Brexit is again all anyone is talking about for the time being. This week has seen the announcement of a draft deal for withdrawal with the EU, individual meetings between the PM and ministers, a long cabinet meeting, various ministerial resignations, a gruelling initial presentation to the House of Commons and, yesterday evening, a press conference. Here’s a link to the BBC coverage.
Now, I hate Brexit with considerable fervour, as just might be apparent from previous posts. That said, I want to issue some congratulations in two directions where the vast bulk of news is currently issuing condemnations.
The first of these is to the negotiating team who have managed to produce this document. Mrs. May’s account of her brief on this was to produce a deal which the whole country could get behind, and actually what they have negotiated is something which this ardent supporter of a more united Europe could at a pinch stomach. And that is an amazing achievement. I didn’t think the EU negotiators, who have always rather had us over a barrel once we invoked Article 50, would bend so far as they seem to have done. Although it doesn’t cover the terms of future relationship, the extension of time to December 2020 and the outline of where both sides would like to find agreement are actually very comforting – there does seem to be a route through this which would not produce massive economic hardship in the short term.
The second is for Teresa May herself. She has acquitted herself brilliantly through the week’s events, keeping her calm amidst a torrent of complaint (and sometimes abuse) from all sides, and the final press conference was a fine example of that. It was very definitely a prime-ministerial performance, indeed a statesmanlike one. I can’t help contrasting it with some other press conferences I’ve seen clips of recently, and thinking that we could do a whole lot worse for a leader.
I never really expected to feel this way about her, as I’ve always felt an instinctive antipathy toward her (possibly because she reminds me of Margaret Thatcher in a blander form, possibly because she switched from campaigning to Remain to insisting that “the people have spoken” and took the leadership in what seemed to me an opportunistic manner to implement what she’d just campaigned against), but I feel really sorry for her. Hers is not a position which I would remotely like to be in. As things stand at the moment, her chances of getting a parliamentary majority in favour of the draft agreement seem remarkably slim, and it even seems very much in doubt that she can continue to lead the Conservative party, and so the nation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the government fall, and a snap general election called. Whether that would then sink our chances of leaving the EU on anything better than “crash out and try to work with World Trade Organisation rules” is a question I can’t answer, but which worries me. However, as Mrs. May said in the press conference, there will now be a lot of debate in the House of Commons over the coming weeks, and she may even be right in suggesting that eventually a majority of MPs will come round to accepting that this is the best option that can be hoped for.
Of course, it actually pleases no-one. The enthusiastic Brexiteers are now talking about crashing out on WTO rules as being a viable option that they would support (although not as much as they’d support a Canada style ongoing relationship – but we were never going to be able to agree one of those before the deadline, particularly if we crashed out having not paid in a lot of money to balance the books on the previous relationship). They can, I think, be relied on to try to sabotage anything other than a hard Brexit. The DUP don’t see the agreement as preserving the Britishness of Northern Ireland, and they would probably not be too bothered to see a hard border with Ireland return, though the rest of us shudder at the prospect, which would probably come with an immediate resumption of violence.
It definitely doesn’t please those of us who were nearly half of those who voted on the issue who don’t want to leave at all, which of course includes my former party, the Liberal Democrats (who have not featured in recent news at all, despite being a solidly pro-Europe voice and having around 20% of the vote last time – do I detect bias?) Granted, if the future relationship does follow the outline in the agreement, it won’t be as economically disastrous as we feared, but we will still have no say in the future European project. I will grant that, from my point of view, getting out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy would be a boon – both of those were not constructed with Britain in mind, and they have long needed a major overhaul which may not ever be satisfactorily achieved. I will also grant that the construction of the EU’s governing bodies is not adequately democratic, and being out of that system is perhaps a plus – but in that case, what I wanted to see (and which would I think inevitably develop) was a more democratic system in which the European Parliament, directly elected, gained more power at the expense of the Council of Ministers and Commission, which are respectively members of and appointed via the governments of the individual states. (I note that there is a similar though less dramatic democratic deficit in the USA with the allocation of two senators to each state irrespective of population – this is a feature of going from an assembly of individual states to a coherent whole…)
It also doesn’t seem to please the Labour Party, which perhaps surprises me, given that it’s as close to the outline Jeremy Corbyn has been talking about as is, I think, remotely within the bounds of possibility. I have been very disappointed with his stance on Brexit even as I’ve applauded his stance on most other things. I feel that he may have been too concerned about the electoral prospects of his party (noting that the Brexit vote was strong in most of the industrial and urban areas where Labour gain most of their seats) and not enough concerned with the internationalist traditions of his socialism, which I share. That said, the EU institutions are congenitally neoliberal in their outlook these days, especially the European Bank, and I can envisage him thinking that it would be a lot easier to try to practice real socialism in a country which was divorced from those. I think he’s misguided in that – if we do leave the EU, I cannot see that Scotland will remain part of the UK for all that long, and without the solidly socialist vote in most of Scotland (much of which currently goes to the SNP, but I can easily see a Labour-SNP coalition), Labour would probably never manage a majority in the lifetime of anyone living today.
Having said all that, it has been said that the mark of a good deal is that all parties are equally dissatisfied with it. Maybe this is the best we can get?
Where are we going to end up? I don’t know. Some commentators have talked of a “Government of national unity” which would probably be a Conservative-Labour coalition. I don’t rule that out, and it is perhaps the only way in which we could move forward with the draft agreement. That actually makes me feel somewhat hopeful – I look at the States, and wonder what the chances of a Democrat-Republican coalition would be these days…