Friday 20 September 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Pity the country that couldn't spot accidents waiting to happen'

The UK's Brexit train has crashed because of a complete lack of caution on the part of Theresa May's Conservative party

'The EU has conceded to the UK's requirement that a hard border in Ireland be avoided by extending the special customs arrangement, initially envisaged for Northern Ireland alone, to the whole of the United Kingdom' Stock image
'The EU has conceded to the UK's requirement that a hard border in Ireland be avoided by extending the special customs arrangement, initially envisaged for Northern Ireland alone, to the whole of the United Kingdom' Stock image
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

The only certainty from last week's events is that the draft withdrawal agreement negotiated with the United Kingdom is pretty much the final offer from the EU-27. There will be textual amendments and clarifications, but no further material concessions. If the UK parliament rejects the deal, barring another referendum and a Brexit reversal, the clock will tick down to a disorderly departure on March 29. But the deal is a super-fudge, a dog's dinner, and stores up the full list of unresolved headaches to haunt European politics in the years ahead.

The EU has conceded to the UK's requirement that a hard border in Ireland be avoided by extending the special customs arrangement, initially envisaged for Northern Ireland alone, to the whole of the United Kingdom. Hence the quadrupled length of the draft since the first public version was released on February 28. The document now contains safeguards necessary to protect the EU's internal market with a non-member cuckoo in the nest, possibly for an extended period. That the draft should be seen by so many in London as a capitulation to Brussels is a measure of the unreality of British expectations.

The negotiators have managed to land a jumbo jet on an aircraft carrier, a tribute to their persistence and ingenuity, but their efforts have failed to impress where it matters, and the House of Commons could decline to endorse the deal. Theresa May faces a leadership challenge and the UK political system has nowhere to go if the only available withdrawal agreement is not accepted.

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How does a major European country with a modern economy and a long tradition of parliamentary democracy end up in such a political and constitutional crisis?

One lesson of the Brexit train wreck is that a lack of political caution, once the calling card of the Conservative party, has courted the intrusion of pure political accidents. This absence of caution has extended to reliance on some very bad advice.

The train left the station at the Bloomberg conference in London in January 2013. The then Prime Minister David Cameron, then in coalition with the Liberal Democrats who had won 57 seats at the 2010 election, promised that the Tories would hold an 'in or out' referendum if they secured a clear majority at the next contest. He feared the rise of Ukip, the maverick Eurosceptic party which had begun to register double-digit support in opinion polls, mostly defectors from the Conservatives.

To the surprise of Cameron (and the pollsters), the Tories won the 2015 election and the promise had to be delivered. Accident number 1.

Labour leader Ed Milliband resigned and, in order to ensure a succession contest, some Labour MPs nominated long-time Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, even though very few would have voted for him. But the members in the country, not the MPs, choose the Labour leader, and tens of thousands of left-wingers signed up, some for just £3, and Corbyn won, placing a declared Eurosceptic in control of Britain's alternative government. Accident number 2.

Corbyn barely campaigned at the June 2016 referendum, which Cameron lost by the narrow margin of 52 to 48 and promptly resigned.

Theresa May, on succeeding Cameron, brought an adviser called Nick Timothy from her previous post as Home Secretary, which turned out to be accident number 3. Timothy was feted briefly as the 'brains behind Theresa May' and drafted her conference speech for the Tory gathering in October, and the even more disastrous Lancaster House speech in January 2017. It was here that May committed to leaving both the EU's single market and customs union while miraculously retaining frictionless access to European markets, volunteering as a willing hostage to the trade fantasies of the Brexiteers. Accident number 4.

The Prime Minister then despatched to Brussels the fateful Article 50 notification against civil service advice, with no worked-out negotiating position. Accident number 5, from which all else flowed.

Timothy was also an enthusiast for the needless election of June 2017 which the Tories lost, requiring a deal with 10 DUP members to recreate a majority, a pure fluke, and accident number 6.

Timothy subsequently resigned - he has found a new perch as a featured columnist with the Daily Telegraph, where, last Thursday, he denounced the draft withdrawal deal as "a capitulation not only to Brussels, but to the fears of the British negotiators themselves, who have shown by their actions that they never believed Brexit can be a success". Brass neck doesn't do it justice - you will understand why career civil servants are not keen on imported ministerial advisers with attitude.

The shambles which followed conceals an underlying constitutional crisis in the UK which was flagged by Margaret Thatcher as far back as 1975, on the occasion of the first national referendum in British history.

Labour leader Harold Wilson called a vote on EU membership to fix a split in his party, and Thatcher objected to the introduction of the referendum device into the UK's constitutional order. She never resorted to it herself through 11 years as premier. Wilson won easily, so nothing had to change. The second national referendum was on the voting system in 2011 and again the voters rejected change.

The 2016 plebiscite was thus the first in British history which resulted in a vote for change. But politicians are still arguing about the Will of the People and objecting that whatever Brexit is offered or proposed is 'not what people voted for'.

Such a constitutional mess cannot happen in Ireland, which has a codified Constitution and confines referendums strictly to constitutional alterations. There is no need to interpret the result - the consequence has already been implemented when the returning officer sits down. Thatcher perceived accurately all those years ago that opportunistic 'consultative' referendums, in a system of parliamentary sovereignty, would lead to trouble as soon as the electorate voted against the status quo.

The draft withdrawal agreement is a horse designed by a committee, testament to the skill of the drafters, but a waste of their talents. It was open to Mrs May to choose full UK membership in the single market as well as close attachment to the customs union, with a well-worked plan prior to the despatch of the Article 50 resignation. Had she done so, the Northern Ireland border issue would have taken care of itself and the withdrawal agreement would have been a far shorter document. The route chosen, with Mr Timothy's assistance, was designed to appease the ultra-Brexiteers. That it has failed to do so is not another accident. It was both predictable and predicted.

Theresa May's contribution to the language of politics will be the Reverse Mantra - remember "no deal is better than a bad deal"? Her 180-degree about-face last Thursday could be reduced to 'a bad deal is better than no deal'. Having spewed meaningless soundbites for two-and-a-half years (remember the red, white and blue Brexit?), she could lose the leadership or retain it only to lose in the Commons in December. There could even be a second referendum and a Brexit reversal.

Bad things happen by accident. The safe-pair-of-hands Conservative party has delivered an extraordinary exposure to political accidents.

Sunday Independent

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