YEAR OF DARK­NESS

At the end of 2018, the UK is still as un­clear over Brexit as it was at the start

The New European - - Agenda - BY STEVE RICHARDS

How do we make sense of the dark non­sense? This was the po­lit­i­cal year when at some point most days a mind­blow­ing twist was fol­lowed by a bizarre turn, each one more sur­real than the last.

Let us re­turn briefly to a sunny morn­ing in July, two days af­ter Theresa May had fi­nally pre­sented her de­tailed plans for Brexit to her cabi­net. Her Brexit sec­re­tary, David Davis, an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion early in the day. A few hours later May’s for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, re­signed too. The cabi­net had gath­ered in Che­quers on the pre­vi­ous Fri­day, their mo­bile phones had been re­moved and min­is­ters were warned that if any of them re­signed that day there would be no min­is­te­rial cars to take them home. The im­pli­ca­tion was that any rebels would have to walk home late at night in the dark Buck­ing­hamshire coun­try­side.

At the end of the day, No.10 de­clared that the cabi­net had backed May’s con­vo­luted pro­pos­als, the ones that be­came known briefly as the ‘Che­quers Plan’. Over the week­end May hailed the unity around her cabi­net ta­ble. Yet within 48 hours her two most se­nior pro-brexit min­is­ters had gone. While Davis and John­son took their bow with a flurry of sep­a­rately chore­ographed events, nei­ther had a cred­i­ble, de­tailed al­ter­na­tive plan. They per­formed nois­ily in a Brexit vac­uum. The en­tire wacky se­quence was em­blem­atic, shed­ding light on May and her in­ter­nal dis­senters.

The weird dance kept on re­peat­ing it­self. In Novem­ber, May agreed her fi­nal Brexit deal with the EU and brought it back to her cabi­net. At the end of the lengthy meet­ing May made a state­ment out­side No.10 declar­ing that the cabi­net had backed her deal. The next morn­ing her lat­est Brexit sec­re­tary, Do­minic Raab, re­signed, along with sev­eral other min­is­ters. Raab de­clared that he could not bring him­self to back the plan even though he had no other cred­i­ble op­tion to present as an al­ter­na­tive.

What was May think­ing on that cold Novem­ber night as she stood out­side No.10 to de­clare that the cabi­net had backed her plan? She must have known that her Brexit Sec­re­tary was al­most cer­tain to re­sign within hours. Her state­ment was fac­tu­ally cor­rect when she made it in the sense that no min­is­ter had walked out dur­ing the cabi­net meet­ing, but was to be­come fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect very quickly, an­other fa­mil­iar pat­tern. May would ut­ter many state­ments that had no con­nec­tion with the re­al­ity of her sit­u­a­tion. The mis­lead­ing words got her through the next few hours un­til she had no choice but to ut­ter new words.

If May had been gov­ern­ing in 2018 with a land­slide ma­jor­ity there would still have been deeply desta­bil­is­ing pat­terns. Her gov­ern­ment would still have been deeply di­vided in a bat­tle be­tween fan­ta­sists, de­spair­ing prag­ma­tists and those like May who be­lieve their only duty is to de­liver on the 2016 ref­er­en­dum even if the con­se­quences make the UK poorer and less in­flu­en­tial. But May has no ma­jor­ity at all and the par­lia­men­tary con­text guar­an­tees that height­ened crazi­ness was the mo­tif.

Con­sider a more re­cent se­quence. There was an ‘his­toric’ sum­mit in Brus­sels on a Sun­day in Novem­ber. EU lead­ers with more than enough on their var­i­ous plates gave up their week­end to sign the Brexit deal. The fol­low­ing day in the Com­mons May made a state­ment on the deal. For more than an hour of bru­tal par­lia­men­tary the­atre not a sin­gle MP ut­tered a sin­gle word in

favour of the pro­posed ar­range­ments. In re­sponse, and with­out any ev­i­dence to sup­port her claim, May de­clared she had full con­fi­dence she would win a Com­mons vote on her deal. Strangely, in the hope of par­lia­men­tary vic­tory she headed off for a brief UK tour as if it were a gen­eral elec­tion, even though no one apart from MPS have a vote.

A few days’ later the at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ge­of­frey Cox, spent three hours in the Com­mons per­form­ing like an age­ing Shake­spearean ac­tor, in­sist­ing that his le­gal ad­vice to the gov­ern­ment on May’s deal must not be pub­lished and would not be pub­lished. Within 24 hours the gov­ern­ment was forced to pub­lish the le­gal ad­vice and was held to be in con­tempt of par­lia­ment for re­fus­ing to do so. On that same day May opened the five-day de­bate on her Brexit deal as if noth­ing had hap­pened. She made no apol­ogy for her gov­ern­ment be­ing held in con­tempt. In an in­ter­view with the BBC a day later she re­peated that she would win the vote. On the fourth day of the de­bate May an­nounced she was pulling the vote and would re­turn to Brus­sels to ne­go­ti­ate a deal even though she had de­clared that there was no scope for any fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tion. Here was a prime min­is­ter trapped with no room to move. So most days she wrig­gled to get a tiny amount of space that en­abled her to carry on in her job. The wrig­gling meant her words were con­stantly at odds with what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing.

In a com­pet­i­tive field, the most bizarre mo­ment from a year that will fas­ci­nate his­to­ri­ans in cen­turies to come also oc­curred in Novem­ber. The gov­ern­ment pub­lished de­tailed doc­u­ments that showed clearly the UK would be poorer af­ter May’s Brexit deal. Min­is­ters claimed the find­ings were a tri­umph be­cause the UK would be even more im­pov­er­ished if any other Brexit op­tion were to be im­ple­mented. In the 1970s, Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus per­formed a sketch about the poli­cies of the Silly Party. The eco­nomic pol­icy of the Silly Party was to make the econ­omy poorer. View­ers laughed then. It is hap­pen­ing now.

Pol­i­tics moved so fast in 2018 that there was no time to pause and re­flect on how as­ton­ish­ing and sur­real it all is. Yet in pol­i­tics noth­ing hap­pens by chance. There are al­ways deeper rea­sons for shape­less chaos. Politi­cians have not be­come uniquely stupid, although some­times there is cause to won­der whether per­haps part of the silli­ness is down to unique stu­pid­ity.

Part of the ex­pla­na­tion goes back to be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, In­deed the ref­er­en­dum was a symp­tom of the al­ready wild times as well as a sub­se­quent cause. Since the fi­nan­cial crash of 2008 the UK has elected two hung par­lia­ments in a sys­tem where pre­vi­ously one party nearly al­ways won an over­all ma­jor­ity, and there have been two epoch-chang­ing ref­er­en­dums, the one in Scot­land and the other on Brexit. This was in a coun­try that pre­vi­ously rarely held ref­er­en­dums.

Af­ter the Brexit plebiscite in 2016 the two main UK par­ties held lead­er­ship con­tests si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The Labour con­test lasted sev­eral months and the party elected the same leader. The Con­ser­va­tive cam­paign seemed to last for around an hour and it elected a new prime min­is­ter, with the bod­ies of other fleet­ing can­di­dates ly­ing on the po­lit­i­cal stage like the fi­nal scene of Ham­let or King Lear. The fi­nan­cial crash height­ened anger, sus­pi­cion and mis­trust among vot­ers. The global econ­omy cre­ated deep in­se­cu­ri­ties. The tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion meant work­ing pat­terns were frac­tured. Vot­ers have stirred. Pol­i­tics re­sponds to the stir­ring. Pol­i­tics seems dys­func­tional. The op­po­site is the case. The be­wil­der­ment of vot­ers in an era of fast mov­ing change is re­flected in po­lit­i­cal chaos too.

But the tu­mult of 2018 has a more pre­cise cause. Brexit is im­pos­si­ble to de­liver. The UK is the least suited to leave the EU be­cause of the Ir­ish ques­tion and its de­pen­dency on the fi­nan­cial sec­tor. May wants to be close to the EU and sep­a­rate from it. Her red lines were in place long ago. There would be no free­dom of move­ment. There would be no role for the Euro­pean Court. The UK would leave the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket. At the same time May wanted to se­cure the sup­ply chains on which Uk-based man­u­fac­tur­ers de­pend, and to re­tain a soft bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic. At times, though nowhere near of­ten enough, she could

be can­did. In her state­ment to MPS ex­plain­ing why she was de­lay­ing the vote on her deal, she made a fun­da­men­tal point.

“Be­hind all those ar­gu­ments are some in­escapable facts: the fact that North­ern Ire­land shares a land bor­der with an­other sov­er­eign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in North­ern Ire­land over the last two decades has been built around a seam­less bor­der; and the fact that Brexit will cre­ate a wholly new sit­u­a­tion: On March 30 the North­ern Ire­land-ire­land bor­der will for the first time be­come the ex­ter­nal fron­tier of the Euro­pean Union’s sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union. The chal­lenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and work­able so­lu­tions. Busi­nesses op­er­ate across that bor­der. Peo­ple live their lives cross­ing and re-cross­ing it ev­ery day. I have been there and spo­ken to some of those peo­ple; they do not want their ev­ery­day lives to change as a re­sult of the de­ci­sion we have taken. They do not want a re­turn to a hard bor­der. And if this House cares about pre­serv­ing our Union, it must lis­ten to those peo­ple, be­cause our Union will only en­dure with their con­sent.”

These words alone ex­plain why she is at­tempt­ing the im­pos­si­ble while, un­like the hard­line fan­ta­sists, be­ing smart enough to recog­nise there is no an­swer. No other EU coun­try, for all the many prob­lems across Europe, has the equiv­a­lent of the Ir­ish Ques­tion. The only an­swer is for the UK to stay in a cus­toms union or to re­main in the EU. May has come to recog­nise the cen­tral­ity of the ques­tion but can­not an­swer it.

She gen­uinely sup­ports the back­stop that pro­vides an an­swer of sorts, the UK stays in a cus­toms union un­til an al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion is found. Her lat­est con­tor­tion is to find a way out of the back­stop even though she sup­ports it. This is a smaller con­tor­tion to the most fun­da­men­tal one. She knows Re­main is prefer­able to Brexit but feels com­pelled to de­liver on the calami­tous 2016 ref­er­en­dum, the fan­tasy bi­nary con­test that should never have been held.

Be­cause May is po­lit­i­cally weak and yet more ob­sti­nate than any modern prime min­is­ter she en­dures min­is­te­rial res­ig­na­tions and par­lia­men­tary de­feats. In spite of the im­pos­si­bil­ity of her sit­u­a­tion she presses on, co­cooned in No.10 and de­ter­mined still to pre­vail.

The only cer­tainty about 2019 is that it will be even wilder than 2018. May’s tech­nique of kick­ing cans down the road will reach an un­yield­ing ob­sta­cle be­fore March of next year. There will be a vote on her deal in the Com­mons at some point soon. Her only hope is that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Labour MPS back her plan out of fear of no-deal, the dreaded op­tion that moves closer as the clock ticks.

Her hard­lin­ers will not back her deal. For them this is per­sonal as well as ide­o­log­i­cal. They feel be­trayed by her, even though their sense of betrayal is a con­ve­nient alibi for their strate­gic in­ep­ti­tude and im­pre­cise fan­tasies. If she loses the vote there are so many mov­ing parts that come into play. The cabi­net be­comes stronger, but min­is­ters are di­vided and will urge dif­fer­ent Plan Bs. The DUP has bar­gain­ing power that it can only have dreamt of.

For those of us who want this hell to end and for the UK to stay in the EU, there is some hope for 2019. In the par­lia­men­tary paral­y­sis and with the clock tick­ing to­wards a no-deal per­haps MPS will dare to re­voke Ar­ti­cle 50 or sup­port an­other ref­er­en­dum. But here is a key ques­tion, one that ap­plies to all the op­tions be­ing floated: What is the agency that de­liv­ers the out­come?

The an­swer ev­ery time can only be a prime min­is­ter and his or her gov­ern­ment. They alone can in­sti­gate the leg­is­la­tion for an ur­gent change of di­rec­tion.

In 2019 who is the prime min­is­ter and what is the gov­ern­ment that leg­is­lates for a ref­er­en­dum or re­vokes Ar­ti­cle 50? No one knows the an­swer.

Brexit is the equiv­a­lent of a Net­flix boxset where the end­ing is nerveshred­ding in its un­pre­dictabil­ity. 2019 will be like 2018. Turn away for a mo­ment and risk miss­ing an­other bizarre twist or turn of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

OB­STI­NATE: Theresa May gives a state­ment out­side 10 Down­ing Street on Novem­ber 14, 2018, af­ter hold­ing a cabi­net meet­ing where min­is­ters were told to back the draft Brexit deal or quit

Photo: Getty Im­ages

ALL CHANGE: May’s Che­quers plan held cabi­net unity for two days, be­fore the res­ig­na­tions of David Davis and Boris John­son. Davis was re­placed by Do­minic Raab who stayed in the post for all of four months, be­fore his own res­ig­na­tion

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