like in 2004 to come in any case. 

In other areas, I don’t think there will be any real appetite to “punish” the UK by making life hard in trade, just as I don’t think this government, or any of the ones we’ve had since 1979 would want to depart from the idea of minimising trade barriers between the UK and the rest of the world. I suspect that the Great Repeal Bill which will enshrine existing UK implementations of EU law in UK law post-Brexit will end up with a very leisurely pace of actual repeal and replacement and often strong reasons in the future to shadow what is happening at an EU level on uncontentious topics. Relatively few implementations of EU regulations by means of the power to implement using Statutory Instruments were ever put to a vote and this reflects how uninteresting they were. Their replacements will not magically become more interesting in post-Brexit Britain or Westminster. Similarly, while formally remaining in the Customs Union will probably not happen, does anybody here or in the EU really want to start putting up tariff barriers and working out what they might be? It would be easier not to bother rather than to generate some new tariffs the effects of which would not be predictably to the benefit of either side.

One of the reasons why the EU is slow at negotiating trade deals is that they need to be approved by all Member States – so putting in a tariff on say, new cars, which might benefit German car manufacturers in competition against UK ones might also inadvertently benefit German manufacturers against French ones who would suddenly find that their domestic market had less competitive constraint coming from imports from the UK and the Germans were better placed to exploit it. Nobody knows and I think, however much the Commission might want to preserve the purity of the EU and dissuade anyone from breaking ranks, the Member States will reasonably quickly conclude that it’s a game not worth playing. Similarly, in Financial Services, could anyone predict with any certainty that damaging the City of London would benefit Paris and Frankfurt equally rather than make one or other become dominant? Leaving things be would be more likely to appeal to EU national leaders than giving London a “punishment beating” and finding that it ended up harming their own country.

Now, I agree that these also sound like good reasons not to bother with changing anything so why bother leaving the EU at all? Personally I took the view that most if not all of what the EU provides can be done by the UK alone and so from an abstract perspective we don’t absolutely need to be in it. At the same time, there weren’t so many things about the EU which upset me so much that I wanted to leave in order to achieve them and that there were lots of things which I’d really rather the UK never did which they would be able to do if we did. But that is where I think there is meaning in “Brexit means Brexit”. Leaving the EU will allow for changes in the stuff that people do care about and it will make little difference in the end to the boring and specialist stuff that they never busied themselves with before and have probably already glazed over reading in the previous couple of paragraphs. It is the EU’s failure that it didn’t understand how little it needed to change to have kept the support of the UK’s population and so gave Cameron not even that. 

I’d have been more concerned about Brexit had it been pushed by a government which was likely to want to make big changes to those “boring” bits and to depart from the broadly economically liberal underpinnings of the EU to become much more protectionist and interventionist. But, thankfully, we don’t look like we’re going to get Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk anywhere near power and his concept of a “different, social Europe” is almost certainly likely to be even less appealing to the rest of the EU than any plausible actual post-Brexit Europe. If we think that getting to have relatively free access to the EU Single Market while placing restrictions on free movement of people is a difficult task then doing so while restricting free movement of capital and goods and freedom of establishment instead would be positively Herculean. 

So, while it will probably be a massive balls ache in practice for the government and civil service to negotiate the implementation of Brexit, and as an EU lawyer, one that made me shudder enough to vote for remain, it is a boring process balls ache rather than one that will make much difference to the vast majority of people. Which is why Brexit is itself boring and in particular, why those making ultra-technical legal arguments about things like the revocability of notification under Article 50 TFEU are beyond boring to anyone who is not either professionally interested or intent at all costs to prevent it from happening.

Winning the Peace

A week and a half has gone by since the people of the UK voted by a margin of over a million in a referendum to leave the EU. Even though it seems longer as so much has gone on since; the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigning, a campaign to replace him having seen the former favourite, Boris Johnson pull out after fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove stood citing Boris’ unsuitability, and frankly incomprehensible chaos surrounding Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, losing half of his shadow ministers after he sacked his shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn and finding that more than three quarters of his MPs voted for a motion of no confidence in his leadership.

Now, the real focus is on who will or should replace Cameron as Prime Minister and how they will effect the changes that should flow from the Referendum result. Cameron resigned because, having campaigned for the UK to Remain in the EU, he did not believe he was the right person to negotiate the terms for the UK’s exit. While I think he could have done so, perhaps by appointing prominent Ministers who had campaigned for exit (such as Gove, fellow leadership contender Andrea Leadsom and Boris) to run the negotiations while he and the rest of his ministerial team continued to deliver the domestic programme of government they were elected for barely a year previously, the decision to hand over in the Autumn to a successor makes sense.

The question is, what should the next PM do and who should it be? Many from the Leave campaign insist that the next PM can only be someone who campaigned to leave the EU. In particular, this is to disqualify the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was a quiet part of the Remain campaign and who has a commanding enough lead on the first round of MPs’ votes to make it near certain that she will be one of the two MPs put to a vote of the entire Party membership.

However, I think this is based on a misunderstanding of where we actually are today and what the Referendum result means. Many on the Leave side have taken the result literally as one of Leave meaning Leave, with the detail being relatively unimportant. That perhaps explains why there was no single unifying answer to the question posed during the campaign of “what would Leave look like?” (an alternative view on this is that Gove and perhaps even Johnson believed that Cameron would be responsible for what came next so they didn’t need to plan for it – oops). From this perspective, the only thing the UK wants is to be out of the EU so all that is needed is a PM who will pull the trigger on the process by notifying the EU under Article 50 TFEU (though what the process actually entails is somewhat controversial and there’s a respectable school of thought that the longer that passes after 24 June 2016 the less likely it is ever to happen). That would then mean that after no more than 2 years, whether a deal has been struck or no, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU. Job Done.

This approach is based upon seeing the campaign to leave as a war which will not be won until the UK is out of the EU. I believe this is a mistake and one which ironically goes against the accompanying reminder that its adherents have that “the people have spoken” by voting 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. It does so by relegating that decision in the Referendum to being the winning of a battle in the war rather than, as I think makes more sense, to see it as the winning of the war itself. The people have  decided, and the opposing general has conceded defeat.

It is therefore better to consider what comes now as the peace process following the war. For any peace process to be successful it needs to take into account the views of everybody, both victor and vanquished. Otherwise it ends in a Treaty of Versailles situation where there remains a tension which could ultimately lead to arms being borne again (hopefully in the present scenario, only metaphorical ones!).

That is why it is not essential that the next PM be someone who was on the Leave side during the “war” of the Referendum but should instead be whoever, whether on the Leave or Remain side, can secure the best and most lasting solution for the most people. Going too far in the direction of one or other extreme – appeasing just the 52% who voted to Leave or doing what the large minority of 48% who voted to Remain won’t do this.

Thankfully, the reality, as I see it, is that while the Referendum had a clear binary split because there were only two options available, people’s views about what they actually wanted covered a much broader spectrum. There will have been very few people who voted to Remain who thought that the UK’s relationship with the EU or indeed the nature of the EU itself were perfect, whether on the basis of what they are now, the relatively limited package of reforms negotiated by David Cameron ahead of the Referendum or some other measure (such as Corbyn’s “campaign” to remain in a social EU which does not exist and is almost entirely inconsistent with the one which does).

Similarly, while there is a sizable proportion of Leave voters who simply do not care to have anything at all to do with the EU and would like to tear up everything the EU ever touched in the UK, I’m not sure they even form a majority of the 52% who voted to Leave. Instead, significant proportions of them would favour retaining the UK’s position of access to the EU’s single market, whether as members of EFTA, the EEA or some other means. Some of those would not be averse even to retaining the free movement of persons which are currently guaranteed by EU membership, provided that it was something which was chosen by the UK government and capable of being changed in the future were there to be a government elected with that aim.

This spectrum of opinion can be seen running from Cameron (who obtained a degree of renegotiation) through May (who had been among the leading critics of the related but separate impact of the ECHR, albeit that one of the first things to go in her leadership bid was a pledge to exit the ECHR) to Leadsom (who only a few years ago argued that leaving the Single Market would be economically disastrous)  and Gove (who argued during the campaign that the best approach would be to have trade with the EU regulated only by WTO rules). Apologies to Stephen Crabb, the other contender for the leadership, who unfortunately seems to have been forgotten in all this by everyone, including me. Fewer apologies to Liam Fox who I don’t think should be running at all because of the circumstances of his resignation as Defence Secretary (we can’t have someone who didn’t see there was anything wrong with having his mate hanging around the Ministry of Defence without any formal role or security clearance as PM). [Since writing these words about Crabb and Fox and going off to give my son his tea (he’s northern), bath and bedtime story, the first round of MP votes has led to Fox being eliminated, Crabb ending his bid and lending his support to May and Leadsom and Gove remaining to fight over who would come second and compete for the votes of Conservative Members – told you events were flying thick and fast!]

The question is now which of these candidates to replace Cameron can best come up with a solution which balances out the requirements of enough of those who voted either way in the Referendum to be acceptable to the highest proportion of the public. And can they also demonstrate that they have the skill , diplomacy (so anyone appointing Farage to any role is immediately debarred in my view) and persuasiveness to ensure that their solution can be accepted by the EU and implemented by Parliament, whether by maintaining complete discipline among Conservative MPs with a small majority or by seeking a new, larger mandate following a General Election.

My hunch is that Theresa May will win on all of these grounds. Both Leadsom and Gove’s pitches on the EU issue have been at the more extreme/pure end of the spectrum, Leadsom having gained the probably unhelpful endorsement of many connected with UKIP (who won’t have a vote) and Gove taking his typically idealistic/intellectual stance which makes compromise more difficult. Each would therefore find it more difficult to stay true to their stated position while being palatable to enough of those who favoured milder forms of exit or would have preferred not to leave. Gove also has the handicap of being (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) a totem of unpopularity outside the Tory Party for his largely successful battle against the education policy establishment as Education Secretary as well as having generated a degree of resentment within the Party for his ruthless destruction of Boris Johnson’s bid for the leadership. May on the other hand is clearly tough enough (described today approvingly by Ken Clarke in an off air moment captured by Sky News as “a difficult woman”) to be able to do the job without being obviously too much for either Remain or Leave.

The other consideration that comes in here is that the whole process must be done while continuing with the everyday work of government and working towards being capable of winning the next General Election. There’s no point for any Conservative to choose a quick, painful and unpopular Brexit which would ultimately lead to the worst of all worlds consequence of electoral defeat to an opposition which had suddenly been given a whole load of new powers to reverse what the governments of the past nearly 40 years have done. At the moment the threat of serious electoral challenge seems dim given the civil war seemingly about to take off within Labour, but I’d prefer not to rely on that (and as Cameron put it in PM’s Questions last week, it’s not in the interests of the country even if it is in the interests of the Conservatives – for heaven’s sake, man, go!). What about UKIP? Well, I think that Nigel Farage has by resigning its leadership agreed with me that the war is won and should only be re-entered in the event of “betrayal” by the government. Under new leadership it can decide whether it would like to pivot to make a concerted push to build on its gains of support from disaffected Labour voters in the North and Midlands who’d never consider voting Conservative.

Most people are almost certainly very close to being sick and tired of the whole topic so it would have to be a very clear and egregious betrayal to make it worth restarting hostilities. Reasoned practical delays probably won’t get the blood of activists pumping while the stated government intention is to exit (eg to pass legislation, to formulate a detailed plan for what we’d like post-EU Britain to be like, to focus on any short term economic shocks, to put Brexit on hold if the EU starts a more general Treaty change process, perhaps even to wait for the outcome of next year’s elections in France & Germany to make the negotiating environment more stable over the 2 year process, etc…).