Ugly habits are catch­ing

AS THE AT­MOS­PHERE TURNS TOXIC, AL­TER­NA­TIVES RE­MAINS SCARCE

The New European - - Agenda - MICHAEL WHITE

It’s all very well for Theresa May to try and dis­tract pub­lic at­ten­tion from the Brexit War of At­tri­tion by launch­ing other pol­icy ini­tia­tives like this week’s pledge to sort-of spend an ex­tra £20.5 bil­lion per year on the NHS. Gosh, isn’t that slightly more than the £350 mil­lion a week that Dominic Cum­mings’ bus promised in 2016? It is. And the cash will be de­ployed to save more 500,000 lives, young and old, from killer dis­eases and self-in­flicted harm. “Splen­did, splen­did,” as Wil­lie Whitelaw used to say in Mrs Thatcher’s day. He some­times even meant it.

The trou­ble is that these are not splen­did times. May hands out knight­hoods and drinks in­vi­ta­tions to Tory MPS and they sus­pect she may have an ul­te­rior mo­tive. They duly vote against her any­way. Tut, tut. She gives the NHS a bung (Eng­land only, you un­der­stand, health is de­volved) and dis­af­fected voters only half-be­lieve it may be at all splen­did. The chan­cel­lor, Phil Ham­mond, only half-be­lieves it too. That is why the Trea­sury has been bang­ing on (again) about the need to ex­tract higher pro­duc­tiv­ity from hard-pressed NHS staff and the im­por­tance of re­duc­ing cus­tomer de­mand as well as in­creas­ing the sup­ply of cash.

No, not OAP eu­thana­sia, not yet. Ham­mond high­lights those re­newed calls for tougher ac­tion against smok­ing, booz­ing and obe­sity which I’ve been hear­ing half my life, though sugar didn’t used to be on the health po­lice hit-list. Scourge of the nanny state, Ja­cob ReesMogg, promptly de­clared him­self a sug­arscep­tic, an ex­pert of diet as on so much else. Why can’t ev­ery­one be as thin as his own nanny keeps Jake, eh! Put down that cigar, Ken Clarke, and eat your greens.

It would be funny if it wasn’t also tragic. For one thing the small print con­firms that the NHS’S £20.5 bil­lion (‘in real terms’) won’t ar­rive in full un­til 202324 when May will – by her own ac­count – no longer be around. Nor might a suc­ces­sor Tory govern­ment af­ter the post-brexit gen­eral elec­tion sched­uled for 2022, not if Jeremy Cor­byn proves in­suf­fi­ciently craven to pull off an­other de­feat.

For an­other thing, no one knows what the UK econ­omy will be able to af­ford by then. Not even hair-shirted apos­tles of a hard Brexit (“it won’t be so bad”) are claim­ing it will have re­cov­ered from that “short-term hit” they blithely talk about.

One thing we do know is that the NHS will be fac­ing skilled staff short­ages. Why? Be­cause it’s al­ready fac­ing them at a time when the ser­vice’s Euro­pean em­ploy­ees are feel­ing anx­ious and un­wel­come enough to start go­ing home. City banks and Sports Di­rect ware­houses are hav­ing sim­i­lar prob­lems. “Go back to Poland,” a nurse in the West Coun­try re­ports be­ing told by a pa­tient who didn’t stop to ex­plain who (a ro­bot?) was go­ing to do the nurse’s job in fu­ture. In fair­ness, I’ve heard that the same jibe was hissed across the ta­ble at an NHS con­sul­tant of for­eign ex­trac­tion, this time in his ex­pen­sive London club. Xeno­pho­bia is catch­ing, the ge­nie is out of the bot­tle.

There are cur­rently 41,000 nurse va­can­cies – along­side the 287,000 now em­ployed – in Eng­land, where 5% of nurses hail from Europe. Since Brexit 7,000 have left and few have ar­rived in their place. The coali­tion’s pro­tracted wage freeze, ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards at home and the post-ref­er­en­dum fall in ster­ling (plus new lan­guage re­quire­ments) have also weak­ened Britain’s ap­peal. NHS pro­fes­sional bod­ies warn of worsening short­ages caus­ing a big­ger bill for tem­po­rary agency nurses, which will eat into that £20.5 bil­lion with­out ben­e­fit­ting any­one ex­cept the agen­cies.

This is the law of un­in­tended con­se­quences do­ing its usual dis­rup­tive work. Doubt­less there will be some benign dis­rup­tive con­se­quences of Brexit in whatever form it fi­nally takes on March 29 – by co­in­ci­dence the birthdays of old Brexit op­po­nents, John Ma­jor and

gilet jaune mil­i­tant, Nor­man Teb­bit. For ex­am­ple Rams­gate har­bour, which lost its Os­tend ferry ser­vice in 2013, is ur­gently be­ing dredged in case of hard Brexit ne­ces­sity. Around the coast out­side Broad­stairs – deep in Ted Heath-turned Brexit coun­try – min­is­ters this week ex­per­i­mented with an emergency lorry park on the aban­doned air­field at Manston air­port, closed in 2014.

Lo­cals at Rams­gate and Manston have cam­paigned for both port and air­port to be re­vived. Are they grate­ful? Nah. ”Too lit­tle, too late” seems to be the re­frain from both sides of the yawn­ing Brexit canyon. To add in­sult to in­jury the Rams­gate con­tract and a £14 mil­lion grant was given by Chris Grayling (who else!) to a colour­ful pair of op­er­a­tors whose Seaborne Freight firm has no ships, as James Ball pointed out with the heart­less glee of youth in last week’s

TNE. If Dover loses 90% of its 80,000 weekly lorry cross­ings, Rams­gate won’t fill more than a frac­tion of the gap. The firm’s boss is a Hard Brexit man. You can see why.

Of course, chaos at Dover is the govern­ment plan­ners worst case sce­nario, air­ily de­rided as part of cal­cu­lated “hys­te­ria” by hard Brexit’s Boris John­son in Mon­day’s £5-a-word

Tele­graph col­umn and by Canada+’s David Davis on Tuesday’s Ra­dio 4. The Calais re­gion just won’t let it hap­pen, the Brexit Bull­dog ex­plained, clearly not a stu­dent of French state

struc­tures in which Paris de­cides im­por­tant mat­ters.with fewer than 80 days now left be­fore Britain’s sched­uled Brexit day, par­lia­ment back and New Year busi­ness re­sum­ing, the long-awaited endgame has now started with no-one any clearer as to the likely out­come than they were be­fore MPS opened their Christ­mas stock­ings. So I was look­ing for­ward to Chan­nel 4’s much-hyped Brexit: The Un­civil War in the hope that it would pro­vide fresh in­sight into how we all got into this mess back in 2016.

I’m a great fan of play­wright James Gra­ham. As en­ter­tain­ment it was of­ten good fun, but as a se­ri­ous piece of work this was a se­vere, if fre­netic, dis­ap­point­ment. There is noth­ing wrong in craft­ing a nar­ra­tive around a sin­gle char­ac­ter, es­pe­cially one so in­trigu­ing as clever, driven Dominic Cum­mings, Vote Leave’s tur­bu­lent cam­paign di­rec­tor. But Gra­ham went much too far in his fo­cus, ex­clud­ing key pro­tag­o­nists – Cameron, Os­borne, May and Cor­byn for ex­am­ple – and re­duc­ing Michael Gove, Boris John­son, Tory-to-ukip’s Dou­glas Car­swell and Leave’s Matthew El­liott to shifty, in­ef­fec­tual pup­pets, all cowed by their Sven­gali.

In the same spirit, Nigel Farage and Ar­ron Banks were por­trayed as boozy, un­couth ruf­fi­ans, even worse than they ac­tu­ally are. The machi­na­tions of the al­go­rithm me­chan­ics at Ag­gre­gate IQ and ques­tions over the role of Trump backer, Robert Mercer, were also un­der­played.

Voters, an­guished and mostly de­cent, only got a walk-on part too, but that’s of­ten their place. If there is any con­so­la­tion it must lie in the para­dox that, while Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch’s Cum­mings is the hero of the piece, ar­dent Brex­i­teers have much more rea­son to hate Gra­ham’s drama­ti­sa­tion than the rest of us.

In the pro­gramme – which re­lies for much in­for­ma­tion on Tim Ship­man’s book, All Out War – the Re­main cam­paign is de­picted as high-minded and ini­tially complacent, out of touch and hope­less, all of which it was. I can re­mem­ber Peter Man­del­son (re­duced to an off-stage voice here) com­plain­ing as much at the time. I thought so too and re­mem­ber send­ing No.10’s Craig Oliver (beau­ti­fully played by Rory Kin­n­ear) an ex­hor­ta­tory email a week be­fore polling say­ing he was in se­ri­ous dan­ger of los­ing. Re­proach­ful emails were not some­thing I of­ten did as a po­lit­i­cal re­porter.

But Vote Leave and its pro­vi­sional wing, Leave.eu, were por­trayed as a mix­ture of hope­less old farts – Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin and co – and ruth­less Machi­avel­lians, for some of whom

Europe was just a handy sym­bol of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent, a means of drilling into count­less small oil wells of re­sent­ment, as Cum­mings puts it (his fa­ther was an oil man) to shake up the sys­tem. That tac­tic is only a short jump from the Trump, Ban­non, Mercer, Le Pen, Putin-xi style of cyn­i­cal and xeno­pho­bic na­tion­al­ism, eco­nomic as well as po­lit­i­cal. It threat­ens us all – even you, Brexit voter – in 2019. Bad ideas pro­duce bad re­sults.

And Cum­mings? I used to know him slightly as the brains be­hind Michael Gove be­fore a show­down with Theresa May, then home sec­re­tary, forced him out. In some ways he re­minded me of TNE’S own Alas­tair Camp­bell, very driven but less bal­anced and grounded than Alas­tair (pause for chuck­les), less rooted in a set of po­lit­i­cal val­ues and tra­di­tion, more ar­ro­gantly Mes­sianic.

As such, the au­thor of Brexit’s lethal and dis­hon­est slo­gan ‘Take Back Con­trol’ is that mer­ci­fully rare but fa­mil­iar fig­ure, the pu­ri­tan who be­lieves that re­gen­er­a­tion of a cor­rupted so­ci­ety can only come through the purge of de­struc­tion. “Pull it down and start again.” Some of the left em­brace that er­ror too.

So Gra­ham has Dom de­ploy­ing his al­go­rith­mic army to pan­der in cus­tomised heart-over-head fash­ion to in­di­vid­ual feel­ings, re­sent­ments and prej­u­dices of ne­glected voters. The army is none too scrupu­lous about the facts of EU/NHS bud­gets or Turk­ish mi­gra­tion pat­terns. Guided only by what the soft­ware – “data and polls” – tells him shifts votes, he is happy to farm out the rough stuff to Banks and Farage. In a late-night scene where Oliver and Cum­mings bump into each other and chat over a drink (the Robert De Niro scene from Heat) Kin­n­ear warns him “You’re feed­ing the toxic mix… you can’t close that box.” Cum­mings shrugs it off.

He has since re­tired from the fray, like so many of the pro­tag­o­nists of 2016, an­gry (as usual) that the sec­ond-rate id­iots who ru­ined ev­ery­thing be­fore the ref­er­en­dum have since ru­ined Brexit (“the same old crap sys­tem”) and with it their chance to of­fer Britain a re­birth, free of past medi­ocrity and cor­rup­tion. Na­ture’s Robe­spier­res usu­ally end this way – an­grily dis­ap­pointed or on the scaf­fold. For those even rarer Mes­si­ahs, the Lenins, Hitlers and Pol Pots who get a chance to im­ple­ment their dreams of pu­rifi­ca­tion, the re­al­ity of de­feat takes a lit­tle longer. Who was it who de­cided – in the ruins of Ber­lin – that the Ger­man peo­ple had not been wor­thy of him? Talk about nar­cis­sism.

But the Cum­mings ge­nie is out of the bot­tle. It was on dis­play out­side par­lia­ment again this week, where loud­mouthed Brexit bul­lies screamed abuse at Anna Soubry, the mil­i­tant Re­main MP, as she did tele­vi­sion in­ter­views on Col­lege Green.

Ugly habits are catch­ing – just look at Trump’s in­cite­ment on the Mex­i­can wall, or vi­o­lence on French streets – so the po­lice should take steps to nip them in the bud be­fore we start to think they’re as nor­mal as gra­tu­itous sex and vi­o­lence on TV. It is a del­i­cate bal­ance. The Macron govern­ment’s threat to ban “unau­tho­rised” demon­stra­tions or masks looks like an un­en­force­able provo­ca­tion in a coun­try like France.

Back in what re­mains of the more or­derly Bri­tish world we knew be­fore yes­ter­day, lesser mor­tals than Dominic Cum­mings are strug­gling this week to min­imise the dam­age of a disorderly Brexit – or a “man­aged” hard Brexit as the self-de­lud­ing still call it. In an en­cour­ag­ing dis­play of Labour lead­er­ship, Yvette Cooper (you didn’t think I meant Jeremy, did you?) has joined forces with Tory Nicky Mor­gan to ta­ble an amend­ment to the fi­nance bill that would – in the­ory – pre­vent the Trea­sury fund­ing emergency mea­sures to han­dle a hard Brexit. With the sup­port of 20 Tory MPS, in­clud­ing Michael Fal­lon and Oliver Letwin, the cross-party coali­tion won by seven votes – the first govern­ment de­feat on a bud­get mea­sure in decades. Ex­pect more. (One rebel Tory, Nick Boles, got an overnight death threat af­ter the vote.)

Will it work, even if the votes are there, as they might be ahead of next week’s ‘mean­ing­ful vote’ on May’s flawed deal with the EU 27?

No-one knows be­cause co­her­ent party dis­ci­pline has bro­ken down, as it did for some years af­ter the last com­pa­ra­ble

Tory im­plo­sion over re­peal of the pro­tec­tion­ist Corn Laws in 1846. Jeremy Cor­byn’s ex­cuse for not back­ing a Plan B or the sec­ond ref­er­en­dum op­tion adds to the un­cer­tainty.

He wants a gen­eral elec­tion and a Labour govern­ment to rene­go­ti­ate Brexit on un­re­al­is­tic terms. Team Cor­byn won’t get ei­ther – and Yougov’s lat­est polling sug­gests it will even­tu­ally pay a heavy price for its cyn­i­cism. Ac­tivists who want a Peo­ple’s Vote are in­creas­ingly rest­less.

By gen­eral con­sent May’s plan is still head­ing for de­feat on Jan­uary 15, but her strat­egy re­mains to keep push­ing it in the hope that, as the clock ticks down to­wards Lord Teb­bit’s birth­day, enough MPS – in­clud­ing all DUP mem­bers but hard­liner, Sammy Wil­son – will blink and back her at the sec­ond or third at­tempt, for want of a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.

Will she get away with it? Lots of peo­ple who might sup­port her hate the deal. On Sun­day, Man­del­son wrote a scathing at­tack on the “le­gal and po­lit­i­cal no man’s land” in which rule-taker Britain would find it­self. The in­flu­en­tial London First lobby group is re­port­edly poised to aban­don its sup­port. But her strength re­mains that in the con­test to be the last plan stand­ing her ri­vals have failed to co­a­lesce be­hind an al­ter­na­tive that can com­mand a Com­mons ma­jor­ity. Thus stal­wart Re­mainer Ken Clarke (no knight­hood non­sense for him) pops up to dis­miss June 23 as “a sin­gle opin­ion poll” but ac­cepts the prag­matic need for a Brexit deal. That would take 4-5 years so he pro­poses not a pause in Ar­ti­cle 50 (that would re­quire the EU 27’s con­sent), but a uni­lat­eral re­peal to al­low time – “re­voke and re­vive,” as he puts it.

Even Clarke knows that “para­noid” Brex­i­teers will sus­pect a plot to Re­main. His old com­rade in arms, Chris Pat­ten, pro­poses a post­pone­ment of the A50 process to al­low more time to ex­plore a deal that might em­brace the sin­gle mar­ket or even the cus­toms union, rather than the il­lu­sion of Brexit with­out a tran­si­tion and trad­ing on WTO terms – the very WTO that Don­ald Trump is ac­tively un­der­min­ing. Ei­ther that or a Peo­ple’s Vote.

It is hard to see such sce­nar­ios play­ing out. That is why ri­val camps have mostly re­fused to ta­ble their own amend­ments, as No.10 would wish, in or­der to flush them out. Ev­ery­one is en­gaged in wait-and-see.

Some 200 MPS have called on May to rule out a no-deal Brexit. So have cab­i­net min­is­ters like Am­ber Rudd. But she won’t, be­cause fear of one is her elec­tric cat­tle prod to ca­jole MPS into her lobby and per­suade Europe to con­cede just a lit­tle more and al­low her to claim a bit of vic­tory.

Le­gal as­sur­ances that the Ir­ish back­stop is tem­po­rary? A prom­ise that a new trade deal would be done by 2021? The ru­mour mill turns nois­ily. EU ne­go­ti­a­tions al­ways end like this and we should not be sur­prised. Ir­ish min­is­ters are very keen to avoid the dam­age that no-deal would do to their econ­omy and their peace­ful bor­der.

Who will blink first and how will they do it?

Not long to wait now.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

POR­TRAYAL: Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Dominic Cum­mings in Brexit: The Un­civil War

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