We don’t know who is winning the Brexit trench warfare

Britain’s struggle over Brexit resembles the popular image of trench warfare on the Western Front in the First World War. Huge amounts of effort are expended, after which nothing much seems to have changed. Last night’s further postponement of the leaving date left me with that feeling. None of the possible endings seems any closer: Brexit with a deal, Brexit without a deal, or revocation with or without a further referendum. It doesn’t even look as if Theresa May, the Prime Minister, will resign to give somebody else a chance.

As with trench warfare, however, the important changes are less visible, and have to do with the stamina of the combatants. Optimists urge their side to keep going as the enemy is about to crack; pessimists see the strains on their own side, and assume that the other side is in a better state. But nobody really knows who will crack first.

And the strains are clearly showing on all sides. Within the Remain camp there were some Liberal Democrats, reportedly including the MP Norman Lamb, who were angry that a number of Lib Dem MPs voted (decisively) to oppose the customs union proposal in parliament’s recent indicative votes. Now, they say, is the time to reach out for a compromise and end the stalemate that is stopping progress on so many other parts of public life, as well as blighting businesses. Reportedly Norman said that the Lib Dems were no better that the Tory Brexit extremists of the European Research Group.

On the Brexit side there is the public recantation of influential journalist Peter Oborne. He now says that Brexit is much harder than he thought and really not such a good idea after all. Just before last night’s summit Mrs May talked of moving on to Britain’s brighter future outside the EU. There was no more conviction to this that her mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Her actions speak otherwise, unless she also thinks that staying in is better than no deal. Only a tiny band of die-hards can actually think that life would be better outside the EU. Most Brexiteers either feel strongly that the 2016 referendum result, with its high turnout from previously apathetic voters, should be respected, or else they simply want to move on. And, of course, accepting Brexit with a deal (which would have to be close to the one Mrs May has already agreed) is by far the easiest way to move on.

The people that look most defeated by this latest episode are the no-deal Brexiteers. They have a lot of poll support, but only about 100 MPs. Most people who look into the idea quickly drop it. Clearly the scare stories are not all the usual hype. The plan of the no-dealers was to get their way by default – but neither the government nor the EU are playing along with this. All intensely dislike the prospect of a no-deal. But the no-dealers aren’t defeated. Their best chance lies in changing the Conservative Party leadership to a hard Brexiteer like Boris Johnson, and hoping that he or she doesn’t wobble. Their other big hope is that the EU will throw Britain out, as is now in their power. This is close to the French president Emmanuel Macron’s public position, doubtless following French public opinion. Britain’s ambiguous status will do progressively more damage to EU institutions as it persists – and some EU leaders are starting to realise that a badly divided United Kingdom would not be an asset to the Union. So the no-dealers won’t give up yet.

The Remainers, who are ultimately looking for a revocation of Brexit, continue to hope too. They have suffered reverse after reverse, but they sense that the public mood is relentlessly creeping their way. Their biggest problem is that the Conservatives have firmly shut them out, and the Labour leadership is opposed too. Of the two, Labour’s resistance is clearly the weaker, since most Labour members and voters are Remainers. And yet the longish delay could force both parties to concede a referendum to break the deadlock, and that is all the opening Remainers are asking for.

Meanwhile those advocating the current deal on offer, or at least the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement part of it, are tantalisingly close to victory, like the Germans in April 1918 in World War One. All it now requires is for the talks between the Labour and Tory leaders to reach a compromise wording around the idea of a customs union and then to recommend that to their respective MPs. That should be enough. Or something similar might be achieved by a move led by backbench MPs. But the political rewards for such public spiritedness look meagre in Britain’s toxic politics.

What will happen? I find it impossible to predict and I don’t even know what I want. Each of the three possible outcomes looks pretty bad. Staunch Remainer as I am – and I would vote to revoke if given an opportunity – I do not relish the prospect of living in a country haunted by a stab-in-the-back myth, which can be trotted out to explain anything bad. Even if Revoke wins in a new referendum, it is hardly likely to amass the 17.4 million votes that Leave did in 2016, as turnout is likely to be low. I am tempted by the idea that we need to take one step back before taking two or even three steps forward.

Meanwhile it is hard not to be depressed.

The Brexit chaos offers Labour an opportunity

Most people who follow British politics are in despair, as neither government nor parliament are able to plot a way forward with sufficient backing to succeed. But perhaps the small band of advisers to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, who famously think that Brexit is a subsidiary issue, are sensing opportunity.

When Mr Corbyn was elected as Labour leader in 2015, Conservatives were gleeful, foreseeing a generation of permanent Tory rule. But Brexit and a blinkered leader have undone them. In 2017 they threw away a massive poll lead and lost their parliamentary majority. In recent months they have retained a consistent poll lead over Labour. This is not enough to break the deadlock, but enough to keep Labour out. But that could change.

Consider the possible outcomes of the current impasse over Brexit. A strong possibility is that the country will crash out of the EU on 11 April without a deal. Neither government nor parliament wants this, but neither can they agree on a deal, nor do they have the courage to revoke the Article 50 withdrawal process altogether. So what are the likely consequences?

It is hard to know just how bad things will be in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as most commentators are either pumping up the dangers or dismissing them. But some of the more thoughtful Brexiteers, like Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, are clearly rattled. Agricultural tariffs seem to be what is spooking him. Agriculture is not a major part of the economy by monetary value, but politicians the world over know that it packs a big political punch. There will be other problems, not all entirely attributable to Brexit, that will add to the misery. The British car industry is flat on its back. This is partly to do with Brexit, and the effect of planning blight on an industry that has to investment for years ahead. But also it is almost entirely foreign-owned and the underlying economics has changed to make repatriation of manufacturing to home countries more advantageous. A no-deal will accelerate its decline and the massive loss of prestige that will go with it. And there will be a hundred other smaller humiliations, that will be felt keenly by the better-educated and more worldly third of the population who never wanted it in the first place.

It gets worse. Britain will still have to deal with the EU and work out new agreements to allow a thousand things that we take for granted to keep going. This will not be easy as Brexiteers promise, and further humiliating climb-downs are in store. The only place where the hard Brexiteers may be proved right is Ireland. The Irish Republic is only now facing up to the consequences of its hard line on the Withdrawal Agreement and finds itself in a very sticky spot, just as the DUP and the Tory supporters predicted.

In the chaos Labour should be able to force a General Election, even if the government tries to struggle on. The Conservatives don’t have a majority, and have been struggling with a stream of defections. The DUP may well decide that the fun of propping it up is over and withdraw its support. The Tory position will be desperate. If Labour are able to launch their strike quickly, they may not even be able to change leader. In that event they stand no chance of presenting a coherent and convincing case to electors. More likely they will manage to find somebody new, but though he (or much less likely, she) might experience a honeymoon, there will not be enough time for them to get a strong grip on the organisation. Meanwhile Labour, and everybody else, will throw back at the Brexiteers that will then be in charge of the party, all their false prospectuses about Brexit and the no-deal.

What happens if Britain manages to avoid a no-deal? One scenario only gives the Tories a chance: if they are able to get Theresa May’s deal through parliament at the fourth attempt, and then leave in a relatively orderly fashion on 23 May. But to do that they will need a substantial block of Labour MPs, and if the Labour leadership resists, that surely will not happen. Ruling that out, what could happen is some sort of long stay of execution to renegotiate the deal and organise a General Election.

What does Labour do then? It needs to promise a new exit deal to be confirmed by a further referendum. To win, Labour must rally the Remain voters who will no longer be able to support the Tories: that means promising a referendum. But they also need to rally at least some Leave supporters. The importance of these to Labour has been exaggerated, but the party will still need all the votes it can get. But the leadership can still say that it is in favour of Brexit, and will campaign in favour of its new deal when that referendum comes. If that looks a little weak, the Tories will be struggling to come up with a coherent alternative. With decent execution (never a given in British politics after Tony Blair) this could be a winner for Labour.

But are still problems for them. The first is Scotland. Labour has always struggled to win without a substantial bank of Scottish seats. But they have been outflanked on Brexit there by the SNP, who remain organisationally strong. It is hard to see what killer arguments they can use against them.

A second problem for Labour is that it still lacks traction in rural and suburban England. Mr Blair conquered these areas by promising neoliberalism. Labour can’t do that this time. Also they are broadly pro Brexit, so any referendum promise will get in the way. Some form of “progressive” alliance with the Lib Dems, the Greens and even with TIG might help to unlock these seats. But Labour’s strategy for dealing with these parties is to crush them, not lend them a hand.

Which is related to the third problem: the Tories will try to change the subject, as Labour so successfully did in the last election. They will not talk about Brexit any more than they really have to. Instead they will paint Labour as loopy lefties, who can’t be trusted to run the nation’s finances, the forces of law and order, or to control the borders. Labour might think that the country is fed up with “austerity”, but the voters they need to win over think that being careful with public spending is a good thing.

That makes it hard for Labour, but not impossible. Their shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, understands the need for a disciplined message on economic management, and the party’s campaign managers surely realise that abstract ideas like austerity cut little ice compared to concrete messages on impacts of cuts to education and police funding, for example.

The Labour leadership is reaching its moment of truth. Their strategy of sticking to a narrow, leftist agenda (unlike Mr Blair’s broad centrist one) is inherently risky. But the Tories may be gifting them their chance. Will they be up to the task?

Brexit stretches Britain’s democracy to breaking point

Nothing word is more stretched to people’s convenience that “democracy”. Everybody claims to be democratic, and yet few are interested in understanding what people actually want and then implementing it. They just want to convince themselves that their own points of view are “democratic”. But democracy matters all the same – and it is at the heart of Britain’s Brexit crisis.

Liberals are as bad as anybody in trying to bend the idea of democracy to suit them. After all genuine liberals are only a minority of the population at large, and the idea of “liberal democracy” contains a tension at its heart. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin was quite right when he said that marchers last weekend in favour of a further “people’s vote” on Brexit (of whom I was one) weren’t really interested in democracy, but in finding a way for Britain to stay in the EU.

But Mr Jenkin and his ilk are no better. They often claim that people and parliament are pulling in opposite directions. Parliament has a Remain majority, they say, but there is a Leave majority in the country at large. The first part of that statement is probably true, though most MPs seem to want to implement the 2016 referendum result in one way or another. The second statement is flat untrue, according to polling evidence, as demographic shifts and scepticism over Brexit mount. More people would prefer the UK to stay in than leave (though whether there is a majority for either view is doubtful – a lot of people just want it settled one way or another so that the political class can move on to other business). These Brexiteers stretch things even further when they claim that the majority of the British public support their particular version of Brexit, which means departure from both a customs union and the Single Market. For all that humbug, their claim rests on a series of ideas about democracy that have widespread support.

The first idea is that referendum results trump all other forms of democratic decision making. Thus the 2016 referendum result is an instruction to parliament that it must honour, or else there is a betrayal of democracy. This is widely accepted: most Remainers think that the 2016 result can only be superseded by a further referendum result. But there are some curiosities. Turnout in the 2016 referendum was high by British standards, but the result was close, so that the winning side got well under 40% of the registered electorate. Unlike the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, 16- and 17- year olds were excluded; it is thought that these would mostly have voted Remain. So were EU residents registered for local and European elections (English people resident in Scotland were not excluded the independence referendum). But legally the result was not actually binding – it was advisory. That means that any challenges to its legality, particularly on the conduct the Leave campaign, would actually be pointless. For all that most people think the referendum result is valid and binding – and what most people think, in a democracy, matters a lot.

A second principle is that the manifestos on which political parties stand in a general election are binding on those MPs. The manifesto is the instrument by which the people delegate responsibility for governing to their MPs. This idea is popular with party managers and activists of all political parties. It suggests that if they can win a parliamentary majority for their party, then they have a democratic mandate to implement the entire manifesto, regardless of whether circumstances or opinions change. The seems to be the main justification that the Prime Minister Theresa May uses for her “scorched earth” policy of ensuring that any alternative to the deal she negotiated with the EU gets no oxygen in parliament. Indeed Mrs May seems to think that the manifesto gives her government absolute executive authority to implement it until a no-confidence vote stops it. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would probably think the same way if he were Prime Minister. The manifesto argument does have some power. If MPs and parties could do what they liked regardless of what they said at election time, they would be hard to hold to account. And a manifesto is an attempt to promote a coherent programme rather than focus on a single issue. Still most politicians do not go about winning votes based on their manifestos, and few voters other than party activists read them. Instead they say that they are the best candidate to stop the one you most dislike, or that they would be an excellent representative for local issues that never make it to the party manifesto. If a Labour candidate came to my door, and I said that, sorry, I preferred the Lib Dem or Green manifestos, she would tell me not to waste may vote on them because they would never get in here: vote Labour and I can stop the Conservatives winning and implementing a hard Brexit. If I succumbed to this argument, Labour activists would say that I was supporting widespread nationalisation and abolishing student tuition fees. Tories would say that I had voted to implement Brexit. And, of course, it is very rare for the winner of a British general election to actually win an overall majority of votes cast, still less a majority of the electorate as a whole.

A third idea is that you can’t keep going back to people with the same proposition. If it fails at a referendum or parliamentary vote, then you must move on. It is one of the bigger complaints of Brexiteers that for countries where EU treaty changes are put to national referendums and fail, they are put back to them again, substantially unchanged. There are good reasons for this within the EU, but it does make the point that membership of the union restricts the options for any national electorate, and that they have to rely on the their elected representatives to negotiate on their behalf. This idea certainly has something going for it. It stops a bullying executive (or political class) trying to gets its way regardless. And it means that people and MPs are fully accountable for how they vote – rather than just shrugging and saying that they can always change their vote later. The irony of Mrs May repeatedly coming back to Parliament with the same deal, while saying that a further referendum would be undemocratic is lost on few. Still circumstances do move on and minds can change.

What is being lost in all this is the idea of representative democracy, which suggests we elect MPs to consider the issues of the day on our behalf based on the circumstances of the time. We want them to use their own judgement on our behalf, rather than mandating them to adopt particular positions. That idea clearly has its weaknesses, but it is the founding principle of Britain’s democratic institutions. It is the reason that we have single member constituencies, where we vote for people first and parties second. If we believed that parties and manifestos were more important, then a proportional voting system would be more appropriate – which is indeed used in Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections.

Democracy and its institutions are a messy compromise. There is no right answer, and the best answer will only be the best answer for quite a short period of time. The test is whether the public at large think the whole process is fair, and recognise the legitimacy of the laws that result. By and large British democracy has passed this test, for all the complaints of liberals like myself. But Brexit is now stretching that. Remain voters were shocked at the strength and depth of feeling that emerged from those that voted Leave in 2016. That created a moment for democratic compromise. But the reason why the anti-Brexit protest marches have been drawing increasing support, and the petition to revoke article 50 has gone viral, is that a very large part of the electorate now feels trampled on and ignored in its turn. That is why I have joined them. We have gone through all the stages of grief for the Brexit result, emerged from depression, and instead of reconciliation we are getting angry again. We are told that Britain’s membership of the EU is plot by an unaccountable liberal elite, but that is not how it feels to us and our social circles. It feels more like a group of unscrupulous chancers capitalising on the (legitimate) resentments of the public to push through changes that will make our lives worse.

Who knows how this will work out? Should, against the odds, the Remainers actually succeed in stopping Brexit there will be huge scars on Britain’s body politic – but a least their political leaders seem to recognise that we can’t go back to where we were before. But if Brexit goes through, there will be deep scars too, especially Brexit-supporting leaders seem to care little about it. The people being trampled on may not be a majority, but they are, by and large, the people that keep the country and the economy running smoothly, and participate in public institutions, including voting. How their anger will be channelled is the great unknown that will overhang British politics.

Following the referendum, the government should have gone for a compromise Brexit, involving membership of the EEA (Norway-plus), and then let British democratic institutions take over from that, either back into full membership, or full exit. Mrs May’s plan was a reasonable interpretation of what Leavers voted for, but failed to reach out to Remainers while they were still on the ropes. We will pay a bitter price now whatever happens.

Theresa May is stuck in a hole. She has decided to keep digging

There is something unspeakably depressing about Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, seeking a short delay to Britain’s departure date from the European Union, currently 29 March. According to the news reports this morning, this extension should be a short one, of no more than three months.

She has decided on this, apparently, because a longer delay would cause a revolt in her own Conservative Party, including Cabinet resignations. I am no Brexit sympathiser, but such a rebellion would be perfectly understandable. A long delay would mean that Mrs May had failed completely to achieve the goals she set out both when she became Prime Minister in 2016, and went to the country in 2017. How on earth she could contemplate doing so without immediately resigning is completely beyond me. And yet the thought of resigning doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind. She seems stuck in the narrowest of tunnel visions.

But I cannot discern any plan to break the political deadlock that has caused the her to go back to the EU with her request. She is still hoping that a parliamentary majority can be cobbled together to pass the deal she has negotiated, which last time lost by 149 votes. She has been trying to do so by bullying and bribing the MPs who give here a bare governing majority, from her own Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s DUP. She may be able to round up the DUP, but there is a blocking minority of at least 20 Tory MPs who would prefer not to have a deal at all to accepting Mrs May’s deal. Her threat to these MPs is that they might not get Brexit at all. But her bluff has been called. To make that threat credible she needed to ask the EU for a long delay. She has no prospect of succeeding in getting her deal through based on her governing coalition.

To pass the deal she needs to get a lot of opposition MPs on side. Could a large enough block of Labour MPs be frightened enough of no-deal chaos to back her deal? There is no sign of the Labour leadership helping her, and neither any sign of a substantial block of Labour MPs defying their whip to give Mrs May a triumphant victory, which could hurt the party in any subsequent General Election. The political gulf between the party leaderships is so huge that it is hard to see what kind of compromise could be forged. There seems to be only one idea that might break the deadlock: making the passing of her deal subject to a referendum which also gave the public the option of opting to abandon Brexit altogether. That might get SNP and Liberal democrat support, as well as Labour’s. There is just about enough time in the three months to hold such a referendum. But the political ground has not been prepared sufficiently. It is likely that a majority of Conservative MPs would oppose such a U-turn by the government, and that would make Mrs May’s position untenable, which would in practice make the referendum impossible.

Would EU leaders grant the British government’s request for a short extension? They sound reluctant, but they have one good reason to do so. A no-deal crash now is likely to be more damaging than one in June, because there is more time on both sides to prepare for it. Because that is where things are now heading.

Theresa May is stuck in a hole of her own digging. Each shovel of earth had seemed logical at the time. Her red lines were a very reasonable interpretation of the referendum mandate; the Article 50 notice was timed so as not to interfere with elections to the European Parliament, which would have been a major complicating factor – and still are. She o hoped that where she led enough people would follow. But the politics is deadlocked. She has done only one brave thing to try and break that deadlock: which was going to the country in June 2017. And that only made her problems worse. Since then she has simply dug herself in deeper.

What can she do? One alternative is to abandon all pretence of trying to secure a deal, and say that a no-deal is government policy. And then see what happens next. Presumably Labour would then table a confidence motion, which would put Remainer Tories on the spot. That in turn might lead to a General Election, in which she would defend her no-deal proposition. A second thing she could do is to resign as Tory leader and Prime Minister – passing over the premiership to a more politically skilled insider like David Lidington as caretaker, if she can engineer it. That would set off a leadership contest in the Conservatives, while the caretaker might try to either manage a crash out or negotiate a longer delay to exit.

But my guess is that she will do neither of these things. She will plough on with a strategy that has no chance of success, and the country will crash out of the EU on some date in June. That prospect is unbearably depressing.

The dust starts to settle from Salzburg: the tension over Brexit mounts

After the spectacular breakdown between Britain and the remaining EU countries at the summit in Salzburg last week, what is the state of Brexit? The chatter in the media, mainstream or otherwise, is either hopelessly partisan, or hopelessly superficial (the BBC is taking mediocrity in political analysis to new heights). Before taking the plunge on this I wanted some of the dust to settle, and also to see what the more reliable commentators had to say.

For me, these commentators write for the Financial Times. Easily the best on Brexit is legal correspondent David Allen Green. His take on the summit is that the British Prime Minister Theresa May badly misjudged the mood on the EU side, leading to the breakdown. But he still expects the all-important exit deal to be done allowing the transitional deal to come into play on 30 March 2019, while the details of the longer term relationship are hammered out in time for the transitional period’s end on 31 December 2020. For an alternative view I went to Wolfgang Munchau. I don’t particularly like him as he is prone to getting a bit worked up, but at least he is free of that awful British superficiality of understanding when it comes to the EU. He suggests that it is the EU side that has misjudged things: they think that a no-deal situation would be so painful for Britain that it will buckle before it is too late – underestimating the political difficulties for Mrs May, even if that is what she really thinks. So he thinks that the no-deal situation on 29 March 2019 is all too likely.

Before trying to make sense of this, it is worth highlighting a couple of other things that are emerging from the wreckage. The first is the idea that Brexit can be halted and made to go away. So far talk of this has been confined to ardent Remainers on the margins of British politics. But for the first time at Salzburg some European leaders spoke publicly about the possibility. Idle talk, perhaps – it is nowhere near the official EU position. But perhaps it explains why some EU leaders are unsympathetic to Mrs May’s compromise idea. Meanwhile British commentators are in two camps. One side says that there is growing momentum for a further referendum with reversing Brexit as an option. The other says that not only would this be a logistical nightmare, but there isn’t the political will to do it where it matters: in the House of Commons. Labour’s fudged conference motion to be debated today gives succour to both lines of argument.

Another thing worth mentioning is rising talk of the “Canada option” in British political circles. This refers to the comprehensive trade deal the EU has struck with Canada, which some think is a model that the UK should follow. The idea is not that this would be in place for 30 March 2019, but that it could be negotiated in time for 2021, when the transition period ends. This has the advantage of being completely consistent with the EU negotiating position, and being acceptable to the troublemakers in Britain’s Conservative Party (and the hard Brexiteers in Labour too). It has one overwhelming snag, beyond requiring the dismantling of many manufacturing supply chains and the clogging of ports, which hard Brexiteers have never much worried about. It is inconsistent with the stated aim of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Which means, under the current EU offer, a sort of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Most Britons couldn’t care less about this – but it is an existential issue for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on which Mrs May’s government depends, as well as old-fashioned Conservatives, of which there may be a few left.

So it keeps coming back to Ireland. Here I think there are a couple of issues that don’t get talked about enough. The first is that Brexit, especially a hard one, could lead to moves to unify Ireland. This possibility was left in the Good Friday Agreement, but only if most Northern Irish people agreed. Within the EU there was little prospect of that, even as the relative proportion of Catholics is rising (it is said that the UK’s more generous welfare state is at the heart of this). But at least one poll showed that this changes in the event of Brexit. Idle speculation? Perhaps: the DUP don’t seem to be overly worried about it. But serious political miscalculations happen. A messy Brexit might be resolved by Irish unity – do the DUP really want to risk this?

The other issue is the impact that a hard Brexit, and worse still a no-deal, would have on the Irish Republic: it could be catastrophic, as so much of its trade is either with Britain or through it. Mr Munchau admits that the impact of a no-deal would affect Britain more than its EU partners, but says that the latter’s pain theshold is lower. So he advises the British government to hold firm. I’m not so sure about this as a generality (to judge from the way Russian sanctions have been applied, in spite how much they hurt some EU members), but Ireland is surely a weak link. And since Ireland is at the heart of the most awkward negotiating issue, this matters a lot, and gives strength to Mr Munchau’s analysis.

And then into this brew we must add the state of British politics. If the EU does bend, and Mrs May is able to put something like her current proposals (referred to as “Chequers” after the place where it was forged with her cabinet) to parliament. Will she have a majority and what happens if she doesn’t? The current suggestion is that there will be a sizeable Tory rebellion amongst Brexit hardliners, and Labour will vote it down, which makes Mrs May position look hopeless. But what then? Labour hopes for a General Election: but Mrs May is unlikely to concede it with her party in such disarray. She may then try to resolve the impasse with some form of referendum. If she is cunning, this will simply be between her deal and a no-deal, with no option to remain. Labour is badly split on the latter. Whether there is a Commons majority for an option to remain is questionable.

But the possibility may be enough to make hard Brexiteers, both Tory and Labour, think twice. The cleverer amongst them have already realised that Mrs May’s compromise is a sensible staging post to where the want to go. Once the country gets past 29 March, the Remain coalition will start to wilt as there would be no easy way back in. And there is enough ambiguity in the SNP position for them to be persuaded to sit on their hands. A majority for the compromise position may yet be conjured up. If Mrs May was a more skilful politician I would say that with more confidence.

So my prediction is this: Mrs May will stand firm and the EU will start to bend, though it may take until December. Some kind of deal will be negotiated, which still leaves many issues about 2021 unresolved, but which will be enough to get to avoid the cliff edge on 29 March 2019. She will then succeed in getting this through parliament. Ultimately Britain will get a camouflaged Turkey-style deal, with a customs union of sorts in goods and no freedom of movement. So much the same as I was predicting before.

What could change it? If EU governments start to club together to offer the UK a way out of Brexit, that could just change the political dynamics in Britain. Or if a political miscalculation leads to a new General Election, and hence a two month stasis in the negotiating process, then that do raises the odds of a no-deal, whoever wins. So the tension mounts.

Amid the noise about no-deal, a blind Brexit is being put in place

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The quality of political debate in Britain is hitting new lows. The politicians are  not interested in helping us understand what is going on, just in promoting some half-true story or other. ‘Twas ever thus. What has changed is that challenge from journalists and commentators is weaker. Most media are promoting their own agendas. The BBC tries to be better, but it just presents one fiction, compares it to the alternative fiction being offered, and retires. Few are interested in talking about what is really happening.

The current talk about a “no deal” Brexit is a case in point. On the one hand, business groups are worrying that this will lead to an Armageddon on the day after exit, at the end of March next year. This is pounced on with glee by Remain supporters as a sort of “told-you-so”. Government ministers simultaneously try to say that  it just won’t happen, that it is the fault of EU intransigence, and that anyway no deal is better than a bad deal. Brexiteers, like the Conservative Ian Duncan Smith last weekend, just talk about something else completely. What are we to make of this all?

First of all, we have to be clear about what a no-deal Brexit actually is. We are not talking about the choice between the Single Market or WTO terms or something in between. This is what IDS, William Rees-Mogg and others change the subject to when pressed on the topic. What is meant by no-deal is, well, no deal. No trading protocols, no divorce bill, no transition period, no mutual recognition of citizens’ rights, no common VAT infrastructure, no mutual recognition of standards. Just a vacuum in place of 40 years of accumulated law and regulation.

And that could be Armageddon. There would be queues at ports, empty shelves in shops, hospitals running out of medicines, layoffs in all kinds of businesses, holidays cancelled and even planes grounded at airports. Things would start to settle down in due course, but with Britain in the weakest possible bargaining position, it is very hard to see how most people aren’t going to be made worse off. It is no wonder that Brexiteers don’t want to talk about it. They are prone to suggesting that threatening a no-deal will improve Britain’s bargaining position in the exit negotiation – a bit like threatening to walk away from a house purchase when you are making yourself homeless.

In fact, if the pro Brexit politicians were interested in intelligent engagement they could make two points. The first is that a no-deal is not in fact all that likely, because the deal is quite close to being done. The main sticking point is trying to find a form of words that will cover the EU’s demands on the Irish border. The British government thinks that the current draft is politically suicidal, because it opens the possibility of Northern Ireland having some form of semi-detached status, with a strong boundary between it and the rest of the UK. Although most British people are quite chilled by that prospect, it would have devastating political consequences in the province. But a no-deal would almost as devastating for Ireland as it would be for Britain, so there is sure to be some flexibility on this. Indeed, there are already some signs of movement from the European Commission. The rest can be fudged, even if it does open up the prospect of another no-deal cliff edge when the transitional period comes to an end, on 31 December 2020. This is what the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling a “blind Brexit”: one where the longer term relationship is unresolved. This is exactly what the UK and EU negotiators are planning.

The second point to make is that we will know if there is likely to be a no-deal later this year – probably October. After that it becomes too late for the deal to tidied up and ratified by all the bodies required to do this, for such a complex treaty, in both Britain, the EU institutions and in other EU countries. That gives perhaps five months to prepare for that cliff edge. Temporary stop-gaps can be put together for the most urgent issues: citizens’ rights, air traffic, and so on. I can’t see that a lot of supply chains or border facilities will be sorted out by then – the infrastructure can take years to build – so there will still be chaos at the borders and some lay-offs. But we should avoid Armageddon.

And the rest is theatre. Remainers want to build up a sense of crisis so that people seriously start to rethink the whole foolish enterprise and call it off before it is too late. They know that once we get beyond exit day it will be much, much harder to get the UK back into the EU. The government thinks it is wise to keep its head down to preserve unity within the Conservative Party and to keep the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland on board. The Brexiteer politicians (the clever ones) have probably decided that this battle is done and are getting on with the next one: which is the shape of the world on 1 January 2021. Their main concern is that any deal done on Ireland does not lock out their preferred solution, which, for now, is some sort of Canada trade deal.

Admittedly this is quite delicate. A Canada deal looks incompatible with on open Irish border, which, with Republican terrorists still active and Loyalist groups ready to retaliate, could restart an escalation of violence. But the thing is to fudge it for now and hope that the passage of time will make the problem easier to solve. Under the transitional arrangements there would be an open border until 31 December 2020.

Theresa May’s government has played a weak hand quite well. At the cost of making any progress on other burning political issues, including the ones that led to the referendum backlash, she’s winning on executing Brexit. She is better off without Boris Johnson and David Davis, the two ministers who resigned in a huff. It would have been better to have negotiated a deal on citizens’ rights separately, and put it to bed ages ago; that would make no-deal less scary. The EU side was dead set against this – but it would have been a bonus to their own citizens, so they might have given way. Mrs May made no serious effort (or any effort at all so far as I know) to do this.

So the good news is that Brexit Armageddon is very unlikely. The bad news is that the Brexit roadshow will keep on running after 29 March 2019. I read one article recently which looked forward to the day when we could move on from Brexit to sorting out Britain’s many other problems. Alas that day is still years away.

Can Theresa May do a Robert Peel? The tension on Brexit mounts.

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I like to tout my record in predicting the direction Brexit takes. My current prediction is that Britain will leave on 29 March 2019, with a deal of some sort in place, and the prospect of a relationship with the EU something like the one Turkey has: a customs union for agriculture and goods, but not services, and no guaranteed freedom of movement. I was reasonably secure in this idea after the Chequers summit a couple of weeks ago, but the politics since has become ugly. The chances of an accidental catastrophe are rising..

The main issue at the moment is whether or not Britain is able to secure a deal that will allow an orderly exit. This will not of itself determine what the UK’s longer term relationship with the EU will be (something not properly undestood by most commentators). But it will usher in a transitional period up to December 2020, during which time these details can be thrashed out. The main problem with this is the future relationship between the north and south of Ireland. The EU insists that there is no hard border between the two, and that this means some form of regulatory alignment. That either means alignment between the EU and the UK as a whole, or that Northern Ireland has a separate legal status of being half-in and half-out of the EU, and that there would be a border of some sort between it and the rest of the UK, as there is with the Isle of Man, I suppose (except that the Isle of Man is completely outside the EU). These alternatives are currently embedded into the current draft of the agreement between the EU and the UK. It looks impossible to get an agreement with the that sort of internal UK border though parliament. Besides this is a critical issue to the Democratic Unionists (the DUP) on whom the Conservative government depends for a working majority.

This brings us to the Chequers proposal – the set of principles, now in a White Paper, agreed by the Cabinet. The main intention of this is to take the threat of a border between NI and the rest of the UK out of the final agreement. This is classic “kicking the can down the road”, to use the favoured cliché. People sneer at this sort of can-kicking, but it is usually the only way that big and complex deals like this can be progressed. The question now is twofold: can the British government persuade the EU to accept the fudge and to drop the intra-UK border idea, without making too many further concessions on freedom of movement, etc? And can the government get any such deal through the UK parliament? The former can’t be taken for granted, but my main concern for now is the latter.

Things are looking harder than I thought. In my last post I said that the Prime Minister Theresa May had successfully faced down the closet Remainers in her party, and that she now had to face down the Brexit hardliners. In the event, after the Chequers summit, she managed only a partial victory. She has won over some powerful Brexit supporters to her compromise formula, notably Michael Gove and Dominic Raab. But there have been a number of resignations. The two cabinet ministers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, don’t look to be that great a loss. They were both under-performers who would not put the work into their portfolios; Mr Johnson was actively disloyal. But there have been more competent people leaving at more junior levels, and these are coalescing around the leader of the hardline Brexit faction, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is putting up vociferous and effective opposition, supported by much of Britain’s press.

How seriously should we take Mr Rees-Mogg’s hardliners? The seem to command a group of about 50 Conservative MPs, with 4 sympathisers in the Labour Party and many among the DUP. This is enough to cause trouble, and plenty enough to neutralise the government’s majority. But it is not enough to unseat Mrs May from the top job. They should be capable of being outmanoeuvred. And yet they are very effective campaigners. Their message that the Chequers deal is a betrayal of what people voted for in June 2016 is gaining traction amongst people that voted Leave. Once again an emotive message only loosely aligned to the facts is trumping (or Trumping?) a dryer, more intellectual argument that in fact most Leave supporters were not very clear on what it was that they wanted, and that a compromise is what a badly split nation seeks, and that besides, a sovereign parliament can always unpick it after the country is fully out in 2021. If I’m right about this then that’s big trouble. Mr Rees-Mogg’s 50 MPs can become a much more dangerous 150 or more. And they will be holding the Conservative Party itself hostage. Many draw a parallel with the Corn Law crisis of the 1840s, when the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel pushed through a liberalisation of trade laws, destroying his party for a generation. Ireland featured in that debate too (the Irish Famine was exacerbated by the Corn Laws – to the total indifference of most Tories). Does Mrs May Peel’s steel? Can she do a deal with opposition MPs, as Peel did? Few people think so, but she can surprise.

What makes things so hard to predict is an ideological recklessness about Mr Rees-Mogg and his supporters. They have no time for practical obstacles. They pat away all the various knotty problems with simple solutions based on fantasy (even if the other side often exaggerates the dangers) – or a dream, to use Mr Johnson’s word. Mr Rees-Mogg is a fund manager, and it shows. Fund managers (a breed that I used to work with) pride themselves on vision and moving quickly. The practicalities are for the little people. That works well enough for buying and selling shares, most of the time (though I often used to have to clear up the mess when things went awry in the days before modern technology – needless to say this was neither their fault or else they’d say sorry very nicely).

They are insouciant on one issue in particular: the prospect of reaching the leaving date without an agreement with the EU – the so-called no-deal Brexit. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” was a common mantra two years ago, and was used by Mrs May herself. The idea is that doing a deal with the EU was like a property transaction, where it doesn’t do to look too desperate, and you should show your preparedness to walk away. But for Brexit a no-deal works two ways: it’s bad for both sides. The EU is now using this tactic too, and when you look at it, they have the upper hand in any no-deal situation. In order for Britons to go about their ordinary business of importing and exporting, or even going on holiday, they would have few automatic rights. That works the other way too, of course, but the relative impact on Britain would be much higher. When interviewed about a no-deal, hard Brexiteers talk about what the impact might be after any new arrangements (under WTO terms, they say) had bedded in a few years’ time, and not the scale of any short-term disruption.

The insouciance extends to Ireland as well. “We won’t put up any border posts,” they say, “if the Irish government does, then they will be to blame.” Blaming somebody else is the thing, rather than solving difficult problems. In fact, as one commentator I read recently has suggested, the core Tory Brexiteers are probably closet English nationalists. They wouldn’t be that stressed if Northern Ireland (or Scotland for that matter) drifted off. Actually I wouldn’t worry about the former drifting off either, if it wasn’t the prospect of communal violence sparked by working class Loyalist communities which could trip over into civil war.

And might Brexit itself fail amid this chaos? Could a parliamentary impasse lead to a fresh referendum with perhaps three choices – no deal, compromise deal or not leaving at all? Some people suspect or hope (depending on viewpoint) that this is the secret agenda of the EU side. But nobody, anywhere, is making any serious preparations for a Remain option. Trying to get it onto a ballot paper at such short notice will be hard.

My guess remains that Mrs May is able to do a Peel in the end, gathering support from enough Labour MPs to win through the parliamentary votes, and that the EU will blink when it comes to some of their red lines. But that will make for a tense endgame.

 

Brexit: is Mrs May winning the end game?

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There are less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. For many Britons this is a welcome step in the fight back against liberal elites. Others, like me, feel sick at the thought of it. In the middle of all this is the UK Conservative government led by Theresa May. How is she coping? Better than most people give her credit for.

Mrs May is not the ablest among our political leaders, who are not an especially able bunch. The so-called Windrush scandal shows this, when perfectly legal and established residents of this country were harassed and even deported because of gaps in their paperwork. This has her fingerprints all over it, from her time as Home Secretary. She failed to see that this was where her policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants would lead, in spite of being warned. Without an established system for proving identity, rejected as an intrusion of Anglo-Saxon traditions, proving that you are legally here, and thus whether or not the authorities should be hostile to you, was always going to be the problem.

So for something of the complexity of Brexit, Mrs May does not look well equipped. Her start showed the same sort of lack of imagination that led to the Windrush scandal. She set three clear parameters, “red lines”, for Brexit. Control of immigration; no payments into the EU budget; no jurisdiction of the European court. That seemed quite common-sense, given that all three issues played a prominent part in the referendum campaign. But the whole system of seamless trading with the EU depends on arbitration by the European Court; the EU (as do many countries, in particular India) sees immigration and trade as being closely linked; and the lubrication to make complex deals work is money. Mrs May’s red lines were leading to a very hard Brexit, whereby the UK’s relationship with its main trading partners would be put on the same level as, for example, the United States.

For many supporters of Brexit, especially among the political and business elite, that was the whole point of it. For them the EU is a completely misconceived exercise, and by placing it at arms length it would give the country greater freedom to engage with the rest of the world. But there are at least two major problems. The first is just how disruptive such a change would be. There is not just the question of tariffs being imposed on goods that passed over the border, but regulatory compliance, country of origin rules, and value added tax would all have to be administered there, until some sort of alternative infrastructure, not subject to the European Court, was devised. Without it a massive snarl-up would develop at borders, with motorways clogged by waiting traffic, quickly leading to supply shortages, empty shop shelves and job lay-offs. Of course this would all resolve itself in time. But the disruption could go on for a long time and wreak damage that would take years to fix. And, a bit like the financial crash of 2008, it could be very hard to get back to where the country was before.

The second major problem is Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement that established relations between the province’s two main communities depended on quite a bit of fudge based on the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU members. The most powerful symbol of this is an open border. The Irish government, and the Catholic community in the North, insist that this open border should continue after the break. How on Earth is that compatible with a hard Brexit? That this should be such a big issue drives Brexiteers mad: it looks completely disproportionate. But that Ireland should loom so large in British politics, and cause such inconvenient disruption, will surprise nobody familiar with the last five centuries of British history. After deeply flawed attempts by the British to control and colonise Ireland, the island has repeatedly come back to haunt British politics. If the Irish Brexit problem isn’t solved properly there is a big risk of communal violence of some sort. Much as most Britons would like to abandon Northern Ireland, that just can’t be done.

Mrs May takes both problems seriously. They are, of course, being used by Remainers to undermine confidence in the whole project. But that doesn’t stop them being real. Her strategy has been to keep talking hard Brexit, while gradually softening her stance. That means some form of regulatory alignment and coordination of customs arrangements, adding up to some form of customs union, together with compromises on the European Court and the mutual rights of citizens. It is easy to despise this as “kicking the can down the road”, but she is slowly outmanoeuvring both advocates of a hard Brexit, and closet Remainers who want to collapse the whole project.

The latter group, the Remainers, are now pretty much beaten. Though the idea of a further referendum (not a repeat one, you understand) is gaining hold among the public at large, together with doubts about Brexit itself, it is in Parliament that things matter. But the Remain side need enough Conservative rebels to stand their ground. They haven’t. The government scored a decisive victory in recent votes which attempted to give parliament more of a say over the process. One problem is that most of these rebels need to stay in the closet, and not admit that they want to destroy Brexit. A second is that they do not wish to force a chaotic election which might let the Labour Party into power. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership will not press the government to the point of a further referendum, still less breaking off Brexit.

Mrs May’s next problem will be to face down hardline Brexiteers who reject her compromises. There are at least fifty Conservative MPs who fall into this camp. But this group is being steadily outmanoeuvred. Passionate as they are, they have been unable to offer any practical solutions to the issues of transitional disruption of the economy, nor of Ireland. This group has always been backseat drivers, full of lots of clever theories about why things will be all OK, or somebody else’s fault, and who think you negotiate complex intergovernmental deals in the same way that you negotiate a house purchase. There is no convincing rival plan. They seem to want to storm out of negotiations with the EU, daring them to let a “no-deal” happen, but without a viable alternative deal in mind. This lack of practicality means that they are becoming politically isolated. Dare Mrs May face them down?

What can the Conservative hardliners do? The have enough MPs to force a confidence vote in Mrs May, which would then trigger a leadership election. But surely Mrs May has the grudging support of enough MPs to win any such vote if it was called – which would then protect her from further challenges for 12 months. They could resign the Conservative whip, depriving the government of its majority. But if Labour then put forward a vote of no confidence in the government, would the rebels let Mrs May’s government fall? That would either provoke a chaotic General Election, or some kind of transitional accommodation between Labour and the Conservatives to get through the last months of the Brexit negotiations. It is hard to see how either would be to the hardliners’ advantage.

So, a bit like the closet Remainers, I think the attempted rebellion by the hardline Brexiteers will fizzle. That will leave Mrs May to strike the sort of fudged and muddled deal with the EU, arrived at in the last minute, which is what most international negotiation usually ends up with. There will surely be some nasty disruption as Britain’s exit comes about, but not as bad as it might have been. Which would be quite a result for Theresa May.

Don’t let the BBC and Brexiteers confuse you: Norway and Turkey aren’t the same

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This blog’s track record on Brexit remains solid. A while ago I predicted that the UK would opt to stay in the (or a) customs union with the EU. That hasn’t happened yet, but the tectonic plates are slowly but surely moving that way. Meanwhile opponents of the idea are trying to undermine it by confusing people about what it amounts to, and the media, even the BBC, aren’t helping.

First: what is the difference between soft and hard Brexit? A hard Brexit means a complete break with EU institutions and trading with the EU either on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms or through a tailored trade deal, such as the one the EU has negotiated with Canada. You might call these the Japan and Canada options respectively. A soft Brexit means remaining part of some EU institutions, without being a full member. It boils down to two main options: the Norway option or the Turkey option. There is technically a third: the Swiss option, but EU officials regard this approach as a failure, and are likely to prefer a hard Brexit.

The Norway option is given support by this week’s Economist. It means being part of the the Single Market, but not the customs union. This Norway does though membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which includes Iceland and Lichtenstein as well. This excludes agriculture and fisheries. It means accepting EU directives as far as most trade goes, and the “four freedoms” – goods, services, capital and labour. It has been given a bad press by both sides of the EU debate. Brexiteers say that it turns the country into a vassal state because it has to accept regulations without a right of veto, and only limited consultation. Remainers say much to the same thing, so why leave? The Economist valiantly makes the case nevertheless. It would be the least disruptive approach for British business, while giving the country significant new rights not available to EU members. Apart from agriculture and fisheries policy, this includes doing trade deals with other countries; Iceland has made a deal with China, for example.

Norway does pay significant sums into the EU budget, though – a bit of a flash-point for Britons. But this is not as bad as it looks: it is mostly aid to Eastern European countries, which is separate from other EU aid, and Norway has a lot of say over where it goes.  So it is actually politically quite useful.

So might this be the elegant compromise that brings the two sides together without entirely satisfying them? There are two big problems. The first is border controls. Not being in the EU customs union means that goods have to be checked as they cross the border, as happens between Norway and Sweden. Since one of the UK’s aims is a frictionless border in Ireland in particular (helpful in Gibraltar too), the Norway option would fail. This is one of the toughest issues emerging in the whole process (as predicted from the start by this blog). Brexiteers, who tend to deal in broad visions and not detail, can’t stand this instance of the tail wagging the dog. They hope that if Britain says that there will be no checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland, it will force the EU to reciprocate. But that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds – unilaterally waiving tariffs creates issue under WTO rules – as well as being reckless with the Irish peace process.

But there is an even bigger problem with the Norway option: the four freedoms. Or rather one of them: labour. Claims by Brexiteers that more than a minority of their voters wanted a total break with the EU are hard to sustain: the Leave campaign deliberately obfuscated the issue by using Norway as an example of what Brexit might mean. But a claim that those voters wanted complete control over the movement of labour into the country is perfectly credible. The Economist argues that there is more Britain can do to manage incoming EU workers more strictly within the Single Market. I don’t think that washes.

The Turkey option addresses both these problems. There are no customs checks at the border, and there is no free movement of labour. The lack of customs checks means that most of those complex supply chains that cross the border between the UK and the rest of the EU should suffer reduced, and manageable, disruption. Agriculture and fisheries can be excluded (as are services, most likely – but this is where the Single Market works less well anyway). What’s not to like? It means that doing trade deals with non EU countries can only happen for those goods excluded from the customs union (agriculture and services most likely). The more extreme, neoliberal branch of the Brexit movement, well represented in the Conservative Party, has set great store by doing such deals. And yet to most critics of Brexit this has always looked to be the weakest part of the Brexit case. These other countries are far away, drive hard bargains, and Britain’s negotiating position is weak. There is little evidence that the voters are that bothered. Nobody could accuse Turkey of being a vassal state to the EU, so why should they be?

And so the Turkey option looks the most viable form of soft Brexit. In a speech today the Labour leader is taking a step towards it by advocating a customs union with the EU. However he is blurring the issue by suggesting that he wants to be part of the Single Market too. And yet he wants exemptions to suit his agenda, especially on state aid and free movement. The EU will never wear that because of the political difficulties it would create within the union. I would go as far as to say that it is dishonest of Mr Corbyn even to suggest it. It would be much clearer to go straight for a variation of the Turkey option. Still it has served to put the customs union idea on the agenda, and presents the possibility of linking up  Tory soft-Brexit advocates, who have a much clearer grip of the key issues.

And what of the government? It has rejected the idea of a customs union out of hand. But this is just words, meant to placate hard-Brexit advocates within Tory ranks. What the government says it wants is what it has called “Canada plus plus plus”. That is almost as dishonest as Mr Corbyn’s Single Market minus. The government wants to stay integrated in some sectors but not others. This looks like the sort of cherry-picking the EU so dislikes. But it could be an intermediate negotiating step towards a Turkey-like solution, even if they try to avoid the words “customs union”. I believe this may be the game plan of Theresa May, the prime minster, and David Davis, her pragmatic Brexit Secretary. Whether they have the political skills to pull that off is open to question, though.

Meanwhile supporters of hard Brexit are trying to turn the public against the Turkey solution by conflating it with the Norway one. This includes Australia’s undiplomatic ambassador, Alexander Downer, to his great discredit, on the radio last night. This allows them to suggest it means accepting free movement of labour, for example. They also suggest that it means that the UK cannot do trade deals with other countries: that is not true either, though the scope of those deals would be restrained. Britain could import US chlorinated chicken and Australian wheat tariff-free if it wants to, as agriculture is not in scope.

For now the politicians are exercised about a potential vote in parliament over the customs union. Expect the government to defer this until the actual shape of its deal with the EU becomes clear. Something like a customs union with the EU is on its way. It is exactly the sort of compromise the country should be aiming at.

If Brexiteers want to reassure Remainers they will have to start talking specifics

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There was a certain inevitability about the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s speech yesterday. It was meant to reach out to Remainers by presenting a liberal case for Brexit, but instead it drew raspberries. Britain’s polity is bitterly divided. It was always going to take more than a few speeches to change that.

Is there anything useful to be learned from this episode? One of the central themes of the speech was perfectly sound, if unwelcome to Remainers. The result of the referendum cannot be reversed, and Brexit is going to happen in some shape or form. The reason for that is basic politics. The leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties have both signed up to it. The Tories can rely on Democratic Unionist support. We’ve already had a general election following the referendum. There simply isn’t the political support to reverse Brexit.

And as for another referendum, Mr Johnson made a perfectly sound point. Another period of political battle between the two camps will only make things worse. There is no sign of a major shift in opinion in either direction. Remainers are clutching at straws when they look at polls suggesting opinion has shifted. It was looking at the polls that got is into the mess in the first place.

That makes the case for Remainers to try and get used to the reality. But those facts don’t make the pill any easier to swallow. What Mr Johnson tried to do on top of that was persuade Remain supporters that Brexit will not be as bad as they fear. And here the speech was a complete failure. He came out the same old platitudes and generalities that have been a feature of the Brexit campaign from the start. There have always been two prongs to the Brexit case. One is an appeal to conservative voters who oppose immigration and feel strongly that national sovereignty is a birthright that trumps any freedoms in the world beyond the country’s borders. The second is an appeal to liberal types with the idea that post-Brexit the country can be a liberal haven, free from the restraints of EU obligations. The problem is that these two lines look dissonant. It is easy enough for Brexit supporters to concentrate on their preferred line of argument and ignore the others. For sceptics it is that very dissonance that worries them.

And to overcome that fear it will be necessary to address that dissonance. How? By moving on to the specifics. Which regulations do you want to dismantle to make us free? How will you satisfy the need for regulatory alignment promised to the Irish without becoming a vassal state of the EU like Norway? And how will the rights of young people to travel and work in Europe be secured? And so on. Mr Johnson did not begin to do this.

Only one government minister seems to have understood what needs to be done: Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary. He is trying to show us in concrete terms what opportunities leaving the EU might bring – for example in making the EU’s clumsy system of farm subsidies much more focused.

In the absence of such substantive proposals the government gives the impression that it has not made up its mind and is putting off hard decisions. We are instead told that such detail might harm the country’s negotiating position. But most of us suspect it is because of deep disagreements in the government, and not just between Brexiteers and closet Remainers, but between the Brexit liberals and their illiberal supporters.

It is a situation that is crying out for strong political leadership from somebody that has both vision and a grasp of detail, and from somebody that knows how to build and maintain political coalitions. That person is not our Prime Minister, Theresa May, nor is it the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And yesterday’s speech showed us that it is not Boris Johnson either.