Thursday, 30 May 2019

If necessary for whom?

Whether Boris Johnson will achieve his ambition to take over as PM from Theresa May is yet to be determined.  He appears to be far and away the front runner amongst the miniscule electorate (around 124,000, apparently) who will be allowed to vote, but he is not without his enemies in the House of Commons, especially on the Tory side of the House.  But what does seem certain is that at least one of the two candidates whose names eventually go forward to the membership will be ready and willing to leave the EU without a deal – and that the membership are likely to elect whoever of the final two seems most willing to contemplate that.  It is, of course, entirely possible that statements made by Johnson and others are expressing a firmer position than they would ultimately take as PM.  Maybe they won’t go through with it in the end – Brexiteers, in particular, are no strangers to the idea that they can say one thing today and then argue the opposite later.
At the moment, many of the contenders seem to be lining up to agree with Johnson that we should leave on 31st October, ‘if necessary, without a deal’.  But what does ‘if necessary’ mean here?  As far as I can see, the only things which make a no deal necessary are a desire to keep to an entirely arbitrary date and an unwillingness to accept the reality that the EU is not going to change the deal.  Only to the maddest of the mad does that truly make it 'necessary' to crash the economy and destroy jobs in the short term, in the vague hope that things will improve again sometime over the next half century or so.
They would argue, of course, that such an exit would not be such a problem anyway – Johnson himself talked about a “fantastic free trade deal” – and that, in any event, the current deal would be improved because “The way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no deal”.  This is the stuff of fantasy.  In the event that the UK decides to simply walk away from its treaty commitments (and I’m not as certain as some are that parliament could actually prevent that happening – the PM has more power than many realise; he or she merely needs to avoid giving parliament the opportunity), then the first items on the agenda at the negotiations for the future arrangements will be paying the sums due under previous treaty arrangements and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement by keeping open borders in Ireland.  The Brexiteers simply have no way of avoiding those questions; their only answer is to address them in the immediate chaos of a no deal Brexit rather than in the more measured circumstances of a transitional period.
They tell us that they are ‘experts’ in negotiating deals, and that from experience they know that threatening to simply walk away concentrates the minds of the other side.  As a general rule, they’re right on that, but the rule only applies when the default result of a ‘no deal’ is that the status quo continues.  The nature of most commercial deals is that both sides want to improve on the status quo, and both have a clear incentive to keep talking in order to do so, including making concessions where appropriate.  However, in a negotiation where one side has already unilaterally decided to tear up the status quo, and deliberately seek a worse relationship than currently exists, that general rule simply doesn’t apply.  The comparison with normal business deals is an entirely misleading one.
There is, and always has been, a need to compromise between the extra ‘freedom’ which Brexit confers on the UK, and the economic benefits of membership.  I could have respected their position had they been honest about that from the start and argued that that extra ‘freedom’ had a value of a different sort, but they have consistently refused to level with people about the inevitable trade-offs involved.  The current PM refused to do so, and it looks like whoever is elected in her place will also refuse to do so.  In the interests of pursuing their own personal ambitions, a growing list of Tory MPs are trying to outbid each other to see who can present the biggest fantasy to the party’s membership.  If the consequences were limited to the 124,000 allowed to vote, it would all make for a rather jolly spectacle.  Unfortunately, that 124,000 includes a goodly number who either won’t be affected because they’re well off enough to avoid the consequences, and a large number who (based on the Tory demographic) won’t be around long enough to suffer them.  Allowing such a tiny number of people to choose the next PM reinforces the fact that the UK’s political system is badly broken.

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