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The Brexit Cult

Oscar Wilde described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Brexit may be similarly defined as the unhinged in pursuit of the infeasible.

Unhinged how? The last two men standing in the contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Both of them have now promised to take the UK out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31 unless the EU bows to their demands.

A ‘no-deal’ exit would be an economic catastrophe, for the UK’s foreign trade is currently conducted in accord with the myriad trade deals that the EU has negotiated over the decades on behalf of its members. Crash out and Britain would have NO trade deals in place, even with Europe.

Both contenders know that there would be huge economic pain, and still they press on. On Sunday Jeremy Hunt said he would willingly tell people whose companies went broke after a no-deal Brexit that their sacrifice had been necessary, although he would do so “with a heavy heart.” Boris Johnson simply says “F**k business.” (I am not making this up.)

Yet these two men belong to the Conservative Party, for almost two centuries ‘the party of business’. Unfortunately, that ship sailed some time ago. The party first became a vehicle for rabid English nationalism, and has now morphed into a secular cult that treats Brexit as the Holy Grail.

Conventional calculations of national interest no longer count. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Conservative Party members would be willing to see Scotland leave the Union in order to achieve Brexit. 59% were prepared to see Northern Ireland go too, and more than 60% were willing to accept ‘significant damage to the UK economy’. And it has to be the hardest, most damaging Brexit imaginable.

So yes, the Conservative Party has become unhinged – even though a perfectly sensible exit deal from the EU already exists. Theresa May signed it last November.

It’s not a great deal – you don’t have much negotiating leverage when you are walking out of a club with 27 other members – but it would preserve Britain’s ability to go on trading at advantageous terms with the rest of the world. However, May could not get her deal through because she has only a tiny majority in parliament, and the extreme Brexit wing of her own party would not vote for it.

Johnson and Hunt both vow to junk May’s deal and ‘renegotiate’ a better one, but that truly is infeasible. The EU has said plainly that May’s deal cannot be ‘renegotiated’, and repeats it almost weekly. Neither Johnson nor Hunt can make all 27 EU countries change their position by sheer force of personality.

They must know this, but they must pretend otherwise because the 160,000 members of the Conservative party who will decide between them – an overwhelmingly white, male and very prosperous group, average age 57 – believe with an almost religious faith that Johnny Foreigner will always crumble if you shout loudly at him in English.

It is the purest fantasy, and only a madman would want the job that Johnson and Hunt are vying for. As the fantasy collides with reality round about October, all things will become possible: a no-deal Brexit, the collapse of the government, the disintegration of the Conservative Party, a new election, or even a second referendum that sweeps all the nonsense of the past three years away. (56% of British voters say they would now vote ‘Remain’.)

Whatever the outcome, this is a delusional and destructive way of doing business. The latest round of gurgling insanity in Britain was brought about by the collapse of the Conservative vote in the otherwise unimportant elections for the European parliament in May: they came fifth.

The Conservatives panicked, rightly concluding that they will be toast in the next UK election if they don’t ‘deliver’ Brexit to their voters beforehand. Hence the defenestration of May and the search for a new leader who can somehow make the delivery before the party has to face the voters again.

Brexit now means a no-deal Brexit, since the EU is not going to abandon the existing deal. But the arithmetic in parliament has not changed either, and parliament has repeatedly rejected a no-deal exit. Johnson and Hunt have therefore both said that they would shut parliament down temporarily, if necessary, to get no-deal through. So much for democracy.

You can see how the British got into this mess in terms of cause and effect, but the sheer ignorance, incompetence and cowardice of the political class, and especially of the Conservative Party, is still stunning. It makes Donald Trump’s White House look well run.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Whatever…again”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Brexit: No Turning Point Yet

Even with Donald Trump scheduled for a brief visit to the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still ‘all Brexit, all of the time’ in the sceptred isle – and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.

“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ at a crisis cabinet meeting last Friday. But the armistice between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.

On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, reneged on his short-lived support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming that May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

The sheer fecklessness of the ‘Brexit dream’ is epitomised by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd”, then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying that they would reduce the UK to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU. Yet at no point in the discussion did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.

And what is all this Sturm und Drang about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52% support for an undefined ‘Brexit’, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.

All four of the great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) – are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a ‘soft Brexit’ that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.

The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that – it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – but May dares not test that assumption.

So, horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn (who is regularly portrayed by the right-wing media as a Lenin in waiting), the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And the time is running out.

The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its current trade with the EU or not. In practice, the deadline for an agreement is next October, since time must be allowed for 27 other EU members to ratify the deal. If there is no deal, the UK simply ‘crashes out’, and chaos ensues.

The volume of trade in goods and services between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU is so great, and the preparation for documenting the safety and origins of goods and collecting customs on them so scanty, that the new border would simply freeze up.

That would cause great difficulty for many European enterprises, but for Britain it would be a catastrophe. As an example, two-fifths of the components for cars built in the UK are sourced from elsewhere in the EU. Yet most of the time available for negotiating a soft Brexit has already been wasted, and Britain still does not have a realistic negotiating position.

This preposterous situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party between the Brexit faction the rest. The only reason that there was a referendum at all was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up and end that war. He miscalculated.

The Brexiteers spun a fantasy of an oppressive EU that was the cause of all Britain’s troubles and sold it to the nostalgic older generation, the unemployed and underemployed who were looking for somebody to blame, and sundry nationalists of all colours.

They narrowly won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist right-wing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign – and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia. (The biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, mega-rich investor Arron Banks, met the Russian ambassador at least eleven times during the run-up to the referendum and the subsequent two months.)

There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the UK crashes out of the EU, of course. But the odds are no better than even.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The volume…position”; and “The Brexiteers…colours”)

Voters’ Remorse, or The Morning After the Night Before

Everybody in British politics had been talking about the probable consequences of a vote to leave the European Union for months, but they are nevertheless all in shock now that that they face the reality of Brexit. The level of voters’ remorse is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)

The remorse has been driven by the collapse of the pound, panic in the markets, and other consequences of a “Leave” vote that the Brexit campaign had promised would not happen. Moreover, leaders of the “Leave” campaign like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are rapidly walking away from the inflated or simply untrue claims that they made during the campaign.

They have all renounced their promise that Britain would save half a billion dollars a week in contributions to the EU if it left. They now admit that Britain could not prevent free movement of EU citizens into Britain if it wants to have continued access to the EU’s “single market. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.

It is also now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.

The Brexit leaders had no plan for what to do after winning the referendum, probably because they didn’t really expect to win it. And their nightmare deepened when Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who had called the referendum in the belief that Brexit would be rejected, took his revenge on the leading Brexiteers.

Announcing his resignation, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader. And during that time, contrary to his previous statements, he would not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. By not pulling it for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Then the new prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, probably Boris Johnson, will have the honour of pulling the trigger and taking the blame for making that pain permanent.

So it’s hardly surprising that Johnson, despite having pulled off the most remarkable coup in British politics for decades, was looking distinctly glum on the Morning After the Night Before. He looks and behaves like a well-bred British version of Donald Trump, but his “dumb blond” act is just a facade. His political future has been sabotaged, and he knows it.

But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn’t going to have six months.

There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it’s playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.

“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I’m not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”

To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit’s narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party’s traditional supporters didn’t even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.

British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU’s leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“They have…Fox”; and “There has…problems”)

Brexit: The Apocalyse

How’s this for apocalyptic? “As a historian I fear Brexit (a British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June) could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Union, in an interview published on Monday in the German newspaper Bild.

Tusk is not alone in his worries: last weekend Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, fretted aloud that the British referendum could trigger an avalanche of demands for special treatment or in/out referendums in other EU member countries.

“Other EU member states [may] say: ‘Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,’” Wallstrom told the BBC. Like Tusk, she actually fears that the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.

EU politicians are not much interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves (which it may well do: an opinion poll last Friday gave “Leave” a ten-point lead). Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be that it deserves everything it gets.

That is likely to be quite a lot. If the UK loses duty-free access to the EU’s “single market” of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend ten years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with much worse terms.

The resultant collapse in national income might be avoided if Britain remained a part of the single market, which is theoretically possible. Both Norway and Switzerland belong to it without being EU members – but they have to pay in just as much as if they were members, and they have to accept the EU rules on freedom of movement, which means that any citizen of any EU member can live and work in their country.

That’s not going to go down well with the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, since their strongest selling points are stopping immigration, and “saving money” by ending payments to the EU. They simply could not survive politically if they openly abandoned those goals. Nor would EU leaders be willing to fudge a deal: in order to deter other members from leaving, it will be politically necessary for them to punish Britain economically.

You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a “Leave” vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on the part of his would-be successor, Boris Johnson).

Cameron promised the referendum three years ago merely as a device for preserving the unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year’s election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.

So far, so stupid – and then Boris Johnson, Britain’s somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the “Leave” campaign. Johnson was not even a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he was certainly dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from David Cameron.

Leading the “Out” campaign to victory, forcing Cameron’s resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been utterly ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays in to the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.

But he wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the United Kingdom if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote “Remain”, and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the UK rather than be dragged out of the European Union by English votes. And the truncated Britain that Johnson led would be dealing with a world of economic woe.

But what about the EU? Would it fragment? Would that lead to the destruction of “Western political civilisation in its entirety”, as Tusk suggested? (By that he presumably meant the end of the trans-Atlantic cooperation between the United States and a more or less unified Europe that has characterised Western strategy for the past sixty years.)

Probably not. The EU is in the economic doldrums, and the prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated the rise of nationalist parties, some verging on neo-fascist, in a number of member countries. But the advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if the members had the horrible example of Britain’s fate as a warning.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The resultant…economically”)