Pre­pare for speed-chess Brexit

The Observer - - News - @an­drewrawns­ley An­drew Rawns­ley

The re­cent World Chess Cham­pi­onship set a new record, but it was not one likely to give the game more mass ap­peal. There were 12 slow matches, con­ducted in a sound­proof glass box, be­tween the reign­ing champion and his chal­lenger – and ev­ery one ended in a draw. The con­test was fi­nally re­solved only by quick­en­ing the pace with a de­cid­ing run of games in which the play­ers had to think and move much more rapidly. Some­thing sim­i­lar is go­ing to hap­pen with the four-di­men­sional ver­sion of chess known as Brexit. Grind­ing dead­lock will be ul­ti­mately re­solved by a fast­mov­ing tiebreaker phase.

The past 30 months have un­folded at a painfully slow pace as Theresa May has tried and failed to find a match­win­ning for­mula with­out ever quite be­ing de­feated by her var­i­ous op­po­nents. She be­gan with the hard Brexit open­ing called “red lines”, a strat­egy con­ceived in the sound­proof box in­hab­ited by the prime min­is­ter and her aides dur­ing the pe­riod when she was im­per­vi­ous to any ad­vice from diplo­matic grand­mas­ters. This strat­egy blew up when it col­lided with the re­al­i­ties of strik­ing a deal with­out wreck­ing the econ­omy. Then there was her early elec­tion gam­bit, ini­tially hailed as a stroke of ge­nius by many of her col­leagues, which left her with no par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity. She sub­se­quently ad­justed to a “be­spoke” – also known as a spatch­cocked – ver­sion of Brexit, which has been de­nounced by both those who want to main­tain a close re­la­tion­ship with the EU and those who de­sire a starker rup­ture.

I have yet to find any­one at West­min­ster who thinks that she can win the par­lia­men­tary vote on 11 De­cem­ber. Even the dogs on the street know she is head­ing for de­feat. The re­cent prog­nos­ti­ca­tions of the Trea­sury and the Bank of Eng­land have been of no help to her at all. The Mog­gites, never any­thing but ut­terly pre­dictable, have jeer­ingly dis­missed the fore­casts that a no-deal Brexit would have a ru­inous im­pact. Those who want to re­verse Brexit have noted that ev­ery ver­sion of it, in­clud­ing Mrs May’s, is worse for jobs, trade and in­vest­ment than re­main­ing within the EU. The plucky min­is­ters pre­pared to de­fend the boss have the un­en­vi­able task of try­ing to ar­gue for a deal that the govern­ment’s own fore­cast­ers say will leave Bri­tain poorer.

The num­ber of Tory MPs who are de­clared op­po­nents of Mrs May’s deal is 100 and ris­ing. Even if we halve that, to al­low for rebels flak­ing un­der pres­sure from the whips, it is still im­pos­si­ble to see how she can pre­vail with­out the as­sis­tance of a sub­stan­tial num­ber of op­po­si­tion MPs, help that won’t be forth­com­ing. There are Labour MPs who would pre­fer her deal, aw­ful as many of them think it is, to any of the al­ter­na­tives, but to sup­port her would be to risk de­nun­ci­a­tion by their party lead­er­ship and de­s­e­lec­tion by their lo­cal ac­tivists. Any Labour MP who might have once thought of vot­ing with the govern­ment has even less in­cen­tive to throw a life­line to a Tory prime min­is­ter if Mrs May is go­ing un­der any­way.

Once par­lia­ment votes down the deal, the slow games will be over and we will move into quick­fire de­ci­sion­mak­ing. This is when all the con­tes­tants will have to play speed chess. Here are the pos­si­ble endgames.

There is a cos­metic tweak­ing of the terms of Mrs May’s deal, if the EU is pre­pared to play ball with that, which is de­signed to make it more palat­able to her party, and this is fol­lowed by a sec­ond, suc­cess­ful, at­tempt to se­cure par­lia­men­tary approval. In so much as Num­ber 10 has an idea that mer­its be­ing called a strat­egy, this seems to be it. There is only one snag with this plan: there is a van­ish­ingly small num­ber of peo­ple at West­min­ster who think that enough MPs can be per­suaded to change their minds be­tween a first vote and a sec­ond.

The next endgame sees Bri­tain crash­ing to­wards a no deal, the par­lia­men­tary equiv­a­lent of a chess player de­cid­ing to up­end the board and break all the pieces. There is no ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment for this calami­tous out­come, but it could hap­pen by hor­ren­dous accident if MPs can’t agree on any­thing else, be­cause no deal is the de­fault po­si­tion of the with­drawal leg­is­la­tion.

Some are still fas­ten­ing their hopes to the con­cept of fash­ion­ing a par­lia­men­tary con­sen­sus for a dif­fer­ent form of Brexit, which usu­ally in­volves the word “Nor­way”. This is not im­pos­si­ble, but there isn’t co­her­ent agree­ment on an al­ter­na­tive nor clar­ity about who would ne­go­ti­ate it and how it could be made to hap­pen in the short time left. An­other ref­er­en­dum, which Mrs May has al­ways set her face against, could end up be­ing her least worst op­tion. Is that her se­cret plan B? That would help to make sense of oth­er­wise in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­ci­sions, such as run­ning around the coun­try try­ing to sell her deal to the pub­lic when the vot­ers who cur­rently mat­ter to her are all sit­ting in par­lia­ment. Maybe, some of her col­leagues spec­u­late, she is warm­ing up for a ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. I’ve said before that par­lia­men­tary stale­mate is the like­li­est route to the ques­tion be­ing thrown back to the peo­ple. It is true that Mrs May has used strong lan­guage – words such as “be­trayal” – to de­scribe an­other ref­er­en­dum. Then again, she was never go­ing to have an early elec­tion right up un­til the mo­ment she called one.

Here, Labour’s po­si­tion will be crit­i­cal. A big chunk of the Con­ser­va­tive party will op­pose an­other ref­er­en­dum, so one can only hap­pen with Labour sup­port. As we re­port to­day, the most re­cent meet­ing of the shadow cabi­net had a dis­cus­sion about Brexit – quite a rarity for that body. Sev­eral of its mem­bers have also started to twig that events will un­fold at pace and speedy de­ci­sions will be re­quired once Mrs May has been de­feated in par­lia­ment. In the words of one of their num­ber, Labour will have to be ready to “move quickly through the gears”.

Hav­ing long hoped that Brexit might some­how trig­ger an early elec­tion and hav­ing re­peat­edly called for the same, Jeremy Cor­byn will have to ta­ble a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the govern­ment. He will do so even though most of the peo­ple around him think this will be fu­tile. John McDon­nell, the shadow chan­cel­lor and al­ways a man to watch at times such as th­ese, has re­cently con­ceded that trig­ger­ing a gen­eral elec­tion is “very dif­fi­cult”. He went on to say that, if there isn’t an elec­tion, Labour will “in­evitably” call for an­other ref­er­en­dum.

By my reck­on­ing, a ma­jor­ity of the shadow cabi­net ei­ther want Labour to come out in full-throated sup­port of an­other ref­er­en­dum or think that they will have to end up back­ing one be­cause there will be no other vi­able po­si­tions for the party. This ma­jor­ity in­cludes Tom Wat­son, the party’s deputy leader, and Keir Starmer, the party’s chief spokesman on Brexit. It prob­a­bly also in­cludes Emily Thorn­berry, the shadow for­eign sec­re­tary, though col­leagues say that she is be­ing cal­cu­lat­edly cau­tious about say­ing so ex­plic­itly.

Minds have been con­cen­trated by Mrs May’s sug­ges­tion of a TV de­bate be­tween her­self and Mr Cor­byn. This has forced Labour peo­ple to con­front the truth that their Brexit fudges are crum­bling before ev­ery­one’s eyes. No one thinks Labour could ne­go­ti­ate all the ben­e­fits of be­ing within the EU for Bri­tain while no longer be­ing a mem­ber. Labour spokes­peo­ple strug­gle to de­fend that pos­ture through short in­ter­views. Ninety min­utes of sus­tained scru­tiny of Mr Cor­byn about Brexit on prime­time TV comes with sub­stan­tial per­ils for Labour, es­pe­cially if its leader is left ex­posed on whether the peo­ple should have the fi­nal say.

There is still sig­nif­i­cant re­sis­tance to an­other ref­er­en­dum among some in the shadow cabi­net and el­e­ments of the Labour leader’s in­ner cir­cle. Their pre­ferred – if never de­clared – out­come has been for Brexit to hap­pen and the Tories to be held cul­pa­ble for it. So those who think that Labour will have to em­brace an­other na­tional vote came away from that shadow cabi­net meet­ing en­cour­aged be­cause Mr Cor­byn didn’t try to close down the dis­cus­sion.

Declaring for an­other ref­er­en­dum would cost Labour sup­port among some of its tra­di­tional vot­ers who want out of the EU. But there will also be a price to pay – and prob­a­bly a much steeper one – for be­tray­ing the wishes of Labour mem­bers and sup­port­ers who are des­per­ate for the Bri­tish peo­ple to be given an op­por­tu­nity to re­verse Brexit. We are com­ing to the end of the long pe­riod when Labour man­aged to just about get away with sug­gest­ing to both Leavers and Re­main­ers that it was on their side. That po­si­tion will soon be en­tirely un­sus­tain­able.

They say that to gov­ern is to choose. At this crit­i­cal junc­ture in Bri­tain’s his­tory, it will also be the case that to op­pose is to choose.

Nor­way’s Mag­nus Carlsen con­sid­ers his po­si­tion in the World Chess Cham­pi­onship.

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