Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Brexit storm clouds gather once more

As this General Election draws to a close, there’s a palpable sense of relief settling across the whole country. Everyone’s exhausted. We’ve been put through the Scottish independence referendum in the autumn of 2014, the General Election of 2015, the EU referendum in 2016 and now we’ve been pushed into this offputting mudbath. Everyone needs a holiday. There is, unfortunately, the prospect that they might not get one.

As the polls narrow, and Labour unexpectedly outperform their 2010 and 2015 scores in those polls, the prospect of a Hung Parliament is growing. It’s just a nasty black cloud on the horizon for now – it’s not the most likely outcome – but it could well happen. If some of the closer polls are right, Prime Minister Theresa May (above) will lose her majority on Thursday night. She’ll then have to live hand-to-mouth, relying perhaps on any Liberal Democrats that remain, and on eight to ten Ulster Unionists, if she wants to get any legislation through. There’s a smaller – but non-negligible – chance that Jeremy Corbyn might be able to cobble together a five- or six-party alliance to shut the Conservatives out of Downing Street, before attempting to head a new government himself.

Either path is fraught with danger if we’re interested in good public policy. As other issues have inevitably crowded in on this election, they’ve blotted out the only thing that is going to happen in the next Parliament. That’s: negotiations setting up the interim arrangement to cover us through the first phase of Brexit; legislation preparing the way for that moment; further talks towards a final deal; and domestic regulation and law-making designed to give legal effect to our disentanglement from our forty-plus years of union with our neighbours. If you really care about the National Health Service, schools, the labour market, immigration, productivity – all the bread and butter issues – how we handle Brexit is by far the most important element. Many voters seem to think that it’s a done deal – a fait accompli they can bank and move on. They’re going to get a nasty surprise if no-one can string together a stable government after this week.

A Hung Parliament would make managing Brexit almost impossible. First, any government will need to get what they call a Great Repeal Bill through, in order to bring European Law onto the British statute book, while enabling Ministers to change elements of this body of law via statutory orders – the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ that will prove controversial in and of themselves. It’s hard to see how Ministers will bring down the guillotine on debate without a majority, and harder still to envisage them bringing the whole thing through committee. That will leave the legal basis of European regulation when we leave highly, highly uncertain – and open up the whole process to capture by a few enraged Eurosceptical backbenchers.

Then, any set of Ministers will have to get the final settlement – perhaps involving the payment of tens of billions of Euros just toget out – through the House of Commons. No Conservative Prime Minister will bring such a deal before the Commons if they have no majority. It won’t get through. They would have to rely on Labour MPs (if such co-operation was offered). They would split the party asunder, as they did over the Corn Laws in the 1840s or over Tariff Reform at the turn of the century. They won’t do it.

Reluctant as Ministers – of any party – would be to return to the polls (let alone the public), another General Election would become highly likely. That in itself would take more valuable time off the Article 50 clock that is already counting down to March 2019 – and perhaps just end in another confused and unpleasant political scuffle. Or, alternatively, if no majority can be found for the details of the Repeal Bill and the settlement, Conservatives Ministers will just shrug and crash us out of everything. If there is no majority forthcoming on Thursday, a chaotic or ultra-Brexit becomes all that much more likely.

That’s also the case if Labour manage to scrape home with the help of the Scottish National Party, Northern Ireland’s SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the (likely) one Green MP. The SNP want Britain to stay in the Single Market (or, at the least, for Scotland to do so). That is at odds with Labour’s commitment to end the free movement of people. It’s hard to see how such a grouping could hold together for very long, even if Mr Corbyn had the managerial and Parliamentary skills to lead it - none of which he showed as Leader of the Opposition. He would no doubt prefer to serve as a figurehead, as his trumpeting of Labour’s Brexit ‘team’ has shown. He would find that there is no hiding place for a Prime Minister. He will have to stitch things up between the SNP and Labour when their MPs fall out – as fall out, constantly, they will. It will be Mr Corbyn as PM that does the last-minute deal with Angela Merkel – if there is one. His passionate desire to change Britain on the home front won’t and can't last in those circumstances, because it’s contrary to what we used to call, well... reality.

One of the most cynical of Labour’s evasions in this campaign is the fact that the party has tried to avoid all this. Water and energy nationalisation? A National Education Service? A massive infrastructure effort? A new Higher Education Bill to replace the whole structure of fees and regulation? None of it is going to happen, especially given English Votes for English Laws (the SNP MPs would be barred from voting on 'domestic' English and Welsh legislation). The civil service is critically understaffed and desperate for help with Brexit as it is. There is no capacity to do anything that Labour is talking about. They’ll be lucky to get time to feed El Gato the cat. Those young people moving from the Liberal Democrats to Labour, hoping to derail a Conservative Hard Brexit (or even stymie the whole process), and hoping to see a deep and wide attack on inequality, will be bitterly disappointed. Again. One wonders how long any society can go on, year after year after year, ignoring what young people think in the interests of the old.

It’s easy to sympathise with the electorate. Two pitiful and dishonest manifestos have been backed up only by some of the most disingenuous campaigning that the United Kingdom has ever seen. Take the issue of security, first among many perhaps while the UK is under constant terrorist attack. The Prime Minister comes out and talks at the lectern in Downing Street, firing off some policy proposals while pretending that she is not campaigning, and indeed while partisan events were supposed to have been suspended for the day. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition tries to pretend as if he is some trusted guardian of public safety, rather than a maverick outsider who’s voted against pretty much every anti-terrorist measure he’s ever considered – puzzling over a form of mere words that will ward off questions about defence until after Thursday. This after giving a long, and to be fair thoughtful, speech in which he said there were loads of reasons for the rise of Islamist extremism (true) before launching off on his pet thesis: that it’s mainly the fault of Western foreign policy (untrue). There’s a word for the way these two people have behaved over our terror laws and foreign policy: it’s a disgrace.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn look pretty similar through this frame: two fireworks that shot off into the sky before falling to earth like a stick in the park. Dear reader: unfortunately, you’re the dog running off to pick one of them up. Sorry about that.

But that’s no excuse to look away from the dangers of saying ‘a plague on all your houses’, and denying all of them a way of triangulating our way out of the EU that doesn’t leave us much, much poorer. That way lies political paralysis, and then a disorderly and discrediting retreat from the European alliances that we still retain. It’s been a dispiriting election. What follows, if we do fall into Hung Parliament purgatory, may well be even worse.