“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” (Sun Tzu). Something those Remainer MPs behind the Benn Act would do well to reflect on. However successful it was in stopping a Halloween No Deal exit and, arguably, forcing Boris to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement he could sell to his party, its effect has been to put the Tories in a strong position as they embark on their General Election campaign. How so?
It allows Boris to say that he:-
- Got the Withdrawal Agreement reopened.
- Got rid of the backstop for the UK.
- Got a deal before his “do or die” date.
- Should be given the Parliament needed to get this enacted.
- Can get a final deal with the EU done before the transition period ends on 31 December 2010, some 264 working days (minus Parliamentary holidays) after the election.
- Is the only person who can get Brexit done, thus appealing to probably the largest group of voters in the country – the GetItOverWith voters.
- Is on the People’s side versus an obstructive Parliament, conveniently ignoring that the obstructive Parliament was not foisted on the People but elected by them.
Even worse, it has helped elide the distinction between the Withdrawal Agreement and the final deal with the EU i.e. the basis on which Britain will trade with 27 EU countries. And not just trade: security, intelligence, law enforcement, defence, data protection, IP, transport, energy, civil nuclear power, fishing, migration – legal and illegal, the environment, financial services – all (and more) will need a new settlement. There will be many voters – those who don’t care much about Brexit, those not following the detail – who will assume Boris’s deal is the final deal; once out, Brexit is done. That is certainly how the Tories are presenting it – let’s do Brexit and move on. No matter how untrue, it is an attractive siren song.
So much energy and fury was focused on avoiding No Deal last month, it will be hard to make voters realise that in just over a year’s time Britain faces exactly the same prospect if no FTA (and other agreements) with the EU have been agreed: departure from the transition on a No Deal basis, an overnight rupture of all existing agreements and arrangements, life as a third country. Or the same dilemma – whether to extend the transition or not. But in barely six months time.
Could the same tactics be employed? Alas, this too has been stymied by the Benn Act’s success. If the Tories get their majority, the new Parliament is likely to be much less amenable to similar guerrilla legislation. Many of the MPs involved, many experienced MPs, those most opposed to No Deal will have left. The Tories will claim a fresh mandate, if necessary, to leave on a No Deal basis. Already Cabinet Ministers (Gove on Today) are resiling from what was said in Parliament on 22 October (by the Attorney-General who promised MPs a say on whether the transition should be extended). So the chances of another Benn Act are low.
Maybe the Tories’ manifesto will rule out a No Deal departure. Maybe – but it is the default as the ERG well understand. From their perspective No Deal has not been ruled out, simply postponed. Little wonder they were so willing to embrace the new WA – sacrificing the DUP’s support was a small price to pay to get a clean break from the EU and a majority Tory government with no recalcitrant Remainer MPs. For all the stupidity on show from many ERG MPs, like the hedgehog they know one big thing – never to lose sight of the prize: a clean break from the EU.
And it is in sight – and quite likely, even if Boris wants otherwise. There is not much time to conclude an FTA with the EU, especially if the intention is to diverge from EU laws in key areas. And this must be the intention because what would be the point of Brexit otherwise? The greater the divergence, the harder it will be to get EU agreement. The EU had an incentive to stop a No Deal exit – the desire not to harm Ireland. But it is now protected with its own backstop. So there is much less incentive for the EU to agree an FTA unless it gives the EU what it wants – no unseemly competition and/or money for access to its market. Plus it now has a year to lure away those companies/individuals who are not ecstatic at the prospect of less access, Non-Tariff barriers, tariffs and general administrative nuisance. A No Deal departure will only make it easier for the EU to do more luring. What of the fabled UK-US FTA? Will this come first? If so, No Deal with the EU is practically inevitable.
It is quite remarkable that nearly 3½ years after the referendum, we still don’t know whether Britain will choose trade with the US, even if this is at the expense of its relationship with the EU, or vice versa. Nor do we know what Britain’s trade negotiation objectives will be, whether in relation to the EU or the US. How will differences between US and EU approaches be reconciled, for instance? Something more than the motherhood and apple pie statements contained in the Political Declaration are needed and should be part of the election debate.
What trade-offs? What divergence? In which areas? To what extent? For whose benefit? At what cost? To whom? What does less / smarter regulation actually mean?
There is an opportunity here for political parties who don’t share the Brexiteer’s Panglossian belief that FTAs are quick and easy to agree. In reality one party only – the Lib Dems, Labour having decided on yet another renegotiation and a referendum. But the Lib Dems have decided to stake all on stopping Brexit, a policy which will shortly become redundant. They are – for now – absenting themselves from any debate about what Britain’s post-Brexit trade, foreign and other policies should be. Indeed, by presenting themselves as the Revoke and Remain party (as if anyone had any doubt) they risk ensuring that this debate will not happen at all or only amongst Tories, out of sight of the voters. It is a strategic error – not just because revoking Article 50 without regard to the voters is not democratic – but because once Remain goes what is left? Rejoin? Really?
There is a much more urgent important debate to be had – about what sort of relationship Britain should have with the EU, the US and other countries once it has left, whether the transition should be extended, whether Britain should look West to the US or to Europe or China (Any thoughts, Ms Swinson on Huawei and 5G or Chinese pressure on UK universities?) about the trade-offs to be made, what sort of divergence there should be, about what sort of country and economy Britain wants to be.
The time for that debate is now – before the election. Those on the Remain side need to be in that debate, arguing for their vision of what sort of country Britain should be, what its future relationship with its neighbours should be, not just hoping to refight the referendum. If that debate doesn’t happen now, it will be Tory hard Brexiteers – those who have known all along what they want – who will make the key decisions. Clever Parliamentary ruses later will be of no help.