Is Britain heading for a no-deal exit?

The biggest complaint about politics from people who run businesses is not Brexit itself, where opinions are divided depending on the depth of relationship with other EU countries, but on the uncertainty. We don’t know exactly what shape Brexit will take and when. One businessman explained to me, last February, that it was impossible to prepare for the impending departure date of 29 March because he didn’t know what he was preparing for. That date has come and gone and the uncertainty has just got worse.

The new crunch date is 31 October, and attention has moved on to the contest for the Conservative leadership, as this will almost certainly determine who will be our next Prime Minister. Both contenders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, maintain that achieving Brexit on this date is their main aim. What is less clear is how much of a rupture either man would be prepared to risk to achieve this goal.

Mr Johnson is the strong favourite but his campaign is not going smoothly. Mr Johnson has never presented himself as being a slick operator, so this is not particularly damaging of it itself. But his strategy to date has been to say as little as possible, to allow a wide spectrum of Conservatives to project their wishes into the vacant space. To hard Brexiteers he has promised to take Britain out on 31 October come what may. Those who would rather delay than suffer a full rupture detect some flexibility. Attacks on Mr Johnson both on his private life and his Brexit stance have forced him increase the level of press exposure in order to help recover the initiative. That has forced him to reveal more of his thinking, but this has not helped us very much.

What he has shown is a breathtaking optimism. He says both that a new deal is perfectly feasible in the time, and that a no-deal does not mean all that much rupture in fact. This sheer candy floss, sweet-tasting but disappearing on contact with anything solid. For his main audience, the Tory membership, this is fine. They are fed up with the consistent pessimism they hear from critics of Brexit, and appreciate the ray of sunshine that Mr Johnson provides. But what does it actually mean?

Commentary on the various Brexit strategies coming form the Conservative leadership candidates is relentlessly negative. I largely share this scepticism, but I don’t feel there is much point in repeating it. Critics of Brexit tend to programme out more optimistic scenarios. But if we are to understand more clearly what might happen we should not dismiss the optimistic gloss so easily.

The first possibility is that a Withdrawal Agreement will be agreed by 31 October, and that it will get through parliament. The first problem is that both leadership contenders say that it needs to be changed from its current form, but that the EU side has said that it is unchangeable. The second problem is that there is very little time to agree and implement something different. But the EU fears the full rupture too, so something might be done that saves face on all sides. This might pass parliament because Brexit supporters realise that trying for the no-deal alternative leads to further delay, which plays into the hands of the Remainers. The deal cannot be much different from what came before, but there may be more Conservative solidarity, and Labour discipline might start to crack. This seems to be Mr Hunt’s game-plan. It could work. But the odds are against it. It has been tried before, by Theresa May, and the EU called the British bluff successfully. They will be tempted to do so again giving the British prime minister very little to play with.

The second possibility is what might be called a no-deal no-rupture Brexit on 31 October. This seems to be Mr Johnson’s big idea. At first sight it is nonsense. Any kind of no-rupture, with a transition period where little practical changes, requires a deal of some sort. But what of a small-deal small-rupture Brexit? This would involve the transition period as specified in the original Withdrawal Agreement, the target of a Canada-style free trade agreement, with WTO arrangements as a fall back. The other details. such as Ireland and the money, will be worked out later. What’s in it for the EU? There would be no rupture, or at any rate a delayed one, which would remove a big headache, especially in Ireland. The UK would no longer pollute EU institutions such as the European Council and the European Parliament. They would get at least some of the money envisaged in the original Withdrawal Agreement.

Would the EU buy it? Of course it is a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement by other means, with the Irish backstop removed from it. And there is not much time to negotiate it. That’s a big problem. The more of the original agreement is grandfathered into the new arrangement to save time, the more of a humiliating climbdown it would look for both the EU and the Irish government. There needs to be a large dollop of something from the British government to compensate. At the moment I really can’t see what this would be. Mr Hunt’s plan looks a much better bet.

But the question remains how far Mrs May’s successor is prepared to risk a full no-deal rupture. This still seems to scare a lot of people. The threat of large agricultural tariffs on exports to the EU, including over the border in Ireland, is a big deal for people that Tories care about. And there remains the chance that parliament could sabotage it by bringing the government down.

That leaves a wide spectrum of possibilities, from remaining in the EU after all, with or without a further referendum, all the way towards a full no-deal rupture. And each of these possibilities has a significant probability. Meanwhile the opinion polls show four political parties each with about 20% of the vote, something that would make the outcome of any election highly unpredictable. There is no relief in sight for Britain’s businesses.

The astonishing rebirth of Boris Johnson

The rebirth of Boris Johnson’s political career is astonishing. He has secured the backing of enough Conservative MPs to ensure that his name will be one of the two that go forward to party members to choose as party leader. And the party leader will, according to now well-established precedent, become the next prime minister. He is expected to win. I am only beginning to digest this.

Mr Johnson’s main personal political achievement to date (as opposed to his role in the 2016 referendum, which may have been decisive) has been securing two terms as London’s Mayor. This was hardly the triumph that his boosters claim. His principal opponent (Labour’s former Mayor Ken Livingstone, well past his sell-by date) was weak, and scrutiny from the media and elsewhere proved easy enough to evade. He had little or nothing to do with the achievements touted on his behalf (such as the 2012 Olympics, the public bike scheme, and an improvement in London’s state schools), and there were a series of ill-conceived vanity schemes (new double-decker buses, the “Garden Bridge”, water-cannon for the police). His one role in senior politics was a disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary. The spectacular implosion of his previous bid to become Conservative leader in 2016 would have finished most political careers. Most of his fellow MPs don’t like him. He is, however, one of the few modern British politicians with personal charisma, and he is as different in personality from the current leader, Theresa May, as it is possible to conceive. Given Mrs May’s failure, the demand for the next leader to be different is understandable. Mr Johnson, who has managed to accrue a significant personal income, has bought in professional advice, and it is working wonders. There are parallels here with that other reborn political power, Nigel Farage. Political advisers (or “strategists” as these tacticians like to be called) had a bad name after the failure of Mrs May’s 2017 general election campaign, but they’re back with a vengeance. In addition to good quality tactical advice, he has also had the benefit of an excellent parliamentary whipping operation – one observer detects the influence of former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, who proved a gaffe-prone Defence Secretary and was sacked by Mrs May, but who was very effective in his former role.

Is his rise to Prime Minister inevitable? There are two obstacles. The first is the members’ ballot. Such polling evidence as there is suggests that he has a commanding lead. But as it starts his opponent is likely to have some momentum. Two of the potential candidates might give him trouble. Jeremy Hunt, his successor as Foreign Secretary, oozes a smooth competence, and could harvest a move for a safety vote if the wheels start to fall off the Johnson campaign. That is not impossible; many have noticed that his advisers are trying to keep him out of public scrutiny. This is how things went so badly wrong for Mrs May in 2017: he will have allow for a bit of rough-and-tumble.

The other candidate that could be trouble is rank outsider Rory Stewart. He is the only other candidate with a personal charisma that matches Mr Johnson’s, and he has fought a quirky but effective campaign. He is not a safety candidate, like Mr Hunt, but he might be able build the same sort of unlikely momentum that Jeremy Corbyn did when he was elected as Labour leader.

But Mr Stewart is unlikely to be given that chance by MPs. And Mr Johnson probably has the skills to keep Mr Hunt at bay. Which leaves the second obstacle to the premiership: parliament. Labour, quite rightly, plan to launch an immediate vote of no confidence when the new Conservative leader takes up the PM’s role. The government’s majority (with the DUP) is thin; a handful of Tory MPs could fail to back him, and that would be that. This would be messy, but a general election is the most likely result, which Mr Johnson might lose.

But the odds are that Mr Johnson will survive any challenges posed by party members or parliament. What then? Most predict a chaotic and short-lived premiership, but we really don’t know. His leadership campaign shows a certain steel and political competence. The parallel his backers would like to offer, no doubt, is Donald Trump. He is at least as lazy and vague on detail as Mr Johnson, but he is lasting the course and might well be re-elected.

That parallel is rather an alarming one, as Mr Johnson is clearly taking Mr Trump as a role model (as is Nigel Farage). Mr Trump has achieved much of his success by a process of steadily undermining his country’s governing institutions and conventions. And Britain’s institutions are long on convention and weak on legal enforceability. One example is now much talked about: the idea that parliament might be suspended to prevent it from blocking a no-deal Brexit. Mr Johnson has not ruled this out.

But there is an important difference between Trump and Johnson. Mr Trump was reasonably clear about what he wanted to do, and by and large he has followed the agenda set out before he was elected, love it or loathe it. Mr Johnson has said as little as possible about what he wants to do and how, allowing his supporters to project their wishes into the blank space. He wants to achieve Brexit by 31st October, but to some audiences he suggests this will be negotiated with the EU, to for others he suggests complete breakdown.

But as PM he will have to take the hard decisions that nobody else wants to take, and Brexit, whichever way it goes, will provide a steady stream of such decisions. And then there is government finances: he can’t keep everybody happy without creating a bust-up about finances. He is bound to lose people, which matters given his shaky parliamentary position.

My guess is that he will be tempted to risk an early general election, hoping that his charisma will thwart Mr Farage and crush a by now rather tired Mr Corbyn. British politics is volatile and it might well work.

It is just as likely to bring the house tumbling down on him and his party. British politics is about to get much more exciting.

Boris Johnson raises the spectre of Islamophobia

I was going to observe a dignified silence over British MP Boris Johnson’s latest stunt. His aim was to gain attention and notoriety, and I didn’t think he deserved any help from me. But with a week gone and the story still being run prominently by BBC Radio 4, my silence must be broken.

The stunt was Mr Johnson’s regular column in the Daily Telegraph, published last Monday. I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to. Nobody disputes three salient facts. First that its subject was the banning of face-covering garments in public places, recently enacted by other European countries, such as Denmark. Second that Mr Johnson said that such bans should not be enacted here, based on good liberal logic. And third Mr Johnson expressed his dislike of such garments as worn by some Muslim women (the niqab, the face covering with a slit for the yes, and the burqa, a total body covering) by making two derogatory comparisons. Unlike the BBC, who do so at every possible opportunity, I will not repeat these here.

Deliberately or not, this was a very clever piece of work. The first fact allows Mr Johnson to claim that the article is part of an ongoing and legitimate political debate, and the second that his views on the subject are liberal. But the third picks up on public hostility to women who wear the burqa or niqab. It was what attracted all the attention, drawing condemnation from Muslim members of the Conservative Party, and admiration from those with less liberal views, and those who think Muslims have no place in this country. The timing was impeccable. The BBC had just given wall-to-wall coverage to the Labour Party’s troubles with antisemitism, so they could hardly downplay coverage of the story without being accused of bias. And, comfortably into August, there has not been much competing news; even the drought was abated by some welcome rain. Also Mr Johnson was on holiday, so he could evade interviews. As a politician that loves attention, things could hardly have gone better.

Could it damage him politically? That’s hard to see. His liberal comments allow him to maintain injured innocence; the people who are condemning him were by and large hostile to him anyway. Brexit supporters have stuck with him. And large parts of the white British middle and working classes are hostile to Islam, and his derogatory comments resonated well. This is especially true of Conservative grassroots members, who most suspect are the main audience he had in mind. Mr Johnson surely wants to take over from Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister. That ultimately depends on a vote by party members, should Mrs May step down or be forced out (not to be taken for granted). He is maintaining his already high standing with the grassroots. His main difficulty is his weak standing with MPs, who must pick the top two candidates for the membership vote. But his charisma far outshines potential rivals (except Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose standing among MPs must surely be even weaker) and he may yet be able to pick a path through that minefield.

The context is very depressing. Islamophobia is rife in Britain, as it is in most of Europe. Even respectable people can be heard saying that Islam is a repressive ideology, and alien to traditional British or European culture. Many people are open about this in a way that they are furtive about antisemitism – a bit like antisemitism in the 1930s. This is a remarkable turn of events. The British Empire included many Muslim subjects, who were recruited into the armed forces (especially in India) as they were considered to be good soldiers. These were then brought over to Europe to defend the homeland in both world wars. I remember my cousin, a senior colonial administrator in British Sudan, speaking warmly of Muslims.

It is not all that hard to see how the modern hostility came about, though. Militant Islamic terrorism, especially after the 9/11 attacks, is one reason. Muslims may regard these groups as nutters on the fringe of their society, but Islam is central to their identity, and they comprise a large part of what ordinary British people know about Muslims. And, over the last 50 years, there have been high levels of immigration from Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many people feel threatened by immigration, which becomes a scapegoat for modern ills generally. Many of these Muslim groups are conservative and have made little attempt to integrate. People find women dressed in the niqab or burqa, though rare, especially provocative. I have to confess that I’m not comfortable with them either – it seems insulting somehow. The real problem with Mr Johnson’s comments is that they will invite even more people to abuse these women in public. Indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Since the Brexit rebellion, hostility to all groups of immigrants has risen, and this has broken out into public abuse more often. It is why we all have to be careful in what we say.

Meanwhile most Muslims are good, law-abiding citizens, and harmonious integration proceeds apace. The fears of Islamophobes are fantasies. And yet it is these good citizens that will suffer the most. Mr Johnson well knows this (his family has Turkish roots after all), but he is happy to exploit anti-Muslim prejudice.

There are parallels with antisemitism. Just antisemitism disguises itself as perfectly legitimate criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, so Islamophobia masquerades as criticism of extremist terrorists, or conservative social customs, such as the niqab. Legitimate topics for political debate get subtly subverted. Mr Johnson’s subversion was particularly subtle – he just poked a bit of fun. Unfortunately this makes these legitimate topics harder to discuss.

So the anti-liberal backlash continues. I still believe that it will peak in Britain and other countries, and then turn. Partly this will be because the anti-liberals will be unable to deliver anything of actual value. But also I hope that liberals will buck up their ideas about how to help, and appeal to, left-behind people and places. Meanwhile we must call out prejudice when we see it.

 

Can liberals ever match the emotional appeal of populists? Should they?

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, understands the new politics. This week he put it about that he wanted to provide the British public with a dividend from Brexit by increasing funding to the NHS to the tune of £100M a week (or £5Bn a year). If the facts don’t suit you, you create new ones; emotion beats dispassionate analysis every time. This is the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is working very well for him. Is there anything sensible politicians can do about such behaviour?

There are plenty of good reasons to increase funding for the NHS, but a Brexit dividend is not among them. Such a dividend, famously estimated at £350M a week, was one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016. It had only a slender basis in fact. Britain’s gross contributions to the EU are in that order, but most of the money comes back to Britain, including an unconditional rebate. So even if EU funding to poorer regions like Cornwall and Wales was cut off, along with farming subsidies and other goodies, there would still not be £350M a week of extra funding to go round. And that assumes that the economy, and the taxes funded by it, would not be adversely affected by Brexit. These criticisms were made during the referendum campaign, but the objections only served to publicise the original claim. People believed what they wanted to believe. For many this was the extra £350M a week for the NHS, starting on the day after the referendum result. Most were no doubt more realistic, and simply took the wrangling to mean that something was up, and there would be some kind of dividend.

But, a year and a half on, it is clear that any Brexit dividend will be a long time a-coming, if it ever does. It is not so easy to escape many of those payment obligations (e.g. to fund the pensions of British members of the European Parliament, such as the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage). There will be at least two years of transition in which not much will change, and certainly not the money the UK is paying out to the EU. And then even most Brexit supporters accept that there will be some economic dislocation, even if it does not turn out to harm the economy overall in the longer term.

Mr Johnson is well aware of all this; he is a clever man and very much part of the political class where such discussion is common currency. But the recent success of populist politics means that facts don’t matter any more. So why not just claim a dividend even if one does not exist? And so what if the government overspends a bit? It isn’t clear what adverse consequences would flow, after all. It would also show a government taking the initiative, rather than being trapped by events. A bigger political problem is that the government could announce the extra funding and then nobody actually notice any difference to the NHS. Its problems run deeper than money – such as its loss of EU national staff, and the reduced ability to recruit immigrants. The government already claims it has increased funding by a similar amount, and and the NHS winter crisis seems more dire than for many years. The NHS is an organisational monster than can quite happily eat money to no effect: it would takes greater management skills than Mr Johnson’s to achieve anything noticeable.

You don’t have to be much of a cynic, though, to think that Mr Johnson has no intention that the policy actually be implemented, knowing full well that the government will stamp on it, as it duly has. The whole thing is got up to improve his own chances of taking the top job, before a supposed generation of Tory bright young things pushes his generation out of leadership contention. MPs are rumoured to organising a putsch on Theresa May quite soon. There is a snag to that theory, of course: it might work. If Mr Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister, he would be left with the responsibility of managing the NHS.

Which is where the example of Donald Trump is instructive. Mr Trump was elected on a series of unachievable promises, based on a deep emotional appeal. That he has failed to implement many of these does not seem to bother him: he either pretends that he has, or blames some popular scapegoat group for any lack of progress. And it works. His approval ratings may be dismal by the standards of earlier holders of the office in the first year, but support amongst his base looks rock-solid. Few seem prepared to bet against him making it to the end of his term in 2020 and then being re-elected. He does the new politics of emotional manipulation too well.

Is there anything liberal political types can do? Mostly their attacks on populist politicians backfire.They either make dry intellectual arguments using facts, which are then ignored, or express emotional outrage, which tends to simply wind up the populist supporters even more. Trump supporters doubtless think that calling African and Middle Eastern countries “s**t-holes” is merely talking truth to the liberal elite.

People suggest that liberals should follow either or both of two strategies: to meet the populists half-way to undermine them, or to counter emotional appeals with emotional arguments of their own. The former is happening quite a bit already: it is becoming the centre-right mainstream in Europe. That is what the British Conservatives are trying to do, along with similar parties in other European countries – including Germany’s liberal Free Democrats. And it seems to guide the practice of Emmanuel Macron’s French government. While I would like to say that such strategies are doomed, it looks more like a response to political reality. The problem is that it is impossible to back it up with an emotional appeal that will beat the populists. That appeal is based on closet racism and an attachment to old values that contain the seeds of their own destruction: it is an attack on an important part of liberals’ own base.

Having said that there are two emotional strategies that might work: fear and backlash. For the former it is necessary to find a weakness in the populist position that will make people fear for their security and savings. But that is actually quite quite hard: the Remain campaign in the British referendum conspicuously failed, perhaps because the Conservatives in the campaign pulled their punches for the sake of party unity. Mr Macron did succeed in the final round of the French presidential election, however, when Marine le Pen’s ambiguity towards the Euro suddenly frightened a lot of her potential supporters.

The backlash idea takes the emotional appeal of the populists as the starting point, and stokes up outrage amongst those it attacks. But it is quite hard to appeal beyond a minority – populism’s targets are often chosen with care. Not always: the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has real power, feeding off the misogynist attitudes of Mr Trump – that is surely the reason why this campaign is succeeding now where its predecessors over the years have fizzled. Women are not a minority, and you don’t have to be liberal to think that sexual harassment is disgusting.

But both types of emotional appeal suffer a problem in the political sphere. You have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Fighting emotion with emotion leads to either prolonged conflict or depression. In the end society must be healed somehow, and that healing takes place through putting emotions to one side, and understanding what people have in common and using a gradual process of persuasion and confidence building. That is one reason that populists will ultimately fail – and it helps that so many of them, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson included, do not value hard work or competence.

So what is the liberal strategy? They must let the populists burn out and collapse under their own contradictions. And then they must be ready with new ideas that will help society to cohere.