Learning to live with Brexit means looking to the future

Like a rather surprising number of Remainers, Brexit has been like a bereavement for me. Before the referendum in 2016 few people would admit to an emotional attachment to the European Union (indeed this was one of the reasons Leave won), but I was among them. I can date that attachment to attendance at a rally in Westminster Hall in 1975, when the keynote speaker was Ted Heath, my first political hero, when I was 17. Or perhaps it was before then, when I identified as “European” when living in Jamaica, in order to distinguish myself from the many Americans I was at school with (while doubtless trying to stay ay arms length from Britain’s colonial legacy). Whatever the origins, I have been following the classic five steps of bereavement since the referendum.

Compared to many Remainers I went through Denial and Anger pretty quickly, but then I got stuck for years on Negotiation. This partly revolved around pressing for a new referendum, and thinking about how that should be conducted – though as time went by I became more sceptical that this was the right way to go. But mainly I got drawn into discussion about the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship. This was a furious paddling to try and stave off the inevitable next stage: Depression, which duly struck with the December 2019 General Election result. I turned away from the whole subject and busied myself with other things. But I can now confidently say that I have reached Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that the pain has stopped: there will be pangs every time I get stuck in a passport queue when ravelling in the EU, and with every young friend or relative that complains that their opportunities are blighted as they can only find work into Union with difficulty. But I can than talk or think about the EU without trying to roll back time.

The breakthrough moment came last summer, when the EU agreed a post-pandemic aid programme which involved the creation of shared debt. This was a massive breakthrough in the evolution of the union. The deal itself, as usual, will not live up to the hopes placed on it, but the union is now better placed to deal with the challenges facing it. I quickly realised that this deal would have been much harder to reach if Britain had been a member. We had become paranoid about taking on debt from other EU countries – the idea of EU solidarity had so little currency. Whether or not a small majority of Britons were now in favour of British membership at any time, the country was irretrievably divided and it became increasingly difficult for the country to be a constructive member. Both John Major and Tony Blair found this, after starting their premierships wishing for Britain “to be at the heart of Europe”; they failed and subsequent premiers did not even try. The EU is actually better off without us, even though our departure has weakened it in many ways. If Britain is to rejoin, it has to be wholeheartedly, with a referendum majority of much more than 52%, and with prospective membership of the Euro agreed and understood. That will not happen in my lifetime, or not without some catastrophe changing people’s outlook, which I do not wish on my fellow countrymen. I have got over it.

So how does an ardent Remainer like me cope with Britain’s new status? I think there are two key rules. The first is to look to the future, and not to refight the battles of the past. It is very tempting to say “told-you so” as one promise after another of Leave campaigners comes to naught. But it doesn’t help; we can’t turn the clock back. And anyway, we need to understand that Remain campaigners got things wrong too, if not quite so egregiously. The second key rule is to be more realistic and critical of the European Union itself. It is useless to try and sell it to the British public, and we must understand what opportunities Brexit presents, even when we are acutely aware of the costs. In fact if Britain does things better than the EU, it will provide healthy competition that might guide it to a better place.

In this spirit, one of the most important things to understand is that the Union, and especially the Single Market, is a neoliberal project. It is based on the promotion of free trade and competition, and it aims to limit government interference in commerce. It is ironic that many Conservative Brexiteers are ardent neoliberals, and think that Brexit opens up opportunities for Britain to pursue more neoliberal policies. I differ from most people on the political left in thinking that neoliberalism is not necessarily a bad thing. This week’s Economist has an article which suggests that Britain’s economic progress in the 1980s up to the Great Financial Crisis was more down to EU membership than the liberalisation pursued by Mrs Thatcher’s government. It makes the case by tracking total factor productivity of the three countries that joined the EU (or European Common Market as we then called it) in 1973, i.e. Britain, Denmark and Ireland, compared the original six members (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). This had been in steady decline until 1970, flattened in the 1970s and then rose steadily until the mid 2000s. Mrs Thatcher did not rule Denmark or Ireland, so but the county’s economic performance was no better. This is false dichotomy. A large part of the economic benefit of joining the union arose from the Single Market reforms, which were Mrs Thatcher’s gift to the EU, and probably her most enduring political achievement. The Single Market was not a conspiracy to inflict pointless bureaucracy on British industry – it was in fact the opposite: to free intra-union trade (and movement of people and capital) from unproductive bureaucracy. We are learning this the hard way. It is a neoliberal project par excellence.

The Economist suggests that outside the EU, Britain might again suffer from “British Disease”, as our markets become less competitive. But where I agree with the left is that neoliberalism has little to offer most developed world economies in 2021, and certainly not Britain’s. Our future economic wellbeing is much less dependent on free trade with other countries, and state intervention is going to be much more important. Free markets are still critical, but they are not enough. Furthermore, conventional economic measurements, such as gross income (i.e. such measures as GDP) and productivity, are an unreliable guide to wellbeing.

The Conservative plan to use Brexit to drive through neoliberal reforms is doomed. If they succeed in implementing them, which they will find hard, they will deliver disappointing results with Britain outside the Single Market. There will doubtless be opportunities in some industrial sectors, but for each these there will be other sectors ruined by Brexit. Last month the Economist painted a depressing picture for the outlook for the British chemical industry. Brexit may not be as dire for Britain’s short-term economy as many predicted (though the jury is still out on that one), but medium term the outlook for GDP and other conventional economic measures is poor. But I have just said that does not matter so much. Instead we should be focusing on national wellbeing, and here there are possibilities that may be improved by Brexit, or at least not harmed. To get this sort of thinking started I will suggest three.

The first is environmentally sustainable agriculture and fisheries. We need to look at these industries not from the old-fashioned point of view of extracting the maximum quantitive output from our land and sea, but to restore those natural resources to health. Marginal agricultural land should be rewarded; alternatives need to be found to the mass use of environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilisers. We need more marine conservation zones and a war on destructive industrial fisheries. We can do this much more easily outside the EU’s management structures.

The second, and more economically significant, area for development should be the health economy. The overall importance of health to the economy is growing, but it is not an industry that takes well to conventional economic measurements. Often less is more (healthier people require fewer medical interventions; more effective medical interventions often require more economic inputs a balance that is often seems to lead to reduced productivity). We need to develop better ways of managing public health, as well as more effective interventions. Britain has advantages here, especially those that arise from a single national health service, and the way it can draw medical data together. Covid-19 has shown the good and the bad of British health services. The country has led the world in developing vaccines and other medical interventions, but public health services have been chaotic, and central government interventions ineffective – though the country’s armed services have shown some rare organisational effectiveness. The country has palpable strengths, but the whole area needs to be rethought.

And the third area for focus is developing of opportunities for people with weak paper qualifications. This should be easier now that access to our labour markets from less developed corners of the EU (and the rest of the world) is being reduced. As a good liberal I support freedom of movement, especially within Europe, but the main benefits are for those with good qualifications. But keeping foreign labour out is far from sufficient for improving the prospects for people already here. This needs much more focus than it is getting – pushing more people in badly-paid and insecure jobs is not the answer, but it is where neoliberal policies will take us. One idea on the left that I would like to be given more time and thought is a government job guarantee. I think this has more promise for national wellbeing than the much more fashionable Universal Basic Income.

I need to make one further point. These ideas, and others which make wellbeing their focus rather than aggregate income, require a much higher level of government competence than we have ever seen in this country (except maybe in the days of Victorian metropolitan development). The British government is far too centralised to be effective (a criticism I would lay against the French one too, also shown up by the pandemic response), and it is made worse by excessive faith in management consultants and outsourcers. There are pockets of excellence in British public life (much of the education system, aspects of the NHS, and the operational side of the armed forces, though not its procurement side). But something big needs to change.

The current government is ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that now present themselves. They should be challenged not for promoting Brexit, but for mismanaging it.

Why there may be no Brexit deal

As a rule I don’t like it when journalists report events before they happen, rather than waiting for a few days when facts start to emerge. When The Economist reports on most elections across the world it usually does does so before polling day, and rarely bothers afterwards beyond a brief update in the weekly summary. So why don’t I wait to see whether a deal is reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union for trade and other matters after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December? Well there is a lot of kerfuffle and maybe it will help to make sense of it.

Optimism has been widespread that a deal with be reached, after the usual theatrics, because both sides will be damaged if not. But over the weekend I started to become pessimistic. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lacks the skill to pull it off, I thought. The New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush articulated the anxiety much better than me in the magazine’s Morning Call, a daily email update on British politics which well worth subscribing to if you follow British politics closely.

Mr Bush’s point is that in order make the compromises necessary to push such a deal over the line, leaders must have a clear idea of critical priorities (and, therefore what other matters reopen to compromise). For example with his predecessor Theresa May it was immigration and the Northern Ireland border; she was less concerned with the “level playing field” concerns of the EU. With Mr Johnson, he either has no such clarity, famously wanting to have his cake and eat it, in the English expression, or if he does it is focused entirely on maximising the country’s legal sovereignty, which any substantial trade deal is bound to constrain, Britain not being the United States of America.

This last point chimes with a point being made more and more loudly by Conservative MPs and Lord Frost, Britain’s lead negotiator. The EU, they say, doesn’t understand that we are a sovereign nation. In any relationship breakdown one or both sides usually claim that the other simply doesn’t understand them. The louder this claim is made, the more sceptical detached observers become. These government supporters are protesting too much. It is they, surely, who are failing to understand the priorities of the other side.

If so, there would be plenty of precedent. British Eurosceptics are often very knowledgeable about the EU, but rarely understand it, and susually to predict how it develops. I remember clearly in the 1990s how many knowing Britons told me that monetary union would never happen, for example. Others were convinced that the Euro could not survive the debt crisis of 2011.

But there are two sides to this. Am I failing to understand the Eurosceptics? In fact they have plenty of grounds for annoyance with the EU side in this negotiation. One of their leaders, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, claimed yesterday that the EU offered a deal like Canada’s without tariffs, and have rowed back. In particular the EU are now asking for enforcement provisions well in excess of the Canada deal, where disputes go into the World Trade Organisation’s resolution system. I have heard two arguments made about why Brexiteers’ hopes for a Canada-type deal are unrealistic. One is that the volume of trade with the UK is much higher and so the EU has more at stake; the other is that it still involves some tariffs, whereas the Britain is asking for none. That may be, but I suspect Mr Jenkin is right: that the EU side did suggest that “Canada plus” was on the table, but have backtracked under pressure from the French government in particular. Furthermore it is hard not to bristle at the enforcement provisions suggested by the EU (as reported by not entirely trustworthy sources, it must be admitted). It allows the immediate imposition of retaliatory tariffs without resort to preliminary dispute resolution. This is the sort of thing we expect from Donald Trump’s America (for example in its dealings with China), and not those fair-minded former allies at the EU, the Eurosceptics somehow don’t manage to say.

So the ire from the British government side is understandable. But perhaps they and their supporters should have seen it coming and been better prepared. Here is where trying to understand the EU would help. It is not a settled and and stable institution, like most mature nation states. Its progress resembles the flight of the bumble bee, in a constant series of stalls. But this gives it a sort of dynamic stability that the Anglo-Saxon mind struggles with (and doubtless many Latin ones too). The EU is constantly under existential threat, and its institutions and member governments must constantly seek ways to head these threats off. Brexit presents one such threat, as many a Eurosceptic has gleefully pointed out. Others may follow where Britain leads. A deal where Britain manages to have its cake and eat it would give this threat substance. This is not so much from the EU’s newer members like Hungary and Poland (with their large EU subsidies), but from the older countries, who might ask what they get in return. Far right parties, like France’s Front National, remain a potent threat to the political establishment. That threat will be compounded if the EU doesn’t seem to have done enough to protect struggling communities such as France’s fisherman, never mind one that allows their cross-Channel competitors to feed off state subsidies. Mrs May’s favourite mantra was that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. But that applies more strongly to the EU side than to the UK.

But surely the EU would not want to threaten its trading surplus with the UK? Wouldn’t a no-deal hurt them more? This was a favourite argument of Brexit supporters during the referendum campaign. But that surplus is concentrated among a small number of better-developed countries. These countries, Germany in particular, are better able to withstand the shock than others. And they are quite used to subordinating economic considerations to political ones, as has been shown by their willingness to apply sanctions to Russia. Besides Britain doesn’t have a lot of choice as to where it gets many of its imports. EU national governments, Germany and Ireland in particular, are more calmly strategic that many have given them credit for.

Meanwhile Britain has not helped itself by its government interpreting its new-found sovereignty as the right to renege on any foreign treaty it likes. Its attempt to wriggle out of the Withdrawal Agreement enacted a year a go with respect to the Northern Ireland border is very striking. Doubtless this is viewed by the government as a piece of hard-ball negotiation to increase the costs to the other side of a failure to conclude a deal. But when Britain suggests that the EU has nothing to fear from a looser British enforcement regime for the EU single market, the automatic response is to ask how the country is to be trusted without waving a big stick at them. One of the many ironies, though, is that British exceptionalism probably doesn’t present a big threat to the Single Market. Nobody loves petty rules and high regulatory standards more than the British, and they are wary of state subsidies too. Indeed, healthy competition is a more likely outcome.

The Eurosceptics’ optimism is based on the idea that Britain can gain a strategic advantage by causing tactical problems for the other side. But nobody is fooled. Do they care? Many eurosceptics advocate a “clean break”, and describe a scenario without a trade deal as the “Australian option”. There will be a bit of short-term disruption, for sure, but the country will adapt soon enough.

Those actually in the government are less sanguine of course, and that’s why a deal of some sort is still on the cards. Only a minority of the country was ever convinced that Brexit was the right thing to do, after all; they formed a narrow majority only by persuading more sceptical voters. That does not mean that a no-deal Brexit will be fatal for the government – though it won’t help handing Scotland. After all the deed will done and Britain can’t go back to where it was before. But a cruel reckoning is on its way and we should all worry about that.

The Coalition at 10: keeping nationalism at bay

In hindsight the most important trend in politics over the last decade has been the rise of nationalism – and the backlash against internationalist liberals, inevitably styled an “elite”, as if all political movements were not led by elites. In Britain did the Coalition stood firmly against this trend.

In this third article of three reviewing the Coalition, I will look at its record on the business of politics itself. In the first article I looked at the record on the economy, in the second I looked at public service reform. In my choice of three topics I am leaving quite a lot out. On the environment and energy, the Coalition made a decisive move towards renewable energy, perhaps its biggest single achievement; on civil liberties it rolled back, slightly, the heavy-handed approach of its predecessor; a notable achievement was the implementation of gay marriage; in foreign affairs there was an intervention in Libya alongside the French which met its short-term aims but left a mess; apprenticeships were given a major lift, but further education colleges (i.e. not universities) suffered neglect. There was a rather pointless reform of policing, though whether this, and austerity measures, led, eventually, to a rise in crime is a moot point. I would rather blame the dismantling of so much civic infrastructure run by local authorities, which the Coalition started, but which its successor doubled down on. A rather mixed record then, but perhaps not too bad by the standards of five-year terms.

But what of political reform? How much were we aware in 2010 of the rising tide of populism and nationalism? In 2009 the political establishment was rocked by a scandal over MPs’ expenses. This distilled a growing disillusionment with the way politics was run, after the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the “New Labour” victory in 1997. Politics seemed to be run by an out-of-touch elite of professionals, whose competence was thrown into question by the global financial crisis, which struck Britain particularly hard, and whose rotten moral compass was now exposed.

But the new kids on the block thought they could get beyond that by deposing the old Labour regime and its nannying ways. Liberal Democrats were especially hopeful that the experience of coalition politics would demonstrate a new, more transparent politics, that would help build confidence. Politics was indeed more transparent, but nobody thanked them for it. Indeed the Lib Dems’ entry into government to most people showed the unaccountable elite at work; the Lib Dems seemed to be enjoying their time at the top table too much, feeding the narrative that they were putting their careers before the country. The ambiguities in the electoral coalition that brought the Lib Dems their substantial presence in parliament were exposed cruelly. The party’s popularity was in free fall before a spectacular U-turn on student tuition fees dealt the party a blow from which it still hasn’t recovered.

The weakness of the Lib Dems did for most of the constitutional reforms that the party had hoped to push through. A referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections was lost heavily as their Conservative coalition partners mobilised against it, doing long-term damage to the whole prospect of electoral reform. Reform of the House of Lords disappeared as the political establishment cold-shouldered it. The Lib Dems extracted limited revenge by stymying a Conservative project to equalise constituencies to their advantage. This left the Fixed Term Parliament Act, implemented mainly to stabilise the coalition, in which it was mainly successful. This legislation has few friends these days, but it is still there. It’s value was shown last year when it briefly empowered parliament against a mandate-less government.

More positively the Coalition progressed the development of City regions, taking on more devolved powers, and coordinating local councils. This project was led by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and Conservative minister Greg Clark. This was a process started by Labour – but the government limited council’s ability to raise revenue or borrow, which are the key tests for meaningful devolution.

In broader politics Labour started its long journey down the far-left anti-austerity rabbit hole, leaving the field clear for the two most important developments: the rise of Scottish nationalism, and theBrexit movement, led by Ukip. Both would dominate politics for the rest of the decade. The Coalition found itself on the defensive on both counts, but kept both at bay.

In Scotland the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) surged to victory in the Scottish elections of 2011. The Coalition accepted this as a mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Was this a mistake? It did not help to heal the rift between Scotland and England. I suspect Coalition leaders accepted the SNP government’s moral case; neither party had any appetite for a prolonged battle over whether such a referendum should take place, and in the event the main victim was in fact Labour. The referendum took place in 2014, and the unionists won. But the battle energised the SNP, whose dominance of Scottish politics continues to this day. Many see Scottish independence as an inevitability. I am not so sure, but coherent opposition to the SNP seems to be a long way off.

In due course the battles over Scottish independence would be dwarfed by the Brexit movement. This movement successfully channelled dissatisfaction with the Coalition and its liberal leadership in a way Labour could not, as the previous Labour government was seen as part of the problem. The battle was fought on two fronts. First was within the Conservative Party. While its leader, the prime minister David Cameron, had a strong grip on the parliamentary party (helped by the presence of Lib Dems in coalition), the Brexit movement gathered strength at grassroots level. Second was the rise of Nigel Farage’s Ukip. This quickly replaced the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party in opinion polls, and gnawed away at the Conservatives’ local base. The only way that Mr Cameron had found to keep the movement in check was the promise of an EU referendum, knowing that he could rely on the Lib Dems to veto it. At the same time his chief electoral strategy was to destroy the Lib Dems at the next election. The 2016 referendum was where this strategy ended up.

Looked at with hindsight the Coalition’s battles with nationalism look like a moderately successful rearguard action. They succeeded in delaying their enemies but without any ideas on how to stop them. What if Mr Cameron had narrowly won that referendum in 2016? It is hard to think that British politics would be anything other than very ugly.

Liberals have now developed a much better understanding of the problem: the pressures on small towns and the countryside, of economic growth that bypasses most people. But answers? We have made little progress since Coalition days, having preferred to rally around opposing Brexit. With the nationalist takeover of the Tory party now floundering, and with the old-fashioned leftism of Jeremy Corbyn defeated, this is surely the moment to do better than that. But new liberals will not look back on the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015 as a template.

So farewell then EU

On Friday Britain leaves the European Union. This will not be marked in any very big or public way, any more than the country’s entry into the European Economic Community was in 1973. That reflects the country’s ambiguity towards the institution, but I for one will will be sad.

I was not old enough to vote in the 1976 referendum on staying in, held on the day of my Physics A Level practical, but I was a passionate supporter of the idea then. Most of my generation was (with less passion in most cases…), though many changed their mind since. Back in the 1970s we younger Britons were tired our country: its strikes, its badly-run public services, which included utilities such as gas and telephones. Unemployment and inflation were high, and the country had suffered a steady decline in its prestige since the glory days of the War, not just relative to the USA, but to France, Germany and even Italy. Modernisation meant tasteless sliced bread, soul-destroying motorway flyovers, and tower blocks that were already falling down. The country needed a good shaking, and most of our European neighbours seemed to be doing a better job. We rejected the prejudices of our parents’ generation and its complaints about greasy food and garlic.

Our hopes were mainly fulfilled. In many ways the country mended itself from the 1980s onwards. National prestige was largely restored; first inflation then unemployment came down; public services became better managed. Strikes vanished. Modernisation was the internet and the mobile phone: things that were of demonstrable value. How much of this was down to being a member of the EEC/EU can’t be said, of course. And the picture wasn’t all good. Many industries, such as steel and coal, continued their precipitous decline. Middle level jobs, in offices and factories, were hollowed out. These were replaced by both better jobs (managerial and computing) and worse (call-centre operators).

So why did so many of my generation turn against “Europe”? At this point it is very easy to repeat standard tropes. We have a picture of white working-class people in “left-behind” towns in the north and on the coast being the drivers of Brexit. But the pro-Brexit feeling went much further and wider than this. It went right across the class spectrum, and swept in swathes of respectable middle-class suburbia, and lots of working class people who were far from being “left-behind”. It was a complex business, but mainly seems to be a reaction against the metropolitanism that had come to dominate the political class. Metropolitans shrugged at the agents of change, such as the influx of immigrants and an increasing body of restrictive regulations with which the country had to conform, or, indeed, the lack of them, for example border controls. Many people felt that something important had been lost, and that the politicians didn’t care.

I did not share these misgivings: I am a metropolitan. I am only tangentially part of the political class and certainly no part of a ruling elite, but I am much closer to them than most. I understand what the political class is trying to do and have largely supported it. I like change. Leaving the EU I do not feel any sense of regaining anything meaningful, but I do feel that I have had rights taken away from me.

Still, stepping back it is hard not to think that the political class deserved the kicking that was administered to it by the Brexit episode. Politics became dominated by professional politicians who never experienced much life outside politics and its hangers on in PR, lobbying, think tanks, journalism, the charity sector and so on.They had little empathy with many voters, and simply assumed they would come round to the various changes imposed on them in time, as they were good for them. The MPs expenses scandal, which overwhelmed the later years of the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 was revealing. MPs were drawn from young, upwardly mobile professionals (or yuppies as they used to be called) and were envious of their contemporaries who were making fortunes in finance, consultancy and other better-paid fields. So they indulged in a little bit of creative catching up. They paid almost no thought as to how this might look to the people they represented.

So what happens now? Politicians start the long, slow business of reconnecting with the voters. The Conservatives are further ahead with this than the other parties. Their parliamentary party look and sound very different from the old-style sharp political professionals. It may take Labour a bit longer. They were in process of replacing one sort of disconnected political professional (the smooth Blairites) with another (hard-left activists) when the election struck. The scale of their defeat has left them all over the place, but the only way back for them is get back out onto the doorsteps and reconnect; they will learn that eventually. Similar comments can be made about the Lib Dems, who tend to think of themselves as establishment rebels, but have been all to eager to seek establishment respectability. Its former leader, Jo Swinson, exemplified the metropolitan political class as well as anybody.

Just how this will work itself out is anybody’s guess. For all their faults, the metropolitans were mainly right (I would say that wouldn’t I…); they just made almost no attempt to engage with and communicate with people who were unsympathetic. The country will not necessarily stay on an inward-looking anti-progressive path.

And what of Brexit? Clearly it’s going to get messy, as the country still has not settled on a clear vision of what it wants to be. It would be nice to think that the country will come to a resolution of these issues in time – but the blame game is likely to keep going. Brexiteers will heap opprobrium on the EU and our European neighbours as things turn sour; Remainers will indulge in “told-you-so”, blaming everything on Brexit, fairly or otherwise.

But boredom will win out in the end. I would like it, of course, if the country could find some way to rejoin the EU in due course, but not until public support reaches the two-thirds level; we have had enough of one small majority imposing its will on the rest.Meanwhile the EU itself will change and the journey back may become harder. I am unlikely to regain my lost freedoms and lost pride in my country in my lifetime. And that makes me sad.

The Brexit endgame: the two mostly likely outcomes for 31 October

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 31 October, but there is no agreed deal about how this is to happen. Nevertheless, the government insists that it will happen on that date come what may. We’ve been here before, when when Britain was due to leave on 29 March, only for it to collapse at the last minute. What will happen this time?

The first question is whether the UK can get a deal in time. Government supporters say that the EU will buckle at the last minute because the consequences of leaving without a deal would be so dire for them. The one thing that could spoil this, according to this narrative, is if the EU are convinced that the UK is so scared of a no-deal itself that it would ask for an extension. This the EU would accept because secretly they want Britain to stay in, and the constant game of deferral is the only way to keep this possibility in play, while the pro-EU forces gather strength in the UK.

According to this version, the Benn Act, which would force the government to ask for an extension if a deal is not forthcoming by 19th October, is a shot in the foot, which guarantees that the EU will call the government’s bluff. They hint that there is a way around it. What might this be? Perhaps they can persuade one of the EU awkward squad, like Hungary, to veto an extension. But the Hungarian government picks its fights with the EU carefully and it isn’t clear what the upside for them would be. But, then again, if there was no clear rationale for an extension, such as waiting for an election or a referendum, they might be pushing at an open door. Other EU countries are getting fed up with the charade and they might think that a no-deal will work to their advantage; the real hurt will be concentrated in only a few countries.

But could the EU offer Britain anything its government and parliament could accept? The conventional wisdom is that if the EU gave way on the Irish backstop, then a parliamentary majority could be found. The government also wants to point the political declaration part of the deal towards a Canada-style free trade deal, rather than the closer relationship that its predecessor under Theresa May had advocated. Officially the EU has no grounds to oppose this, but they may secretly worry that this would undermine the Single Market in the continuing EU, given the UK’s proximity compared to Canada. Still, that issue can be dealt with later. It is the backstop that is the crunch issue for now.

Here there is a gulf in the way the two sides look at this, or at any rate between how the UK and Irish governments do. On the British side, the EU referendum applies to Northern Ireland by virtue of its membership of the UK. They also take the view that being a member of a customs union is an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, and that special treatment for the province would undermine the integrity of the UK. So the Irish government has just got to lump it; they simply have to accept the Will of the People. The Irish view this differently. To them the North never assented to Brexit, and would almost certainly be happy with some sort of fudge that created a customs border in the Irish Sea. The British government is simply behaving like a colonial occupier in forcing this unwanted policy on an unwilling province, with only the support of hated colonial hardcore, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They are sick that Brexit has undermined the Northern Ireland peace settlement, as this was based largely on the ambiguity that arose from the membership of the EU of both nations. This narrative goes to the heart of Ireland’s idea of itself, and they might well be prepared to accept the pain of no-deal rather than buckle to the demands of what they see as British arrogance, aided and abetted by the most toxic politicians on the island. With such a gulf in political perceptions it is hard to see how a deal can be reached that will get through the British parliament, as the Irish government has an effective veto.

So, though doubtless the EU is more flexible than it lets on, getting a deal that sticks looks too big an ask. The next question is whether the result will be a further delay or a crash-out. The surest way of securing a delay is for Boris Johnson’s administration to be turfed out and some form of short-term government replace it, pending a general election. But there is a big problem with this. While there is a clear parliamentary majority against a no-deal, this is an awkward coalition between those that want Brexit to happen with a deal, and those who don’t want Brexit to happen at all, subject to a referendum. That makes it hard for such a temporary government to agree on anything useful. It surely could not take forward a referendum before any election. And there is a further problem, who would lead it? The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has, justifiably or not, become a toxic figure in British politics, and it is highly unlikely that he can command a parliamentary majority even for a short-term government. This is regardless of how the growing number of Liberal Democrat MPs view the matter, but it would be fatal for that party to lend him their support. And yet so far Mr Corbyn insists that it is him or nobody, based on a not dissimilar political calculation.

So if Mr Johnson cannot be ejected from office, might he ask for a delay, as required by the Benn Act, and go for an immediate general election? This is a real possibility. The conventional wisdom is that if he did so he would be fatally open to attack by The Brexit Party (TBP), who were so devastatingly effective as gathering Tory voters in the May European elections. But I suspect the government is slowly winning a battle of attrition with TBP, and that party could pose a greater threat to Labour, and help the Tories in Labour seats. The will be able to blame the “remoaners” – whom they will have purged from their own party.

And so this boils down to what might happen in a general election, as this will lie behind all the political calculations. As things stand things are looking up for the Conservatives. Labour is losing traction, partly because of the awkwardness of its Brexit policy, and partly because Mr Corbyn has such a low standing with the public. The Liberal Democrats are doing well, and this could cost the Conservatives a lot of seats, and the SNP are set to reverse the Conservative revival in Scotland, but the Tories could do well enough elsewhere to make up for this.

But two questions hang over this analysis. How might a no-deal Brexit alter things? The conventional wisdom is that it would puncture TBP overnight, and that is probably right. But would the Lib Dems benefit from a Remainer backlash, or would they lose out, like TBP, because of the failure of their signature policy, to stop Brexit? On both counts this could work for Labour. The second question is whether Labour’s socialist policies and railing against “Austerity” will gain the party traction once the election gets underway, as it apparently did in 2017. Personally I don’t think it will, but that is not based on any clear evidence. The Labour leadership presumably take a very different view; but I suspect the Tory leadership think that the Labour manifesto will be another suicide note, like its 1983 manifesto, according to legend (and which accords with my memory of 1983). That led to a Tory super-majority.

That leaves two main possibilities. That the government succeeds in engineering a crash out on 31 October. How quickly this will be followed by an election is hard to say, just as what the short term impact of a crash out would be. The other is that the government gets another deferral and goes to the country straightaway. The result of that will either be a Tory majority or yet another hung parliament.

So the anticlimax of 29 March looks very unlikely. One way or another the country is heading for a momentous reckoning.

The government’s aggression has got it into trouble

Britain’s constitution endured a major earthquake today when the Supreme Court voided the prime minister Boris Johnson’s lengthy prorogation of parliament. This shocking result shows how the country’s polarisation is putting its institutions under strain by making a middle ground untenable.

There are many ironies (or paradoxes, perhaps) on display as the country wrestles with Brexit. One is how many Brexit sympathisers eulogise the country’s system of judge-made law, where people may not know they have broken the law until a judge has “discovered” it. How flexible and open to common sense, they say, compared the way “Continentals” (how I hate that way of lumping together such a variety of nationalities) use Napoleonic codes to define their legal systems. And yet they are not the ones cheering the intervention of Britain’s courts as they discover new legally enforceable principles when the traditional conventions that used to operate break down. After this ruling we now have a much stronger definition of parliamentary sovereignty against that of the Crown, represented by our Prime Minister.

It is an unexpectedly radical ruling, and it is quite surprising that all eleven judges assented to it, given the form of a few of them. But the government blocked off any middle ground, leaving their lordships with a choice between two extremes. Either the PM has total power to prorogue parliament for as long as he or she likes, without having to give any reason at all, or this prorogation was void – it never happened, as the court in fact ruled. The government offered no reason to the court for its action, other than “we can do what the hell we like”, beyond the need for a Queen’s Speech (which is perfectly reasonable in the circumstances). No reason was given why it should be five weeks rather than the normal one, or why the normal conference recess (under parliament’s control) should be part of it without parliamentary consent. Nothing was offered to the judges for them to conclude that they could intervene in principle, but not this time. And the same could be said for the remedies, with the government simply threatening to re-prorogue parliament. The government having closed all the escape routes in its ambition to have the most favourable ruling possible, it is not so surprising that the judges acted as they did.

The government’s approach here is part and parcel of its highly aggressive approach to its business, and especially that of Brexit. Whether it is inspired by the brutal ignorance and egotism of Donald Trump, whom Boris Johnson admires, or the aggressive chess game of his leading adviser Dominic Cummings, or both, is a matter I can throw no light on. First was the brutal treatment of dissenters within his own Conservative party, and then negotiating tactics with the EU reminiscent of a property deal, followed by the arbitrary prorogation. No space has been left for compromise or a middle ground.

Which doesn’t stop the Labour Party trying to occupy it, on Brexit if nothing else. I will comment in more depth on that party once its conference in Brighton is over. But it is showing the wisdom of the Liberal Democrats’ leader Jo Swinson in adopting a Revoke position in the unlikely event of being called to form a majority government. If your policy is to have a referendum, you have to present a Leave option, and take ownership of it if that is what the public chooses. Labour now finds itself suggesting that it will negotiate terms to leave the EU when it may well recommend their rejection. As former minister and union negotiator Alan Johnson points out, this is nonsense. I have a lot of sympathy for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s wish to find a compromise and start to heal the rifts, but he is a year too late for that. He should have stood behind the deal Theresa May negotiated and helped take the country out on 29 March. He will be unable to negotiate anything better. His chickens are coming home to roost.

And so the drama moves on to its next stage. How that will play out is anybody’s guess.

Understanding Britain’s prorogation row

Slowly Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, is revealing his plan. He has asked the Queen to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament for an unprecedented four and a half weeks, from early September to mid October. This leaves parliament just three weeks before the Brexit deadline of 31 October (next week before the suspension, and two weeks after it), making it very hard for it to do anything to thwart his plans, given how much other business it must transact.

The Queen has consented to this, which puts Mr Johnson in a very strong position, as there is no easy way to stop him. So now either the EU cracks on the question of the Irish backstop, and the government rushes a revised deal through parliament at the end of October, or we drop out without a deal. One element of Mr Johnson’s plan remains mysterious. When and under what circumstances will he move for an election, which seems more than likely given how precarious the parliamentary position?

Leaving that aside, the most depressing thing about the episode, apart from the dire state of the country’s constitution, is how partisan and ill-informed all the commentary is. What people say about the constitutional propriety depends wholly on their views about Brexit. Leavers say that it is wholly proper, Remainers say it is an abuse of power. There is outrage on one side and insouciance on the other, but little attention to the facts. Let’s try to take a step back.

Firstly the government’s defence is that with a new prime minister it is essential to proceed with a Queen’s Speech setting out a legislative programme. It is customary to precede this with a few days prorogation. This has simply been combined with the normal three week recess for party conferences, and rounded up a bit. The first part of this makes sense. A Queen’s Speech is badly needed to give Mr Johnson’s administration legitimacy, as so far it is completely untested by any kind of democratic process. One of his predecessor’s unhappy constitutional innovations was doing away with the annual Queen’s Speech, and prolonging the parliamentary session indefinitely. A Queen’s Speech is long overdue. It is hard to challenge the timing either: waiting for the party conferences but before Brexit Day. Things surely won’t be any easier after this date after all. The problem with the government’s case is consolidating the conference recess with the customary short prorogation before the Speech. A recess is something decided by parliament itself, and the Autumn conference recess has frequently been suspended to deal with urgent business. That was sure to happen this time. One of the conferences (the first) includes only the 14 Lib Dem MPs after all. A prorogation, however, is imposed by the Sovereign and needs no parliamentary approval. Furthermore some important parliamentary business continues during a recess, such as committee work and the answering of questions. This will all go under a prorogation. This is a clear abuse the government’s prerogative powers and there is no need for critics’ outrage to be manufactured. The “nothing to see here” defence offered by the prime minister and his supporters marks a new low of lying and deceit in British politics.

A further suggestion is that the Queen should not have given consent. That is a much harder case to make. The constitutional principle that she always does as her prime minister advises is the only secure way that the Queen can stay above politics. The political accountability of the prorogation is the prime minister’s alone. This makes the case for an elected president in the manner of most republics. Alas that idea remains deeply unpopular.

So is excluding Parliament from interfering with Brexit for over four weeks a denial of democracy? Brexiteers appeal to the supremacy of the referendum result over parliamentary sovereignty. This is a brand new constitutional principle, without any legal force, but one that has broad popular and political consent. Even most Remainers say that the 2016 referendum can only be undone by another referendum. In the way that Britain’s unwritten constitution evolves, this looks secure. The problem is deciding what the British public actually asked parliament to do. Parliament is surely entitled to decide for itself, especially since it was elected after the referendum and so has a more up to date mandate. Precedent from other European countries that have rejected EU membership (Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) suggests that this may include membership of the Single Market and more. The campaigners for a Leave vote were deliberately open about what the vote actually meant until the vote took place. The suggestion by many Brexiteers that the referendum mandate can only mean a hard Brexit is clear nonsense.

But the Brexiteers do have a point. Parliament has failed to decide what it actually wants, in spite of some quite innovative attempts to get them to give an indication. They rejected the deal offered by the EU three times, and not even narrowly. They have rejected holding a further referendum to help it make up its mind. A narrow majority was found for the government deal minus the backstop, and that is exactly what Mr Johnson is asking for. But, Remainers counter, they have also rejected no-deal. But rejecting no-deal without agreeing on an alternative simply looks like trying to frustrate the referendum. Parliament did vote to serve Article 50 notice on the EU, with a leaving date of 29 March. No-deal is simply what happens if you fail to agree on a deal.

Personally I feel that MPs have three legitimate choices. First is to accept Mr Johnson’s plan of drop the backstop or else. Second is to delay Brexit again so that a further referendum can be held. Third is to back the existing deal with the backstop and leave on 31 October. The Labour leadership’s idea of buying time to renegotiate the deal and then putting it to public is a nonsense. It is way too late for that. They had their chance in the 2017 general election and they lost.

To my mind the whole sorry impasse is mainly Labour’s fault. Theresa May’s Conservative government followed a clear plan and it had democratic legitimacy. But she could not get enough parliamentary support. Her successor is carrying this forward in a way that is surely consistent with what his party said it would do when elected. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” was a favourite saying of Mrs May even if she clearly didn’t mean it. Jeremy Corbyn was right to make the case for a deal with deeper integration to the EU, as that is what Labour argued for in its manifesto. But as time went by it has become clear this his ideas are not fully fleshed out, and that he wasn’t going to get an early general election. At this point he needed to either throw his weight behind Mrs May’s deal, which when all is said and done was not far from Labour’s manifesto, and which could doubtless be modified by a future Labour government, or else he should have thrown his weight behind a new referendum. This was an invidious choice. The former would have enabled Mrs May to complete Brexit, but it would have shocked many of his core supporters. The latter would also have divided the party, and could well have failed to get a parliamentary majority. An invidious choice but surely the sort of honest, straight-talking politics Mr Corbyn said he stood for when he became Labour leader. Instead the party has simply acted to create deadlock.

All of this gives justification enough for the government’s drive for Brexit on 31 October, deal or not. But it offers no excuse for its prorogation stunt. And yet much of the outrage is a displacement activity from the awkward fact that the government’s parliamentary opponents are as far from offering a coherent alternative as ever. What a mess!

A very British coup

I have returned from a ten day holiday, mainly in Austria and Hungary to find my country with a very different government in charge. There has been no election. The new government has even not been tested by our democratic representatives in parliament, and will not be for at least another month. Such is the British constitution, an odd mixture of the democratic and monarchic.

I struggle to accept that Boris Johnson is now our prime minister. This man has always been something of an outsider to the British political establishment, and somehow not a serious politician. His main claim to fame was an eight year period as Mayor of London, an office that sounds more impressive than it actually is. Apart from that he spent a year as Foreign Secretary, where he has had at best mixed reviews. He comes into his current job after a further year of making mischief from outside government. But he convinced most of his fellow Conservative MPs that he was the man for the moment, and this was emphatically endorsed by the party’s membership, who barely amount about 160,000. This does not even work by the principle that a majority of a majority is a majority – as Conservatives MPs are not a majority in parliament, and still less so in the country as a whole.

Mr Johnson then swiftly completed his coup by replacing government ministers wholesale. There was no attempt here to achieve balance across the parliamentary party. Instead there seemed to be two tests: personal loyalty to Mr Johnson during the leadership contest, and a readiness to accept a no-deal Brexit. More shocking than this is the guiding philosophy of the new government, set not just by ministerial appointments, but those of senior advisers. It has a revolutionary air: one that is eager to crush all opposition to achieve what it has decided is the will of the people. This is quite unlike any government I can remember. There are flashes of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but even these felt they had to make some attempt to get support from across their parties, even though it was clear that they preferred not to.

For now this gives the new government a freshness and energy, as is often the way when the tiresome ways of negotiation and compromise are suspended. The focus is on achieving Brexit by 31 October without the Irish backstop which was agreed by its predecessor with the European Union.

The political objective of this is in plain sight. Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party poses a mortal threat to the Conservatives, as was demonstrated by the European Parliament elections. Behind this lies the frustration of much of the country with the failure to implement Brexit. So far Mr Johnson’s strategy is working. TBP is sagging in the polls. And although the Conservatives lost the Brecon and Radnorshire by election largely because of TBP, the trend is clear.

But this all looks more like a campaign that a credible government programme. Mr Johnson has laid out an uncompromising negotiating position for the EU; his ministers are making daily promises to spend money on this or that problem; there are also promises of tax cuts. There is no attempt to reconcile all this with reality. But the new government has to deal with two very big problems, even before it needs to work out how it is to run the government finances.

First is that it has a technical majority of only one after the Brecon by election, while having many disaffected MPs in their own ranks, who have little to lose by creating trouble. It is hard to see that a majority can be found to support a no-deal Brexit, unless a large number Labour MPs from Brexit supporting areas start to panic.

The second major problem is the reality of negotiating lasting international treaties. The government’s supporters claim that such negotiations are similar to those for buying or selling property, or for supermarkets buying produce from food suppliers. The US president has the same sort of idea. But their objective is not a one-off transaction, but a long-term relationship. This requires trust, which is hard if you keep threatening to tear up any deal that you unilaterally decide you don’t like. It is also hard to compromise when part of your act is to whip up your own political base with uncompromising rhetoric. Donald Trump is finding it impossible to complete pretty much any international negotiation so far, with the exception of relations with Mexico and Canada, where the power imbalance is massively in his favour. The government hopes that the threat of no-deal chaos, especially in Ireland, produces just such a power imbalance in Britain’s favour. But the politics look terrible and time is short. Also many Europeans think that no-deal represents a colossal act of self-harm by Britain, and might be tempted by the response of “Go ahead: make my day”. Some think that a chaotic British exit will be a lesson to other countries tempted to threaten their own exit.

So what on earth is the government’s strategy? There is a twin answer to the first problem. First is that by ducking and weaving the government may be able to achieve a no-deal without having to get the approval of parliament. This is tricky, but they have made it clear that they have no scruples about whether such an approach is democratically legitimate (since they are simply enforcing the will of the people, of course), and their best brains are on the case. The second answer is to fight and win a general election. That looks a tall order, but British politics is volatile and they may get their chance.

And the second problem? They appear not to care, or they may even believe their own propaganda, which is either that the EU (and the Irish government in particular) will give way and create some sort of transitional period towards a hard Brexit, or that a no-deal Brexit will only cause problems in the short-term. It would doubtless be chaotic, but politically the key is not to catch the blame, they seem to think. This looks much to sanguine to me, but I don’t live in their world.

Will they get away with it? Mr Johnson has one thing going for him: the abysmal state of the Labour Party. They may be too weak to stop him, but too strong to stop anybody else from doing so. That party’s predicament deserves a blog post of its own. Their leadership looks incapable of exploiting the chaotic situation to its advantage. If the Tories can crush TBP (perhaps neutralising them with an electoral pact, though that looks very hard to pull off), and then reassure Brexit-supporting Labour supporters with its apparent abandonment of austerity, then it is all to play for.

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.

A divided nation is bad news for the Tories

The two televised debates between the contenders for the Conservative leadership served at least one useful purpose to those of us who have no role in the process. They showed how divided the country is and how different sections of the public live in different and irreconcilable worlds.

Brexit is the problem.The contenders hunted for a reasonable centre-ground on other issues. They deplored the failings of public services after years of cutbacks; they thought tackling climate change should be a top priority; they celebrated multiculturalism. None of these are a given amongst pro-Brexit hardliners. The Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage happily focuses on tax rather than services, says climate change is a hoax and deplores multiculturalism, drawing inspiration from Donald Trump. There is polling evidence that such a combination of views is commonplace amongst Conservative Brexiteers.

But this moderation amongst the leadership contenders counts for very little. They are overwhelmed by Brexit and the candidates take one thing as a given: Brexit must be achieved by 31 October (or perhaps a shade later) at virtually any cost. Arguments about whether or not this is a good idea are redundant, because, they agree, public confidence in politics and democracy would collapse otherwise. Implementing the letter of a three-year old referendum decision is a decisive test for democracy in this view, otherwise the liberal elite will have succeeded in thwarting the will of the people. The only argument is over attitudes to a no-deal Brexit, and even there only Rory Stewart (now eliminated) suggested this should be ruled out, as much because parliament is against it as that it is a bad idea in itself. All other candidates agreed that a no-deal Brexit was a bad thing, but said that the prospect of delaying Brexit was even worse. They tried to reconcile this awkward stance by saying that it was crucial for the country’s negotiating position to present a credible threat of no-deal, as if negotiating a complex and long-term political relationship was like Tesco trying beat down its suppliers on the price of cheese.

To people like me, who may now be in the majority of the country as a whole, this is utter lunacy. We should do Brexit because it is good for the country not solely because of a three-year old referendum. And just what is so undemocratic about going back to the country in a further referendum if parliament cannot agree on a deal? And yet that last option is so beyond the pale amongst the leadership candidates that it wasn’t even discussed. And as for keeping no-deal “on the table”, it looks like an effort in pointless self-harm that will weaken the county’s negotiating position in the long-term yet further.

And yet the leadership candidates are not stuck in a Westminster bubble. It is the reverse: they know full-well that this is how the party’s core supporters feel – and that is why they deserted en masse to The Brexit Party (TBP). If the new Conservative leader does not take this tough line on Brexit, the party could very well melt down. The leadership contest must be fought in the world-view of the hard Brexiteers, with the rest of us acting as helpless spectators.

But that is climbing out of the fire and into the frying pan. The main reason that the Conservatives did so badly in the European elections was defections to TBP. But there was another reason: many others defected to the Liberal Democrats. I know quite a few of them. These people do not inhabit the world of the hard-Brexiteer. To win the next general election, the Conservatives will somehow need to get these people back. The contenders left some clue as how they hoped achieve this. The first was they want to avoid a general election for as long as possible. They all agreed on that, notwithstanding the government’s lack of a majority, and their protestations about democracy. Second they hope that by achieving Brexit they can move on, and change the subject to stopping Jeremy Corbyn.

That could work, but it depends on passing something that looks very like Theresa May’s deal, allowing departure on 31 October, or even before. This will soften the Brexit transition, and, crucially, make the argument over a further referendum redundant. Brexit will still be an issue, as the future trading relationship has to be negotiated, but on a level that makes it much easier to push down the political agenda, though there is a danger that the end of the transition period gets tangled up with the next general election.

But it is much harder to see this working with a no-deal. Such an event would rank alongside Black Monday in 1992, when Britain dropped out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroying John Major’s newly reelected government’s credibility – a position from the Conservatives were unable to recover for nearly two decades. Furthermore it would create a series of future crises that would mean that the government would be unable to control the agenda. The sunny post-Brexit uplands, that leadership contender Michael Gove hopes for, will be very hard to usher in in time.

Can a new Prime Minister succeed where Mrs May failed three times? There is hope. Labour MPs, especially those in heavily Leave-voting areas, are getting twitchy and discipline may be starting to break down, to judge by Labour’s failed attempt to move against a no-deal last week. The EU may be able to offer a token something to cover the retreat. Some of the contenders correctly understand that the key will be the Irish Republic’s government, as a no-deal would create huge problems there. English Tory understanding of Irish politics is woeful, but something may be achieved.

Meanwhile the non-Brexit supporting half of the country will have to endure some further weeks of public debate amongst Conservatives conducted in a world that looks completely unreal to them. In due course there will surely be an anti-Brexit backlash, for which Conservatives will be utterly unready.